Paul Finch questions whether design competitions are always appropriate for new London crossings
Tricky decisions will soon need to be taken in respect of new Thames bridge proposals, being pursued vigorously, despite the concerted attacks on the Garden Bridge, attacks that I still hope may prove unsuccessful.
The problem for Transport for London and the London mayor is that they have put themselves in a position where the most important thing is running a design competition where public money, even if a minority share of funding, is involved.
In fact, as Margaret Hodge pointed out in her Garden Bridge report: ‘The mayor and TfL could have worked with Heatherwick Studio without a competitive procurement process but chose not to do so.’ This may have come as a surprise to procurement fetishists; if there been no competition there would, however, have been big squawks, which is presumably why the safety-first route was chosen, with unhappy results.
There are three other proposed bridges, all for cyclists and pedestrians, which have already been designed. The Diamond Jubilee bridge linking Wandsworth to Fulham has already won approvals, and simply requires private sector funding. Then there is the bridge design – which won a TfL competition – linking Nine Elms to Pimlico, where hostility from Westminster Council and local residents has cast a shadow over proceedings, temporarily one hopes.
More complex, but arguably of greater benefit, is the proposal by Nik Randall/reForm Architects, linking Rotherhithe Park to Canary Wharf. This would be a case study in line with Terry Farrell’s observation that what London really needs is several new crossings east of Tower Bridge.
Randall’s inspiration for the idea and location (which has won mayoral and TfL support in principle), came about as a result of talking to a friend who worked in Canary Wharf and cycled from East Dulwich to work every day. ‘I realised he cycled to Greenwich, carried his bike down into the tunnel, pushed it through and up the other side. I asked why he went so far off-route and he said the alternative was to cross Tower Bridge.’
Should the originator of a productive idea, pursued at the designer’s expense, be ignored in favour of an open competition?
Having identified an optimum location for a crossing to ease such journeys, Randall produced a concept design for an opening bridge, with engineer Gary Elliott of Elliott Wood. The architects then carried out a study into the technical and practical parameters for a crossing, partly paid for by Sustrans, the cycling network promoters. This is the only money the architects received for anything related to the project, says Randall; it was specifically not for the design or its development.
Subsequently, Sustrans has promoted the need for the crossing at this location, while reForm and Elliott Wood have promoted the design at endless public meetings and consultation exercises.
Now it has the backing of everyone who matters, including the Port of London Authority, which has approved the design and geometry and is now seeking a ‘simulator trial’, apparently sought when there is confidence that it will be successful.
Taking and passing the trial would hugely de-risk this specific design over any as yet unknown proposal, thereby reducing both cost and construction period. The question, therefore, is whether you think that the originator of a productive idea, pursued at the designer’s expense, should be ignored in favour of an open competition which would be based on the designer’s ideas but where key criteria could include fee bids, for example.
Alternatively you could make Randall’s the reference design for a construction bid. Best, you could invoke EU procurement rules outlining when you may make a direct design appointment. I hope the mayor and TfL opt for the latter, and reward initiative, creativity and commitment, proving despite appearances that London truly supports architecture, design and engineering.
This column was published in the Workplace issue – click here to buy a copy