Tom Paine understood the importance of bridges, but today’s politicians are far removed from his lofty concepts of the civic ideal, says Jack the Blaster
While Tom Paine is, of course, best known for his searing ability to dismantle the church, state and monarchy of his age, it is a lesser-known fact that he wanted to build bridges.
In between exercising his rapier-like ability with the pen, he set his mind to boosting the fledgling economy of the newly freed American nation by considering how to improve travel across the great rolling land.
He set his intellect to designing an iron structure that could span the great rivers of the newly founded nation, and then find the investors who would then build them.
His reasoning is as sound today as it was in the 18th century — and springs to mind as Lambeth and Westminster councils are considering a project to build a new space across the Thames.
Physically, a bridge cuts across chasms and makes access easier. Paine had watched as his fellow pioneers having to travel miles down and upstream on the banks of America’s mighty rivers to find places to ford, and pondered how you could boost the economy by creating safe spans that would increase trade.
But there was more to bridge-building than just increasing trade. As his biographer Professor John Keane pointed out: “Paine was struck by their double meaning.”
He saw bridges not just as a way to overcome physical borders and boundaries but as a symbol of how reaching out and holding hands was a better way to improve our lot than building walls and fences.
Paine sought to build an iron bridge across the Harlem River in New York in 1785 and the following year took the design to Paris with an eye to doing the same across the Seine.
He looked for backers in London. He created a prototype model on a field near Paddington, but Paine was a better writer than a bridge designer or money raiser, and despite this project being met with encouraging noises, nothing came of it.
So shouldn’t we be grateful that a new bridge is being considered for the Thames, designed by the acclaimed Thomas Heatherwick, he of the Olympic flame sculpture?
Heatherwick has a thing about bridges. I once visited his King’s Cross studio and he showed me with a childlike glee a model of a retractable bridge that folded in on itself to allow river traffic to pass.
He unconsciously seemed to have a Paineite view of their usefulness, speaking eloquently of spanning spaces and crossing chasms. Like Paine, he applied his radical designer’s eye to new ways of engineering, too.
In 2004, he was the much-trumpeted designer of a £5 million, all-glass bridge, which was due to span the Regent’s Canal and had been commissioned by the developers building offices and homes in the area’s old railway depots.
But it so transpires his Garden Bridge, as it is dubbed — since it will essentially be a park on stilts above water — is not quite what it seems. As Lambeth’s councillors get ready to discuss its pros and cons, critics have been ferocious.
They say it’s the wrong scheme in the wrong place and that east London has a more pressing need for new spans over the river than a crossing at the Temple.
They say it will be no better than Boris Johnson’s vanity project of the “Emirates Air Line” cable car at Greenwich and the Royal Docks.
Now it appears that Heatherwick’s £175m Garden Bridge may be something along similar lines.
They say it is not actually a bridge at all — which, by definition, should be a right of way spanning a chasm that the public can use to get from one place to another.
Instead, it will be a privately run and managed tourist attraction, with access limited to ticket holders and strict rules about what you can and can’t do.
Critics say it won’t be open to the public to simply turn up and cross from one bank to another. It won’t be open at night. You won’t be able to ride a bike over it. Groups of more than eight people coming together will have to book in advance, whatever that means. How such a rule could possibly be policed is not clear.
Bridges show off human ingenuity. Abraham Darby used one to show off his dexterity in smelting iron with coke when he built Ironbridge in Shropshire.
They cross political divides — the bridge at Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina became a symbol of the schism of the war created between communities that had lived cheek by jowl, and underlined that intrinsic idea that all war is essentially fratricide.
And they play an aesthetic role, a place to linger, which the Garden Bridge could do — if the “owners” allowed it.
Who can’t help but be moved by pausing on a bridge, watching water flow beneath, cut off from either side, suspended in a moment in time?
William Wordsworth’s most celebrated lines — when away from his beloved Lake District — are called On Westminster Bridge, where he describes a grandstand view of London. It allows him to ignore the mess and squalor, and offers light and views.
So we should, surely, expect more from any new structure spanning the Thames.
It seems a damning indictment of our age that a new span is proposed, to be built with a hefty wedge of public money — it is said to have a £60m bill for the taxpayer, and then there will be issues over how it is maintained — yet it will have no real economic value as a crossing except for the private investors, and it won’t truly be public.
It may not be surprising in such a neoliberal age, but it is still depressing that such a symbol of our ability to use creative ingenuity to reach out across a divide could become just another pay-on-the-door sign of the decline of the civic ideal.