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In his own words: Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge

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Thomas Heatherwick, the winner of the AJ120 Contribution to the Profession Award, talks to Owen Pritchard about his vision for a garden bridge across The Thames

On his initial ideas for a green bridge over the Thames:
‘I heard the idea 14 years ago, before even the [Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s] Highline and it struck me as a very powerful notion. I’ve always been interested in how you make things happen. Your role as a designer is not just to sit back and hope that people are going to come to you. How can you make them happen?

‘We have more understanding than ever before that a successful city, a city centre, is one that is walkable and that is not somehow to be an apologist for public transport.

‘Cities are not just an unpleasant necessity for commerce. They are the most joyful, in a way, natural, creations. An accumulation. London, in the context of cities is unrepeatable. Having a studio that works on masterplanning and strategic thinking, I have learned that you cannot recreate what London has.

On the location of the proposed bridge:
‘Our city is there because of the river. But London has turned its back on the river for many years. To the extent that north bank is sliced away from the city by a dual carriageway. We get all romantic about Waterloo Bridge and Waterloo Sunset and The Kinks. But you are walking along a dual carriageway.

‘The epicentre of London is park bench outside Temple Tube. It is the least used station on the entire Tube network and has a failing public space with street drinkers on the roof. So I feel people don’t understand how much better the ‘true’ centre of London could be.

‘Across the centre of London we have a rhythm of river crossings about every 450m. Between Waterloo and Blackfriars its 850m. It’s the biggest gap. It’s the centre of London.’

Heatherwick Garden Bridge

On what he hopes the bridge will achieve:
‘We have our [cultural institutions] split across the north and south of the river. 20 years ago we used to worry about the South Bank. The AF had an amazing lecture series that in some way led to the role of the mayor being created. They were electric.

‘One of the things the lectures looked at was how we breathe life into the South Bank. Over the last 20 years the South Bank has really been transformed. The London Eye, the Oxo tower, Tate Modern. All of those things have built this momentum and the south is thronging.

‘It felt like we took our eye off the north a bit and they didn’t notice it was quite dead.

‘And in an area like Temple, where the magna carta was worked out, how many people do you see walking about? It feels closed off to London. If you go to Somerset House and head east, it’s a bit like the lights go off on London.

‘London is arguably the thought-leading capital of the world. The cultural capital it has built up in institutions, buildings and people who chose to base themselves here – but we split that along the north and south.

‘If you look at what is stitching the centre together, you have Waterloo bridge, which is for cars. It’s one of these things that has become normalised because of low human experience.

The bridge is about helping stitch London together a bit more

‘So if you go to Paris, the Seine is 100m wide. London is ripped apart by quarter of a kilometre. We always treat the river as an obstacle to breach. We breach it beautifully, but the language is always ‘link’, rather than ‘make a place’. With this bridge, if it is a place, it won’t feel like you are walking quarter of a kilometre and maybe, just maybe, you do the job of helping stitch London together a bit more.

‘As you know there are people more likely to travel abroad than go to the other side of the river. So we underestimate the size of the problem. The garden bridge creates a human scale and makes a place. And that idea is powerful to me. I was trying to figure out how we make that happen.’

On how the design evolved:
‘The engineers led the design because the hero of the garden bridge must be the garden and not the bridge, and what I mean by that is we are so used to columns and cables, if they had the tree and a column and cables it would look like a fake tree.’

On people’s reaction to the bridge:
‘The London I grew up in was paralysed post-war. All the confidence had gone. You had to travel to Paris or Barcelona to find a city that was growing its culture, valuing its heritage but also believing in keeping on growing it. Britain seemed to have the most talent for cynicism and hard boiled fear entrenched. A whinge factor. And that’s human nature.

‘I remember when the London Eye happened. I was a bit sceptical, and I love being proved wrong. And I was wrong. This thing got built and it was absolutely the right thing. Exceptional. It must never be taken away and it really added something to Great Britain.’

The power of the Millennium Bridge is that when you stand on it and face St Paul’s, it looks like the Red Sea parted. It really works with the grid of the city.

 

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