As planning applications go, it’s certainly got balls. Or, to be precise, one massive ball. A gigantic glowing orb, as wide as the London Eye and almost as tall as Big Ben, is planned to descend on Stratford, bulging on to the skyline like a great artificial sun, dazzling the East End with the power of 36m LEDs.
This is the MSG Sphere, the latest live entertainment concept from New York’s Madison Square Garden company, purveyors of high-octane razzmatazz since 1879. “The world’s most famous arena” in Manhattan has hosted everyone from the Rolling Stones to Muhammad Ali beneath its great circular roof; but, in London, they want to go one better. The sphere, they say, is designed for “the next generation of immersive experiences”, featuring the biggest and highest-resolution screen in the world, an “infrasound haptic system” of vibrating floors, and “beamforming” audio technology to channel sound to every seat. But its most extreme, and controversial, feature is what’s on the outside: the building’s facade is a five-acre spherical TV screen, like Times Square rolled into a ball. It is set to glow 24 hours a day, covered with animated adverts for half the time, flickering right outside people’s bedroom windows.
“Our friends have joked that it will at least reduce our electricity bills,” says Ceren Sonmez, who lives opposite the proposed site. “We’ll never have to switch the lights on, day or night.”
Sonmez and her husband moved into a shared ownership flat on the third floor of Legacy Tower in Stratford in 2018, across the railway line from where the sphere will rise next to the Westfield shopping centre. On the day they picked up their keys, they found a leaflet on the doormat advertising a public consultation for the project nearby, so they ran straight over.
“We suggested it wasn’t an appropriate development for a residential area,” says Sonmez. “But the guy just said: ‘If you don’t like noise and crowds, you shouldn’t have moved to Stratford.’ I’ve lived in east London all my life and never imagined something like this would be built here. Nobody expects a gigantic ball of light to arrive on their doorstep, no matter where they live.”
Except, perhaps, in Las Vegas. If the project looks like something airlifted from Sin City, well, that’s because it is. Despite the claim that the London sphere will be “like nothing you’ve ever experienced”, MSG is currently building an almost identical project next to the Venetian resort in Vegas, set to open in 2023. Brainchild of MSG boss James Dolan, a major donor to Donald Trump’s campaign, the $1.8bn blob joins a fantasy land of fake canals and artificial skies. It makes a fitting addition to the world capital of glowing billboards, standing as the apogee of 360-degree advertising, the ultimate building-as-sign. It is the stuff of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s neon-soaked dreams.
You might argue that post-Olympics Stratford is the closest thing that London has to the anything-goes free-for-all of the Vegas Strip. Stratford High Street is now lined with its own special gauntlet of tacky towers, some rainbow-hued by night, while the Olympic Park is no stranger to architectural whimsy. It is home to a velodrome shaped like a Pringle, a swimming pool in the form of a chubby stingray, and an observation tower that looks like a mangled rollercoaster. What better place to put a colossal pulsating orb, full of 21,500 concert-goers?
Right next door to the 60,000-capacity London Stadium might not be the best place, for a start. The narrow corridors of Stratford station are often congested to breaking point and have reportedly witnessed commuters being trampled. MSG insists it will work with the stadium to avoid event clashes “where practicably possible”, but locals remain concerned.
“We don’t think Stratford residents should be guinea pigs for something this huge,” says Lindsay Mace, a member of the Stop MSG Sphere campaign group. “From the station overcrowding to increased traffic, noise and light pollution, it’s both ridiculous and obscene that this thing is even being considered.”
The immense globe has made a remarkable journey, from looking like an April Fools’ Day prank to now seeming quite likely to happen. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the mayoral body charged with overseeing the fate of the Olympic park and its surroundings, has scheduled a planning committee date for September, where the result of MSG’s 3,000+ page application will finally be decided. But how did it get this far?
The 1.9-hectare (4.7-acre) triangular site in question has mostly been ignored by the many Olympic legacy masterplans. It was always seen as an unpromising armpit around the back of Westfield’s car park, hemmed in by railway lines, and vaguely allocated for “town centre uses which respect the existing character, scale and massing” in the current plan. The site was publicly owned by London & Continental Railways, and served as a coach park during the Olympics, before being sold to Westfield for £9m in 2015. The Australian mall owner had plans for an indoor ski slope, enthusiastically backed by then-mayor Boris Johnson, but the idea was binned and the site sold on to MSG in 2017 for a whopping £60m.
