Why size is everything in public art

The sheer scale of Anish Kapoor's vision for Kensington Palace Gardens is the latest sign of a growing trend
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The Independent Culture

It started with The Angel of the North, Antony Gormley's iconic steel sculpture which looms over the A1 and put Gateshead on the map for the right reason. But a decade – and several more landmark sculptures – later, there are murmurings in the art world that the vogue for sky-filling public artworks may have gone too far.

The latest large-scale sculptures soon to be unveiled are Anish Kapoor's four mirrored works in Kensington Gardens, in London. The immense pieces – the largest of which has a width of 35ft – will be placed among nature, by the bank of the lake and in the centre of the Round Pond near Kensington Palace, where the public will stumble across them, from September until March 2011.

Constructed from reflective stainless steel, the giant mirrored surfaces will be visible across large distances. They will be installed as part of a six-month exhibition, entitled Turning the World Upside Down, organised by the Serpentine Gallery and the Royal Parks.

Will Hunter, the deputy editor of The Architectural Review magazine, says such sculptures represent the growing distance between the sculptor and his or her workmanship in producing these works.

"The idea of the artist who understands craft, and the link between authorship and the hand, has been completely broken," he says.

"Artists are more like architects, leading a team of people. They are the ones who will build these large sculptures. These sculptures, once they get to a certain scale, can't be made by your own hand."

Hunter believes that the trend towards large sculptures is a product of Tony Blair's Britain, and that we might now see a reversal of the trend, given these recessionary times. "Maybe it's got something to do with the culture of the Blair years, they spent a lot of money on... things that were not all that relevant. Having just come back from the Architecture Biennale in Venice, there was an art flash architecture group that had researched [this area] and at the end of 12 months, they found that people wanted pedestrian crossings and cleaner streets, not big sculptures," he says.

In Gloucester, a 16m artwork set to be built at the site of an old chapel has caused friction between town planners and the city's Civic Trust, a heritage group, who told the local newspaper that the tower, which will stand alongside a newly created 30m "art wall", was too large for the site. Hugh Worsnip, the chair of the Civil Trust's planning-appraisal panel, says: "We believe that the monument is too big and impacts on the views of the cathedral. It is also built in a way that would be excellent for drunks to climb up and for seagulls to perch on. It is unrelated to the area and fails to interpret the site's history..."

Meanwhile, a vast galvanised-steel statue built in the Scottish town of Cumbernauld in the hope of reviving its fortunes, at a cost of £250,000 of public money, has reignited discussion on whether that money might have been better spent on housing.

But Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, says the trend to design large sculptures may not be such a new phenomenon: "In the past, I noticed just as many ideas for these larger sculptures were out there, but a lot more of these were unrealised projects that were not being built. Now, the artist has the possibility of their work being built," he says.