When it comes to public art, there are two schools of thought: ‘plonk art’, where you plonk down a slab by a big-name artist, and a more local, integrated approach. Tarek Merlin offers a few lessons on both methods

We have just appointed a lead artist on a mixed-use residential scheme I am working on. His role will be to help implement a public art strategy, part of a wider public realm design. During the interview process, it was never far from our minds that we were essentially making a subjective decision about art on behalf of the client, the other architects involved and the public. Get it wrong and the relationship between the art, the public realm and the architecture would fail.

While we were conducting interviews, I was ruminating over a few questions of my own. First, what the hell is the public realm? It’s become a very overworked term; isn’t it just landscape design? Oh no, that term is so derided by the new public realm designers that it is destined to languish in the gardens of home makeovers in Islington, suitable only in reference to the layout of bamboo planters at the end of Grand Designs. So what is it?

It’s not easily defined in one sentence, but it has to do with the quality of the streetscape; the landscape design is part of it but the public realm is the whole built environment, including buildings. It’s not necessarily about physical objects either; it deals with elements of pedestrian flow and the quality of lighting. It is only with this approach that a holistic sense of place and well-being can be achieved. And the developer’s zealous pursuit of high-value, fast sales also benefits from a well-considered public realm.

The problem is, one man’s public art is another man’s eyesore. There seem to be two schools of thought on this. The old school, now derisorily referred to as “plonk art”, sees the answer in large, robust sculptures by big-name artists, but these pieces always seem devoid of contextual value.

The new school says we should make art integral to the built environment. It takes local contextual clues and weaves them into the infrastructure, rethinking the design of a public bench or the humble paving slab.

How important is all this? Well, in 1989, Richard Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc was removed from a New York City plaza and destroyed after an eight-year campaign against it by local office workers. Having something in a gallery is one thing, but when it is in the public domain, the perception of ownership changes and the art has to work much harder to be considered of real value.

When a work is in the public domain, the perception of ownership changes. It has to work much harder to be considered of real value

Of course, great things happen when public art goes well. Some old-school big pieces have been incredibly successful, such as Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North – arguably the country’s most famous work of public modern art – and Thomas Heatherwick’s B of the Bang, which is Britain’s tallest sculpture.

And it doesn’t stop with public art procured in the traditional way; “guerrilla” art has been thriving for decades and the line between graffiti and public art has been blurred. One recent Banksy work on the walls of a house in London sent the property values sky high.

So it’s not surprising that many European governments encourage the creation of public art via initiatives such as the Percent for Art on new developments. In Britain, however, the scheme is discretionary for local authorities, which implement it under a section 106 agreement. In practice, this seldom reaches a full 1% of construction costs. More often than not, it manifests as a cash injection into local infrastructure, or is relegated to a 20m2 kids playground. Given that it is now commonly recognised that big commercial developments should “give something back”, the current approach doesn’t seem to be working.

There is another project in the office that takes public art to new heights. It is a 40-storey tower, the lower 15 storeys of which have been conceived as a blank canvas, offering up the treatment of the elevation to an artist who has created a piece of 3D art.

It is the antithesis of traditional public art: it doesn’t reside at ground level or rely on pedestrian interaction and it is integral to the building’s fabric. On inner-city sites, there isn’t always the scope to open up the ground floor to public use and this is one way to incorporate the art within the architecture.

Getting back to the lead artist we have just appointed, we went with the new school – a young guy who refers to himself as a designer, not an artist. We will see how good he is at weaving his work and the work of others through the public realm. Most interesting is how he will become part of the design team, rather than a dislocated add-on. He will be collaborating with consultants, consulting with the public, negotiating with the client and, naturally, perfecting the art of dealing with the QS.