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Creating a pedestrian city through the power of celebrity

According to estimates, more than a billion people watched the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in London seven years ago, making it arguably the biggest spectacle since television began. More than a million camped out in the city to watch the procession from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey.

The funeral service itself, witnessed by 1,900 invited guests, was broadcast live to 187 countries with commentaries in 45 languages. In Britain, 31.5 million viewers - three-quarters of the adult population - watched it on television. In Japan, three of the five national television networks broadcast it live. If proof were needed of the power of celebrity or the existence of an electronic 'global village', the funeral of Diana provided it.

Yet to some minds there were other truths confirmed by this phenomenal event - the tremendous visual power of architecture multiplied by television, for one.

The route was covered by 28 outside broadcast cameras, yet for 115 minutes these cameras had nothing to focus on but the unchanging cortege, the crowds, and great buildings and monuments. With none of the pace of a sporting event, this meagre palette might have been overwhelmed, but it was not.

By means of judicious filming it became a kind of triumph.

Days before the event, the newspapers had latched on to the connection between grand architecture and grand tragedy. Every national produced a map of the funeral route. As the route was extended, the maps underwent a transformation, becoming larger and more detailed. The final metamorphosis was achieved when maps, plans and aerial photographs were abandoned in favour of perspectives spread across whole pages.

In this way the identity of the city took a new form. The newspaper graphics removed all sign of the unimportant buildings that stand between and around these grand structures, replacing them with a pale green colour wash, as though all of them stood alone in a continuous park, criss-crossed with broad pedestrian walks in place of traffic-laden streets.

Subsequent events were to suggest that these images were more than just simplified drawings.

They were an image of a future London, in which all the non-ceremonial buildings had been razed to the ground. A traffic-free city dominated by great buildings, rising like icebergs from a sea of glass. This was the vision that was to emerge from the heady chemistry of architecture and the media. All but forgotten now, only days after the funeral came the cry from the media that whole areas of central London should be closed permanently to traffic; a progenitor of the congestion charge that called for 11 square miles of the city, from Hyde Park to Tower Bridge, to be pedestrianised.

Three years before, in response to the terrorist bombing of the City of London, the authorities had already ringed the financial district with road blocks manned by armed police that effectively pedestrianised many of its streets.

Within a year these road blocks were made permanent. Downing Street, a public right of way for 300 years, had already been closed in 1986. Today the prospect of working behind guarded gates has become a reality for parliament and millions of Londoners, and this creation of 'exclusion zones' is set to continue. After the death of Diana came the proposed creation of a secure government quarter running from Trafalgar Square to the Thames. With the aid of the new popular support for an end to motor traffic, this has already been partially achieved.

But is it not ironic that the power of celebrity and the global village, and the power of architecture multiplied by television, should between them spell the elimination of the city street?

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