stratharchives: Week 38 – Callanish sculpture…


Week 38 – Callanish sculpture and landscaping project, 1974-1976

[Archives reference: OP 2/4/32, OP 2/4/35]

After 1964, the University’s estate rapidly expanded towards Cathedral Street, with the Stenhouse building, the Architecture building, the Wolfson Centre, the Strathclyde Business School (now the William Duncan building) and the Todd Centre all opening within the following fifteen years. In 1971, the University’s Planning Consultant, Mr Walter Underwood, proposed a major sculpture which would inter-relate with the complex of new buildings but remain independent of them. The Scottish Arts Council was enthusiastic about the concept and proposed to joint fund a sculpture by Gerald Laing, who they believed might produce work suited to the University and worthy of the site. Laing’s sculpture, Callanish, was erected in 1974 at the highest natural point of the campus and is based on the standing stones at Callanish in the Western Isles. In Laing’s own words it was created to “remind the scientifically orientated student that there is a place for the contemplative – and the art student that art must make use of modern scientific materials and scales to remain relevant”. 

The structure, comprising sixteen steel pillars on a concrete base, is often called ‘Steelhenge’ because of its similarity to Stonehenge. The three tonnes of Corten steel used in the sculpture was chosen as it weathers naturally and changes colour slowly to form a stable rust-like appearance. The sculpture sits on an undulating lawn and is surrounded by plants, trees and an L-shaped watercourse, populated with boulders collected from the banks of the Clyde, providing an oasis for flora and fauna (springtime sees the occasional youngster with a net and bucket!).

However, the sculpture divided opinion from the outset being compared to “tale-ends of gondolas” or “washing tongs”. A common complaint is that it has become overshadowed by the surrounding buildings and would be better suited to an open windswept ridge, like its northern namesake. Today the area provides a quiet contemplative place to visit or study; cut off from the city centre chaos outwith its boundaries. 

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