Lacking Inspiration

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.

The Eye “winking”

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.

Tees Infinity Bridge

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.

Lux Appeal

A recent email from Canon directed me to the work of a Merseyside hairdresser call Stephen McNally.  I should stress that it was his photography not his tonsorial creations that I was viewing and what inspirational images he produces; using long exposure techniques to smooth out the movements of tide, and blur wind-blown clouds into dynamic streaks.  If you’re interested in seeing his work the video I saw is here.  It was enough to inspire me to rise early in the hope of capturing something similar on the coastline where I used to live.

The pier and lighthouse at Roker have been the subject of a £1.35m restoration project over the last three years so I wanted to use the now pristine light as the subject with the effects of the long exposure providing the background.  I was doubly thwarted.  A recent storm had revealed a flaw in all that renovation with 100m of railings swept away resulting in closure to the public, and what’s more the sky was so cloudy that there were no gaps to create any sort of interest in the scene.

The previous day I’d listened to an edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage celebrating the need for science to constantly fail in order to learn and progress, and so I was determined to capture something from the trip.  As this shot of the Bede Cross shows I was never going to have enough drama in the sky to emulate Mr McNally so I resolved to make use of the lighthouse but from a different vantage point; the cliff tops.

The Genoa lanterna, St Mary’s and now Roker Pier. It’s early in the year and already I’ve photographed three lighthouses.  Looking back through the blog and there have been others here too; Orford Ness, Longstone, Coquet Island.  These structures have a great deal of appeal, and not just to me.  The gallery hosting site ViewBug regularly has challenges and contests for images of lighthouses, and of course there is a huge variety to be found around the globe.

Perhaps it’s the verticality of the tower in stark contrast to the horizontal horizon that is provided by the sea; a straight line that is rarely seen when so many of us live in cities.  Maybe its the dichotomy that these solitary structures are built to reach out and communicate to distant travellers.

Some have postulated that for we Brits, an island nation, would have a special affinity with the lighthouse that cares for the shipping that is the lifeblood of our international trade.  They’ve provided inspiration for other artists too whether Constable’s paints or Woolf’s ink.

Perhaps there’s something else that attracts us; a sense of impermanence.  Though the structures themselves are by their very nature robust enough to take the worst that Neptune can deal them, they no longer have lighthouse keepers to tend them; automation put paid to that.  Many, like St Mary’s, have no light to shine; who needs a light when you have access to satellites?  For now local authorities, volunteer groups and organisations like the National Trust maintain these pointers to our naval history, but for how long I wonder?


On a speed walk through Sunderland to collect my freshly repaired car I encountered a couple of new artworks that have been installed as part of a redevelopment near the site of the Magistrates’ Court.

Now I have been disparaging about the local authority’s attempts at public art her before, the pier gates that began to rust, the utter failure of Ambit, the bridge sculpture that became a graffiti encrusted climbing frame etc.

I approached the new works with some scepticism.  The first left me unmoved; The Keel Line is a nice idea, setting out a darkened strip that measures out the longest ship ever built in the city and inscribed with the names of thousands of individual vessels that were built here on the Wear.  Shame it lacks originality; I was immediately reminded of the QE2 Mile in Southampton and a similar though much smaller line tracing in Durham City.

_PW_8300The second work, placed at one end of the line and entitled Propellers of the City is more _PW_8301interesting, though my first thought on approaching the 3m diameter, rotating glass disc (glass-making being another traditional industry here) was

“How long before that gets broken, scratched, painted or otherwise vandalised?”

On close inspection you see that the circle is spotted with photographs; images of former residents who played a part in the city’s development as one of the world’s greatest ship-builders.  This struck me as a shrewd move.  Perhaps by linking the sculpture to the families who populate the city, they create an inherent interest in its protection.  Time will tell, but for now it seems there is a chance that Sunderland Council have finally got it right._PW_8302


With a few minutes to kill in Sunderland, I naturally looked for something to photograph in my immediate vicinity, but before I had released the shutter even once, a blonde woman in brightly coloured clothing appeared and having wished me good morning directed my attention to the alms cottages to my right, and suggested I visit the Minster to my left.  She completed her intervention by pointing out that the city had more to offer than most people with negative views of the place acknowledged.

