Guest article: Garden Bridges that might have been (and might still be)

This article is written by Peter Murray, who is chairman of the influential New London Architecture forum, chairman of the executive committee of the London Society and a former editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, Building Design magazine and Blueprint magazine. He knows this city.

In his County of London Plan of 1943 Sir Patrick Abercrombie proposed a new bridge across the Thames between Temple and the South Bank. Thirty years later Richard Rogers proposed a similarly located bridge to connect his Coin Street development with the north bank. A 1995 report prepared for the Government Office for London by engineers Arup confirmed that such a bridge was a good idea.

John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment at that time, agreed and sponsored an exhibition at the Royal Academy to promote it. Later, along came Joanna Lumley, national treasure and champion of worthy causes, who suggested a “garden bridge” designed by Thomas Heatherwick, without doubt one of the cleverest designers of his generation and dubbed by Sir Terence Conran the “Leonardo of our times”. The then Mayor of London Boris Johnson supported Lumley, and Transport for London (TfL) drew up a robust business case for the project.

So what could possibly have gone wrong? While cost, politics and an anti-Boris backlash played its part, the real problems emerged out of the design and procurement processes.

Lumley’s plans lie in tatters after Johnson’s successor, Sadiq Khan, announced that he would not provide financial guarantees following the publication of the report he had commissioned from Margaret Hodge MP. With pledges of private funding amounted to only £69m and potential capital costs put at “north of £200 million”, the gap between what is required and what has been promised for the capital investment is likely to be well in excess of £70m. In the light of Hodge’s findings it is little surprise that Khan pulled the plug. The writing had been on the wall for some time.

Hodge reported that “the inspiration for a Garden Bridge came from both Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley”. This was incorrect. The 1996 Living Bridges exhibition at the Royal Academy – featuring a series of spectacular models spanning a miniature Thames – illustrated the results of a competition for designs for a bridge on precisely the same site as the one Lumley proposed. The concept was supported by Gummer on the basis that, should a bridge be built, it would not require any money from the public purse. Rather, it would be funded by development either on the bridge itself or on the banks of the river.

A professional jury, of which the Secretary of State was himself a member, selected a design by Zaha Hadid as the winner. Hadid’s characteristically dramatic structure housed a collection of high end apartments that would have paid for the construction of the crossing. But the popular reaction to her scheme was that the the river was public space and should not be encroached on by private owners. Visitors to the exhibition voted instead for a design by the French architect Antoine Grumbach, whose envisaged Garden Bridge was suspended from a tower block next to Temple Station, the development of which would have funded the new structure.

With the help of the businessman Christopher Moran, Gummer attempted to promote the construction of Grumbach bridge before the Conservative government he was a member of was voted out of office in the 1997 general election. He was unsuccessful. Even so, Stephen Musgrave, chief executive of the Grosvenor Estate, retained an interest in the concept for several years with the view that the bridge would add value to the riparian land. The estate funded the storage of the Royal Academy’s bridge models with the expectation of reprising the show when new plans were prepared. However, in 2004 all the models were destroyed in the disastrous fire in Momart’s Leyton warehouse. Musgrave’s departure from Grosvenor in 2006 put an end to the idea.

By that time Joanna Lumley had picked up on Grumbach’s concept. Her initial idea was to build an “orchard bridge” on the Royal Academy’s proposed site as a memorial to Princess Diana. She suggested the idea to Chancellor Gordon Brown, who chaired the Princess Diana Memorial Committee and seemed keen. When the committee chose the Kathryn Gustafson Fountain in Hyde Park as a memorial instead, the bridge went on the back burner until Lumley wrote to Boris Johnson shortly after his election for a second mayoral term in 2012. Tellingly, she said she was proposing a “green pedestrian bridge, with cycle tracks alongside, with container-grown trees: and beauty and practicality in equal measure”.

But the design put in for planning was very different from the one described in Lumley’s letter. It was not a pedestrian bridge as such, it was a bridge designed for people to meander and tarry slowly down; to “hear birds singing; hear leaves rustling”. It was a bridge that would attract tourists and visitors and be of less attraction to working Londoners who want to get from A to B in the most efficient manner. It was modelled to take 12 minutes to cross (the Millennium Bridge takes three minutes). Its supporters were thus more likely to be those who promoted tourism, or tourists themselves, rather than Londoners. Its benefits were unclear to the community on the South Bank, which has a long history of fighting off new development projects.

