The Garden Bridge was a symbol of everything wrong with modern London. I'm glad it's dead

Nevermore. Image: Heatherwick.

The obvious question about the Garden Bridge is: where did it all go wrong?

The bridge, after all, should have been a lovely addition to the fabric of the city. An oasis of greenery in an area devoid of it, a new way of crossing the river and a new tourist attraction, akin to New York's High Line, all rolled into one. The Garden Bridge was not like the hilariously pointless “Emirates Air Line”, the cable car to nowhere which is even now ferrying empty pods between two windswept ex-industrial estates in a deserted bit of east London, like one of the follies listed by Marge Simpson at the end of Marge vs the Monorail. The Garden Bridge should have been great.

Yet in the years since it was first proposed, it's sunk further and further into controversy. The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity responsible for getting it built, has failed to raise enough money or acquire the land required to start construction before planning permission runs out this December. Official reports have repeatedly raised questions about the Trust's financial plans.

And today's news that London's mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the Garden Bridge Trust to tell it that the taxpayer would not provide the financial guarantees required for work to continue – effectively killing the scheme – is more likely to be celebrated than mourned. So how did something so lovely end up so loathed?

The obvious explanation is the growing sense that the whole thing has been a bit of a con. When first the bridge was proposed, the intention was that it would be largely privately funded, with just a smidgen of Transport for London money required to get things moving.

The longer things went on, though, the more the ratio between those two sources of funding seemed to change. The predicted cost of the bridge continued to climb; yet the amount of money promised by private donors first flatlined, then began to slide.

So the amount of cash the taxpayer was going to have to put into this thing soared, with no end in sight: without a clear plan for funding the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge, it seemed likely to become a permanent line in the capital's own budget. As a result what had once been pitched as a gift to London began looking more and more like a pointless indulgence we would have to pay for ourselves. It felt like we’d been had.


But I think there's another, more philosophical reason why a lovely idea like a Garden Bridge should have become so unpopular: it fitted with a lingering sense that something has gone terribly wrong with this city.

We are, after all, in the middle of a housing crisis, which is seeing even relatively well-off people forced out of the city, and which has forced untold numbers to live in tiny under-regulated patches of squalor. The official definition of “Affordable Housing” has become a bad joke, yet new housing developments bend over backwards to avoid making even this limited provision. And in the midst of all this, the most visible property developments aren't much-needed homes for the masses, but commercial skyscrapers and luxury apartments.

Contemporary London prides itself on its tolerance and diversity and the way different social classes are all jumbled up together, without any of the ghettoisation seen in, say, Paris. Yet huge chunks of what look like public space are now private estates, often patrolled by private security. In our flattering, metropolitan liberal self-image, this isn't what London is meant to be.

It was, however, exactly what the Garden Bridge was going to be: a private garden masquerading as public space, yet funded by the taxpayer. The people most determined to see it built were a flotilla of rich, posh people: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Thomas Heatherwick, Joanna Lumley. They were not us, but them – yet still they expected us to pay for it.

And then, once in a while, the bridge would close so that an investment bank or a private equity firm could throw a garden party, drinking champagne and eating canapes in full view of London as a whole, on a bridge we paid for but which we were not allowed to cross.

Perhaps the project isn't dead. Perhaps the Garden Bridge Trust will somehow find enough donors to get it finished without taxpayer support, and even find a way of funding its upkeep. Perhaps the rich really do want to give something back to London. If they do, I'm sure it'll be lovely.

But if they don't, I'm bloody glad we will no longer have to pay for it. This city has quite enough symbols of economic division as it is.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.