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Thursday24 August 2017

Striking but useless… just like Boris

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The two proposed Thames footbridges have little purpose except to give the mayor his vacuous legacy

One of the first projects of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor of London was to build a new London bridge like the old one. Not the one that is there now, or the one that was sold to an American millionaire, but the one that was demolished centuries ago, where tall houses and shops were built along the entire length.

Predictably it didn’t happen, although the spectacular pointlessness of many Boris building projects hasn’t always stood in the way of their realisation — viz the ArcelorMittal Orbit, or the “dangleway” from North Greenwich to the Royal Docks, both strangely similar in their childish bumptiousness and unpopular populism. Nonetheless, there is obviously an itch for an “iconic” bridge, before the mayor eventually departs to lead the Tory Party — hence the two proposals presented for different sites in the last month.

London mostly avoided the craze for iconic bridges during the boom (or as we should say in the capital, if not in the rest of the UK, the previous boom). We have no bridge by Calatrava modelled to resemble the outspread wing of a dove, we have no Wilkinson Eyre bridge to symbolise peace and reconciliation, and for that we ought to be grateful. Only one entirely new crossing emerged, in the form of Foster’s non-clichéd Millennium Bridge, and a couple were augmented: Hungerford Bridge gained two suspended footbridges affixed to it, and more recently, Blackfriars Railway Bridge grew a cheaply detailed station on top.

This, for a mayor who wants to leave a legacy, is clearly not enough. But each of the new/newish footbridges had an immediate knock-on effect of turning the area around its southern edge into a vibrant hive of browsing, shopping and coffee-sipping, which was obviously the intention; and the two new bridges are most likely aimed at something similar.

The most worrying by far is Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge. The rus-in-urbe effect of a green bridge is hardly a bad thing by itself — CZWG’s in Mile End does it with skill and surrealism in an area that was badly in need of both. But why the idea needs to be repeated in central London is a mystery, transforming one of the great urban vistas into a pseudo-park for the sake of increasing “footfall”. It has just the right combination of whimsicality and instant-wow theme-park tackiness to make it a likely Boris project.

Heatherwick and Arup's Garden Bridge

Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge: a likely Boris project

More sober, at least, is a competing project a little upriver for a footbridge from the unpleasant Chelsea Harbour yuppiedrome colony to Battersea, soon to become interchangeable. One World Design’s bridge does not have an obvious one-line wow but it has passed the first planning hurdle, so may also happen; the renders show a swooping white-painted steel bridge plunging into a thicket of luxury flats, a singularly depressing image of what we’ve let London become.

But strangely, given the similar density of stunning developments eastward, no return is envisaged for the Thames Gateway bridge, mooted under Ken Livingstone, between Barking and Thamesmead. The purpose too useful, the area too poor.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Mike Duriez

    Excellent critique, but it is unfair to suggest the bridge is necessarily pointless. If Boris needs a legacy, perhaps this could form a memorial garden to the memory of the many cyclists who have been unwisely enticed onto the Cycle-Superhighways-of-Death?

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  • Note that Heatherwick is run by Fred Manson - Southwark Council's former Head of Regeneration and mastermind of its More London/Tate Modern/Millenium Bridge and E&C regen schemes. He was once quoted as saying "Southwark is full of the wrong kind of people, middle-class people stay away". Maybe the bridge will be the final project in his legacy of bringing the corporates and middle classes to Southwark?

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  • I'm pretty sure money could be spent on increasing the number of bridges on the Thames further upstream, quite long stretches that make moving about particularly by bicycle rather more difficult and dangerous (by having to share busy roads) than would otherwise be needed.

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  • Think of it as a new pleasure garden Owen.

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