It has become the annual moan: high street Christmas lights dazzle only in their staggering tastelessness - especially those in London's West End. But as Mike Higgins found, some of our leading designers have ideas for a brighter Christmas
The sorry parade of pathetic Santas, tatty angels and garish lightbulbs is a far cry from the restrained illuminations that first appeared on Oxford Street in the early Fifties.
The problem stems in part from design, and in part from underfunding. Though West End businesses consider the Christmas lights essential to attract festive shoppers, it was left to a French company, Yves St Laurent, to sponsor the Regent Street lights. Reportedly for half the cost of the pounds 180,000 illuminations, the fashion label was able to emblazon its logo across the lights in the heart of the West End at a bargain basement price. Last week, however, Westminster planning officers noticed that the YSL logos were 30 per cent bigger than indicated in the scheme approved by Westminster City Council.
The Regent Street Association now faces prosecution unless the lights are modified. This year, however, another debate concerns the question of design. "Turned On: the RIBA Journal Campaign for Better Christmas Lights with the Museum of London" will be launched in the RIBA Journal's December issue.
As part of a feature proposing imaginative, radical new solutions, Dr Simon Thurley, director of the Museum of London, emphasises the need to reassess festive street decoration: "We have a crisis of Christmas design. Christmas street lights in most British towns and cities are at best cheap and half-hearted, and at worst vulgar and tawdry ... despite being ephemeral, [they] are street furniture, or even, as we would contend, street architecture." As John Welsh, editor of RIBA Journal, adds in his leader, "Who better to provide ideas than architects?"
Invited by the RIBA Journal to come up ideas for illuminating a stretch of Oxford Street in any way they wished, 10 architects' practices dreamt up a challenging, witty, refreshing and delightful series of schemes to lift the festive gloom. Here are five of their suggestions.
A fuller version of this piece will appear on Monday in the `RIBA Journal'. `Turned On', an exhibition of the 10 schemes, is open at the Museum of London from Tuesday. 150 London Wall, EC2 (0171-600 3699), pounds 4 (concs pounds 2).
Richard Portchmouth, of Birds, Portchmouth & Russum: `Three Kings'
"The Regent Street lights, like most, are a bit predictable, and fail to recognise the most characteristic thing about shopping in central London - transport. We were thinking of all the shoppers carrying their presents home and came up with a scheme that uses the inherent character of the red Routemaster buses. Everyone knows that buses, like the kings arriving in Bethlehem, always come in threes. The three kings also travelled east and Oxford Circus is oriented east-west.
Using the exhaust of the bus, the crowns would remain semi-inflated on their way in and out of Central London, inflating to their capacity along Oxford Street A myrrh scented filter could be fitted to the inflatables to treat the exhaust fumes so that the people of London get present they really want - a bit of fresh air.
Julian Bicknell, of Julian Bicknell & Associates: `Flying Saucers'
"The Japanese are good at it, the French are pretty good, but English festive lighting is lousy. The lack of imagination is a sad reflection on our planning system.
Christmas, and therefore the lights, should appeal to kids ultimately. If you go into Hamleys, there's movement and life everywhere, and that's primarily what our saucers - four metre helicoidal discs - would reflect. Also, people are reassessing their spiritual and religious needs with the millennium coming, so the saucers also play with the idea of life from outer space. Kids love mechanical things - the saucers will definitely not be high-tech. They'll be staggered as they zip up and down their cords, creating a Mexican wave effect the length of Oxford Street."
Chris Dyson, of Michael Wilford & Partners: "Jack Frost's Christmas Promenade"
"At Christmas, shoppers want the season's drama established and the Regent Street lights, though quite bold, could be vastly improved. The idea for our Christmas promenade is that Jack Frost has turned every building in Oxford Street white. The illuminated net suspended over the street and the Brancusi-like, lit-up trees should remind shoppers of stellar constellations, while also billowing like a Mexican wave. We want the whole effect to mimic the sense of space, light and closure found on Freemount Street in Las Vegas, and Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Both the net and the trees are easy to put up and take down, so the whole scheme is both practical and economical."
Danny Vaia, Nic Clear, Jonny Halifax and Ezra Holland, of General Lighting and Power: `Disco TV Mirror Ball'
"If we could only accept that Christmas is essentially a pagan holdiay and the true way to celebrate it is in a drunken orgy of gluttony: it's not the thought that counts.
Who takes any notice of the Christmas lights in London? There's no vision or drive - they just are. The Disco TV Mirror Ball would cost about a million quid, be about three metres in diameter, weigh several tonnes and be absurdly difficult to install, thus fulfilling all the criteria for a top art project. It would look cool swinging over Oxford Circus, showing Christmassy porn on its TVs and projecting disco lights over the surrounding buildings. Boy band covers of Christmas carols would play at full volume. The Disco Ball would capture the exploitative naffness that is the modern yuletide holiday."
Alex Lifschutz of Lifschutz Davidson with Spiers & Major: `Northern Lights'
"Colour projectors will shine in a variety of ways on to a suspended grid of compact discs, mirrored one side and matt white the other. By day, the low-angle winter sun will reflect off the discs; come dusk, the colour projectors will mimic the changing colours of the evening sky. As night falls, the common lighting scene will pan white light down the disc grid, creating the effect of snow gently falling.
Every 20 minutes the lighting will go through a rapid change in colour, and advertising images could be reflected off the discs to generate revenue. Buses, modelled to represent gift-wrapped presents, will also be painted with near-transparent ultraviolet reflective paint so that the presents appear to unwrap or change as they pass under UV floodlights."
where you can see christmas lights
As retail business tends to dictate the onset of the festive season, all the Christmas illuminations in the UK's largest cities have been on for a week or two. Here is a selection of places where the neon reindeer haven't yet come out:
Cockermouth, Cumbria, 23 November
Before Emmerdale hunk Paul Loughran flicks the switch, the main street will be closed for an afternoon of steel bands, magicians, carol-singing and Morris dancing, presided over by Santa in his grotto (01900 823 608).
Preston, Lancashire: 27 November
The Gladiator Hunter will turn on the Christmas lights in Market Square at 6pm, followed by a laser and music show (01772 203 456).
Southampton: 27 November
The lights will spark up at 7pm by the Bargate Monument as part of a local radio roadshow event. Boy band Alibi will then belt out a few tunes before a short firework display at 7.30pm signals the start of the evening's late-night festive consumerism (01703 832 077)
Cheltenham, Glos: 29 November
The lights in the high street will be switched on at 6pm, but a Christmas parade of floats from Montpelier Gardens to the Promenade starts at 5.30pm. Earlier that afternoon, shoppers will find stalls, music and a Father Christmas procession in the high street (01242 522 878).
Christchurch, Hampshire: 30 November
There's a Snow Queen procession from Airfield Way in Somerford through the high street, and around 4.30pm the Christmas lights will be illuminated (01202 483 124)
Durham: 4 December
The Mayor's illumination of the Christmas lights at 4pm in the Market Square will open a weekend of Christmas festivities. Throughout Saturday, the town centre will play host to carol singers, dancers, musicians and storytellers (0191 386 3050)
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