I’ve been less than kind about my home town of Sunderland’s attempts at public art and architecture, though the posts were so long ago that I feel safe in raising the issue again, because the town’s decision makers just keep doing it again.
The Millennium may seem a long time ago now, but it was a time when many cities around the UK marked the occasion with new constructions, and many, perhaps seeing it as a metaphor for the passage from one period of time to another, chose to build bridges. London has its famous crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Glasgow built the Clyde Arc and the Tyne was crossed once more by structure known to many as the Eye.
None of them were actually open on 1st January 2000, and in fact they all needed extra work to stabilise or protect from shipping but each has become a landmark.
Sunderland opted to join this bandwagon by announcing an international design competition in 2005, which among the entrant included one from Frank Gehry, whose buildings around the world are icons of design (Guggenheim Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture) to the extent that there is a phenomenon of economic regeneration that such buildings produce called the Bilbao Effect.
I’ve no idea what his entry was like, but he didn’t win. Instead a design from Spence Associates was chosen. I’m not really up on who the power players are in the world of architecture apart from a few (Rogers, Foster, Lloyd-Wright, Hadid, Piano and of course Gehry) but I’d never heard of Stephen Spence. He played a part in the design of the Tees Infinity Bridge (another in the spate of white bridges) though his input was bitterly disputed by a partner firm at the time. I suspect Gehry’s design was too radical (missing the point Sunderland).
Even the Spence option scared them, so they commissioned a design for a cheap and basic option, then sat on their hands for three years before inviting the public to choose between the two. Spence won and the council backed the extra expense on the grounds that an ambitious design would attract more business to the area. Years of failing to secure funding and willing contractors followed and it seems the council lost their nerve again. In 2013 they dropped the Spence design.
Five years later they have a bridge; The Northern Spire. The council website makes no mention of the designer. It’s the tallest structure in the North East of England (size isn’t everything guys) but that’s about all that can be said for it. I don’t see people flocking to the city because of it and bringing that regeneration. Perhaps voting Remain to protect their biggest employer (Nissan) might have been smarter.
Funnily enough, just upstream from the bridge is a reminder that big ideas involving concrete aren’t always money spinners. Slowly (very slowly) decaying on the riverside is a concrete boat. Yes, a boat made from concrete. It never caught on.