Art Al Fresco: Veronica Simpson looks at sculpture parks, fast-becoming the ultimate experience for cultural tourists
A riotous spread of ceramic tiles is being laid out in a deep, oblong trench in the chill of a Scottish spring morning. Set against the still dormant, brown flowerbeds the colours breathe Mediterranean warmth and dynamism into the landscape around the restored Jacobean mansion Bonnington House, belonging to art lovers Nicky and Robert Wilson. Saffron, vermilion and forest green streaks arc across a white background, overlaid with exuberant geometric forms; it’s as if a three-year-old has run amok with a tub of Sharpies and a Spirograph set.
But this is no amateur outpouring of toddler talent: the pool taking shape thanks to these handmade tiles is a work by one of the brightest global contemporary art stars to emerge from Portugal in decades, Joana Vasconcelos. And while the Wilsons will obviously have the pleasure of looking at this aquatic sculpture on a daily basis, it isn’t a luxury facility for their family’s summertime dips.
This new water feature is expected to become a regular platform for performances and a setting for arty events, for every member of the public who has the time and inclination (and the means to muster the moderate entrance fee) to visit their sculpture park.
Image Credit: Andrew Pattman
Set on the outer limits of Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland has opened its gates from May through to September every year since 2008. Visitors can stroll across meadows and through woodlands, their walks enlivened by 36 permanent artworks, including the first outdoor sculpture created by Phyllida Barlow (Folly, a cluster of concrete and metal structures in the forest, created in 2018), an amethyst grotto by Anya Gallaccio, and works by those whose names are more typically linked with outdoor art, such as Andy Goldsworthy and Anthony Gormley.
But the mission for the Wilsons’ sculpture park is not simply to show off their wealth or taste, but also to champion art education: to use the accessibility of the outdoor setting to help youngsters, in particular, learn more about art and creativity, not to mention the benefits of being in nature. They have converted several of the house’s outbuildings into teaching as well as exhibition spaces, and invested a huge amount of time and effort on designing and administering their outreach programmes. Nicky Wilson’s stated mission is that every schoolchild in Scotland should have the opportunity to visit Jupiter at some point in their education.
Its walls conceal 10,000 unfired bricks that regulate both temperature and humidity, providing optimum gallery conditions for minimum energy output
Why? Because the great outdoors, it turns out, is the perfect setting in which to introduce people to art. There is something about experiencing art in nature: an encounter with the voluptuous curves of a Henry Moore bronze takes on a new quality when it is set on a grassy lawn, surrounded by rolling farmland or gently munching sheep, as it is in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). In fact, it was the YSP that consolidated this particular movement for outdoor art as a gateway to culture and self-expression back in 1977. At that point, the Palladian mansion that had been built in its grounds in 1720, Bretton Hall, was being run as a teacher-training college. One of its lecturers, Peter Murray – now the YSP’s director – put on an outdoor sculpture exhibition there, and the seeds were planted for the first UK sculpture park. Murray, in turn, had been inspired by the open-air exhibitions organised in London parks by the Arts Council between the 1940s and 1970s, when the idea of the ‘gallery without walls’ gained traction.
For a while there few followed the YSP’s lead, apart from Roche Court (aka the New Art Centre) in Wiltshire, which opened in the late 1990s, when director Madeleine Bessborough relocated from her Chelsea gallery, also the New Art Centre. Having secured the rights to manage Barbara Hepworth’s estate, what better setting in which to show Hepworth’s bronzes than the remarkable country house she then acquired and its surrounding landscape. However, unlike Jupiter Artland or the YSP, here, almost all the hottest names in contemporary art you see dotted around the house, galleries and grounds is for sale. And Bessborough uses the profits from sales to help fund a range of educational activities, including the ARTiculation prize, a national competition that engages over 1,000 young people every year, offering them an opportunity to hone their public speaking skills as they articulate what they like or don’t like about their chosen art works or artists.
It’s in the past decade, however, that serious money has been invested in showcasing contemporary art in rural and al fresco settings. In 2014, global art gurus Monica Hauser and Iwan Wirth added an outpost in Somerset to their Hauser & Wirth spaces in Zurich, London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Gstaad, and the Somerset gallery’s community and outreach programme has impressed many in the region. Only two years later, Johnny Messum – the son of the legendary Cork Street gallery owner David – persuaded Wiltshire landowners the Fonthill Estate to give over the use of their 13th century tithe barn as a gallery and education space for contemporary art.
Although in the course of researching this feature I have stumbled across many more sculpture parks than I ever realised existed – Melbourne, for example, has two: the Heide Modern Art Museum and the McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery – the UK’s West Country seems to have the strongest concentration of sculpture or art parks within a relatively small geographical area, including the remarkable Tremenheere Gardens in Cornwall. It began as an outlet for the latent landscaping talents of local GP and father of four Neil Armstrong, who acquired 11 acres of land from a local farmer in 1997. It opened as a public attraction in 2012. Divided into themed zones, from woodland bog garden to South African valley, it features pieces by local artists as well as those of international importance, such as James Turrell and Richard Long.
