The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
At 6:30 am on the seventh sunny day in June, when some people were waking happily to the you-can-smell-it buzz of a fresh summer’s day, my cousin, our brother, jumped off of the Hornsey Lane Bridge. He committed suicide. A second before he jumped, Hornsey Lane was the heaviest bridge on Earth. It may as well have been pilled Babel-high with wet laundry, piles of un-recycled Sunday newspapers and liter tins of cooking oil. In reality, it carried the weight of the odd car, an early morning jogger, and my cousin’s heavy heart.
The Hornsey Lane Bridge carries Hornsey Lane over the Archway Road, connecting Crouch End with Highgate. A steel and cast-iron construction, it’s arch barely forms a semicircle, but still spans 120 feet across a dizzying cutting – a luxurious drop that transports to a bygone era, given that such drops are rarely found in a built-up urban cities like London anymore. Dated 1897 on the cast-iron panel at its crown, the bridge, which replaced an earlier brick and stone incarnation by John Nash from 1813, was completed in 1900. Sadly, the bridge is also known as a magnet for suicide, being one of the most historically well-utilized sites in the UK.
The bridge is supported by Portland stone piers on either side which boast splayed bases with vermiculated cornerstones, but – by now – it’s easy to imagine that there must also be an invisible strata of souls, layer-deep and ages-high, upon which the bridge has come to rest like a pea on stacked mattresses. The volume of air that immediately surrounds the bridge must be irrevocably connected to it, like a phantom limb. That air is a telling periphery space, a falling space, a ‘surely this is also the site?’ place.
Almost certainly, suicide was not what Sir Alexander Binnie had in mind when he was designing the bridge. As chief engineer for the London County Council, his design feats included the first Blackwall Tunnel (1897) and Vauxhall Bridge (1906), and crossings, particularly over the River Thames, preoccupied his thoughts. My cousin, in a type of daredevil guerilla appropriation of a site, hi-jacked his bridge for a purpose outside of that for which it was intended. The tragic irony that a structure meant to connect people and place is where some of our most lonely and isolated have chosen to take their lives, not lost on those he left behind.
When I go down to that bridge and trace the path that my cousin walked, I struggle to understand how it might not have rescued him from his sadness. The bridge is not a hopelessly depressing council estate in Rochdale. It is a beautiful turn of the century structure and there is hope here. Walking the bridge, I can respond to the romance of the cast iron lamp standards flanked by griffins, take guilty pleasure in the decorative flourish of ropemouldings and scrolling ornament, and smile into the splutter of leaves and breeze against built that is time away from air conditioning and strip lighting.
My cousin, experienced a different reality, which is perhaps a reminder that there always exists at least two, or that the city is necessarily a tough place. My cousin was a mixed race man in his early thirties from Haringey. He had been raised without his father and partly in care. Before he developed a mental illness in his early 30s, he travelled the world and bought a two bedroom home for himself in affluent and leafy Highate – minutes from Hornsey Lane. When I’m tying flowers to the railing on the bridge, I wonder whether it is within architecture’s powers to rise-up and meet that textbook demographic cocktail of sex, age, race, and socio-economic class, at its lowest personal moment.
Nietzsche famously said, ‘Underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed.’ I have heard it said before that this world is a construct, an imagining, an unreality.
We invest in our towns and cities in the belief that they influence us – our happiness, our sense of identity. We believe in being mindful, conscious, and increasingly accept new age notions of spiritualty into mainstream culture and even the boardroom, but how much of architecture and the built environment responds to the higher-order needs of humanity?
Designers and architects often talk about the soul of a place, about atmosphere and beauty, and other intangible features, but how do our schools encourage a particular kind of creative imagination, one that understands how to design for a framework for spirituality in place? Sitting at the back of a church hall during a public consultation for the Heatherwick Studio pedestrian ‘Garden Bridge’, I wonder if it will be sublime enough, with its promised sensuality, sustainability and socially-responsible humanity, to dissuade someone from jumping from one of its sides?
Two pedestrian pathways flank the road on the Hornsey Lane Bridge but there is no space for a mediation, aromatherapy or yoga studio, and probably not for a church, mosque, temple or a booth with a guard or doctor either. A Samaritans poster is attached to one end, a kind of off-site social worker.
The bridge is Grade 2 Listed and plans have been put to English Heritage in respect of retro-fitting of anti-suicide measures. English Heritage have indicated that their preference would be for high tensile wire fencing (which would be 1.5m higher than the current rails with an inwards angled top to prevent people from climbing over), but they require more information to ensure that the structural integrity of the bridge or its aesthetic qualities aren’t compromised.
Haringey and Islington Council’s and TFL have discussed jointly funding anti-suicide measures, but this hasn’t happened.