Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Peter Clegg discusses the gradual transformation of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, from defunct college grounds to internationally renowned arts institution

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The Beginnings

My connections with YSP go right back to my childhood when my father, as Head of Education in the West Riding, got the council to buy Bretton Hall Estate (for the princely sum of £11000) to use as a teacher training facility.(1) *It was during the post war baby boom and there was a great shortage of teachers so Local Authorities were left to create their own training facilities. Bretton Hall became one of the most exciting Colleges of Education in the country with a focus on Music, Arts and Drama. Peter Murray taught sculpture there, in the countryside that inspired Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and built a collection of sculptures within the historic parks and gardens that surrounded the eighteenth century mansion.

So I knew of the park and its reputation and of Peter’s sense of ambition, and when I visited it in early 1991 he asked me whether there was any way I could help him to design and build a building within three months to house an exhibition of Anthony Caro’s “The Trojan Wars”.  It seems a ludicrous idea now, but we always liked challenges, and over the next weekend I drew up a scheme for a simple tented structure over a timber clad box and sent a sketch drawing to engineer Neil Thomas, then at the beginning of his career producing instant stage sets for the likes of U2.

Neil  confirmed it would work and began to assemble quotes from steel fabricators. We talked to planners  the following week and to a contractor who happened to be working on site.  To cut a short story very short we had completed a 200m2 building ready for the Caro exhibition in thirteen weeks from commission.
(2)* It was the first indoor exhibition space the YSP owned and, thanks to some calculated oversight of the temporary planning consent by Wakefield District Council, it lasted 9 years until we built the Underground Gallery to replace it.

The conversion of a series of cart sheds behind the glorious semi-circular bothy garden wall provided our second project. The exercise was essentially to repair and consolidate the wall which was leaning back dangerously and gradually moving downhill. Instead of demolishing it and rebuilding, (as suggested by English Heritage), we worked out a way of buttressing it and creating a series of 2m2, exhibition spaces. Perhaps the smallest public gallery in the world, certainly it must be the only gallery space that is both curved in plan and sloping in section.(3) *It was simply a question of seizing the opportunity provided by circumstances to create a unique “found space”.

We went on to develop a masterplan for the whole estate. A new entrance road and car park, a visitor centre and a new gallery that is buried under the old kitchen garden so that the splendid view from the top of the circular walled enclosure is maintained. We obtained planning permission for James Turrell’s Sky Space in the old park deer shelter and helped convert the old Kennel block into an education centre. Our philosophy has always been to work with the site and the circumstances, creating a gradual transformation from the now, sadly, defunct college grounds to an internationally renowned arts institution.

A Pencil Line In The Landscape*

Bretton has a history of extraordinary architecture. Firstly the John Carr Mansion and its stable building dating from the 1750s helped by Capability Brown and more miles of Ha-Ha than anywhere else in the country, the mansion became seamlessly integrated into its parkland setting. In the 19th century they turned their attentions inwards constructing formal gardens and a series of extraordinary glasshouses of which the Camellia House is the only survivor.  Our new buildings were designed to enhance both these phases of landscape design and to keep our interventions relatively simple and classical. Both new buildings are exercises in linearity, scribing as Peter has suggested, a thin pencil line in the 600 hectare landscape which links the formal garden to the park.(4) The visitor centre cuts a vertical line through a woodland belt that has grown up on each side of the Ha-Ha, so it acts as a bridge between the 19th century formal gardens on one side and the deer park on the other.  It forms a literal bridge across the Ha-Ha itself which was restored when we built the building. It is a building that also provides belvedere views as it protrudes out of the woodland each end, but also engages with the woodland that provides shading and enclosure. We had to tie the branches of the oak trees back in order to construct the building.

The new  gallery follows the linear pattern but it becomes a horizontal slice into the slope of the walled bothy garden reordering the landscape so that the roof of the building forms one site for sculpture and the space outside the gallery bounded by a glorious old yew hedge provides another backdrop.(5)

Peter Murray has made his name and the success of the YSP by discovering sites for sculpture and by working with the best contemporary artists, but the landscape was there first and it is not often that one has such an extraordinary canvas to work with. The temptation for us was always there to create more built sculpture, but our buildings tend to gently divide up the space rather than intrude upon it, using form to create space rather than form in and of itself.

The interstitial spaces

The “concourse” spaces in each building, the interstitial spaces that conjoin and separate landscape and buildings, have become some of the most dramatic and intriguing opportunities for exhibition. In both the Visitor Centre and the Underground Gallery the concourses are open to the landscape to the south and to enclosed spaces to the north. In the Visitor Centre the concourse has housed dramatic displays of Noguchi paper lampshades and Bill Flynns “drawings” on the outer glass wall.(6) Alcoves in the thick wall to the north provide further specific display spaces en route. The woodland it looks out into becomes a “bosky” gallery in its own right, currently housing a sculpted glass monolith by Ursula von Rydingsvard.

The concourse in the Underground Gallery by contrast opens up to a more “urban” courtyard bounded by an ancient yew hedge which has provided space to exhibit parallel displays both inside and outside the building. The linearity of this space has inspired artists such as Jaume Plensa who created a curtain of stainless steel hanging letters for 50 meters down its length:  a kind of walk through poetry.(7) *Plensa was the first artist to use the roof of the gallery as it has always been intended: his two gigantic transparent heads are absorbed into the backdrop of the landscape beyond.(8)*

The Underground Gallery itself could not be simpler. We wanted a series of clearly defined square rooms (sometimes two are conjoined into a double chamber in the centre) which have light from two sides. Sunlight bounces in off the concourse floor and through a rooflight at the back of the space where it bounces off the wall at the back of each room. The spaces work really well in terms of diffusing daylight, to the extent that when Andy Goldsworthy installed a major retrospective exhibition where he removed all the artificial light fittings.(9) There can be no better homage to the success of a natural lighting scheme!  Time and again we have received compliments from the sculptors who have displayed there that they really enjoy the simplicity of the spaces.

Museum of the year 2014

When at last the YSP was awarded “Museum of the Year” status earlier this year it was really in recognition of the global significance of the project.  There are sculpture parks across the world which have their own characteristics, and often derive from personal collections.  Louisiana in Denmark is small and exquisite, Storm King in New York is big and bold.  Hakone in Japan is much visited and overcrowded. They all claim global status but none has the capacity and indeed the variety of landscape spaces to run such a vibrant programme of temporary exhibitions alongside a valuable permanent collection.  And as this year also saw the YSP awarded its third RIBA award for Adam Kahn’s delightfully restrained enclosure for Roger Hiorn’s “Seizure” (10), this is also a place where one can celebrate the symbiosis between architecture, sculpture and landscape.  Next year’s major retrospective of the late Antony Caro, who described some of his larger works as “Sculpitecture” (11) will only reinforce the continuum of the idea. Sculpture in the landscape (as opposed to the streetscape or gallery) is very much a 20th century construct, but the designed  arrangement  of buildings and gardens  from 18th century Arcadia to 19th century formality was in itself  grand sculptural architecture. We hope that our interventions will add to the opportunities for new sculptural intervention and continue the process of interlayering nature and architecture.   

Peter Clegg



Sir Anthony Caro Millbank Steps image 11 © Barford Sculpture, courtesy New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park