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Cities are more than occupied billboards

Advertising physically separates us from the lived experience of the urban fabric, however ugly or beautiful, says Joseph Rykwert

If you, as I often do, drive over Waterloo Bridge in London, you will have to negotiate the roundabout at the south end of it. For nearly a decade it has been occupied by the cylinder of the IMAX cinema (1999), which belongs to the British Film Institute (BFI). The building, designed by architect Bryan Avery, rises out of a creeper-covered pergola that shelters the tunnel to the BFI buildings (also by Avery) that huddle underneath the bridge.

The cylinder is carefully detailed. Its opaque inner wall shelters the complex IMAX technology (high-fidelity images projected on a quasi-domical screen), while the outer wall is glass. Avery thought that if the inner surface - 12m high, with a circumference of 52m - was treated by an artist, it would give motorists and passers-by a unique, exhilarating, but not distracting spectacle.

Artist Howard Hodgkin provided a splendid image-in-the-round that remained until 2006. But imagine Avery’s horror when he was assailed by calls from the inhabitants of a neighbouring building, who told him that they were now forced to stare at photos of teenagers in their smalls. With no word to the architect, the BFI had turned the circular wall, conceived as a showcase for the best of British art, into a graceless billboard.

The BFI, like any semi-public body, can claim it is underfunded and needs the cash. Of course, being a grant-aid body, it will only receive a fraction of any large advertising revenue. But being, by its own admission, semi-public implies a social responsibility that is not properly acquitted by turning its most conspicuous display into a billboard.

A few months after the BFI dust-up, revulsion at the persistent stifling of our streets by grasping commerce provoked a clinch in one city - São Paulo in Brazil. Conservative and populist mayor Gilberto Kassab and his council prohibited all advertising in the public realm in the ‘Cidade Limpa’ (‘City Clean’) campaign. São Paulo collected US$8 million (£5.5 million) in fines from refractory advertisers who were slow to obey the new regulations.

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