Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
With the Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge Competition, the U.K. capital appears well positioned for folly.
London is staging a major contest to find a design team for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge that's being planned as part of the staggering new redevelopment effort along the city's South Bank. On Monday, the London Borough of Wandsworth released 74 design schemes under consideration for the bridge, which will connect Pimlico with Nine Elms and the $12 billion Battersea Power Station development.
If the Battersea Power Station is the "jewel in the crown" of Nine Elms, as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron puts it, then this cycle and pedestrian bridge would be a royal bauble. The $60 million price-tag is a drop in the bucket, given the scale of change along the South Bank. Strictly speaking, though, is an elaborately designed pedestrian bridge really necessary?
When a grid featuring dozens of fantastical designs is involved, there's reason to believe that the answer is no.
In format and tone, the London challenge bears a striking resemblance to the contest that the Guggenheim Foundation conducted to find a design for the Guggenheim Helsinki. The Guggenheim contest yielded an astonishing, almost laughable 1,715 designs from 77 different countries. Eventually, the design jury found 6 needles in the haystack, but the museum itself is still a hard sell in Helsinki—and it has been for years.
Host cities organize these large open design contests in the name of promoting competition broadly. In reality, however, they require architecture firms to pledge resources to unpaid work—something small firms can't do—with no guarantee of further action. Competition designs often look hasty, poorly thought out, or needlessly flashy as a result. If London means to build a folly, this is the way to go about it.
The design brief for the contest shows that the bridge is meant to serve as a piece of iconic architecture (without necessarily using the word). "This bridge has the potential to become one of the most expressive and visible landmarks in London, heralding the changes that are taking place south of the river and making vital connections to the north shore," the brief reads. "In its early years it will be a symbolic reminder to the rest of London that the newly created district around Nine Elms has awakened—and is well worth a visit."
But the brief indicates that the bridge has a purpose beyond flair. "As time goes by," it reads, "it will become a much loved and much used Thames crossing: an integral part of London’s ever growing infrastructure."
Some differences stand out between the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge and some of the other solutions that London has been mulling for bicycle transportation. One scheme to build an elevated SkyCycle highway exclusively for bikes smacks of magpie planning, a term coined by Copenhagenize's Mikael Colville-Andersen for infrastructure design that puts style ahead of substance. Same for a new plan to build a segregated bicycle path in an underground tunnel. While the Nine Elms–to–Pimlico bridge would segregate pedestrians and people on bikes away from cars, it would not shuffle them off to a less-than-desirable path—like the floating bike path proposed for the Thames River.
The Nine Elms–to–Pimlico bridge is kin to another major bridge project being considered for London: the Garden Bridge, a pedestrian parkway designed by the Heatherwick Studio. But it won't be exactly like the Garden Bridge (even if one or two of the several dozen preliminary designs appears to casually reference Heatherwick). For starters, current plans for the Garden Bridge don't include cyclists, which would seem to knock it down a notch or two in the eyes of Londoners hoping to actually use the thing to commute. The Guardian's architecture critic Oliver Wainwright writes that the Garden Bridge won't be infrastructure at all, but rather a "privately managed tourist attraction."
That will be a concern with the Nine Elms–to–Pimlico bridge as well. Another might be displacement. Regarding the Garden Bridge, CityLab contributor Feargus O'Sullivan writes that its adjacent effects along the Thames "won’t radically change the riverside’s character, they’re just the ultimate expression of a dramatic transformation that’s been long underway."
The visual impact of the new proposed bridge will have to be assessed once a final design is selected. (A design and technical jury will select a shortlist of four finalists next month; the winner will be named in July.) However, the infrastructural impact will be felt immediately if and when the bridge is completed, according to the current projections. A Transport for London study estimates that 18,000 people will use the bridge daily to cross from Nine Elms to Pimlico, split roughly evenly between people on bicycles and people on foot.
Wainwright has found reason to be optimistic:
The Nine Elms-to-Pimlico bridge is following the general rules by which big new pieces of London infrastructure come to be. The open design competition has come after a long-drawn-out and detailed Transport for London feasibility study, and the shortlisted schemes will be assessed by an architectural jury and an expert technical panel. The garden bridge, on the other hand, came out of the private lobbying of a well-connected celebrity and meetings with the mayor behind closed doors.
and reason to be skeptical:
The Nine Elms bridge is set to be a fraction of the price at [$62 million], [$40 million] of which has already been earmarked from community infrastructure levy contributions from nearby developments. The rest, says [Wandsworth Council chair Ravi] Govindia, could be covered by sponsorship—alarmingly opening the doors for a branded bridge along the lines of the empty Emirates Air Line or the Barclays cycle super highways, the bright blue billboards that thread their way through the city. One entry appears to be designed with that very sponsor in mind, as a big blue strip terminating in circular cycle ramps at either end.
Renderings can only say so much, but the fact that some renderings appear to have even an inkling of corporate design to them should be cause for concern—or at least cause for caution. With the gallery released this week, London has officially reached Peak Ostentatious Bridge Proposal. It's up to the design jury to pick one and convince the city that it isn't a suggestion residents will come to regret.