Imperial has renewed its efforts to secure planning permission for a mural students described as ‘void’, ‘meaningless’ and ‘garish’, less than six months after its original application was rejected.
The mural is to be painted onto the western wall of the Roderic Hill Building, at the entrance to Callendar Road.
The College says it has conducted an internal consultation on the proposal. But many College members, including Camille Boutrolle, the current Imperial College Union President, were unaware of the new application, which was submitted at the beginning of September.
Students expressed their anger at the new proposals in Instagram messages to Felix.
‘What the f*** is that,’ wrote Life Sciences student Michael.
‘It truly looks like the cover of a terrible young adult fantasy novel,’ lamented EEE undergraduate Joel.
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‘I thought this was a joke’
Occupants of the Roderic Hill Building – students at the Department of Chemical Engineering – disputed assertions made by College leadership that they have been consulted.
“I thought this was a joke when Felix told me about it earlier this week,” said a student representative in the department, who wished to remain anonymous. “My personal view is that the mural is not the most appealing. I’m intrigued as to how the proposal was cleared.”
The representative indicated that they would have surveyed their cohort on the proposals, had they been informed.
In a letter of support submitted together with the planning application, Imperial President Hugh Brady claims students and staff ‘are enthusiastic about the project’.
‘My Department and students are behind the ambitions of this important project,’ concurs Professor Omar Matar, Head of Chemical Engineering, in his own letter of support.
Students in a Roderic Hill workspace were surprised upon being told of the plans by Felix.
“I’ve not heard about this mural until now,” said Guv, a Chemical Engineering undergraduate. “It’s got nothing to do with Chem Eng or Imperial, and it looks really poorly made.”
It is unclear to whom Brady and Matar spoke, to reach their conclusions. Professor Matar did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘Economical with the actualite’
A similar scenario unfolded when the College put forward its original application – for a mural on the façade of the Blackett building. Students and staff complained that they had not been consulted, submitting a total of 37 objections to Westminster City Council.
‘I saw no consultation at all for the Blackett proposal,’ said Dr David Clements, Reader in the Department of Physics.
‘Either someone is being economical with the actualite here or they’re using a definition of the words ‘internal consultation’ that I am not familiar with.’
The College would be better directed towards meaningful action. If a mural is to be put up, it should be a community-led project.
The idea of a mural was floated to last year’s Union President Hayley Wong. She acknowledged the possibility that she ‘may have agreed the topic of sustainability is important to students.’
But documents from the new proposal go further, claiming she felt the mural ‘was a prestigious marker for Imperial on the international stage’, and ‘highly relevant’ to topics student care about.
‘The only time they mentioned it to me was months before the design had even been made,’ said Wong. ‘They said it was a UN initiative about the topic of sustainability, but I received no further information after that.’
Wong’s account has been corroborated by last year’s Deputy President (Education) Jason Zheng. ‘Hayley asked us about it at the time. We felt that a mural was a cool idea, but didn’t see the design.’
‘I assumed the new design would be run by the new president [Boutrolle] before the planning application got submitted.’
Westminster City Council’s letter of refusal for the Blackett proposal raised concerns that the ‘visual impact [of] the mural would harm the appearance of the building and this part of the City, harming the setting of the Knightsbridge and Queens [sic] Gate (RBKC) Conservation Areas.’
By shifting the mural away from Queen’s Gate, and onto Prince Consort Road, the authors of the new proposal argue that there will be ‘notably less impact’ on how the two conservation areas are ‘enjoyed or perceived’.
The shift in location means the mural has been downsized by 42% to 11 × 14m, though it would still occupy most of the available wall space.
The mural artwork itself has also been modified. Commenters on the original Blackett Laboratory proposal took issue with ‘the outdated and somewhat sexualised representation of mother nature as a white woman’.
In the revised mural, the central female figure appears older, and holds a book in one hand. She is now accompanied by two men, who sit cross-legged beneath her on the ground.
The work is part of a series commissioned for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The UN Environmental Programme is covering the up-to-£2m cost of the mural.
‘The intention of the piece is to promote sustainability,’ reads the planning document. Imperial was selected ‘as an ideal partner in this scheme because of its research excellence in sustainability’.
‘Furthermore, ICL’s sustainability strategy is focused on the environmental and governance aspects of sustainability,’ adds an accompanying design and access statement.
‘It is quite frankly ridiculous to call ourselves a leader in sustainability, when we haven’t yet cut ties with polluting and unethical companies and have a severe lack of biodiversity on the city campuses,’ said a spokesperson for student activist group Imperial Climate Action.
‘The College’s energies would be better directed towards meaningful and impactful actions and if a mural is to be put up, it should be a student- and community-led project.’
An Imperial College London spokesperson said: “Having taken on board feedback from our own staff and students and the local community, Imperial worked with the UN Environmental Programme and Street Art for Mankind on a fresh proposal.”
“We consulted with staff and students in the Department of Chemical Engineering and this fed into the mural’s design and a public consultation is underway as part of the planning process with Westminster City Council.”