Piccadilly Circus

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photo: Cristobal Palma
words Sam Jacob

The seemingly relentlessly futuristic West End junction is actually a carefully preserved fragment of 19th-century London.

Piccadilly Circus has had an upgrade. A giant, curved, superbright and super-smooth TV screen has just been turned on. Wider than widescreen, it curves around the Regency architecture and disappears up Shaftesbury Avenue. It's bright and it moves and it's really big. It looks as thin as paper and just as light. It suddenly makes all the other lights of Piccadilly Circus seem very old: the rotating billboard, lo-res RGB-bulbed LED screen, and moving message board - even last year's Jumbotron - look clunky, bulky and jerky in the way only superseded technology can. But most outdated of all are the famous neon tableaux. These are being dismantled 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. Retrospectively, neon seems as stodgy as the carving on a Victorian town hall.

Piccadilly Circus's new 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 pan... all kinds of things that architecture doesn't yet have the vocabulary to describe. This change was commemorated when the first Jumbotron was installed. The first clip it showed was a CGI animation of a giant Coca-Cola neon sign. A ghosty goodbye to neon and a segue into the future where architecture isn't built by builders out of stuff, but is taped in a studio, edited on Avid, and beamed via satellite.

Piccadilly Circus has long been an interface between London's future and its past. It's part of what makes it an anomaly in Westminster, the most conservative of London boroughs. The City of London, its rival and neighbour, is the skyscraping, future-friendly, financial heart of Europe.

Westminster's 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 the outsides of shops and restaurants. Instead, brass plaques incongruously sign Pizza Hut and Starbucks, as though Charles Dickens is slurping a skinny lattŽ or Sherlock Holmes is splitting a 12in stuffed crust supreme with Dr Watson. Banished to the wrong side of the glass, 21st-century signage presses its nose to the outside world, desperate and pleading like a puppy in Battersea Dogs Home.

A borough's 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 it's 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, it's not so much how old it looks, but how new it looks that's remarkable. There were buildings whose faades had entirely disappeared behind a crust of advertising. 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 that would inevitably end up looking like Blade Runner. 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, the cities of which 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's ironic that a sense of conservation preserves Piccadilly's 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 Smithsons may have collected adverts, but they made very architectural architecture. It's another thing altogether when architecture dissolves into streaming video. Piccadilly's new screen shows that technology can deliver smooth, hi-res images on an urban scale. And, pace Marshall McLuhan, it's 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.

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