The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Concern over threat to setting as Angel of the North is turned down for listing

Photo © Duncan Herring

The Twentieth Century Society is dismayed that its application to list the Angel of North has been turned down by Historic England, warning that the reasoning behind the decision could have dangerous repercussions for many structures and buildings of all ages.

C20 moved to safeguard the Angel of the North as fears grew that the widening of the A1 (M) will have a damaging impact on views of Sir Antony Gormley’s iconic site-specific statue.

C20 Director Catherine Croft said “We had an almost instantaneous rejection from Historic England which we are concerned about as we thought it was a very strong contender for listing—many statues and works of public art are protected in this way even though they are not strictly speaking “buildings” as there is no alternative method available.  However, if a building or sculpture under 30 years old is to be taken forward by HE, it has to be both outstanding and under threat, and we were told that a threat to the setting alone (as opposed to demolition of the structure itself) was not enough to trigger a full listing assessment on their part.  We appreciate that with limited staff resources they need to prioritise, but once key views are blocked there is often no going back.  It’s not just sculptures which are vulnerable in this way, it means that however fantastic a building might be, it won’t be possible to get it listed if a massive new development is proposed right next door.”

C20 Society caseworker Joe Mathieson who submitted the listing application said:  “In seeking listing for the Angel of the North we wanted to underline its importance as an icon not only of the North East, but of the UK as a whole. Alongside Sir Antony Gormley himself, we are worried about what the A1 motorway development will do to views of this impressive sculpture, and hope that Highways England modifies their scheme to lessen the detrimental impact.”

In January the government approved a £250m project to ease congestion on the A1, involving the widening of the Birtley to Coal House stretch of road in Gateshead adjacent to the statue. The addition of an extra lane to both northbound and southbound roads, as well as the erection of very large signage gantries across them (1.5 times wider than the Angel’s enormous wingspan), will disrupt views of the sculpture from the A1.

In 2015, Sir Antony expressed concern that trees were blocking views of the sculpture, but this latest development poses a much more serious threat damaging key views throughout the seasons. It was always intended to be a landmark sculpture, signalling to thousands of motorists approaching on the A1(M) that they had arrived at  – or were passing – Gateshead.

The Angel of the North is now widely regarded as an icon of the North East, and also of England and the UK as a whole. In 2008 it topped a national poll as the UK’s most recognisable landmark in a National Lottery poll, and it vied with other ‘wonders of Britain’ (such as Big Ben and Stonehenge) in a national survey of 2002. It has won numerous awards, including the 1999 South Bank Show Award for Visual Arts, and the Civic Trust Award in 2000. It is also credited with having put Gateshead ‘on the map’, facilitating the establishment of significant cultural institutions in the town, including Sage Gateshead and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

An interesting and under appreciated feature of the Angel is that its wings are angled forward by 3.5 degrees to give the impression of an extremely subtle embrace. Facing the A1, this can be construed as a welcoming gesture to people driving into Gateshead from the south, and also people entering Newcastle on the train from Chester-le-Street or Durham, where it is also briefly visible.

It stands on the former Teams Colliery, which had worked on the site from the 1720s until the 1960s, when it was decommissioned. In 1990 the site was earmarked for a future landmark sculpture and wholesale landscaping was finished two years later. This was part of Gateshead Council’s attempts to procure public art since the early 1980s due to its then lack of a contemporary art gallery. By 1994 Sir Antony Gormley was chosen from a shortlist drawn up the previous year, and his design proposals were combined with the efforts of the engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners.

In 1995 planning permission was granted for the project, and by 1996 the significant sum of £800,000 had been secured for the sculpture. Most of this came from Arts Council England (£584,000), followed by the EU’s European Regional Development Fund (£150,000) and Northern Arts (£45,000), with the rest taken up by private sponsorship. By early 1998 the Angel of the North was complete.

While the Angel of the North is Britain’s largest sculpture, it is relatively slender in cross section throughout most of its height. The chief engineering challenge was creating a sculpture which could withstand high speed winds while maintaining such an expansive wingspan and a comparatively narrow base. A senior Arup engineer conveyed the problem thus: ‘if you or I were standing on top of a hill in a howling gale, we wouldn’t be standing with our feet close together, vertically upright with our arms stuck out.’

Sir Antony was closely involved in the stages of engineering, which necessitated the construction of virtual 3D models of a scaled-up Angel to see what could realistically stand. There were initially worries that no company could make the actual Angel within the allotted budget. The main problem was that steel thick enough to take the sculpture’s weight while also staying upright could not easily be bent into the desired shape. Eventually, Hartlepool Steel Fabrications devised a cost-efficient solution that would maintain the envisioned dimensions.

Their solution was to build a steel central core, cover it with a thinner outer ‘skin’ and add strengthening ribs made from the same material as the core. The metal used was ‘COR-TEN’, a trademarked weather-resistant alloy of steel and copper that develops a rusty patina after exposure to the weather. While qualitatively different from the simpler metal casts of Gormley’s other work, the Angel’s structural and materialistic techniques preserve the scale and spirit of his overall vision. The wingspan is 54 metres while the sculpture’s height is 20.

The sculpture has substantial foundations of around 600 tonnes of concrete extending below the ground 20 metres, as tall as the Angel. Amusingly, an Arup engineer noted that this task was, by comparison to the logistics of Hartlepool Steel Fabrications, ‘child’s play.’ The durable structure of the Angel is testament to the ingenuity of a local steelworks, proving the relevance of North Eastern industrial firms to an otherwise post-industrial economy, and no doubt underlining the symbolic importance of this monument.

Sir Antony is an influential British sculptor well known for his preoccupation with the human form. While his most famous work is arguably the Angel of the North, much of his oeuvre consists of metal casts of his own body placed in unusual and unexpected locations across cities and landscapes. This was most obviously demonstrated in his large-scale installation Event Horizon, premiered in London in 2007 and later shown in New York, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong.

He has received numerous commendations for his work, including the Turner Prize in 1994, and the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture in 2015. He has been a Royal Academician since 2003 and is formerly a trustee of the British Museum. He collaborated with architect David Chipperfield on a pavilion in Sweden in 2008. Most recently Gormley has launched an ambitious project to display and celebrate art during the COVID lockdown, called ‘The Great Big Art Exhibition’.

C20 would like to give special thanks to Duncan Herring for the use of his photograph.