Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has switched off the public life support to London’s embattled Garden Bridge, a tempestuous, contested, and deeply symbolic idea that will die tightly clutching a sheaf of contemporary perversions of the civic good, a cautionary portfolio of design’s worst addictions.
Its life charts a course through the sordid world of politics and displays how the ambitions of the nation–state and the re-emerging city–state have uncoupled from democracy and attached to unplaceable global flows of power and money. The people are left helpless in a muddle of endless doubt, misinformation, threat, and the magical thrall of consumer glamour and celebrity pull. All this is held within the fading body of the Garden Bridge.
City skylines have become trophy cabinets of branded building concepts (Witold Rybczynski has written compellingly of this here), increasingly greenwashed to pull the heartstrings of a populace that still largely wishes to see good done in the world. Although the Garden Bridge design lacked the space of the sky as isolating backdrop, it made up for it with the clean plane of the River Thames in a site chosen not for its dearth of transportation opportunities but for its eminently Instagrammable setting.
Its protagonist was the former mayor Boris Johnson, for whom it was another high-profile vanity project, like his cable car to nowhere (the “Dangleway,” as it is known), and the awful red loopy thing at the London Olympics. Johnson’s habit is to say truly horrible things that represent his sinister ambitions (or prejudices), and then to chortle at them as if they were jokes, in a chummy, conspiratorial way that makes his audience feel like insiders (though they’re clearly mugs). Thomas Heatherwick uses the same trick: “It feels like we’re trying to pull off a big crime,” he said to the Guardian critic Olly Wainwright in the early days of the design, “with a twinkle in his eye.” He has compared his design to guerrilla gardening, dubiously recruiting an edgy, idealist grassroots urban practice into his globalized brand. Heatherwick has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of our times”by Terence Conran, which is tragic not for what it says about Conran’s judgment, but for what it indicates about our times. Cultural appropriation, high-concept gimmickry, branding, and spin are the new hallmarks of genius, as is whom you know, of course, but that, at least, has probably always been the case with genius.
Heatherwick and the English actor and bridge booster Joanna Lumley have both hastened to the Garden Bridge’s deathbed to declare the injustice of its consignment to the Tomb of the Unbuilt Project and to register their shock at its passing. It did not die a natural death of public disapproval! No! It was killed by naysayers and philistines! And it was loved by a silent majority!
In reality, it was a show of exuberant wastefulness against the black cloth of a cruel, calculated national policy of austerity. It also helped to bolster suspicions outside London that the city draws in wealth like a drain and spews it out again in showy geysers to the delight of a sweetly wettened metropolitan elite.
How will the Garden Bridge die? It will die a despot—unaccountable to opinion and the needs of the people. It will die a martyr—a symbol to the wealthy and powerful of how ungrateful the little people are for their benevolence and thus how, perhaps, they ought to disregard their feeble desires. It will die a fool—a leering Punch and Judy show to the sweeping drama of genuine and necessary civic endeavor.
But what can we learn from all this foolishness—so that this is not a tragic life lived in vain? That the whole debacle came this far shows that we might have a human predilection for showy waste, and that channeling it fruitfully and beautifully rather than damagingly is an important job for designers. That greenwash might be losing its power to persuade people of the environmental worthiness of projects, which means designers had better get serious quickly about building deep ecological value into their projects. That there is a growing public distaste for signature projects as urban baubles, and that civic and public value must be considered as a priority. That the architectures must work together to identify, create, and promote worthwhile projects, even to become their local developers. And, finally, that design education and practice must strive immensely to work with building projects not just as objects and concepts, but to embrace, understand, and value context while striving for spatial justice.
This article first appeared on Landscape Architecture Magazine’s website on 12 May 2017.