From eccentric prodigy championed by Charles Saatchi to Establishment success story, the sculptor Conrad Shawcross has come a long way… Yet though he is about to unveil his biggest project to date, he is still a rebel at heart. By Alastair Sooke.
Earlier this year, the British sculptor Conrad Shawcross – the youngest member of the Royal Academy of Arts – stepped on to a stage at Central Saint Martins art school in King’s Cross, and began to talk.
His dark brown hair hadn’t been brushed for the occasion, and he was wearing a scruffy jacket with a wide, curiously old-fashioned collar. If he had been standing in an atelier in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, he wouldn’t have looked out of place.
‘Um, hello,’ he said abruptly, seeming intense, gauche and charismatic, all at once. ‘Today, I’m going to talk about the most challenging commission I’ve done to date. But probably the most rewarding.’
Shawcross, 39, was referring to the largest public project he has ever undertaken. A few weeks after delivering his talk, he showed me around the site of the commission, on the Greenwich Peninsula in south-east London.
In order to get close, we had to wear hard hats and steel-toed boots. This was because Shawcross’s latest work – which is called ‘The Optic Cloak’ and will be launched on Wednesday – isn’t a sculpture, but a piece of architecture: a monumental metal structure, 160ft high, designed to conceal the flues of a new £18 million energy centre that will heat 15,000 homes and businesses.
When Greenwich’s council considered the proposal for the plant, it was faced with a conundrum. Since the plant was going to sit beside an important, traffic-choked tributary to the Blackwall Tunnel, which runs beneath the River Thames, its flues had to be tall, lest they exacerbate air quality in an area already blighted by pollution.
At the same time, Shawcross explained, the council feared that towering flues would be an eyesore – so the developer proposed boxing them in with 570 tons of steel. This bulky, ugly plan was ditched after another property developer, Knight Dragon, took over the scheme to regenerate the peninsula.
At this point, two and a half years ago, Shawcross won a competition to find an artist to transform the appearance of the flues. His innovative bid proposed surrounding them with a 4mm-thick ‘skin’ of perforated aluminium, consisting of many triangular panels tessellated at different angles.
The idea was that the skin’s pleated surface, created by the interlocking triangles, would appear to ripple in the peripheral vision of passing motorists. Shawcross said he was inspired by the‘dazzle camouflage’ used on ships during the First World War, as well as the eye-bending jagged shapes found in modernist paintings by the British artist David Bomberg.