Jewels in our heritage or a bridge too far?

Spanning the Thames: Top international architects invite controversy with designs for new ways of living on London's river
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A revolutionary design for an inhabited bridge across the River Thames could soon become a reality. Plans have have been submitted by world-famous architects, including Daniel Libes- kind - creator of the V&A's infamous extension - and Zaha Hadid, whose design for the Cardiff Opera House was controversially rejected.

Seven architectural practices were invited to enter the Royal Academy's competition to design a new inhabited bridge across the Thames, and the resulting proposals have astonished assessors.

The brief was to ensure that the structure was commercially viable, following a feasibility study by KPMG which suggested ways in which income could be raised from shops, rest-aurants, hotels and public viewing platforms.

But few were prepared for postmodern architectural notions of how a 21st- century bridge in the heart of a capital would look. "They shatter traditional concepts of bridge design and are sure to generate a heated debate," said exhibition curator, Peter Murray.

Submissions included the "Green Bridge" from Antoine Grumbach of France, incorporating an arcade of shops and cafes between a grand tower on the north bank and an all-glass "Culture Palace" on the south.

Typically, Libeskind's design deconstructed the concept altogether to create a network of paths across the river.

The designs by the four UK practices are also revolutionary. Ms Hadid offers a bridge which cantilevers accommodation from the banks, allowing views through the central section.

Branson Coates offers an anthropomorphic design housing a 24-hour leisure and entertainment centre, with two hotel towers close to the south bank. Future Systems solves the problem with its "People's Bridge" - a pedestrian bridge using boat technology to create a skeletal-looking form.

Ian Ritchie's design incorporates a park set above bowling alleys and cinemas, while Krier Kohl of Germany offers a Gothic-style facade spanning two towers incorporating flats.

T he proposed site runs from Temple Gardens on the north bank to the area in front of the London Weekend Television building on the south bank. The winner will be announced on 24 September, after which it is hoped that private developers will make offers to fund the construction of a bridge.

Models and drawings of the submissions form the centrepiece of an RA exhibition, Living Bridges, which illustrates the history of the inhabited bridge. It will run from 26 September to 18 December and visitors will be invited to vote for their favourite design.

The official judging will be carried out by Mr Murray and Mr Gummer, together with Sir Philip Dowson, president of the RA, Michael Cassidy, chairman of the policy and resources committee of the Corporation of London, Sir Robert Clarke, chairman of Thames Water, Jean Dethier, a curator of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Gordon Graham, past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the broadcaster, Janet Street-Porter.

The last inhabited bridge over the Thames was destroyed in the mid-18th century. Originally a Roman pontoon bridge, it spanned Southwark and the City and held houses, shops, corn mills and waterworks. The only remaining inhabited English bridge is Pulteney Bridge, in Bath, built by Robert Adam.