Architect Ian Ritchie defends the critics of the Thames Garden Bridge proposal
In spite of Paul Finch’s impassioned plea to let creatives be given free rein in London, the ‘heart of the problem’, as he puts it, is the Garden Bridge’s dishonest procurement process, lack of business plan, and misuse of public funds. This is what is being attacked by the report, the critics and the public – not creativity.
What is under discussion is the problem specific to this project. Paul’s tu quoque attack on Dame Margaret Hodge is unlike him; however distressing, the facts of her Garden Bridge report stand, even if there were anything iconic about this bridge other than its stupendous cost – though I found no innovation in its design.
Yes, management has overtaken the design professions, thanks to Egan, but the comparison between the dead hand of management on the architectural design process and the need for transparent procurement is specious. Although most of us detest filling out over-demanding forms required by public procurement bureaucrats, open and anonymous competitions should be the rule when public money is involved.
The Garden Bridge somehow evolved from an ‘all private’ £60 million project to a £200 million project with a £60 million kick-start from the ‘public purse’. None of the protagonists admit that this is embarrassing. To have spent close to £40 million of public money without product is reprehensible and so are the bully tactics of those wanting the project to pass the point of no return. The competition was a charade and all involved know it.
At a time when heads of state are shredding the social contract and corruption infiltrates bodies politic worldwide like a malignant fungus, surely at least we in the architectural profession can make an attempt to uphold the rules and ethics?
As for rules limiting creativity, far from it: creativity thrives in hard and stony ground. One measure of an artist in any field is how well he or she works within the constraints of discipline. In architecture, first understand the laws of physics, the building regulations, budget and the procurement procedures; then by demonstrating advanced and smart thinking and design you can create new ideas and concepts. I’ve spent a professional lifetime doing so, and so have many other architects.
Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge concept of two lovely ‘flower pots’ placed symmetrically in the river seems to have initially ignored the navigation channel constraints in this location – hardly an unreasonable rule. The subsequent need to cope with reality is one major reason why the bridge has become so expensive and massive and appears uncomfortably asymmetrical.
The critics of the Garden Bridge understand all too well that it is a folly: one of the defining characteristics of follies is that they have no purpose other than that of ornament and their appearance of functionality is mostly a sham. They also understand that the era of follies, sophisticated or otherwise, paid for out of the public purse is over – at least for now. Too many people are struggling to get by.
Fabulously wealthy people then, as now, built beautiful follies in their estates. And some, because they had a social conscience, endowed beautiful universities, museums, and research centres which serve a real function.
Had Lumley, Heatherwick and Johnson had the modesty to propose a bridge where there is a genuine need for one, their proposal would probably have been accepted with gratitude
The sad thing is, had Joanna Lumley, Thomas Heatherwick and Boris Johnson had the modesty to propose a beautiful, functional, privately funded folly-cum-bridge across the Thames (and in harmony with it) where there is a genuine need for one (someone suggested from Syon Park to Kew Gardens), their proposal would probably have been accepted with gratitude by the public, even with a modest input from the public purse, and it would have stood as a genuine monument to the generosity of the donors.
Ian Ritchie is founder of Ian Ritchie Architects