This whole idea of a "living bridge" across the Thames in London has something of the zombie about it. While there have been many attempts to breathe life into the idea over the years (the book Living Bridges is the best document of them), there have been two or three especially significant schemes in the last fifteen years.
First, the Peabody Trust attempted to re-establish the concept, and usher life into it golem-style. While there were few signs of movement, the idea was passed to the Royal Academy who gave it a fresh jolt of electricity with their own habitable bridge competition.
Back in May this year, mayor of London Boris Johnson disinterred one of the Royal Academy corpses, but although the concept is still shambling around London, it seems to have little future.
The most recent scheme has been the self-admittedly pie-in-the-sky ideas competition run by RIBA. This one emphasises the undead nature of the whole enterprise: any signs of life are purely illusory, the idea of a living bridge across the Thames can't possibly survive once detached from utopian voodoo.
Look at the designs that have come out of this latest exercise. The winner, Laurie Chetwood, has proposed a flourish of glazed teepees in which the eco-conscious can sip organic tea amidst a latter-day hanging gardens (see left). It responds to the context (the concrete London Bridge) by essentially ignoring it.
Chetwood is presumably more interested in the chance of publicity than anything else, as was well-demonstrated with his other, more satirical, living bridge proposal: housing MPs in tapioca-like pods on the sides of Westminster Bridge (see right).
The second placed entry, by Lawrence Friesen, again largely ignores the existing bridge by building a bridge on top of it (see left, click on this or any other image for a larger version). This design begs the question of why you wouldn't just build a new bridge further along the river, especially given the "blot on the landscape" quality of this modernist take on the Forth Railway Bridge.
Ryszard Rychlicki's third-placed design is perhaps the most practical of the three, with a series of disposable housing pods shelved in a supporting framework. But yet again, the existing bridge is largely incidental, and the design would destroy views up and down river, something that be very hard to justify in real life.
Of course, nobody should take the designs too seriously - all the bridge really does here is to introduce the constraints of a horizontal plot of land into a fairly ordinary quest for architectural fantasia. In their favour, they offer the chance to re-imagine London as a city big enough and robust enough to tolerate a corner of utopian improbability. The idea that everything conservative, orderly, and well-understood about the city might be able to cope with disruption, intrusion and playful challenge is always welcome.
To finish off, here are a couple more of the entries, and links to further information.
Some of the shortlisted entries are discussed with additional images at the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects' blog. And anyone wondering why the only previous habitable bridge in London eventually proved a failure, can find out the results of recent historical research.
Abre Etteh & others
WDR & RT Taggart
Updated 27 July 2009
Several other entries are now shown online at RIBA's competition website