Tyneside's £1.4m Blue Carpet goes up in smoke

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The Independent Online

For an architect whose street sculptures are redefining some of the most brutal urban landscapes in Britain, Thomas Heatherwick was sanguine on Thursday about the inauspicious reception that Newcastle upon Tyne has afforded his most ambitious work to date.

For an architect whose street sculptures are redefining some of the most brutal urban landscapes in Britain, Thomas Heatherwick was sanguine on Thursday about the inauspicious reception that Newcastle upon Tyne has afforded his most ambitious work to date.

Heatherwick's £1.4m Blue Carpet creation, which consists of a 300m-wide shimmering square of tiles covered in smooth blue glass splinters, is being repaired after arsonists set fire to it outside the city's Laing art gallery.

The damage to 100 glittering tiles, which have taken five years and nearly five times Newcastle council's original budget to perfect, will cost £10,000 to repair.

"I don't take it personally and don't think it was a serious gesture towards the piece," the artist said.

The fire encapsulates the problems that have plagued public art in the North-east, ever since the surprising local affection for Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, which suggested that cultural regeneration might be the path to urban regeneration six years ago.

Blue Carpet has exhausted the letters pages of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Concerns about costs, and the assertion of a Newcastle University engineer that the tiles would not withstand a North-east winter, heightened local scepticism, along with the initial failure of some of them to stick. A local trader has also claimed that the project's six-year genesis, which has made a building site of the area, has forced him out of business.

The Geordies' attitude has been biased by a £270,000 sculpture of 52 Lego Men erected in the city centre. When the wind blew the wrong way, the Lego Men's fountain soaked shoppers. Civic leaders are seeking a new home for it.

But, despite the popularity of Gormley's Angel, other projects have failed to strike the same chord. Mark di Suvero's £600,000 Tyne Anew at North Shields, which symbolically overtook Angel as Britain's largest piece of public art two years ago, bears a close resemblance to a redundant crane. But since it can only be appreciated from the river Tyne, that rules out most people.

Eyebrows were also raised when a £70,000 group of 15 giant black metal balls materialised on a busy traffic roundabout – which is christened Heaven and Earth Roundabout – in Hartlepool.

The North-east's modern collection has some equally spectacular successes, however. Many appreciate David Mach's £760,000 Brick Train in Darlington, and the £500,000 Conversation Pieces at South Shields by Juan Munoz, who died this week.

Heatherwick takes a refreshingly modest view of his extraordinary creation, which is expected to be completed in November. "I don't view this project as public art but as a piece of design," he said on Thursday. "Labelling things 'art' is just useful in terms of funding."

Newcastle and Sunderland plan to commission "landmark" works of public art which will be more expensive than any of theirs to date. Both pieces are to be erected at a "gateway" to each city. However, neither has yet managed to figure out where that might be.

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