05 May, 2009

Boris’s London bridge plan is all wrong

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The idea of building a new bridge across the Thames lined with shops and houses, just like Old London Bridge, the one “falling down, falling down” in nursery rhyme lore, is a well worn one. This is one of those hardy perennials in the world of eye-popping design projects, one that refuses to go the way Old London Bridge did soon after its successor opened in 1831. It has now been revived by the London mayor, Boris Johnson.

Inhabited bridges, as engravings of Old London Bridge show, are alluring structures, yet they have proven to be tricky, tacky and downright annoying things that serve primarily to slow traffic over them to little more than a snail’s pace. It could take an hour to cross Old London Bridge, threading your way under gateways crowned with traitors’ heads and past rickety shops that had been built, thanks to King John, simply to pay for the cost of the bridge itself.

As for surviving “inhabited” bridges, well, “tacky” is a polite word to describe the experience of crossing them. Florence’s Ponte Vecchio and Venice’s Rialto Bridge are exquisite structures, yet both are a kitsch nightmare today. The one thing both fail to do is to get people and goods across rivers in anything like a useful or enjoyable manner.

Surely Johnson cannot really be keen on such a dubious structure, set between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridge, and based on designs by the French architect Antoine Grumbach shown at the Royal Academy’s fine exhibition of Living Bridges 13 years ago? This takes the form of massively high towers given over to “luxury” flats, shops and restaurants, and a kind of miniature Kew Gardens spanning the Thames itself.

Most of us would surely prefer to cross a beautiful, open bridge offering fresh air and inspiring views of London.

I can see how the Johnson-Grumbach project adds up. An opportunity to build more costly, showy flats in central London and to serve up ever more lucrative chain shops and over-branded cafes to supposedly gormless Londoners still apparently hungry for more bland, packaged food and shiny knick-knacks.

Turn again, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, and think of beautiful, open bridges designed by the world’s most inspired engineers if you must, or, rather, turn yet again, and think why in Whittington’s name we need such a potty extra bridge at all.

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