Despot, Martyr, and Fool

London’s Garden Bridge comes to naught.

By Tim Waterman

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has switched off the public life support to London’s embattled Garden Bridge, a tempestuous, contested, and deeply symbolic idea that will die tightly clutching a sheaf of contemporary perversions of the civic good, a cautionary portfolio of design’s worst addictions.

Its life charts a course through the sordid world of politics and displays how the ambitions of the nation–state and the re-emerging city–state have uncoupled from democracy and attached to unplaceable global flows of power and money. The people are left helpless in a muddle of endless doubt, misinformation, threat, and the magical thrall of consumer glamour and celebrity pull. All this is held within the fading body of the Garden Bridge.

City skylines have become trophy cabinets of branded building concepts (Witold Rybczynski has written compellingly of this here), increasingly greenwashed to pull the heartstrings of a populace that still largely wishes to see good done in the world. Although the Garden Bridge design lacked the space of the sky as isolating backdrop, it made up for it with the clean plane of the River Thames in a site chosen not for its dearth of transportation opportunities but for its eminently Instagrammable setting.

Its protagonist was the former mayor Boris Johnson, for whom it was another high-profile vanity project, like his cable car to nowhere (the “Dangleway,” as it is known), and the awful red loopy thing at the London Olympics. Johnson’s habit is to say truly horrible things that represent his sinister ambitions (or prejudices), and then to chortle at them as if they were jokes, in a chummy, conspiratorial way that makes his audience feel like insiders (though they’re clearly mugs). Thomas Heatherwick uses the same trick: “It feels like we’re trying to pull off a big crime,” he said to the Guardian critic Olly Wainwright in the early days of the design, “with a twinkle in his eye.” He has compared his design to guerrilla gardening, dubiously recruiting an edgy, idealist grassroots urban practice into his globalized brand. Heatherwick has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of our times” by Terence Conran, which is tragic not for what it says about Conran’s judgment, but for what it indicates about our times. Cultural appropriation, high-concept gimmickry, branding, and spin are the new hallmarks of genius, as is whom you know, of course, but that, at least, has probably always been the case with genius.

Heatherwick and the English actor and bridge booster Joanna Lumley have both hastened to the Garden Bridge’s deathbed to declare the injustice of its consignment to the Tomb of the Unbuilt Project and to register their shock at its passing. It did not die a natural death of public disapproval! No! It was killed by naysayers and philistines! And it was loved by a silent majority!

In reality, it was a show of exuberant wastefulness against the black cloth of a cruel, calculated national policy of austerity. It also helped to bolster suspicions outside London that the city draws in wealth like a drain and spews it out again in showy geysers to the delight of a sweetly wettened metropolitan elite.

How will the Garden Bridge die? It will die a despot—unaccountable to opinion and the needs of the people. It will die a martyr—a symbol to the wealthy and powerful of how ungrateful the little people are for their benevolence and thus how, perhaps, they ought to disregard their feeble desires. It will die a fool—a leering Punch and Judy show to the sweeping drama of genuine and necessary civic endeavor.

But what can we learn from all this foolishness—so that this is not a tragic life lived in vain? That the whole debacle came this far shows that we might have a human predilection for showy waste, and that channeling it fruitfully and beautifully rather than damagingly is an important job for designers. That greenwash might be losing its power to persuade people of the environmental worthiness of projects, which means designers had better get serious quickly about building deep ecological value into their projects. That there is a growing public distaste for signature projects as urban baubles, and that civic and public value must be considered as a priority. That the architectures must work together to identify, create, and promote worthwhile projects, even to become their local developers. And, finally, that design education and practice must strive immensely to work with building projects not just as objects and concepts, but to embrace, understand, and value context while striving for spatial justice.

3 thoughts on “Despot, Martyr, and Fool”

  1. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about the Garden Bridge, and I speak as a connoisseur of such articles, having dedicated the last two years of my life trying to stop this wretched preposterous bling.

    These would-be thieves of public space picked on the wrong place to helicopter in their heist. The South Bank was first envisioned by the socialist London County Council and implemented by them over 40 years, with the central section literally being created by the local community. It is now the most popular walking stretch in the UK, with 25 million + a year enjoying fine views over open water of St Paul’s, which still dominates, despite the best endeavors of the Dubai Zoo of City towers to grab attention. Yet it is still seen as our local space, protected by the social housing tenants those pesky socialists let in in the 1980s. We don’t want our space privatised, our river built over, with all the views wrecked by huge concrete planters covered in cupro-nickel. Local residents have run petitions, hosted candle-lit vigils, hugged condemned trees, lobbied or hurled abuse at wretched politicians, and dragged the whole freeloading codswallop through the courts.

    Even that is normally not enough to stop a project with all the political decision-makers firmly in thrall to their own vanity. But this project was so inept, so clunky, so badly designed, so brazenly unnecessary, that the local campaign slowed its trajectory sufficiently to ensure that the cracks began to show, and the seething mass of corruption, bullying, and rapaciousness bubbled out – with the help of a growing army of journalists, commentators, architects and other experts.

    Heatherwick will not work in this town again. Johnson is a joke whose time has passed. Lumley has tarnished her ‘National Treasure’ tiara. The Garden Bridge Trust is probably going to go bust, having spent all of the £37.7m of public money given it on… what, exactly? A scandal awaits this final dénouement.

    But Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who finally pulled the plug, has played a blinder, quietly ensuring that the case against the Garden Bridge was very clearly enunciated by the unravelling Garden Bridge proposition itself. Now all he’s got to do is solve London’s housing crisis…

  2. There could hardly be a more eloquent summary of the whole wretched business. For a small fraction of the squandered money the Whitechapel Bell Foundary might have been saved for London.

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