London’s Garden Bridge Is Exposing The Messy Business Of Architecture Competitions

Allegations of unethical dealings and a rigged procurement process are plaguing the once-celebrated project.

This week, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) President Jane Duncan called for an immediate halt to construction of a tree-lined pedestrian bridge in London. Her claim? The procurement process was rigged and lousy with unethical dealings.


“Given the high-profile nature of this project, the amount of public money at stake and the seriousness of the allegations, we would urge that the project is put on hold and the whole procurement process is then opened up to detailed scrutiny,” Duncan told the Architect’s Journal. This followed news reported by the Guardian in December that London Mayor Boris Johnson was promoting the Garden Bridge long before the city held a tender for the project involving other architects and proposals.

It was the latest in a series of blows to a once-celebrated project that has come to symbolize everything that is wrong with how much architecture is made today. While architects and developers are often bedfellows, the issue becomes much more complex when public money is involved. The whole process of architectural competitions comes into question in a very high-profile way.


The Garden Bridge‘s tumultuous saga began in the early 2000s when actress Joanna Lumley imagined building a park that would traverse the Thames river. She had spoken with Thomas Heatherwick—the star architect Google tapped to design its new campus—about the project, and he agreed to create a concept.

In 2013, Transport for London (or TFL, the body that manages the city’s transit) created a tender to design a new pedestrian bridge connecting Temple to Southbank in an effort to improve walkability in the area. TFL awarded the contact to Heatherwick, who beat out undisclosed competitors (according to Architects’ Journal, Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre).

When the architect released the initial design concept, it was met with excitement from some and a tremendous amount of skepticism from others. At its inception, the idea was for the bridge to be built using private funding, but it was revealed that the city would bear much of the maintenance cost—estimated to be over $5 million per year—in addition to the $87 million (or 60 million GBP) in public funds that mayor Boris Johnson initially pledged for construction.


The debate over the bridge heated up as it touched on two other major points of contention in London: first, the privatization of public space in London, and second, how public money should best be spent to relieve congestion–which, many argued, the footbridge wouldn’t help at all. Then there were the extensive rules and restrictions in the park—like no exercise other than jogging, no large gatherings, no musical instrument playing, and no biking—and the revelation that people would be tracked using their Wi-Fi signals, all of which further alienated the public.


As public perception of the project worsened, more details began to emerge about how it was chosen. The Guardian revealed that Johnson and Heatherwick had discussed the bridge in private before the 2013 tender ever took place. Additionally, Lumley and Johnson were childhood friends, another fact that could indicate bias in the city’s selection process.

On January 20, Johnson addressed the controversy, claiming that the bridge had the support of 85% of the city and that it’s been unfairly covered in the press. “‘I can only think that the negativity surrounding this comes from a certain amount of professional jealousy from the architectural world … who are not sure about the professional qualifications of Thomas Heatherwick,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of that going on in some of the coverage … The rest of it is politically driven twaddle …”

While the fate of the Garden Bridge still hangs in the balance, the chain of events brings a a common problem with architectural competitions to light. They’re frequently used to drum up excitement and publicity for a project, but the process is far from perfect. Open competitions lead to wasted work and resources even if they do give the underdog a slight chance to go head-to-head with a major firm. RIBA, the U.K.’s most prestigious professional organization for architects, has guidelines for running a successful one, but the system only works if there’s transparency.

Perhaps the next step should be the formation of independent oversight groups to ensure the jury’s decision making is held to the same high standards and scrutiny as the proposals. Rethinking the process is essential if cities want to build the best projects for their citizens, not just for the influential elite.

[via the Guardian]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.