Newsnight’s Interview With Thomas Heatherwick

18 Aug 2016

Newsnight have published the full 30 minute interview with Thomas Heatherwick. It’s largely a well-rehearsed routine which he has repeated many times at carefully selected events – right down to the very phrasing, mid-sentence questions and intonation which is a carbon copy of his previous routines. Routines which he has never lowered himself to have with the public, critics or anyone with valid concerns about his approach.

Do have a watch and listen, but his saccharine nonsense is quite hard work. But if you can’t stomach it then I have picked out some bits so you don’t have to.

You can watch the whole film here, and below are some areas for discussion.

 

THE PROCUREMENT

This is the first time I am aware when Heatherwick has been asked about his role in the procurement and having meetings with Johnson (including one in San Fransisco looking for sponsorship for his bridge) before any competition had even been set up.

He responds “In terms of the procurement, people need to speak to Transport for London and speak to the Garden Bridge Trust.”. Well, Thomas, we did but TfL tried to cover it up and the GBT say it’s nothing to do with them. Shameful behaviour.

“Tendering processes go on all the time in architecture, it’s totally normal, but then when someone says ‘oh, but you had a conversation before with somebody’, think of how many people Boris Johnson had conversations with on all sorts of matters.” Incredible. It wasn’t just “a conversation” he had but repeated meetings and lobbying of Johnson and TfL followed by a trip to San Francisco with Johnson and TfL to raise money for a project not yet put out to tender. His tender application should have been dismissed as it didn’t respond to the brief asked, but yet he won with flying colours.

 

THE EXPENSE

When asked about the phenomenal cost, he says “the vast proportion of this project is from private philanthropy, not from government sources”. Not true. So far there is £60m pledged from the government and £63m raised from private sources, and that’s dropping regularly. With little chance of raising more private money in this environment the risk to the taxpayer is now off the scale.

He was also asked why the national taxpayer should fund the Garden Bridge, his response was brilliant: “The plants are coming from all over Britain.” You can’t script this stuff!

 

THE HIGH LINE

He discusses the High Line in New York, saying “it changed the world’s perception of America. There was a disused, elevated railway line that went through Manhatten. And [New York] did this fragile thing, to create a garden. A group of people from the city came together and everyone gave their time for free… And the Garden Bridge owes a lot of the energy of its starting to [what New York did].”

This is totally disingenuous. The High Line was a bottom-up community led project which only later attracted businesses and celebrities. The Garden Bridge is a totally top-down project from the heads of Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick, enabled by a friendship with Boris Johnson and pushed through against the community’s wishes, not with them.

To imply that the Garden Bridge is in any way like a “fragile thing” is a downright lie. While the High Line utilised abandoned infrastructure, the Garden Bridge is made using 15,000 tonnes of concrete and Glencore mined metals.

The Newsnight interviewer pointed out that the two were not comparable in size and, thus – as Dan Anderson of Fourth Street points out in his thorough report into the GBT Business plan – cannot raise anything like the High Line can with its many spaces for events. Sadly, Heatherwick totally ignores the question and answers one he only heard in his head about handbags being stolen (again, a line he uses in every interview. Word for word. Like a robot).

 

TRANSPORT NEED

The interviewer points out the many, many bridges which already serve this area very well. Heatherwick implies that Londoners are not aware of Inner Temple and seems to suggest that we need the Garden Bridge to know what the Magna Carta is. Then he talks about the luxury flats being built in the Northbank BID, penthouses which are being sold for over £10m to offshore investers using the image of the Garden Bridge in the sales literature.

He says that the Master of Inner Temple are asking “how do we open up Inner Temple, this legal district, to the public”. I don’t believe this for a moment. Everybody from the Temple I have spoken to is totally against the Garden Bridge purely because it is their working environment and don’t want crowds of tourists passing through like a Harry Potter tour. There are many ways for people to visit Inner Temple and being so central it is hardly a hard-to-get-to or obscure place to find for the interested.

 

THE NORTHBANK BID

Oddly, Heatherwick talks about the luxury flats being built in the Northbank BID, penthouses which are being sold for over £10m to offshore investers using the image of the Garden Bridge in the sales literature. He says “You are in the centre of arguable the thought-leading-capital-of-the-world” (I don’t know what that means either, but he says it every time), “[The north bank] is being treated as a place to build luxury apartments. It isn’t a place for all of us. You are in the centre of arguably the thought-leading-capital-of-the-world” (I don’t know what that means either, but he says it every time), “and they are almost parasitically borrowing from Covent Garden and St Pauls Cathedral”.

