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Why the Garden Bridge should be built

Paul Finch

The focus of some critics on procedure has become the enemy of creativity in the Garden Bridge saga, says Paul Finch

It was heartening to read in AJ last week the comment from David Marks and Julia Barfield about the Garden Bridge procurement process, saying: ‘Had Marks Barfield been aware of Heatherwick Studio’s involvement and original idea, we would certainly not have submitted a tender. There is still honour and respect between architects and designers.’

This gets to the heart of the problem, not just about this particular project, but about the relationship of creativity to what are supposedly Simon-pure procurement procedures in respect of publicly funded, or part-funded, projects in general.

Some of the people making noise about the alleged failings in respect of the Garden Bridge have fallen into the trap of condemning creativity and private initiatives for a variety of reasons which have nothing to do with procurement procedures.

They seem incapable of grasping a simple point, which is that the project is not a conventional bridge or crossing, but a sophisticated folly. Their argument that public money is involved ignores the massive potential financial benefits to London of having yet another global visitor icon, in this case, unlike most other examples in the capital, one that is entirely contemporary, rather than an adaptation of, or addition to, a historic object.

I have suggested several times that the bridge could be paid for over the long term by charging for its use via Oyster cards. I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why this cannot be done, and I hope Mayor Khan may consider this as he comes to a conclusion about whether to make this project happen – or give a very clear signal that London hates ideas, hates innovation, and is turning its back on the creatives who make the capital tick.

Margaret Hodge was commissioned to do a hatchet job on the bridge procurement, which she dutifully delivered, preferring to write off tens of millions of pounds rather than suggesting ways in which that investment might be recovered. That is typical of the cavalier attitude of politicians down the ages, condemning, predictably, rather than producing any sort of creative response. Given her role in the procurement procedures for the London Olympics, this was certainly a case of pot and kettle, though I have seen no reference to her Stratford record in the reporting of this matter.

There is no reason why this project cannot be self-funding

Having had no involvement in the bridge project, I have nevertheless experienced nasty accusations on anti-social media when I have written about it in the past. All I can say is that in terms of location, the crossing site was identified in the Abercrombie Plan and has been the site for numerous proposals subsequently. It keeps bubbling up in a London sort of way. Regarding the cost, there is no reason why this project cannot be self-funding, as outlined above.

But there is a further consideration, which Marks Barfield has drawn attention to, which should be given far more weight in the discussion of this sort of project. That is to say the lack of respect given to ideas and their originators, and to designs in general, by non-creatives who spend their lives trying to suppress, diminish or oust architects and other designers who pursue ideas and projects beyond the dreams of the world of procurement, with its (often bogus) protocols of measurement and evaluation.

The moment people with ideas are subjected to the grinding apparatus of minimum indemnity requirements, tick-box employment policies, compulsory competition and 100-page form-filling, you know the drearies are in charge. Shame on them.

Garden Bridge planting in Spring

Garden Bridge planting in Spring

Garden Bridge planting in Spring


Readers' comments (7)

  • Up here in Argyll, many years ago, an academic approached the Forestry Commission for sole use of a small island to facilitate the study of the lifestyle of snails. But the F C - as a public body - couldn't do a private deal, put the island up for bid, it was bought by a prominent whisky dynasty who built a large holiday house, and the academic was left high and dry.
    In that case the public procurement rules were widely seen locally as favouring the rich and privileged, but in the case of the Garden Bridge it's clear that the rules appear to have been seen as operating against the interests of the promoters and designers.
    However, these same people were awfully keen to use the claimed benefits of their great idea to justify the creation of a charitable trust and lever as much public funding as possible - they saw themselves as public benefactors, who deserved public support.
    So the procurement of the design development was quite clearly rigged to favour the preferred people, and the other bidders who lost out seem (to me, at least) to have remained strangely quiet about what was clearly abuse of process.
    But, on reflection, their reticence could surely have something to do with the involvement of Transport for London in the bidding process.
    This organisation controls a colossal amount of architectural and engineering design procurement, has enormous clout and only a fool would want to get the wrong side of them - but under the direction of Mayor Boris Johnson (who would have nothing to do with Margaret Hodge's investigation) there does seem to have been what could politely be termed a very easygoing attitude to following due process, but could more accurately be termed the corruption of both some senior TfL management and of some quite prominent members of several design professions.
    Paul Finch stoutly defends the case for encouraging design innovation against excessive control and bureaucracy, but it would be most unfortunate if his ideas and arguments acted as a smokescreen to cover the true rottenness at the core of the procurement of this project - rot is infectious and it's in no-one's interest to cover it up, in a civilised and enlightened society.
    The involvement - and influence - of the 'great and the good' must not be allowed to sway opinion against a call for honesty and integrity in public and professional life, and everyone from the Prime Minister, the current Mayor, the professional institutions and right down to Paul Finch should understand that.
    Talk of a 'hatchet job' by Margaret Hodge to discover what had really been going on is below you, Mr Finch.

