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June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…" © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 05 2012

Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower: the mother of all helter-skelters

Finally, after two years of planning wrangles, Britain's largest public sculpture towers over the Olympic park

Time-lapse film: constructing Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower

As planning applications go, it would be fair to say that case #10/90250/FULODA, submitted to the London boroughs of Newham and Waltham Forest planning committees in May 2010, stood out somewhat. In among the loft conversions and Victorian conservatories that mark the staple fare of the weekly planning agenda in this part of east London, this particular file put the sober case for a 115m steel tower in the form of a vast, deconstructed spiral, painted bright red, lit up at night and visible from 10km away. Did the neighbours mind?

By the time it reached the application stage, the creators of the ArcelorMittal Orbit on the Olympic site (or "Boris's Folly", as it was generally known on the blog sites) had already invited as many neighbours as possible to comment. The Big Opportunity, a conglomeration of interest groups in the vicinity, with 56 members ranging from the East London Inventors Club to the Ladies' Wing of the Followers of His [Hindu] Holiness Swaminarayan Mandir, had been consulted. Responses had been invited from interested individuals from the Orbit's "region", which stretched as far as Milton Keynes, Brighton, Canterbury and Southampton. From all this reaching out, 118 comments had been received and noted by the time of the full planning application: 39% wrote in favour of a design variously described as "beautiful", "fragile" and "feminine". The rest argued in forceful terms that it was "ugly" and "not symmetrical" and objected in no particular order to the fact that it was red, pointless, expensive and an advert for Arcelor Mittal (and quite a cheap one at that).

At an open planning meeting, one of the tower's creators, the engineer Cecil Balmond, who is responsible for some of the world's most inspired and innovative structures, recalls how he thought they had lost it. "From the floor, people just seemed to be lining up with complaints, one after the other," he recalls. "It looked pretty bad at one point. We don't want this and what is the point of that? But then after a while came the counter-arguments: Britain needs something different and new, we can't bury our heads in the sand, all that. I just stood back and listened."

By the time of that public debate, Balmond and his fellow Orbit-creator, the artist Anish Kapoor, had become rather used to explaining their ideas to committees and taking feedback. They had (mostly calmly) addressed the concerns of critics, conservationists, health and safety officers and legacy deliverers one by one. Rather than calling it a tower, they liked to refer to the Orbit as "the tallest sculpture in the UK". In response to a suggestion that this sculpture had no relevance for London or the Olympics, it was argued that "the Orbit will take on a relevance of its own" after the Games had ended. As detractors had correctly observed, the colour red was chosen "intentionally for it not to blend with its surroundings". Charged with asymmetry, they argued that it was "meant to look unstable or fluid". Those who were standing up for the beleaguered bat colonies in the area had little cause for concern either: the low levels of light on the Orbit "would have no discernible effect on the bat assemblage over the Olympic site" or, indeed, on human assemblages in the neighbouring streets.

Last week, in advance of the tower's opening, I went to talk to Balmond and Kapoor at their respective studios about how they managed to stay sane and see this strange project through. In a way, they are typical Londoners. Balmond was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Kapoor in Mumbai, India. They both came to England as students and never left. Balmond has his hi-tech base, all 3D printers and biomorphic structures, on the edge of Hackney, a mile or two from the Olympic park; Kapoor's studio is a linked complex of factory spaces that stretches all the way down a road in Camberwell, south of the river (as his fame and ambition have spread so has his workshop; it now has the feel of a kind of aerospace lab manned by medieval guildsmen). In each man's office, scale models of the Orbit have pride of place. And despite what has been a gruelling process, both Kapoor and Balmond retain a sense of boyish excitement – or perhaps simple relief.

Kapoor started out in his teens with ambitions to be an engineer and this project has more than satisfied any remaining vestiges of those dreams: "I hope," he says, "I always will have a fascination with that archaic, elemental need to feel like an ant in an ant colony. To climb up the pyramids and just feel awe at man-made structures. That was the attraction of this for me."

For a role model in that enthusiasm, Kapoor needed to look no further than the project's driving force. Boris Johnson was almost lost for superlatives when announcing that work was starting on his great scarlet tower in 2010: "It would have boggled the minds of the Romans," the mayor declaimed. "It would have dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel, and it will certainly be worthy of the best show on Earth, in the greatest city on Earth."

That was certainly the idea to begin with. The story goes that Johnson, keen to make his mark on the Olympic site that had become the fiefdom of the Tory peer Lord Coe, bumped into Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal in the lavatories at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. Grasping his opportunity with both hands, the mayor buttonholed the steel magnate about the possibility of funding a lasting symbol of London 2012, boggling the minds of Romans etc. Mittal himself confirms to me that "Boris might have even taken less time than he says to convince me... sometimes you just hear an idea that resonates with you - this was one of them." Soon thereafter, Mittal pledged £17m of his fortune to Boris's priapic fantasy and the mayor sent out a notice inviting the artists and architects of his realm to find a way of spending that money.

"Anish called me up that morning," Balmond recalls. The pair had long been friends and had collaborated on various projects including Kapoor's Marsyas, the brilliant crimson horn that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002. "He said, 'Have you seen this one?' I hadn't. Then he said, 'Shall we get together and do this? You know, rival the Eiffel Tower and so on?' And I thought, 'Well, no one's going to say no to that.' So we joined up. And then realised that there wasn't the money for the Eiffel Tower."

Kapoor and Balmond sat down with a sketch pad and thought what the reference points might be. As well as Eiffel, they thought of Tatlin's Tower (the vast constructivist monument conceived for Petrograd in the year of the Russian Revolution, but never built). And they thought, too, of the Tower of Babel, particularly Bruegel's version of it, an irregular mass of stone and humanity reaching chaotically heavenwards, like some termite's mound. And then they thought: how can we make a mythical tower new?

"Anish was saying, 'Well, all towers go up, but what can we do that is different?'" Balmond recalls. He couldn't imagine to start with. "But then I thought, everything that goes up is concentric, essentially. That's what we need to get away from. So I thought 'orbit', just as a metaphor originally." He sketched a loose ellipse on a piece of paper. "Now planetary orbits are highly unstable things, whirling around, but they are stable in the sense that they follow a fixed path. So then I drew an orbit that comes back on itself but keeps touching itself. So that was the idea."

It was to be 180m high, the platforms just stuck in as and where. With this sketch, from a starting line-up of 60 proposals, Balmond and Kapoor made the last three, alongside Antony Gormley, looking to recreate the success of his Angel of the North, and the Hackney-based architects Caruso St John. Just before he walked in to present to the first of many committees, Balmond recalls: "Someone from the mayor's office said to me, 'Do you know the budget?' And I didn't. She said it was around £25m. And I thought, 'Oh Christ!' Because what we had I knew would cost £50m to £80m. So straight away we brought it down to as low as we could go and still get a good sightline into the stadium: 115 metres."

That was only the first of a series of compromises. In this sense, as Kapoor observes the Orbit is very much of its political moment: "The basic premise was to do everything you promised for about half the money," he says, with a grin. Earlier in the week he had watched the Olympic mockumentary Twenty Twelve's take on the process. "The organising committee on the show come up with the idea that Orbit should be a symbol for promoting sexual health," he says. "But sadly they copped out half way through and don't end up putting a condom on it as planned. What is astonishing about it is how accurate it was in terms of some of the meetings we all had..."

As Balmond says, with a similar sense of weary mischief: "I suppose the story behind the story is that the competition seemed to go on for ever, round after round." The decision process lasted the best part of a year. "At one of these meetings, I said to Boris, 'Just choose someone, for God's sake. Otherwise nothing will get built.'"

Balmond and Kapoor not only had to convince Nicholas Serota and his aesthetic jury of the value of the design, but also the "legacy committee", who, full of Dome-shaped nightmares, didn't want a "white elephant, still less a red one". So there was insistence on maximum retail and restaurant areas. The elevator had risen up the outside of the tower in the original plan but that cost too much so they put it inside one of the legs. The walkways that spiral up to the viewing areas were originally open but health and safety insisted they be covered. Gaps between stair treads were also removed. "First, any space had to be too narrow for a mobile phone," Balmond recalls, "then it was a 50p piece."

After that, the Olympic delivery people, who were building the stadium site, "were instinctively against it because they had done a brilliant job of getting things ready on time and they didn't necessarily want this huge art piece in the middle of it all, potentially screwing all their plans up".

