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Ian Ritchie: 'What problem does the Garden Bridge solve?'

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Ian Ritchie takes a forensic look at why Thomas Heatherwick’s controversial Garden Bridge proposal is the wrong project for London

Neither the Greater London Authority (GLA) nor Transport for London (TfL) have promoted the need for a pedestrian bridge in the location chosen by the Garden Bridge Trust. There has been no previous pedestrian demand or impact study. The fact that a bridge here has never been on anyone’s radar as a transport priority is evident to all with any understanding of London. There is no need. 

The AJ’s sister title New Civil Engineer reported in January 2014 that London Mayor Boris Johnson had confessed he ‘wasn’t really sure what it was for’, other than making ‘a wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or a romantic assignation’. Nevertheless, the Garden Bridge Trust states on its website: ‘The Bridge will provide a vital new route between north and south London’. What has been discussed for decades is the need for an increased capacity crossing the Thames in east London.There are 34 bridges across the Thames in Greater London, comparing very favourably with the 37 across the Seine in Paris. However, there is only one east of Tower Bridge, at Dartford on the M25 – on the periphery of London. Cross-Thames links in east London are the real issue as London’s population expands. TfL should be fully focused on cutting traffic levels and boosting public transport, walking and cycling, and the GLA in funding and improving existing green spaces throughout the city.

The moral question

For a charity, and the high profile personalities involved with it, to present to the public a private project masquerading as a public one is disingenuous. It represents the privatisation of the Thames air space – a space one would have assumed should always remain in public ownership. The Thames is the source of the history of London – and in our open and so-called transparent society any significant proposals that affect it should be publicly scrutinised. Who owns the river and the riverbed? Apart from a few places belonging to the Crown, it is apparently ‘owned’ by the Port of London Authority (PLA) – a public body. It states under the first of their duties and general powers: ‘It shall be the duty of the Port Authority to take such action as they consider necessary or desirable for or incidental to the improvement and conservancy of the Thames.’

This bridge is surely a privately-managed garden, a ‘visitor attraction’, to be built at vast expense over publicly owned land/water

Would it be reasonable to ask the PLA why they are allowing a private charity to build upon ‘public land’ a restricted access bridge across the Thames? If this had been a 100 percent funded public project there would certainly have been a public inquiry into the project’s impact and appropriateness, and then presumably an open competition like that for the Millennium Bridge. Obviously individuals are free to do whatever they like with their own money, but not with building over a public asset that does not belong to them and impacting on major historic views. It has been reported that it will not be open to the public 24/7, only from 6am to midnight; that there will be no cycling; and it is said that groups of eight or more constitute a ‘protest risk’ and must book in advance. All other publicly accessible bridges have no such restrictions - and all presumably have ‘rights of way’.  

This bridge is surely a privately-managed garden, a ‘visitor attraction’, to be built at vast expense over publicly owned land/water. The promoters of the project, and now TfL, state: ‘For commuters, it will provide a quick… route across the river’. It is not on a commuter route, and one would question why it is quick when wandering through or around a landscape. As such its premise is flawed, it is not what London needs, and I would consider the process unethical.

TfL apparently ‘scored’ Heatherwick Studio higher than two other practices in an ‘invited’ competition, even though one of them has won the Stirling Prize twice and designed more than 20 bridges to the former’s one – a 12 metre span curling bridge in Paddington Basin. This has been compounded by senior people at the GLA, including the mayor, stating that there are no public funds being put into the project. 

I understand that TfL funded the initial design studies - about £4 million, with a total of £30 million towards up-front costs. The public should not have been duped into thinking that the Garden Bridge was only privately funded. This has undermined any integrity that the project may have had. The mayor and government must come clean on the public contribution to the project for all stages of the project.

I have found no invention or audacity other than the marketing hype

An age of hype

We are in a marketing age where disinformation, whether on a screen or through other media, is endemic. In April 2009, while on Nick Ferrari At Breakfast on LBC 97.3, Boris Johnson revealed he wanted to build London’s very own Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the River Thames with accommodation, shops and offices. Later he spoke of having London’s own version of New York’s 1.4 mile High Line – a landscaped redundant viaduct, which itself was inspired by Paris’s 3 mile Promenade Plantée, completed in 1993 on the redundant viaduct linking the Place de La Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes.

In 1996 The Royal Academy created an exhibition by inviting six architects to design a bridge in this location – a fictional design exercise. Nobody really considered it a necessity, but a way of bringing to life the history of Inhabited Bridges to the public. My practice and Antoine Grumbach’s proposals were landscaped bridges, his as a greenhouse and ours as a lawn. The Garden Bridge page on Wikipedia reads “Conceived by the actress Joanna Lumley in 1998 and designed by Thomas Heatherwick, working with Arup.

