Iconicon: The Angel of the North
In this extract from his new book Iconicon, John Grindrod discusses the creation of the idea of the Angel of the North, by artist Antony Gormley.

The idea of cultural regeneration was pushed on by Frank Gehry's design for a Guggenheim art gallery in Bilbao, a former industrial Spanish city in decline. They needed the building to do for Bilbao what the Sydney Opera House had done for Australia,' explained Gehry.1 From the moment it opened in 1997, it was a huge success. 'After it was built people started to go to Bilbao,' said Gehry, and that changed the economics of the city.’2 Over a million visitors a year came to explore Gehry's strange melted metallic structure, sitting on the waterfront like a deconstructed version of Frank Lloyd Wright's streamlined original in New York. Gehry's building also saw the emergence of the architectural 'icon' as a way to describe this form of enterprising city branding. 'Icon' is a strange word here for such a complex and hard to memorise form. Rather than representing the city with a simple swoosh or easily doodled tower playing on elements of the city's heritage, the success of this building was how its complex oddness became its greatest virtue. The secret was its uniqueness. And so suddenly dozens of other cities wanted to demonstrate their own uniqueness - in exactly the same way. 'Since Bilbao I get called to do "Frank Gehry buildings",' said Gehry. ‘They actually say that to me.’3 Everyone wanted an icon to regenerate a former industrial area, to bring life back into the city. By the end of the twentieth century, Britain had more than its share of Bilbaos awaiting regeneration, thanks to deindustrialisation in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English north, Midlands and south-west. In 1979, 30 per cent of Britain's national income came from an already declining manufacturing sector, which still employed almost seven million people. By the end of 2010 it had dropped by almost two-thirds. Particularly badly hit was the north-east of England, where the number of manufacturing jobs nearly halved between 1997 and 2011.


By the mid-1990s, Andrew Dixon, deputy for Northern Arts, was pitching for £250 million to build new arts and cultural facilities across the region, with a focus on the decaying quayside at Gateshead. ‘People said Andrew you're completely bonkers, where on earth are you going to get £250m?’ recalled Paul Collard. After all, that was more than the Arts Council total grant for the whole year. The saviour of the plan was the National Lottery. 'Nobody expected the amount of money that the lottery raised to become available,' said Paul. 'Suddenly there was this tidal wave of money available for arts capital projects. And the problem was the Arts Council, who had been battered by Margaret Thatcher for a decade, had actually run out of ideas about what to do. It was full of people with no ideas. But on the other hand there was this Andrew Dixon who had £250 million of ideas, which was the kind of scale of ideas that was necessary in order to spend all this money.' The only problem was that this funding needed to be matched. Dixon went to the European Union to see if they would part-fund it, and they said yes.

Gateshead had a history of commissioning large-scale art pieces, including a Garden Festival in 1990. This was the fourth of five festivals, starting with Liverpool in 1984 and including Stoke-on-Trent in 1986, Glasgow in 1988 and Ebbw Vale in 1992. Gateshead's had been on four sites of reclaimed industrial land, including the Dunston Staiths on the banks of the Tyne, near the MetroCentre, that early monument to out-of-town shopping. The Garden Festival had been Gateshead's first glimpse at culture-led regeneration. The following decade saw the potency of cultural branding for regeneration across the nation on an epic scale. Cool Britannia, the YBAS, Britpop, a fizzing combination of marketing and hype parcelling up art and pop as a commodity to sell Britain to the world, whether you were Damien Hirst or Oasis, Tracey Emin or Blur, Alexander McQueen or the Spice Girls. A cultural moment grew from the optimism, opportunism and boundless irony of these children of John Major. Young entrepreneurs began to experiment with what was possible in urban design too. You can see the intersection of pop, art and architecture in the work of then youthful developers such as Urban Splash and Beetham, and in a very different way, in unorthodox and challenging architectural practices such as feminist collective muf and postmodern revivalists FAT.


In Gateshead, they sought out an artistic icon to represent this hopeful new spirit. They shortlisted an Anthony (Caro) and an Antony (Gormley) and invited them up to explore their ideas. Sid Henderson, chair of Gateshead's arts committee, told their visual arts manager, Mike White, that he fancied Gormley's chances, especially as he'd seen a maquette of an angel the artist had produced for the ITN offices in London. ‘It's only a small thing, but what I fancy is that 40 metres high on that hill over there,’ recalled Paul Collard. 'And quite rightly the arts officer said, This isn't how you work with artists. Artists have a vision and they decide. Sid said, I understand that. I'd like you to take him to the top of that hill before the interview. So Michael said, Oh God, this is going to be so embarrassing. I'm meeting Antony Gormley here and I've got to tell him he's already made up his mind. And he takes Antony Gormley to the top of the hill and Antony looks around and says This is a brilliant location to do something. And Mike says, I should warn you, before the interview, that Sid's got this idea that you could take that angel in the ITN building and you can make it 40 metres high. And Antony looks around and says, Sid's right. That would work here."


[1] Frank Gehry in Jecnks, The Iconic Building: The Power of the Enigma, p.12.
[2] Gehry in Jencks, p.12.
[3] Gehry in Jencks, p.9.

John Grindrod is the author of Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, How To Love Brutalism, and his new book Iconicon. He has written for publications including the Sunday Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Big Issue and The Modernist. He has given talks at the V&A, RA, Southbank Centre, RIBA, Museum of London, Tate Liverpool and a number of universities, as well as working part-time at Faber as Senior Campaigns Manager. He runs the popular website dirtymodernscoundrel.com and can be contacted on Twitter: @Grindrod

book available from Faber at

fig.i Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao under construction.  © Guggenheim Bilbao. Available at: www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/the-building/the-construction
fig.ii The Angel of the North, from the bottom of the hill looking up at the Angel (2014). © Picnicin. Available at: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angel_of_the_North_2-10-14.png
fig.iii Cover of Iconicon. © Faber

publication date
31 March 2022

Angel of the North, Faber, Gateshead, Frank Gehry, Antony Gormley, John Grindrod, Guggenheim Bilbao, Iconicon, Public art, Regeneration, Sculpture


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