That's the magic of roundabouts

Britain's love affair with the circular road junction knows no bounds. Artists are even erecting sculptures in an act of homage. Jonathan Glancey wonders what it all means

Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, would have understood roundabouts intuitively. The man who stated, "you can never step in the same river twice" (because all matter is in a state of perpetual change), would have looked at the traffic spinning around Hyde Park Corner and L'Arc de Triomphe, and shouted "Eur-eka!"; for both are perfect examples of life as fast-flowing and never-ending flux. And you can never approach a roundabout a second time expecting the experience to be the same as the first.

Aside from supporting Heraclitus's theorum, a roundabout is also a working model of current Tory dogma. Here is the free market in action, a deregulated, Jag-eats-Nissan world, where the law of the urban jungle determines who gains the exit to Knightsbridge or Park Lane first.

Although devised in France by the civil engineer Henard in 1907, the roundabout has since become as British as processed food, potholes and privatised railways. It is also as unsporting as roadside speed cameras, sleeping policemen and privatised traffic wardens. Today's A-road roundabout is perfectly in tune with a road-crazy Britain, where Tory MPs brandish pick-axes at M-way protestors and where not to have a car is to be one of those dreadful folk beside whom "Steve" Norris disdains to park his besuited backside.

To celebrate its coming of age, fashionable artists are now being commissioned to plonk esoteric sculptures in the middle of roundabouts. The first is a rather wonderful winking barometric sculpture in the middle of Shepherd's Bush roundabout in west London.

Designed by Tanya Doufa and Damien O'Sullivan, both graduates of the Royal College of Art, the barometer masks a 15 metre-high surge pipe (which relieves pressure in the newly completed Thames Water ring, a kind of vast roundabout for water charging at full tilt). The Shepherd's Bush barometer celebrates the secret waterworks below ground, while making the roundabout enjoyable to circumnavigate for the first time.

Elsewhere in Britain, public arts agencies are engaged in discussions with local authorities and the Department of Transport as to which roundabouts should be given the Shepherd's Bush treatment. They are in competition with advertising companies who see roundabouts as perfect sites for giant hoardings and with public utilities such as the London Underground, which uses them as outlets for ventilation shafts.

You might say roundabout art is nothing new. After all, what is L'Etoile in Paris but a plinth for one of the biggest and most aggressive artworks in Europe, the Arc de Triomphe? Hyde Park Corner, too, features impressive Victorian and Ed-wardian sculpture, including a full-blown Winged Victory of Samothrace, riding above the motorised miasma below like some gigantic mascot atop the mother of all radiator grilles.

Most British roundabouts, however, have been less the subject of sculptors and more the provenance of decorators and gardeners. Not long after the roundabout's birth, it became something to prettify. From Frinton to Eastbourne, town councils took pride in making the new-fangled traffic circle a thing of uncertain beauty. The floral clock, anodyne arrangements of primulas, petunias and pansies, a small fountain or a bust of some civic dignatory commissioned from an RA down on his uppers were all pressed into decorative service.

Kitsch, perhaps, but it made sense. After all, the roundabout was important. It was the gateway to motor-age towns, the first thing motorists knew of Peterborough or York as they negotiated the A1 in Humbers, Hupmobiles and Delages.

From the mid-fifties when the bank holiday traffic jam became a national pastime, roundabouts were something to look forward to, offering the promise of alternative, jam-free routes when you finally reached them and escaped from queues of roundabout-hogging side-valve Morrises and £100 Fords. Meanwhile, chocolate and cream "excursions", as featured on television's Railway Roundabout, hauled by lustrous green locomotives steamed past on viaducts at 80mph. Cars stuck at roundabouts steamed, too, as did dads in holiday collars keeping a weather-eye on the Smiths' or Jaeger temperature gauge.

Despite prettifying it and queuing behind it for the past nine decades, we have never come to terms with the roundabout. Approaching one, few of us display the remotest knowledge of the Highway Code, choosing any lane to enter the snarling circle and any other to leave it. We cut each other up, narrowly miss one another, floor throttles and stamp on brakes, honk horns, flash lights, swear and make rude signs.

Such behaviour is not, however, the preserve of motorists; for, in the Stygian depths of the nation's roundabouts lurk all kinds of alternative malice and human nastiness. Because roundabouts are not easily negotiable on foot, pedestrians must proceed (with caution) beneath them. One of the nastiest of all roundabout underworlds is that at the south end of London's Waterloo Bridge. This is where pedestrians cross between Waterloo International (gateway to Paris) and the temples of art on the South Bank. Scuttling below, pedestrians are entertained by unsubsidised street theatre performed by actors who appear from dressing rooms made of cardboard boxes and who smell of cider and plonk.

Other roundabout nasties include those sinister-looking police patrol cars that lurk inside their circumference, exits that promise a secondary road, but lead instead to the hell of drive-thru burger joints, those that lead to vile edge-of-town superstores or those sneaky exits, that, chosen in a moment of panic, force you to drive 10 miles before you can turn back. And because you drive too fast, that unmarked Vauxhall Carlton hiding at the roundabout slinks out, flashes blue lamps and nabs you.

Odd, though, that while artists are being asked to "interpret" the nation's roundabouts, the roundabout has yet to be celebrated or denigrated in popular song. The only song that comes to mind (although not to the lips) is XTC's "English Roundabout". Doubtless this is because there are virtually no roundabouts in the US.

North Americans don't need roundabouts, because the land is big enough not to need them (or perhaps because American cars of up until a decade ago would have dispatched a tyre or two trying to swerve around them). On the Continent, where rationalism has long held sway, the roundabout goes against the grain of 90-degree angles and gridiron road layouts.

No, the roundabout really has become as British as a Reliant Robin (more fun on roundabouts, by the way, than any other car), and though ignored in song and verse, has matured from circular civic garden to the subject of avant-garde artistic inquiry. And whether the roundabout is ultimately a good or bad thing is a question that can only lead the rest of us round in circles.

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