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Stuart Piercy, 'My Kind of Town', Architecture Today

7th July

I wonder if you can argue that a journey of multiple destinations can somehow count as more cumulatively memorable than any particular place along the way? I think you can if there is a common thread throughout your journey. The Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle describes the journey between The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton. Although only 20 miles apart, they represent an incredibly rich period in British sculpture and continue to attract some of the world’s most influential artists. I would argue you have to square the triangle by adding Salts Mill in Saltaire; not just to see David Hockney’s beautiful ‘Arrival of Spring’ but to experience the sheer scale of this industrial masterpiece.

Salts Mill was bought by a family friend, Jonathan Silver, in 1987. The mill was dilapidated, but Jonathan could see the potential in the beautiful structure, and transformed it into retail and commercial units and the 1853 Gallery devoted to the work of his childhood friend Hockney. As a child I was lucky enough to run the length of the seemingly endless empty mill floors with their enormous south-facing windows and climb into the metre-deep reveals of this stone-faced, brick-vaulted giant.

The mill and surrounding town of Saltaire were built by the nineteenth-century industrialist Titus Salt after he observed other textile factories and was disappointed by the terrible working conditions he saw. Designed by Henry Lockwood and Richard Mawson, the mill is the focal point of the model town. When completed it was the largest industrial building in the world and employed 3500 people. The 160-metre-long south elevation is five storeys of honey-coloured sandstone that is pleasingly repetitious, confident in its purpose and, on a rare sunny day, feels supernatural in its incandescence and scale. I often think of the sublime simplicity of this building when I am asked to artificially subdivide a long elevation into vertical townhouse proportions to relate to a long-gone footprint.

Twelve miles to the east, Leeds Art Gallery and The Henry Moore Institute last year held a 100-day exhibition, the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The collaborative and adjacent galleries support not only the exhibiting of finished sculpture but explore in depth the process of creating the work, and research the motivation and influences of the artists. Recent work includes Ayşe Erkmen’s ‘three of four’, a delicate, ghost-like lattice ‘echo’ of a barrel-vaulted Victorian rooflight. Nobuko Tsuchiya set up a studio at the gallery to create amalgamated forms of found and household objects. I find Tsuchiya’s work is such a release of tension from those early tentative first few marks made on projects; all students of architecture should look at her conceptual models.

Travel south for another 11 miles to David Chipperfield’s visceral Hepworth Wakefield, set within a conservation area that once housed the town’s cloth and grain industries. The in-situ cast form sits on a stretch of land trapped within the bend in the River Calder. I believe this is Wakefield’s most important building, though many people locally would disagree – my father included. Incisions within the trapezoidal forms create perfect diffused light, and the external folds of pigmented concrete relate beautifully to the incremental crumble of utilitarian cranes, barges and brick warehouses on the Calder.

Continue south-west for a further seven miles to arrive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 500 acres of rolling parkland originally designed by Robert Marnock in the 1830s. In 1949 the original mansion house was turned into a college. After an art lecturer, Peter Murray, held an exhibition in grounds the idea took hold and in 1977 Yorkshire Sculpture Park was formed.

It now attracts some of the world’s greatest artists. Seeing works by Andy Goldsworthy or Giuseppe Penone within FCB Studios’ beautiful underground gallery had a profound impact on my work. They are a reminder that architecture is much more than purely formal or visual; that spaces are experienced through all the senses, and that architecture is a physical making process. They remind me of Brancusi’s proposition that “architecture is inhabited sculpture”.

When ideas are scarce, these places – and the space and time between them – are where I turn to.

(Image: Andy Goldsworthy, Clay Room, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2007)