While the purpose of sculpture parks or outdoor galleries may often be to enrich an existing piece of working landscape or wilderness, some have become vital elements in the regeneration of cities, like the Ekebergparken in Oslo. Here, in 2013, private collector Christian Ringnes donated 32 works from his own collection along a 3km gravel pathway, which winds its way through the 120-year-old, 64-acre public park that looks back down onto the rapidly transforming harbour (complete with striking Snohetta Opera House). After decades of neglect, the arrival of these art pieces – with another 50 to be added in the years to come – has turned this from a forgotten ‘folkpark’ into a much-loved promenade for Norwegians and visitors alike.
Meanwhile, in the US, a community effort spearheaded by artist Mark di Suvero has transformed an area of landfill into Socrates Sculpture Park, in Queens, Long Island, which is visited by 90,000 people a year.
The appeal of these spaces for artists is obvious, given the much broader than usual scope for scale, materials and setting. As Nicky Wilson says: ‘You’re not often going to get the opportunity to do what you really want to do, which is what we offer.’ But there are growing opportunities for architects too, to create useful and beautiful public buildings in these spectacular settings – to meet these parks’ growing audiences and appetites, new buildings are required for teaching, hosting and feeding visitors. As this previously niche sector evolves, it is important that these buildings are of a standard that will keep visitors coming back for more. For YSP, whose previous galleries and visitor centres were generally sensible, serviceable and low impact, the quality and craftsmanship of the newest space, The Weston, by London practice Feilden Fowles, is on another level altogether.
There are also parks that place architecture – as much as art – at the forefront of their attractions, such as Chateau La Coste, in Provence. When property developer turned luxury hotelier Paddy McKillen bought the Chateau La Coste vineyard 18 years ago, he saw an opportunity to have some fun with the architects he admired, in his own planningand bureaucracy-free zone. It now boasts buildings by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano and several by Tadao Ando, as well as original, commissioned art works by James Turrell (one of the go-to artists for these ventures) and Tracy Emin.
Now, perhaps, we are at a point where the public has had enough exposure and dialogue around sculpture and architecture that a different sensibility is emerging, one that allows architects to address their brief differently, perhaps more like an artist: with a distinctive personality and craftsmanship but also humility. Maybe it’s this sentiment Fergus Feilden is expressing when he says of The Weston at YSP: ‘We knew it was going to be a very significant building. We also knew we had some of the world’s most incredible and diverse sculptures … and we didn’t want to compete with that. We don’t think architecture should be competing with the landscape or competing with the art, but should be serving the people.’
The Twist at Kistefos Sculpture Park
Kistefos Sculpture Park is a cultural legacy project with a difference: established in 1996 on the former site of Norwegian businessman and art lover Christen Sveaas family’s wood pulp business, outside of Oslo, Sveaas has tried to create a space that honours nature, art and also the site’s industrial heritage. As of September 2019, the existing industrial Museum and Art Hall will be joined by a curious new structure by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The scheme, which BIG won through an international invited competition, provides not just gallery and visitor space but a way of uniting the north and south parts of the park, currently divided by the Ranselva river. Bjarke Ingels has dubbed his project an ‘inhabitable bridge’, suggesting it is not so much architecture as a hybrid of architecture, infrastructure and sculpture. Its current nickname is The Twist, thanks to a simple twist that happens at the midpoint of the bridge section in this 1,400sqm building, which lifts it up from the lower riverside area to create stacked galleries with glazing that opens up vistas to the south and the forested hillsides.
Visitors enter via a triple-height southern entrance with an information centre and shop, and clear sightlines along its length to the exhibition space at the far end, as well as the cafe. The different levels will be connected by a fanning stairway that provides informal seating and auditorium space for projections and performance art.
Referencing the site’s industrial heritage, the building is made from brushed stainless steel plus glass, which will be coated with a reflective UV film to keep out all art-damaging light and reduce solar gain.
Jupiter Artland was set up in 2008 by art-loving alternative-healthcare entrepreneurs Nicky and Robert Wilson, as a public sculpture park open from May to September. Having acquired a crumbling Jacobean mansion in 1999 and started restoring it as a family home, they decided to see what they could do with the 100 acres of farmland that came with it (some of which is still very much working land). They rejected the formal landscape design route of the traditional country house; instead, they chose to animate it by placing works by artists they admired within its boundaries. The first commission was given to landscape architect and Maggie’s Centres founder Charles Jencks, who placed a series of undulating land forms, Cells of Life, just beyond the entrance gates. With a handful of new commissions completing every year over the past decade, there are now 36 permanent works, by artists ranging from Anthony Gormley to Phyllida Barlow, alongside a programme of temporary exhibitions and festivals set in and around the estate, most notably August’s Jupiter Rising festival.