In order to minimise disruption, the Orbit was put up without scaffolding, and essentially by three men: one in a crane and two rising slowly on cherry pickers, bolting the ultimate Meccano together piece by piece. And, despite all the earlier compromises, both Balmond and Kapoor are immensely satisfied with the result, though they are tired of the question: "What is it?"

"The fact is that you will never get Orbit in 2D," Balmond says. "Its richness and its over-layers can look excessive to a certain kind of mind. But 3D and the scale are the only way to judge the piece. Even then, it's a tough aesthetic for some."

"The problem with models," Kapoor says, "is that you can't pretend scale. You have to experience it."

With this in mind, early on the morning after I had spoken to Balmond and Kapoor, I drove east to have a look at their creation. As I came down from the A12 flyover, the Orbit was rising into the gloomiest morning, like some strange helter-skelter, defiantly red against the black storm clouds (Boris Johnson's greatest regret is that it did not incorporate a slide to whizz down). The Olympic development has sought to make sense of the particularly chaotic bit of urban landscape that the tower presides over; it hasn't succeeded quite and the tangle of the Orbit seems, from all the vantage points I could find, to add to the confusion. The closer you get to it, the less sense you can make of it, beyond a smile-inducing kind of energy and movement. Which is, for better or worse, exactly what Kapoor and Balmond (and perhaps Boris and Mittal) had in mind.

You can see in it what you want, as Balmond observes. Mittal tells me that to him the Orbit "represents the essence of what the Olympics are about, pushing yourself to the limit... building the unbuildable..." (though he also likes the fact that the structure that bears his name is "a showcase for everything steel has to offer...") Pandering a little to his sponsors Balmond admits he did one "cheeky presentation" where he extrapolated the five Olympic rings from the swirl, "a bit of post-rationalisation, but they are there". More than that, though, he claims to see "a kind of semi-organised flux, which was a pretty good way of describing London in the 21st century, and all its energy frothing and bubbling round and around." That kind of thing.

Kapoor's worst nightmare, he said, would have been to create a logo or, worse, a national symbol in the manner of the Beijing Olympics. "I can clearly make sleek objects but this was not meant to be one of them." So what was it meant to be?

"It's a series of discrete events tied together," Kapoor says, which again is something approximating his idea of London. "We didn't want an icon, we wanted a kind of moving narrative. You start under this great domed canopy that sits above you, almost ominous darkness, sucking you in. Then you come up slowly to light. At the top, there is a room with two very large concave mirrors, bringing the sky in, as if you are in the lens room of a telescope. There are moments, walking round, when it looks a jumbled mess, and then at certain points you might see little harmonies and clarity. That is the kind of thing we wanted, not something that gave itself away all at once."

Kapoor and Balmond can talk about their creation in this way because they have had to. But they prefer simpler notions really. "It was just an attempt to answer the question: how do you go up if not in straight lines?" says Balmond, who plans to watch the 100m final from the top. Kapoor, meanwhile, sums up his sense of his creation with a final laugh. "Don't you think it's just amazing that they actually let us build this?" he asks, with undimmed incredulity. And the more you look at it, the more you agree.

The Orbit opens on 28 July, with tickets available to those who already have tickets to Olympic events, and after the Games to the general public. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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February 23 2012

The Routemaster's triumphant return to London

Justin McGuirk hops on board for a first look at Thomas Heatherwick's state-of-the-art redesign of the classic bus

It is known simply as "the new bus for London", but the vehicle that enters service on Monday is essentially the return of that much-loved London icon the Routemaster. This symbol of the capital was retired in 2005 and consigned to a ghoulish afterlife on countless mugs and T-shirts. Mayor Boris Johnson pledged to bring it back, and so he has. Our mayor may have no strategic vision for the city, but he has a talent for the popular gesture – and Routemaster II is one. Being able to hop on and off the back of an open bus is a Londoner's birthright, he might argue, so get hopping. But what is more encouraging about this move is the demonstrative return of good design to the capital's infrastructure.

It is not until you've taken a ride on the new Routemaster that you become fully aware of how unlovely our current fleet of buses is. For years now, they have been produced by manufacturers whose only imperatives were cost, and satisfying a growing pile of regulations. It's no wonder that stepping on to one is like entering an A&E ward: bright orange handrails everywhere, fluorescent strip lighting, baby blue flooring and a fibreglass interior that erupts into mysterious bulges in awkward places. There is nothing to be fond of.

By contrast, the original Routemaster, designed in 1954 to replace the trolley buses, remains full of rich associations for Londoners. Many of them will no doubt have sentimental memories of smoking on the upper deck or canoodling in the love seat by the staircase. So is this "new bus for London" a nostalgic throwback? Surprisingly not. It is a state-of-the-art workhorse designed to drive one of the busiest routes in the city – the number 38 from Victoria to Hackney. It may look like it's for sightseeing but it's built for rush hours.

Transport for London describe this as the first bus designed for London in 50 years. What they mean is that, while London-style buses are used country-wide, no other city in the UK faces the same heavy usage as the number 38. There are three doors, including the open platform at the rear, to facilitate quick entry and exit. In other words, this is bespoke for London in a way that the Mercedes bendy buses (axed by Boris) were not, as they ill-suited the capital's often narrow, windy streets.

The concept designer of the new bus is Thomas Heatherwick, working closely with Wrightbus, its manufacturer. When he appeared on the scene in the late 1990s he was instantly cast as a British engineering genius, the creator of weird, wonderful structures such as the UK pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Undeniably inventive, his work has sometimes erred on the side of the self-indulgent. I must confess that when I first saw his new bus, with its ribbon window winding up the rear and side, I feared the worst. It seemed just the kind of silly styling I might have expected. But in fact it merely follows the path of the two staircases, making them bright and open spaces. Heatherwick says he wanted to expose the circulation of people around the bus just as you might in a glass-fronted building, and it's a compelling idea.

This design is one of very few fanciful notions. The side of the rear staircase is styled with a self-conscious glamour, but other than that, almost every feature of the bus is subject to some regulation or other. Within those strictures, Heatherwick has done an admirable job of making this a stately vehicle. He talks about restoring some of the "grandeur" and "dignity" of riding a London bus, qualities that "had evaporated in the name of pragmatism". And I must say that, riding at the front of the top deck, one does have a sense of privilege. It's not just that this bus offers better views than any before it (except the roofless kind), it's the feeling that every detail has been designed with care. The way the ceiling is moulded and the way the interior is softly lit with LED spotlights almost suggest a plane cabin rather than a bus. With its hybrid engine, it is also quieter than other buses, and much more fuel efficient.

Heatherwick has reintroduced the bench seat of old, but with individual cushions in a bespoke livery. Bus and Tube liveries are part of the visual language of London, and pattern recognition is one of the subconscious rhythms of its commuter life. An experienced citizen can tell what line they're on just from the seat covers. Designed to hide dirt, just like all the others, Heatherwick's is one for the digital age, highlighting the contours of the cushion just as a computer modelling programme might.

Such details aside, what is most impressive about this bus is how spacious and efficient it is. I assumed that the rounded roof was a reference to the original Routemaster's shape, but it turns out that it's a way of reducing the vehicle's perceived mass – this bus is 3m longer than the original, and 1m longer than recent ones. Couple that extra size with two staircases and three doors, and passengers should find it much less of a squeeze. The Routemaster II will also bring the return of the conductor, to oversee the use of the much-vaunted open platform. But since conductors will only patrol the bus during the daytime, the open platform will alas be shut behind perspex doors at night.

Only eight of these buses will be in operation by the summer time. With an overall budget of £8m, the tabloid press is predictably whingeing about them costing £1m each. The other way of looking at it is that, amazingly, Transport for London is investing money in research and development instead of just taking whatever manufacturers give them. From here on, it won't cost much more to build one of this new breed than it does to build a boxy competitor. Whether or not the order is given to put them into production will come down to politics. In May we may have a new mayor and a new agenda. If Ken Livingstone wins, he shouldn't write this off as one of Boris's whims but embrace it as an investment in the daily life of Londoners. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 08 2011

Opposition to Dow Olympic stadium wrap deal crosses international and political boundaries

Since I lasted posted about the row over London 2012's organisers controversially awarding the Olympic stadium wrap sponsorship deal to Dow Chemical, the Indian government has urged the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to make its displeasure known to Seb and Co, and Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Commttee chairman, has joined Coe and Boris Johnson in echoing Dow's line of defence - that in 1984 it wasn't involved with the company that owned and ran the chemical plant in Bhopal that leaked catastrophically in that year, leading to the deaths of thousands of people.

