The Heckler

The Heckler: why we must stop Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge

Heatherwick's designs might work for tax-avoiding corporations and states built on slave labour, but they don't work for 21st-century London

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

Thomas Heatherwick is the most famous designer in the United Kingdom today and has an unquestionable flair for attention-grabbing creations. Before 2010 he was mostly known for a splashy public sculpture in Manchester, ‘B of the Bang’ (2005). Within weeks bits started to fall off. In 2009 it was dismantled. This was his most celebrated failure. But he has had others. An even earlier commission, ‘Blue Carpet’ (2002), a showy repaving of a miserable part of Newcastle city centre, lost its colouring completely within a decade (despite assurances from Heatherwick that its colour would last for a 100 years).

He was propelled to global celebrity in 2012 when an audience of a billion watched his Olympic cauldron light up. His 204 metallic petals, lit by white-robed ephebes, created a global sigh and a single flaming Olympic flower. A centrepiece of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, it gave rise to an intellectual-property dispute over a startlingly similar design, ultimately settled by LOCOG although fiercely disputed by Heatherwick himself.

All this pizzazz has brought him increasingly ambitious commissions from richer and richer clients from California (corporate HQ) to Singapore (a university) to Abu Dhabi (an underground park). Fiercely critical of what he sees as a quintessentially British talent for cynicism and fear, he has become a walking TED talk: relentless in his positivity but blind to the social criticism that goes with becoming the can-do designer in an era of intense wealth polarisation. It is unsurprising that his brand of design, with its strong wow factor and skin-deep social content, should be so popular with tax-avoiding corporations and states built on slave labour.

Heatherwick has also become the quintessential designer for 21st-century London, a rather different client. At the same time as his Olympic cauldron was bursting into flame, his new Routemaster buses were unleashed on the city. Gloriously wacky to look at, they have proved cramped and susceptible to overheating. A row over whether windows should open or not has led to a £2 million refit of the fleet and the get-on, get-off feature that attracted so many people has all but been dropped. They are also very expensive.

But they are not the only expensive project he is proposing for London. Vying with the 800-strong fleet of buses on cost is the proposed Garden Bridge. Inspired in part by the success of New York’s High Line, a green walkway made out of a former elevated rail track on stilts, the bridge’s current budget is five times the square-foot cost of the High Line. The projected cost has risen from £60 million to £175 million with a £3.5 million annual running cost. Even on that budget there is a £30 million funding shortfall and doubtless the costs will rise in the construction. Work is slated to begin in January.

Heatherwick describes the Garden Bridge as something we are giving to ourselves but is increasingly set on steam-rollering opposition from Lambeth Council and others (which he recently described as ‘ludicrous and devastating’ in the Standard). His principal concern must be the mayoral election. But to rush this underfunded white elephant through is to get one over on London. And London is not Dubai or Google. Our pockets are not limitless, we live in an age of cuts; public debate and criticism are sacred to us and if we have to pamper ourselves most of us don’t book into a suite at Claridge’s.

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  • Ken

    Well said – Heatherwick is grossly overrated but is patronised by clients desperate to be fashionable. One of them is Boris Johnson, who is more than ever a disaster for London – uncontrolled development, cycle lanes disrupting traffic, the costly buses and now this folly. Johnson was duped by the gruesome Lumley into backing this crazy project. There is still scope for the government to call a public inquiry and kill the scheme.

  • afriendtothecourt

    Excellent. delighted to see a clear analysis of this horrible scheme. Another piece of wasteful showboating by a foorner editor of this magazine to add to his cable car to nowhere, his Olympic disaster his ugly overheated bus with the same designer who like Johnson has no interst in people and no eye for detail. Can’t someone have a word before this is allowed to destroy the most beautiful view in London?

