Architecture: My candle sculpture was blown out - Gerry Judah wanted to celebrate human rights, but planning officials argued that it would spoil the view

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FOUR YEARS ago I conceived a sculpture dedicated to human rights. To match the importance of the theme, I envisaged a piece on a grand scale, built on a prominent site in London. Last week my hopes were crushed when John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, refused planning permission for the project.

Nobody will be surprised at the depth of my disappointment. But there is more to worry about than one man's frustration. I believe that the true reason for rejecting the idea was fear - of the new, of the challenging, of any work of public art raising awkward questions or arousing passionate feelings. Even the most controversial sheep-in-formaldehyde play-school of art can win official approval because it creates no argument beyond the columns of newspapers and middle-class dinner tables, and stays safely tucked out of view in chic galleries.

I wanted to step beyond the limitations of the art world and create something highly visible that addressed a subject which concerns all of us. Here was my mistake. If I had been less ambitious and dedicated the sculpture to something anodyne or abstract, I might have met a total lack of interest, but no resistance.

The human rights sculpture would have comprised a pair of wooden wings, spanning 56 feet, supported on an inclined column 60ft high, and inset with rows of niches, each containing fibre-optic candles that would have glowed in the wind. Candles have a universal significance. They can be found in every temple of nearly every religion, and are carried in vigils for the dead or 'disappeared'. Their universality would have underscored the non-sectarian character of the sculpture.

The intention was as much to celebrate the rights we enjoy in Britain as to remind us of the hopes of those less lucky. And for this, what better site than Potters Fields Park on the south bank of the Thames, directly opposite the Tower of London? I aimed to enlist the widest possible support, hoping that the sculpture would be built through voluntary contributions. A trust was set up, which would have sold candles to schools, promoted and maintained the sculpture, and provided funds for artistic projects devoted to human rights issues.

Initial response was strong and generous with promises of materials and design, engineering and construction expertise. Southwark Council granted a licence for the site, and the Royal Fine Arts Commission and English Heritage lent support.

Everything seemed set to go until we reached the last hurdle: the planning authority, the London Docklands Development Corporation, which said no. I plunged into the murky waters of the planning appeals system, supported by eminent QCs, with urban and planning consultants giving their services free. Protracted public hearings and a 10-month wait for a decision convinced me that our planning laws are farcical.

The system requires a balancing of so many incompatible considerations that Solomon himself could not make a wise judgement. Inevitably, those responsible fall back on prejudice, then stitch the piece into as plausible a justification as they can think up.

The reasons given for rejecting the sculpture were that it would dominate Potters Fields Park, detract from and obstruct views of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and attract demonstrators, thus inhibiting the economic regeneration of the area.

The park has existed only since 1988 (replacing 200-year-old warehouses). The sculpture would have inhibited views from only a few points, none of which had them until six years ago. As for detracting from views of the Tower and Tower Bridge, surely these behemoths can bear a little competition? As for attracting hordes of demonstrators, I can only say it is highly flattering to imagine that a sculpture might overnight divert protesters from Speakers' Corner and Trafalgar Square.

Beside the park, a vast development called London Bridge City, Phase Two is on its way. This will obscure more views than the sculpture could have done. It will take the form of pastiche Venetian palazzo - nothing whatever to do with London, past, present or future, but inoffensive.

I do not intend to give up. The trust exists, the design is resolved and the commitments from those who have offered professional help remain firm. There must be a place for this sculpture in some city centre. I wish it was London.

(Photograph omitted)