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The Story Behind Livingston’s Landmark Project

The Story Behind Livingston’s Landmark Project

Livingston’s Landmark Project, the design and creation of a large sculpture on a roundabout at each of the four main approach roads to the town is the work of David F. Wilson, an award-winning Perth-based Public Artist. The purpose of the project was to create distinctive, modern landmarks to help people find their way around, as Livingston, designated a new town in 1962, lacked traditional landmarks. The Landmark Project was commissioned in 1995 by the outgoing Livingston Development Corporation. The following year the LDC handed over the management and promotion of the town to West Lothian Council. Today, Livingston is the second largest town in the Lothians with a population of 55,000.

NORgateWilson was selected because his imaginative use of stonework in other projects had impressed the LDC. He graduated with an MA in Public Art and Design in 1987 from Duncan of Jordanston College of Art and Design in Dundee.  Whilst there, he was inspired by the new public artworks appearing in the city and saw for himself the benefits art and artists could have on the community. Since his student days he has completed more than forty public art projects the length and breadth of the UK.  He uses traditional craftsmanship with a modern aesthetic and many of his works, like the Landmark Project, are completed on site. Wilson called the four completed stonework and copper sculptures Compass, NORgate, Chrysalis and Dyke Swarm.

“I’ll always remember the first briefing meeting I had with the client,” Wilson says. “To be offered four such wonderful sites and a decent budget was a great buzz.”
He explains that his brief was pretty open in terms of materials and concepts but there was a desire for the works to try to reflect the old industries of the area, mining for example, but also to allude to the more modern technologies and industries that the area was now famous for. Livingston was one of the original ‘garden’ cities and he wanted to pick up on that also in the work and aimed for the pieces to appear to grow out of their locations. Dean Swift, who was a landscape architect with the LDC at that time, explains the thinking behind the planting on the four roundabouts. “The landscape was designed to be a continuation of the main road landscape theme (each road had a theme of tree species), but carefully arranged so as not to hide the sculptures and, where possible, accentuate them.”

Location, location, location
CompassOne of the key considerations of his planning and design, Wilson feels, was that being on roundabouts they would have to work on a couple of levels. He wanted each design to be of a simple enough form that it was easily ‘readable’ from a distance and at speed but also that it had enough interest in terms of how it was built to stand up to scrutiny if you were able to see it closer up. His intention was that the designs change shape as you move round them, not to be static but to be of interest at every point. Each site was different and how people approached or moved around influenced the work strongly. He felt that a good solution for one wouldn’t necessarily work at another location because each roundabout was of a different size and the main viewpoints differed from site to site. “So to a degree each individual design grew out of its own site,” Wilson says. “And I kept the pallet of materials as a constant to tie the whole scheme together.”

Inspiration

Wilson’s inspiration for the project stemmed from his interest in organic forms and how he finds the symbolism of growth very powerful. The Scottish biologist, socialist, philanthropist and pioneering urban planner, Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932), is a huge influence on Wilson’s work. Geddes talked about the unstoppable life force of nature and the seasons, “Even in the deepest depths of winter, scrape back the top few inches of soil and there you will find buds and new life poised to spring forth.”  Wilson always finds inspiration from this concept, “It’s a very powerful affirmation of life and its continuum after death,” he says. “That idea of renewal seemed very apt to the project and I hope that I have achieved getting that through into the artworks.  Even the NORgate (or archway) at Deer Park roundabout, from certain views it condenses into a bud form. This was very deliberate as, again, I felt that changing the form as you moved around it would create a dynamic that would bring interest to the project.”

This feeling of renewal informs the other sculptures too, Wilson explains.  The Compass sculpture on the Lizzie Brice roundabout with its angled, needle-sharp copper point signifies new life springing forth and the energy of the town thrusting upwards.  The zig-zagging walls and curving stone dyke of the Dyke Swarm which hugs the Newpark roundabout on the west approach road reflects the natural materials of the town, for instance, the bings, and this is mixed with contemporary copper for the town’s new direction. The North Eliburn roundabout sculpture, Chrysalis, illustrates the development from one form into something else, growing and new life emerging.  The copper at the top of this piece adds interest and also links the sculpture to the others in the project.

Construction
The project is remembered vividly by Wilson, “Trying to achieve the tight timescale was very demanding and all four sites had to be worked together.” He had only two weeks for concept design and a further two weeks to finalise and cost the project. Employing a team of men to help, stone masons, drystane dykers and labourers, he feels he must have covered hundreds of miles moving around all the sites keeping everything on track. Over the next month Wilson and his team got approvals and carried out more detailed design so they ended up with four months available to build on site, in Wilson’s words, “A big ask!” However, the project was completed a mere two weeks late, over the winter of 1995-96. Wilson used a limited pallet of materials for the build. This consisted of various types of natural stone – reclaimed dyking stone, whinstone, a yellow limestone, building rubble and copper. Farmers at this time were opening up their fields and there was a surplus of stone from their old dykes.  He arranged the purchase of the dyking stone through a stone merchant as that was the only way he could guarantee the supply in the quantities that he required.  The yellow limestone was sourced from a quarry in England and was used for aesthetics as it gave a good contrast to the whinstone. This can be seen to good effect in the NORgate and Compass artworks.

ChrysalisAsked if it had been a smooth-running project, Wilson says, “Considering the scale of the project and some of the technicalities that it threw up, and the short timescale allowed, I feel it went incredibly well. But I certainly had my bad days!”  He is referring to the installing of the foundations for the soaring, 13 metre high archway, NORgate, on Deer Park roundabout – one of the biggest tasks of the whole project. Wilson had 6 concrete lorries ordered at half hour intervals, a specialist concrete-pumping lorry on hire, and a whole traffic management system in place so that the materials could be got onto the roundabout safely and efficiently.  This had taken an enormous amount of preparation and organising and was a pretty stressful undertaking. It all started to go pear-shaped within the first half hour. The concrete would not pump and nobody could get it working.  There were 3 concrete lorries parked around the roundabout with only a set time to offload or the costs start to spiral. The stress and tempers were rising with one driver marching onto site and berating them all for being ‘incompetents’.  Luckily for Wilson it turned out that the concrete supplier had specified and supplied the wrong grade of material for pumping so he packed everybody up before lunchtime that day and went home early! It was all re-arranged for the following day and went without a hitch.

Of the four artworks, NORgate on Deer Park roundabout is closest to Wilson’s heart because of everything that was involved in making it. From the concept sketch through to how to build it, this was his vision. There were many technical challenges involved in getting it built and he is very proud of the fact that he was able to solve all of them. One structural engineer told him it couldn’t be built!  “NORgate is very visible from the M8 and if the flight path is right you can see it from an aeroplane,  as well as being visible in Google earth,” he says. “Locally it seems to be known as the ‘wishbone’ and most people you speak to know of it.”

Fifteen years on, Wilson can still recall the intensity of the project and feeling drained and deflated when he swept up and walked away at the end. Recently he was asked to give some talks about the project, in Howden Park Centre in Livingston and to a group in Broxburn. He enjoyed seeing how interested local people were in the detailed drawings and plans and getting such positive feedback. “But the whole project,” Wilson remembers , “was such a thrill!”

Dyke Swarm

Copyright © Yvonne MacMillan 2011

First published in Lothian Life, May 2011

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