The recent unveiling of the 74 entries to the Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge competition was undoubtedly intended to cause a media circus, hoping to emulate the furore that surrounded the much larger Helsinki Guggenheim competition when they released all 1,715 of their entries to the web in October of last year. The competition, which asked designers to propose "one of the most expressive and visible landmarks in London," is the latest in a series of dramatic changes taking place on this stretch of the South Bank of the Thames. This new community, one of London’s most prestigious new neighbourhoods, includes Keiran Timberlake's new US Embassy and a slew of residential developments, culminating in the highly-touted renovation of Battersea Power Station, complete with accompanying buildings by Foster + Partners and Frank Gehry, and a public space by BIG.
Initial reactions to the competition entries has been mixed at best. The Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright took the opportunity to poke light-hearted fun at a selection of designs, using his considerable powers of wordplay to dub entries with titles such as The Greenhouse Funhouse, The Spaffy Tangle, Razorwire Party Bridge, and The Flaming Mouth of Hades. Similarly, City Metric ran the news with an article titled “The 12 Most Ridiculous Designs for the New Battersea Bridge”, sparking a debate on Reddit in which users branded the projects "varying degrees of insane" and "ridiculous doodles." But beyond all this jovial name-calling, these designs are symptomatic of an unhealthy approach to wealth that London seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to address.
These entries produce a creeping sense of déjà vu. Here we have 74 frequently outlandish ideas for a brand new pedestrian bridge, connecting two of the wealthiest areas of London, with the express aim of becoming a new landmark for London; as Wainwright points out, Wandsworth Council seems at pains to avoid using the word "iconic," even though that's unquestionably what they're after. This all has the same bitter taste as that "tiara on the head of our fabulous city," the Garden Bridge - a postcard of a project designed by Heatherwick Studio that was whisked through three levels of planning approval faster than you can say "Boris Johnson's Mayoral Legacy," despite being criticized by seemingly everybody that was not involved in commissioning, designing or approving it.
To be clear, though the Nine Elms Bridge bears certain similarities to the Garden Bridge, it's a few steps removed from the forested folly in terms of sheer audacity. While the Garden Bridge comes in at an eye-watering bill of £175 million, Nine Elms is estimated at a much more palatable £40 million; while the former is just 300 metres from an adjacent crossing, the latter is quite a significant distance from the nearest adequate pedestrian bridge; while one will force cyclists to dismount in order to cross, the other came with a specific requirement for a bicycle lane; and where funding for the Garden Bridge will include £30 million each from the Treasury and Transport for London, the Nine Elms bridge will require no public funds despite being spearheaded by Wandsworth Council (the money will instead come from £26 million in Community Infrastructure Levies paid by the developers of the surrounding buildings, with the remaining £14 million coming from private sponsorship).
Despite all of this, the Nine Elms crossing is still not cheap. For comparison Foster + Partners' Millennium Bridge, a genuinely groundbreaking design with similar length, height and span requirements, cost £23.2 million, including the 45% budget overrun required to fix the bridge's swaying - even adjusted for inflation this only equates to a little over £35 million. As much as it is easy to poke fun at the architects who took part in the competition, the outlandish results are more likely a result of the project’s large budget and Wandsworth Council's provocation for a bridge that is not only a "distinctive gateway" but also "innovative and memorable... challenging previous interpretations of bridge design." There is even a clause in the brief which would allow designs which are "appreciably over" the budget to be accepted providing the design offered "a compelling story to justify additional expenditure." Undoubtedly, all of this effort is intended to bolster the already unimaginably high property values of Nine Elms' new developments, in order to attract the market of super-rich investors which London's property market increasingly seems to target.
All of this will be difficult to stomach for the people who live on the other side of the city - places to the East of Tower Bridge like Greenwich where the nearest bridge, pedestrian or otherwise, is nearly four miles away and the nearby tunnels and ferries are simply not up to the job. To see such an extravagantly expensive bridge unveiled for one of London's most ostentatiously wealthy neighbourhoods (studio apartments in Battersea Power Station start at £495,000), while a whimsical but unnecessary tourist trap such as the Garden Bridge receives £60 million in public money, is sure to make them question why it has proven so difficult to scrape together the funds for even the most functional of bridges in their borough.
The simple answer to this is that a new bridge in East London is neither a high-profile populist project that the London Mayor deems worthy of public spending, nor can it be propped up by Community Infrastructure Levies fueled by the astronomical land values in other parts of London. City workers and tourists stand to gain from the public purse, and newly-formed communities comprising overseas buy-to-leave investors can benefit from leveraging private developers. But if you're a humble resident of a pre-existing community, you can forget about infrastructure spending entirely.
The Garden Bridge already looks likely to become a symbol of this rift in London's urban planning, and the bridge at Nine Elms is just one bad decision from following in its footsteps. For now, all we can hope is that Graham Stirk and his fellow judges have the good sense to select one of the more demure entries in the contest - so that at the very least this inequality is not quite so in your face.