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  • Paul Finch describes the Garden Bridge as a "sophisticated folly". He is right to say that it is a folly, however wrong to say that it is sophisticated.

    A sophisticated solution for a combined garden and bridge might have allowed a garden platform above the river to co-exist with a proper foot and cycle bridge that is open 24 hours to the public like all other London Bridges. The Garden Bridge design fails to do this and so cannot be considered to be fit-for-purpose as a modern piece of urban infrastructure serving the public. Further, the clunky manner in which the Garden Bridge design meets both the North and South Banks makes it highly unsophisticated in aesthetic terms.

    If the crossing site of the Garden Bridge was indeed identified in the Abercrombie Plan as Mr Finch claim's then it is very unlikely that Abercrombie had a "folly" in mind rather than a proper bridge.

    So, here's "creative" (and quite shameless) proposal that Mr Finch might support and one that might satisfy both the Garden Bridge's admirers and objectors: build the Garden Bridge over the Serpentine in nearby Hyde Park.

    Placing the proposed "sophisticated folly" in a park setting would be a much more appropriate location for the Garden Bridge. A location halfway along the Serpentine would provide a useful crossing point for visitors to the regular to summer park events. There would also be no need to have night-time security for the bridge as the park is closed at night. Mr Finch's declared admiration of the Garden Bridge's design suggests that he should not object to its location within Hyde Park on aesthetic grounds. (Placing the Garden Bridge in Hyde Park also avoids starting the dangerous precedent for Londoners having to use Oyster cards to people to cross Thames bridges.)

    So built the Garden Bridge in Hyde Park, but without any more public money being used. Margaret Hodge, please take note.......

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  • What planet is Mr Finch on? Or what drugs? The Garden Bridge is neither a thing of beauty nor a beacon of good design. One wonders why no architect has conceived this idea in the past: possibly because they realised it just wouldn't work. I'm certain Vanbrugh would have designed something of the utmost elegance, fitting the area perfectly, and not some lumpen, sub-qualified, lazy architecture that lands like a boot up the arse on both sides of the river and screams "can't be bothered".

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  • Let the last word go to the creator of the Garden Bridge:

    ' "It feels like we're trying to pull off a big crime," says its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, with a twinkle in his eye.'

    (The Guardian, interview by Oliver Wainwright, 24 June 2014)

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  • Paul Finch again wins the prize for contrarian of the year.

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  • ...I find it symptomatic of the era that, well apart from the positive design qualities of the project (which I am not able to find), there are influential voices that defend it at all costs opting to ignore or minimise the problematic challenges to the, to say it softly, dodgy procurement process. No one but several different reports and investigations evidence wrong and corrupt processes. Let us not go into the precedent of suggesting wrong schemes to patch them later with half-baked solutions due to fair and professional processes not being respected. Officials should be made accountable for the wasted tax-payer's money. Also, influential voices in the profession could encourage good practice or otherwise challenge the current rules rather than binary framing the issue as 'if you do not agree with the project you are against creativity'...

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  • The Garden Bridge is the Juicero of Architecture.

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