As a curator of art beyond the gallery, my kind of town must have affordable studio space for artists and policies that ensure the best art is commissioned for the public realm. Experience of public spaces and architecture inspire me as much as art, so my ideal is based on a trajectory of formative places and the cross currents between them.
As a teenager in the 1960s, my first experience of a foreign capital was Rome. Cinecittà still tantalisingly housed the sets for ‘Cleopatra’, where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had fallen in love. Parioli – the district in which my diplomat godfather lived – introduced me to a European mode of apartment living, with its ‘palazzine’, an elegant 1930s building type. My godfather’s tours included not only the Forum and Sistine Chapel (where I was entranced by the mosaic floor more than Michelangelo’s ceiling) but also Latina and EUR, places that sparked an interest in the rationalist work of Giuseppe Terragni and Adalberto Libera.
Recently, while visiting the British School at Rome, I made a sentimental journey to nearby Via dei Monti Parioli to find the palazzina where I’d stayed. Now it’s become a rather too privileged part of town, with a mix of bourgeois dwellings and foreign academies.
In recent years the British School has been the site of several interventions by artists and architects, subverting Edwin Lutyens’ neoclassical facade in a manner similar to the GLA-sponsored Fourth Plinth project at Trafalgar Square. Alison Crawshaw’s ‘The Big Balcony’ alluded to unlawful building practices in Rome, while Jennifer Taylor used the portico to stage a performance inspired by the city’s ancient festival of Lupercalia.
Experiencing the topography and architecture of Rome influenced my decision to study the history of art and architecture. Living in one of Denys Lasdun’s ziggurats at the University of East Anglia taught me the meaning of social architecture; the terraces allowed unexpected visitors to appear at your window. At UEA, Eric Fernie led eye-opening seminars in Norwich Cathedral. Another inspiration – the Bauhaus – was taught by Alastair Grieve, who also initiated the university’s picture loan scheme – a model I later followed as visual arts officer at Tower Hamlets council.
Civic responsibility for commissioning excellent public art is high on the list for my kind of town, but with dwindling public funds, other sources of patronage are crucial. A walk across London from Portland Place to Trafalgar Square begins and ends with two important institutions, the BBC and St Martin-in-the-Fields, each with a social agenda and an art programme.
The Broadcasting House redevelopment, led by Richard MacCormac, created the context for a programme of permanent and temporary artworks. Mark Pimlott’s ‘World’ – a novel public space between the existing and new buildings – was inspired by the BBC’s World Service network. The paving is inscribed with lines of latitude and longitude and place names, some renowned, some little known, “like an imaginary shipping forecast”.
Along the route, in spur locations off Regent Street, a series of artworks commissioned by The Crown Estate can be discovered, including ‘So Our Rivers Flow’ by Keith Tyson, ‘Shimmy’ by Alison Wilding and ‘Timelines’ by Daniela Schönbächler.
At Trafalgar Square, the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields provides a place for contemplation as well as support for the homeless. Here, Eric Parry Architects’ renewal project instigated a series of commissions, notably the East Window by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, and metalwork pieces for the travertine altar by Italian goldsmith Giampaolo Babetto. In working on the design of the church James Gibbs was inspired by the baroque buildings of Borromini; his successor, Eric Parry, carried out academic research in Rome and is now consultant architect to the British School. Past and present connect through Rome and London.