Get the London look

"I left London when I started to feel like a stranger in my own city”

London panorama

I’ve recently published a series of three articles on Medium exploring London at this moment. Moving away from London has given me a different perspective on the city, now I view it from the outside looking in rather than caught in its all consuming bubble. I am still drawn to it, but I can also see it as a city almost spinning out of control, a potential death spiral. I think I’ve been thrown clear by the centrifugal forces.

The first article, London Belongs to Me No More, explores my own separation anxiety, the sense that London is becoming a playground or an investment opportunity for a nomadic global elite.

In London Must Build Upwards or Outwards, I explore two key factors which keep the housing stock in London in such short supply, and thus so overpriced.

Finally, in London’s Secret Sprawl, I look at the legacy of trying to preserve a rural/urban divide between London and the Home Counties, and how the Green Belt has instead of preventing sprawl, engendered a different kind of urbanism.

This London Trilogy completed, I am turning my attention to my new home in The North, its ambivalent relationship with London, its own rural/urban conflicts; its own identity crises.

(Image by Flickr user Jim Crossley)

The spectacular city

"In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation."

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.

Fabian Cancellara Photo by Flickr user Will Rose

As I stood in Hyde Park on Saturday, among an estimated 1 million people that turned out to witness the Tour de France coming to London for the first time ever, I had the rather surreal sensation that I was participating in some kind of mass consensual hallucination.

Elsewhere this weekend, London hosted a Live Earth concert at Wembley and tennis finals at Wimbledon. Just one week after a failed car bomb explosion and 2 years after the 07/07 tube bombings, London was reaffirming its identity through a series of grand spectacles.

With the beautiful weather, the garish skinsuits and sleek machines of the riders, set against the backdrop of landmarks such as the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, while helicopter shots of the Thames and the London Eye beamed around the world, London never looked more spectacular, in the true sense of the word.

Olympics Brand Exclusion Zone

Advertising restriction zone around Olympic Park In graphic design, an 'exclusion zone' is an area around a logo which must be left clear. Corporate brand and logo usage guidelines demonstrate the proportion of vertical and horizontal space around a logo into which no other element can intrude.

In urban design, exclusion zones are becoming commonplace in relation to sponsorship of sporting events. The Brand Exclusion Zone is the newest form of urban demarcation, and can be used not only to affect signage and advertising, but also restrict personal freedom of choice. Within this context, the London 2012 Olympics represents one of the most radical restructuring of the rights of the city in London. The 'canvas' of London will belong exclusively to the Olympic marquee brands.

In essence, London has abdicated all rights and responsibilities to the International Olympic Committee, and implemented legislation which creates radical new spatial demarcations not only within the Olympic Park, but because of the distributed nature of the Olympic venues, across the whole of central London. London has surrendered the traditional rights to the city to the demands of the Olympic 'family' and their corporate paymasters. What the IOC want, London will give. London will be on brand lockdown.

The most carefully policed Brand Exclusion Zone will be around the Olympic Park, and extend up to 1km beyond its perimeter, for up to 35 days. Within this area, officially called an Advertising and Street Trade Restrictions venue restriction zone, no advertising for brands designated as competing with those of the official Olympic sponsors will be allowed. (Originally, as detailed here, only official sponsors were allowed to advertise, but leftover sites are now available). This will be supported by preventing spectators from wearing clothing prominently displaying competing brands, or from entering the exclusion zone with unofficial snack and beverage choices. Within the Zone, the world's biggest McDonald's will be the only branded food outlet, and Visa will be the only payment card accepted.

Advertising restriction zone around Greenwich

Advertising restriction zone around Wimbledon

This brand apartheid is designed to prevent "ambush marketing", the gaining exposure of an brand through unofficial means. One of the best known examples of this was in the World Cup in 2010, where a bevy of 36 Dutch beauties in orange dresses provided by Bavaria beer gained considerable media attention, to the chagrin of the official World Cup beer, Budweiser. At London 2012, branding 'police' will be on hand to ensure that nothing like this happens, with potential criminal prosecutions against those responsible. Organising committee LOCOG will also take steps to ensure that no unofficial business tries to associate itself with the Olympics by using phrases like 'London 2012', even on such innocuous things such as a cafe menu offering an 'Olympic breakfast'. The Olympics authorities are looking to control both language and space.

Ambush marketing at World Cup 2010

And it's not just London. All the venues for the 2012 Olympics will be on brand lockdown. In Coventry, even the roadsigns will be changed so that there is no reference to the Ricoh Arena, which is hosting matches in the football tournament. Even logos on hand dryers in the toilets are being covered up. The Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle will have to revert back to St. James Park for the duration of the Olympics.

