Through the Viewing House

This piece was originally published in ‘Propland: Reprogramming Television Centre’, 2018

With a white ribbon of writing wrapped around its glass facade, the show home for Television Centre is encased in glass, sitting like an unopened present across from Wood Lane tube station, sunlight streaming through its walls on cloudless days. Television returns to television centre is transcribed in big, bold letters across the entrance like subtitles, an announcement replete with lights, camera, action! As if the declaration needed further emphasis, white outlines of studio lights are superimposed across the facade.

I walk past it often, this enigmatic structure, sometimes twice a week on my commute to college. It seems strange that it should sit with such self-contentment before the unceremoniously gutted remains of Television Centre, as an emblem of the future of this once historic building. Contemporary, modern and invitingly transparent, the show home is more than just a place of commerce and exchange, a housing sales suite for prospective buyers; it is itself an object of admiration, coated in a pattern of entwining heliacal lines reminiscent of a shimmering television screen, capable of metamorphoses, of projecting visions unrestricted by space or time. At the crux of the motif, the ‘O’ of Television is embellished by a horizontal line that does not cut through but rather extends beyond either side of the circle, which retains its empty centre. Designed to represent the ‘circular courtyard at the heart of Television Centre’, with ‘the line stemming from the circle allow[ing] the identity to flex, rotate and direct’, this logo splits open at the seam of the doors and reveals briefly the strange interior, like a television switched suddenly on.[1]

Situated in the fluctuating landscape of White City, the show home offers itself as a surprising point of intrigue. The etymology of its title, ‘The Pavilion’, seems only apt: I would learn that this structure itself was impermanent, destined to become a suite of luxury flats as part of what the developers ominously referred to as ‘Phase II’, to be tackled after the original building has been renovated. Taken from the Latin ‘papilio(n)’, meaning ‘butterfly or tent’, these structures were historically only temporary, originally large decorated tents. Built during the great fairs and exhibitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a sea of white pavilions originally gave White City its name. They were also seen often as spaces of relaxation, tied intrinsically to the notion of pleasure. One of the most famous British examples of its namesake still standing today would be The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, built in 1811 for George VI as a place of leisure and escape. It was also where he was free to enjoy the companionship of Maria Fitzherbert, whom he would marry in secrecy due to her Roman Catholic background. In this way, the pavilion offered more than just retreat: it also functioned as an idyll within which divergent narratives could be nurtured and conducted without scrutiny. ‘The Pavilion’ of Television Centre embodies both these functions: the prospective buyer can not only observe, in immaculate 3D, the physical manifestation of Television Centre in all its redeveloped glory, but also experience firsthand the luxurious lifestyle of this development, desirably soft and stylish, decorated in bold hues of scarlet, emerald and ultramarine.

And so, I become accustomed to the shrill roar of drills and rhythmic thud of cement mixers, the triumphant fanfare of gentrification’s arrival in the heart of W12. The show home is the only dependable constant in the middle of all the construction taking place, old making way for the branded new. Advertisements and property hoardings across the road advertise ‘White City Living’, shielding the scrutinising eyes of passers-by from the gutted earth; they divert one’s attention towards images of an idealised future CGI’d to tantalising perfection, often depicting views of the regenerated district from a lofty height: smooth grey pavements inlaid with fields of tidy green. Commuters head daily towards the remaining branches of the BBC or the office blocks in White City Place, resigned and weary as they step off the tube in the morning, their relief palpable on the platform in the evening, heading in the opposite direction. Westfield sits around the corner, its gargantuan frame sinking into the concrete earth, like the heaving breath of a dormant beast, forever expanding its dark shadow outwards. Cranes are a permanent fixture, marking the sky with thin red scars. And down the road, the black husk of Grenfell Tower surveys the scene of demolition, sitting like a gargoyle on the skyline, it too a constant, unmoving.

As the months of autumn pass, my attraction to the show home grows. The translucent green of its glassy facade casts an aquatic glow over its visible interior, rendering the contents flat and otherworldly, distorted like the pixelated graphics of a computer screen frozen mid-load. What had begun as a curiosity is now an obsession. How, I wonder, could the rhetoric of television translate into the humdrum realities of everyday life? They called it the home of television. Now you can call it home. This jaunty slogan begins to take on an ominous tone as I contemplate day in, day out the reality of what those words might mean. The history of an entire nation’s broadcasting is reduced to two sentences; the preservation of its Grade II listed infrastructure depends on on a large flock of eager homeowners willing to part with anywhere from £675,000 to £8 million for a slice of British culture to call home. Who want to eat dinner in the former office of the Director General, to observe the vibrant mural of John Piper as they consult the 24/7 concierge service, to walk the corridors now haunted by the predatorial tread of Jimmy Savile. All this marketed under the assumption that the fame of the building itself, as a historical landmark of British Television, is enough to attract prospective buyers, forgetting that behind its atomic dots lies a problematic history fractured with countless controversies. I find it baffling that episodes of public scrutiny and distrust against the institution that had once resided within these walls—recent disclosures of a severe gender pay gap, for instance—could somehow be translated into private comfort.

And so, on one crisp October afternoon, in the impression of a child pretend-playing spies, I tail behind a delivery and enter ‘The Pavilion’, slipping through the two semicircles that form one whole again behind me.

