In Review

‘Monstrous glowing orb’: plans for new sphere landmark divides London

Neighbours concerned over plans for new structure as wide as the London Eye and as tall as Big Ben

Plans to build a gigantic glowing orb, as wide as the London Eye and almost as tall as Big Ben, in Stratford, east London, has divided critics and residents in the city.

New York entertainment giant the Madison Square Garden (MSG) Company is applying for planning permission for a 295ft-high music venue, promising “the next generation of immersive experiences” with world-class screen resolution and sound for its 21,500 concert-goers. 

“As planning applications go, it’s certainly got balls,” says The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. “Or, to be precise, one massive ball.”

Its “most extreme, and controversial, feature is what’s on the outside: the building’s facade is a five-acre spherical TV screen, like Times Square rolled into a ball”, explains Wainwright. Using 36 million lights, it is “set to glow 24 hours a day, covered with animated adverts for half the time, flickering right outside people’s bedroom windows”.

The Madison Square Garden Sphere project has gone from “looking like an April Fools’ Day prank to now seeming quite likely to happen”, adds Wainwright.

“We’ve just got over the Marble Arch Mound,” says Time Out, referring to another of the capital’s contentious constructions. “Is it now time for the Stratford Sphere?”

This “bad boy” would be a permanent fixture on the London skyline, “next to that strange Olympic Park observation tower that looks like a toddler-drawn rollercoaster”, says the magazine.

The decision on whether it gets planning permission from the London Legacy Development Corporation is “still pending”, but the “concept has been panned by neighbours”, who are worried about the additional footfall and the advertising on the exterior of the building, “in a style not unlike the futuristic Blade Runner films”, says the Daily Mail.

One local told the newspaper “there must be another way to bring in economics into Stratford and definitely not this 90m high joke”, while another remarked that “extreme light pollution and noise, particularly at night, will cause severe harm to residents’ health and wellbeing”.

The Mail notes that MSG has said the lighting can be dimmed if needed and that its own polling found as many as 85% of people supported the sphere. It will also “support thousands of good jobs and bring £2.5 billion to the London economy in its first 20 years of operation”, the company has said.

But the Stop MSG Sphere campaign group, made up of people living in the area, says residents are “terrified” by the proposal that “will severely blight the area, cause noise and light pollution, unmanageable overcrowding and transport chaos”.

One of the group’s members, Lindsay Mace, says: “We don’t think Stratford residents should be guinea pigs for something this huge.”

With concerns that the 24-hour lights will shine into neighbouring homes, another local said: “Our friends have joked that it will at least reduce our electricity bills. We’ll never have to switch the lights on, day or night.”

Bryan Johnston, head of property litigation at the law firm Dentons, predicts a legal bun fight. “Excessive displays of Christmas lights have appeared before the courts in the past in neighbours’ disputes,” he said. “This will be one almighty Christmas display, 365 days a year.”

Writing in The Guardian, Labour MP for West Ham, Lyn Brown, says the site was originally public land that was sold to developers with the idea of creating new workspaces and homes, “a fitting vision for the positive legacy of the Games”.

Instead, she continues, “what we now face is a massive live entertainment venue”, covered with “garish” LEDs, programmed to display videos and adverts. This “monstrous glowing orb makes a mockery of east London’s Olympic legacy”, Brown concludes.

There has also been much bemusement on Twitter, where journalist Sirin Kale says the idea is “insane”, while fellow scribe Nadine Batchelor-Hunt asks of the plan: “For why?”

However, local man Jamie Ratcliff insists there is nothing to worry about. “Simply put no one will die from being close to some bright lights,” he tweets.

If the whole plan sounds a little “Las Vegas”, then that checks out: MSG is also building a Sphere in Sin City that’s set to open in 2023.

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