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You'd think the RIBA had more important things to worry about

Paul Finch

Paul Finch finds it baffling that the institute has entered the Garden Bridge debate

Since the proposed Garden Bridge in London will be one of the great tourist attractions for the capital, there is little need to worry about the relatively small amounts of public money being invested. It will pay London back in spades. I find it baffling that the RIBA has started squeaking about the procurement process, possibly because the main designer, Thomas Heatherwick, is not an architect.

I know that worthy people are deeply concerned over governance proprieties in relation to this matter but, on the whole, noise is being made not because of genuine concerns about procurement (I could send the RIBA a list of other examples involving its own members if it wants to extend its silly campaign), but because those concerned just don’t like the idea of this particular bridge.

Unfortunately the miserabalist tendency has the bit between its teeth and, to mix a metaphor, smells blood. It is a lively time for the tendency, what with Blossom Street heading for judicial review and David Chipperfield thwarted from producing a house and studio for Tracey Emin. How the people who hate design and imagination must be gloating, especially now Portland Place has lumbered into the ring. You might have thought it had more important matters to worry about.

As an aside, I remain a supporter of the institute. As usual, in my annual talk to Part 3 students at the Bartlett this month, I recommended that they join their professional institute, because at a fundamental level such organisations represent independence and knowledge, and indeed independent knowledge, rather than royal or state ideologies. Dictatorships either ban professional bodies, or stuff them with stooges. In democracies those who can should join and vote for people who will represent their views. The Architects Registration Board can be shut tomorrow as far as I am concerned, since it does nothing of any value that could not be done by, say, the RIBA.

Optimistic as ever, I was able to stop worrying about any of this in the context of a two-day World Architecture Festival conference in Dubai last week, dealing with the subject of identity. The last time this subject was raised at a British-organised event was back in 2008 when the RIBA ran an event in Barcelona, in the days when it was capable of organising a national conference, courtesy of Tony Chapman.

This week I am speaking at a Lend Lease event in Sydney, dealing with similar issues, which include the power of the icon, the difference between brand and identity, the future of cities as dense environments, and the relationship between building, block, neighbourhood, quarter and, ultimately, the city itself.

Identity can be expressed through architecture, and in a joint presentation with my WAF colleague Jeremy Melvin, we reviewed the way in which designers had dealt with this in relation to the Milan Expo last year. Although formally the Expo was about food and energy, the reality is that it is an architectural expo where the fortunes and aspirations of countries represented can be assessed. We all remember the triumph of the Thomas Heatherwick UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, an unusually powerful combination of idea, engineering, technology and post-event planning, and which in a subtle way managed to make the Union Jack, as I unpedantically prefer to call it, look cool.

But, as Keith Priest reminded us in Dubai, it is not necessarily architecture and design that gives a city its identity. Manchester has thrived on football, music and universities. All true, but it has had the great Peter Savile, a designer who has come close to making brand and identity synonymous.


Readers' comments (7)

  • Mr. Finch - lovely to see you hold forth as always - very entertaining, although perhaps most of your architect readers who cannot even get a weeks holiday in Eurocamp may be somewhat less interested in your business trips......still, I'm sure its all worth it.
    A couple of things about you article:
    Things have moved on a bit up here in Manchester - we do have several more designers of world class in addition to the excellent Mr.Savile (Peter).
    We have also have a few decent architects too......Maybe you could squeeze a trip up the M6 - I know I constantly challenge AJ, but it is well meant. You may understand the situation here in Manchester if you take the time to experience it first hand...

    And speaking as someone who works in Branding - there is a great deal more to Manchester than the usual list that gets trotted out. The notion of identity on a global stage is great - but it is axiomatic that you do not hollow-out your home market. Lipton's tea for instance - great export brand, but virtually unknown to the volume consumer in the UK market. For Manchester to thrive and not rely on something as fickle as football, we need a wee bit more than logos and positioning statements.
    We need some of the vast investment in infrastructure lavished on the over-populated, over-priced and massively family-unfriendly South East. The most successful nations thrive when the second city is roughly half the size of the capital. That is a matter of government policy which seems to escape us here in Blighty but is obvious in Germany for instance.
    Coming back to 'The Garden Bridge' - many think this highly questionable and rather daft idea should be challenged whatever the reason. It is a bridge with trees on it for Christ's sake. Anyone read The Emperors New Clothes recently?

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  • I can assure Paul Finch that one doesn't have to be of the 'miserabalist tendency' to take exception to the way that Joanna Lumley's idea for a planted bridge has been manipulated and bulldozed so far, with the disreputable and supposedly discredited tradition of establishment cronyism being slowly exposed as being alive and well, with the active participation of the Mayor of London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and some well respected (?) design consultancies that appear to treat due process as an optional irrelevance , and deserve a hefty smack on the wrists from their professional bodies for conniving in a really quite spectacularly dishonest procurement 'fix' (if those bodies are awake, or even exist).
    The RIBA seemingly is awake, and is surely correct in thinking that, whatever the merits of the design, there is no earthly excuse for the very real chicanery in the design procurement process exercised by TfL and the bridge promoting charity (yes, charity).
    I happen to think that this project is an imposition on this river in the heart of this city that's still (just) the capital at the heart of Britain - and that the planning process, involving just the two local councils, was laughable.
    I think that, in addition to the procurement process being corrupted, the justification has also been skewed , with the limitations on use and the really rather obscene intention to occasionally close the bridge (which TfL deems such an important addition to central London infrastructure) for private junkets on behalf of the charity's financial backers - some of whom appear to be up there amongst the corporate tax avoiders who've recently been in the spotlight.
    I happen to think that Joanna's idea could well prove to be a popular draw for visitors, but in the setting of a country estate, a designed parkland.
    Those that want it could pay for it - perhaps on a smaller scale, but without need for charitable status, or for involuntary contributions from public funds - which are far more stretched than some people seem to realise, Mr Finch.
    However, it wouldn't form such a convenient tool for the use of upwardly mobile politicians - and that would be such a pity, wouldn't it?

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    I agree it seems odd that RIBA has decided so late in the day to join a skirmish over the garden bridge, and more so that it is not simply seeking an investigation and possible censure of anyone guilty of corrupting the procurement process, but is seeking as well to bring the horse to a standstill long after it has bolted the stable and just as it is getting into its stride. But thank you for supporting the RIBA, nonetheless. We need all the help we can get!

    Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP

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  • If the RIBA isn't going to get involved in debates about public procurement you have to question their relevance to the profession. The only strange thing here is that they have taken so long.

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  • "I know that worthy people are deeply concerned over governance proprieties in relation to this matter but...."

    You skip over the deeply concerning issue of the lack of transparency and democracy in a multi-million pound publicly funded project like it is a field of daisies.

    Taste aside. It is a privately managed space at the expense of the public purse that will be of little benefit of the public footing the bill.

    The questioning is from a diverse body of people, not only the miserablist Heatherwick haters and RIBA hypocrits, but from those who are commonly known as "citizens".

    I'm glad you don't like stooges and dictatorships and I'm happy to hear that you had such a fantastic business trip in Dubai.

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  • It wasn't a 'business trip', it was a conference about architecture and identity. As far as the bridge is concerned it will be a massive public asset, largely funded by private companies and individuals, which will generate huge interest and tourist revenues.

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  • Mr Finch, so would Disneyland, how about one for London - say in Kensington Gardens?

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