In 2016 we were part of 2 final teams comprising of engineers and artists commissioned to design a £2.5m promontory for the Vaux site in Sunderland. We were chosen along with Catherine Bertola out of a shortlist of 25 designers and artists by global firm Cundall, to work with them on developing an ambitious project to celebrate the end of an imaginary keel line starting 390m (the length of the Naess Crusader, the last and longest ship to be built on the site) away at a propeller sculpture in Keel Square and ending 30m off a cliff edge overlooking the Wear. Our proposal was for a promenade aand outdoor space on the top level with a habitable gallery and commercial space over 4 floors. Sadly our concept was not selected to be taken forward but we look forward to further proposals. A description of the design process taken from our submission follows:
Our initial feeling was to play with the perspective of the approach to the end of the keel line, and create a piece that in some way blurred the line between the structure and its surroundings, as well as with the present and the past - in terms of the form of the structure, design cues production method etc.,
Reflective surfaces are a very effective tool in creating a physical optical illusion that you can touch, feel and interactive. For example by placing a round mirror on a hillside tilted to the sky you can make a ‘hole’ in the hill, or by making a sculpture out of a mirrored material such as glass or polished stainless steel, you are effectively painting a shape using the landscape as a colour pallet.
This approach seemed like a strong way to entwine the piece physically and visually with its environment and well as with its history - the landscape is shaped by the past and thus shaping the piece we are developing and reflecting into the future.
From the outset we envisaged as a large sculptural piece physically connecting the upper level to the lower level, presenting a visual spectacle from all angles, approaches regardless of whether you are viewing from the bridges, travelling the river, walking along the lower footpath, or occupying the Vaux site and beyond. To achieve this it would be necessary to built a sculptural element reaching high above the platform level to be seen from a distance at street level.
We imagined this would be statuesque in form and function, acting as a beacon or folly to draw attention to the experience of walking the keel line, and a celebration once the journey is complete.
It was imagined that the platform and the structure below would be metallic as a reference to the shipbuilding heritage while the sculptural piece would be crystalline or glass like, referencing the brewery heritage, bottles, glasses etc.,
An early idea was to enter a space through a mirrored doorway in a mirrored wall which reflected the keel line into infinity, although the expanse of flat mirrored surface only served the immediate viewer and would be aesthetically dull for views from a distance, so this idea was shelved.
Our next priority was to instill the piece with a hint of a nautical experience, without being overt or literal.
I experimented with modelling a form similar to the original Naess crusader and reducing this down to a fragmented, faceted shape until it was no longer recognizable as a ship but more alluded to it.
However despite many attempts and much experimentation the deck shape that we were keen on keeping prevented us getting far enough away from an obvious boat form.
Along the way though we explored how we might cover this form, such obscuring sections of it with mirrored banding or using these bands to contain a chaotic internal structure of intersected steel panels.
To look at it from another angle we wanted to see how we could create a form that looked like, frozen in time, a combination of a waterfall cascading over the cliff edge and an imaginary vessel launching and parting the waves of the structure below. The vessel represented by the tall sculptural piece.
Whilst the concept of this felt very strong and allowed us to imagine the structure as more of a graphic statement, in reality when lofting (technical cad term) various wave/waterfall shapes around our chosen platform shape the result ends up looking even more ship-like than the original design! We realized that this was due to aqua-dynamics and the physics of water etc.,
Finally we decided to work with the challenges that our platform presented and create a more asymmetric abstract form which changes shaped when viewed from any angle. The concept was to create something that was deliberately ambiguous in shape, morphing as you observe it from different viewpoints: Could it be an abstract head from across the river? An outcrop of crystals from above? The prow of a ship?
The shape was created by lofting three studies of wave shapes which were drawn while planning the ‘waterfall’ concept, although this time arranged in a less methodical manner.
Once happy with the overall form we then reduced the shape to the faceted design which we were still keen on employing from early in the design process. The approach was inspired by 20th century as well as contemporary modernist sculptures such as Lynn Chadwick, Barabara Hepworth and Not Vital.
This faceted structure offered an excellent opportunity to link the design of the base to the design and materials of the platformed. Various creases and folds are picked out and carried on over the platform, criss-crossing and intersecting to create a faceted surface on a single plane. The triangular shapes allow us to make the materials on the platform and the base complementary, sharing the same design language whilst being of contrasting texture.
The final challenge with this design was to create the ‘beacon.’ After days of drawing, tweaking, revisiting, considering we were finding that any shape occurring from the end of the keel line felt incongruous when viewed from afar, and not in keeping with the overall form of the piece. We were determined for this aspect not to appear as an afterthought as in our minds this piece is as key to the experience as the platform itself, and it was crucial to make this feel like part of the overall structure.
Eventually we came to the idea of creating the shape in negative space - the graphic design practice of creating shapes out of the gaps between physical objects. This is exactly what we had set out to achieve originally, blurring the lines between shapes and their surroundings, playfully considering the visual aspect.
This pointed shape is achieved by an exciting faceted mirrored archway which ejects from the platform and cascades over the edge and down to the level below. This is deliberately designed to allude to the flowing of water, as well as a celebratory flowing, deancing ribbon being waved through the air either at a carnival, a historical event or the launching of a new project, ship or venture.
The apex of the arch sits directly above the end of the keel line, so that when the audience reach the end they can look up and wonder at the glistening arching form cascading over them, and discover the way each mirrored facet reflects back to them elements of their surroundings, the platform, the newly developed Vaux site, the trees, rocks, bridges, even themselves and their families or friends.
At night the Arch presents a fantastic opportunity for moving lighting, quietly glinting and glistening against the night sky as a jewel of the exciting new site.