Anti-Dow ampaigners, of course, think otherwise. They believe that when Dow bought Union Carbide, the firm that did own and run the plant at the time, it also also inherited an obligation to put right the enduring environmental damage the disaster did to Bhopal and its people, up to 25,000 of whom they claim have died as result of it. The IOA has ruled out a boycott by India's athletes, but has noted that pressure for the Dow deal to be dropped has acquired an international dimension. And among London politicians it has also become a bit of a cross-party issue.

Last Friday, marking the disaster's 27th anniversary, a letter organised by Barry Gardiner MP (Brent North) and Labour Friends of India was sent to Coe urging him to review the decision. As you'd expect, most of its signatories were Labourites, including the party's mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone and former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell MP. But it was also signed by senior Lib Dem Simon Hughes MP (Bermondsey), and by four Conservatives members of the Commons including Bob Blackman (Harrow East) and that famously green Tory Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park and North Kingston). Others who put their names to letter included academic Noam Chomsky, actor Martin Sheen, artist Antony Gormley and TV personality Nancy Dell'Olio.

At a press conference held beside the stadium a spokesperson for the Bhopal Medical Appeal said that responsibility for Bhopal and its legacy was being "shifted to the Indian state," by Dow and that "that's what LOCOG is supporting when it supports Dow's statements unquestioningly."

Livingstone accused to Dow of using "every legal manoeuvre to avoid honouring its obligations" and said he didn't want the Olympic stadium becoming "the target of protestors," urging LOCOG to change its position in order to pre-empt this. He added that if elected next May, two months before the start of the games, he would be "looking for a legal challenge to try and drop Dow Chemical" and in the meantime would be "writing personally to Seb Coe to say I think this is a catastrophic error and it isn't going to go away."

He's not far wrong, I'd say. Sir Robin Wales, mayor of Newham, the Olympic host borough in which the stadium stands, is another (Labour) politician to come out against the Dow deal. So has his independent Tower Hamlets counterpart Lutfur Rahman. For more on the issue, catch up with top London blogger and Sunday Express correspondent Ted Jeory's trail blazing coverage, which has now taken him to Bhopal itself. See here and here and here. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 26 2011

London 2012: Olympic flame will be lit in one year's time, but still much to do

IOC hail progress as Tom Daley dives into Aquatics Centre pool, completed on time and budget

With 366 days to go, 2012 being a leap year, until the Olympic flame is lit in east London, organisers, the government and the International Olympic Committee are queuing up to hail progress to date.

Wednesday's events to mark the milestone, which will see the £269m Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre formally handed over to organisers by the Olympic Delivery Authority and Tom Daley diving into the pool, will have an air of celebration.

"Marking one year to go, by diving in the Aquatics Centre is an incredible honour. Only a few years ago, this was a distant dream," said Daley, who finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai on Sunday. "I can't wait for next year and the honour of representing Team GB." But although world class athletes are beginning to test the venues, there remains much to do.


The Aquatics Centre is the sixth and final permanent venue to be handed over to organisers by the ODA, which has spent £7.25bn of public money building them. Chairman John Armitt said the successful completion of the venues had helped boost the image of British contractors around the world.

"It's very satisfying to be handing it over on time and keeping within the budget. It's a great tribute to everybody that has played a part in this," he told the Guardian. "It is something that as a country and an industry we should be proud of and we should try to maximise opportunities in other parts of the world while memories are still fresh about what the industry can do."

Some venues, especially the velodrome that has already been nominated for the Stirling Prize, have garnered more plaudits than others. The clean lines and simplicity of the stadium have also been praised but there has been criticism of the ugly temporary "water wings" that have been attached to the aquatics centre to boost the capacity to 17,500 for the Games. When it was designed, the high cost was justified by the signature design, which will be obscured by the temporary stands. "When you're inside it, it's fabulous," says Armitt, diplomatically.

Despite outward appearances, the London organising committee still has a huge task. Each venue must be "fitted out", a task that includes the laying of the track in the main stadium, and several major temporary venues must be built from scratch. They include a 15,000 capacity hockey stadium, a 23,000 capacity arena for the equestrian events at Greenwich Park and a 15,000 seat bowl on Horseguard's Parade for the beach volleyball.


London organising committee chief executive Paul Deighton has confirmed the last batch of 1.2m tickets that will go on sale from December will first be made available exclusively to those who took part in the initial ballot in April and have yet to get a ticket. Around 6m tickets have already been sold, considered unprecedented with a year to go, with only around 1.5m for football matches around the country and those final 1.2m across all sports – to be made available when the final seating configurations are decided – remaining. Next year, Locog also plans to sell "non-event tickets" which will allow entry to the park but not the venues.

Later this year, millions of free tickets for the live sites, with big screens and concerts in Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Potter's Fields will also be made available on a first come, first served basis. The mantra from Locog chairman Lord Coe and other organisers has been that while they understand the "disappointment" created by the huge demand, which saw 22m applications in the initial rush for tickets, they stand by the controversial process.


Ever since London was awarded the Games in 2005, transport has been considered a potential achilles heel. The ODA passed responsibility for operational matters to Transport for London last year, but retains an overall co-ordination role. The first stirrings of a backlash have already been felt about the so-called "Olympic lanes" that will whisk 18,000 athletes and officials around the capital during the Games.

They make up roughly a third of the 109-mile Olympic Route Network and have already sparked loud protests from London's black cab drivers. Meanwhile, much will rest on the ability of organisers to persuade businesses and individuals to modify their behaviour during the Games.

"The message must be business as unusual," said Armitt. They take some comfort from the variety of routes into Stratford, including the Jubilee Line and the new Javelin train from St Pancras, but will be desperate to avoid a millennium eve style meltdown.

On the nine busiest days of the Games there will be more than 1m Olympics-related journeys, with a report earlier this year warning of "extreme" conditions on a system already "creaking at the seams".


Olympics minister Hugh Robertson said that security plans needed rethinking when the coalition came to power. Before she quit, Lady Neville-Jones led a government review that resulted in the government predicting security at Games time could be delivered for £475m, though the overall £600m envelope will be retained.

Ministers and organisers have sought to play down the significance of the resignation of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, but he said in his own statement that a key reason for it was to allow time to get someone new in place for the Olympics. Locog will spend £282m on security within the venues, chiefly through contractor G4S, but there will also need to call on several thousand non-uniformed military personnel.

'Look and feel'

For all the operational challenges Coe's organising committee will face, in many ways the bigger challenge is building public enthusiasm for the Games to reach a crescendo around 27 July next year when the flame is lit. Coe has talked of Britain being a "slow burn" nation. He hopes the torch relay, which will begin at Land's End on 19 May and visit 74 locations in 70 days via 8,000 runners, will be the point at which cynicism is cast aside and enthusiasm ignites.

Part of the task will be to keep those without tickets engaged, through the big screens planned for cities throughout the country and cultural events that will culminate in Festival 2012. London mayor Boris Johnson has a budget to "dress" key areas of the city, including placing Olympic rings on the capital's landmarks. The BBC, which has promised to broadcast every event from every venue live, will also have a big role to play.


Given the relatively smooth progress of organisers to date, much of the controversy has centred on the legacy claims that helped secure the Games in the first place. The Olympic Park Legacy Company has taken on responsibility for the park after the Games and must prove it can make a commercial success of it while meeting the needs of local residents.

The fate of the stadium, the object of a furious row between Spurs and West Ham, is mired in high court litigation and it will face searching scrutiny over the affordability of thousands of homes that will be left behind, partly the athletes village.

One of the biggest challenges for the OPLC will be finding a tenant for the cavernous media centre, although there are renewed hopes that a major broadcaster may take an interest.

But even more of a challenge is the "soft legacy", with figures showing that the number of people playing sport is resolutely refusing to budge and ongoing debate about whether the predicted opportunity to get more young people engaged in sport, build links between clubs and schools and raise the profile and quality of coaching, is really being seized. They were famously planting the trees in Athens the day before the opening ceremony, but the landscaping on the Olympic Park is starting to take shape.

More than 4,000 new trees are planned, with 1,500 already planted. Over 300,000 wetland plants have been planted and there are bold claims for the Park that will be left behind. Eventually, there will be up to 11,000 new homes on the site, in the heart of an area that the Olympic Park Legacy Company hopes will be resurgent. Westfield, the giant shopping mall at the entrance to the Park and on which politicians are relying for many of their legacy claims about jobs and regeneration, opens for business in September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 14 2011

Rocking the square

London mayor Boris Johnson announces next works of art to occupy London landmark

A child on a rocking horse and a giant cockerel, both by artists based in Germany, have been chosen as the next works of art to grace the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced the selections this morning. "All of the shortlisted artists show what an extraordinary crucible the fourth plinth is for contemporary art," he said.

