C.Compare and contrast these two stories. In Lancashire, five museums will close on March 31st as the county council slashes its museum budget from £ 1.3 million to less than £ 100,000 in order to maintain at least a skeletal version of statutory essential services such as garbage collection. Two of the museums, including the last steam-powered weaving mill in Britain, have been designated places of national importance. Five other museums in Lancashire have had council funding withdrawn and left to fend for themselves – their future is uncertain. Forty of the 74 libraries in the district are also to be scrapped. Other parts of England, especially the north, are of course familiar with similar closures and cuts, but in Lancashire they represent a cultural disentanglement. First they came for the mills, you might say, and then for the libraries, and then for the museums to whom the mills had become.
Now we’re moving to London (as everyone should, of course, when they have the money). The national museums and galleries look in good shape. Their budgets have been relieved of the expected cuts in the November spending review by a Chancellor who appears to have understood both their spiritual and economic value. But even in these difficult times, London not only has the money to keep cultural spending at the same level, it can actually increase it. For example, around £ 60 million of public funding is expected to be spent on a decorative pedestrian bridge over the Thames, the Garden Bridge, which was originally to be built out of the philanthropy of private companies, until the estimated cost dropped by £ 115 million to £ 115 million. GBP is up £ 175m at the time London Mayor Boris Johnson pledged £ 30m from Transport for London and another £ 30m from George Osborne in the Treasury.
Who wants this bridge? I don’t know anyone who does that. The field appears to be limited to Johnson at the moment, who wants it as his London heir; Thomas Heatherwick, who designed it; the Arup company who developed it; and actress Joanna Lumley who conceived it in 1998 as a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales. Who needs the bridge? Nobody does it, known to me or otherwise. Ten bridges cross the Thames on the two mile stretch between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, seven of which can be used by pedestrians. This, the 11th, will span the river between the junctions at Waterloo and Blackfriars. A lawyer rushing from the Middle Temple to the curtain at the National Theater could take a few minutes off his trip, but otherwise it’s hard to ponder who will benefit in any practical way.
The bridge comes with rules. It will be closed between midnight and 6 a.m. Cyclists have to dismount to cross; Prohibited activities include socializing, playing musical instruments, talking, throwing ashes, releasing balloons, flying kites, and all forms of physical activity except jogging. Aside from closing at night, the bridge is also closed to the public 12 days a year for private parties and other events.
Its purpose is purely aesthetic: to have people walk among trees, bushes and wildflowers from an interesting new vantage point in the heart of the city. (According to the Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, the visualizations show “a fertile floral utopia – but the reality … is probably closer to some potted plants clinging to the windswept river for their dear life”.) The princess’s death provoked several similar daring ideas – I remember a suggestion from Gordon Brown to rename Heathrow (we may now argue about the third Diana runway) – and it’s interesting to wonder why this one survived.
Friendship can have something to do with it. Lumley has known Heatherwick for a long time – at least since 2004, when her autobiography described him as a designer of “incomparable originality” – and Johnson has known for a long time. When Heatherwick Studio submitted its bridge design to Transport for London in 2013, it listed “Joanna” as a contributor who had worked with it for more than a decade – she was “involved in the strategic development of a number of the studio’s self-initiated public projects in London “. And when Alan Yentob gently asked Lumley on a BBC show that year how Johnson had reacted to her plan, she said, “I’ve known Boris since he was four, so he was largely accessible.”
Humans are, of course, social animals and tend to unite in their own interest (some Dorset workers have been transported to Australia for this). The question that now arises is whether this London combination broke the rules. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and some hard work by the Architects’ Journal last year, we know that shortly after his re-election in 2012, Lumley wrote to Johnson that she wanted to talk “seriously” to him about her bridge – and The Mayor replied, that his packed diary, although he would love to hear her ideas, meant she would have to meet his deputy mayor for transportation and chief of staff instead.
Still, this meeting had its effect. Transport for London decided that “a new footbridge … connecting the south bank to the temple area” was a viable idea. No mention of gardens there or in the tender that followed in 2013 when TfL asked three architects to submit pedestrian bridge designs and gave Heatherwick higher marks in the ‘Relevant Design Experience’ category, even though the other two firms designed many more bridges than Heatherwick Studio, which at the time only had one to its name. The winning design was what Lumley had always wanted, a garden bridge, although that hardly comes as a surprise, as Heatherwick and Johnson promoted the idea of the garden bridge together on a trip to San Francisco in January 2013 – TfL had previously decided for the Heatherwick design.
The latest and most recent release prompted Jane Duncan, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, this week to call for a suspension of the project and an investigation into the procurement process, as “the amount of public money at stake and the seriousness of the allegations”. The RIBA is not the first body to worry. Last month the National Audit Office said there was “a high level of uncertainty” about the bridge’s value for money and that £ 60 million taxpayers were at greater risk than private funding. This week, a spokesman for the London Mayor said in response that an (unspecified) audit had already found the process “open, fair and transparent” and that Johnson had no intention of stopping a project that was “a spectacular addition” after London”.
So here we are. An inflation-adjusted £ 60 million would keep Lancashire museums open for almost the next half century. Instead, thanks to the power of the pals, it will help fund an unwanted, unnecessary new ornament in London. I like London but it’s not hard to see why so many other people hate the place.