Unbuilt London: Bridges To Nowhere And Mad Masterplans

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 78 months ago

Last Updated 10 November 2017

Unbuilt London: Bridges To Nowhere And Mad Masterplans

In the first two parts of Unbuilt London, we looked at the transport schemes and skyscrapers that could have been. This time it's the turn of the baffling bridges and manic masterplans that architects have drawn up for London over the years, only to be thwarted by matters of cost, taste or simple physics.

A note on our methodology: Obviously we haven’t included every single proposal. But we’ve tried to include most of the significant ones, those which would have impacted on the city, and those that we just plain loved or loathed. If you think there’s anything we should have included, drop us a note in the comments.

Tower Bridge

Alternative design for Tower Bridge

As a symbol of London, it's impossible to imagine the Gothic tweeness of Tower Bridge looking any other way. But it nearly did. The chance to design a bridge capable of allowing ships through into the then-thriving Pool of London invited a number of proposals, some more elaborate than others. Falling into that category is a design by Frederic Barnett, a low-level scheme that, the architect promised, allowed an"uninterrupted continuity of vehicular and general traffic". Other designs resembled more closely the bridge as it was built; above is an alternative version by Horace Jones, architect of the finished product.

Tower Bridge clad in glass

Despite being completed in the late 1890s, Tower Bridge wasn't immune from certain mid-century efforts to "improve" it. W.F.C. Holden thought that the bridge would be greatly improved if it were encased in glass and steel. Unsurprisingly, not many people agreed.

Millennium Bridge

Proposal for a Princess Diana-themed Millennium Bridge by FAT.

As the first new bridge across the Thames in decades, the competition to design the Millennium Bridge attracted a large number of wild design ideas, some of them more sensible than others. Firmly in the latter category was the proposal knocked up by those merry pranksters at FAT for a crossing that tapped into the zeitgeist: it was inspired by the late Princess Diana, with a verdant grass surface modelled on her family's Althorp park and the lyrics of Elton John's turgid re-tread of 'Candle in the Wind' etched into the balustrades. We might well laugh now, but if you'd asked the general public in the heady days after her death, they'd surely have voted for it.

Millennium Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava

A more realistic scheme was devised by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and structural engineer who has forged a career out of designing elegant, swooping bridges the world over. Ultimately it wasn't to be, and the Arup / Norman Foster designed bridge that we have now went up in its place.

The Crystal Span

The Crystal Span at Vauxhall, from the 1960s

The idea for a glass bridge didn't disappear entirely. In 1963 a wonderfully-named group called the Glass Age Development Committee dished up a project for a new bridge at Vauxhall. The 'Crystal Span', as it was named, was a 370m long, seven-storey glass structure that straddled the banks of the Thames, with a traffic level at the bottom and various amenities stacked above, including shops, an extension for the Tate Gallery, a skating rink and a hotel, all topped off with a roof garden and open air theatre. This wasn't even the most radical scheme the Committee had proposed: in the 1950s they had called for the demolition of Soho and its replacement with an all-new, all-glass development. They also wanted to get rid of Staines and build an entire glass city called Motopia. Draw your own conclusions from that.

'Living Bridge'

A 'living bridge' at Waterloo, proposed in 2009

Boris Johnson is a man given to flights of fancy, be they curly-wurly towers or cable cars. One folly which was never realised is his scheme, hatched in 2009, for a living bridge between Waterloo and Blackfriars — better known as the Garden Bridge. The plan was a re-heated version drawn up by Frenchman Antoine Grumbach in the 1990s, which envisioned a crossing with a residential tower at one end, and shops cafes and bars along the middle, with a greenhouse at the far end. London has been here before, of course: the medieval London Bridge was festooned by shops and houses, some of them up to seven storeys high. The Garden Bridge was finally shelved in August 2017.

Thames Gateway Bridge

One of the designs for the Thames Gateway bridge

Cancelled by Boris Johnson in 2008, this six-lane bridge would have linked Thamesmead and Beckton.

London after the Great Fire

Christopher Wren's design for London after the Great Fire

In the aftermath of the Great Fire, a young Christopher Wren had the notion of remaking much of the City as a planned network of avenues, spacious boulevards and plazas. Evidently influenced by his time in Paris, Wren's masterplan was a parallel lines and neatly ordered intersections, a far cry from the mess of medieval byways that he aimed to replace. As the story goes, the King and Parliament were keen, but the local tradesmen didn't take too kindly to his plan, and nothing came of it. This myth was actually put about by Wren's son, and the truth is that it was never taken particularly seriously.

Wren's plan was one of several for re-building the City; another example is by John Evelyn, and it was also based upon a series of interconnected piazzas, while Robert Hooke produced another. Again they were mostly ignored, and the rebuilt London followed mostly the existing street plan. Which is good news for those of us who enjoy a wander through the Square Mile's many alleyways.


Plan by Leslie Martin from the early 1960s to knock down almost every building in Whitehall and replace them with new offices.

Among the many bits of London that were almost lost to the wrecker's ball in the Sixties is Whitehall. In 1965 the government commissioned Leslie Martin to re-plan Whitehall. Martin had previously done great work in the capital — the Royal Festival Hall being his masterpiece — but this arch-Modernist's plan for the UK's administrative centre was cataclysmic: he proposed knocking down the Edwardian and Victorian buildings, including such gems as the Foreign Office (which was in a wretched state at the time) and replace them with a series of anodyne slabs. One of the few buildings that would have survived the cull was Scotland Yard, which was to be enclosed in a courtyard. The scheme lingered for many years, whilst the initially slow-to-react Victorian Society managed to generate some opposition toward it, and was quietly shelved in 1971.

Senate House

The full plan for Senate House

Charles Holden's Senate House was destined to be the centrepiece of a much larger development around Bloomsbury. Had the full scheme gone ahead, the building would have been the southern anchor of a 370m single block that stretched northward, culminating in a smaller tower. The financial difficulties of the 1930s, and the onset of the second world war, kyboshed the plan.

South Bank

Design for the South Bank, by Misha Black in 1946

Finally, a couple of ideas for the South Bank. In the gallery above is a fantastical scheme for the area, drawn up in 1946 by Misha Black of the Design Research Unit as planning for the Festival of Britain was underway. While Black's scheme — likened by one architecture forum to "the Crystal Palace reinterpreted by the creators of The Jetsons" — was always likely to be over-ambitious, he left his mark on other London designs, including the classic London Transport moquette from the 1970s.

In the 1990s, Richard Rogers' firm won a competition to revitalise the area. Their proposal involved shrouding the South Bank in a huge, undulating glass umbrella in hope of "integrating the South Bank Centre into the heart of London life". Lack of funding scuppered the scheme, although improvements around the turn of the century, including the new Hungerford Bridge and the Royal Festival Hall's refurbishment, have helped transform the area into a hugely popular destination.

See the full Unbuilt London series