Sharks! Why are five man-eaters being unleashed into a popular canal?

‘We don’t do planning,” says Russell Gray, “or regulations, or any of that bollocks.” The property developer is standing in his canal-side warehouse in Hackney, London, next to a gigantic model of a prehistoric shark with blood stains smeared around its gaping mouth. “We’re about liberating the arts and architecture from institutional control.”

This week, Gray is launching a shiver of sharks into Regent’s Canal: five polystyrene and fibreglass beasts equipped with smoke machines, laser beams and speakers. Some will even blow bubbles out of their mouths. Over the coming weeks, the sharks will sing songs and give lectures to each other on the subject of architecture and urbanism. This is the latest iteration of the Antepavilion, an annual commission organised by Gray’s company, Shiva, in collaboration with the Architecture Foundation. That’s if the council doesn’t confiscate the fearsome creatures first.

Gray has a long record of baiting the authorities. He once parked a tank on a site in Southwark over a feud with the council. Its gun is still pointing at the planners’ offices. More recently, he has locked horns with Hackney council over structures erected on the roof of Hoxton Docks, a complex of artists’ studios and spaces in a jumble of old wharf buildings that he bought in the late 1980s. “The planners say it’s all ‘incongruous’,” he tells me, referring to the menagerie of structures his rooftop has acquired over the years. “Who are they to depreciate our interventions with that term?”

It began with the Beach House, a two-bed cabin built in 2015 and clad with sheeting made from recycled packaging, which the council deemed to have an “unacceptable impact” on the listed (and vacant) Edwardian bathhouse nearby. A couple more experimental cabins followed, before the endeavour was formalised as an annual open competition, conceived as a riposte to what Gray regards as the exclusivity of the Serpentine pavilion.

The last three years have seen young architects concoct a pavilion modelled on an oversized air-conditioning duct, an inflatable gourde-shaped theatre on a barge and a multi-storey performance structure clad with jaunty green chequerboard panels. None of these temporary follies have had planning permission, and the council has served an enforcement notice on all of the surviving structures, arguing they do not “respect in any way the architectural historic quality and character of the surrounding conservation area”, calling them “alien” and “inappropriate”.

“There is a bipolar culture in planning,” Gray says, “which is that you bully the little man and lick the arse of the big developer because he pays out big sums in cash. Look at how the canal has been destroyed around here with luxury towers. Planning is a profit centre for local authorities.” Reflecting his frustrations, this year’s Antepavilion brief called on entrants to “respond to the tension between authoritarian governance of the built environment and aesthetic libertarianism”.

The winning design is a surreal floating tableau that references one of the great planning disputes of our time. SHARKS! is by Jaimie Shorten, a Hackney-based architect more used to designing residential schemes than great whites. “It seemed like the obvious answer to the brief,” says Shorten. “The ethos that new things have to be ‘in keeping’ is illogical. If things fit in with each other, then everything’s always going to be the same.”

Shorten was inspired by the Headington Shark in Oxford, a symbol to many of the triumph of eccentricity over bureaucracy. The sculpture of an eight-metre-long shark crashing into the roof of a terraced house was commissioned by radio broadcaster Bill Heine in 1986 and became a sensation when planners insisted it be removed.

After a six-year legal battle, Heine was victorious. The planning inspector found in favour of the shark, stating: “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.” He understood that the council was concerned about setting a precedent, but concluded: “This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred.”

That is, until now. “Our version is more like a boyband or girlband,” says Shorten. “There are two prehistoric megalodons, a couple of great whites, and a tiger shark. They have different personalities, like sporty shark and ginger shark.” The creatures will be arranged in different formations, one tableau echoing The Raft of the Medusa, the famous Géricault painting of catastrophe at sea, another as a chorus line and, of course, a socially distanced configuration.

“There are so many things you can do with sharks,” says Shorten. “They have a rich cultural presence, from Jaws to Viz comic’s Pathetic Sharks. Somehow, the idea of these dead-eyed, amoral creatures seems very suitable for our times.”