06 March 2015

More on Nine Elms / Pimlico Bridge

The finalists for the Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge Design Competition are due to be declared on Friday 13th March (an auspicious date!), but while the jury panel and organisers work feverishly behind the scenes, the project is provoking some interesting commentary.

Writing for The Guardian newspaper, critic Oliver Wainwright contrasts the Nine Elms scheme with the more controversial Garden Bridge proposed for central London. Both bridges span a similar distance across the same river, but have very little else in common.

The Garden Bridge is to cost £175m, and has seen a main designer appointed with large sums of money with little or no genuine competition. At Nine Elms, the budget is a much more credible £40m, and the design and designer are being chosen in an open competition which allows different concepts to be compared for feasibility and desirability.

The Nine Elms bridge makes a feature of encouraging cycle access, and is to be a public structure open at all times. In contrast, cyclists are to be prohibited from the Garden Bridge, which as a semi-private space will be shut at night, and also regularly closed to the public to allow private parties to take place.

Troublingly for the competitors, Wainwright also draws attention to growing opposition to the Nine Elms bridge proposal on the north side of the Thames, with cross-party politicians objecting on the grounds of visual and environmental impact at the most obvious landing site in Pimlico. This is nothing new: Pimlico residents have been nervous about the plan since it was first mooted, horrified at the thoughts that hordes of lycra-clad cyclists from South of the Thames might invade their genteel residential neighbourhood.

Wainwright also offers a well-deserved skewering to some of the contest's most absurd designs, dubbing them "The gushing mandolin", "The spaffy tangle" and most memorably "The flaming mouth of Hades". These are the sorts of offerings that make you genuinely wonder for the sanity of those responsible: why would the architects concerned (and clearly, they are architects) spend more than half-a-minute creating images for something that, surely, has absolutely no prospect of being shortlisted?

Further comment on the contest comes from Rory Stott at ArchDaily, not normally a place I look to find coherent criticism of modern bridge design. Stott considers the budget of £40m, which is largely to be funded by a Community Infrastructure Levy paid for by the developers of adjacent sites, and suggests this is a little pricey. In comparison, London's Millennium Bridge, which was definitely no bargain, would cost about £35m at today's prices.

There's little doubt you could build a lovely bridge over the Thames for a lot less than that. Stott suggests the promoter, Wandsworth Council, are setting their sights high, and further suggests that this is responsible for the lavish over-exuberance of many of the design competition entries. I doubt that, and I think the absurdity of many entries is simply down to the involvement of designers who have no real common sense, understanding of contruction, or interest in the practicalities of a scheme.

The main target of Stott's ire is that this is a bridge for the super-wealthy, who are investing heavily in developments in the Nine Elms area. Some apartments in the area are already changing hands for well above the original sales price, well before they have even been built! It's an investment opportunity for the non-domiciled rich, with the potential to create a highly-ornamented ghost town. With this in mind, it's easy to see why the good burghers across the river in Pimlico can see little value in the bridge proposal.

Personally, I don't think the bridge should be judged so hastily. It will not only serve those who live closest to it, but has the potential to be a useful walking and cycling route for a far wider area, if the right connections can be made. Whether it is a project that Wandsworth can be proud of will depend upon what emerges from the competition jury's deliberations next week, whether they have been blinded by bling or whether their chosen finalists exhibit both sense and sensibility.


Keith Brownlie said...

Now before the dust settles, on this delayed day of reckoning, may we finally declare the organisation of this competition the most abusive to our profession in living memory? Next time lets all get together and do something that furthers our own communal aims rather than walk willingly over the quayside edge.

The Happy Pontist said...

Keith, I have a few thoughts on the organisation of the contest, but could you please share more specifically what you objected to? After all, you read the terms and still took part, presumably with eyes wide open. Which aspects do you thing were "abusive"?

Anonymous said...

It is believed that at least 2 Pimlico residents have been kicked off the Review Panel for querying the gagging orders they had to sign.
Indeed Pimlico has many burghers but it also has many disadvantaged families who live in the estates (Churchill Gardens etc..) and whose only green space is St. Georges's Square and Pimlico Gardens.Not to forget the Charity Boat Club for disadvantaged Londoners.