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London is a pragmatic city. To Londoners, bridges are for getting from one side to the other. The sort of mixture described in Lumley’s first letter to Boris might have worked, but Lumley shot the project in the foot with her decision to exclude cycling. “Being a Lambeth resident and using the Tube, I walk a lot,” she told the Lambeth planning committee. “I’m the only one you can blame for not having cycles on this bridge. I said that I believe that cyclists speeding over the bridge would stop it being a peaceful place to walk.” In one fell swoop she antagonised the most powerful environmental lobby in town. She would not get any more support from cyclists; the sop that they could “push their bikes across the bridge” further exacerbated their negative feelings towards the crossing.

The Garden Bridge Trust, which had been set up in 2013 to deliver the project, was no more adept at understanding the sensitivities of those involved in the highly charged debate regarding “privately-owned, publicly accessible space” (POPAS). The report to the planning committee said that, “All groups of eight or more visitors would be required to contact the Garden Bridge Trust to request a formal visit to the bridge”. This was to “assist visitor management” and “discourage protest groups”. A suggestion that photographers might be charged for taking pictures from the bridge enraged a group who have been vociferous in the POPAS debate. Although these draconian management proposals were later amended by the trust, the damage was done.

Perhaps the greatest damage of all was inflicted by the dogged determination of award-winning reporter Will Hurst of the Architects’ Journal, who made frequent and effective use of freedom of information requests. Without his regular disclosure about Boris Johnson’s correspondence and meetings, the national press and politicians would have had much less evidence-based ammunition with which to attack the project.

The bridge made a good story for the AJ because it touched on key concerns of its readers. First, the relationship between Heatherwick – a designer – and the architectural profession is a sensitive one. There remains a feeling that he is treading on their patch. Designers do furniture, products and interiors, goes the argument, but architecture requires a different level of intellectual engagement and holistic thinking. This divide was inflamed when Heatherwick attacked the designs for the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant development, which he branded as “empty, cynical and vacuous” and “downright lazy”. The fact that the designs were by four of the profession’s most respected firms – AHMM, Allies & Morrison, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Wilkinson Eyre – confirmed Heatherwick as an outsider in AJ readers’ eyes.

The other key element that helped Hurst’s stories run and run is the profession’s concern about the procurement of projects. Walter Menteth, chairman of the RIBA’s procurement reform group, provided Hurst with regular comment on the failings of the TfL processes, which fitted with Menteth’s views that “there is an ascendance of procedures lacking transparency and democratic accountability, with nepotism, collusion and corrupt practices gaining ground”.

It was open to the mayor and TfL to work with Heatherwick Studio without a competitive procurement process. But TfL Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy and Head of Planning Michele Dix chose not to do so. They wanted to look at options. Architects Wilkinson Eyre, who were known to TFL for their designs for the cable car at Greenwich, and Marks Barfield, who delivered the London Eye, were invited to tender. On the face of it, a perfectly sensible thing to do.

But because there was lot of pressure from Mayor Johnson to get the project moving, the ensuing process was rushed, with a brief that should have made clearer what TfL was looking for. Heatherwick had been working on the project for many months. The others had a couple of weeks to come up with design advice for developing the concept of a new footbridge, not an iconic new addition to London’s landscape, although it did specify that the footbridge “would also be a positive contribution to this important cultural and leisure destination”.

In a generous statement following the publication of the Hodge Report, Julia Barfield stated that had Marks Barfield been aware of Heatherwick Studios’ involvement and original idea, they would not have submitted a tender: “There is still honour and respect between architects and designers.”

Yet, given the situation they found themselves in, it was not unreasonable of Hendy and Dix to seek some reassurance by asking other experienced practitioners for proposals. It would certainly have been easier to have made a direct appointment of Heatherwick, given the pressure they were under from City Hall. Richard de Cani told Hodge: “The timescale pressure was coming from City Hall because this was seen as a second-term deliverable.” Hodge commented that decisions on the bridge were driven by electoral cycles – a somewhat naive comment from a politician of Hodge’s experience. Was it not ever thus?

For Hendy, Boris was in charge. In his evidence to Hodge he said, “I took the view – and I still do – that, actually, if you’ve got a mandate of between four and five million voters, then if you want to do something which isn’t in the mayor’s transport strategy…a mayoral direction allows you to tell the organisation what to do.”

The Hodge report agrees that one of the most important responsibilities the London Mayor enjoys is to take action to enhance London and make it a better and more attractive place for people to live in, work in and visit. “Renewing the infrastructure through innovative ‘grands oeuvres’ is vital to ensuring that London maintains its leading edge as one of the most appealing capital cities in the world,” she wrote.

