Look back @ the Big 4
7:47:34 13 April 2023
51.4959° N, 0.1328° W
We’re 20 years old this year. As a way of celebrating what went before and marking the start of what’s to come, we’ll be writing a series of ‘Look Back @’ articles. First up, The Big 4.
If you’re a Londoner, or watch a great deal of British television, or are interested in the always ambivalent relationship between brands and artists, then you’ll know that the Big 4 – a 16-metre tall ‘4’ sculpture that serves as ongoing ‘gallery’ space for art installations – has stood in the front of Channel 4’s headquarters for the past 15 years. Given that its installation marked Channel 4’s twenty-fifth birthday, I thought it almost appropriate that we begin our modest we’re-20 years-old Look Back @ series with the story of how it all came to be.
When Charlotte Boyens (my wife and co-founder of FreeState) and I used to drive in a then childfree and more leisurely fashion to north Wales to visit her parents, we’d make a point of going out of our way to view the wonderful giant hay-bale sculptures by an unknown farmer-artist. One year, knocked out by his ten-metre-tall homage to the recently built London Eye, we began to noodle on the possibility of creating something similar in London. Only, rather than a public or private body commissioning an artist to create a work that served as that body’s brand asset or some such, we were fascinated by the possibility of a brand creating a work that was somehow both completed by and served as advertising space for the artist(s).
Scouting about for someone to approach, it didn’t take too long for us to settle on Channel 4, a station still close – despite having lost its way in recent years – to our hearts. I’d like to say that we already knew of its plans for The Big Art Project, but I think I’d be making that bit up. Nevertheless, we knew that Channel 4 was investing in arts-and-culture-based programming, which was inspiration enough for Charlotte to create a maquette of a ‘4’ that could only be recognised as such from a specific vantage point. We delivered it – by bicycle, in a shoe box, with an accompanying note – to the station’s head of marketing, Rufus Radcliffe.
Amazingly, Radcliffe not only called and met with us, but commissioned the feasibility study designed to persuade a reasonably sceptical Channel 4 board that installing a giant anamorphic sculpture – wrapped via lenticular panelling in an artist’s work – in front of their prized Richard Rogers-designed headquarters was a fantastic idea. It wasn’t an easy sell, with Rogers especially concerned.* Nevertheless, persuaded by the heavyweight engineering and fabricating knowhow of Atelier 1 and Mike Smith Studio respectively, and loving the chutzpah of an idea that imagined the eventual unveiling of the Big 4 as the unwrapping of Channel 4’s main 25th birthday present, the station’s then deputy Chairman film director David Puttnam carried the day.
As well as perfectly true, this is also a long story, so I’ll be quick and try not to rake too heavily over ground already well explored. Three points to finish: One, it was a hellishly difficult project from an engineering perspective. Aran Chadwick (Atelier One) described it’s ‘bastardised arch that has a keystone’ as ‘200% more difficult’ than expected. Mike Smith’s on record as saying it was at the time the most complex project they’ve worked on. And when installing the piece (on a live site, above a working studio), I remember the crane operator being certain that it wouldn’t stand, such was the complexity of its physics. My heart made a home of my mouth across that weekend.
Two, the Big 4 may have begun life supercharged by the halo-effect of having fashion photographer Nick Knight’s magnificent Heart series as its first work, but it has, as hoped for, gone on to feature the work of both the known and the unknown, including Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, sculptor El Anatsui, art graduate Stephanie Imbeau, fashion graduate Hannah Gourlay, and sculptor and disability rights activist Tony Heatons. Ensuring that the Big Four would champion a range of artists – from a range of disciplines and backgrounds interested in a range of issues – was critical to the concept and one of the immutable baselines for any decision making.
Three, I love how the Big Four sees the continued convergence of public and private interest. Just getting it off the ground and up required the coming together of Channel 4, Westminster Council, the Arts Council, the Tate, and White Cube gallery. And that’s just the organisations directly involved in the creation and maintenance of the space. What I love even more is the fact that it has been adopted by the wider community as a mark of London, so much so that it is now included in tourist tours, its design and meaning a point of cultural pride. We have a great deal to thank that unknown farmer-artist for.
FreeState continues to work on public landmark installations. If this interests or you have a project pending, do drop us a line. We love a good design-and-install chat!
*A perfectly natural concern, given the position of the work. Interesting to note, however, that the Channel 4 HQ has recently been listed as a Grade II building, with questions as to what that means for any prospective alterations to the Big 4.
All Big 4 photographs © Tom Powell, courtesy Channel 4. All other images © FreeState