ARCHITECTURE AND ART : SECURING THE FOURTH PLINTH

THE VACANT FOURTH PLINTH © MICK BRUNDLE

The Fourth Plinth Programme unveils the eleventh sculpture in an impressive artistic lineage to grace the north-western corner of Trafalgar Square. This year, David Shrigley follows internationally acclaimed artists including Rachel Whiteread, Yinka Shonibare and Marc Quinn, who have all displayed works that have become iconic cultural references for visitors to the square.

The world renowned contemporary art commission was first introduced by the Royal Society of Arts and Westminster City Council in 1998 to utilise the plinth that previously stood vacant for over a century. Arup Associates first became involved that same year, joining the project in its infancy.

The Trafalgar Square setting poses many challenges to the artist in terms of scale and perception; its atonal colour gives it a harsh and unforgiving ambience while its enormous size can overwhelm a sculpture if not correctly scaled. Furthermore, any new arrivals to the plinth have to be balanced against the centrality of Admiral Nelson on his famous column, not to mention the twin fountains, the sculptures of forgotten worthies and Edwin Landseer’s colossal lions. The wide mantelpiece of the National Galleries’ façade is also a considerable backdrop to the overall pageant.

The plinth sculptures sit on a flat surface of 4.32 x 1.65 m on the South side they are 6.9 m and on the North side 4.13 m from the ground. Although most angles of vision extend from the square and surrounding walkways, the pedestrian approach from Charing Cross Road (onto the new pedestrian terrace adjacent to the National Gallery) is an important viewpoint, as is the approach from Pall Mall East. There are also good views to be had from the elevated portico of the National Gallery and from the entrance to the Sainsbury Wing.

Senior Architectural Consultant, Mick Brundle, was tasked with producing a set of images of the ‘Wallinger’ piece, along with two others already selected, to ensure their suitability in the context of Trafalgar Square. A review of possible technical issues was also undertaken into weather resistance and durability, in particular wind forces and vandalism.

Five key views of the plinth were agreed and photographs from various locations around the square. Images of the three sculptures taken from a similar viewpoint were then digitally photo-montaged into these settings. These formed the basis of various presentations to interested parties and statutory authorities leading to successful planning application.

The second challenge was to persuade English Heritage that placing these very large objects onto a Grade One listed monument would not cause damage. Arup Associates worked closely with its engineers to conceive the idea of a single armature that would sit under all three sculptures, in order to distribute the load in a measured way against the massive granite perimeter walls of the plinth, which evidence obtained from the RIBA drawing collection showed to be between 250 to 325mm in thickness.

The advantage of a single armature negates the need for different fixings for every sculpture added. The armature itself requires lightweight fixings and the sculptures can be bolted to the armature. The combined weight of both working compositely resists the possibility of overturning or uplift by wind, obviating further reliance on major invasions to the stonework.

Lightweight bolts and a large steel spreader base plate were employed for the ‘Wallinger’ and evenly distributed self-weights for the ‘Woodrow’ and ‘Whiteread’. The armature concept was subsequently re-employed, using a more refined stainless steel construction, with the new formula being first used for Marc Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, and now forming the universal base for all sculptures since.

 

‘THE ADVANTAGES OF ART IN THE MAKING OF THE PUBLIC REALM AND CREATING A SENSE OF PLACE IS CLEAR, HOWEVER IT IS ALSO LIKELY TO BECOME THE FOCUS OF A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT EMOTIONAL RESPONSES…GOOD PUBLIC ART SHOULD ALWAYS BE THE SUBJECT OF CULTURAL CONTROVERSY, BE UNEXPECTED, BE MEMORABLE, EXCEED EXPECTATIONS AND ABOVE ALL BE ENJOYED.’ MICK BRUNDLE

 

We are continuing our association with the Sponsors, the GLA and the Square, and look forward to being part of the future life of the Plinth as an exhibition venue for the best of contemporary sculpture as recommended by the John Mortimer Committee.

SKETCHES OF THE PLINTH © MICK BRUNDLE / ARUP ASSOCIATES

PHOTO-MONTAGE: RACHEL WHITEREAD 'MONUMENT' (2001) & BILL WOODROW 'REGARDLESS OF HISTORY' (2001) © MICK BRUNDLE / ARUP ASSOCIATES