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Engineering a world-famous art installation

04 September 2019

Coastal engineering specialist Alan Williams reveals the engineering and environmental challenges behind Sir Antony Gormley’s iconic, sea-based sculptures, Another Place.

Engineering a world-famous art installation
Installing the Antony Gormley statues on Crosby Beach

In late 2004, having worked as an independent coastal engineer for about five years, I received a request from one of my clients, Sefton Council, asking if I could attend a meeting about some proposed works on the beach at Crosby, near Liverpool.

The meeting was with renowned sculptor Antony Gormley, now Sir Antony for services to the arts, together with representatives from Liverpool Biennial, Sefton Council and South Sefton Partnership. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether his famous artwork “Another Place”, comprising 100 life-size, cast iron statues of the artist, could be installed on the foreshore.

The installation would form part of the next Liverpool Biennial Art Festival in 2006.

Following a walkover of the site and discussions about the opportunities and constraints associated with the installation, Sir Anthony was suitably impressed enough to agree that Crosby beach would be a suitable location, saying: “I loved the way the statues would take their place so well amongst the great drainage outflow pipes, the estuary and the passing ships. Here is a beach where art and life intermingled, where questions would naturally arise of who we are, where do we come from and where are we going?”

The artwork had originally been installed on beaches in Cuxhaven, north Germany in 1997, in Stavanger, Norway in 1998 and at Le Panne on the Belgium coast in 2003. These beaches were relatively flat and gently sloping, with tidal ranges of approximately 5m.

At Crosby, there’s a tidal range of up to 10m and the beach is categorised by a series of shallow peaks and troughs (ridges and runnels) in the beach running generally parallel to the coast. Their occurrence on the beach at Crosby was a key factor in consideration of statue locations and foundation details.

In addition, Crosby Beach is of significant environmental importance being internationally designated as part of a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area for Birds and a Ramsar site. It’s also a nationally designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Getting planning and other permissions

Antony Gormley, Sorcha Carey (Liverpool Biennial) and Alan Williams
Antony Gormley, Sorcha Carey (Liverpool Biennial) and Alan Williams

Developing the project was similar in many ways to the procedure for any coastal project.

Before the installation could take place the necessary approvals – planning permission, marine consents etc. had to be obtained. To do this, it had to be demonstrated that the installation would not have an adverse impact on the environment or the integrity of the adjacent coastal defences. The Marine Licence form even had a project category of “Sculpture, statues, fountains etc”.

Also, there were potential health and safety risks associated with the installation that had to be managed, particularly arising from areas of soft sand and mud and some of the statues being buried at high water, when they would be invisible to craft using the area e.g. jet skis.

Artist’s requirements

Crosby Beach
Crosby Beach

Designing the installation at Crosby had to consider the artist’s requirements, the specific process and environmental conditions and the associated H&S issues.

Antony Gormley had specific requirements associated with the installation, specifically that there should be a horizontal plane through the heads of the statues.

Previous installations were on wide, shallow-gradient beaches and the statues became progressively buried moving towards the shoreline. At Crosby, this wasn’t possible due to the relatively narrow inter–tidal zone and high tidal range, so a sloping plane was adopted.

In addition, all statues had to face in exactly the same direction.

Locating the statues over a 4km-long by 1km-wide foreshore, where the beach profile wasn’t uniform and movement of sediments could cause changes in beach level of up to a metre typically over a season, where there were some areas where ground conditions were unsuitable and where primary bird feeding areas had to be avoided, required a number of iterations with the artist to come up with an acceptable arrangement.

Also, to make sure that emergency services and other waterborne craft could safely navigate through the statues when they were submerged by the tide, a series of access corridors were incorporated within the statue array.

The necessary process, environmental impact, habitats regulation and safety reports were produced in double-quick time and planning permission was granted in April 2005 for the artwork to be installed for a period of 18 months, commencing in June 2005.

How the statues were installed

The installation detail for the statues comprised the statues being connected to a circular steel pile foundation with a horizontal top plate that was rotated into the beach using a tracked drilling rig usually used for drilling wells.

Each statue had two trapezoidal metal plates bolted to the base of each foot, with each plate then welded to the top plate of the pile. On previous installations, the length of the piled foundation was 2m, but given the variable beach conditions, this was lengthened for the Crosby installation.

The artwork was installed over a three-week period with the locations and level of the statues determined from beach surveys and GPS location. In addition to the statues, a series of navigation marker posts were erected around the boundary of the installation, warning water users to keep out, and markers were put in at the ends of the emergency access corridors.

Once the installation was completed, discussions took place between Antony Gormley and Sefton Council, who were keen to keep the artwork in Merseyside longer than the original 18-month period. One of the drivers for this was Liverpool being the European Capital of Culture in 2008.

In March 2007, planning approval and marine consents were obtained for a permanent installation to remain at Crosby.

A number of modifications were made, with 16 statues being relocated away from the northern end of the installation, primarily due to increased hazards associated with soft sands and mud in this area, new permanent navigation, and access route markers were also installed.

And so things remained with “Another Place” attracting many visitors to the area who enjoyed and interacted with the artwork, as Antony Gormley intended.

Maintaining the sculptures

In 2018, five of the statues were found to be leaning due to corrosion of the pile support. Only intended to be on the beach for 18 months, these piles had reached the end of the life and needed replacing. There was no specific pattern to the pile failures and many of the piles remain in good condition.

There are, however, plans for major renovation to be undertaken in the near future.

Although my career as a civil engineer has primarily involved managing the risk to coastal communities and infrastructure from flooding and erosion, involvement in a project like “Another Place” was extremely enjoyable and fulfilling. I met different and interesting people. Who says that engineers don’t have an artistic side?

  • Alan Williams, Managing Director at Coastal Engineering UK Ltd at Coastal Engineering UK Ltd