Richard Porch meditates on the unfortunate experience of a piece of public art that lost its identity

April 14th, 2013

The road to hell is said to be paved with good intentions. The same could be said when setting out to install a piece of public art in a highly sensitive civic location. Perhaps no finer example of this can be seen in the Northern European city of Bruges (Pop. 116,500) surely one of the prettiest in Europe. I went there for a few days last summer, seduced by all the talk of it being The Venice of the North plus the thought of copious amounts of strong Belgian beer and delicious chocolate. In the event, one of the most potent things I brought home (along with €50-worth of chocolate) was the memory of a piece of public art in one of the city’s oldest public squares.

The ‘Burg’ is one the earliest inhabited parts of Bruges, a city which has Gallic-Roman origins going back 2000 years. Then, as now, the inhabitants traded with Britain and the rest of what would have been Gaul. Germanic tribes attacked the Flemish coastal plain in 270 AD and the Romans were still there in the 3rd and into the 4th Century. By 650 AD Bruges was the site of the most important fortification in the Flemish coastal area.

A century later trade started with the Scandinavians who also gave Bruges its name, derived from the Norse Brygga which translated somewhat unflatteringly as ‘landing stage’. By 1100 Bruges was a thriving commercial centre in Europe and by the 14th Century had a population of around 40,000 people. For comparison Cardiff’s population at this time would have been around 1500 – 2000. Bruges was a wealthy port city within Flanders which was itself one of most urbanised areas in Europe. Flemish cloth was exported to the rest of Europe from Bruges and the city remained the most important trading centre north of the Alps until the end of the 15th Century. Thus the genesis of one of the city’s most controversial works of public art lies rooted in the city’s history.

Fast-forwarding up the 21st Century: Bruges was made European City of Culture in 2002 and as part of the celebrations decided to adorn one of the two large public squares in the city – the Market and the Burg – with a major piece of public art. The Burg is the smaller of the two, situated where the Town Hall has stood since 1376 along with Old Civil Registry (1534-37) and the former Court of Justice (1722-27). It was and still is the administrative core of Bruges and has these superbly preserved buildings on three sides of it. Are you getting all this history?

In 2000 a budget of €750,000 was agreed upon and the 59-year-old Japanese architect Toyo Ito was commissioned to design it. The choice of an architect over an artist is interesting and suggests straightaway that an architectural solution was sought rather than an artwork as such. The nature of the site was clearly a determinant here. Interestingly Bruges does not use an arts strategy and commissions all its public art on an ad-hoc basis using local and regional specialists in the field of culture. They like this because it allows for different visions and backgrounds, although they do have a commission for deciding on new architecture for the historic core of inner Bruges.

The Ito pavilion was commissioned in 2000 and duly erected in 2002 in time for the Year of Culture celebrations. Despite the hefty price-tag it was originally conceived as a temporary project destined to be removed in the winter of 2002 -2003 – although the planning permit actually gave it a 5-year life-span.

Ito’s pavilion structure is an inverted U-shape made of a metal honeycomb grid sandwiched between sheets of toughened 12mm glass panels. The honeycomb is 125mm deep and made from aluminium and supported by a frame in that same metal which works to stiffen it. Ito then cleverly added half-elliptical shapes which are fixed back to the honeycomb. These appear to operate principally at the level of ornament to make the structure look more visually interesting but they also have a purely practical dimension. They work to stiffen the structure laterally and offset wind loading.

Ito’s design is supposed to be a meditation on the nature of lace and was billed as an encounter between historical and contemporary culture, all in the context of the Bruges central core World Heritage Site.

It seems to be pre-eminently the work of an architect rather than an artist. By that I mean it plays to an architect’s strengths in envelope design with the result experienced as a small building rather than a large piece of sculpture. This brings extra pressure to bear on it though. When one first encounters it entering the Burg from Hoogstraat you think it is some sort of upmarket bike shelter because the citizens of Bruges are keen cyclists. But no – inside it is devoid of racks or bicycles.

One then assumes it must be a bus shelter. However, the Burg is pedestrianised and all traffic is routed away to the edge of it. There is no plaque in the floor to identify it – nothing to give a clue to the outsider. But the penny soon drops. The big giveaway is the sheer lack of utility– it is a work of public art.

In its original incarnation the pavilion sat inside a circular pond of water. The internal floor of the pavilion became in effect a bridge which ‘floated’ on a pad of timber suspended on the water. Visitors to the artwork could walk through it and experience the mildly disconcerting sensation of the floor deflecting under their weight as they passed through. Pumps located a metre or so away from the structure kept the water from becoming stagnant. I’ve only ever seen the pavilion in this original state in photographs and the circle of shallow water around it helped to lift it clear of its surroundings. It also set up reflections and plays of light which bounced off the interior and the honeycomb grid to great effect.

