how did a giant modernist sculpture end up gathering moss in a field in Milton Keynes?

Deep in a field in Milton Keynes, a concrete mural has been dismantled and covered in moss over the past 10 years. Unless it finds a new owner soon, the 34-ton sculpture will be swept away and reduced to rubble. Local art enthusiast Tim Skelton is on a mission to find her a loving home.

The mural’s current circumstance, named Celestial, is a far cry from its triumphant debut in 1969. A young Scottish artist, Keith McCarter, was summoned by the Department of Buildings and Works to meet BT Tower designer Eric Bedford . , to discuss the design of an artwork that would form part of the new headquarters of the Ordnance Survey (OS), the national mapping agency, in Southampton.

McCarter was prolific: you’ll unknowingly pass his work when catching a train in Birmingham or Glasgow, walking down the M25, shopping in Kent or strolling through Aldershot or London. Alongside Anthony Holloway and William Mitchell, he designed many concrete walls, murals and patterns on buildings that shaped the aesthetics of post-war Britain. It was a period of optimism in British architecture. In the aftermath of World War II, the Labor government and idealistic designers began to rebuild Britain’s damaged towns and public morale. Modernist buildings were to be egalitarian and great thought was given to public space and art.

The mural for the OS office had to be something special. The new site was large, housing areas for drawing, printing and storing large flat maps. Britain was changing and every inch of its new neighborhoods, town centers and highways needed to be documented. The site required a work of art to reflect the organization’s growing stature, and measuring 12.4m x 6.3m, McCarter’s gigantic sculpture achieved just that. Unlike his previous work, in which concrete murals were designed as part of the structure of a building, this piece was to stand on its own. It was to be erected between two buildings on a grassy edge, around which workmen would drive buggies laden with heavy maps.

In the same year the foundation was laid in the ground for the headquarters, man landed on the moon. When designing the piece, McCarter says, he thought, “If they mapped the land, they must be able to map the heavens.

“At that time, there were a lot of aerial photographs coming from space probes,” he says. Images of the moon’s surface inspired the heavy, cratered texture of the mural. The only adjustment requested by the government was to incorporate holes in the design to ensure workers could see any oncoming traffic.

Once the design was greenlit, McCarter carved a negative of the shapes and textures into polystyrene blocks with the help of his brother Graham and friend Mark Lang, who were students at Guildford Art College. The negative formwork was placed in the timber frames and the concrete poured into the mould. Once the material hardened, the wooden sides were torn off and the final design was lifted by overhead crane before being transported to site.

Upon its unveiling, the sculpture was widely acclaimed. The Architects’ Journal said the mural was one of the “standout features” of the new site, along with the concrete domed roof over the staff restaurant building. The mural remained on the site until 2010, when the operating system was downsized and moved to new premises. As card creation and storage was digitized and printing was outsourced, there was no longer a need for large workshops. The future had arrived, but not the one McCarter had imagined.

Tastes come and go, and what might be popular one day may not be popular the next.

Keith McCarter

The operating system has never mapped the moon. The collective optimism of the 1960s transformed into a new belief in the progress of the individual rather than of society. Concrete public art became weathered and covered in moss and vines; some of these, including McCarter’s mural at Charing Cross in Glasgow, were painted in bright colors to ‘liven up’ the grey; some were destroyed forever. McCarter began making metal sculptures and receiving commissions from private developments. Reflecting on his career, he says, “Tastes come and go, and what might be popular one day may not be popular the next. It can be very fickle. »

In 2010 the Public Arts Trust in Milton Keynes learned that the mural was in danger of being destroyed and sought to give it a new home, hence its temporary mooring in a field. It’s only fitting that a new city organization, created in the same period of civic optimism, would come to see value in McCarter’s work.

But the mural was not destined to find its place in the city. “Politics stepped in and a few councilors raised objections,” McCarter says. After 12 years of unsuccessful attempts to find a home for the works, the owner of the land has now made a polite request to move the mural. In desperation, a member of the Trust, Skelton, recently took to Twitter and asked if anyone wanted the mural. Free. He has been inundated with responses and is in talks with an organization, which he cannot yet reveal, to relocate the sculpture.

Unlike a painting, which can easily change hands, finding a home for a huge sculpture is not easy. This is not the first time that we have had trouble finding takers. In Glasgow, a statue of Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has been covered with a tarpaulin in a warehouse for the past decade because the local council believe it could pose a barrier to pedestrians if erected in the West End from the city.

Installation can also be an issue for Celestial. Two articulated trucks will transport it from its current location and, once in place, the concrete panels will rest on an in-situ wall. The stainless steel dowels will be placed through receiving pockets filled with fast-hardening cement, much like the way a carpenter might make a set of joints at right angles when making a set of drawers. It also wouldn’t hurt for the new owner to hose down the panels to get rid of the built-up suds.

Today, McCarter’s creative energy remains intact, although he has become a full-time carer for his wife, Brenda, a talented seamstress. She recently passed away; that is why there is something attractive about the quasi-permanence of art made in concrete. It reminds us that there was once a generation of men and women who believed the future could be better and worked hard to achieve their vision.

McCarter and Skelton hope the mural and their ideals will endure wherever they end up and remind the next generation to aim for the moon.

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