A bridge not too bloody far

A predecessor of mine at Building magazine, Henry Statham, called Tower Bridge ‘as choice a specimen of architectural gimcrack on a large scale as one could wish to see.” Statham was an architect, who edited the title between 1884 and 1910.  I only managed six years in the early 1990’s. On 30th June 1894, as the bascules between Horace Jones’s cod-medieval towers rose for the first time, Statham blew a gasket. “What strikes one is that the whole structure is the most monstrous and preposterous architectural sham. Far better it would have been to have built simply the naked steelwork.” Poor Henry’s proto-modernist designs had been cruelly rejected a decade or more earlier.

It’s 130 years since Tower Bridge received Royal Assent in 1885, after eight years of quarrelling.  Arguments over Thomas Heatherwick’s 1200-foot long Garden Bridge, two miles upstream at Temple, have been raging for less than half that time. Not about the architecture, if only. The project has been turned into a proxy for class war. “This Bridge is a scam for him (Boris) and (Joanna) Lumley to host their elite friends on... during which millions in Britain are suffering. People are sleeping rough and kids are going to school without a meal.”  A typical comment, among hundreds under a story in the Guardian, a paper which exhibits a savage, almost wanton, bias against the project.

The Guardian reviles the use of private capital to build what they feel should be a public asset – and quite possibly because it has no cycle lane. Self-righteous cyclists dislike it, for not being devoted to their cult of Lycra. Trotskyist distaste is based upon the unshakeable notion that a Joanna Lumley/Boris Johnson establishment axis is a conspiracy against the people. Utilitarianist’s hate it because it won’t take 40-tonne lorries. Even architects of the modernist tendency hate it for not being being made of glass and steel. (See Tower Bridge). And to borrow phrase from design panjandrum Paul Finch’s AJ column, ‘miserablists’ hate it because they are just bloody miserable about any new idea.

Before continuing, I’d better do what Henry Statham didn’t – and declare what is an old fart’s interest. I admire Joanna Lumley, as evidenced by the photograph.  I have long been an admirer of Paul Morrell, deputy chair of the Garden Bridge Trust. Morrell has spent endless hours playing the political equivalent of Whack-a-Mole - thumping down mole-hill sized objections as they pop up. The last was flattened in early November. Lambeth Council felt the £30m Transport for London had committed was too much. Never mind this was hardly the council’s business. They own land upon which the bridge will rest. So, TfL’s payment will be cut to £10m.

Labour’s Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has been persuaded to switch sides, he now supports the bridge. The builders are in place. Promissory notes for the £175m are pretty much in place. There are few humps left to thump. Objectors will continue to see the bridge as the most evil civil engineering structure built since the Japanese forced prisoners of war to span the river Kwai.  Why? For heavens sake, there are plenty of injustices to rage about in Britain today. But a peaceful route across the Thames? Really?  This bridge will likely overtake Tower Bridge as an icon London by 2030. Message to remaining objectors; find something truly objectionable to attack – like the rise in rough sleepers in London.