Home > Architecture & Urban Design, Things I Like... > Advertising on the Thames (Part 1)

Advertising on the Thames (Part 1)

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

A week ago tomorrow, thanks to the tube strike, I had to find an alternative way into work. After opting for the riverboat and realising/ remembering what an excellent mode of transport this is, I wondered why I didn’t take the boat more often… and then I remembered, even with a weekly Oyster travelcard its an extra £7 a day…. shame really, as it was a very relaxing and enjoyable 40 minute journey from home up west to The London Eye.

Anyway, to the point of this post.. Although it’s a journey I’ve done a number of times before, this time I noticed several things that made me think…..

Firstly I was struck by how quickly we become used to change, when I saw the shiny new development on the former site of Mondial House, once one of the most distinctive buildings in London. Described by Bonny Prince Charlie as looking like a cash register, this wonderful building was designed by Hubbard, Ford and Partners, and on its completion in 1975, was the largest telephone exchange in Europe. It was designed to be bomb proof and fully self sufficient, with internal generators powering the building in the event of an enemy attack (this was the height of the Cold War after all). These generators vented to the outside via the six cube shaped vents on the lower terrace and these, together with other distinctive black vents and the clean white GRP cladding, added much to its distinctive appearance.

I must admit that before I looked up the details on the web, I had always thought that Mondial House was the headquarters of someone like IBM or Olivetti, and that its striking appearance had been deliberately contrived as a not so subliminal form of advertising. So it’s with a slight sense of disappointment to find out that this is not the case.

A little further up river I was taken by the stark juxtaposition of Containers House and the OXO Tower. The OXO Tower was looking as resplendent as ever since its refurbishment a decade or so ago, whilst Container House had received a huge black, white & yellow sleeve of advertising (apologies for the poor photo, but I only had my phone with me).

I recalled the story of how, in order to overcome a total ban on advertising at riverside which was in effect throughout the first half of the 20th Century, the architects cleverly designed the window fenestration at the top of the tower to read, O X O vertically and after some apparently heated discussions with the authorities, got away with it.

75 years later and for better or worse, advertising is as intrinsic a part of our society as breathing oxygen. As such the sheer scale of the new skin over Containers House is surprising only for a moment or two, so used to this sort of thing have we become. And whilst undoubtedly technically impressive, it does to my mind, lack the ingenuity of its neighbour.

This work is part of the current Aviva campaign, called “youarethebigpicture” which by coincidence launches today, exactly a week after I originally thought of this post. It all looks very shiny and worthwhile, but when you visit the site is in fact just business as usual for one of the worlds largest Insurance companies. By using the pretence of human interest and the tactics of scale (from the global size of the campaign to the macro size of the buildings they have covered, right down to the micro size of individual human stories), Aviva cynically tries to convince us that such a huge financial company thrives on individualism, and that by allowing us to send in a photo of ourselves, they  somehow demonstrate this. I already know who I am and I don’t need Aviva to tell me that I’m an individual.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to finish with a diatribe. The original idea was to consider some chronologically different approaches to advertising on the river, looking at connections between the subtlety and craftmanship of the 1920’s OXO windows, the brash confidence and brutalism of the 1970’s as seen at Mondial House, and the technically impressive but conceptually thin application of a single idea to an existing structure on a huge scale, which seems to typify the current vogue…

Not sure I nailed it very well however, so I may have to come back to this post…

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