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The MSG Sphere

Bringing Las Vegas to London

Located in east London, Stratford is a neighborhood that has seen a vast transformation during the last decade. Known as the host of the Olympic games in 2012, the town has received renewed interest from small businesses and large investors alike. There came a stir of surprise and backlash when the United States-based Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) announced its plans to build ‘The MSG Sphere’ in Stratford; a glazed orb that would serve as an entertainment venue with cutting-edge technologies. MSG has undertaken a project like this before, having unveiled its illuminating Sphere in Las Vegas in September of 2023. However, the process did not go as smoothly in London, with plans considered “officially” dead on 9 January 2024. So why was the plan called off six years into the making, and what does it tell us about the current state of London’s urban planning?

The Plan

The MSG Sphere was to be built in a Stratford area spanning nearly 5 acres, directly east of the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre and near the Stratford railway station. The building would have been almost as tall as Big Ben at around 90 metres high and 120 metres wide and designed to display blaring 360-degree advertisements from 6 AM to 11 PM daily. The orb would have had four dedicated public spaces and four public access points for various entertainment events. For the construction of the Sphere, The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) was appointed as the local planning authority. The organization was previously involved in planning the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

“MSG Sphere here (maybe)” Stratford, London by: Diamond Geezer, 2022 via flickr
“MSG Sphere here (maybe)” Stratford, London by: Diamond Geezer, 2022 via flickr

Pushback to the Plan

Soon after MSG released its plans for the Sphere in March of 2018, there was pushback from various angles, ranging from Stratford residents and councilors to competing private enterprises. The most vocal concerns were those of residents living in apartments as close as 50 metres to the Sphere, who were worried about light pollution from this second sun making its way through their bedroom windows. MSG responded by offering to install blackout blinds in the resident’s homes, a plea to compromise which some residents found laughable and others downright absurd. Another concern was increased congestion in the Stratford railway station, which helps 7 million people navigate London yearly. These concerns led to the campaign “Stop MSG Sphere,” online petitions advocating for the termination of plans, and discussion forums.

There were also objections from the Newham Council, a local government authority representing the borough in which the Sphere was to be located. In July 2019, they backed a report critical of the Sphere and voted to submit it to the LLDC for review. The council objected to the MSG Sphere on multiple grounds, from air pollution to traffic and noise concerns. By 2022, resident objections to the Sphere hovered to around 1,000, with online petitions launched recurrently. Nonetheless, the LLDC granted planning approval to the Madison Square Garden company in March 2022.

Undermining Democracy

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England follows a neoliberal, deregulatory agenda encouraging the approval of “pro-growth” projects, that is, those that advocate for commercial development with a sustainable focus. Moving from this mode of thought, then, the decision by LLDC in favor of building the MSG Sphere does not appear to be an attack on Stratford residents’ interests but rather a rational step towards economic growth. However, the underlying nature of these developments comes into question when their implementation necessitates an ongoing disregard for local unease and worries.

This very suspicion materialized at various times, with notable incidents. For starters, Stratford’s residents did not elect the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) as Sphere’s planning authority. The absence of democratic decision-making at this stage in the planning process posed a great challenge to subsequent attempts at holding the LLDC accountable for their unresponsiveness to feelings of animosity towards the Sphere. Member of UK Parliament Lyn Brown commented on the troublesome implications of this back in 2021, “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.”

Tensions between residents and proponents of the Sphere only thickened when, upon a Freedom of Information request submitted by anti-Sphere campaigners, it was revealed that between 2017 and 2019, there were 33 informal meetings between MSG’s team and the LLDC, wherein they discussed strategies for how to deal with “local resistance.” Equally worrying are the conduits that pass through LLDC and MSG, with Jane McGivern, a previous Development Corporation board member, going on to work for Madison Square Garden Company and lead the Sphere project for the initial five years of its development.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas

Despite approval by planning authority LLDC on 22 March 2022 to build the Sphere, health concerns, a lack of “green” credentials, and potential negative impacts on local heritage were the three main grounds for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s decision to block the scheme on the 20 November 2023.

When Madison Square Garden company withdrew its plans to build the Sphere on 9 January 2024 following the mayor’s rejection, its executive vice president Richard E. Constable wrote in a letter to the British planning inspectorate: “… It is extremely disappointing that Londoners will not benefit from the Sphere’s groundbreaking technology and the thousands of well-paying jobs it would have created”. Buzzwords such as these were thrown around for years when there was the prospect of building the MSG Sphere, even by Sadiq Khan in 2018, “It’s great to welcome another world-class venue to the capital, to confirm London’s position as a music powerhouse and to boost still further our city’s thriving night-time economy.” And what a buzzkill it was when MSG’s Sphere plan failed to satisfy five of LLDC’s and two of NFFP’s policies, was unable to contribute towards a low carbon economy, and willfully ignored the unrest of Stratford citizens, all of which led to Khan’s rejection to the plan.

Now the game is over, the Sphere has left the playing field after a few goals scored and many fouls, and the crowd screams, “The dreadful MSG Sphere is dead for good!”. Even though it was a win for the citizens of Stratford this time, anxieties continue as more “pro-growth” projects come to unravel London’s previously localized, affordable neighborhoods. Who is the city rooting for, after all?

Sources

(2018) MSG sphere london | architect magazine. Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/project-gallery/msg-sphere-london_o (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

Anna Minton | 14 April 2022 (2023) ‘the red flags raised by the MSG sphere relate to democratic failure not to aesthetics’, Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2022/04/14/msg-sphere-london-democratic-failure/ (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

Department for Levelling Up, H. and C. (2023) National Planning Policy Framework, GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-planning-policy-framework–2 (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

Ing, W. (2022) Populous’s sphere set for planning approval despite 850 objections, The Architects’ Journal. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/populouss-sphere-set-for-planning-approval-despite-850-objections (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

Hickman, A. (2019) London music venue condemns ‘shady’ lobbying campaign that ‘subverts democracy’, PR Week. Available at: https://www.prweek.com/article/1591290/london-music-venue-condemns-shady-lobbying-campaign-subverts-democracy (Accessed: 16 March 2024).

Like Piccadilly Circus, but spherical: Is East London ready for the MSG sphere? (2019) The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/dec/11/like-times-square-but-spherical-is-east-london-ready-for-the-msg-sphere (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

MSG sphere: Plans offer glimpse of London’s next venue (2018) The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/09/msg-sphere-plans-london-next-venue-stratford-olympic-park (Accessed: 16 March 2024).

Pierre, J. and Peters, B. G. (2021) Advanced introduction to governance. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing (Elgar advanced introductions).

Roo, G., & Voogd, H. (2021). Planning in Abstraction. Groningen: Internal publication
Faculty of Spatial Sciences.

The MSG sphere: Will Stratford’s Giant Orb venue really go ahead? (2021) The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/aug/02/msg-sphere-stratford-london-orb-madison-square-gardens (Accessed: 15 March 2024).

Vickers, N. (2023) Stratford sphere proposals rejected by London mayor, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-67477770 (Accessed: 16 March 2024).

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

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