Icon 173 – In the latest issue, an interview with superstar designer Heatherwick as he prepares to launch a host of landmark projects around the world.
Icon 173 – Heatherwick: In our interview this month, Thomas Heatherwick argues that the country has lost its appetite for bold, boundary-pushing projects. The subtext is, of course, the cancellation of his own contribution to London’s public realm, the Garden Bridge. But I wonder if Heatherwick’s contention really holds water. Have we really lost our nerve? Or is it possible that people got fed up with baubles dreamt up by politicians that all too often failed.
That the London Eye was probably one of the better Millennium projects tells you all you need to know about New Labour’s era of follies. Strangely, this faith in grand projets found a vigorous champion in Boris Johnson during his tenure as London’s mayor. As Londoners found out, and sometimes to their cost, Johnson was not afraid of grand gestures. Indeed, they seemed to attract him like a moth to a flame. But he was less good at critical, long-term thinking, preferring style over substance: cable cars to nowhere, pointless sculptural steel structures.
Was the bridge merely the straw that broke the camel’s back? With Johnson despatched to sully the position of Foreign Secretary, and a new mayor who seems more engaged with the provision of mass housing, it could be that the bridge’s protracted death brings the curtain down on what critic Tom Dyckhoff recently dubbed the age of spectacle.
It would appear to be an opportune time for reassessment. What seems glaringly obvious is the need to invest in infrastructure, but that avenue is laden with pitfalls. While we continue to squabble over the wisdom of a third runway at Heathrow, Turkey will soon have completed phase one of the largest airport in the world. Even though we cannot compete with the rampant growth of high-speed rail in China – despite the role of British designers in its rolling stock – the humble HS2 seems finally to have cleared the signifiant legal challenges to its legitimacy. Yet there are enough naysayers still out there to derail the plans. If we are to meet the challenge of post-Brexit Britain, we need to think hard about where to direct our dwindling resources. Only pragmatists need apply.