Traditionally, the most epic guerrilla marketing war has taken place between sportswear rivals Nike and Adidas. Whereas Adidas has long been an official sponsor of major sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, Nike has cast itself as the hip, streetwise alternative, and taken considerable steps to trump Adidas in gaining exposure at major sporting events.

1996 was ambush marketing's breakout year, with Nike making a concerted effort to upset the official sporting sponsors of both the Euro 96 football tournament in England and the Olympic games in Atlanta:

"The 1996 edition of the European Championships, Uefa’s premier international quadrennial soccer tournament, provided an example of ambush marketing that changed the face of sports sponsorship. English sportswear company Umbro had paid for the rights to be the official sportswear supplier of the championships, only to find that Nike had purchased all the poster space and advertising sites in and around Wembley Park underground station, the main travel hub for England’s national stadium, Wembley. Nike’s move completely negated the power of Umbro’s official partnership. The same thing happened for the World Cup in 1998 when Nike hijacked Adidas’ official association in much the same way. As a consequence Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, has spearheaded the use and enforcement of marketing exclusion zones surrounding stadia, forcing the official sponsorship agencies of the competition in question to buy all the advertising space within a 1.3 mile radius of the stadia. The IOC too was quick to adopt this counter-ambushing strategy. The ability to implement such exclusion zones is now a key element in the process to decide future Olympic host cities."

In World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Nike circumvented the billboard advertising ban by projecting onto the side of a building in Johannesburg. As the authorities get wiser, Nike get smarter.

Nike Write the Future

Nike Write the Future

Whereas the Beijing Olympics represented an embracing of China into the coven of Westernism, the London Olympics will show us just how venal unfettered capitalism can be, how its default modus operandi is paranoia, and rather than a celebration of human endeavour and athleticism, it demonstrates more that the power of branding requires such strict parameters of control that nothing can be left to chance. Brand Exclusion Zones are just one manifestation of the privatisation of public space that London is fast-tracking. For a more thorough analysis of the much hyped legacy of London 2012, I urge you to read Anna Minton's Ground Control, recently updated to include a new chapter on the Olympics.

London Olympics Riot

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the marketeers are way ahead of the urbanists in understanding how the city works. The spatial politics of brand paranoia will be part of the true legacy of the London Olympics.


Cycle path Suprematism

Barclays Cycle Hire

Transport for London, in looking for a corporate sponsor for their plans to encourage, have entered into a Faustian pact with the Barclays banking corporation.

Launched in August this year, the Barclays Cycle Hire is one of the largest cycle hire schemes in the world (with over 6000 bikes available at over 200 docking stations across central London. In sponsoring the scheme, Barclays have not only got their name plastered all the logo, on the bikes and the docking stations, but also injected their corporate colour, a bright cyan blue, into all livery and signage too.

Corporations like to associate themselves with a particular colour - think of the UPS brown, for instance, or T-mobile's magenta. Barclays cyan is a distinctive colour, and by contributing £25 million to the costs of the London Cycle Hire scheme, have sealed themselves a highly conspicuous brand presence.

According to this article:

"The Mayor sees the Barclays bikes becoming as iconic as London's black cabs, and red double-decker buses. It is not the first time advertising has been built into the cityscape. The iconic Art Deco windows of the Oxo Tower, formerly home to the makers of the eponymous stock cube, on the South Bank of the River Thames were reputedly built to sidestep an advertising ban imposed by London County Council."

As well as sponsoring the cycle hire scheme, Transport for London have also allowed Barclays to brand a series of 'cycle superhighways'. These glorified bike paths, eventually ten routes radiating out from Central London, are designed to permit greater numbers of cyclists to move quickly in and out of the city with improved right of way and priority at junctions.

Whilst the Hire Bikes are ubiquitous, moving adverts for Barclays, the Cycle Superhighways are a permanent branding etched onto the urban fabric.

Barclays Cycle Superhighway

Barclays Bike hire and Barclays Cycle Superhighways represent the most comprehensive urban spatial branding ever visited upon the city. The streets have literally been coloured in Barclays brand livery.

Barlcays Cycle Superhighway

Looked at another way and it may become a huge Suprematist composition, visible only from Google Earth. Ribbons of colour radiate out from the city, an act of corporate geomancy inscribed on the fabric of the city.

Barclays Cycle Superhighway

However, the lumpen reality on the ground of these Superhighways is that they are often little more than re-sprayed cyclepaths, and far from cutting a swath through the chaos of the city, are just another part of its culture of congestion. The continuous cyan ribbon is truncated, terminated, dug up and parked upon.

Henk Hofstra

If Barclays really want to go for it, they should take a leaf out of the book of artist Henk Hofstra, who in 2007 painted the whole width of a road in Drachten, Netherlands, a vivid cyan colour, for 1 kilometer. His aim was that the streets would show up on satellite images, perhaps this is where Barclays got the inspiration.