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I have supported the Garden Bridge for just this reason since its inception, in spite of reservations about its focus as a place to stop rather than to cross and in spite of its ban on cycling. The layout could surely be changed over time to suit different users. As a new London landmark, the bridge would enhance not just the river but the riparian environment. It is the right place for a bridge. Hodge criticises TFL’s “robust” business plan, preferring the views of the Treasury – hardly a great bellwether of urban improvement.

I prefer the views of Richard Rogers – appropriately ennobled as Lord Rogers of Riverside. Writing in the Architects’ Journal, he gave an eloquent and convincing argument for the bridge’s location:

“The bridge is perfectly located in the heart of London. It’s a vital meeting point, a hinge between Central London’s neighbourhoods. On the north bank, Aldwych (which will also be partially pedestrianised) marks the transition from Covent Garden theatres to Temple legal chambers. On the other axis, walking routes lead north through Bloomsbury and Lincoln’s Inn, to King’s Cross and Euston. But this route comes to a dead end at Aldwych; the Thames lies unnoticed down a dingy side street over a fast-moving high street. On the south side of the river, the bridge will land on the spectacular riverside walkway that has done so much for what was once a no-go area.”

Interestingly, this is the reverse of Abercrombie’s justification, illustrating just how much London has been transformed since WW2 by his plans, which included a tree-lined walkway along the south bank and a new National Theatre. The post war planner believed that the south bank was “perhaps the greatest of all London’s lost opportunities. On the north is vitality, with public access to enable the river’s attractions to be enjoyed. On the south, dull and monotonous decay.”

One of the reasons Thames Central Open Spaces opposed the Garden Bridge was concerns that the South Bank would become overcrowded. However, it would be more likely to draw people to the north of the river, with its space and attractions.

The most likely fallout of the Garden Bridge debacle and the Hodge Report is a review of the procurement procedures – certainly at TfL and possibly within City Hall. It is important that this does not discourage the sort of independent initiative that promoted the project at the outset.

Hodge says that “grands oeuvres” have their place. She is right. But such projects emerge from the capital’s creative community, which requires encouragement rather than the ghastly trolling that has characterised the debate surrounding the Garden Bridge. We need visions for a better city.

In a previous Royal Academy exhibition – New Architecture: The Work of Foster Rogers Stirling – Richard Rogers proposed the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square and a park on the Victoria Embankment, a project that has provided an ongoing vision for public space improvements in the West End ever since. Barfield Marks’ London Eye has transformed the South Bank and visitor perceptions of the capital. Terry Farrell has proposed numerous improvement projects, from Nash Ramblas to the Thames Gateway National Park. Norman Foster raised the level of public debate about London’s airports with his plans for the London Hub. Re Form architects have put in many hours of pro bono work on the Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge to help move that project forward. Throughout the capital architects and planners work with local communities to develop ideas for improving neighbourhoods, an initiative now recognised by Mayor Khan with his Crowdfund London project. Any new procurement guidance generated as a result of the Hodge report should make it easier for such initiatives to come forward.

The Garden Bridge was one 13 new crossings proposed by the Johnson administration. “From Fulham in the west to Dartford in the east, this is a vital package of crossings that will drive economic growth and get more people walking, cycling and on to public transport,” he said. This is a strategy that overrides mayoral terms and one that Sadiq Khan continues, in slightly amended form, with plans for the Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge, the Silvertown Tunnel, the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead, a riverbus between Canary Wharf and North Greenwich and a new river crossing at Barking Riverside.

So what next? Can the Garden Bridge Trust come up with the private funds they need to complete the job? Could a triumphant Theresa May cock a snook at Khan and get the Department for Transport to provide the necessary financial guarantees? Or perhaps the Mayor could go for a simpler walking and cycling bridge. Architect Ian Ritchie – who also came up with the idea for a garden bridge in the Royal Academy competition – has written in the Architects’ Journal: “An elegant pedestrian/cyclist bridge could be realised for £30 million and it would not need high security, 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.” This solution got a pretty positive thumbs up in the original business plan in all regards, except that it wasn’t green and would not be self-funding. A bridge like that would attract at least 10,000 people a day. Charge them a £1 toll and you would pay off the capital costs in a couple of years!

Such a project would support the mayor’s strategies for improving conditions for walking and cycling in the heart of the capital and provide a popular connection between north and south banks. With a transparent rerun of the competition between Heatherwick, Barfield Marks and Wilkinson Eyre, Sadiq could deliver a “grand oeuvre” that London could be proud of while reinforcing the capital’s reputation as a creative and cultural hub.

