On the naked entitlement of Thomas Heatherwick

That bloody bridge. Image: Heatherwick/Arup.

Oh lord, grant me the self-confidence of an entitled designer throwing a tantrum because the taxpayer won’t pay for his toys any more.

Last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan finally announced that no more public funding would be forthcoming for the city’s controversial Garden Bridge project. In theory the bridge can still happen; in practice, with the promised private backing in short supply and planning permission due to run out by the end of the year, it’s probably dead.

The response of Thomas Heatherwick, the visionary behind the scheme, was to write a whiny article for the Evening Standard under the headline, “One day I hope London gets its garden bridge”. In it, he praises his own “extraordinary design”, and complains of how sad the decision had made him. We’ve all had dreams dashed and projects that go nowhere; very few of us then get to pen newspaper columns complaining about the fact.

And the column in question is absolutely dripping with entitlement. Some extracts, with commentary:

I first got excited about the idea of a garden bridge when it was pointed out to me that despite having the best views in the whole city, the human experience of our river crossings tends to be of pavements attached to the side of dual carriageways.

Things Thomas Heatherwick is seemingly unaware of: the Millennium Bridge, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, the Emirates airline, the existence of boats.

And when you ask people if they have ever been asked to meet someone on one of London’s bridges, the answer is always “never”.

This is flatly untrue. One of the most significant meetings of my life happened on Waterloo Bridge; we’d agreed to meet there, because it had the best views of the city you can get from ground level.

When I tweeted as much, a fair few people replied with their own experiences of dates and rendezvous that had begun on one of London’s bridges. One person replied with the story of a dinner they had organised on one.

What Heatherwick means is that he would never consider meeting someone on one of the existing bridges. And that’s a reasonable opinion and all, but it’s not one it’s worth spending millions of pounds of public money to change.

Anyone who has experienced the magic stitching of New York’s dislocated West Side by the raised High Line Park created on a disused railway line (whose creators have been advising the Garden Bridge Trust) can envisage what this can do.

Two things strike me about this line. One is that the big achievement of the High Line was to cap the regeneration of Manhattan’s West Side, and while there are areas of London that could do with such care and attention, “the stretch of the Thames between the Oxo Tower and the Temple” is really not one of them. You might as well try to regenerate Belgravia.

The other is that London already has a number of things that could – indeed, sometimes are – be described as its High Line: the Parkland Walk, a disused railway line between Finsbury Park and Highgate, say, or the Jubilee Greenway, from Hackney Wick down to Beckton (which is a lovely walk, if you can get past the vague smell of the sewer you’re walking on top of).

Anyway: London doesn’t need a High Line, this area doesn’t need regenerating, and there are loads of other bridges within a 10 minute walk, so what point is he making exactly?

But a bridge of 366 metres, free to use, open every day, holding a garden created by amazing plantsman Dan Pearson, that you don’t get whooshed along by cars but lets you dawdle and gaze; that sounded to me like a completely new type of space that Londoners could get something from.

Well, no, it sounds like a park, we already have some of those.

What’s more, one of the Londoners who would get something from this design is presumably the one who designed it. Funny Heatherwick doesn’t mention this.

Much of the funding has been in place for some time. 

Not enough, given how much it’ll cost.

Large sums of public and philanthropic money have been pledged and spent.

Too much, given how little has been achieved.

But endless political wrangling has now brought it to a standstill. 

No, the complete absence of a credible financial plan from its backers has brought it to a standstill.

Whatever the politics, to me as a Londoner this is saddening; for a project so close to reality to be abandoned is such a missed opportunity and waste of resources.

The project wasn’t remotely close to reality – that was half the problem – but that’s not even the biggest deception in this sentence. The biggest one is the way Heatherwick is adopting the persona of a member of the public. He is saddened “as a Londoner”. There is nothing in this line, and precious little elsewhere in the article, to tell us that he has any skin in the game.

But – he does, doesn’t he? His firm designed the bridge; its original estimate of the cost of doing so was three times higher than those of one rival bidder, and 11 times higher than another. According to Margaret Hodges’ investigation of the project, the amount the Heatherwick practice earned from the project stood at over £2.6m:

Section 37, page 10. Thanks to Dan Anderson for digging this out.

In other words, Heatherwick has a financial interest, as well as an artistic one, here.


Oddly, he doesn’t see fit to mention this, either. He is just a disappointed Londoner, saddened that something beautiful won’t happen, because the taxpayer cannot recognise his vision.

As I suggested at the top of this thing, there’s one word which sums up this mess: “entitlement”. This wouldn’t normally be that big a deal – people who write newspaper columns are generally a pretty entitled breed (hi) – except it’s that entitlement that has doomed the project.

Heatherwick felt entitled to accompany former mayor Boris Johnson to meetings with sponsors, before his firm had even won the contract to build the bridge. Heatherwick Studios felt entitled to design the bridge, despite not having built a bridge over water before.

And when the project failed to raise the necessary private cash, the bridge’s backers felt entitled to public money to plug the gap.

There’s nothing in Heatherwick’s column about any of this. He simply feels entitled to his bridge, because he wants it, whatever the practical problems that have prevented it from coming into existence.

Instead, he blames the bridge’s demise on “political wrangling”. It’s a funny way of saying “we failed”.

This story was updated at 2pm to incorporate extra information about the project's finances.

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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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.