The child on the horse, which will take its place on the plinth next year, is by the Scandanavian duo of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, while the cockerel, which will be unveiled in 2013, is by Katharina Fritsch.

Elmgreen & Dragset's Powerless Structures, Fig 101, which will be cast in bronze, portrays a boy astride his rocking horse.

Its creators say the child is elevated to the status of a historical hero in the context of the iconography of Trafalgar Square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, the work is said to celebrate the heroism of growing up and gently question the tradition for monuments predicated on military victory or defeat.

German artist Katharina Fritsch's proposal, Hahn/Cock, is a giant cockerel in ultramarine blue. The cockerel is a popular motif in modernist art, symbolising regeneration, awakening and strength.

Johnson said the fourth plinth sparked the imagination and attracted a "tremendous response" from the public.

"As we head towards 2012 – a pivotal year for culture as well as sport – these witty and enigmatic creations underline London's position as one of the most exciting cities for art and are sure to keep people talking," he said.

The selection was made by a commissioning group chaired by Ekow Eshun. "Elmgreen and Dragset and Katharina Fritsch are distinguished artists with major international reputations," Eshun said. "Their selection further underlines the importance and reputation of the fourth plinth as the most significant public art commission in Britain.

"Both have created imaginative and arresting artworks that fully respond to the uniqueness of their location and I can't wait to see their sculptures in Trafalgar Square in 2012 and 2013."

Moira Sinclair, the London executive director of Arts Council England, said: "The fourth plinth continues to provide a wonderful platform, creating a shared moment amid the hustle of city life for thousands of Londoners and visitors alike to be intrigued, to think about their environment afresh and to experience the very best of contemporary art.

"We are pleased to continue our partnership with the mayor in recognition of the value we all place on the role of the arts in London and we offer our congratulations to Elmgreen & Dragset and Katharina Fritsch – worthy winning commissions in what is now recognised as a world class arts programme."

The fourth plinth programme, funded by the mayor of London with support from Arts Council England, selects new artworks for the vacant plinth.

A key element is to involve the public in a debate about contemporary art in public spaces. About 17,000 people commented on the shortlisted proposals at an exhibition of the proposals at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square last year and via the programme's website. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 18 2010

Crossrail designs go with the flow

British architects and engineers have shaped calm, elegant and free-flowing spaces for the capital's 2018 east-west rail link

Sudden demolitions. Unexpected views of central London opened up as if someone has taken a giant tin opener to the city's skyline. The disappearance of much loved venues, including the London Astoria on Charing Cross Road. Heated arguments over the compulsory purchase of properties along the route. A fear, even, that anthrax and bubonic plague might be released from mass 16th-century graves under Smithfield.

These urban dramas and revelations prove that, at long last, Crossrail – the £16bn mainline railway linking far-flung east and west London suburbs through four miles of tunnels between Paddington and Farringdon – is finally on its metalled march.

Today, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and Theresa Villiers, the transport minister, unveiled the designs of the eight new stations that will serve Crossrail and its 200 million future passengers each year from 2018, on a service that promises a 10-coach, air-conditioned train every two and a half minutes. As Crossrail was first announced in 1989, passengers will have waited just 29 years for their first train to arrive.

The mayor, the minister, Crossrail and its owner, Transport for London, are determined that this bold new venture will be nothing less than impressive. And efficient. "As Crossrail moves from the drawing board to reality," said Johnson today at the New London Architecture gallery, "we can see the breathtaking benefits it will bring to our city, and I'm thrilled Londoners can finally see the designs of the world-class stations we will construct. When complete, they will run east to west in a solid backbone of quality infrastructure and style."

The style of the stations, by British architects and engineers with a solid track record – among them Norman Foster, Allies and Morrison and John McAslan – appears to be sober, robust and calmly elegant. Whether in the booking offices, concourses or platforms of Paddington, Tottenham Court Road or Farringdon, every effort appears to have been made to shape generous and free-flowing spaces designed to cope with future demand. The lessons of the high-quality Jubilee line extension between Westminster and Stratford have been learned. Flow is all.

The simple finishes of the stations – concrete, aluminium, steel, glass, recessed and diffused lighting, a minimal palette of colours – reflect a belief that these structure are engineering-led and designed for optimum efficiency. The architecture of each – drawing daylight from streets above wherever possible – is free from fashion or whimsy. The sheer number of passengers passing through these spacious stations will provide more than enough noise, people and colour.

Crossrail's computer-generated images, however, show the eight central stations peopled by just a few relaxed, nattily dressed travellers who look as if they might be boarding the Orient Express rather than a commuter train to Heathrow, Shenfield, Abbey Wood or Maidenhead.

"London has a glorious railway design history," said Villiers, "that ranges from the Brunel-designed Paddington station, through Charles Holden's Tube stations of the 1920s and 30s to the revival of St Pancras International. Crossrail intends to build on this design legacy and create cost-effective stations fit for the 21st century while regenerating local communities."

After so very long, Londoners will expect trains to run on time, allowing only, perhaps, for the wrong sort of disease – bubonic plague – if not the wrong strand of design on the line. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2010

How Boris let Barclays brand London

The mayor's deal has smothered London's public spaces with what may be the largest piece of corporate branding in existence

London's long-awaited cycle-hire scheme is launched this week. While there's no doubt it's a valuable addition to the capital's public transport options, it strikes yet another blow to the idea of London as a dignified city. First of all, there's the name. Paris has the Velib, Montreal has the Bixi; what does London get? Barclays Cycle Hire. Clearly the good people at Barclays marketing thought long and hard about that one.

Maybe it's not worth getting too wound up about the name – selling the rights to popular institutions is unlikely to make anyone who watches, say, the Barclays Premier League or the Npower Championship even blink. What is new, however, is the prospect of more than a hundred kilometres of the capital's road surface being branded with corporate livery. The city's new dedicated cycle lanes – two of which recently opened, with another ten to come before the Olympics – are called "Barclays Cycle Superhighways" and painted Barclays blue.

London can now claim the dubious honour of hosting what is surely the largest piece of corporate branding in existence. It's not just the scale, the mind-blowing square footage, that is shocking about this – it's the principle. We're not talking about some supersized billboard here: we're talking about the mayor selling off the very road beneath our wheels – one of the few parts of a city that counts indisputably as public space. Whether they realise it or not, whether or not they even care, from now on thousands of cyclists are doomed to commute on a giant Barclays ad.

The sponsorship deal, worth £25m, has been presented as a coup for Boris Johnson. It has enabled him to recover some of the £140m Transport for London spent on the cycle-hire scheme and has even been presented as "payback" for the mayor's support of the banks during the credit crunch. Surely, however, £25m is a small price to pay for such an invasive piece of branding? If a city of the global stature of London can't afford to provide rental bikes without turning its urban fabric into a massive endorsement, we're in trouble.

There is something, too, in the gibes suggesting this is not just Barclays blue but Tory blue. Neither New Labour nor former mayor Ken Livingstone did anything to prevent the growing privatisation of the city, but it is hard to imagine Livingstone selling off a chunk of the public realm in such brazen fashion. Johnson seemingly lacks any sensitivity to the ethical or aesthetic side-effects of his deal-making – this is, after all, the man who condemned the Stratford Olympics site to a hideous 115m-high sculpture – precisely the kind of vainglorious ego trip the Olympics can do without – based on a 45-second chat with Britain's richest man in the cloakroom at Davos. We must be careful not to assume a loss of innocence; private ownership and interests have held sway in this city for centuries, and often cooperation between private and public bodies is the best way to meet the city's needs. However, the public realm that the Victorians handed over to municipal authorities to manage in the public good – including streets and pavements, squares, and infrastructure such as transport and sewage networks – has been under steady assault since the privatisation of the Thatcher years.

A decade ago, Naomi Klein argued in her book No Logo that we had reached a point where it seemed nothing could happen anymore without a corporate sponsor. The inevitable upshot of their growing social power was that brands wanted an expanded visual presence. T-shirt logos and media advertisements were no longer enough: branding had to be a fully immersive experience. As the superhighways prove, there is no amount of space a brand will not happily fill, with public bodies all too willing to hand it over. TfL is becoming ever more imaginative about the bits of Tube stations it will sell off to advertisers – including, now, the space between escalators and the gates of the exit barriers. Every year the Regent Street Christmas lights, once a public gesture organised by the Regent Street Association, turn a major thoroughfare into a 3D advert for some fashion label or blockbuster movie.