5 Comments

  1. Gosh, Dave! Kudos!

    You did all that and managed not to mention Heatherwick’s other contributions (all 1,000 of them: pity about the lauded export market) to the mobility of Londoners.

    By his Boris Bogglers shall you know him.

      • Interesting article.

        What concerns me is that you have not mentioned the consultation process It makes cringe worthy reading… less that 2,451 consultees responded to the planning application for the Garden Bridge and some of those had vested interested, however not all of them supported the planning application, yet the Planning Inspectorate approved planning – see Steer Davies Gleave Final Report Analysis of the Garden Bridge- consultation_report_February 2014. It appears no Equality Impact Assessment was carried out. What of due process, robust planning or some semblance of it?

        What of stifling the talents and creativity – of other aspiring/established architects when ‘one is favoured’ and given a free pass. It says little of the ‘winner’ being perceived as credible – as there is no merit in ‘cheating.’

        Again it is concerning the gung-ho approach to an ‘open cheque’ book to public funds. No transparency, accountability, and I must admit I am shocked – as many other are by the ‘cheap cabaret bling’ attached to forcing the garden bridge down peoples throats… I along with many others believe this whole thing has been a con and has shown a complete indifference.

        The very foundations on which the garden bridge has been founded are weak and inept. As Heatherwick trumpeted in a Guardian article in June 2014 ‘It feels like we’re trying to pull off a crime’ I believe he was correct. Architecture and citizens are left that much poorer for such inept practices.

        I believe Will Hurst has been objective and has asked and continues to ask the pertinent questions to strengthen planning, design, architecture and…. opportunity! Refreshing!

  2. Murray fails to take into account what the South Bank has become since the introduction of the London Eye, Shrek’s Adventures, London Dungeon, Udderbelly, London Wunderground etc. i.e. the busiest riverside promenade in Europe with 26 million visitors a year and over 25 (major) visitor attractions.

    Murray clearly has not read the transport assessment of the Garden Bridge whereby it states that most visitors would not dissipate on to the north bank, but they would do a u-turn and go back to the South Bank. So bang goes his theory about helping to spread visitor numbers away from the area. And let’s not forget that the garden Bridge pedestrian walking assessment predicted crowd levels to be at ‘comfort level D’ i.e. akin to a busy platform at rushour, on the underground.

    Murray is misleading the public somewhat in mentioning that the Garden Bridge was one of 13 crossings planned during the Johnson administration, suggesting it was always an idea to have a bridge here (ignore the fantasy competitions), yet this was only included in that list AFTER the Garden Bridge had been decreed. The bridge was only retro-fitted into river crossing plans in 2015 towards the end of his mayorality. Let’s be clear, the Garden Bridge was never in The London Plan nor was it in any Mayor’s Transport Strategies during either of Boris’ two terms in office, nor during Ken Livingstone’s terms. The whole area between Waterloo and Covent Garden is now heavily oversubscribed, in every sense. We need to be more clever in urban planning and shift this tourist ‘stuff’ around. Murray needs to use his power and influence to make new ‘places’ and visitor destinations in areas that deperately need it.

    Murray’s close friendship/association with Lord Rogers is well-known as is Rogers’ long-standing friendship with Heatherwick. It seems to be yet another case of the ‘chumocracy’ at work – the privileged few who have not truly considered genuine reasons for opposing the bridge or communicating with those outside of their closed circle, choosing to cite lazy and trite words such as “iconic”,”innovation” and “creativity” to dismiss any opposition.

    In the meantime, Murray would do well to talk to the community in person or better still, to host a public debate at the NLA with Thames Central Open Spaces and the Garden Bridge Trust. Perhaps he/we might learn something new by engaging with both sides of the argument, on an equal platform.

  3. When people come to the Southbank, they walk along the Queens Jubilee green walkway. There is a the iconic well loved Avenue of mature planes that visitors and Londoners alike come to see. There people can sit on the Riverside grass, an asset of community value. Or on the benches to rest and relax in the shade. The £200m PRIVATE garden bridge, want to destroy all this, to build a 68 metre long landing platform. It is a huge concrete crowd/queue control block that looks like a prison. The GBT NEVER tell people they want to destroy the Southbank in a Greenwashed landgrab. (Same on the Northbank) All those supporters of the bridge could actually come to the Southbank and see that the Avenue of trees is indeed of great value.

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