This is the first in a series of posts on Kosmograd sponsored by Portakabin:

Prefabricated buildings from Portakabin.

Into Orbit

In an essay about F. Scott Fitzgerald's heavily criticised first novel, the celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote " This Side of Paradise ... does not commit the unpardonable sin: It does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life."

arcelormittal orbit

Such a comment might be equally applicable to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the winning design for monument for the London 2012 Olympics, revealed last month. Commissioned by Mayor Boris Johnson, designed by the artist Anish Kapoor, working in conjunction with Cecil Balmond and a team at Arup, and bankrolled by billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, it's not hard to find faults with this project.

There's the dodgy backstory, the tale that Mittal and Boris Johnson love telling about how they met in the cloakroom at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in a minute's conversation had agreed to create an Olympic monument funded by ArcelorMittal. Boris would like to think this story makes him seem like a go-getting, seize-the-moment kind of chap, and Mittal as a big hearted fella fond of grand whimsical gestures, instead they both come over as opportunistic creeps prone to making hasty decisions, guffawing loudly, Masters of the Universe in the rich and powerful gentleman's club. Perhaps Mittal shutters steel works and devastates communities in other such moments of folly, and who knows what other momentary lapses of reason Boris might have had. (For a previous rush of blood to the head, see here). Crikey!

Kapoor's got form too, with the occasional gem amongst some clunkers, and there is always a sense of doubt when sculptors and artists turn their hands to large scale structure (Thomas Heatherwick's "B of the Bang" debacle springs to mind) or inhabited space - this is after all, the province of architects.

arcelormittal orbit

Fast forward a few months, and the announcement of the winning design, the ridiculous name, the overblown sense of self-importance, and a design that looks like nothing ever built before. It's not helped by a terrible render, the key image used in almost all the press coverage that makes it look like it has been plonked down next to the Olympic stadium with barely a thought, set against a oversaturated sky. It gives no sense of its scale. Surrounding the structure is a totally unnatural crowd scene, a SketchUp rent-a-mob. Here Arup must take some responsibility; there's no way that Hadid or Foster, for instance, would let an image like that out in public. Arup has misgauged that modern architectural criticism for the Dezeen generation is the about the consumption of images rather than the consideration of form.

arcelormittal orbit

And yet, it does not fail to live. Considered as a modern folly, I think it performs quite admirably. The echoes of forebears such as Tatlin's Monument to the Third International and Seattle's Space Needle resonate, but really this is like nothing else ever seen before. Aesthetically, it leans towards Constructivism, recalling Shukhov's Tower or Chernikov's architectural fantasties, though we should argue that Constructivism is a lot more than how it looks. As Entschwindet und Vergeht says: "it's a piece of public art which signifies nothing but its own potential to be iconic". The renders from different viewpoints, or when viewed side on, look much better. Perhaps to be a truly iconic structure, it needs to be 3 times taller, in order to become a British version of the Eiffel Tower, but even that was hated by many when first built.

arcelormittal orbit

arcelormittal orbit

For all of its flaws, the level of vitriol and snark the ArcelorMittal Orbit has inspired amongst the architectural cognoscenti has been unprecedented, but it's difficult to determine whether the criticism is due to a dislike of the protoganists Mittal, Johnson and Kapoor, the work itself, or a combination of both. Should we hate the ArcelorMittal Orbit just because we don't like its provenance?

In the days of instant Internet commentary, snark and dismissal seem to be the default reaction. How lazy to type an offhand 'meh' comment in Twitter or try to find a funny epithet. What would the Twitterati have made of the London Eye?

Architecture is a whorish profession, as are the careers of artists such as Kapoor who wish to engage in large scale works. You know art is in trouble when you can't tell the artists apart from their patrons, as in this picture:

arcelormittal orbit

Still, I have faith in the one person in the frame with a great track record of producing beautiful structures that work, Cecil Balmond. As long as Boris, Mittal, Kapoor and the rest of their coterie can leave Balmond and his team at Arup to get on with it, I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a building that London can be proud of, and become as popular and well loved as the London Eye.

Making it stand up is the simple part. Turning a sculpture into a habitable, navigable space is a big ask. Adding fire escapes, step-free access, handrails, signage, refuse disposal, toilets, food service lifts, ticketing facilities, queue control measures will all diminish the sculptural purity of Kapoor's artwork. Many visions have failed in the transition from an artistic napkin squiggle into a functioning building.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit could well turn out to be awful. Yet I'm hopeful it will be an uplifting experience - preposterous, yet animated with life. I'm looking forward to be able to take my kids to the top of it, allow them to discover that great architecture too can provide thrill power. As Robert L Stephenson wrote: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour"