Architecture: Architecture and the art of the possible: Can a campaign conjure creative building partnerships? Jonathan Glancey takes soundings

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The Independent Culture
ON THIS page last week, Peter Dormer, a fierce and independent critic, attacked the Arts Council's 'Per Cent for Art' policy. The council wants 1 per cent of the budgets of all new buildings in Britain to be spent on incorporating 'art' into those projects. Mr Dormer argued that many of the best new British buildings - he cited the new terminal at Stansted airport designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners - are fully integrated works of art in their own right and 'art' applied to them is at best superfluous and at worst undermines the artistic integrity of the building.

Mr Dormer also argued that 'art' cannot save a bad building and doubted that Britain has the kind of artists capable of producing stimulating public art.

This week we present the views of those involved in the world of promoting, commissioning and creating art for architecture.

Richard Burton, architect and chairman of the Per Cent for Art steering group, believes that critics would do better to encourage new talent rather than to savage it: 'My experience of working with artists and craftsmen at St Mary's hospital on the Isle of Wight is that they are imaginative and sensitive people whose contributions have helped greatly towards the healing process through enhancing environmental quality.'

Sara Selwood of the Policy Studies Institute, who has been researching the issue of public art, believes that the Per Cent for Arts concept is clouded by the fact that everyone expects the money to be spent on 'Art with a capital A'; she argues that the money should be used to fund environmental improvements, such as the imaginative landscaping of city streets, as well as sculpture and painting.

Vivien Lovell, director of the Public Art Commissions Agency, says that artists should be a part of the design team of buildings and landscape projects. Why? 'Because of their free-thinking, lateral approach to design problems, their daring to challenge the banal, which comprises so much of our environment.' Lovell believes that a Per Cent for Arts policy could always be in danger of being too little, too late and too apologetic, but cites the work of Tess Jaray at Wakefield Cathedral Precinct and the new glass and ironwork by Alexander Beleschenko and Wendy Ramshaw in the latest extension of St John's College, Oxford, as successful examples of artistic interventions.

Sandra Percival, director of the Public Art Development Trust, feels that Peter Dormer has jumped the gun. 'Contemporary public art in the United Kingdom is barely a decade old. It is time to continue, not terminate the debate.' A Per Cent for Arts policy, she argues, can achieve a variety of goals, from the funding of specific artworks to a complete building, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Lesley Greene, founder of the Public Art Development Trust and the Public Art Forum, believes that collaboration between architects and artists is in its infancy. Too much public art, she argues, is used as 'therapy' to relieve the banality of run-of-the- mill architecture and planning. The real problem is that artists are not commissioned at the beginning of a project; as a result, their role inevitably becomes parasitic.

According to Sandy Nairne, director of visual arts at the Arts Council, more than 50 local authorities have adopted the Per Cent policy. The campaign is also concerned, he says, with developing new courses in art schools and universities that may encourage future collaborations between artists and architects.

Whatever the arguments about a Per Cent for Arts policy, what matters is the quality of patronage. When Basilio Guell, the industrialist, gave Antonio Gaud his head in the design of the house, chapel and park that bear his name in Barcelona, he gave the world some of its greatest and most imaginative buildings, art and landscaping. Guell gave encouragement and money, Gaud supplied the rest. Both were fierce individualists; neither would have responded to a policy for relating art to architecture.

When Frank Pick, chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board in the Thirties, employed the cream of Britain's architects, artists, engineers and designers to create a coherent image for the capital's transport network, then the most convincing example of art in public service, he needed no encouragement. No policy, however well intended, can create art that works with architecture to benefit building, artist and public alike. While the Arts Council is right to raise the issue in the hope of raising expectations, great art and architecture will continue to emerge only now and then, when the talents of architect, artist and patron coincide.

(Photograph omitted)