by Eleanor Smith-Hahn & Louise Rondel

10 May 2024

image : Eleanor Smith-Hahn.

In January this year Building Civic Space attended a tour of Tower Hamlets Town Hall. In March, to develop our understanding of civic spaces with a broader sphere of influence, we attended Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) at City Hall. Four of us went along: Louise Rondel, Eleanor Smith-Hahn, Jeonghan Yoon and Tringa Berisha.

During our visit, we thought about the physical space and what happens during MQT - and how this produces or constrains particular forms of civic life. We experimented with creative ethnographic methods to capture both the meeting as a democratic forum and the space of the large auditorium, the Chamber. The collage on this page shows some of the drawings and notes we made on the day.

images : Eleanor Smith-Hahn, Jeoghan Yoon and Louise Rondel

Formerly located in Southwark, City Hall was relocated to the Royal Docks in Newham, East London in 2022. Its glass peaks rise above the water and concrete surrounds. The building appears to us as a perhaps contradictory combination of monolithic and accessible design.

City Hall is the home of the Greater London Authority presided over by the current Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been in office for eight years. The Mayor’s Question Time we attended on 15th March was significant as it was the last before the Mayor of London and London Assembly Elections on 2nd May.

poem : Tringa Berisha, images : Eleanor Smith-Hahn and Louise Rondel

On the day, we go through security and have a cup of tea in the cafe, before entering the Chamber. We are emphatically warned by the good-natured but serious security guards that the public are not allowed to intervene in the event and that they are ready to eject anybody who calls out. In the Chamber, we sit in the gallery overlooking the Mayor and London Assembly members, who are separated from us by a low glass wall. The Assembly members face away from us in a horseshoe shape, organised by party - Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens. The lamps above their heads form a circle in mid-air, reflecting the circular sweep of their tables and chairs below. Mayor Sadiq Khan sits on a lone table, facing the Assembly and the audience in the background. The walls tower above all of us, a great sweep of glass and metal, several stories high. When our group chats later, Tringa comments that Sadiq Khan’s chair looks like a hot seat.

It’s the London Assembly’s job to scrutinise London policy and hold the Mayor to account. We are struck by the theatrical nature of the debate. On what may be Sadiq Khan’s final MQT, the meeting’s many speeches are strewn with celebrations of achievement as well as demands for regret. TV screens and speakers dotted around magnify the faces and voices for the audience. They also enhance the sense of drama unfolding. The first question to the Mayor is what he thinks that Londoners regret about his tenure. The performance begins…

If you would like to participate in future events in the Building Civic Space series, please contact Eleanor and Louise and 

Eleanor Smith-Hahn is a CUCR member and doctoral researcher in the Goldsmiths Sociology Department. 

Dr Louise Rondel is a Visiting Researcher and Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the CUCR.

︎ Background image : Louise Rondel