The press had a pretty good laugh over the difficulties in raising the Millennium Wheel, and it is now having a field day with the “Blade of Light”, aka Lord Foster’s swinging bridge. All new artistic ventures have teething problems, and even reliable stalwarts such as Lord Lloyd-Webber have to make changes to fine tune productions after reactions on opening night. However, watching pedestrians struggling to keep their balance is not quite what you expect on a brand-new landmark bridge.
What was disturbing about the Millennium Bridge was how Lord Foster immediately distanced himself from the problem. Perhaps one should be charitable and assume that all architects who work at the cutting edge constantly have personal indemnity insurance brokers on their case.
“Well Norman, is this a rerun of the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster, or what?”
“Nothing do do with me, mate. I’m only the architect; it’s an engineering problem.”
“I hope you’re right, and as your premium is coming up for renewal next week, perhaps we can see something to this effect in the press.”
Although Lord Foster now says he will work with the engineers to solve the problem, it seemed slightly ungallant of him not to accept his part of the blame straight away. Building is a team activity. Lord Foster likes being in the limelight when the plaudits are handed out, so he should be prepared to shoulder some of the blame when difficulties arise.
I’m curious to see what nickname the public will give this bridge, perhaps “The Waltzer”
I don’t remember the architects of the wheel blaming any one else when they were having trouble raising it. Even though it was the biggest single lift ever attempted, the architects’ line at the time was: “It’s proving to be more difficult than we all thought and we’re sorting it out.”
The “Blade of Light” (I’m curious to see what nickname the public will give this bridge, perhaps “The Waltzer”) was fronted by a 400-strong firm of architects with a large and imposing track record and lottery funding to boot. They even got HMQ to open it. There were plenty of pictures of Lord Foster then. It was not a particularly auspicious event, as it turned out, bringing into question the meaning of the verb “to open”.
It is interesting to compare the bridge with the wheel. This started life as a competition entry for a millennium landmark submitted by Marks Barfield Architects, a tiny firm with practically no track record in large projects. None of the entries was deemed good enough to win the prize. Undaunted, and prize free, the firm set about getting on with building it as though they had won. As far as I know, they didn't receive a penny until a chance meeting with British Airways’ Bob Ayling, who was so enthralled with the idea that he arranged for £600 000 to be put towards the planning application.
And that was just the start of their difficulties. If it takes half-a-dozen conservation and planning bodies to approve the sort of modest alterations that practices like mine submit for clients altering their properties, you can imagine how many organisations are going to want to put their oar in when some unknown designer proposes building a 125 m high wheel hanging over the Thames, accessed from land their client doesn’t own and which just happens to be slap bang in the middle of a World Heritage site. There are probably 10 authorities with an interest in developments on the river alone.
Despite BA’s backing, I don’t think the wheel actually changed from being an enthusiasts’ pipe dream to a real construction possibility until David Marks found himself in a Dutch steel manufacturer’s office listening to the initially sceptical head honcho ringing round all his major international competitors to see exactly how many spare man/steel/fabricating hours they could muster between them in the next 12 months to give this crazy project a fighting chance.
As part of the Architecture Week activities, I found myself in a pod on the wheel with several members of the Marks Barfield team, including Malcolm Cook, who was effectively the job architect. It was an unmitigated pleasure to hear Malcolm describe how the whole project was brought to life and the fabulous toy actually put together as we watched London unfold below us. But what was really refreshing was hearing him tell us that the thing that struck the team most forcefully after they had managed to raise the rim was not “aren’t we all superstars”, but “what we’ve done here is actually chickenfeed compared with the achievement of the builders of the medieval cathedrals four hundred years ago.”
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.