Whatever else it is, Ito’s structure is also patently a Japanese pavilion, minimal in its construction and austere in its aesthetic. He is good at these apparently weightless iconic little structures. In 2011 he designed an architecture museum in Japan which was basically a sequence of lightweight metal pavilions, and he did the Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2002. These sorts of little buildings derive naturally from a country dotted with temple complexes and densely-packed domestic housing proportioned according to the tatami mat. If you’ve ever travelled out of Tokyo through its endless suburbs you’ve seen thousands of similar little structures cheek-by-jowl in the landscape – albeit with families living in them.

I’ve seen a similar aesthetic at work in Nara, a small town in the Japanese highlands, where there is a Buddhist temple complex called Yakushi-Ji. Here you can see how humble timber structures of great simplicity have an impact out of all proportion to their size or cost, which, just because they are in great harmony with their surroundings. So on one level Ito was a rational choice. However, the key phrase there was “in harmony with their surroundings”.

This said, wasn’t there always a strong likelihood that in commissioning a Japanese architect it would provoke an unsatisfactory ‘collision of cultures’? Was asking Ito to build in an extremely historic Northern European setting always going to be a high-risk option and therefore not worth the risk? Perhaps what eased the fear was the thought that the Bruges pavilion was only supposed to be temporary. If need be, it could be quickly demounted.

In a city choc-a-bloc (no pun intended) with architecture of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries a modern pavilion would have great shock value. Perhaps they thought that an apparently non-functional Modernist feature would operate as a useful corrective to all that heritage architecture. Visually completing one side of the square it would have (in its original incarnation) drawn people to it as a focal point. You can see the logic and even applaud the bravery of it.

Unfortunately what happened next was that in 2005, in attempting to create a stage for a concert in the Burg, someone driving a forklift truck took a short cut through the artwork using the ‘floating bridge’. The forklift crashed through the bottom of the bridge element and landed in the shallow pool below. The bridge was damaged beyond repair and removed, as was the water pump and lighting. The pool of water in which the pavilion sat was filled in and almost inevitably the artwork began to attract vandal attacks and graffiti.

In that same year the city council began to think about inviting architects to re-design Burg Square itself. The thinking was that they would then be able to replace the Ito pavilion with another artwork. Using this plan Ito’s pavilion was to have been dismantled in February 2006. In the end this could not be done because it enjoyed protected monument status via the Flemish Government who (it was thought) would bear the cost of restoration and maintenance. Unfortunately the restoration was costed at €1m and it was calculated that the aluminium structure probably only had another 10 years life left in it anyway.

I suspect that because the piece was commissioned originally as a temporary artwork there was no maintenance budget set aside to deal with problems like this. This is a key aspect of public art that receives almost no attention. Be it in stone, cast bronze or resin, an artwork will nearly always need maintenance at some point. You wouldn’t buy a car and expect never to clean it, change the oil or replace the tyres. So why do people budget for a piece of public art – but not its upkeep? The more complex or unusual the work of art the more necessity there is for a budget to take care of accidents, vandal attack and pay for routine maintenance on an annual basis. And that’s where it was left.

As I write the city of Bruges is waiting for elections in 2013 for a new Mayor who will have the thankless task of deciding the fate of Ito’s pavilion. To have it repaired will re-open the debate of cost and who will pay for it and its upkeep. Unfortunately it is an artwork that is no longer universally liked. The alternative is to go for removal of the protected status and replace it with another artwork as part of a re-design of Burg Square.

Once damaged and left unrestored, it has been compromised and become an anomaly in the square. In its present non-working state it is actually a more of a distraction than anything else and (to the uninitiated) is encountered as a confusing item of over-sized street furniture rather than as public art. Devoid of function or role and hence any chance of civic engagement it has become drained of all meaning. This is a fatal consequence for any work of public art in terms of its relationship with a civic audience. For then such artworks are perceived not just a blot on the landscape but also a cultural failure.

I can’t help thinking that it is precisely the temporary dimension of the project and the aesthetic that this encourages which is causing all the problems. Furthermore, the desire to ‘complete’ the square is generating pavilion responses rather than sculptural ones which then sit uneasily alongside the existing architecture that has been there for upwards of seven centuries in some cases. The dilemma is that Burg Square either needs a ‘proper’ building to complete it or a work of public art, It does not need something half-way between the two – which is what I think Ito’s pavilion is, or has become.

In Bruges, Ito’s pavilion is now known as the carwash. It will be instructive to see how this beautiful northern European city responds to the challenge.

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Richard Porch is a commentator on the architecture and design scene in Wales

One Response to:“Upmarket bike shelter in Bruges”

  1. graham king says:

    Enjoyable and insightful. Having visited Bruges some 31 years ago, I have to say the greatest work of art conceived there was the conception of my darling daughter, still gong strong.

    (Report comment)

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