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King’s College in Cambridge wins approval for Antony Gormley’s sculpture of Alan Turing in its grounds but should it be on full public view?

King’s College has been given planning permission to install a sculpture commemorating the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing within its grounds, but some city councillors argued it should be in full public view.

Historic England also raised concerns over the impact of the sculpture, designed by Sir Antony Gormley, on the historic setting of the University of Cambridge college.

Standing at more than 3.6 metres and made of 19 steel blocks, the permanent installation will be placed next to the Wilkins Building.

How the Alan Turing sculpture will look. Image: King's College (58453501)
How the Alan Turing sculpture will look. Image: King's College (58453501)

It means it will be visible to those at the college and to visitors, including those with a Cambridge residents’ card and those paying the £10 entry charge at King’s.

The college said a commemoration of the mathematician - famed for his role in cracking the Germans’ Enigma code during the Second World War - was “long overdue”.

A representative from the college committee behind it told the city council’s planning committee on Wednesday (August 3): “Turing, perhaps King’s most famous alumnus, is known for his groundbreaking work in computing, mathematics, mathematical biology and code-breaking at Bletchley.

“His impact and importance for younger generations is really incalculable.

“He was also prosecuted for his homosexuality, chemically castrated and died young.

“Inspired by Turing’s work and his life, the most distinguished living British sculptor, Sir Antony Gormley, has designed a personalised sculpture, made in Corten steel blocks and designed to turn a warm rust colour, the figure looks out assertively and yet holds itself protectively.”

She said it had a “sculptural presence” but was without a plinth and “modest enough in scale” to feel human.

“Gormley wishes it to stand at the heart of the college community - the place where Turing felt most at home.”

She noted the site was a “good distance” from the famous chapel and “well to the side of the iconic views from the Backs”.

The Alan Turing sculpture will not impact this famous view from the Backs
The Alan Turing sculpture will not impact this famous view from the Backs

Historic England argued the sculpture would be “far more visible” than the proposals implied and could cause “some harm” to the significance of the historic college.

But the representative of King’s said: “We have provided a detailed heritage impact assessment of the site and scaled photo montages showing the intriguing yet gentle impact of the sculpture in these surroundings.”

“This is an intimate location. Here at the confluence of paths, college members mingle with Cambridge residents and university members walking through King’s. Other more recently proposed sites were, for the sculptor, either too picturesque and romanticising - by the river - or too isolating and monumentalising on King’s Parade, also suggested.

“Prior to the pandemic, about a million people passed through the college each year. It would be impossibly disruptive, a working institution that requires quiet conditions for study and research, to provide free access for all, but King’s has nevertheless been proud to welcome visitors and provide a pass across the Backs.

“Last month, the college opened its gates once again to the university members and to holders of the Cambridge residents’ card, who will be able to pass directly by the sculpture. Paying visitors will also be able at allocated times to view from close-up.

“It’s hard to over-estimate the public benefit of this major work of commemorative art for the college, the university and the city. It will, we all believe, will be a source of pleasure and great interest to many, many people.”

Councillors were supportive of the sculpture to commemorate Turing, but raised questions over the site and how easy it would be for people to see and appreciate it.

Cllr Dave Baigent (Lab, Romsey) argued the it should be outside the college on King’s Parade where the public would be able to easily see it.

He said: “I walk down King’s Parade with my granddaughter. I want her to say to me ‘who is that, what is that?’, in the same way she might say about the statue out the front of [the Guildhall].

“I will say that is the man that cracked the Germans’ code, that is the man who helped to shorten the Second World War.

Alan Turing was also commemorated recently on a £50 note. Picture: PA
Alan Turing was also commemorated recently on a £50 note. Picture: PA

“That is the man who was challenged by our society, neutered, punished, and sunk into obscurity because of the treatment of homosexuals at that time.

“I want to be able to see this statue, not have it hidden away.”

He claimed that in the proposed courtyard location the sculpture would be “dwarfed” by the buildings, as Turing was “dwarfed by our society”.

Cllr Naomi Bennett (Green, Abbey) did not think the proposed location was the right place for the sculpture, arguing “no effort” had been made to fit it into the landscape, and suggesting: “Both the statue and the landscape deserve better.”

She said the city was “not short” on places associated with Mr Turing, and felt a better place could be found.

Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market) disagreed, arguing the proposed spot was appropriate.

Sir Antony Gormley. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA
Sir Antony Gormley. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA

But she questioned the plans to allow people to see it, noting that while the college had highlighted the “substantial public benefit” for the city, the £10 access cost to those without a residents’ card would be a “barrier” for some.

She said she understood the college would not want hundreds of people in the grounds, but when weighing up the public benefit against the heritage harm would have liked to see more access available.

Cllr Jenny Gawthrope Wood (Lab, King’s Hedges) said not everyone in Cambridge had a residents’ card, and called for access via school trips.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Lab, Petersfield) supported the application, but said encouraged the college to “improve appropriate public access” to the sculpture.

A majority of councillors voted in favour to approve the plans.

The breaking of the Enigma is estimated to have shortened the length of the Second World War by at least two years, saving potentially 14 million lives.

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