09 July 2018

Network Rail Footbridge Design Ideas Competition

The UK's national rail network owner, Network Rail, recently announced an international Footbridge Design Ideas Competition. The competition is being administered by the RIBA Competitions office, and seeks architects or engineers (or teams of both) to present their ideas no later than Tuesday 18th September.

The organisers ask for ideas which are "innovative, challenge presumptions and raise expectations for the quality of future designs". I get the impression there is a perception that design quality in the UK railway network is often poor (I think this is true), and an ambition to see if anything better can be suggested.

Entrants must be either professionally qualified, or students. There is a nominal registration fee of £50 for professionals or £25 for students, presumably to minimise the number of contributions from complete jokers. Submission requirements are not especially onerous, being two A2-sized digital layouts, three images, and a declaration form.

There is only one prize, a "Design Fund" worth £20,000 which is expected to be awarded to the best entry, although could presumably be split. There is no potential design contract being dangled, with Network Rail essentially purchasing the ideas to use as they see fit with no further input from the winning competitor.

For the promoter, this is a cheap way of generating fresh and imaginative proposals. For competitors, it's a chance to freshen up their creative muscles, enjoy the pleasure of collaboration, and hope for a bit of positive publicity.

What's notable about this contest is that it is not Network Rail's first attempt to improve design quality in this area. They held a shortlisted design competition a few years ago, but I don't think much came of it.

They are also, in parallel with the new competition, looking to procure a consultant designer to develop a new footbridge design, again with a substantial architectural contribution. This is not announced publicly, only to Network Rail's pre-registered suppliers. The successful designer will be appointed through a conventional price / quality bid, and given the opportunity to work with the client and relevant stakeholders to come up with a new design or range of complementary designs.

It doesn't feel very joined up, but represents well the issues that large public bodies can have with procurement of creative design. Open competitions tend to generate more imaginative ideas, but may highlight teams who the client would find difficult to work with in follow-on stages; more direct procurement will lead to more predictable outcomes but gives the advantages of control. I think there is no perfect answer to this dilemma.


Steve Hanscomb said...

While I agree that some foot bridges, mostly from the diesel era of BR ownership, are poor quality and design, the iron lattice footbridges of the steam era are often beautiful and of classic design. The last image on this article is a wonderfully perfect example of a bridge that should be preserved and restored, not replaced. If a new bridge is necessary for enhanced disabled access, then an extra bridge should be built, but the lattice type perfectly compliment the station architecture of many stations that weren't ruined in the 1960's. Aylesbury Station, run by Chiltern Railways was recently restored and looks wonderful in it's contrasting paintwork, a real credit to the railway company. Many stations, however, are left to rust and fall into such disrepair, that replacement seems the only viable option. But railway architecture was made with real pride and attention to detail in the age of the big railway companies and any that still remain intact should be cherished.

GRB said...

This contest represents quite a challenge. I would think it would be more appealing to students than to professionals. I can't see a professional wanting to spend the time and effort on something so speculative. I would say it is similar in some respects to major piano competitions. Accomplished pianists with an established careers don't enter them, and perhaps they are not even allowed by the rules. On the other hand a young amateur who wins will find great rewards in so doing. What I find interesting about the last three of these five bridges is the lattice work is not simply decorative, but an integral part of the structure. Additionally it provides a safety barrier for young children and others. The first two are very robust and strong, but probably fit your criteria for being well engineered but lacking in aesthetic appeal. While being very good bridges, they are not artistically compelling.