How could a scrap of railway land have increased more than six times in value in two years, without planning permission being granted, nor a clawback mechanism put in place to capture some of that value for the public good? Was MSG given some kind of tacit assurance that their gargantuan sphere would be permitted, against the principles of the local plan?
Campaigners’ suspicions were raised further when they realised that MSG’s president of development and construction, Jayne McGivern, who has led the sphere project since 2018, was an LLDC board member from 2012 to 2016. A freedom of information request revealed that, between 2017 and 2019, there were 33 unminuted meetings between the legacy corporation and MSG’s team, including regular private phone calls between McGivern and LLDC boss Lyn Garner.
An LLDC spokesperson says: “Like all local planning authorities, LLDC regularly discusses major strategic development sites with landowners, as is standard practice, works proactively with applicants to discuss development proposals and tries to resolve issues with developments prior to formal submission. The level of engagement with the applicant and other stakeholders through public consultation is entirely in keeping with the scale and complexity of this particular application.” An MSG spokesperson agreed, insisting there has never been a conflict of interest and no prior assurances were given.
The anti-sphere campaign has not been without its controversies either. In 2019, it was revealed that the “Newham Action Group”, a vocal platform against the project, was an organisation created by a PR firm on behalf of AEG, operator of the rival O2 Arena. The Greenwich concert venue has waged an elaborate war against MSG, hiring an army of PR agencies and planning lawyers to pick apart every detail of the application. Their arsenal includes surreal videos of what the view from Sonmez and her neighbours’ flats would look like if the sphere went ahead – a permanent Blade Runner dystopia of animated ads beamed through their windows.
If the project is approved, there will be plenty of uncharted territory to keep the lawyers busy. “Excessive displays of Christmas lights have appeared before the courts in the past in neighbours’ disputes,” says Bryan Johnston, head of property litigation at Dentons, the law firm working for AEG. “This will be one almighty Christmas display, 365 days a year.” The right to light is a well established planning principle, but what about the right to darkness? MSG says it will put the sphere in “low luminance” mode from midnight to 6am in summer and 7am in winter – but that still means that, in the darker months, it will already be at its brightest before sunrise.
The sphere’s fate will be a litmus test of how democratic London’s decision-making process really is. Newham, the borough the site is in, is firmly against it. The council has objected on numerous grounds, from traffic and air quality to light pollution and employment. Neighbouring Hackney is also opposed, criticising the likely “harmful ecological impact” on Lee Valley to the north. But, like the Docklands Development Corporation which ushered in Canary Wharf in the 1980s, the largely unaccountable LLDC trumps local views. Of 12 members on the corporation’s planning committee, only five are elected local councillors. As MP for West Ham, Lyn Brown says: “Unelected members of the LLDC board and planning committee frequently outvote elected borough representatives and this has often resulted in development that fails to benefit local people. Permitting the sphere would be a betrayal of the Olympic legacy.” As the legacy corporation is soon set to be wound up, with planning powers reverting to the boroughs in 2024, is it right that they should be the arbiter of a project with such far-reaching consequences on the area?
Other opposition has been gradually diluted by a drip-feed of additional reports and mitigation strategies from MSG that purport to answer the concerns. Transport for London raised serious worries over station capacity and the danger of train drivers being distracted by the swirling LEDs, but now says it is “working constructively” so that the issues “can be effectively mitigated”. Network Rail’s objections have also been reduced. Critics point out that its chair, Sir Peter Hendy, also chairs the LLDC, and had unminuted meetings with MSG, though there is no suggestion of impropriety.
The LLDC’s decision will ultimately be referred to the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He was enthusiastic about welcoming “another world-class venue to the capital, to confirm London’s position as a music powerhouse” when the sphere was announced in 2018; yet the following year, his planning officers’ first report concluded that it did not comply with his own London Plan. He is in a bind. Will he side with the Labour borough and listen to the locals, or back his development corporation in the hope of using this brash bauble to buff the capital’s post-Brexit brand?