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Plans unveiled for major riverside artwork in Inverness

Tristan Surtees of Sans façon and councillor Isabelle MacKenzie
Tristan Surtees of Sans façon and councillor Isabelle MacKenzie

Plans have been unveiled for a major riverside artwork in Inverness – to replace the controversial “tilting pier” project – which will create a “circular amphitheatre to frame the River Ness.”

The “My Ness” artwork will incorporate an arc walkway curving in between existing trees, a seating area and viewing point projecting over the water and a smaller curved wall to sit on the opposite bank.

Designed by artist Tristan Surtees of Sans facon, it will be sited at the Little Isle Pool by the Fisherman’s car park and shed, providing a focal point for people to gather and enjoy the river.

Chairwoman of the Inverness City Arts (ICArts) Working group, councillor Isabelle MacKenzie, said they hope to have the installation open by the start of next summer, pending public consultation and planning approval.

Speaking yesterday from the riverside location, Mrs MacKenzie said she is also confident the public will back the artwork this time round, adding: “I do feel this is much more in keeping with the area. As chair, I would like to say that we have scrutinised it to this point. I do question how they were able to get this far last time.

“I am really ecstatic about it. I am looking forward to a year’s time being able to sit here and enjoy the atmosphere. The design concept is beautiful and natural and encapsulates the River Ness.”

Mrs MacKenzie also stressed that ICArts, managing the project on behalf of Highland Council, is within its £300,000 budget for the piece. The budget is less than that allocated for the tilting pier, which was scrapped by councillors two years ago after £65,000 had already been spent on it.

My Ness would be the flagship artwork of a £727,000 river arts project which is made up of other artworks such as Seer, a scuplture cast from the geologies of two tectonic plates that form the Great Glen which will be installed on the riverbank at Friar’s Shott by Huntly Street.

Mr Surtees, who was part of the same design team for the “tilting pier,” gave a presentation on the plans yesterday at the Highland Archive Centre to an audience of about 40 stakeholders.

During his presentation he referred to inspiration from other artworks, including an elevated walkway which curves round trees in an Estonian forest and an amphitheatre in in Portland, Oregon.

More than 300 people also shared their stories and memories of the river during a two day special filming event in October to help inform the design proposals.

Mr Surtees added: “The artwork is going to be an amphitheatre and will allow the people who animate the river to be framed and observed. It will make a monumental gesture towards the river.”

Fraser Grieve, Highlands and Islands director for Scottish Council for development and Industry, attended yesterday’s presentation and afterwards said: “It would have been nice to have something a bit bolder.”

Mr Grieve said he was a “big fan” of the tilting pier and thought it would have been a “really nice statement piece,” while describing the replacement artwork as “very pleasant.”

He also said the council should study the possibility of creating something more at Friars’ Shott, adding: “It would help that bit of the city centre and attract tourists down to the river. The Ness Islands part is already a pretty good draw and is less in need of something.”

Professor Jim Mooney, chairman of the independent evaluation panel, praised the artists for taking their input and refining their proposals following an earlier “interrogation” of them.

He said the evaluation panel has been impressed by the expansion of the site to include the opposite bank of the river and by the elegance of the new design.

Inverness Angling Club president Graham MacKenzie said the artwork, unlike the tilting pier, would not interfere with casting and fishing at the spot which he says is one of the most popular salmon fishing pools on the Ness.

He said the existing fisherman’s hut is already a gathering point for visitors and that they serve about 5,000 cups of tea each year to those who stop by.

Tilting pier sparked public backlash

The previous vision for a riverside artwork in Inverness caused controversy in the city.

Officially titled the Gathering Place, it was nicknamed the “tilting pier” because of its design which allowed it to tilt over the river as a viewing platform.

But the plans were dropped nearly two years ago after a public backlash against it.

The pier design was also drawn up by the international companies Sans facon and OSA, who are collaborating on the replacement My Ness artwork plans.

Speaking after his presentation yesterday, artist Mr Surtees said the brief was changed for the My Ness artwork and that more effort has been placed on research and development this time round.

The tilting pier had been proposed for a spot by Eden Court Theatre as part of the wider River Ness Public Art Project. The viewing platform, then with a £370,000 budget, was originally planned for the Friar’s Shott area of Huntly Street – but 59% of the public who participated in consultation were against the idea.

The design itself divided opinion among Inverness and Highland residents, visitors and politicians for months.

But in July 2016, Highland Council bowed to public opinion and ditched the controversial project.

Ten members of the Inverness city committee voted in favour of pulling the plug on the pier, with seven voting for the original motion for further public consultation on the new site.

Inverness Central councillor at the time, Donnie Kerr, said it was an “outrage” the proposals had gone as far as they did and that the public consultation process had been demeaned.

More detailed designs for the new My Ness project still have to be developed as artists still have to do full costings, engineering and planning for the final artwork.

The wider River Ness Art Project – including My Ness – has been given £305,000 of funding from Creative Scotland, £250,000 from the Inverness Common Good Fund, £106,000 from Highland Council and £66,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.