Thomas Heatherwick was a fairly unknown designer when he won the commission for a public square outside the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle in 1996. His vision was for a voluminous carpet of glowing bright blue with ruptures to reveal bollards and benches folded up from the ground.
However, almost immediately the materials started cracking and fading while costs and production time both went over. It is now openly mocked by the locals who know the history, while to others it’s simply a colourless urban ruin which “detracts from all the historical buildings around it” and “should serve as a warning”.
The sad tale of Heatherwick’s first commission gives us some important warnings for the Garden Bridge: damage to existing heritage, public expenditure, ignoring expert advice, the danger of getting sucked in by alluring speculative imagery and ill-considered experimental design totally failing in important public spaces.
Unlike some of his commissions, notably the New Routemaster and Garden Bridge, Heatherwick was actually chosen for this gig from an open competition and not through friendships and connections. The open-call was to turn an abandoned road junction into a new urban space to link up the Laing Art Gallery with surrounding streets, and his winning design was for a ‘lava flow‘ of rich blue flooding out of the space.
Benches were to be formed from this lake of blue by curling up and folding over sections of the paving:
These rich, enticing drawings won him the competition but they turned out to be hopelessly under researched and overly optimistic. The competition brief had a budget of £300k, but his proposal would have been way, way, way over that figure – costed at £2m.
After protracted negotiations with him over the fee and time commitment he was prepared to give, the council finally appointed Heatherwick in 1997 for a shrunk ‘blue carpet’ version to sit in the middle of the larger space.
OVER TIME & OVER BUDGET
Initial attempts at making concrete paving with embedded blue glass chips failed so time and money had to be spent to create a material to match suit his proposal, and while the drawings show a simple folded bench in reality the shape created huge engineering problems.
So it became clear early on that £300k would not cut it, even for the substantially reduced-in-size design. An extra emergency £500k was applied for from the Arts Council in order to meet urgent end-of-year deadline for the initial European £300k funds, though it wasn’t until 1999 that an actual project cost could be reached after all the engineering problems had been analysed.
This new build cost was £1.2m, some 4x the initial project brief and £400k more than the funds available. There were two options, either to take the shortfall from the council budget at the expense of other spending or to put the project on hold while more external money could be raised. The second option was chosen and the National Lottery Arts Fund bailed Heatherwick out.
The project had been intended to open for the Millenium festivities but delays during construction due to technical difficulties from the design led to it not completing until 2002. The final cost was later found to be £1.65m – 5.5x the initial brief and nearly 1.4x the revised agreed cost.
FAILURE & MAINTENANCE
However, almost immediately after opening the specially made blue paving, incorporating recycled blue glass, started cracking and fading which was of no surprise to paving expert Prof. John Knapton who had predicted as much during the construction process.
The experimental design requires an ongoing “rigorous maintenance regime” at the expense of the local authority, leading to calls in 2013 by a local Conservative MEP to cut their losses and rip it all up.
Martin Callanan said: “It clearly wasn’t well designed or well thought out. It’s now time to cut their losses and get rid of it. They could put some granite paving stones there instead, it would be cheaper to make, more cost-effective, and it would probably look more attractive.”
Heatherwick defended his scheme vehemently from the criticisms from both public and experts. He stated: “Some of the comments about the Blue Carpet have been unfair. We spent two years getting it right so the winter ice wouldn’t break it [and] the colours will not fade.”
But by 2013, while trying to push his idea for the Garden Bridge which had just been awarded after a more-than-dodgy procurement process he said (£) “The [Blue Carpet] was kind of tricky, really problematic. I was probably over-ambitious in what I wanted to do with it. But it was a key part of learning.”
How generous of the public to spend £1.65m to help Heatherwick ‘learn’, while most who want to study architecture have to take out huge loans (with associated mental health problems) and spend seven years learning the craft.
Let’s not forget that Heatherwick has never built a bridge (unless you count that kinetic sculpture in Paddington) so who knows what kind of lesson we are all about to get taught with the Garden Bridge!
THE PUBLIC RESPONSE
Though the local community are less than enamoured with what he left in their city – the TripAdvisor page for the Blue Carpet is well worth reading, featuring some gems such as:
“Everytime I walk across this I get angry thinking that my council tax went to pay for this extremely expensive rubbish. The Laing Gallery is really worth a visit, just don’t look down at the “carpet” as you walk towards the gallery.”
“Not sure what its all about. An art attempt which looks really dated. Maybe that’s the point.”
“Complete waste of money. Has no merit whatsoever. You wont even notice it if you are standing on it. This carpet was and still is a big mistake, it was never blue, it was always grey, the seats were removed.”
“Walked past this many times and still don’t get what it’s about.”
“I only discovered this was ‘thing’ as opposed to just a normal pavement with a lightly quirky bench when I cam across it on here whilst searching for things to do. It’s really just a pavement and it’s nothing really to write home about or visit. Can’t say I saw any blue in it either… more grey.”
“There was great excitement years ago in the run up to the unveiling of the Blue Carpet- until it opened! At which point people commented on its lack of colour!”
“It’s not blue , it’s not even nice, it detracts from all the really lovely historical buildings around it.”
“This should only be listed as an attraction to serve as a warning. It wasn’t much good when it was new; 12 years haven’t improved matters. I wouldn’t cross the road to see this. It’s faded with the odd tile replaced which serves only to highlight the state of the rest of it. I think the council are just waiting for everyone to forget how much they spent on it before they pull it up. Can’t be long now.”
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