January Question Time

January Question Time

This month’s question: When is architectural design acceptable as sculpture and not functioning form?


QTime main1

When is it ok for architectural design to exist merely as a spectacle and not to be used by the masses? This is the questions on many architectural enthusiasts lips as news of London’s Garden Bridge reveals that the Thomas Heatherwick design is likely to end up more of a tourist attraction than a public space for all to enjoy.

Design heavyweight Heatherwick has teamed up with Joanna Lumley, Actress and chief promoter of the Bridge and Dan Pearson, to create a ‘floating forest across the Thames’. At an estimated £175m, one might hope that it does indeed float of its own accord, using lesser known hover technology to power pedestrians across the water.

It now transpires that the bridge will not be accessible by all but will be a managed tourist attraction. At an estimated £60m, this news has been met with some disappointment, taking the concept of the bridge from public right of way to green sculpture and visitor spectacle. Cyclists cannot cycle over it – in a bid to maximize green space – and it will close between midnight and 6am.

It begs the question, what purpose does this kind of architecture serve its community if not to provide a functional role? And, is there enough room and desire in London for such a piece?

The experts


Our industry experts provide a compelling insight into the topical issues of the day

QTime 1 KantiChhapi

Director at Stephen George & Partners

Kanti is a both a leader and co-ordinator with a considered approach to projects in the pursuit of well mannered, pragmatic solutions to balance and fulfil client aspirations. He is a past President of the Leicestershire and Rutland Society of Architects and is the current President of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society.

QTime 2 NeilMcAll

Architect, GLM

Neil joined GLM in 2008 where he took a leading role in the regeneration of the Inn at John O’Groats. In addition to conservation work, Neil has worked on various domestic and commercial projects ranging from estate cottages to high-end private houses and from cafés to hotels.

QTime 3 DavidEllis

Project Director, Benoy

David has worked at Benoy for 19 years, the last eleven of which have been at Director level. He specialises in town centre urban regeneration schemes both in the UK and internationally, many of which are retail driven.

QTime 4 MikeStiff

Co-Founder, Stiff + Trevillion

Mike qualified as an architect in 1981 and formed Stiff + Trevillion after working for Rock Townsend and Chapman Taylor.  Mike has been a member of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Architecture Appraisal panel since its inception and he also sits on the Earls Court Review panel.

Kanti Chhapi, Director, Stephen George & Partners

An aspect of any work of architecture is that of public realm; it embraces the external places in our towns and cities that are accessible to all. The term ‘public realm’ encompasses any publicly owned streets, pathways, right of ways, parks, and publicly accessible open spaces.

These are the everyday spaces that we move through and linger within, the shared places that comprise the arteries and focal points of an urban framework. It is the main space where civic interaction occurs and is often defined in contrast to private property.

It would seem that, with limitations on access, the proposed London Garden Bridge falls within the latter sphere of private property. Perhaps this has always been the vision, but the term ‘bridge’ and the presentation images gave promise of an asset that would offer additional cohesion to the public realm. Contributions of public funding only amplify a perception of deceit and the negative reaction that naturally follows such emotion.

In many ways, the Garden Bridge could be no different to other landmark commercial tourist destinations, such the London Eye or Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Yet, given its potential restrictions, it can be more accurately likened to a seaside pier and should perhaps give up the notion of a link across the Thames. Imagine two piers each anchored each side of the Thames with a break at the centre to symbolise the tantalising, unfulfilled gulf between private and public realms. The analogy to seaside piers also seems appropriate as a continuum of a typically British tradition.

It should be acknowledged that, the examples above, all contribute to the public realm as significant and memorable landmarks. They have an important and positive function as iconic symbols of the cities of their location. This will be the case with the London Garden Bridge – it just has a public relations conflict to overcome and be honest about its less altruistic ambition.

It will, no doubt, follow in the footsteps of the London Eye and be a successful attraction for tourists and locals alike. Whether the money is better spent on fulfilling other, more democratic needs is another debate…

David Ellis, Project Director, Benoy



London’s bridges have always formed a vital and necessary function linking our city as a living and complex series of connections as well as a meeting place of trade. They have also been about celebrating our achievements and, in some ways, they project our self-belief as a nation. They have been paid for by Governments, raised by public subscription and some have been charged for by tolls, but they have always allowed that most vital function of connecting our way across the river – they are part of our collective public realm, unfettered and free of charge.

The notion that the ‘floating forest across the Thames’ which was originally conceived to link Covent Garden and the South Bank – will be limited to a tourist party piece, a great viewing platform from the Thames – seems to overlook what the river means to the city. I know that, like the London Eye, we will take it into our hearts and cherish it, that it will be beautiful in its own right and will add to the character of London as an ever changing place (French Mayors take note) – but closed at night, nor cycles allowed, a corporate money spinning machine – is that what this imaginatively conceived thing will be reduced to?

