Will Jennings

Phantasmagoria and the Garden Bridge, Part II

January 2, 2020


CGI render looking from the Garden Bridge @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


The Garden Bridge may be the most spectacular and controversial ‘green’ urban intervention proposed for London, incorporating many of the concerns described in Part I into a grand projet designed to assist the image of London as World City. The project, by Heatherwick Studio, was pitched to Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, in 2012; on the back of Heatherwick’s success with the Olympic Cauldron, a kinetic structure in which numerous petals closed together during the nostalgic opening ceremony (Oettler, 2015) to form the symbolic flame of the occasion.

Though the Mayor of London is responsible for creating the London Plan, shaping overarching approaches to urban development, they have little agency to impact architectural interventions. One coffer they can access is that of Transport for London [TfL], so that if they wanted to lead on a grand project, they would need to invoke a tangential transportation function and collaborate with other agents (Swyngedouw et al., p. 215).

Spectacle is Heatherwick’s stock in trade, with a back catalogue slowly evolving from product design to megaproject architecture by way of temporary interventions, including Britain’s “hairy” Seed Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. This shift into urban design didn’t come without some costly, publicly-funded hiccoughs, among them, a sentimental reinterpretation of the Routemaster bus that was discontinued after numerous, expensive design and technical failings; the B in the ‘Bang’ installation, eventually melted down and sold for scrap by Manchester Council after javelin-sized metal spikes began to break off from it, and the Blue Carpet public space in Newcastle, an experimental blue-glazed paving which began to crack and fade to grey almost immediately. But none of this knocked Heatherwick’s confidence, as suggested by a New York Times profile noting how he “largely avoids self-depreciation” (Parker 2018).

Will Hurst, Managing Editor of London’s Architects’ Journal [AJ], says Heatherwick “certainly knows how to pull the levers of power”, and these were certainly pulled in 2012, when Johnson grabbed the Garden Bridge idea and did all he could ―down to creating an alleged illegal procurement process― to propel it into realisation (Smith, 2015) through TfL and the Garden Bridge Trust [GBT], a charity. The project had been developed from an initial idea by celebrated actress Joanna Lumley to build a bridge with trees on it as a 1998 memorial to Diana Princess of Wales. Lumley was a friend of Johnson, which aided access to the Mayor; and what started as a personal fancy had, by 2013, turned into a serious proposal costed initially at £60m, to be entirely privately funded, and with a location decided upon immediately to the east of Waterloo Bridge, with little rationalised justification.

CGI of the Garden Bridge from Waterloo Bridge @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


Heatherwick described the bridge as “just two planters, their foundations sprouting from the river bed” (GBT, 2015), with each reaching a width of 30m to support two planted areas of trees, the tallest of which would reach 15m following 25 years growth. Lumley spoke of “[w]ild paths [which] will snake around woodland copses and glades” (2014a) meeting in the centre of the bridge, where it narrowed to 6m. At the north side, the crossing would land on the roof of Temple Underground station and, to the south, a new commercial unit would be built on existing publicly-owned park, the roof of which would be a 600sqm area with a “Disney queues system” for crowd management (GBT, 2014b, p. 18). These two ends could be closed off, to enable the privately-owned project to be let out for up to 12 days a year for corporate fundraising, as well as closing between midnight and 6am.

Much was said by its proponents to the effect that this would be a green addition to the city, Lumley even declaiming it would have a “dreamlike, almost […] magical quality, to be able to walk through trees and grass, with birds and bees, over the river in the centre of a huge vibrant city” (2014a). She frequently invoked an urban oasis, implying the bridge’s powerful function as a tool of social appurtenance to urban forces, where visitors could “maybe slow down, hear birds singing, hear leaves rustling, get a little bit of calm, take the heat out of the situation, [it can] make people feel a bit more generous about making London a more beautiful place for everybody who lives here” (Lambeth Council, 2014).