Increasingly entire pieces of London have become brands in their own right, a process that began in the 1980s with the privately owned Canary Wharf development. Since then, so-called "business improvement districts" have been popping up all over the capital under the banner of regeneration: Broadgate in the City, Paddington Basin, Kings Cross Central, the new Spitalfields Market, the More London development near Tower Bridge. It's a national phenomenon, too, exemplified by "malls without walls" such as Liverpool ONE or Brindleyplace in Birmingham. They might look like other parts of the city, but they are very different. Stroll through Broadgate and you'll notice the logo of developer British Land studding the pavements. These are privately owned developments, policed by private security guards who can throw you out for the slightest misdemeanour or – if you happen to be sleeping rough, say – simply for disrupting the projection of affluence. In the case of More London – a series of sterile glass blocks set amid some rather uptight landscaping on the South Bank – the very name is a deliberate deception. The developers are trying to claim this is just an ordinary piece of the city. Don't believe it.

Anyone who wants to find out more about the insidious privatisation of British cities should read Anna Minton's latest book, Ground Control. The point is that we are in danger or running out of unbranded space. Though it may seem innocuous, the branding of cycle lanes sets an all-too-exploitable precedent. As citizens we have a communal birthright, which includes the public realm. Our representatives are supposed to protect that – not sell it off to corporations who are neither responsible nor accountable for the spaces of which they claim symbolic ownership. Politicians seem only too ready to turn our cities into horizontal billboards. If we're not vigilant, the urban landscape is going to become a brandscape. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 24 2010

Yinka Shonibare celebrates Victory

Giant ship in bottle follows Antony Gormley people's art under Nelson's eye in central London landmark

The previous commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was Antony Gormley's One and Other, which allowed 2,400 people to spend an hour perched high above Landseer's bronze lions.

The daily dramas – sometimes moving, sometimes buttock-clenchingly embarrassing – enacted by members of the public became such a part of London life last summer that when Yinka Shonibare's giant ship in a 5m-long bottle was unveiled this morning it was almost anti climactic.

There was no singing, no dancing, no moving parts: just a bottled replica of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, its multi-coloured sails billowing as if in a stiff breeze.

The unveiling of the sculpture allowed the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the opportunity to show that, in the distant past, he might have read Swallows and Amazons. "Pull on the mainsail!" he cried, with rather more enthusiasm than nautical accuracy as the fabric cover failed to come off at first tug.

He also displayed his mastery of the pun. "What was the essential reason why Nelson was able to defeat the Franco-Spanish fleet? What quality did he possess that enabled him to rout the enemy fleet, establish mastery of the seas and create the conditions for the 1807 act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade? ... It was bottle, ladies and gentlemen. And it has taken an artist of Yinka's imagination to show how much bottle Nelson had."

Shonibare told the crowd: "I know what you're going to ask: you're going to ask how did you get the ship in there. Well, I'm not going to tell you."

He and his team consulted the keeper of HMS Victory, Peter Goodwin, to make the replica as accurate a representation as possible of the ship on which Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The sails are a departure. Shonibare said: "We think of these fabrics as African textiles; in fact these are Indonesian textiles produced by the Dutch for the African market. I'm interested therefore in their global nature, in the Indonesian, Dutch and indeed British connections, since they were also manufactured in Manchester."

London-born, Nigeria-raised Shonibare – who invariably refers to himself as "Yinka Shonibare MBE" – is known for his research into Britain's imperial past, often using the textiles associated with Africa as a metaphor in his investigations of colonialism.

He said: "The sails are a metaphor for the global connections of contemporary people. This piece celebrates the legacy of Nelson – and the legacy that victory at the battle of Trafalgar left us is Britain's contact with the rest of the world, which has in turn created the dynamic, cool, funky city that London is."

Reaction from people in Trafalgar Square was generally upbeat. John Loughrey, of Wandsworth, south London, said: "I like the fact that it celebrates multiculturalism, there's no prejudice here."

Penny Jones, a leadership and management coach, said it was "more interesting" than Gormley's plinth work, though she had hoped it would be "a bit bigger".

Edith Muller, from Bonn, Germany, liked "the colour, the idea, the look". She said: "The idea is very British. The whole place [Trafalgar Square] is about celebrating victory, but this doesn't offend people."

HMS Victory is still a commissioned warship, and as such has its commanding officer – a position held by Lieutenant Commander John Scivier from 2006-08.

Reviewing the sculpture with a seadog's eye, he said: "The modelling is brilliant; Yinka has done a lot of research. Nelson would be extremely proud. The sculpture epitomises the multi-ethnic nature of London, which was partly brought about by the admirals of that day."

Is Shonibare's ship seaworthy? "Probably a little bit more seaworthy than the real HMS Victory."

Additional reporting: Glenn McMahon © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 03 2010

The Orbit: £19m for a 'piece of string'? It could turn out to be a bargain

Anish Kapoor's Olympic tower will be a draw during the Games. But after that?

The success of Britain's best-loved piece of modern public art, the Angel of the North, has been a boon to the nation's sculptors. In every district, especially those scarred by an industrial past, councillors point towards Gateshead and ask: "Can we have one of those?"

Certainly, this question seems to have driven London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics with "something to arouse curiosity and wonder". Or perhaps he is looking beyond Antony Gormley's Angel, at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The result is the £19m, 115-metre, ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor, "a loop of string arrested in mid-fall", in the words of our architecture critic Rowan Moore.

So will it achieve Johnson's dreams? Our willingness to invest in public art is hugely attractive. So is our love for it. The last two decades have seen great improvements to our public spaces and the Olympic Park in Stratford should add further magic. Public art, despite sponsors' attempts to brand it, can stand as symbol to our beliefs and ambitions.

Of course, not all attempts have had happy endings. While Mark Wallinger's Ebbsfleet horse is eagerly awaited, Manchester's B of the Bang, its steel shards falling at disconcertingly inopportune moments, failed.

It is almost impossible to predict what will work, but something that speaks to our shared sense of culture seems a good bet. That the Orbit is part of that great shared endeavour of the Olympics gets it speedily from the starting blocks. It is clearly designed as a spectacle to draw people. It will achieve that, at least during the Games themselves. And after that? Too often, these sites fall into disrepair. Johnson will need to ensure the new park matches his ambitions.

And if not? Well, Kapoor's Orbit will still be worth a visit, for it will allow us to climb to the top and look away. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Is the Orbit anything more than a folly on an Olympic scale? | Rowan Moore

It's the most extravagant example of the idea that a huge, strange object can affect tens of thousands. This could be the point at which the idea stops working

It's dangerous to compare it with the Statue of Liberty. The boosters of ArcelorMittal Orbit, the £19m, 115-metre tower to be built on the London Olympic site, announce it will be taller than New York's great green lady, but it's unlikely to be as eloquent. Is the ArcelorMittal steel company, one wonders, as great a cause to be celebrated as liberty? Well, no, but the aim is that this big red sculpture, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, will do more than glorify its generous sponsor. It is the most extravagant example yet of the idea that a big, strange object can lift tens of thousands of people out of deprivation. This idea has had some successes, but the Orbit could mark the point at which it overreaches itself and we decide to try something different in the future.

According to the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Olympic site "needed something extra, something to distinguish the east London skyline, something to arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors. With £9.3bn going into the Games, we need to do everything we can to regenerate the area and ensure that crowds are still coming here in 2013 and beyond".

The Orbit is therefore to join the ranks of the Angel of the North, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye. Also of the Eiffel Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, the Rotterdam Euromast, the Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower, the Oriental Pearl TV tower in Shanghai and the Unisphere of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also of the Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang, a celebration of the late Kim Il Sung's unique fusion of Korean identity and Marxist-Leninism. The latter, at 170m, is taller than the Orbit and for some reason this is a comparison Johnson chooses not to make.

The Orbit is a landmark, an icon, a thing, a doo-dad, a wotsit. Its aim is to imprint an image on the consciousness of the world, which will also make people want to come to Stratford, east London, even after the Games have gone. It means that, as well as the new Olympic Park, the gigantic new Westfield shopping centre, and whatever might be happening in the ex-Olympic stadium, a great day out in these parts can include a ride to the top of the Orbit. By some associative magic, businesses, investors and housebuyers will want to be there more. This district, whose statistics of deprivation are often repeated, will begin to go up in the world. You might have thought that the Olympic billions were already enough to draw attention to this site, but the Orbit will be the icing on the cake.

