Published  14/08/2002

Diana’s space

The announcement by Tessa Jowell on 31 July, that the scheme chosen to be commissioned to build the memorial fountain to Diana, Princess of Wales in Hyde Park is that of the American landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson is entirely the right choice in this instance. Fifty-eight designs had been submitted, reduced to a short list of 11. David Sylvester, the art critic, was also on the Committee of judges, but sadly died before the finally convened meeting. Neither of the two finalists, Gustafson and Anish Kapoor the sculptor, with architects Future Systems, were traditional: in fact, both are creative individuals working on the leading edge of their respective professions. Gustafson has already been praised for important memorials, such as Beirut’s Garden of Forgiveness, and the Square of Human Rights, Evry, France. Anish Kapoor is a former Turner Prize winner, and Future Systems are at the forefront of creative architecture that maximises new technology as a tool rather than as an end in itself.
Kapoor’s quadrilateral derived curved dome of water was to be located inaccessibly in the Serpentine, an invocation of object art and the sanctity of the artist’s work and individualised identity. There was only visual contact possible by the public. Children might have drowned if they were drawn out to it. By contrast, Gustafson, as pre-eminently a landscape designer, observed and surveyed the genius loci of the site. Perhaps she seeks also to invoke the sanctity of the island surrounded by water, where Princess Diana’s grave actually lies, at Althorp in Northamptonshire. But Gustafson here in London deliberately renders the site accessible and attractive both to children and to adults. The oval site reads as feminine and maternal as was Diana. The water is interactive, spilling along its course, round and down the gradual incline of the site. The water also varies in speed of flow, and pitch of sound emanating, from its shallow, atavistic ring. Leaves, sticks, toy boats, will run the rapids or pan out slowly. The sanctuary will be enhanced by newly planted trees.
There have been two powerful lobbies at bay in seeking to influence the decision. The architecture lobby and the British art lobby were conjoined for the event, as an almost unbeatable professional combination backing Kapoor and Future Systems. Their view of the Gustafson scheme, as summarised by Jonathan Glancey, architectural critic of The Guardian, Glancey is an outstanding judge of architecture, but here he gets it wrong. Well, this is not exactly architecture, but ‘a splishy-splashy water feature: inoffensive and forgettable’. For 3 million, Gustafson will do better than that. Lord Rogers is quoted, typically, as bemoaning a lost opportunity for British art.
In Britain there is always a problem over memorials. While great skill and technical sculptural ability went into the 20th century war memorials across the country, we seem lost when it comes to the individual commemoration. There are exceptions, such as that in Whitehall to Field Marshal Slim: ‘Bomber ‘Harris is cliched. Churchill is swathed in clothing like a swaddled child (in other words a sculptural cop-out.) The Angel of the North, outside Gateshead, by Antony Gormley, is by contrast a masterpiece of scale, seeking to commemorate something. All thanks then to Kathryn Gustafson for the relief offered by her scheme, and the promise of fulfilment.
So water will enter the ring that defines Diana’s space. The uppermost channel will be large, 160ft by 260ft and will flow down in two directions from the top of the hill at the Serpentine bridge. One side will reveal a torrent, but the other will run smoothly across a kind of dish and along a flatter incline and away. The sanctity of the personal space, accessible to all will only be emphasised by a yet to be designated planting plan. But Gustafson will not embrace the kind of clutter that caused one opponent to suggest some affinity to the Chelsea Flower Show aesthetic. We can all remain confident that her work will enhance both the memories engaged and the overall spirit of the park. Whew. Sometimes in England the right choices are actually made. And as we suggested earlier (Serpentine Pavilion), there could be a Serpentine project still waiting for the Kapoor/Future Systems unbeatables. The Serpentine Gallery 2003 Pavilion: it will cost one-tenth of the Diana Memorial, but could be just as prestigious for a season How about it? Gordon might feel prudently that a small part of the revenue to be offered by the government from the Treasury sale of commemorative coins could trickle across from the Serpentine Hill to the Serpentine Gallery. And let us all be thankful in London that no committee has sought emulate the ‘Monolith’, Oslo’s writhing 14 metres high column of chilling buttocks. Here, the most popular sculptural event of the summer to date has been the summary beheading of the sculpture to Lady Thatcher. (The handbag was strangely left untouched.) When in Britain we contemplate commemorative sculpture, something usually comes unstuck.

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