THE HEADINGTON SHARK
As well as all the stunning architect in the centre of Oxford I very much wanted to see the Headington Shark. Although I don’t remember the date, I can remember the stir caused when it first landed on the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, a suburb of Oxford. Apparently it was in the early hours of Saturday 9 August 1986, which happened to be the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and a tablet affixed to the garden gate announced “Untitled 1986”. Commissioned by Bill Heine, who at the time owned and ran two cinemas in Oxford, it was created by sculptor John Buckley and is twenty five feet long.
When Bill Heine was pressed by journalists for a rationale for his “Untitled 1986” sculpture he suggested the following:
"The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation. It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."
Unsurprisingly Oxford City Council were incensed at this unauthorised addition to the townscape and tried to get rid of the shark on the grounds that it was dangerous to the public, but engineers inspected the roof girders that had been specially installed to support it and pronounced the erection safe.
The council then decided that the shark was development within the definition contained in Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, and that as such it had to be removed. In placation offering to display it in a public building such as a swimming pool - an offer which was rejected whilst the proponent played for time applying for retrospective planning permission which was refused. Undeterred, in 1991 he appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Inspector came out in favour of the applicant, and had the following to say about the shark:
"It is not in dispute that this is a large and prominent feature. That was the intention, but the intention of the appellant and the artist is not an issue as far as planning permission is concerned. The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to “utilitarianism”, in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting. In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them. The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a “work of art” the sculpture (“Untitled 1986”) would be “read” quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called “Oxford shark”. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred.. I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce a boring and mediocre uniformity.. any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky or we shall all be the poorer for it. I believe that this is one case where a little vision and imagination is appropriate. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.”
But there was a background to the erecting of the Shark.
Bill Heine was an American who had studied law at Balliol College and stayed on to become a cinema proprietor. In 1960 the old Headington Cinema had been leased to Unifilms who had renamed it the Moulin Rouge and applied for an illuminated windmill sign, which was rejected by the Planning Authority. In 1980 Bill Heine took over the cinema and had similar problems, but he then erected a giant pair of “Can-Can” legs without permission and action was taken by the council for their removal. Whereupon he renamed the cinema Not The Moulin Rouge, claiming that the legs could not be an advertisement for something that by its very name emphatically denied any connection with any dancing girls -though the “Not The” part of the sign was very small. And it was fresh from the challenges and counterchallenges of the cinema legs, that the shark suddenly appeared in the early hours of the morning, with police standing by helplessly by as there was no law against a man putting a shark on his own roof.
Of course time heals all things and the Headington Shark is now very much part of Oxford.