With the future of the Antepavilion in the balance, organizers move ahead

Art Or Architecture?

With the future of the Antepavilion in the balance, organizers move ahead

Antechamber by Nima Sardar was recently installed on a roof at Hoxton Docks (Courtesy Antepavilion)

Hoxton Docks, the East London site of the annual Antepavilion arts competition, has been mired in a legal battle since 2019 that has now reached its next round.

The case began with a planning enforcement notice filed by the Hackney Council opposing the installation of four structures on the site. This was followed by a subsequent injunction against the installation of the 2020 Antepavilion winner, SHARKS!. Russell Gray of Shiva, which sponsors the Antepavilion pavilion competition, has appealed against the notices and injunction, taking up the subsequent ‘Hackney Fight’.

The site was also recently subjected to a police raid last summer that saw Gray and his son arrested. The raid, while unrelated to the ongoing legal case, was conducted in response to the construction of All Along the Watchtower, one of the winners of the 2021 competition; London police claimed the structure was similar to the bamboo towers erected by climate activists Extinction Rebellion in their picketing of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK.

In January 2022, the Planning Inspectorate issued their decision on the two appeals (A and B) filed for the Hoxton Docks site, with mixed results.

Appeal A succeeded in part, granting permission for the installation of a platform and decking at roof level. But Planning Inspector Luke Perkins otherwise upheld the notice with corrections and a variation, refusing to grant planning permission for four structures and fencing on the roof, stating in the report that these did not constitute permitted development as argued by the appellant, Gray.

In response to the decision, a Council spokesperson said: “The Planning Inspector’s recent decision is a vindication of the Council’s overall enforcement approach at Hoxton Docks, with the verdict endorsing our position that the rooftop structures required planning permission and had a harmful impact on both the character and appearance of the conservation area and the amenities of towpath users.”

Singing sharks in the middle of a london canal for Antepavilion
SHARKS!, the 2020 winning pavilion, was eventually relocated to the City Road Basin. (Courtesy Antepavilion)

An obvious comparison could be made to other temporary pavilions and sculptural installations in London, like the Serpentine Pavilion and Frieze Sculpture, which also operate on an annual cycle and do regularly apply for planning permission.  But Gray argued that these are cases of going through the motions, with a nod and a wink. “Westminster aren’t going to tell them they can’t do it, they basically have an open cheque,” he told AN.

Perkins upheld the U.K. Government’s view that large-scale outdoor installations should require planning approval and argued that as the roof installations under review have been there for some time, they cannot be considered temporary. Moreover, the particularities of the site’s context–an urban environment that also happens to be a conservation area within view of three listed buildings–means the local authority, Perkins argued, should have oversight of large-scale installations, however temporary.

The council is taking a proactive approach to public art within the large borough, with a Culture and Arts strategy in place that has produced the 2021 installation of the UK’s first permanent public artworks celebrating the Windrush Generation. Achieving the ‘sculpture garden type’ permission which Gray argued for in the appeal is not unfeasible but would require a collaborative approach from both Gray and Hackney Council moving forward.

Appeal B succeeded in full, granting permission for the site to operate a mix of uses, including that of displaying art installations, though conditions of the permission limit the premise’s hours of operation, restrict performances and screenings to indoor activities only with no canal-side visibility, and require that the residences on site (located on the first floor) are soundproofed within 13 months of the decision.

Following the decision, both Hackney Council and Gray have “agreed to an adjournment of both proceedings and vacation of the combined hearing in March 2022” with regards to the Judicial Review of the Stop Notice (to cease display of art installations on the site).

The ongoing legal battle between Antepavilion and Hackney Council, which since September 2020 has centered on an injunction against the Sharks! installation, was due to be concluded in a hearing in early February but may also be called off after the recent planning decision. In the meantime, Gray has installed a solitary shark in the water, saying, “we have raised the question as to whether a floating, moored shark in the canal is ‘development’ or art.”

Hackney Council noted, “We are now considering what the detail of the verdict means for art installations on the canal itself.” It said it looks forward “to constructive engagement with the site owner with respect to any future plans for the building.”

Yet weeks after the decision, Gray bemoaned, “We are still in limbo–Hackney Council are either being deliberately obstructive or bureaucratically incompetent.” Gray has said future competitions are now on hold indefinitely, as requiring permission for each shortlisted entry would be incompatible with the competition’s timescale.

“You could say the system simply doesn’t allow us to do it, under a threat and refusal from the council,” Gray told AN, “You could say they are completely powerless to prevent it, so we’ve won hands down. You could say we’ve got carte blanche as the planning system couldn’t defeat it in time.”

Gray seems to be plowing on. On February 27, Antepavilion installed Antechamber by Nima Sardar, a collapsible camera obscura, on the roof of the site, an act that will no doubt raise further objections from Hackney Council, even as the dust settles on previous rooftop battles.

Gray’s recent installation of Antechamber and Sharks! pointedly challenges the definition of what constitutes art or architecture in the planning system. Three criteria often used to define the latter, size, permanence, and attachment.

Neither piece attaches directly to the existing building—Antechamber sits on a platform on its own weight and Sharks! on a floating platoon. Size is a subjective measure, as Antechamber collapses and expands depending on it use and the scale of Sharks! reflects their biological counterparts. And, Gray said, all Antepavilions are temporary, and both pieces “will be put on display until such at time there is something new in the pipeline to replace them.”

“Hackney Council are sitting on their hands and refusing to commit as to whether Antepavlion is art or architecture,” Gray added. Hackney Council did not reply when asked for comment.

More than two years into the debate, the question remains officially unanswered.