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Why can't we have an artwork bridge with a garden on it?

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The House of Lords is missing the point about Heatherwick’s garden bridge, writes Paul Finch

As is usual when anyone proposes a construction of originality and spirit in London, the reaction is a combination of scepticism, complaint and hostility. Once such a project is delivered, everyone says it is marvellous, and 30 years later it is listed.

The House of Lords last week debated the merits of Joanna Lumley’s Thames garden bridge idea, now being pursued to designs by Heatherwick Studio, with conditional support to the tune of £30 million from the chancellor of the exchequer. That is a small sum compared with the likely final cost - in truth, £150 million or more, which does sound rather expensive - of what promises to be a major urban project.

Many of the peers who criticised it seemed to imagine that the crossing’s purpose is to speed up the journey of commuters between Temple underground station and a site on the South Bank in front of the ITV Tower, next to Gabriel’s Wharf. This suggests members of the upper house really need to pay more attention: the whole point about this bridge is that it is not about speedy crossing, but about meandering and lingering. If you want speed, use Waterloo or Blackfriars. The oddest remark in the debate, ironically enough by a supporter of the proposal, was the claim that the bridge would get people out of their cars, transforming them into virtuous pedestrians. Anyone who thinks people will stop driving because of a bridge needs professional help. If that is the best argument that can be invoked, the project is in trouble.

Fortunately it is far from being the only argument, though the invocation of tourist revenue sounds a little tired these days. The fundamental case in favour of this bridge is simple: it is a fabulous idea which will add variety, pleasure and space to a busy city. The funding will largely be raised privately, an operation that is well underway. Supporters love the notion of a river landmark extolling nature, one which does not have to justify itself on grounds of speed or tourism. The bridge will be a huge city artwork, a riverine compliment to the High Line in New York, which has proved such a huge popular symbol of that city’s new vitality.

For critics, any stick will do: the planned bridge will ‘block views’, as if the Thames is an infinity canal; it is ‘too expensive’, though they do not say what value they place on public green space; ‘we could do with building another bridge somewhere else’, as though we inhabit a world of the mutually exclusive. If they were being really honest, they might say: ‘We don’t like this because we didn’t think of it, distrust anything involving designers, and always object to new ideas for London. We think reputations are best made by moaning.’

That default position is one of the reasons we have built so few bridges in central London in the last century - in fact not a single additional traffic bridge. So we still need a relief bridge for Hammersmith Bridge (closed again this week), and for Tower Bridge, which is subject to frequent remedial work.

Of course, if either or both were seriously proposed, the anti-brigade would have a simple response: we don’t need more bridges carrying those horrible cars. Why can’t we have an artwork bridge with a garden on it?

Kathryn Findlay

The news of Kathryn Findlay’s death has come as a great sadness. She was a talented and particular architect. My last long conversation with her was in Brisbane in 2012, where we were both speakers at the Australian Institute of Architects conference, and where she gave a terrific presentation of her past and current designs. I’m glad she has won this year’s AJ Women in Architecture Jane Drew Prize - it is a fitting tribute.

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