The Weird and Wonderful World of Public Art at Traffic Roundabouts

Roundabout Sculpture celebrates the kitsch, playful and occasionally patriotic tone of public art stationed at road junctions around the world, as seen on Google Street View.

Who Is Roundabout Sculpture?

Xiao Yang, a Chinese designer and photographer, started Roundabout Sculpture earlier this year. Originally from Beijing, she moved to Spain in 2018, and has focused on shooting images of abandoned sites, brutalist architecture and mass concrete monuments in her own practice. Yang landed upon the idea for the tightly curated theme while spending time on Google Maps to check photography locations. “There was one time I planned to visit a city in Spain called Ávila. I was checking Google Maps as usual and noticed that, in almost every roundabout of this city, there is a small sculpture. I got really fascinated by it and started to pay attention to those when I travel around,” she recalls. 

She has now collected images of over 1000 roundabouts from Google Street View, and posted more than 300 to her Instagram account. She admits that, since starting the page, she has spent a lot more time wandering on Google Maps looking only for roundabouts, a quiet obsession that lends itself well to the tightly defined boundaries of the project. Even within the fixed remit of Roundabout Sculpture, it is gratifying to discover a varied range of public art from around the world—from the beautiful to the downright bizarre—all framed within the concrete uniformity of the traffic roundabout. 


Why Should You Follow?

Roundabout Sculpture uncovers a common thread between cities the world over and tugs at it, highlighting the strange and yet surprisingly consistent human impulse to place artworks at traffic junctions. It reveals the curious whims of human endeavour, whereby civic creativity is unleashed in the weirdest and wackiest of forms. This is one for the architecture aficionados, sure, but Roundabout Sculpture takes an unusual and more playful view on the built environment than your typical brutalist blog. Yang’s approach is reminiscent of German artist duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, best known for their extensive photo series of industrial buildings and structures, often organised in grids—perfect for reinterpretation via the gridded format of Instagram. 

“Through a great roundabout, you can roughly know the culture of this city. It’s like a city’s monument, and represents the character of this place. It is a clue to what they are famous for, their religion, the local product, what happened in the war and their aesthetic preferences. Some are also pretty weird, with great humour,” Yang says. Roundabout Sculpture takes a typological method of presentation, collecting and restructuring elements that are easily overlooked or neglected in daily life and categorising them anew. “It inspired me to observe our environment in a new perspective. For me, it’s a very obsessive and interesting game to play.”


What Instagram Doesn’t Tell You

Amongst the more than 300 sculptures posted so far, it can be difficult to pick a favourite. Below, Yang highlights a few of her highlights from the feed.


The Runner, Athens, Greece

Dromeas, also called The Runner, is made of individual pieces of glass stacked on top of each other to take the blurred shape of a runner in motion. Athens, in general, is considered the foundering city of the Olympic Games. But this sculpture was created in honour of the Olympic runner Spiridon “Spiros” Louis. He was the first to win the modern-day Olympic marathon. 


The Yellow Arm, Chatellerault, France

This is a monumental sculpture, twenty-four metres high and weighing more than twenty tonnes. Around the forearm are seven cars that made automotive history, a tribute to the industrial past of the city of Chatellerault and to the automobile in general. There’s an English car, a German, an Italian and French. They come from the hand of man, and they go down to the road.


Traffic Light Tree Roundabout, London, UK

This eight-metre-tall “tree” in London’s Canary Wharf changes its seventy-five sets of lights in a random order. Designed by artist Pierre Vivant in 1998, the changing patterns of the “Traffic Light Tree” were meant to reflect the “never ending rhythm of the surrounding domestic, financial and commercial activities.” As a new driver who is still learning, this one would definitely give me a brilliant panic.


Santa Dildonissen, Oslo, Norway

This sculpture consists of a gnome standing and holding a Christmas tree or an anal plug, depending on where your mind goes. Titled Santa, it is the work of controversial artist Paul McCarthy. “A piece like this has so many levels,’ he has said. “People want to talk about the anal plug, but who’s talking about the Santa or the red colour? It’s like taking low culture, ie sex toys, and making it a high culture. That’s what artists do.”


Dolo, Þorlákshöfn, Iceland

As part of my personal obsession with concrete structures, I’m very interested in tetrapods, a type of structure in coastal engineering used to prevent erosion. In the same way that I collect roundabouts, I’m also doing the same for tetrapods; I even created a Facebook group for that and published a chapter about tetrapods in a magazine called Fetish. When I saw this example laid down in the middle of a roundabout, two of my obsessions come together; I got super excited. There is nothing more I could ask for!