Studio, stage, set-up. These are the first few words to cross my mind as I step over the threshold from worn concrete onto a dark, matte floor, like that of a studio. My feet, in a pair of soft sneakers, nevertheless echo with every step, drawing attention to my unannounced presence. I am unaccustomed to standing on such smooth surfaces. The entire space exudes an air of expectation, studio lights clustered along the wall like performers waiting side-stage for their cue. I feel lightheaded, somewhat dizzy. Perhaps it is the contrast of such crisp, electronically manufactured air in comparison to the ever-present whiffs of dust that emanate from all the construction outside. Here, floral undertones are just ever-so-slightly artificial enough for one to recognise that even nature itself had been polished and reworked to retain only a hint of what once was. Such optimal conditions are unfamiliar to me. The cluster of television screens shimmering with the same helical pattern that coats the outside has a hypnotic effect. I turn away, reluctant to concede my gaze to their pulsating screens. In front of them sits an assortment of armchairs, across some of which have been thrown soft patterned blankets and cushions that have clearly never seen the indent of a resting backside. Sit but do not stay. Applause, show’s over, lights dimmed, exeunt.

I feel uneasy, like an intruder, but, rather than being turfed out for having entered without first consulting the electronic gatekeeper, I am welcomed in with a warm hand and a gentle, if somewhat confused, smile. As I explain my curiosity, the woman behind the reception seems to become more and more reassured, as though I had arrived for an appointment I never knew I had made. ‘Wonderful! Let me show you around.’ She is charming and confident, smartly dressed in a black suit jacket and trousers. I can almost picture a top hat sitting on her head. I follow her wordlessly, led without persuasion. She is the perfect host, pressing an elegant, hardcover A4 brochure into my palms as a gift that I am ‘more than welcome to keep’. The souvenir sits heavy in my hands as I follow her from the reception to the main room, where panels of white light, glossy and surreal, glisten across each of the walls. So much light: illumination that is as blinding as it is revealing, and as the sky outside submerges deeper into darkness, the show home becomes more and more vivid, glowing with an energy of its own. Meanwhile, occupying centrestage is the magnificently large 3D model of the renovated Television Centre, which I had glimpsed from the outside, larger and even more precise than I imagined, painstakingly replicated in the same muted hues of grey and maroon. Behind this centrepiece, across one entire wall, phrases float in isolation like subtitles out of sync, black words pasted across rectangular tubes of floating white, involuntarily manifesting the images inside my mind—A spacious and comfortable home. A grass lawn. A fountain. A huge hollow drum. A golden statue of Helios glinting in the June sun. And the waters of the fountain echoing against the walls of the circular building—as if all it takes is a series of simplistic, syntactically dubious rhetorical statements to convince prospective buyers that all this could be theirs, that all this equated not only to a place to call home, but a lifestyle to desire.

I have the sense of being watched. CCTV cameras are discreet but not so discreet that they are invisible, making actors of us all. But, more so, it is the scrutiny of my guide that unnerves me: her interest in me is almost overwhelming, her excitement for my curiosities and questions taking on the eagerness of a talk-show host. ‘What brings you here to White City?’ ‘How long have you been in this part of town?’ ‘Would you be interested in moving here after all the developments have been complete?’ Am I the one asking the questions or is she? ‘This place will be unrecognisable when we’re finished.’ She speaks in eager tones, hailing the developments as ‘necessary’. The livelihood that this redevelopment will bring to the area is necessary. Electric Cinema, Soho House: necessary. The opening of a second branch of Bluebirds, famous South Kensington institution and local hang of the Made in Chelsea cast? Necessary. Her enthusiasm for these drastic changes is such a natural performance I begin to feel my hesitations as a fault of my own, a result of being ill-prepared, as though I have left my script at home, unrehearsed. All the while, her hands flutter over the 3D model, hovering over various stages of completion, pointing out the areas where the dream has already become reality. Up close, I am able to examine the precision with which this object has been constructed. Light shines through every miniature window, its brightness regulated, I assume, by the giant black dial that sits in front of the model. I see tiny people standing on balconies, mid-stroll through the park, sitting in tiny cars. I spy the distinctive curve of the black cab. The green of the park is smooth and serene, dotted with trees crafted to realistically irregular heights and sizes, mimicking the idiosyncrasies of nature: a microcosm of eternal spring.

I look up and everything around me becomes vivid, technicoloured, as though I have stepped outside of myself, my vision displaced, zooming out. West London is beaming across one wall, outlining the journey from White City to the City, stations pinpointed in black. In contrast, now it is the outside that is tinged with a sickly green. People walking past look alien, the evening sun morphing all the shadows into one. It is as though the world outside is disappearing. ‘Things are going to be so much better off. The lifestyle here is just superb.’ My host smiles reassuringly as I turn around, a strange kind of fear closing around my throat. The television screens flicker, seem to grow brighter, expanding beyond their screens to form a single bright glow behind me. There is nowhere to hide. Better to be inside, where the air is fresh and the future is bright.

[1] ‘Prophet’s mission statement’ https://www.prophet.com/impact/projects/televisioncentre