The Garden Bridge is a wonderful exercise in celebrity hype and hubris. Its marketing is based on one self-contradictory proposition alone – an oasis of calm in the heart of the capital and a visitor attraction enhancing London’s global appeal. If it is built it will be adding to an already overloaded area offering a very wide range of existing visitor attractions. On the North Bank is Somerset House, with access directly off Waterloo Bridge onto a public terrace overlooking the river. On the South Bank are the Thames Riverside Walk, the London Eye, the Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, BFI Imax, BFI Cinemas, the National Theatre, the Oxo Tower, Tate Modern, and Shakespeare’s Globe. And there is a tranquil place - Bernie Spain Gardens, right by the Thames.

The garden and the bridge

As a visitor attraction there are two aspects to the Garden Bridge: the garden in the middle of the Thames in the heart of London, and its design. The landscape covers 2,700m2 – just over a third of a football pitch - of a total of 6,000m2 of deck and walkways. This is less than half of the bridge surface, but although this modest area may well underwhelm the landscape experience its impact on views is significant. If this proposal had been for a private commercial development of similar mass, height and size, the planning application would be refused on the grounds damage to the views.

The marketing states: ‘People using the Garden Bridge, London’s new and unique river crossing, will travel through the capital’s horticultural history, from wild marshland to cultivated gardens …  featuring 270 trees, 2,000 shrubs, hedging plants and climbers, over 22,000 hardy perennials, ferns and grasses and 64,000 bulbs … to create an oasis of escapism in the heart of the capital that will remain in bloom all year round.’ Mmmm?

If the design were as audacious and inventive as the Eiffel Tower was in its time there may have been a stronger case, but I have found no invention or audacity other than the marketing hype. It reminds me of a similar form from 2005 - Jürgen Mayer-Hermann’s Espacio Metropol Parasol in Seville, promoted as the largest wooden structure in the world.

Writing about bridge design as a form of architecture, Sir Ove Arup said: ‘When everything thus comes naturally, there will be the greatest possible unity between architecture and structure – they will in fact be one and the same thing, which is as it should be.’ I suspect that The Garden Bridge became more immense as a result of the arching form of the supports having to carry additional loading from the landscape and thus becoming deeper and thus having to move apart in order to maintain navigation clearance – so the span is long and consequently the structure more massive. To overcome this criterion the lines of the structure are expressed and to protect the structure, and to give it an aesthetic appeal, cupronickel cladding panels are added, and these, I understand, are being sponsored with £10m from Glencore PLC, a multinational commodity trading and mining company.

The problem of security is not only capacity, but probably also a concern of the police that people can hide among the bushes and trees, so lighting levels will have to be quite high. However, can lighting cover this risk? Presumably the brighter the lighting for security (and maybe for surveillance cameras), the more the bridge will become a beacon and less of a tranquil oasis.

According to Thomas Heatherwick: ‘The bridge will be beautiful from all angles. It has been designed to offer people different ways to experience the garden. For commuters, it will provide a quick and beautiful route across the river. For wanderers, the bridge will create a series of intimate spaces in which to stop and linger.’ There is already quite a degree of congestion on the South Bank at certain times, and given the hype, objectors fear that there will be a queue to get on the bridge. If true, would this result in a time limit for lingering? Also, there have been no night views made available to understand its appearance in the darker hours, or in winter, and few views of its underbelly from the South Bank, all of which would help the public understand the scale of the proposal better.

Funding and cost

A design for a privately-funded bridge would have to be marketable and ideally by a well-known designer in order to attract funders, and, almost certainly, a major sponsor who would be attracted to naming rights – as was the case with the Emirates Cable Car.

The Garden Bridge was first announced as costing £60 million until someone raised an eyebrow - it is now nearer £95million in construction costs - and rumours began about £30 million of public subsidy. Perhaps with its pink hue coming from the 90/10 cupronickel cladding panels (which according to the promoters ‘will introduce a warm tone between the steel and stone structures on either side of the river’) a champagne company may wish to sponsor it!

The discoveries continue. The current estimated £3.5 million annual maintenance costs are to be paid for, in part, by ‘pop-up type events’ and ‘a discreet range of merchandise’. In other words, the bridge’s approaches will be infested with advertising and selling, and the bridge will be closed periodically for private events. Vital links are not closed for parties, and should be available to night workers in a 24/7 city. There is an ambitious programme of fundraising from patrons and corporate members. If they don’t raise the necessary funds will the public purse have to pay, or will it become a toll bridge? According to the lawyers of the Middle Temple, whose buildings will be affected, there is ‘unacceptable uncertainty of income stream’.

