Art you can Use in London: Kapoor’s Tower and Chetwynd’s Children’s Play Area



Photo 1 (CHETWYND, M., G., (2016), The Idol, [mixed media soft play area and sculpture], Barking Leisure Centre, London. Interior view, photo by Emil Charlaff on the Create Website)

Both artists’ work are situated in East London: Chetwynd’s soft play centre for the Abbey Leisure Centre is in Barking, and Kapoor’s sculpture is in Stratford. Whilst London is a global city with a strong financial centre, East London historically was extremely poor and deprived (Ross: 2007). However, when the works were created Chetwynd’s in2016 and Kapoor’s in 2012, East London was rapidly changing and redeveloping. Artists have been charged with helping to gentrify poor urban communities by rejuvenating squalid warehouses and creating art and art galleries that eventually attract richer people to live and work in the area and eventually displacing poor people (Slater: 2012). Others have argued that gentrification at times can benefit poorer communities by creating more jobs and opportunities for the poor (Sheppard: 2012). This essay will explore the tensions in both. One could argue that both artists work encourage us to view London as a rapidly gentrifying City where the poor are becoming displaced; another view is that those traditionally displaced in urban spaces are gaining a voice.


Photo 2 (CHETWYND, M., G., (2016), The Idol, [mixed media soft play area and sculpture], Barking Leisure Centre, London. Chetwynd in The Idol, interior view, photo by Emil Charlaff on the Create Website

Chetwynd’s soft play sculpture was commissioned by the organisation CREATE – who connect artists more closely with their community. The centre was delivered in partnership with Barking and Dagenham Council with support from the Arts Council of England. One can see how art institutions and local governmental organisations played an active and prominent role in helping the works be realised in poor areas. Indeed CREATE’s purpose is to connect artists to communities in East London specifically. By using an artist to design a soft play area suggests foresight, vision and innovation amongst London governmental organisations and planners. Whilst Barking, a borough in East London, does not connate immediate thoughts of being the most revolutionary and fast-paced borough, by placing and installing the soft play area here suggests that artists are rejuvenating urban spaces – spaces that are previously neglected. According to London Poverty Profile, Barking and Dagenham is one of the poorest boroughs in London: it has the highest unemployment rate of any London borough, a high proportion of private renters claim housing benefit and the borough has the highest level of homelessness in London ( Theorists have argued that space can be infinitely extended and infinitely reduced (Vidler 2000). Poverty can make people feel invisible in urban spaces, they can become unseen, forgotten and unwanted by the government, businesses and the media (Gilderbloom 2008). However designing play centres in government-subsidized gyms encourages parents and children from poorer quintiles to engage with art and design through play. In a video interview with Chetwynd, she discusses how she researched and gathered information from local children and adults that would help inform the soft play area (CREATE 2015). One might consider London – its institutions and artists to be caring, kind and inclusive.

Kapoors sculpture in the Olympic Park encourages us to consider the vast expanse and developments in East London. From the Orbit, one has a 20 mile and 360 degree view over the Olympic Park and the London skyline. The Orbit was constructed to remember the Olympic and Paralympic games of 2012 and is Britains largest sculpture. This could suggest how important the events were in redeveloping East London and bringing the UK together to celebrate athletic glory as well as to value the power and importance of sports and sporting events in our culture. This monument to the Olympics links London to cities and towns in Ancient Greece who would also install monuments and sculptures celebrating their athletes and warriors (Hornblower 2011). The viewer may consider the other legacy of Ancient Greece: democracy and government. Art can be seen in this regard to bolster the power of the political class and highlighting the financial strengths and political stability of democracy.

Chetwynd and Kapoor’s work have a functional element and encourage participation and interaction. Whilst Chetwynd’s soft play area is designed for children, the black and white palette she employs is distinctively sophisticated and grown up. Play has been remodelled for the urban city using colours of the city: black for the smoke, dirt and smog but also of the colours of the office workers. The monochrome palette however is not drab but through the scallop shape patterns and unusual texture from the materials are very child friendly and fulfil their function to stimulate children’s imagination.

Whilst the design appears very sophisticated and grown up, Chetwynd consulted with soft play designers and children to inform the features of her design. She includes areas for ‘very little children… a little area that will have a really cool ball pit. Mouse holes, slides, drop slides, a play area in the shape of a person’ (CREATE video 2016). Photo 1 features the small slide which would be suitable for slightly older children whilst photo 2 shows an area suitable for the younger ones. The sense of play is also achieved in Kapoor’s piece that includes the highest and longest tunnel slide in Europe at 178m. This was created by German artist Carsten Holler at the invitation of Kapoor (see photo 3). The materials are man-made and futuristic: plastic and steel.


Photo 3: HOLLER, C., (2012), Slide in The Orbit (plastic, steel, mixed media), Olympic Park Stratford. Photo from Arcelor Mittal website.


Photo 4: (CHETWYND, M., G., (2016), The Idol, [mixed media soft play area and sculpture], Barking Leisure Centre, London. Exterior view, photo by Emil Charlaff.