It's not wholly fanciful that such landmarks can help lift places. No one can put a figure on jobs created or investments made in Gateshead thanks to the Angel of the North, but it has at least created a feelgood factor and sense of pride. The Bilbao Guggenheim of 1996, still the archetype of such town-boosting, certainly placed a relatively obscure city at the centre of attention.

Buildings can't do it alone and if people find their attention has been drawn only to a wasteland, they will go away again. The Guggenheim worked because there were also dull practical things in Bilbao such as new transport infrastructure and business parks. In this respect, the Orbit is in luck: Stratford, long the example of urban deprivation, has been love-bombed with train lines and parks.

But the most important ingredient of a successful icon is that it works. It has to strike a chord, sound the right note, catch a mood, win hearts and confound sceptics. It must justify the spending of money that might otherwise go on kidney machines or rehousing Haitians. It is a risky business: for every Angel of the North there are many more unloved rotting wrecks that no one has the nerve to demolish.

Here I fear for the Orbit. It's true that Kapoor is a crowd-puller and his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy drew unprecedented numbers for a one-man show by a living artist. But his Olympic monument seems to lack the pith and succinctness with which he usually engages people. His temporary Tarantantara of 1999 (another jewel of Gateshead) was a wonderfully direct construction of two giant funnels that created striking optical effects. His Marsyas in Tate Modern did something similar. Next to these, the Orbit looks ponderous and confused. Its basic concept seems simple, of making a giant structure that is something like a loop of string arrested in mid-fall, but this simplicity is compromised by the stairs and lifts needed to get people into it.

During the two-and-a-bit weeks of the Olympics, it will be animated by crowds descending its stairs, but it's hard to imagine this ever happening again, least of all in the damp east London Februaries of the future. The main thrill it offers is of a view slightly better than that enjoyed by residents of nearby tower blocks and less good than that of bankers in the towers in Canary Wharf. This doesn't seem enough to justify such an effortful work or the maintenance costs.

It's hard to see what the big idea is, beyond the idea of making something big, and the official blurbs don't add much light. These are full of words such as "wonderful", "incredible", "spectacular" and much-repeated "greats". There is some 24-carat guff. The work is variously said to be like "an electron cloud moving" and to have "this sense of energy, twist and excitement that one associates with the human body as it explodes off the blocks down the 100m straight".

Johnson also references his kids, in an ominous echo of Blair's belief that the Millennium Dome could be justified by the pleasure it would give young Euan. As with the Dome, it seems that grandiosity has caused a group of smart people, including Johnson, Kapoor and Balmond, to do something dumb. They all laughed, of course, when Christopher Columbus told them that the world was round and it's possible that in two-and-a-bit years we sceptics will be humbled by the joy and majesty of the Orbit. Right now, it threatens to be an urban lava lamp. It might look fun on 25 December, but by the 27th you're cursing the need to change its bulbs. So what else could be done with this creative energy and £19m?

It could have gone into beautifying those parts of Stratford where people live. It could ensure that the aquatic centre and other Olympic venues have enough money to keep running after the Games. It could have paid for uplifting places as needy as Stratford, but without its celebrity. It could have helped in making the safety-first architecture of the Olympic buildings a little less boring, so there would have been no need for another injection of excitement. But these would have been less good advertising for ArcelorMittal and you couldn't have compared them to the Statue of Liberty. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 31 2010

Move over, Eiffel

Mayor Boris Johnson unveils designs for 'Britain's answer to the Eiffel tower', to be built in Olympic park

Designs for what will be Britain's biggest piece of public art, a 120 metres tall looping tower by the artist Anish Kapoor that people will be able to climb, giving spectacular views of London, were unveiled today by Boris Johnson, mayor of London.

Kapoor's Orbit, a vast, snaking steel structure, will dominate the 2012 Olympic park. It is being hailed as London's answer to the Eiffel tower and is part of an ambition to make the Olympics site a permanent visitor attraction.

Kapoor won the commission from a shortlist of bidders believed to include the artist Antony Gormley and the architects Caruso St John. Johnson said of Kapoor: "He has taken the idea of a tower and transformed it into a piece of modern British art. It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel."

The structure will officially be called the ArcelorMittal Orbit, after steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Europe, who is funding it. Johnson said that if he and Mittal had not bumped into each other in a Davos cloakroom "we would not be where we are today".

Mittal said: "This project is an incredible opportunity to build something really spectacular for London, for the Olympic games, and something that will play a lasting role in the legacy of the games."

The structure will cost about £19.1m. Johnson said: "Of course some people will say we are nuts – in the depths of a recession – to be building Britain's biggest ever piece of public art. But both Tessa Jowell [Olympics minister] and I are certain that this is the right thing for the Stratford site, in games time and beyond."

Kapoor has collaborated on the project with his friend Cecil Balmond, one of the world's leading structural engineers. Approximately 1,400 tonnes of steel will be used. The plan is for work to begin soon with a completion date of December 2011.

Kapoor said one of his references was the Tower of Babel. "There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It's a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 05 2009

Critical Eye

Round-up of reviews

'Tis the season for Christmas round-ups and "Books of the Year" lists. "The publication of the magnificent six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters will count for many art lovers as the book event of the year," Rachel Campbell-Johnson announced in the Times, although in the Sunday Times Frank Whitford went one better: "It has already been declared by some not so much book of the year as of the decade." "This is a rare treasure," Margaret Drabble agreed in the New Statesman, "and a joy to handle and to read." A snip at £325.

"Historical ignorance breeds political apathy, and it is this deficiency that two excellent books will correct," Dan Jones noted in the Times, recommending David Horspool's The English Rebel and Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty?. "Both these books felt extremely relevant in a year of expenses scandals, the G20 protests and backbench rebellions in parliament." Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Telegraph also chose The English Rebel, describing it as "a wonderfully old-fashioned narrative in which few pages pass without somebody losing his head to a masked axeman". Elsewhere in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson chose Stanley I Presume by his father: "It is a rip-roaring read and I hope it helps him to break down the barriers of political correctness and win the safe Conservative seat he so richly deserves."

"The novel that has dominated the year is Hilary Mantel's magnificent Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall," Lorna Bradbury wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "The triumph of the novel is its modern sensibility, which keeps it just the right side of pastiche." "Tour de force is a term much overused," Erica Wagner said in the Times, "yet it is applicable here: all Mantel's gifts are on display in this novel painting a searing portrait of intrigue at the court of Henry VIII." Other favourites included Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn ("A work of such skill, understatement and sly jewelled merriment could haunt you for life," Ali Smith warned in the Times Literary Supplement), JM Coetzee's Summertime ("Coetzee is back on form as the world's best novelist in English," Nicholas Shakespeare declared in the Daily Telegraph) and AS Byatt's The Children's Book ("Easily the best thing Byatt has written since Possession," Peter Kemp wrote in the Sunday Times). Robert Harris's Lustrum is dedicated to Peter Mandelson, who claimed it as his book of the year in the New Statesman. "You will not need to be a political animal to enjoy his vivid reconstruction of life at the top in ancient Rome," observed the Prince of Darkness.

"The most bracing read was The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1940," Seamus Heaney declared in the Times Literary Supplement, "a portrait of the Dubliner as a young European with a hard gemlike gift for language, learning and mockery." "Seamus Heaney has released a Collected Poems, reading each of his 12 collections on a series of CDs," Paul Batchelor recommended in the Times. "After countless critical appraisals, it is wonderful to be sent back to the poems by the man himself." "The single piece of literature that affected me most was Carol Ann Duffy's 'Last Post', marking the deaths of WWI veterans," Ian Hislop said in the Daily Telegraph. "When she became poet laureate some doubted whether 'public poetry' was possible any more. When I heard this poem read at Westminster Abbey, I knew they were wrong." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 03 2009

Boris Johnson held back information over Veronica Wadley appointment

Leaked emails challenge mayor of London's insistence that he had delivered 'very full disclosure' in Arts Council row

Boris Johnson held back information that showed his staff discussed a strategy to put the culture secretary "under more pressure to let our appointment stand" after the mayor of London recommended Veronica Wadley for a top London arts job.

Emails have emerged that challenge the mayor's insistence earlier this week that he had delivered "very full disclosure" of correspondence relating to the appointment of the chair of the London Arts Council to give "as full a picture as possible" of events.

