Nicknamed “the tapeworm” by City of Sydney councillor Angela Vithoulkas, the recently approved Cloud Arch sculpture that will frame the George Street light-rail line has got Sydney talking. It’s slated for completion in 2019.

After City of Sydney asked Japanese artist and architect Junya Ishigami to dream up a design for a public art piece in 2014, he came back with a confronting pitch: an asymmetrical white “squiggle” sculpture, soaring 74-metres above the ground.

The structure was turned over and over in the council’s minds, before they reached a formal decision on a revised design last Tuesday morning in what was reported to be a heated meeting.

The second design from Ishigami – foreshadowed to be a Sydney icon by Mayor Clover Moore in a public statement – has left some Sydneysiders sour, particularly due to the cost jump from $3.5 million to $11.3 million.

Architect David Vago, director of architectural firm Habit 8, is not a fan. “[The] dated piece of pseudo-modern art has no contextual grounding and no relationship to the people, culture and environment of Sydney,” he tells Broadsheet via email.

“It's a gross waste of rate-payers money and is more likely a shrine and extension of ego of the current mayor.”

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Vago went on to say the work lacks sophistication and is offensive to the public domain, comparing it to past public art initiatives such as Yininmadyemi, a giant bullet sculpture in Hyde Park, criticised by some for being “confronting” for a memorial commemorating fallen Indigenous and Aboriginal soldiers.

Bridget Smyth, design director at City of Sydney, tells Broadsheet, “art is a very nuanced and an individual response to a place and time.”

“Junya spent a lot of time observing the space and watching the light move. For him, the work responds to the organic building that is the Sydney Opera House,” she says. “In his mind he has bought a piece of nature to the heart of the Sydney.”

Smyth says this is a normal response to the unveiling of contemporary public art and reminds us the Sydney Opera House was met with disapproval at first.

She also defends the price increase stating governments around the world usually reserve one per cent of the funds of major construction projects on public art to enhance that space.

“Knowing this, the $2.1 billion budget for the light rail should have been met with $21 million for public art. Considering this, the price is reasonable. Sydney needs art and surprises around every corner.”

While the new Cloud Arch design features fewer waves than the original submission, the steel work is larger: 53 metres wide and 58 metres high.

Dr Felicity Fenner, author of Running the City: Why Public Art Matters and member of the City of Sydney Public Art Advisory Panel, believes Cloud Arch complements its surroundings. “It’s a really big, gigantic public sculpture, yet it doesn’t compete at all with the surrounding heritage buildings nor impose itself on public space,” she tells Broadsheet.

“It will work well from a number of different angles. It will be a poetic ‘gateway’ looking down George Street, but more of a twisting or dancing form from Park Street.”

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