Culture vultures

Developers as art patrons? It sounds a bit unlikely, but the new breed of culturally aware buyers are dead impressed, says Jenny Knight
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The Independent Online

State-of-the-art, interior-designed show flats, financial incentives and concierge service now come as standard in many new developments - and developers know that if they are to continue to attract buyers in today's competitive market, they have to be prepared to go that extra mile to make their new builds stand out from the crowd.

State-of-the-art, interior-designed show flats, financial incentives and concierge service now come as standard in many new developments - and developers know that if they are to continue to attract buyers in today's competitive market, they have to be prepared to go that extra mile to make their new builds stand out from the crowd.

Commissioning serious artworks for the enjoyment of residents is a pioneering new incentive that is catching on among developers who want to lure a new group of increasingly sophisticated, metropolitan and design-conscious buyers on the block. Gone are the days when the odd naff statue or fountain in a new development would impress - today's buyers are an altogether more culturally aware lot who are to buy from a developer who actively promotes the arts.

St James has been a pioneer of art in residential developments. At the centre of its recently launched New River development of 467 flats in Hornsey, north London, where prices start at £155,000, St James has converted a Victorian pumping station into a Royal Academy art gallery - the first ever outside central London - which will be used to exhibit paintings, sculpture and photography by the staff and students of the Royal Academy Schools. St James is also sponsoring an annual RA Schools artist-in-residence scheme, with an on-site studio and a £10,000 bursary. The Hungarian photographer Renata Hegyi is expected to move into the studio later this year as the first recipient.

The company has progressed from a few tentative art purchases for its developments to the full scale hiring of a consultant, Mark Davy, from Futurecity, who now oversees their buying. He says: "Lots of developers simply stick in a bit of mass-produced rubbish because the planners want some public art. They spend exactly what they have been told to spend and the piece is always representational - a 'fisherman holding a kipper and looking out to sea' sort of thing - when they could get a piece by someone with real talent for the same price.

"Some developers," he adds, "are now realising that the lobbies of developments can be used as art galleries. Instead of painting the walls magnolia and fitting rows of letter boxes, they can use them to hang paintings by leading artists." It goes a lot further than paintings, too: sculptures, engraved graffiti, pavements with messages and interactive artworks are being commissioned to brighten up the communal areas in new builds. Art works already on St James' sites include a landscape sculpture made from 100,000 tons of earth at Worcester Park, interactive metal seats at One SE8 in Deptford, south London, and two kinetic spirals of stainless-steel corkscrews that spin on their axis, at SeaCon Wharf in Docklands.

Worcester Park will also be home to a sculpture park, which is being created with the help of the Royal British Society of Sculptors to help add extra glamour to the upmarket St James development The Hamptons. Two-bedroom flats there start from £305,000 and houses are priced from £380,000 to £750,000.

Blueroom Properties has commissioned street art to jazz up their development of 31 flats in Tyne Square, Newcastle. A river of text in the form of a long metal strip will run round the square, featuring text messages taken from local resident's mobile phones, as well as graffiti copied from Hadrian's Wall, including one message from a centurion asking his fort to ensure plenty of beer will be laid on for the return of his legion.

And in Glasgow, Blueroom asked Gavin Fraser, of lighting engineers Foto-Ma, to design a vertical glass column, stretching up five storeys for Kidston Place, a block of 38 rental flats, in the once notorious Gorbals. The column will be topped with a large lantern at roof level, which will be internally lit with colours that will constantly change.

For planners, however, cultural aspirations have to be balanced against the needs of the whole community. In the gardens of their 153 apartments at Royal Courts in Sunderland, Barratt were told to put in play equipment, even though the target buyers are sophisticated young singles without children. They got round the directive by buying sculptures that double as garden seats, are pleasing to look at and are also suitable for children to climb on - should any young residents arrive.

At Paddington Basin in West London, three new canal bridges show that good public art can encompass functionality and interest. Station Bridge is a steel frame with glazed panels forming a semi-transparent screen wall; the Helix Bridge is a glass and steel bridge that retracts to allow boats and barges through, and Rolling Bridge, due to be installed next month, unrolls like a scorpion's tail.

Nick Roberts, of Chelsfield plc, said: "We sought to bring together architects and engineers to create bridges of real interest because they reflect - on a very small scale - the engineering feat that was Brunel's Paddington Station."

www.stjameshomes.co.uk

St James: 020-8349 6200

Blueroom Properties: 01904 650160, www.blueroom-properties.co.uk

Paddington Basin: 020-7723 5125

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