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The era of follies is over

Garden bridge revised

Architect Ian Ritchie defends the critics of the Thames Garden Bridge proposal

ian ritchie i090312

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


Readers' comments (6)

  • well said

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  • Could not agree more with Mr Richie. What happened to the pari-passu agreement? Is it not fraudulent to spend public money in such a profigate way? Someone needs to be held to account.

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  • Had the Victorians had a similar attitude to the authors, our public spaces would have been very mean. People were struggling to get by then as well.

    Were the garden bridge to be built subsequent generations would thank us for our contribution to London's public space and millions of photographs would have been taken each year of it or from it. The folly of its procurement would have been quickly forgotten.

    Although the procurement may have been a mess we also need some follies in our life or does Mr Richie as an architect suggest from now on simple cheap rectangular structures to all of our building needs? Why do we even need architects? since 'too many people are struggling to get by' lets save on architects fees by going for very simple concrete or brick boxes.

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  • Andrew Wood still doesn't get it does he? Let's spell it out again - it's in the wrong location. It's not needed here. We don't have the cash for it. Even the fabulously rich 'generous' people 'gifting'(!) it to London haven't dug into their own pockets for what they are bullying us all all to have.

    Don't be ridiculous - we don't "need" it.

    The Victorians created some howlers too but we've come a long way sinc then so let's keep it to the 21st century and concentrate on what we need present day i.e. not the garden bridge.

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  • Well said Ritchie! How can anyone expect us in the Metropolitain Public Gardens Association to support such eyewatering dishonesty? We have been quietly creating London gardens and open spaces on a limited budget since 1882 and providing them with suitable seating. Small contributions and voluntary work get better results than pies in the sky! Malcolm Davidson

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  • A really good summing up; but the era of follies seems to be far from over, with the role of sponsor/client moving from 'fabulously wealthy people' to the corporate developers, of such places as Paddington Basin and King's Cross in central London, and Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

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