Imagine an artwork that you can not only look at, but walk over, cycle round, stand on top of, admire from above, below and all sides.
One that can be trodden down, gets muddy, smells, crunches and ripples. One that is so big, that you can only get the full feel of the work by spending time interacting with it in all these different ways. One that allows you to view the surrounding landscape yet at the same time, lets you feel connected to it.
Welcome to Northumberlandia, affectionately termed “The Lady of the North” at Cramlington, just north of Newcastle. It is the creation of Charles Jencks and was opened to the public in 2012. Jenck’s calls his work “land forming”. It is a welcome hybrid of sculpture, architecture, literature and gardening all rolled into one massive interactive artwork.
Much of Jenck’s is work is more manicured with mown grass than Northumberlandia. The Lady of the North is definitely rugged and at times quite muddy. You feel like it’s a work in progress and all the imperfections are a welcome reminder than no human form is ever perfect.
When you first approach The Lady of the North, you also get a reminder of the local Cheviot hills. The viewing platform provides this. It also helps you appreciate the scale of the landform. There’s 4 miles of pathways and tracks and it is set within a 46 acre community park. That’s a good introduction to hill running for any joggers!
For me, it was like a large-scale labyrinth. The sort of place you can walk for a long time simply contemplating, thinking and allowing me to have time in my space, my world. Most labyrinths are tidy affairs that have been squashed into a tight space. The expansiveness of Northumberlandia allows for expansive broad thoughts. I would love to take a class here and then simply record their feelings, comments and questions about the place afterwards.
At the head, chest, hip and knee, there are viewpoints and resting places. I rather liked these sweeping forms which feel friendly. They match the curves and sweeps of the whole landform. Children will like climbing on them!
To see how the landform has been created, it is best to have a look at the series of videos on the Education Scotland website about another of Jenck’s current projects: Fife Earth. This is also a reclaimed open cast mine and so the process is similar. What is incredible is that from the top of Northumberlandia you can see the local Shotton Surface mine in operation. It’s a somewhat unexpected feature.
So what has this got to do with a school that isn’t within travelling distance of this public work of art?
Firstly, I think Northumberlandia shows how a space can become a landform. When developing school grounds, using design processes and taking the time to reflect upon a holistic approach can significantly add to the value and beauty of an outdoor space. Do not rush the design stage. Take time to be creative and innovative. Spend money working with a landscape designer or architect, especially one who will work with children, and take time to observe their use and behaviour in an outdoor space, may help. Jenck’s is unusual for a designer and architect in that he spends a lot of time writing about his ideas beforehand and developing a narrative. He goes beyond traditional maps and diagrams.
The sweeping curved pathways of this landform remind me of the importance of the layout and network of paths in any outdoors space. If you are deciding on a major revamp, then paying attention to the pathways helps. Remember to account for people’s natural desire for shortcuts!
Quite a lot of the paths on The Lady have a gravel “interchange” at the sides of the path between the grit and the grass. I rather like this boundary feature. There’s something very liminal about it. You may wish to have other types of path boundaries which add interest. A great example of interesting paths can be seen at the Kate Greenaway Nursery.
The landform highlights the value of creating height. So often school grounds are flat spaces. In my experience children love height – even tellytubby hills, ripples or undulations. When digging down to create a pond or when building work is being done, request that the material is re-used on-site to create little landforms.
Finally all of Jenck’s work has attention to content. He is particularly creative at representing scientific processes and ideas through landforms. When developing outdoor spaces, how can we take this idea too? Even the mounds at their simplest can represent snails and snakes! Jenck’s also takes time to consult and involve a wide range of specialists who can advise him on different aspects of his projects. So they are very much collaborations of many minds.
Northumberlandia is intended to be a rugged, living landform. It will be fascinating to see how it “grows” and develops through time as plant species and animal life migrate here, people adding wear and tear, life in the little lakes, etc. When thinking about school grounds, we need to think of them as living places which will change and grow. Planning which takes account of this, matters. Places need to grow in people’s imaginations too…