Architecture: A bridge not far enough

The Royal Victoria Dock Bridge, designed by master architect Alex Lifschutz, is the longest in the capital, spanning 360 metres of the Thames. But there is one small problem: it doesn't go anywhere.

Nonie Niesewand
Friday 04 December 1998 00:02

The young architect of the popular Coin Street community housing and the masterplanner of Waterloo Terminus, Alex Lifschutz is going places fast. The same cannot be said for his bridge. London's newest - and longest - bridge, the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge, has no destination. It starts well amid a honey-and-red-brick Wimpey village called Britannia. Then, after spanning 360 metres of the Thames, the bridge stops just short of the shore.

Plans by property developer Excel to build a massive exhibition centre on the north shore went belly-up along with the Asian economy. The bridge ends just a dinghy ride away from dry land because the original plan was to build out from the shore. Now a jetty links the bridge to land but there is absolutely nothing there to make you want to get off. Worse, you can't get onto it. The two lifts up to the bridge 14 metres above travel up and down with nobody in them. Maintenance men do keep them going, but only to stop them seizing up in cold weather.

Excel's plan was not the only one to be shelved. The bridge was built 14 metres high to allow tall ships from a proposed marina to sail silently beneath: that was scuppered when the flight path into London City airport bit into the zone.

At least the bridge is handsome.

Lifschutz, with engineer Matthew Wells of Techniker, won a competition in 1994 by London Docklands Development Corporation, which was redeveloping the 162 hectares of Royal Docks. They met all the technical requirements of the brief within a parabolic arch. Clad in iroko wood with weathered silver, topped with masts rigged like yachts, ending in shapely prows and sterns, the boat imagery is followed in the upturned steel boat shapes all along its spine. Doubling as seats on the footbridge, they also strengthen the bridge, which has to run a cable car along its underbelly.

The cable car track to shuttle 40 people backwards and forwards above the water is there, but the scheme is no longer on track. But why would anyone want to spend pounds 500,000 to make their pounds 4.5m bridge fully operative with the cable car when it leads nowhere?

"I judge a good bridge by the experience of crossing it, the non-slip of timbered cladding underneath." Alex Lifschutz is quietly optimistic that one day the residents and visitors will not only leg it across the bridge but watch regattas from it.

He may just be lucky. BURA, the British Urban Regeneration Authority, which took their members on a tour of showpiece urban regenerative schemes in the London borough of Newham, started out from the Royal Victoria footbridge.

Standing on the bridge on a perishingly cold day, with a view of the Dome to the west and City airport to the east, both dwarfed by the vast mudflats and great basin of water, you can see what a daunting task faced London Docklands Development Corporation back in 1992 when they published their development plan for the Royal Docks. Over the years they drained areas, reclaimed land and landscaped or built on it, built London City airport, spent pounds 350m on dual carriageways and the Docklands Light Railway, and made the plans for the Jubilee Line extension.

Eric Sorenson, the former chief executive of LDDC, didn't just want regeneration; he wanted architectural landmarks. He is optimistic that the whole Docklands enterprise will one day be complete.

"Would I have changed the way we approached the development at Royal Victoria Docks? Not much. It was an urban village scheme, genuinely mixed, with a primary school early on.

"The Thames Barrier Park on formerly contaminated land is underway with a Barretts estate next to one of London's unsung attributes, the Thames Barrier itself. All the signs are still that the project is making headway in the market."

LDDC, the first urban regeneration task force with a big budget and big brief, was disbanded last year. Now the new landlords are England's biggest and most powerful land and property developer, English Partnerships. Financed by the Government to bring derelict, vacant and underused land and buildings into life in partnership with public, private and voluntary sector organisations, they have 3,200 projects on the go.

Anthony Dunnett, the chief executive officer at English Partnerships, uses the fashionable jargon of urban regenerators everywhere, "top-down, bottom-up". Ideas taken at the top filter down to meet needs from the local community, and are made to happen somewhere in the middle. "Top-driven projects turn into white elephants," Anthony Dunnett says.

If ever a white elephant masqueraded as a bridge it is at the Royal Victoria Docks, but Dunnett says that LDDC "made a bold statement with their essential spine, the infrastructure". Having dallied for 18 months, English Partnerships now have a team responsible for the Royal Docks. "We have a master plan," says Dunnett. "It is essential to create living communities. For example, we know we need more single dwellings. Gay households, singles leaving home, widows and widowers."

If he wants homes in Docklands, he must be really worried about the consortium building the twee, pounds 250m Millennium Village project in Greenwich.

The village is supposed to have 1,400 homes, but plans for the first 80 only went before Greenwich Council's planning committee last night. So when the village opens alongside the Dome on 31 December 1999, there will only be a handful of residents to see the fireworks.

Greenwich Council has an agreement that 25 per cent of the site will be affordable housing, but their insistence that most of it is two-storey with private gardens rather than clustered around communal gardens has actually reduced that figure to 21 per cent.

English Partnerships is putting a brave face on the difficulties. "Already we have a waiting list for them and not a stone has been laid," claims Glenn Baxter, the media and marketing executive for Millennium Village and English Partnerships.

Yet no contract has been signed with the consortium - the architect Ralph Erskine, architects Hunt Thompson Associates, the developer Countryside Properties and builder Taylor Woodrow. Rows over contamination of the old gasworks site are said to be slowing it down.

English Partnerships, which has spent pounds 180m cleaning up the site, claims that the least contaminated area on the peninsula is the housing area, yet they admit that not all the toxic material from the old gasworks was removed from the site. Contaminated material locked underground was capped.

Now a marker warns contractors about entering a contaminated area when they sink foundations or pipework underground. By Christmas, the deal should be signed and sealed.

So is the Britannia estate at Royal Docks the way forward for Docklands - even though there is no way onto the Docklands Light Railway until the bridge is opened? With just 250 Wimpey homes with bolt-on porticos and pediments and its own waterfront net-curtained crescent, Newham councillors claim the estate is a good mixed-use residential area with a junior school, shops and housing association accommodation. But will that make it a community?

People want to live in towns, not in suburbia and not in the country. But for too many people, urban regeneration means lonely high-rise estates, vandalism, boarded up factories and warehouses, soulless shopping and brutal office blocks. Even in areas where millions of pounds have been spent, it can mean a cement spaghetti junction ending in a brick wall. Or in a bridge that goes nowhere. For the residents of Britannia there is still no escape.

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