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The Traffic Light Tree

On the Isle of Docks in the eastern reaches of London, there is a single junction with 75 working traffic lights. The whole set-up cost half a million pounds to install and yet no-one other than the occasional tourist give them the slightest bit of notice.

"These must be the only traffic lights in the world that you are legally allowed to ignore," remarks Jimmy, a Chinese student busy photographing the lights. Whilst no end of mobile disc jockeys will correct Jimmy on their global uniqueness, it is certainly true that these lights serve no traffic control function whatsoever.  

Briefed in 1995 -by the British Public Arts Commissions Agency- to replace a dying plain tree, Piere Vivant designed a wonderfully cheeky structure. The humorous tree-shaped sculpture with its ever changing fruit of red, amber and green injects some much-needed fun into the extremely serious Canary Wharf business district.

The official line is that the arbitrary sequence of light changes mimics the restlessness of the skyscrapers that tower over it. What also appeals to me is, that in a city where travel is so often frustrated by traffic lights -lights that are distributed as if they indeed grow on trees- Vivant's structure actually sits on a traffic circle where rules of priority are governed by a less rigid system of "give way".

Not that drivers necessarily realise this when they exit the link tunnel and are greeted by the structure. At first sight the lights can be dumbfounding.

"I remember when they first turned it on a few years back," reminisces Steve, an office worker whose desk overlooks the contraption. "There must have been eight or nine minor accidents that morning. Nothing serious -just bumps, shunts and skids- but you could see that people pulling up to it were really confused."

"I came up to it, saw a red light then stopped automatically," recall's his colleague Ann. "I felt so stupid because shining right next to it was a green one and above that an amber light. It was just silly. All I could do was laugh."

But like the lights of the Traffic Light Tree, the Isle of Dogs is forever changing. From the dilapidated old dockyards of fifteen years back to a booming new financial hub for the capital, the area is developing in leaps and bounds. Offices are shooting up like seedlings in the spring and you can barely move for the construction workers taking lunch amongst the desk jockeys in the malls.

Each week The Wharf newspaper publishes details and an artist's impression for the latest development plans: A new tallest tower for Europe; an extra 4.2 million square foot of office space; more facilities for the workers. On the ground, the speculation runs from office to office via the gossiping mouths of delivery drivers and mobile sandwich sellers.

The latest bit of gossip I've heard is that the Traffic Light Tree is coming down. The intersection it stands on is being revised to accommodate a new road. In the "tree's" place there is going to be some traffic lights. Real ones.

London, August 2003

Illustration: Will Price

Note: Don't believe the rumours! When I returned to the junction in November 2006, the Traffic Light Tree still stood.

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