Columbus Screen, Canary Wharf, London

In 1999 Teresa Bergne, the art consultant for Canary Wharf PLC took me on site to look at Columbus Courtyard which was then under construction. She asked me to consider the possibility of undertaking a commission for a rail or a screen. The commission would be for a structure some fifteen and a half meters long with a minimum height of 1.1 metres. It would be a barrier to prevent people from falling into the street beneath, because Columbus Courtyard would become the ‘roof’ of an underpass. The barrier was to be conceived as a design that would provide a visual link between two massive, almost uniform, office buildings. Project management for the screen construction and installation was to be provided by Clarence McDonald of McDonald Architects.

The name of the Courtyard would become my inspiration. To undertake the necessary research I went to the Maritime Library in Greenwich. In the library I found an illustration of a 15th century mappa mundi, the only remaining map known to have belonged to Christopher Columbus. It was extraordinarily beautiful. I incorporated my interpretation of the main feature of the map, a circular interplanetary diagram composed of a series of circular rings randomly spaced with stars, within the design of the screen. At its centre is the form of an abstracted compass.

Imaginary lines of navigation intersect and traverse the face of the screen – a reference to 16h century exploration. The glass and steel eye at its centre is a symbol for space travel, The eye of the future: an optical lens forms the pupil of the eye. Held between the double-sided lens is a thin, stainless steel drawing inspired by images of space travel, probes and satellites. The viewer looks through the lens and the world beyond is brought into a precise and expansive perspective.

At one point in the design development the screen was to be solid throughout its length, but the client was concerned for the aspect of those individuals based in the office block, in the ‘outer world’ beyond the courtyard: they could be locked out of visual contact with the public space inside the screen. So the iconography of the screen was reversed out and the closed structures at either side became open, securing the whole structure into position with linear terminations.

When viewed from the front, brilliant blue transparent acrylic can be seen through the pierced lines of the screen’s turquoise green surface. At night it is lit artificially from beneath, its bulk disappearing into the darkness, and becomes a series of suspended luminous blue lines. The brightly lit lines throw patterns on to the paving. As the day passes and night descends, the changing light emphasises many different aspects of the work. Motorists see Columbus Screen from the back when they pass beneath it. The heavy acrylic sheets are joined to the steel structure with bolts, the heads of which are gold-leafed stars. From their side, at night, when lit from beneath, gold stars appear in a dark blue sky, but in daylight the shiny blue surface reflects the sky so that the night stars float amongst daytime clouds. Such unexpected moments are the rewards of site-specific work; the ‘place’ is always a part of what is possible.

15 M X 2 M X 6.5 CM

Back to main index

Columbus Screen,Canary Wharf, London

Detail Columbus Screen,Canary Wharf, London

Detail Columbus Screen,Canary Wharf, London

Drawing for the detail in the eye optical glass eye of Columbus Screen,Canary Wharf, London

Detail of the eye with optical glass eye of Columbus Screen,Canary Wharf, London