For 2019, a new structure by Portuguese superstar Joana Vasconcelos opens up a host of new possibilities for artists and visitors. Says Nicky Wilson: ‘This pool she is doing is extraordinary. We have re-landscaped the garden around it to her design. It’s basically a giant confection of shapes and colours.’ As the biggest and most complex project they have commissioned to date, Wilson enthuses: ‘It’s got so much potential around it. Already we’re talking to young artists who would like to do performances in the pool, and around the pool. She’s actually created a platform for other artists to respond to.’
Vasconcelos’s contribution, titled Gateway, is an intricately designed pool that plays on the idea of swimming pools as sites fostering community, and visitors can pre-book time slots to swim in it. The pool incorporates 11,500 hand-painted and glazed tiles crafted using traditional methods at an artisan factory near her own workshop in Lisbon.
Chateau La Coste
Chateau la Coste is a biodynamic vineyard in Provence that combines great food and hospitality – it has four restaurants and a luxury boutique hotel – with a parkland setting that brings the work of some of today’s most outstanding artists and architects to visitors’ attention, and all within an easy, less than two-hour, walk. Strolling past the vineyards or through the rocky outcrops and forested trails, there are hidden, cave-like works such as Andy Goldsworthy’s Oak Room (a small doorway leads into an earthen floored cave, its ceiling and walls woven with oak branches), as well as Richard Serra’s strange, corten steel protrusions, as if the steel prow of a boat was trying to bust through rock.
The selection, by the vineyard’s owner Paddy McKillen and his curatorial staff, beautifully demonstrates the ways in which art and architecture increasingly overlap, from the roofless, crafted contours of Per Kirkeby’s Brick Labyrinth to the extraordinary, spiky outline of Frank Gehry’s bonkers Pavilion de Musique, which first appeared at the Serpentine gallery in 2008 and is now used for music performances.
Some of the architecture is also practical: Renzo Piano has created a modest and elegant gallery surrounded by wine stores, for example. But the star of the park is Tadao Ando: this enigmatic and subtle architect has created the Chateau’s simple, slab-like gate, and several other contributions, from Origami Benches dotted around the woods to a magical little chapel on a rocky promontory, as well as the main Centre d’Art, a gallery, shop and restaurant overlooking a lake, on top of which perches – of course – a Louise Bourgeois spider.
In May 2019, Ando inserted a new structure within the chilly, windowless walls of an existing wine storehouse: a pavilion to house an exhibition of his drawings. This gravity-defying concrete construction is a simple, three-sided box, split at eye level on opposite sides by slender apertures that run almost the length of the pavilion, creating decisive slashes within the white planes. Along the ceiling a single recessed light beams a white line down the middle. By reducing the pavilion to the simplest elements, it is easier to focus on what is positioned inside: a single, linear, white display stand, its contents tilted 45 degrees to facilitate easy viewing of the drawings, photos and paintings Ando has splashed across the various emaki scrolls representing around 10 of his works, both realised and unrealised.
The Weston, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Built on a historic disused quarry within the 500-acre estate run by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), The Weston opens up a formerly neglected corner of this vast outdoor art gallery, giving direct access into the park along its eastern edge, adjacent to the M1 motorway. London practice Feilden Fowles, which won the project at competition, saw an opportunity to create a buffer against the elements – including the traffic – by creating a monolithic exterior wall that runs for 50m, with only one aperture, its glazed entrance, to break up the layered, pigmented concrete elevation. Giving nothing away to the visitor as they approach from the car park, they cross this threshold and the steps down into a wide-open, light-drenched space, with only glazing and the building’s light, timber frame to obstruct views out onto the Yorkshire landscape of fields, trees and lake. An open-plan public foyer of 80 sq m blends into the 140 sq m restaurant with an open kitchen, and incorporates a small but cosy seating area tucked around a wood-burning stove – it gets cold in Yorkshire and the YSP is open year round. An airy shop (50 sq m) to the right carries on the theme of light, timber, beautifully crafted furniture, while beyond it a sculptural gallery space benefits from big, concrete roof beams alternating with rooflights. These large beams form a jagged, saw-tooth roof profile at one end of the building, while the flat roof over the restaurant is planted with sedum, minimising its impact.
The saw-tooth roof becomes a distinctive light sculpture in its own right at night – screened off with panels of undulating fibreglass its impact is softened in the daytime, but as soon as night falls the light from the gallery throws itself up and through that roof, and the panels create a lantern effect visible from afar.
The Weston, by London practice Feilden Fowles
Boulders from the original quarry are used in the rocky planting that almost envelopes the western end of the building, blending it further into the landscape, while the stones used for the concrete pigmentation are taken from three local quarries to make this a building very much of its place. The walls conceal a labyrinth of 10,000 unfired bricks that regulate both temperature and humidity, providing optimum gallery conditions for minimum energy output. Well insulated and naturally ventilated throughout (apart from the kitchen), the building also features an air-source heat pump.
Boulders from the original quarry are used in the rocky planting
Feilden Fowles’ new building for the YSP activates a dormant part of the park with a compelling new attraction, and brilliantly combines state-of-the-art gallery and restaurant facilities within a really thoughtful structure that explores the fascinating interplay between sculpture and architecture.