The robotic looking sculpture is made with industrial looking silver metals and futuristic lines suggesting his body that extends through several floors. Chetwynd explains in a video produced by CREATE (2014) that she was influenced by ‘the Dagenham Idol, one of the oldest sculptures ever made’ which she has ‘pushed into the 21st century’ to create a ‘robot that meets ancient world so that something that’s from thousands…of years ago gets updated and becomes a funky kind of robot.’

Chetwynd’s sculpture and soft play area has enabled us to imagine London through the perspective of time, history and progress. By re-interpreting the Dagenham Idol, users of the soft play area are reminded of their history. The original Dagenham Idol is a wooden statue of a naked figure found in Dagenham in 1922 but carbon dated to around 2250BC (see Photo 5). Wood as a material symbolises antiquity and more simpler modes of production whilst metals are more befitting to the modern London city.


Photo 5: ARTIST UNKNOWN, (circa 2025BC), The Dagenham Idol, (wood), Valance House Museum Dagenham, London. Photo from

Similarly, it could be argued that Kapoor’s sculpture represents the modern greatness of London through the celebration of steel – a material which is used for modern forms of technology: cars, washing machines and tanks. The Orbit was constructed through 60% of recycled steel (ArcelorOrbit website 2016). This may encourage the viewer to consider London as an environmentally forward thinking City.


Photo 6: Kapoor, A., (2011), untitled sketches [pencil], Kapoor’s studio. Photo found from Kapoor’s website accessed 2016.


Photo 7: Kapoor, A., (2011), untitled experimentation of models of the proposed Orbit, [mixed media: wood, steel, paper], Kapoor’s studio. Photo from Kapoor’s website accessed 2016


Photo 8: (Kapoor, A., and Balmond, C., The Orbit, [steel, bolts, glass, plastic], Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, photograph from Kapoor’s website

The structure of Kapoor’s tower is untraditional and could be considered as modern and innovative in its design (see Photos 6, 7 and 8). Kapoor states in his website that, ‘“I wanted the sensation of instability, something that was continually in movement. Traditionally a tower is pyramid in structure but we have done quite the opposite. We have a flowing, coiling form that changes as you walk around it… It is an object that cannot be perceived as a singlular image, from any one perspective. You need to journeyed around the object and through it. Like a Tower of Babel it requires real participation from the public (Kapoor: 2016).” The strange shape is awkward and this ‘quality of awkwardness will give it life’ according to Kapoor in an interview in the Guardian (2014). Brugel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ (1536) appears to reach to the sky and ‘builds the impossible’ according to Kapoor in the Guardian (2014) (see Photo 9). Towers appear to touch the sky as if to speak to the Gods, buildings serve religious functions in medieval Europe and modern day London.


Photo 9: Bruegel, P., (1536) Tower of Babel, [oil on panel], Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo from the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Kapoor attempts to draw the public in through the use of a single colour: a deep crimson red shade that is used throughout the structure (see photo 8). Kapoor is known for frequently using this colour in previous works. He stated in an interview with John Tusa (201>) that ‘it is the colour of our interior of our bodies. Red is the centre’

Jones states in his article in the Guardian (2012) that the ‘carnally red’ colour reminds him of ‘exposed arteries and organs.’ Sculptures appear like deconstructed humans, exposed and raw in the urban space. Kapoor also notes in an interview in the Guardian (2014) due to the scale of colour one creates a ‘sense of awe…fear…immersed in colour’ and that it has something of the ‘sublime about it’. Again this encourages the reader to view the sculpture in almost a mystical sense. Whether that was achieved is another question. According to the Daily Mail (2012), critics have labelled the piece ‘the Godzilla of public art’ and an ‘eyesore’.

Both artists cater for those who can afford to pay for the access to their art. One could argue that whilst this soft play centre provides much needed unstructured play in a deprived community, the price to enter is prohibitive for poorer users. At roughly £8-£9, the costs of using this centre would benefit the middle quintiles of society and alienate the poorer ones. According to ‘Design for Play’ brochure (2008), ‘play helps to shape childrens well-being, safety, learning and social development’. If poorer children do not have access to this, they will lag behind their more wealthy counterparts which has social repercussions. Design for Play (2008) also discusses how parents and children can feel alienated in the urban space but how play spaces have ‘important social value for parents and carers of young children’ as ‘they are places to meet and take away pressures of individual childcare responsibilities.’ The more ‘social networks there are in a community, the greater the confidence parents have of safety’. One could argue by creating an expensive soft play area, children and families from the poorer quintiles are excluded and have fewer networks than richer families.

Similarly, whilst the Orbit can be viewed from the ground for free, the cost for going up the Tower and using the slide are expensive: £15 for an adult. This may prevent people from the poorest quintiles from being able to participate fully in this piece.

This essay has explored the way artists have attempted to interact with the urban space to enable us to see cities differently. Whilst this essay proposes various ways in which people may see the city in a new light as a result of the art-works, to further validate the claims made it would be interesting to conduct some qualitative interviews with a range of people from different backgrounds to gain their perspective on the art pieces and how it makes them think of London.



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