Google Street View? That’s nothing to do with the arts, surely? Well, yes and no.
Celebrating its eighth birthday a week ago, the advent of Google Maps made it phenomenally easier to locate venues. Previous online mapping services would take an address search, and load up a square, static image of the region with a big arrow supposedly pointing at where you wanted to go. Google Maps made it far easier to zoom in and scroll around, so if you needed a bit more context you could get it.
As the service improved, adding driving directions, then pedestrian and (in some places) public transport routing options, the service improved further. And with a basic API making it possible for any website to embed a map to a given location, venues’ “how to find us” pages could become much more useful.
And then Street View came, albeit slowly and patchily to the UK. I can’t describe how much easier it is when trying to locate a fringe theatre you’ve never been to before if you can identify what it looks like from the outside before you get there.
And as the smartphone revolution really took off with the iPhone and various Android handsets running Google Maps on a handheld device, we came to rely on the service to tell us how to get from A to B – hence the frustration when Apple, with the release of iOS 6, dropped Google Maps in favour of its own product, which often placed B at a completely different location…
What’s less well known is that Google has been taking the Street View technology inside key buildings for a while. Musical theatre specialist Dress Circle may have lost their real world store on Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, but thanks to Google, a virtual tour inside the store is still possible – for now, at least.
And now the same technology is going to be used to preserve another piece of arts heritage. BBC Television Centre is currently being vacated, with various departments moving either to Salford, New Broadcasting House in the West End, or further up Wood Lane to the BBC’s Media Centre.
The complex is due to be redeveloped – and while three privately-run TV studios will remain (meaning Strictly Come Dancing will return there after a brief holiday elsewhere), other portions will be gutted and converted into either office space (including for BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm), hotels, apartments and other purposes.
And so, the 14-acre site dedicated to the production of television will shortly be no more. But, as detailed on the BBC’s own blog, Google’s cameras have been rolling around the complex, recording how TVC is laid out in its last days. Says Bill Thompson:
Lots of people have been taking photographs before we leave, to provide a final record of a building we’ve grown to love, but we’ve also decided to make a larger-scale memorial to the home of British television, so this week Google have brought their Street View cameras in to record large areas of the building as it is now, before it is redeveloped and refurbished.
…I think that anyone who wanders around the virtual corridors will get a sense of what life has been like for those of us who have worked there over the decades, and get a buzz from being allowed to look backstage in a building that has been so important to anyone who ever watched television.
At some point over the summer, anyone will be able to go to Wood Lane on Google Maps and enter a virtual representation of what upon its opening, The Stage and Television Today described as a “monument to confidence”. (You can read one of The Stage’s reports about the opening on this page from our digital archive, which holds many such gems from the paper’s 133-year history).
Friends I know who have worked at TVC over the years have their own tales of disgruntlements – the difficulty of navigation, the unloved utitlitarian tower block beside it that housed Children’s and other departments – but, despite all their tales of horror, it genuinely was loved as a space in which to be creative.
That, above all, is something to be remembered, cherished – and, wherever possible, replicated.