Look at procurement, Mayor’s Design Advocates urged

Monday 9 October 2017

Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new design advocates should look at ways of improving the procurement of ‘Grands Projets’ in London and beyond if some of the key lessons of the Garden Bridge saga are to be taken on board.

That was the view of  Architects’ Journal managing editor Will Hurst, speaking at ‘After the Garden Bridge – the future for innovative infrastructure’ at NLA this morning. Hurst, whose campaign of news stories about the project was initiated, he said, in order to establish whether the competition behind it was true or, as it turned out, bogus, said that the mayor should look at finding new ways of procuring key projects which involve good public consultation. They could also perhaps harness a new, city-wide virtual model to get more public engagement.

Former mayor Boris Johnson could have got the Garden Bridge project that he wanted so much built ‘directly’ if he had simply presented its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, in the light of his work at the Olympics and told the public he had a ‘fantastic idea for a bridge’, said Hurst. Instead, though, ‘for some reason they decided to go down the route of a competition’ which was proved not to be ‘real’ but ‘prejudged’. The other lesson was that there was no vehicle to deliver the scheme on the public sector side, in the absence of bodies like the Millennium Commission or the LDA.

The only one left to Johnson was TfL, and this was ‘a fundamental flaw’, because this wasn’t really a transport or infrastructure project. ‘The Garden Bridge is really a lesson in how not to do a Grand Projet’, said Hurst. But one of the key problems it threw up was highlighted in a conversation Hurst had with Sunand Prasad in which the former RIBA president estimated that architects spend around 30% of their turnover chasing new work – a huge waste in the system. Good ideas needed to be better recognised and rewarded, said Hurst.

Indeed, said Nik Randal, managing director of ReForm Architects and the designer of the proposal for a bridge at Rotherhithe, ‘we have generated a whole industry of procurement’, but one which is slow and expensive compared to elsewhere in Europe. ‘We need to be encouraging people to come forward with ideas. As a profession we need to fight back and we need to have a voice’, he said, adding that in an uncertain post-Brexit economy London and the UK need to show ‘we are at the forefront of enterprise and initiative.’  

Perhaps, said Allies and Morrison partner Artur Carulla, there was a place for ideas and provocations which are just ‘for the city’, such as his own practice’s ‘open sourced design’ to include landscaping and ‘wonderful planting’ to Blackfriars Bridge. ‘We believe we should consider the idea of intensifying existing infrastructure’. For Simon Pitkeathley, chief executive of Camden Town Unlimited, the best method of procurement is ‘bottom up’, which is the way he has gone about trying to create the Camden Highline, a park on disused railway at Camden that links between Kentish Town and York Way. ‘There’s a lot of support for this’, he said of the idea that he hopes might generate the kind of value created by its New York cousin, the High Line. Pitkeathley believes that legislation will be required to create a new financial package in which similar projects can borrow against future uplift and value.

Iain Tuckett, group director of Coin Street Community Builders, said that the issue of who would have paid for the maintenance of the Garden Bridge was ultimately what ‘killed’ it, along with poor consultation and an ‘arrogance’ that created a ‘storm’ against the project. London does need its Grands Projets, Tuckett went on, but needs to be clear about what model is used for it, whether that be the London Eye Model or that created for, say, the Millennium Bridge. There need to be mechanisms to allow good ideas that improve the city to come forward, said London Eye architect Julia Barfield in notes read in her absence by chair Peter Murray, and for the initiators to be protected while there ideas are scrutinised. This scrutiny could ascertain whether the project was a good idea, value for money, on public land, who pays and what the public benefit is. There is only an issue where public land is involved, Barfield says, and there may be a case for a public/private commission.

During questions, Eric Sorensen from the floor said that the invention of the national lottery had produced a stream of key schemes that showed imagination and public benefit and meant that London was a better place today for it, but whose era had ‘died away’. Other points included observations about how expensive it is to build bridges in London, relative to abroad, the whole question of what public land is, and the amount of work architects do for nothing. But perhaps, said Carulla, London did not need so many grands projets at all, and should not be like a theme park having to produce a new ‘roller coaster’ every year.

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

NLA sends its deepest commiserations to Julia Barfield, her family and colleagues at Marks Barfield Architects on the death of David Marks, announced today.



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