Comparison has been made with the High Line, one of New York’s most visited attractions and surely a most graceful object in its own right, contrasting and uplifting the neighbourhood in which it stands. But it was already there, wasting away, waiting for life to be breathed into it. In contrast, our crossing of the river in this part of London is well provided for. In order to create something new, something that has such an impact, it needs to have a noble reason. Is it enough in itself that we should create great public art, that the condition to use it can be accepted? Of course, much has been made of the public money that will both partly pay for and underwrite the ongoing maintenance costs of the bridge. This doesn’t seem to be the issue in the scale of things – rather its private nature is something that we should care deeply about. London has always had its private places – the London squares, the private parks – but in our democratic age, such a public place should be, well, public.

Imaginative, creative solutions are part of what makes London a world city; I’d argue one of the most creative world cities. What makes it special though is the quality of the public realm – free, unencumbered and different at every turn. The Thames should remain a special place for everyone, wherever they view it from.

Neil McAllister, Architect, GLM



When considering the proposed Garden Bridge, the first thing to recognise is that primarily, it is not a bridge. If there was a need for another pedestrian crossing of the Thames at this point – a need, which is disputed by many – a high quality bridge could have been commissioned at a fraction of the cost. The Millenium bridge, further along the river, cost a mere £18m and even Calatrava’s beautifully sculptural Puente del Alamillo in Seville is estimated to have ‘only’ cost around $40m compared to the eye-watering budget of £175m for this project. I would suggest this is primarily a sculpture – a piece of public art – one that can be walked on but ultimately, is designed as a piece of fantasy not as a means of transportation. It is clear that the originators of the scheme had no greater practical purpose in mind as they want it to be “the slowest way to cross the river”.

Architects have always dreamt of fantastical structures. Some of these have grand theories behind them, like Paolo Soleri’s arcologies; some are monuments to great events or great men, like Boullée’s monument to Isaac Newton; others are solely creations of geometric gymnastics and whimsy; but most of them are never built and only live in the minds of their creators or in their drawings and models.

As a fantasy, this one is quite interesting – the form is elegant, the mushroom forms organic, and the idea of trees growing out of a bridge spanning over a river is an intriguing image, reminiscent of the floating “Hallelujah Mountains” in the sci-fi film “Avatar”. Apparently the inspiration came from Joanna Lumley’s memories of a childhood in Kuala Lumpur with gardens apparently floating on the mist and a desire to create a “floating paradise garden”. This is an image that I can imagine dreaming of, sketching, modelling, painting but is actually building it justified?

The question revolves not around the building of this fantasy but the building of it in a very public place, with limited public access with significant amounts of public money. Once this is built in the centre of London it will no longer be just the dream of a few people but the concrete reality of the many – radically changing the appearance of the city where they live, work or visit. Although it will constantly be visible to the public, access will be restricted. This is not unusual for monuments, or even conventional land-based parks where gates are frequently closed at night. However, some of the suggested restrictions – like limiting the size of groups using it to eight (without prior notice) – make it clear that this will only be a pseudo-public space.

As a fantastic monument to nothing, with controlled public access, the final question is, if we want this modern day folly built in the first place, should it be funded with £60m of public money? Obviously this is a tiny part of the government budget – a mere drop in the ocean compared with Crossrail or HS2 – but if that money is available to spend on infrastructure, creation of public spaces and regeneration of inner city areas could it not be more effectively spent elsewhere? Several elegant bridges and beautiful public spaces along the embankment could be created – but would that have the same fanciful appeal?

Mike Stiff, Co-Founder, Stiff + Trevillion



Some cities, Paris and Venice for example have become victims of their own architecture. Reality has deserted them and they are at best nostalgic playgrounds for the better-educated tourist. At worse they are a tick in the box on the European tour.

Ugly post-industrial cities look on in awe, Bilbao was the first to recognise that a piece of WOW architecture can transform the coffers. Many others have followed, even Paris now has a generic Gehry.

With the exception of the London Eye, London has absorbed contemporary architecture into its historic fabric, the Eye is a playful tourist attraction, and the Garden Bridge claims to be the same. It is not, and it will not work. Bridges are shortcuts not places to linger. It’s not bad, but I really don’t think we need it.

There is a danger that the concept of the public realm is being exploited by developers to achieve consents that would not normally be given. Two examples spring to mind, and both are in the City.

Jean Nouvel’s New Change offers an elevated public space with great views of St Paul’s, but in reality it is a bar with a rent that is commensurate with the view. Beneath it is a bland shopping centre clad in 1970’s curtain walling that could be in any European City centre. It is not good enough architecture to occupy the heart of a City as complex and rich as London. But the planning “gain” was deemed sufficient to allow it.

The Walkie Talkie is the second example. A grossly proportioned and badly sited building that in one fell swoop destroys the London skyline and illustrates the greed that defines the worst of modern architecture. Why was it allowed? It has a “public space” at the top, a park for the City, planning gain again. Security measures alone will define how public it is.

I fear the Garden bridge is another one of these, not as greedy, much more romantic, but not a part of the city, rather apart from the city.

Our panel of contributors are experts in their field and have experience in a vast area of architectural design including; landscape, public sector and private residencies. If you would like to contribute as a panelist email: jade.tilley@onecoms.co.uk

Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley

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