Damian Hirst doesn’t do small. In fact, Britain’s best-known living artist apparently no longer considers diamond-encrusted skulls, sharks suspended in formaldehyde and eye-popping tributes to third-trimester pregnancy quite grand enough. What the man really needs is his own town as a platform for his outsized ambitions.
Hirst plans to build a 187-acre, 750-home settlement near his own home outside the coastal town of Ilfracombe, a project that locals are already dubbing “Hirst-on-Sea.” His chosen collaborators, Architects Rundell Associates, have so far kept silent on the specifics – all that’s publicly known comes from some very vague renderings and a comment reported from a public meeting that Hirst “has a horror of building anonymous, lifeless buildings.” Still, with Hirst’s great wealth and his taste for grand guignol effects, one thing’s for sure: the resulting townscape, whatever it looks like, will generate buzz.
Whether or not locals will appreciate it is another matter. Hirst has already given them Verity, a huge, controversial sculpture of a pregnant woman who appears to have been partly flayed. Damned by one critic as a monstrosity that looks like something commissioned by Saddam Hussein, it sits on their genteel seafront like a moustache painted on the Mona Lisa.
But locals fearing the urban equivalent of a dismembered mother-to-be should take heart. Perhaps surprisingly, some of Britain’s best, most architecturally interesting communities began as the work of people like Hirst – powerful individuals working alone. They may have once been damned as megalomaniac dabblers, but today their designs draw praise.
Take the starkly beautiful Yorkshire town of Saltaire, for example. Founded in 1851 by wool magnate Titus Salt around his cloth mill, it’s clear the town’s titular creator cared more about his tenants than the average developer (even if his typically Victorian domineering streak is evident in his refusal to allow Saltaire a single pub.) The town shows how an individual developer’s market-flouting, reformist zeal can result in improved living standards for residents – the plain but spacious housing in fine yellow stone that Salt built was far better than what industrial workers usually lived in at the time. The tycoon’s urban model is widely seen as pioneering, and the town is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saltaire’s original role as an industrial dormitory is long gone – its mill is now an arts center – but its success as a place that people want to live continues today.
Prince Charles’s town of Poundbury has been criticized for its shoddy construction. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
You couldn’t credit strange, fantastical Portmeirion with quite the same sober usefulness, but it, too, shows the positive potential of an urban vanity project. Constructed in Wales from 1925 to 1975 by eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis on his own land, the place has a degree of optimistic whimsy that town planning usually lacks. Now one of the best-known townscapes in Britain, the playfulness of its design makes the average village look rather dull, an Italianate daydream built incongruously on rain-soaked Welsh hillsides. Williams-Ellis’ project didn’t spawn a hundred other Portmeirions, but it shows the inspiring potential of urban design driven by creative rather than commercial interests.
Still, new towns like these, created in an individual’s own image, can also have their ugly sides, both aesthetically and ideologically. Often new communities are soapboxes from which their creators declaim their ideas on good living, ideas to which people’s actual needs are sometimes only problematically adapted. You’ll find such complaints about Prince Charles’ model community at Poundbury in Southwest England, currently Britain’s best-known pet architectural project that is still under construction. Long an ardent and intrusive critic of contemporary architecture, Prince Charles is creating Poundbury on land he owns (as Duke of Cornwall) as a showcase for his belief in traditionally inspired buildings.
Admittedly, the village’s Lilliput Lane-style buildings (including some designed by the prince himself) may not go down as badly with residents as with architecture critics, who have lined up to decry the development. Prince’s Charles’ determination to recreate a vision of Merrie Englande that treats the contemporary as a threat has nonetheless led to some bum notes in the design. These include mugger-friendly alleyways and ubiquitous gravel apparently popular with no one other than local cats. Rather than becoming a tidy new English Jerusalem, Poundbury is merely a new Celebration, Florida, a whimsical toytown whose shine is already fading. With locals complaining that construction is shoddy, their houses already showing cracks, it suggests that the man behind Poundbury let his own aesthetic concerns override an interest in building standards.
Hirst’s built-from-scratch town may turn out to be more artistic exercise than a practical place to live; viewed from that perspective from the get-go, its lack of utility might not be such a big deal. But just as his shark has begun to deteriorate with time, his take on town planning could become a cautionary tale if not approached with the rigor of an urban planner. Should Hirst give the U.K. another Saltaire or Portmeirion, it may end up sealing his legacy for a long time to come. Let’s just hope we don’t get another Poundbury.
Feargus O’Sullivan is a London-based writer on cities. He contributes regularly to Next City, CityLab and The Guardian.