Correspondence sent in September between Johnson's private secretary, Roisha Hughes, his cultural adviser, Munira Mirza, and Tom Middleton, a City Hall officer, show a flurry of exchanges while the mayor was waiting to hear whether Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, would back his recommendation to appoint Veronica Wadley, the former editor of the London Evening Standard, to the job.

Johnson rejected the view of the chair of the Arts Council for England, Liz Forgan, and an independent member of the panel that held the first round of interviews, who claimed Wadley lacked arts credibility – and recommended Wadley for the post at the end of July – just after the parliamentary recess had begun.

In September, Mirza, who is also a member of the board of the London Arts Council, wrote to discuss interim arrangements because the incumbent chair, Lady Hollick, was about to step down from the post after completing two terms and Bradshaw had still not given a verdict on Johnson's recommendation.

In comments that suggest Johnson's team was braced for a veto – which was confirmed in early October – Hughes wrote back to say: "Is it imperative there is a chair in place? We may prefer to keep the pressure up by keeping the position empty."

Mirza replied: "Fair point. Let's see what happens." A further contribution was made by Middleton: "I agree with Roisha that not having a chair in place will put the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] under more pressure to let our appointment stand."

The next month, Bradshaw wrote to Johnson to say he had rejected the recommendations on the grounds that the selection process was believed to have breached two of the Nolan principles which protect public appointments from political interference – prompting charges of cronyism against Johnson.

The leaked emails sent by Johnson's staff were not included in either bundles of documentation published at two intervals by the mayor following a request from Len Duvall, the Labour group leader on the London assembly, for "all GLA correspondence (written and digital) relating to the appointment of chair of the arts council in London", on 9 October.

Johnson told Duvall on 30 October that his request was being treated as a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Hundreds of pages were released under the FoI at the end of last week. Duvall then asked the mayor to clarify what information had been excluded. He also requested "as an assembly member ... information I am entitled to in order to carry out my [scrutiny] function as an elected member of the assembly".

The mayor replied, saying that "in due course it will need to be determined whether or not there is any confidential information you are entitled to see in private in this basis".

He included the release of further correspondence to "provide as full a picture as possible" to the London assembly, which is the cross-party elected scrutiny body which holds the mayor to account.

Johnson explained: "I have gone further than I implied in my letter of 27 November in that I have, in the public interest, released correspondence from the Arts Council and the DCMS so as to provide you and your fellow assembly members with as full a picture as possible. I am sure you will agree that a response of 580 sides of A4 indicates very full disclosure."

Johnson went on to bullet-point five criteria for exemption, including "a very limited number of email exchanges and drafts of documents whose disclosure I have deemed would have been prejudicial to the effective conductive of public affairs".

The probe over events that led to Johnson choosing Wadley for the role continues, with two letters due to be dispatched to seek clarification around the selection process due to differing accounts issued to date.

Dee Doocey, chair of the assembly's economic development, culture, sports and tourism committee, is set to seek clarification from Mirza over evidence she gave to the committee in October.

Doocey will also write to City Hall's chief executive, Leo Boland, to ask him to clarify how the second process will be run, following Johnson's decision to readvertise the post rather than select one of the three candidates who were put on the final shortlist.

The timetable for interviews outlined by Johnson now means that he is unlikely to make a recommendation to the culture secretary until late March at the earliest, just weeks before the general election.

It is unclear whether Wadley intends to apply again. The Guardian has approached her for comment.

Liz Forgan is also the chair of the Scott Trust, the parent body that controls Guardian News and Media.

Read more on this issue on Dave Hill's London blog

Veronica Wadley - yet more mail

Veronica Wadley: Six days in July © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 02 2009

How Boris lost his shine | Dave Hill

The mayor of London's quest to land a friend and old ally a cushy job looks worryingly like cronyism

A chap can push his luck too far, even when his name is Boris Johnson. You know the one I mean: clever, funny, a bit accident-prone and sort of sexy if he's your kind of blond. He gets away with things, too, and does so in a knowing way that confirms his disarming roguery. But the shine can come off even the most dazzling chancer when his cavalier style starts to look like arrogance, and his disrespect for boundaries like plain old opportunism. Mayor Boris of London is in danger of sliding that way.

Just 18 months into his term he is routinely accused of drift, ineptitude and attention-seeking – while at the same time dodging scrutiny. To this list some now add that he is taking the wrong sort of care of an old friend. A fat file of correspondence has been published on the Greater London Authority website following a request by one of Johnson's Labour opponents. It relates to his dauntless quest to get a friend and erstwhile media ally a nice little quango job. The story told by the file's 660 pages contains pregnant gaps and many ambiguities but the clear central narrative is of a political machine working hard to make what could easily be taken for classic cronyism look respectable.

The alleged crony in question is Veronica Wadley who, as editor of the Evening Standard during the 2008 mayoral election campaign, daily waged a zealous war against Johnson's opponent Ken Livingstone. In some ways, it did her no good: under a new owner the first large act of her successor was to woo lost readers by launching an advertising campaign apologising for the previous regime. Johnson, though, has remained a Wadley fan.

In late April this year, the couple lunched. Afterwards, Wadley wrote Johnson a note, daintily seeking his blessing to apply for the post of chair of Arts Council England's London region which he had "mentioned" while they dined. Three people presided at her subsequent first interview. One was Munira Mirza, Johnson's culture adviser. The other two were ACE chair Liz Forgan (who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian) and Sir David Durie, a former governor of Gibraltar, who provided independent oversight.

Durie, as was later made clear to him, was a panellist without a vote. But he knows what he saw, and didn't like what happened next. Both he and Forgan considered Wadley to lack the necessary arts background, and claim that she interviewed markedly less well than three other candidates before her. Both claim it was agreed at the end of the interview meeting that those three, and not Wadley, would go forward to a second, final interview with the mayor. Both made clear their dismay on learning a few days later that, in fact, the mayor intended interviewing Wadley anyway at the expense of one of the other three.

Johnson later consented to seeing the elbowed candidate too, but required little time to make his final choice. Wadley was the last of the four he saw. Her appointment with him, witnessed only by a senior GLA official, was for 3.30pm on 24 July. A letter informing her that she was the mayor's pick was being drafted by 5.15pm on the same day. The saga didn't end there. Johnson needed culture secretary Ben Bradshaw's approval of his choice. After consulting Forgan, Bradshaw declined to oblige. Johnson's riposte has been to start a rerun of the whole process, scheduling it to end handily close to an expected change of government and surely heartened by shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's indication that he, unlike Bradshaw, wouldn't prevent Johnson from getting his way. The job was re-advertised on Monday. Aside from Wadley, it seems that only rejection addicts need apply.

As the correspondence file shows, many around the mayor have striven to ensure that the jolly buccaneer they serve has acted legally and in accordance with written protocol. Mirza has provided a different version of what that first interview meeting concluded. Johnson has told Forgan that were it not for his goodwill she wouldn't have been involved in the first place, and emphasised that the ACE London job is – thanks to the Labour government, by the way – a mayoral appointment, after all.

But the real story here is that Johnson has exploited the process's potential for being reduced to a farce, and done so in order that it generates the outcome he desires – no matter how unfair to others that might be. He's shown no flicker of embarrassment about this. Neither has Wadley. Same old Tories. Same old inflated sense of entitlement. If I were David Cameron, I'd have a word. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 13 2009

Arts Council England chair blasts Boris

Liz Forgan appears to target London mayor Boris Johnson for trying to appoint 'crony' Veronica Wadley to London post

The chair of Arts Council England has launched an impassioned attack on political interference in the organisation. It comes after a row over accusations that London mayor Boris Johnson attempted to appoint a "crony" as chair of the body's London office.

Liz Forgan called for the "arm's length" principle of Arts Council England, which was established to protect the funding body from direct political influence, to be upheld. She said: "[It is a] principle by which government contributes to the support of the arts through a mechanism that is separate from party politics. It has served us all very well."

The comments by Forgan – who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian – may be seen as a reference to Johnson's attempted appointment of former London Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley as chair of Arts Council London.

Under Wadley's editorship the Standard was a staunch supporter of Johnson's election campaign. In a letter to the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, leaked to a newspaper last month, Forgan, who sat on the interview panel for the post, said Wadley was less qualified than the other three candidates. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 06 2009

Bring the curtain down on the Ben and Boris show | Charlotte Higgins

For the sake of our cultural life, politicians like Bradshaw and Johnson should leave political drama to the arts

Art and politics have always been, and always will be, locked in a complicated and often uncomfortable dance, from Velázquez's double-edged depiction of Pope Innocent X to Mark Wallinger's Turner prize-winning State Britain – a meticulous recreation of Brian Haw's Parliament Square peace camp.

