It might be good enough for Las Vegas, but the Sphere – a dazzling orb-shaped 90 metre-high music venue that doubles as a giant digital billboard – is unlikely to be coming to London after the mayor rejected a planning application.
Madison Square Garden Entertainment (MSG) had applied to build the 21,500-capacity structure in Stratford, east London, close to the Olympic Park.
But Sadiq Khan has ruled that the venue – which would have been vividly illuminated at night – “would result in an unacceptable negative impact on local residents”.
Since it opened in September with a performance by U2, the Sphere in Las Vegas has become a building of global fascination as its exterior has been programmed to make it look variously like a motor racing helmet for last weekend’s Las Vegas F1 Grand Prix race, a giant eyeball, an emoji and a basketball, when the NBA came to town.
MSG is led by James Dolan, a major donor to Donald Trump’s failed 2020 presidential campaign.
Khan’s refusal on Monday represented a change of attitude since the project was first announced in 2018, when the Labour mayor said: “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.”
The planned venue – sponsored by the company that also owns the New York Knicks basketball team, New York Rangers ice hockey team and Radio City Music Hall – was also backed by the then culture secretary, Matt Hancock. He said it would cement the UK’s reputation “for leading the world in music and the creative industries”.
But in a detailed report, City Hall said the intensity of the external illumination would “cause significant light intrusion resulting in significant harm to the outlook of neighbouring properties, detriment to human health, and significant harm to the general amenity enjoyed by residents of their own homes”.
Sixty-one homes and 177 student rooms would have been adversely affected, according to an expert report commissioned by the mayor’s planners.
It would also be “a bulky, unduly dominant and incongruous form”, environmentally unsustainable given the amount of energy required to power its lighting rigs and would harm the setting of nearby listed buildings and conservation areas.
The venue’s promoters responded saying they were “disappointed in London’s decision” but added: “There are many forward-thinking cities that are eager to bring this technology to their communities. We will concentrate on those.”
Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, had issued a direction that would have allowed him to call the planning application in for his own final decision.
He could in theory still do so and grant approval, but the applicant’s statement appears to indicate prospects for a Sphere venue in London are now dead.
The applicants are said to be puzzled by the decision as they did not feel there was huge public opposition. It is planning further Spheres in Hanan in South Korea and in several other cities which have not yet been publicly named.
Nate Higgins, a local councillor who campaigned against the Sphere, said he was “absolutely delighted” with the refusal in London, which he said meant “residents will not have to put up with blackout blinds” and Stratford station would not become “overwhelmed”.
“London’s cultural venues are incredibly important, but this application was always inappropriate for the site and the 25-year advertising consent the applicants demanded shows they were not interested in contributing to our capital’s cultural scene – but bombarding the residents of Stratford with endless advertising,” he said.
A spokesperson for Khan said: “London is open to investment from around the world and Sadiq wants to see more world-class, ambitious, innovative entertainment venues in our city. But as part of looking at the planning application for the MSG Sphere, the mayor has seen independent evidence that shows the current proposals would result in an unacceptable negative impact on local residents.”
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.