This is all due to the Northbank BID, the same Northbank BID that Johnson and the GBT work closely with, Lumley promotes and of which GBT Trustee Alistair Subba-Row said: “More than one million square feet of development is planned in the area over the next few years. I can quite easily see this part of South Bank rents getting to £60 per square foot and £70 on the North Bank.”

 

THE SOUTH BANK

Talking of the loved public park and avenue of thirty mature plane trees, Heatherwick says, “There’s one part which suddenly goes a bit dead, and vulnerable – I say vulnerable because it’s going to be redeveloped because it’s dead – and there’s a bit where there’s Gabriel’s Wharf, that’s going to be rebuilt and redeveloped, there’s Princes’ Wharf next to it, and then there’s the South Bank TV Centre.”

It will be interesting to local residents and members of Thames Central Open Spaces to hear their community described as a ‘dead space’, and it’s worth mentioning that the Gabriel’s Wharf site is indeed due to be built on… but with affordable housing as per the terms of the Coin Street Community Builders‘ programme.

One of the developments that may happen on the South Bank, but which CSCB can’t afford yet, is Doon Street Tower – a high-end residential block of 239 private apartments. Laughingly he says his development is needed otherwise “we’ll get high-end residential put there, snuck in behind some half-public use that got stuck on the river edge.” completely not getting he has just described his private tourist attraction with Doon St Tower behind it.

 

THE PUBLIC GOOD

Heatherwick claims the Garden Bridge is “about society and the public space we all share”. But if his real concern is the public and society, why would he push on with his singular vision despite the public clearly stating they do not want it. Or is the whole idea of “public and society” down to what he deems it to be?

Heatherwick calls it a “national project” and says it speaks “about society” and says the only goal of the GBT “is to give a free garden to all of us”. Of course, that’s why Glencore and Sky are involved – pure generosity and love of nature.

He says “it’s important that our society doesn’t suddenly show that it doesn’t have confidence in ourselves, the public bit that we share together. We need to keep supporting why we’re all here, why we set up the NHS and why we have the society we construct around us is for us.”

Yes, he just compared the private Garden Bridge to the NHS. The publicly funded, pointless, private Garden Bridge compared to an NHS in desperate need of money and love.

 

CONCERNS

The Newsnight interviewer asked Heatherwick if he was worried it won’t happen. For once he pauses, this is off his schtick script. He rambles on about how things are easiest not to do rather than to do (so stop it, Thomas, if it’s easy!) and then drifts off without remembering to answer the question again.

He makes reference to the Olympics and the Millenium Dome as successes he looks to. Sure, the Olympics were fun but the construction project leaves a lot to be desired and left huge public debt and a stadium we had to give to West Ham on the cheap with huge financial loss. The Millenium Dome was a total disaster and while it has a use now, it was rescued at public expense to turn it into a private sector business. These really aren’t two things for him to reference if he wants support.

 

OPPONENTS

He says “there are many people who want to get their little agenda and pin it onto this amazing project. How can it possible be a bad thing to give ourselves… new public space, new views for all of us. This is not a project of one party.”

Not sure what he is on about here. Opposition to this is totally cross party and has no political party leanings. As to calling sincere and well reasoned arguments against his development “little agenda” is patronising and frankly offensive. Designers of our city benefit from listening to the public and engaging with the future stakeholders, not from telling them what to think with such entitled arrogance.

“That’s the brilliant thing about the democracy of our country, that we can all say what we want, but people need to spot through all of that what people’s separate agendas [are].”

yes, Thomas, my ‘agenda’ is giving a shit about London and not wanting it ruined by private, illegally procured, vanity crap like you are trying to do. That’s my ‘agenda’.

He talks about how the first few years were smooth and it sailed through planning and processes without imagining that may be because the public were ill-informed and Lambeth Council were doing all they could to stifle opposition. Then he said “we need to hold our nerve”. Yes, we do, and we will. We will hold our nerve while you and your entitled chumocracy desperately try to stop your pathetic idea dying a sad death.

 


 

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