London stakeholders just announced the finalists in the competition to design a new bridge to anchor the major redevelopment effort planned for London's South Bank. From a field of 74 fantastical entries, the jury selected a shortlist of four designs (plus six also-rans).
A bridge design by the Dutch firm OMA didn't make the cut. And wouldn't you know it: A drawing of a dozen box-y forms spanning a gloomy Thames River was never intended as a serious bridge proposal.
Writing in Dezeen, OMA partner Reinier de Graaf copped to the spoof on Tuesday. Kind of. "For decades, bridges have been used as a pretext for architects, engineers, and sometimes even artists to demonstrate their virtuosity—making the line-up of recent bridges a vanity fair, much like the line-up of recent high-rise buildings," de Graaf writes. "In this respect, a simple glance at the picture above makes sufficiently clear that we did not stand much of a chance, not least because we refused to play."
Ya burnt, London! The essay calls out everyone involved in planning the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge, from the developers and politicians who sponsored the competition to the architectural contestants who gave it their tacit endorsement. OMA's design was so pure, de Graaf suggests, that it was never going to win the favor of the jury.
Fair enough: Of all the entries, OMA's simple Vierendeel truss bridge design was by far the most appealing. Sure, the submission was unconventional, and intentionally so. Maybe even trollingly so.
But there is a history of unconventional design proposals winning over powerful constituencies. Consider the collage that Ellsworth Kelly, the Minimalist hard-edge painter, mailed in 2003 to Herbert Muschamp, then the architecture critic for The New York Times. The newsprint collage showed a press photo of Lower Manhattan some time after the 9/11 attacks, with a green trapezoid positioned where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
This was Kelly's proposal for what to do with Ground Zero: Build a park there. It never took off, but the submission itself is now part of the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2011, the Whitney commissioned Kelly to make a sculptural work based on his proposal.
In no way was Kelly's collage a formal proposal. Judging by what Kelly wrote to Muschamp, and what Muschamp wrote in response, and what the Whitney did in return, however, Kelly's proposal was indeed taken seriously. It stands out as one of the strongest contra-indications for how we might have approached the planning for that site.
From the Dezeen editorial, it seems that OMA aims for its proposal to be taken seriously, too—just not necessarily by the bridge-project jury. "The design's radical aesthetics almost call for a radical form of politics, challenging a system that notoriously thrives on compromise and caution," de Graaf writes.
The whole approach to this London bridge could use some reform-minded rethinking. For starters, the open design competition enlists architects to build consensus for the project where none exists: As de Graaf notes, politicians on the north side of the river don't want the bridge at all. Further, the instructions to design a "landmark" push architects in a direction that guarantees the kinds of unbuildable spectacles that the competition solicited in abundance.
Unfortunately, London will not be getting OMA's design. A design and technical jury will choose one of four finalists to proceed instead—assuming that the political consensus to build the project can be found. And that the jury doesn't simply ask the winning team to produce a new design altogether.
OMA's design gets it right: This is no way to build bridges.