We are also still waiting for a realistic long-term financial plan for the maintenance of the bridge. Meanwhile the trust has announced the appointment of both the bridge and landscape contractors (see AJ 08.07.15). Is this premature?

If proven to be needed in this location, I am sure that an elegant pedestrian/cyclist bridge could be realised for £30 million, and it would not need high security, high level maintenance, restricted access, a marketing/shop/maintenance building on the South Bank, nor require the sale or leasing of public land for private use on either bank.

I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s quote: ‘When in doubt – don’t’.

Ian Ritchie is director of Ian Ritchie Architects

  • 13 Comments

Readers' comments (13)

  • well said. completely agree

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  • This ambitious thesis project looks at the vital need for a crossing east of tower bridge.... also creating a car crossing, housing, gardens, offices...

    http://www.presidentsmedals.com/Entry-35231

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  • agreed

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  • Agree 100%

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  • Paraphrasing the quote from 'Field of Dreams ' : 'Built it and they will come' .

    It worked for the London Eye!

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  • Paraphrasing the quote from 'Field of Dreams ' : 'Build it and they will come' .

    It worked for the London Eye!

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  • Hurrah! Well said Ian. It is so disappointing that our body politic is in such bad shape that this nonsense greenwash bridge was actually taken seriously for 18 months and granted planning permission by supine local planning authorities in the face of Boris' brazen on-sided unstrategic championing of this folly.

    It is a testament to the paucity of this project and the anger it has generated that the campaign against it (tcos.org.uk) has only been going 8 months, but has had huge support (10,000 people have signed petitions - please sign! Thundering leaders in the FT and Observer, stories on BBC etc) and a serious impact on its deliverability. The Garden Bridge Trust claim they need to be on site this autumn and building in January, but (i) as a recently designated Asset of Community Value there is no chance that they will have the necessary interest in the land on the South Bank before next Easter, and possibly never; (ii) they have not raised any significant new funding over the past 9 months, despite all the hype and Boris' disgraceful recent decision to release £40m of public money to them by September, they are still £50m short; (iii) there are 46 conditions to be resolved, which at the earliest won't be resolved until December; (iv) the legality of Boris' promised underwriting of the annual running costs (worth £150m capitalised) may well be tested in the High Court - support the campaign and a legal challenge http://www.everyclick.com/tcos

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  • An excellent statement of the facts - and surely the planning approvals from both north and south of the river are inadequate, given the massive impact of this development on an important part of the character of the centre of what is still the capital of Britain, not just a Singapore-style city state where dissent is kept firmly on the leash.
    Viewed from a virtually Tory-free Scotland, this 'wonderful exercise in celebrity hype and hubris' could all too easily be used as another nail in the coffin of the UK.

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  • It's good to ge a reasoned assessment of this project as opposed to the wishful thinking that the Evening Standard and the like subject us to.

    To Mr Rennoldson who argues, "Build it and they will come" - I think you're missing the point. Of course they will come, just as they flock to Disneyland, but Paris quite wisely didn't build it in the middle of the city.

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  • Eight questions which need to be answered to lift the fog of nefarious cronyism and illegality this project seems immersed within:
    1) on what basis did Boris give TfL instruction to start working on this project at cost (£4m) in late 2012? At that point there was no strategic need for a bridge identified
    2) on what basis did TfL commission Heatherwick - the designer of a specific scheme touted in 2012 to trigger (1) above - to undertake an options analysis in Feb 2013? There was still no strategic need identified
    3) Why did TfL insist in May 2013 that the winning design team for the main contract - Arup - sub-contract Heatherwick as designer?
    4) On what basis did George Osborne and Boris agree to provide £60m of public funds in Nov 2013? There was still no strategic business case - this wasn't published until May 2014. How did this meet the requirements of the Treasury Red Book?
    5) The strategic business case argues that being privately funded the Garden Bridge is the best option: but it's not privately funded, since it was known by that time that the Treasury and TfL were putting in £60m of public funds. How is this rational and therefore how is it legal?
    6) Why did English Heritage fail to notice that assessments had not been provided in the planning application of key protected views, and sign off on its acceptability 4 months before permission was granted, and 3 months before those additional damning images were finally provided?
    7) On what basis has Boris agreed to hand over £40m by early Sept 2015 to the Garden Bridge Trust on a project with many risks unresolved including 46 planning conditions and no interest in the land required to build the bridge?
    8) Given the exorbitant costs - 5 times the cost of the proposed bridge at 9 Elms/ Pimlico - why has TfL or Boris or George not required the GB proposal be tested for value and costs reduced where possible?
    8) On what rational basis can Boris claim that this is a private project and yet commit £150m of public money to the maintenance for the next 125 years, on top of the £60m capital from the public purse?

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