The Victorian and Edwardian eras saw the construction of a number of superb buildings around the town; schools, libraries, churches, police and fire stations, hospitals, public baths, and more.

Sadly much of that was demolished in the 60’s and 70’s, replaced by anonymous concrete and tower blocks.

So yes the town does have some gems, but there is cause for negativity at the loss of so much.  I doubt that it will regain former glories, but at least some of the concrete has also had its day and facing the same demolition process that gave it life.

So is it glass half empty or glass half full?  There is justification for either argument.  For me though, this last structure says it all; it seems inevitable that one of Sunderland’s finest buildings should be a pub!



Contrasting Fortunes (Venezia 129)

Sunderland, where I was born, has a glass making history which can be traced back to 674 AD when the monastery in Monkwearmouth brought craftsmen in from France to create England’s first stained glass window in the small Anglo-Saxon church of St Peter.  Glass remained a key industry in the town for over 1300 years, until the Corning factory (where Pyrex was made) closed.

Glass making in Venice wasn’t documented until three hundred years later, but in response to a ban on furnaces within the city because of the fire risk they created, glassmaking was moved out to the island of Murano.  Some believe that this was actually a means of preserving the trade secrets of Venetian glass manufacture, but whatever the reasoning the move allowed the cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques that allowed the industry to flourish.

Murano glass continues to be some of the finest in the world, though for the less discerning tourist who feels they must own some Venetian glass there are plenty willing to supply wares of a lesser standard.


Ready for the Moment

Carry a camera. It’s tough to take pictures without one.

Jay Maisel

I’ve not been far this week, partly because my car was in for repair after a moment of selective blindness led to me destroying one of the doors while leaving a car park.  The short walk between the body repair shop and the bus interchange took me through some pretty average urban landscapes; Sunderland is not one of the UK’s most inspiring cities in that respect.

Still, as I walked I kept a camera in hand and so was rewarded with three nice shots, and a fourth from my apartment window as I enjoyed my lunch.


Class in a Glass

A long weekend.

So it rains.


J and I had planned a stroll along the seaside, maybe with a spot of kite-flying too to pander to our competitive instincts, and when we were ready to go it was still bright and dry.

When we parked our car it was still bright and dry.

But then we reached the coast, and the heavens opened.  Ever optimistic we stopped for a coffee to allow the clouds to pass, which they did… to make way for larger and even more generous clouds.  Just as well I’d forgotten the kite!

But what to do?  The National Glass Centre has undergone a bit of recycling since I last visited, and Jane has never been so a solution was at hand, and a dry one at that.

Of course we couldn’t take shelter immediately; the signs on the roof request that you “Please walk on the glass”, which means a stroll on the roof to test the mettle of anyone with vertigo, for amongst the more traditionally made panels are sections of reinforced glass that offer views of the restaurant below and reflections of the sky above.

The highest point affords some shelter so we stopped to take in the river view before exploring the interior.

A new gallery offered the chance to view the work of three artists working in glass, though it was Mexican brothers Jamex and Einar de la Torre who were the most memorable, though not in a good way!  That’s not a criticism of their craft, but their subject matter is curiously disturbing; the butterflies that we spotted on entering the building were revealed to be patterned with human eyes upon their wings and bodies formed from identical Crucifixions.  Nevertheless the degree of detail was inevitably absorbing.untitled-2

Of course there was light relief at hand too; the rippling backdrop to some of the displays provide a chance for a bit of Hall of Mirrors type distortion.

Down to the ground floor and you have the inevitable shop and restaurant offering, but also the chance to see some artists at work.  The work of glass blowing and large-scale sculpture might feature here later in the year, but a craftsman producing miniatures of the Angel of the North at fairly high-speed attracted several spectators.


X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So a worthwhile afternoon after all, but that shiny roof still had possibilities.  Having seen the latest X-Men film only days before, J’s blue outfit and red hair were always going to be reminiscent of Mystique, so here is our take on the X-Men First Class poster!


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