The Garden Bridge can also be read as a furthering of Jacobs’ colonial reading of the City. As part of his carefully manufactured public image, Johnson regularly invokes nationalistic tropes and turns of phrase, from writing a biography of Winston Churchill through talking of the Commonwealth in terms of “flag-waving piccaninnies and watermelon smiles” (Johnson, 2002a), and stating that it was a problem Britain was no longer in “charge” of Africa (Johnson, 2002b). Brexit, his next large project after the Garden Bridge, was also wrapped up in the concepts and semantics of colonial nostalgia (Younge, 2018).

Following the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the 2012 Olympics, Heatherwick was being internationally paraded by the British Council [BC] with a deeply uncritical exhibition that visited Asia and the USA (BC, 2015). Ichijo states the BC is “a legacy of British imperialism which is trying to adjust the post-colonial, increasingly global world” by working with “the politics of identity maintenance in a former colonial power in Europe” (2012), and Heatherwick’s movement into spectacular architecture fit not just Brand Britain, but also the exportation of Britishness and the reinforcement of London’s World City image. Just as the neoliberal towers shining in a cluster tell the world that London is  a continuing success story, so too this “green corridor” was “strengthening London’s status as the greenest capital in Europe” (Emmott, 2015).

Lumley was born in Kashmir, her father a Major in the WWII Ghurkha regiment and her mother from a lineage of politics and military service in colonial India. Her father’s side of the family were deeply rooted in the British colonial project, including her great and great-great-grandfathers holding senior positions in the East India Company (Barratt, 2007). Throughout his book The Country and the City (1973), Raymond Williams parallels the idea of childhood with an illusory vision of nature, and Britain: “The natural images of this Eden of childhood seem to compel a particular connection, at the very moment of their widest generality. Nature, the past and childhood are temporarily but powerfully fused” (1973, p. 139). Lumley’s mirage of Eden, the Garden Bridge, is directly informed by her own childhood memories growing up in former British colonies, placing Jacob’s imperial observations of London architecture at the heart of the Garden Bridge project:

“My sister and I got up very early the first morning and the gardens were surrounded with extremely thick white clouds. There were roses, cabbages, runner beans with great scarlet flowers, tangles of onions, tall things growing — an island of tropical plants floating in the air. I was seven and it had the most enormous impact of anything in my childhood.” (2014b)

Williams notes “only other men’s nostalgias offend” (ibid, p. 12), and so it was the case as the proposed built form of Lumley’s romantic memories were less well received than expected. There were many reasons for the local community and experts ―from procurement, architectural, legal and political sectors― to oppose the Garden Bridge (Jennings, 2016a); including that it would be another London POPS, an undemocratic site of human and technological surveillance with a long list of regulations affecting access and use. Popular concern was raised about these proposed rules (Alter, 2015; Dunn, 2015) reflecting concerns raised by academic Anna Minton, that “spaces are regarded as democratic because everybody can use them, which means that if the ‘reclaimed’ public realm is no longer space everybody can use, we need to worry, not only about the state of our cities, but about the state of our democracy” (2012, loc. 1429).


The GBT rarely claimed their project was environmentally beneficial to London, except for claims the Garden Bridge was an “ecologically sustainable corridor to encourage pollination and biodiversity” (GBT, 2015) that failed to explain just what was meant by “sustainable”. London Beekeepers disagreed, saying bees would stay clear due to winds, while other green organisations ―including the Green Party, Trees for Cities and London Wildlife Trust― also criticising the project’s ecological aspects (Jennings, 2016b).

Spencer writes that the construction of neoliberal architecture “is disguised in the phantasmagoria of smooth surfaces and elegant forms wrapped around its structural armatures” (2016, loc. 308), and so it was with the Garden Bridge that its great hulk of steel and concrete would be wrapped in £10m of glistening cupronickel ―a metal Lumley described as “easily the most expensive thing you could clad it in, easily” (2014c)― donated by Glencore, a mining conglomerate with presumed links to child labour, mass pollution, bribery and paramilitary murders (South Bank Tales, 2016).

