Piccadilly Circus has had an upgrade. A giant, curved, superbright and supersmooth TV screen has just been turned on. Wider than widescreen, it curves around the Regency architecture and disappears up Shaftesbury Avenue. Its bright and it moves and its really big. It looks as thin as paper and just as light. It suddenly makes all the other lights of Piccadilly seem very old: The rotating billboard, low res RGB-bulbed LED screen, moving message board, even last years Jumbotron looks clunky bulky and jerky in the way only superseded technology can. But most of all the famous neon tableaux. These are being dismantled piece by piece to make way for newer, brighter, more communicative and flexible technology.
Neon is designed to show a single beautiful image. Its fine glass tubes are heated and twisted into filigree patterns – a fragile 3D calligraphy pumped full of high pressure gas frazzled between electrodes. Retrospectively, Neon seems as stodgy as the carving on a Victorian town hall. Neon is original, unique sculpture. Tied to its narrative content like electrified Elgin Marbles: “Plug it in Pericles, lets see if it lights up!”. Neon looks like architecture.
Piccadillies screen is different – it can show anything in hi-res 24 frame/second realism – it can flit between live pictures from Mars, war, executions, hardcore porn … it’s all the same . Content has been released from the architectural hardware. It turns a frieze into a freeze frame, or a fast forward, a jump cut, a zoom, a pan … all kinds of things that architecture doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe. This is change was commemorated when the first Jumbotron was installed at Piccadilly. The first clip it showed was a CGI animation of a giant Coca Cola neon sign. A ghosty goodbye to neon and a segway into the future where architecture isn’t built by builders out of stuff, it’s taped in a studio, edited on Avid, and beamed via satellite.
Piccadilly Circus has long been an interface between Londons future and its past. Its part of what makes it an anomaly in Westminster – the most conservative of London boroughs (with big and small Cs). The City of London, its rival and neighbour, is the skyscraping, future friendly, financial heart of Europe. As the sun rises over London, the Cities shiny towers cast a futuristic shadow across low rise Westminster where box fresh Victoriana uncurls like ferns in the gloom.
Westminsters Planning Officers are at war with their arch enemy – The Future. The dirtiest fights are the guerrilla battles with the stormtroopers of The Future: advertisements. Special ops planners patrol the streets busting bill stickers, impounding billboard towing vans, and snagging developers who drape hoardings over building sites. Backlit shopsigns are banned form the outside of shops and restaurants. Instead, brass plaques incongruously sign “Pizza Hut” and “Starbucks” as though Charles Dickens is slurping a skinny latte or Sherlock Holmes is splitting a 12 inch stuffed crust supreme with Dr Watson. Banished to the wrong side of the glass, 21st century signs press their noses to the outside world, desperate and pleading like puppies in Battersea Dogs Home.
A boroughs worth of wild and loose information has been roped up and crammed into Piccadilly Circus. Here, and only here, is the bright animated building disease tolerated. It’s a policy of zoning so extreme its created an advertising Ghetto.
The Planners idea of history is mythical, echoed in the post production of costume dramas that clone stamp the 20th century away. Looking at photos of old London town, its not so much how old it looks, but how new it looks that’s remarkable. There were buildings whose facades had entirely disappeared behind a crust of advertising – facades dripping with communication as though they have been pebbledashed with Alphabetti Spaghetti. Beautiful dense cacophonies of information that spread across the architecture like bacteria in a warm petri dish.
I had always thought that Piccadilly Circus was just the start of a London which would inevitably end up looking like Bladerunner. But really it is the opposite – a carefully preserved fragment of 19th century London. A relic of that grand expansive Victorian vision of Britain – that slung bridges across valleys with joy, tunnelled through hills with abandon, whose cities exploded across nature, culture and geography – and whose buildings celebrated consumerism that was the ripe fruit of industrial production. London celebrated commerce with disregard for the grand urban plans that reorganised the other great European cities. It was trade that made London, not kings or revolutions.
It’s ironic that a sense of conservation preserves Piccadillies flashing, high voltage urbanism – the same place that used to inspire adrenaline surges of Futurism for the Independent Group when they stepped out of the Dover Street ICA. The splash of Peter Smithsons desert boot shattering a Cinzano refection in a dark London puddle is now as nostalgic as pea soupers and hansom cabs.
The Smithsons may have collected adverts, but they made very architectural architecture. Its another thing altogether when when architecture dissolves into streaming video. Piccadillies new screen shows that technology can deliver smooth, hi-res images on an urban scale. And, despite Marshal Mcluhan, its the message, not the medium that counts. The software not the hardware. Architecture is just another form of media, and in media, content is king.
First Published in Icon