Art in the park

13th May 2005 at 01:00
The spirit of the Quakers lives on in Darlington where a local builder is transforming a polluted wasteland into a magical place of sculpture, poetry and learning. Elaine Williams reports. Photographs by Joan Russell

Tony Cooper believes there is no better place in the world than Darlington.

This pioneering railway town has defined him, made him what he is: a builder who wants to put the soul back into local development.

The son of a fitter who grew up in a Darlington semi, he takes his inspiration from the town's great paternalistic Victorian business families. The Peases and the Backhouses, Quakers who built the early railways and set up Darlington's banking, textiles and wool industries, also built houses with care and imagination, creating decent living conditions for the town's working population. They set the benchmark that he lives by.

As a pupil at Queen Elizabeth grammar school, Tony Cooper developed an interest in local history from a teacher who had penned a history of the town. As an "old fart" in his 50s and director of the family-run building firm Bussey Armstrong, Mr Cooper says he is struck more than ever by the significance of Darlington's industrial legacy and feels it is "payback time" to the town and the people who raised him.

If he was in it simply for the money, then West Park, the pound;150 million complex he is building at Faverdale on the north-western fringe of the town, would be nothing more than "a load of houses", rather than houses with a hospital, school, community centre, sports ground, rugby club, pub and parkland. He wouldn't be spending time with poets, sculptors and stained glass artists, and he wouldn't be arguing with town planners and the Post Office to have street signs set in Times New Roman with lines of poetry beneath them, or to have street lights painted a particular shade of green.

Even before he had the design for West Park, before a brick was laid, he had booked the poet. WN "Bill" Herbert was there at the outset, shaping the new district with poetry. As the Angel of the North sculpture blesses the arterial rail and road links through Gateshead, so poets and artists have been contracted to give heart and soul to the first parkland to be laid out in Darlington for 100 years, incorporating acres of woodland and wild flower meadows alongside the housing. It is a decade's work, with some contracts running to 2010.

Tony Cooper secured the 120-acre site of West Park in 2000 at a cut-down price because nobody else wanted to take on such an extensive reclamation project. The area included 60 acres left behind by Darchem, the Darlington Chemical Insulating Company. Demolished in 1995, all that was left of the factory was a vast tip of calcium carbonate, a chalky by-product of the process of making pharmaceutical pills. Tony Cooper had a vision for this waste ground, with art the central link across the development. But where to begin?

As a no-nonsense entrepreneur, he had never dealt with arts organisations, and found himself searching the web for inspiration. He came across the Arts Council, picked up the phone and tried to explain what he wanted. They were nonplussed. "They more or less said, 'We've got no money for that sort of thing; we don't do Darlington'."

Eventually they suggested he contact Matthew Jarratt, commissions officer for the Arts Council North East, who was hugely taken with the West Park project. It was Mr Jarratt who put forward Bill Herbert, a former Northern Arts literary fellow and creative writing lecturer at Newcastle University's school of English, with a fine reputation for developing public arts projects. Tony Cooper gave Bill Herbert a guided tour of the site in the raw, and thus began an unlikely working relationship. "Tony drove me round this recently demolished factory site and started going on about how he was going to have to deal with thixotropic lakes and calcium carbonate waste, and my ears started to prick up. Here was a whole new vocabulary to work with. I respond to place and the layers of place; I believe that we are defined by place, just as he does."

Matthew Jarratt also brought on board sculptors David Paton and David Edwick, glass artist Bridget Jones and artist-blacksmith Brian Russell.

Poetic text is stamped on the whole enterprise: on David Paton's stone obelisk sculptures, which dominate the parkland; into the steel bridges at the park's entrance points; into the windows and doors of school and hospital; stencilled into the arc of steel defining the park's central amphitheatre: "Locomotiontown, where the railways first ran", "Quakertown, where sharing took root", "Darlingtown, that wears its heart within its name".

Education is central to the project. Tony Cooper wanted to create an environment that would help develop in young people a curiosity about the world. The primary school that has been relocated in West Park is Alderman Leach, the school that Tony Cooper himself attended as a child. The West Beck, which runs through the development, now enriched with semi-aquatic planting, is the stream that he played in on the way home.

Alderman Leach primary school, once housed in decaying 1920s premises on a sprawling housing estate, now stands proud in West Park. It was one of the first buildings to be finished on the site and will eventually have a roll of 375 children aged three to 11. Next to it will be a community centre with doctor's surgery, shops, community hall and pub, all built around a square filled with sculptures.

In its previous location Alderman Leach was constantly vandalised, and children were often confined indoors to keep them away from the broken glass in the playground, the legacy of countless broken windows. The new school is designed around an atrium with a sensory garden and a David Paton sculpture; its motto ("Be active and listen, you'll pick up all skills") is wrought in steel at the entrance. Bridget Jones's stained glass doors, which incorporate text from pupils' stories, lead off from it into teaching areas. Phrases such as "Connor and Joe loved football the way some people love chocolate" are etched into the glass, a permanent inspiration for future narratives. They were created from a writing residency with novelist Kitty Fitzgerald, who worked for weeks with pupils on stories based on the West Park project.

Kitty Fitzgerald's visit was part of a wider Writing West Park initiative by New Writing North, funded by the Arts Council's Creative Partnerships, which sent actors, film-makers, musicians, novelists, poets, playwrights and producers to work with pupils in five schools in the Darlington borough on the theme of the development. The experience has inspired Alderman Leach to hold several arts weeks, bringing in dancers, poets and artists to stimulate writing and performance. Sam Hirst, the school's arts co-ordinator, says: "The whole move to West Park and the involvement of artists has opened the eyes of children here to a wider world, stimulated their creativity." Hilary Dunn, a teaching assistant who has lived in Darlington all her life, says local people appreciate that Tony Cooper is trying to give something back to a town recovering from the loss of its industries.

Tony Cooper has had to push his vision through an often unreceptive planning process. He says: "A lot of the reaction we get to our ideas is, 'You what?', even from educationists. Everywhere we go there's a hurdle while people encounter a new idea. Friends think I'm mad, that I've got too much time on my hands, too much money in the bank. 'Get a life', that's their reaction."

But he feels justified. West Park has won awards and drawn visitors from around the globe; it has attracted the attention of political big hitters such as Tony Blair and the Darlington MP Alan Milburn (who opened Alderman Leach last month); and it will be formally handed over to the local council next month, just two years after the first brick was laid.

Tony Cooper wants to encourage others, to show that new developments can create a narrative for contemporary living. He says: "I would like to think that when a kid's playing on those big sculptures in West Park that he might just look at the texts and think, 'I wonder what all that's about'

and 'Maybe I could do something like that one day'."

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