Friday, 3 May 2013

Preview: Tower Bridge

We could have had this, by Horace Jones:

Or this, by F. J. Palmer:

Or even this, by John Stanfield:

Not to mention, G. Barclay Bruce's design for a rolling bridge, consisting of a platform and a series of rollers that would propel it from shore to shore (alas, no picture seems to exist). But in the end, we got what is arguably London's most famous landmark, the appropriately-named Tower Bridge

The name is eminently suitable - just look at it, two big towers. But in fact, the name precedes the design by twelve years. Any one of the above could have been called Tower Bridge (or less grandly I suppose, Tower Underpass). The name was first used in 1872 when a bill seeking a "tower bridge" was put before parliament, in relation to the nearby Tower of London - something the then Governor of the Tower of London was not happy about. There was no stipulation whatsoever that the bridge need actually have towers, faux-medieval or not, they just wanted something that crossed the River Thames. But the name stuck, and despite the many designs put forward, in what may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy Tower Bridge got its fancy towers. Over a century on, many people casually think the Bridge and the Tower are contemporaries, despite over 800 years separating them.

Perhaps due to this fanciful vision of fortified towers, Tower Bridge is sometimes mistakenly referred to as its far more historic neighbour, London Bridge. The truly historic London Bridge dates all the way back to 994 AD, and for centuries was the only bridge that crossed the Thames. Whilst wooden, it got swept away or burnt down a lot, but the stone one was built by 1209 and lasted 600 years. Packed with shops and buildings, it resembled a street more than a bridge, but by the mid-18th Century it was at the point of collapse. Hence the famous nursery rhyme, "London Bridge is falling down" (this slightly creepy video doing nothing to help the Tower/London Bridge misconception). Duly, it was replaced at the start of the 19th Century, and in a final twist of fate in the 1960s sold to an American who rebuilt it in Arizona and who rumour has it thought it was Tower Bridge he was buying. The current incarnation dates from 1972, but isn't much to look at. 

By the later 19th Century, despite London Bridge having been rebuilt, it just couldn't cope with the increased traffic of the day. The East End of London had too many people, with the upstream London Bridge and the existing ferry services struggling under the demands of over 100,000 people and over 20,000 vehicles (i.e. horse-and-carts). A new crossing, therefore was needed.

For some years, it was all talk. The location at the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Southwark was chosen, but there was no masterplan as to how it would be spanned. A committee had been set up in 1876 to consider a crossing and had concluded that, yes, it should happen, but hadn't got much further. The only thing everyone knew was that the bridge needed to be dual purpose - it had to allow both road and river traffic, without unduly hindering either. It might be a busy road, but it was also a busy river. The excitable engineers and architects of the day got stuck in, with over fifty ideas submitted, from the duplex bridge of F. J Palmer to the underpass of John Stanfield.
Finally, in 1884, the Committee - who I sincerely hope had full-time jobs in the meantime - sat down for 25 days to thrash it out once and for all. And pulled what can only be described as a bit of a dick move. During proceedings, one of the judges - the City Architect, Horace Jones - pulled out his own design, a fanciful Gothic bridge with a vertically opening bascule. A bascule is pretty much like a drawbridge - the word derives from the French for "see-saw" - and Jones's design was double leaf, that is two corresponding drawbridges. With the grand towers and bascule, the bridge would act as an aesthetic gateway entrance to the capital. His fellow judges loved it, and presumably patted themselves on the back for eight years of a job well done. Nice one, Horace.

As there doesn't seem to have been much of an outcry, I assume that my above spin on proceedings is overly cynical, with it simply being an awkward coincidence that one of the judges happened to have the most popular design. After years of procrastination, finally having a definite design seemed to jolt everyone into action, and the required bills were proposed and laws passed, so that by 1886 construction was ready to begin. Whereby the City Architect, Horace Jones, promptly died.

Information of how Jones died isn't very forthcoming, but he was 68 years old and there's a suggestion of a heart attack (he appears quite a portly fellow in his portraits). He died barely a year into what was to become an eight-year project, but fortunately his engineer John Wolfe Barry was in good stead to take over.  Although an engineer, Barry was from a family of architects; indeed, his father was Charles Barry - the man who had designed the new Houses of Parliament. Together, Barry and Jones had tweaked Jones's original design to create the bridge we see now. 

People were afraid that a new bridge over the Thames would be an ugly metal thing; they wanted something aesthetically pleasing, and building upon Jones's foundations, Barry delivered. He delivered something quite unlike anything else that had ever been built, with a heavy steel skeleton draped in ornate masonry. Tower Bridge is architecture masking structural prowess, a functional machine dressed in ostentatious ornamentation. It could have been done far simpler, far quicker, and far cheaper - but where's the fun in that? As with pretty much anything ever built, there were naysayers, claiming it was too elaborate, too gimmicky, and would have been better left as naked steelwork, but their prosaic interpretation wouldn't have become one of the icons of London. Perhaps it is over the top, with a style not at all authentic to the age, but we have to remember the age it was built in. Look at what else the second half of the 19th Century was doing - Neuschwanstein Castle, restorations of Carcassonne and Edinburgh Castle, even the Houses of Parliament to a degree. It was an era of Victorian fantasy architecture based upon some mythical medieval age dressed up to look nice. And it worked. It looks nice. Tower Bridge might not be a real medieval castle-bridge - clearly there's no such thing - but it's a real Victorian fantasy. And better that than some straightforward metal contraption we've never heard of.

The towers, incidentally, although not essential to the structure of the bridge, were originally relevant to its function. The high bridge between them was a walkway for pedestrians, with each tower being  a stairway. In its heyday, Tower Bridge opened up to 50 times a day, and this walkway was deemed necessary to avoid causing people too much delay, but it turned out that the interruptions were so slight that the walkways were hardly used. By 1910, it was shut. These days the bridge only opens a few times a week, but in 1982 the walkways were reopened - for tourism.

When first drawing up my list of candidate Wonders, Tower Bridge simply didn't cross my mind. It wasn't until travelling in Asia that I realised how much of an icon it is for London. Tourist agencies are a good guide as to what the rest of the world thinks famous and posters outside agencies in numerous countries had the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Statue of Liberty for New York, the Pyramids for Egypt - and London almost always had Tower Bridge. I think Big Ben may have crept in occasionally, or supplementarily, but it was Tower Bridge that was the unique landmark. The Olympics last year backed this up. Naturally, all of London's landmarks were shown off to the world, but Tower Bridge seemed to take central stage, draped in the Olympic rings.

Although I've seen and crossed Tower Bridge, I've never gone inside or across the pedestrian walkway. I'll be visiting in June and will do all this, and will give a more detailed review plus my own impressions then.

And finally, after all these late 19th Century designs for Tower Bridge, how about this one from 1943, by a gentleman called W.F.C. Holden.

 A glass Tower Bridge. Just what you need in the middle of a war.

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