Heatherwick’s Failure #3 – The B of the Bang

2 Sep 2016

There are two striking similarities between the London Olympics of 2012 and Manchester’s Commonwealth Games which preceded it by a decade. One is that in both instances hugely expensive stadiums were built at vast public expense but with no real idea for a ‘legacy’, with both then gifted to insanely rich, private Premier League football clubs.

The second is that outside of each stadium stood a publicly funded sculpture. In London the ArcelorMittal Orbit stands like a collapsed rollercoaster serving as cheap advertising for a steel magnate, and it has now been turned into the world’s most expensive helter skelter in a desperate attempt to stem haemorrhaging losses. While Manchester had the B of the Bang, designed by our Garden Bridge ‘boy genius’ Heatherwick, was late, overbudget and ended up being sold off for scrap after falling apart.


Before we get onto the decline and (literal) fall of the Manchester sculpture, it’s worth spending a moment on the fate of the stadiums themselves. The £112m publicly-funded Commonwealth Stadium had a further £22m of public funds thrown at it so that Manchester City FC (now one of the world’s wealthiest clubs) could rent it for £3m a year. London’s publicly funded Olympic Stadium has just undergone a publicly-funded refit, bringing the publicly-funded total to £701m, so that West Ham can rent it for £2.5m a year. In the last few months West Ham have spent £53m and Man City £182m on buying footballers.

This whole scenario is not unlike the Garden Bridge, set up so the public pay huge sums on a development which has little public purpose, but hugely benefits a few incredibly rich developers and Northbank businesses who can then leverage even greater private income from their businesses. This is arguably not what public money should be spent on but is almost always the trend in such public/private ‘partnerships’, ie – we get screwed.


But let’s cast our mind back to 2002 when Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games having twice failed to land the Olympics. A year later the council commissioned Thomas Heatherwick to construct Britain’s tallest sculpture as a marker to the event, named B of the Bang after a Linford Christie quote about his 100m sprint start. 200 spikes radiating from a central core like a frozen firework, it was designed to stand with more of an angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


However, as seems to be the case with a lot of the designer’s work, costs and timeline started to slip right from the beginning and a project that was initially set to cost £750k and take half a year to construct ended up two years late and more than twice over budget. In what should be read as a prescient Garden Bridge warning to Sadiq Khan, the Manchester Evening news reported: “it’s gained little public support and it caused controversy when the taxpayer had to pay double the original estimate.”

One week before it opened it ‘caused a scare’ when one of the 7ft spikes detached itself and fell crashing to the ground. The opening ceremony went ahead, as planned, but just four months later a second spike had to be removed by firefighters after it was seen to be hanging loose. It was fenced off and nine of the spikes were taken off for testing to see where the problem was – though one suspects it perhaps should have been Heatherwick that was taken off for testing all along…


Time passed, and the overly-experimental disaster never had its ailments sorted until, in 2007, Manchester City Council announced that they were suing Heatherwick and the subcontractors who made it for breach of contract and negligence, stating: “…we have given the artist and their subcontractors every opportunity to remedy the situation… Our forbearance has now been tested to the full.” It was settled out of court, with an agreement to pay the council £1.7m in damages – the Daily Mail calling the Garden Bridge creator a “designer of ‘death trap’ sculpture’ in their article.

After a nearby road had to be closed for an entire year due to the health and safety risk of the sculpture, in 2009 the rest of the B of the Bang spikes were removed and the whole failed experiment was pulled apart to be put into storage after it was estimated to cost a further £3m to reconstruct it so it wouldn’t fall apart. Council leader Simon Ashley proclaiming, “frankly, this sculpture has been an expensive embarrassment from day one.”


Three years later, and just a few weeks before Heatherwick’s 2012 Olympic Couldren was lit (with allegations of plagiarism were similarly settled out of court) the steel core of the B of the Bang was removed from storage and the £1.7m project was sold as scrap for £17k.


Apparently the spikes are retained in storage in a ‘secret location’ for a future use, though nobody is sure what that could be. In the unlikely event that the Garden Bridge does happen then I suspect Heatherwick may incorporate them into his design for the decapitated heads of what he calls “a small group of people who are determined to derail it”, but what everyone else calls “most people“.


If you can face more failure, you can also read about Heatherwick’s Routemaster buses and the Blue Carpet in Newcastle.



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