But politics and art have now become entangled in a manner at best unedifying, at worst damaging, to cultural life.

It started last month when a newspaper ran a leaked letter from Liz Forgan, the chair of Arts Council England, to Ben Bradshaw, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. (Full disclosure: Forgan also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian.) In it she stated her opposition to the appointment by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, of the former editor of the London Evening Standard Veronica Wadley as chair of the London office of Arts Council England, saying that Wadley was "manifestly less qualified than three of her competitors". Bradshaw vetoed Wadley, whose newspaper was a supporter of Johnson's mayoral campaign, on the grounds that the appointment contravened the Nolan rules on standards in public life – in short, that Johnson was trying to insert a crony.

If you ever assumed the arts were a political backwater, think again: this has become a half-comic, half-tragic row that has revealed deep partisan faultlines and jagged party-political rifts.

Johnson was next to rush into correspondence, accusing Bradshaw of leaking Forgan's letter during the Conservative conference, and of vetoing Wadley on political grounds. She was, he said, a credible candidate – indeed, the only woman candidate. Bradshaw, in turn, wrote to David Cameron, complaining about a contravention of Nolan principles. And last week Forgan wrote to the Guardian to say that she had opposed Wadley not because of her politics, but purely on the grounds of her qualifications for the role. She also stated: "The mayor's choice was not a name the interviewing panel agreed should go forward to him for consideration."

Amid this flurry of letter-writing, bitter political enmities have been flushed out. Forgan, who occupies a key public role with Arts Council England, appears distinctly out of favour with the Conservatives: while publicly praising her as a distinguished public servant, in private they suggest she is too bound up with Bradshaw, and brand her a "leftie". Bradshaw, meanwhile, in a speech to the Progress Labour group on Monday, even claimed that the Tories are ready to oust Forgan should they win the next election; and in his letter to Cameron urged him to "withdraw this threat" to her.

Bradshaw has proved a loose cannon. The wildest claim in his Progress speech concerned the play Enron, whose run at the Royal Court Theatre in London finishes tomorrow. He said: "I saw Enron last week and the idea that a Tory patsy running the London Arts Council would find money to fund a play like Enron – forget it." Leaving aside the undistinguished phrasing ("Tory patsy") this is an unhelpful claim – Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative shadow, had not only seen the play but had written to congratulate the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, on the production.

The unpleasant scene before us is of the incumbent political establishment slugging it out with that which is itching to succeed it. Most of us will feel satisfied to leave them to their own devices. Bradshaw said in his Progress speech: "We need a few more luvvies to be jumping up and down about [the Arts Council appointment], because that is not happening at the moment." What he is failing to see is that most "luvvies" (a slighting word that will not endear him to the artistic community) will conclude that the way to navigate this ugly scene is to edge past it as quietly as possible.

But there are losers in all this. The most obvious is Arts Council London.Johnson has announced that the recruitment for the organisation's chair will be re-run from scratch. The process is now so discredited that one wonders who will put themselves up for this £7,000-a-year post. The other candidates were Tim Marlow, the exhibitions director at the White Cube gallery; the media investor Patrick McKenna; and Nicholas Snowman, the former general director of the Southbank Centre. They would require superhuman levels of patience and fortitude to put themselves through applying for the post a second time.

The second loser is the reputation of Arts Council England as a whole, the founding principles of which state that it must operate at arm's length from government – to provide a buffer between artists and politicians, protecting the arts from direct political interference. It is true that this buffer zone will always be somewhat porous. Look in detail at, say, the recently announced commissions for the Arts Council-funded Cultural Olympiad scheme, Artists Taking the Lead, and you will see how precisely the chosen projects elide with soft-political cultural buzzwords such as "participation" and "public engagement" – and it's a matter of taste whether one thinks that a good or a bad thing.

Nonetheless, the arm's length principle has essentially worked since its establishment six decades ago. It is now at risk. The London chair is the only such Arts Council post to be appointed by a political figure (a concession given to the former mayor, Ken Livingstone). It is time for the recruitment process to be brought back in line with the other regional chairs, who are appointed by the Arts Council itself without political involvement. It is also a matter of regret that Forgan, who has been welcomed by the arts world as Arts Council chair since taking up her role in January, has been swept into a political row.

The most important potential losers are the arts, and artists. Lucy Prebble's Enron is, mercifully, too robust a production to be dented by having been drawn into this kerfuffle; a lesser enterprise could easily have been diminished. In his speech on Monday, Bradshaw said – paraphrasing Jennie Lee, arts minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s – that "the job of government in culture and the arts is to create the climate for them to flourish, and to secure the funds, and then to step back and let them get on with it". It is time for all the politicians involved in this debacle to follow her advice. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2009

Sir Keith Park takes to the plinth

• Trafalgar Square honour for air chief marshal
• Veteran unveils statue of 'very humble' commander

After the campaigners, the self-publicists and the ordinary joes comes the RAF hero. It was a return to tradition today as a temporary statue of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the man who more than anyone helped win the Battle of Britain, was unveiled in Trafalgar Square.

On a greying winter afternoon, a Spitfire and a Typhoon aircraft flew overhead before the fibreglass statue was unveiled on the empty fourth plinth, where it will remain for six months. A permanent bronze version by the same sculptor, Leslie Johnson, will then be erected in nearby Waterloo Place.

Today's ceremony follows an altogether different use of the plinth: 100 days during which 2,400 ordinary people stood there for an hour at a time as part of the artist Antony Gormley's One & Other project, the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions for the plinth that began 10 years ago with Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo and has included Marc Quinn's statue of a pregnant Alison Lapper, Rachel Whiteread's resin cast of the plinth itself and Thomas Schütte's bird hotel.

The decision by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, to allow a temporary statue of Park is a victory for a well-organised and focused campaign run by the millionaire financier Terry Smith. So far, it has cost him more than £500,000, although he said: "I've never added it up as I suspect it would make me feel bad."

Park is seen as an unsung hero, a man who as RAF commander in south-east England played a definitive part in ensuring the Luftwaffe bombing campaign did not achieve its ultimate aim – defeating the RAF ahead of invasion.

Smith said his love of history, passion for flying planes and the fact his father was in the RAF probably combined to make him rather driven when it came to the Park campaign. "The bigger reason is that we are righting a wrong. If there is one man who won the Battle of Britain it is Sir Keith Park."

Remarkably, Park's name is not even mentioned in the 1941 official history of the Battle of Britain and Park was effectively sacked after the battle because of tactical differences.

His relatives gathered for the unveiling. His great-great nephew, Terence Stevens-Prior, said Park had always refused to talk about the Battle of Britain. "He was a very proud man, but very humble. With the statue he would have probably been asking what all the fuss was about, but I think he would have been pleased."

The statue was unveiled by an RAF veteran, Bob Foster, chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighters' Association. He recalled meeting Park when he came down to "chat with the blokes. He wasn't an arrogant man by any means. He was a deep thinker, not bombastic, which is probably why he didn't get the credit he deserved."

At the ceremony Johnson said Smith had encouraged him to read up on Park and "I could not believe how much he had done on behalf of this country and how little this country knew about what he had done".

The Park campaign had initially lobbied for a permanent statue but Smith said he was reconciled to six months. There has been speculation that the plinth is being saved for a statue of the Queen on horseback after her death.

Park joins three men on the other plinths who, in truth, few people could name. George IV – played as stupid and extravagant by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third – stands on the north-east plinth. And two generals occupy the others, statues Ken Livingstone proposed getting rid of in 2000 because of their "irrelevance" to modern London: General Sir Charles James Napier, best known for his victories against Muslim rulers in Sindh, now Pakistan; and Sir Henry Havelock, who suppressed the Indian mutiny of 1857.

The memorial to Park, a New Zealander, is also seen as commemorating the huge numbers of Commonwealth citizens who have served alongside British forces.

There will be some who will miss the fun of having contemporary art in the square. Smith said he had nothing against it as such — "I think it is a very fine thing and I own several contemporary art works including some Roy Lichtenstein prints" — but that Trafalgar Square was not the place.

Others disagree and after the statue of Park, contemporary art returns in the form of a scale model of HMS Nelson, in a glass bottle, by Yinka Shonibare. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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