Sam Jacob on the "Lumleywick" Garden Bridge for London
Sam Jacobs on the "Lumleywick" Garden Bridge for London

"The Garden Bridge is a magic bullet for a certain idea of the contemporary British city"

Opinion: the now-defunct architecture firm FAT proposed a green bridge for London's River Thames in the 1990s as a form of social criticism. Now life is imitating art with Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge, FAT co-founder Sam Jacob feels an apology is necessary.


Sorry folks, but I think this might all be my fault. Here's my mea culpa, in full.

Back in 1996 there was a competition to design a new pedestrian bridge across the Thames between Tate Modern and St Paul's.

FAT was still in its fledgling phase, still describing itself as a loose collective. This was long before we hired the pen pushers and hole punchers our more mature – and some might say less interesting – phase demanded.

The competition was, at least in the eyes of this group of young turks and like everything else for us at that stage, a chance to take on the architectural establishment. An invitation (at least as we understood it) to take the argument outside.

Our proposal took the form of a strip of green and pleasant land slung across the Thames. It was a bridge imagined as a piece of park, planted with grass, trees and flowers. Sound familiar?

But there were other things going on too. It was anti high-tech – at least anti the kind of high tech tendency (then at its Blairite zenith) for elaborate engineered solutions to imaginary problems. Instead, it used engineering as a cultural and critical act, rewriting infrastructure as a form of narrative, the bridge as an experiential promenade rather than a route, and a river crossing as a cultural critique of the idea of the city.

Its surreal juxtaposition of landscapes placed a piece of rural countryside in the middle of the city – a new post-sampling take on the the idea of the rus in urbe that is so deeply engrained in the British conception of the city.

A year later, after the death of Princess Diana and the huge tributes that carpeted large chunks of London with flowers and totems of grief we re-christened the bridge The Princess Diana Memorial Bridge. Now the bridge proposed a strip of Althorpe Park, the Spencer family seat, dug up and strung across the Thames. Along the side of a determinedly simple structure were carved the lyrics to Elton John's Candle in the Wind 1997, (Goodbye England's Rose, etc...). The bridge now merged cloying public sentimentalism with the prevailing pseudo-scientific objectivity of millennial bridge design.

Well, fast forward a couple of decades and a different garden bridge is steamrollering its way through the planning process on its way to becoming a reality.

I'm not here to dispute the ownership of the idea of a garden bridge over the Thames. God knows Heatherwick Studio has had enough of that this year – some might say embarrassingly so for a practice which prides itself on originality. At FAT, we have – or rather, had – a far less romantic idea of authorship, rejecting the idea of originality and individual genius for a deep interest in copying as a creative act. But still... (as Serial's Sarah Koenig might say).

The Lumleywick's Garden Bridge has charmed the great and the good with its dazzling combination of engineering, greenery, design and iconicity. It's a cocktail so high proof that it has intoxicated otherwise austerity-obsessed politicians to open the public chequebook with a grand flourish.

If ever there was a magic bullet for a certain idea of the contemporary British city, the Garden Bridge is it. Here, in one package is compressed both the history of and the contemporary idea of the city. We see the romanticised idea of synthetic nature landscape, spectacular engineering, pedestrians, trees, walkability, gardens, and the associated suggestion of sustainabitly. If you fused Jan Gehl, Cities for a Small Planet, Capability Brown, psychogeography and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (which is essentially the recipe for contemporary urban Britain), this bridge is what you'd get. In this sense, it is an incredible statement of our own urban age, the bridge that we deserve.

But precisely because of this it bears some analysis.

For example, it possesses the strange reality that any idea about British cities needs to succeed – a rural, leafy or nostalgic prefix. Note, for example, the way the word "garden" is applied to all the talk of possible new towns to sugar the development pill. Think too of the related linguistic paradox of the urban village. It's as though the very idea of the city is unpalatable without being dressed in a ghillie suit.

There's something in all this very British obsession with the picturesque sentiment too. Think of its origins: the idea of the picturesque was a political reaction the French formal landscape. And it was only possible to imagine because of the vast reserves of wealth and power accumulated by the English aristocracy through their imperial power.

It was this that was channeled to terraform the very image of the English landscape, artfully reforming the land into an artfully transformed version of nature – seemingly more natural than nature itself. The picturesque, in other words, in order to create something that looked like it had always been there reaped vast destruction on the existing landscape: the forceful exception of villages, the flooding of valleys, the felling of forests in order to create its own synthetic idea of nature.

Environmentally, geographically and sociologically the view was reordered for the singular appreciation of landowners – privileged views for the privileged.

The idea of the aristocratic country estate was later imported to the city as new estates were laid out. Bedford Square is a good example. Laid out by the Duke of Bedford, the garden square is the figure around which the urban is arranged. It is a Georgian reimagining of the city in the aristocratic image of the country. Nostalgic on the one hand, aspirational on the other, we should also remember that these green squares were not public but private. You still, for example, need a key to get into Bedford Square.

In other words, the picturesque is dangerous because it presents seductive pictorial views that look entirely natural yet cloak immense power. Even more – the picturesque naturalises power by producing images which look natural immutable.

If you are so prone, you could read this kind of narrative into the Garden Bridge, as the product of a very British relationship between power and landscape. An aristocratic statement of ownership in the centre of the city.

Except now this tradition has been folded into the neoliberal fantasy that shrouds contemporary London. That's to say, a city made up of icons that resonate as glittering global objects, inflated by international capita and disconnected with the city that they nominally inhabit.

The arguments around the Garden Bridge's urban politics have been well rehearsed. No groups of more than eight can assemble, no cycling, no protesting, shut from midnight, no trainers, fines for not smiling and so on, combining a privateness (derived from the Georgian square) multiplied by contemporary obsessions with risk assessments and security.

The bridge then might be the ultimate conclusion of British urbanism and simultaneously the end of – or opposite of – real urbanity, the ultimate product of the post-public city.

Indeed, many are arguing that the Garden Bridge is the tipping point where London is no longer a real city but a theme park for tourists and the mega rich. In which case its imagery might resonate in another way.

There is another long tradition related to the picturesque, that of the ruin. Think of the famous illustration by Gustave Doré where Macaulay's Mäori New Zealander sits on the remains of London Bridge sketching the ruins of St Paul's, contemplating a lost civilisation. Perhaps this is part of the Garden Bridges appeal too as a post apocalyptic eco-fantasy.

Could we read into the image of the Garden Bridge a desire for the destruction of the city itself, channeling the tradition of British ruin lust that runs through the picturesque all the way to 28 Days Later, a golden thread of apocalyptic sci-fi dreaming? Come armageddon come, as Morrissey succinctly put it. In this way we can read the bridge as a psychopathic form of city making that encodes total destruction as a type of urban infrastructure – the bridge as image of destruction, of the failure of the city, of end of the urban as a democratic project and the site of social progress.

This at least were the issues at stake in the original FAT garden bridge, proposed back in the 1990s. But like many sci-fi ideas that project contemporary scenarios into the near future as a form of cultural commentary, the critical dimension is soon lost when life imitates art.

Who knew at that moment quite how violent the assault of money and power on the city itself would be, how an idea of the picturesque could be mobilised against the landscape of the city, just as it had centuries before on the countryside. Or quite how inevitable a garden bridge across the Thames would be.


Top image by Sam Jacob, titled Garden Bridge (with apologies to Stanley Tigerman's Titanic and Jeremy Deller's We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold).


Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois at Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and edits Strange Harvest.