A wobbly bridge is not something that should be treated as a joke
Some time next week Ove Arup and Partners is due to issue its action report on the Millennium footbridge, three months after the briefing held in June to report on progress. On that occasion the designers and engineers were present in force and no doubt gave as good an account of themselves as the circumstances permitted. I was not present but I was invited, and what struck me as searingly interesting when I opened the envelope was the letterhead used for the notification. At the top, in white and silver lettering on a dark blue background, it stated: 'THE MILLENNIUM BRIDGE a BRIDGE for people a LINK for London a SYMBOL for Britain, ' just like that, with no punctuation and frequent jumps from upper to lower case.
Clearly, this letterhead had been designed. It reminded me that, as Richard MacCormac once put it (I quote from memory): 'Design is invisible, all around us, in the air we breathe. '
The aroma of design certainly clung to the notification of the press briefing, and it persisted, week after week, as reports of the size of the bill for rectifying the bridge steadily climbed to £10 million, and the time necessary to fix it expanded accordingly.
It became overpowering when the London Evening Standard began its absurd campaign to reopen the bridge, wobbles and all. When design is reduced to this sort of camouflage it becomes little more than spin doctoring.
To treat the whole bridge business as an amusing joke, rather as a well-mannered host might strive to when someone is sick at a party, is at best a delaying tactic. Look at the letterhead again - a BRIDGE for people. A LINK for London. A SYMBOL for Britain. Oh yes, indeed!
The wobbly bridge was not the only portent this summer. I don't mean trivial matters such as the wrong kind of stone being used in the British Museum - although you will have noticed that no one was prepared to treat that as a joke - but public order events that, when analysed, turned out to be thoroughly alarming.
There was the disastrous Concorde crash in Paris.
The first and only disaster to afflict the Concorde fleet, but enough to throw the entire concept of supersonic air transport into doubt and the supposed supremacy of European technology over American into the dustbin of history.
Nearer to home, there were football riots, with hundreds of English fans arrested; and three-day raves for uncontrollable crowds of 4,000 and more, with no intervention by the police.
There was the empty Dome, its vast open space straining to bring in a quarter of the visitors it was supposed to receive; while on the other side of London, 1. 5 million people crammed themselves into the streets of Notting Hill sustaining two deaths and numerous robberies and assaults.
Taken together, these last must have confounded all theories of the benignity of public open space and cast doubt on the safety of coming pedestrianisation schemes elsewhere in the city.
Last, but most serious of all, there was trouble on the London Underground again. This time on the Central Line when an electrical fault trapped more than 2,000 passengers for two sweltering hours in a deep tunnel. In the public eye for its new management's flirtation with a change in the 100 year-old London Underground logo (design again), the Tube carries more than three million passengers a day. When it fails, the transport infrastructure of London fails.
As the Evening Standard noted in an unusually sagacious editorial, when a breakdown of this kind is caused by a brand new £3 million train on a line that has just received an £800 million upgrade: 'These are the omens of a system dangerously close to collapse. '