  • Let’s stop this nonsensical private development now: please sign the petition here Support our legal case here:

    Write to Lib Peck the leader of Lambeth Council: and tell her it’s in the wrong place; it will rob everyone of open public space currently enjoyed free/accessible for all 24/7; it would cause dangerous overcrowding on the South Bank; AND IT WILL COST NOT ONLY LONDONERS, BUT THE NATION if we have to bail out the hapless Garden Bridge Trust – which is very likely given that they’ve already blown £20m of our money.

    The private bridge would still cost the public £60m plus a guarantee of £3.5m per year (amounting to a total of about £150m) even if some of it purports to be a ‘loan’ – as the public is guaranteeing it’s own loan thanks to Boris Johnson’s flawed decision making. It really doesn’t get more ridiculous than this vanity project.


    What could be more absurd than a garden bridge, obviously the brainchild of some barking mad ecolunatic !

  • jack

    The thing I would like to have added but didn’t have space for was that if we want a new socially useful green transport link we should obviously all support the Peckham coal line, repurposing old train tracks. It would be cost effective and improve London for residents rather than titillating tourists.

  • Joseph Ogden

    By rights this project should have already collapsed under its own contradictions: Heatherwick says it’s going to be a haven of peace and quiet – filled with selfie-snapping tourists; he says it’s a pleasant addition to the area – which will involve trashing the south bank with a gargantuan soviet border style landing pod; it will encourage walking – by plonking a huge obstruction on the Thames Path, presently a walkers’ delight, and filling the path with tourists; it will be a relaxing route for commuters – once they get to the other side, having queued to get on, been frisked and elbowed their way through the rows of spectators; it will ease congestion – by packing Temple station to bursting, and it will be a private sector present to Londoners that depends on public money. What an emperor, what a wardrobe!

    • Atlas

      Quite possibly the most absurd and insulting construction ever proposed for the capital.

  • Mark Felt

    In addition to everything that has been written above and in the following comments, this bridge is an affront to all of the trusts, foundations, charities and local authorities — across the country, not just London — that have to break their backs to secure tiny amounts of public funding for projects that will have a much more meaningful impact on their communities. They are constantly pushed to spend time, effort and money on credible market analyses and business plans and demonstrations of ‘need’. They are then pitted in competition with one another to see which one demonstrates the best value for public money.
    Yet this project was gifted the astonishing amount of £60 million, non-competitively and on the strength of a ludicrously cosmetic options appraisal, a wafer-thin business case and the pure assertions of a flash-in-the-pan designer and his overbearing celebrity pals. Anyone who cares about fair play, evidence-based decision-making and taxpayer value should oppose this Bridge in principle, simply for the way it was criminally procured and funded.

  • Kick on, kick on.

    Has the guy in the cartoon transgressed some rule the Prophet (piss be upon him) dribbled out?

    • Toy Pupanbai

      I thought I had the Copyright on that expression, but it’s OK!

  • hilton holloway

    It is a fair point about the hot interior of the NB4L, but that was prob not Heatherwick’s doing, more likely an engineering decision to reduce construction costs by eliminating opening windows. The NB4L is expensive because it has a huge battery under the floor, which will be used for pollution-free running over some miles in central London. No other hybrid bus can do this.

    • post_x_it

      The point is this: before we got the Boris Bus, we had bendy buses that were unsuitable for London in every way, and we had bog standard double decker and single decker buses that were perfect for the job and made everyone happy.
      Boris correctly identified the bendy bus as a problem, but rather than cheaply and efficiently replacing them with more of the double decker buses that were already in service, he went for this hugely expensive, tokenistic boondoggle, full of design faults and uncomfortable to use.
      It was a terrible decision, whichever way you want to dress it up.

      • Toy Pupanbai

        Trolley buses were swift and clean!

  • Goinlike Billio

    What will this bridge look like in winter ?
    Like modern architecture is it one of those ideas best seen under blue skies ?

  • John Andrews

    Slagging off a brilliant designer because he was asked to design a bridge in the wrong place is sloppy journalism. But I am puzzled about who decided the Garden Bridge’s location – which is its worst aspect.

  • John Smith

    Lumley was involved
    nuff said
    Its another London vanity project