by Colin Campbell
IN her latest announcement last Friday on plans to build the much-reviled Ness riverside Gathering Place “in the spring” Arts group chairwoman Isabelle Mackenzie described it as “a unique piece”, and added: “The team behind the scenes and committee members have supported this project throughout and we are now looking at the finished project, which will be unique and something which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
Her claims of global wonderment greeting the £300,000 wall and concrete plan seemed a dubious flight of fancy three days ago.
Now Inverness news and views can reveal that the council claim that the riverside wall proposed by arts consultants Sans Facon is “unique” is a humiliatingly misleading, naïve and flawed assertion.
In fact, a wall created by the same firm and bearing a strong resemblance to the Gathering Place has been sitting in an unsung park in London since 2014.
It’s called “The Field”. How much this unexceptional object cost is unclear. But we would speculate the entire project to install it cost nothing like £300,000, and it certainly didn’t ruin a beautiful riverside.
It seems, among other things, designing curved walls is something of a speciality for Sans Facon. That, and surrounding their creations with verbiage which is impenetrably obscure to members of the public but which appears to greatly impress some in authority.
Sans Facon said of “The Field” wall in London: “The Field is a physical anchor for social role of the square, facilitating a range of uses at any given time, without predetermining them. The Field was a way of creating a framework to support and celebrate social space for the estate and passers-by, and through its use simultaneously becomes an active monument to the pleasure of gathering.”
That’s incomprehensible to us. Make of it what you will.
However, it has strong echoes of what they said about the Gathering Place. Tristan Surtees of Sans Facon said: “The work aims to complement the river and people’s relationship to it, to frame and invite others to appreciate it. In its upstream portion it weaves through the trees and bushes to offer a unique view up the river or back to the Castle and Cathedral.” And he later added: “The Gathering Place project is an occasion to expand and express the qualities of the River Ness for both locals and visitors, developing a collaborative and engaging artwork shaped with and in response to the passion people feel for their river.”
When it was first announced in June, 2017 that they were the artists chosen to create “an iconic centrepiece of River Ness Public Art Programme” Tristan Surtees said: “Over the next few months, we will be listening and developing a more precise understanding of the environmental, historical and current social relationship to the river with the people of Inverness, which will direct the design and development of the gathering place project, considering the full social role of the river Ness in the fabric of the city.”
In the following months the cost of all this consulting must have been rising steadily.
And then on the big day, May 24, 2018, came the big announcement. The Gathering Place would comprise a wall, with concrete pathways, which would be built on a natural beauty spot adjacent to the Ness Islands.
Sans Facon are a private firm like any other hired to do a job. And if the artists involved genuinely thought a wall was the best plan for the riverside then so be it. It was up to councillors and members of the arts group in particular to make the final decision to accept or reject their proposal. They accepted, with gushing praise for the artists and their efforts.
This state of harmony lasted a very short time before public discontent began to surface over the bizarre plans to tear up and concrete over a natural riverside beauty, rising to a level of outrage and fury which persists to this day and will continue and rise in the months ahead if construction does go ahead “in the spring”.
Last night OpenNess campaigner Helen Smith who organised an online petition which attracted 3,000 supporters vehemently opposing the Gathering Place told Inverness news and views: “I’m surprised that Cllr Mackenzie thinks it is ‘a unique piece’ because it seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to the piece of public art which Sans Facon designed for the Field in London in 2014.
“On their website, they describe the structure in the Field as ‘an active monument to the pleasure of gathering’, which, again, seems to be remarkably similar to their concept of the Gathering Place they’ve come up with at considerable expense for Inverness.
“Surely a piece of public art on the Ness which interpreted the river’s rich natural and cultural heritage would have been more appropriate than this length of uninspiring concrete which wouldn’t look out of place on an inner-city industrial regeneration site? Local people could have been involved in coming up with ideas, and we could have had a piece of art which would truly have been unique to Inverness.
“Instead, despite two years of public protests and a petition with 2,500 signatures begging the Council not to go ahead, the councillors on the City of Inverness Arts Working Group seem to be absolutely hell-bent on going ahead with building ‘the wall’ for reasons which are a complete mystery to most of us.
“By the time it is finished, this not-so-unique bit of concrete will have cost the public well in excess of £300,000. Meanwhile, a couple of hundred yards along the riverbank, the same council has let the historic Infirmary Bridge fall into disrepair and is now scrabbling around trying to find money to repair it before it has to be closed to visitors and the many local people who use it daily.”
No figure has been made available on how much Sans Facon were paid. However Inverness Provost Helen Carmichael last year said more than £100,000 had already been spent on preparation work for the Gathering Place.