Architects must not wobble on footbridge repair responsibility
If Lord Foster looks carefully through binoculars from his Thameside offices, he will see a long-redundant sign instructing soldiers marching towards Chelsea Barracks to 'break step', just as Roman Centurions did when crossing bridges, in order to mitigate the effect of marching in unison. It is therefore all the more surprising that this problem was not properly anticipated in the design of the 'bridge of fright'.
But it wasn't and, regrettably, the 'blade too light'will surely be forever dubbed the wobbly bridge - even after repair work has been carried out. To Foster's eternal humiliation, the project has become a yardstick for wobbliness: crossing a perilously unstable rope bridge over a ravine near Land's End recently, I heard someone ask 'does this wobble more than the one in London?'
A Millennium Bridge Trust spokesperson has said that no one knows how money for repairs is going to be raised, although Shadow Culture Secretary Peter Ainsworth, when branding the project 'a national embarrassment', suggested that a private sector solution should be found: very imaginative and about as easy as selling fridges to Eskimos!
But even if no one yet knows how to repair it, the liability and responsibility for funding remedial work is pretty clear, for despite the criticism he has attracted by insisting that the failure is an engineering rather than an architectural issue, Foster is of course correct. I have no axe to grind on this one, being a huge admirer of Ove Arup & Partners. But it seems most likely that, barring any third party responsibility, it is the engineer's insurers who will ultimately pick up the tab.
Unless, that is, Foster had been told that the design concept would inevitably be subject to excessive movement against the otherwise welcome rhythm of marching art lovers and tourists. But the bottom line is that it was an implicit, if not explicit, requirement that the 'bridge too tight' should be tolerably stable in use. The duty to meet that objective lay principally with Arup and the continued refusal to allow public access is clear evidence that the current levels of movement are outside acceptable limits.
Against such circumstances, remedial work is as essential as litigation is inevitable.
Damages will of course include fat earnings for lawyers and, if design responsibility is ultimately transferred to other engineers, professional fees will also be claimed against their work. The client has a duty, however, to mitigate losses so he will not rush to replace Arup even if patience is wearing a bit thin; and in any event who better than the best to sort this mess out!
Against any eventual claim, the defence can set off the costs of betterment - that is any work that would have been required in the first instance to make the 'bridge of plight'safe, albeit only at the cost that would have been incurred within the original contract. It seems unlikely that any losses accrue from the ongoing closure: not being a toll bridge there is no shortfall in revenue. That said, there may be a claim for lost interest against capital 'tied up' in a non-functioning facility, but that would be difficult to pursue.
So, despite living in the age of apology (even Tony Blair now believes it de rigeur to say 'sorry' for his part in the Dome saga) it is wholly inappropriate to expect Foster to assume any responsibility for the 'blade not right'. He expected that the basic engineering solution would be effective and is surely as dismayed and disappointed as the rest of us that it isn't.
And it is important for us all, as architects, that he 'stands firm' where others would surely wobble, for the division of responsibility between consultants must, as far as possible, be maintained. Our work is risky enough without being expected to assume blame for the faults of others. That said, it seems that even one as experienced in public relations as 'our Norman'must learn how to pass the buck a little more gracefully.