26 December 2014

Nine Elms Bridge Design Competition

A new bridge design competition has recently been launched, for a £40m pedestrian and cycle bridge across the River Thames at Nine Elms in London. The new bridge would link Pimlico on the north bank of the river with Nine Elms on the south bank, soon to be home to the new US Embassy, as well as various other developments.

The competition website describes a three-stage process. Design teams are first requested to jump through a pre-qualification hoop, via the local authority's procurement website, presumably to weed out the chancers, no-hopers and ne'er-do-wells. There's no limit to the number of teams which then proceed to the second stage, submission of preliminary designs.

Competitors are asked to respond to five specific challenges, all of which are well chosen and show that the promoting authority, Wandsworth Council, has given serious thought to the project. The challenges include how to accommodate pedestrian and cycle traffic while providing a happy experience for both, how to achieve sufficient navigational clearance over the river while avoiding lengthy approach ramps, and how to tie the bridge in effectively to the public realm at either end.

Some of the stated aspirations for the bridge are at odds with each other. Take, for example, the first two:
  • Be innovative and memorable and challenging previous interpretations of bridge design
  • Be of an appropriate design
Is it right that an appropriate design is one which "challenges previous interpretations" of bridge design? Not only must the cake be had, it must also be eaten, apparently. An interpretation-challenging cake, innovatively made from snake's eggs and hyperflour, perhaps. That would certainly be memorable.

Entries will be judged by a jury panel featuring, amongst others, engineer Henry Bardsley, who has been involved in a few innovative bridges in his time, and architect Graham Stirk, whose practice was responsible for the Neptune's Way bridge debacle in Glasgow.

The contest does not seem to be anonymous, raising the prospect that the jury or promoter may be influenced by the names attached to entries: the desire to be associated with the Fosters and Hadids of the world rather than the Bloggs or Joneses. The promoters are open about the fact that they are not just looking for a design, but for a design team who are creative, can communicate, and have the capacity to deliver a complex and challenging project.

Following evaluation of the second stage entries, three or four teams will be selected to proceed to the final stage, developing their proposals in closer consultation with stakeholder and community groups, and each receiving a £12,000 honorarium, which is better than a slap in the face with the proverbial wet kipper, but hardly sufficient recompense for the hard work likely to be involved.

This will be an interesting competition to watch: it should attract many enthusiastic entrants, some prominent designers, and the very real difficulties of the site should lead to a number of interesting responses.

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