The GBT also claimed that “the green infrastructure created… will contribute towards the mitigation of climate change through its planting scheme and features such as rainwater collection areas” (GBT, 2014e, p. 14; 2014c), seemingly unaware that if they didn’t build across the river then the rainwater would simply be collected into the Thames. Mostly, the case was made for it being an iconic symbol of a green future, “maintaining and improving London’s image as the world’s most green and liveable big city” (GBT, 2014e, p22). Just as the dome of St. Paul’s represented less spiritual or historic connectedness and served more as a useful signifier to propagate colonial and national identity in a global landscape, the ‘green’ aesthetic of the bridge would have acted as a distraction from the serious environmental concerns in the city; with streets in Lambeth, where the Bridge would have landed, reaching annual EU pollution limits in the first 30 days of 2018 (Gabbatiss, 2018).

Cross section of the Garden Bridge structure to be wrapped in cupronickel @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


“It is almost as if a fetishistic conception of “nature” as something to be valued and worshipped separate from human action blinds a whole political movement to the qualities of the actual living environments in which the majority of humanity will soon live.” (Harvey, 2001, p. 40)

Opponents didn’t dispute that green spaces, despite not having more profound ecological credentials than simply offering a greener feel to the city, could not serve other purposes, among them mental health and social capital (Braubach et al., 2017). They were more concerned that the developers were availing themselves of the language and aesthetics of such desirable outcomes to enable a private project requiring large amounts of public money and damaging public commons, which would primarily benefit property and rent value on both banks of the river. The estimated cost of the endeavour peaked at “north of £200m” before the whole thing was cancelled in August 2017 after the GBT found too many financial, political, procedural and legal hurdles in its path―but not before £46m of the £60m public funds allocated to it had been spent on design, planning, legal and promotional work―. Detractors suggested this kind of money could have made a meaningful dent in the environmental issues London faces, had it been spent more strategically and with genuine environmental impact in mind.


“The bridge would create a new iconic form that responds to and enhances its unique Central London context… The overall massing of the bridge would contribute to the townscape and frame historic views of London. (GBT, 2014a, p. 50).

Despite the plans requiring the concreting over of a small but appreciated public greenspace on the Southbank, the GBT promoted their development as bringing new public space to a much-needed part of the city, in an area Johnson described as “nobody thought you could exploit, over the river itself” (GLA, 2015, p. 1). The word “exploit” fed into concerns about the project being a smokescreen for private capital uplift (Johnson, 2015; GBT 2014e, pp. 127-131). It also related to ongoing concerns for rights to the city and the notions of urban commons. The protected open views from Waterloo Bridge and the Southbank ―effectively public space en plein air― would be adversely affected against London Plan guidelines due to a private development; in effect, an enclosure of space which privatised extant and historic public panoramic views was opposed as vehemently as privatisation of public land had been in the past.


 The Garden Bridge, CGI image showing radial layout and planting @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


When a Londoner walks across Waterloo Bridge the city is in flux, its overlapping architectural forms kaleidoscoping in a play of light with the individual’s experience of movement and air. For a flâneur crossing the Thames, the skyline and the City are a personal rendering of shifting form. The GBT acknowledged that existing views towards the city ―a part of London’s evolving heritage since the construction of the first Waterloo Bridge in 1818― were “highly valued for the unspoilt curved sweep of the river with a diverse and recognisable skyline as a backdrop”, but suggested they could “re-create” them further downstream (2014d, p. 70).

Crucially, the views from the Garden Bridge were to be experienced statically from “key rest points [offering] carefully composed views out onto the river and surrounding cityscape” (2014a, p54). Heatherwick claims to have taken inspiration for this from the film Titanic’s scene in which Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet squeeze into the bow of the deck to enjoy a personal, expansive view. The “rest points” on the Garden Bridge, formed from the radial plan of each “planter”, were designed for visitors to stop and passively receive an image of the city as a frozen slice of time, with the iconic forms of London’s neoliberal skyline as a postcard moment. Heatherwick said the Garden Bridge would be “the best place to see London from” (Bell, 2015), with the implication Londoners should sit back and receive an image of their city at a safe remove, rather than as citizens actively experiencing and engaged with it.

“Someone called [the Garden Bridge] a vanity project. But it’s not. And what was the biggest vanity project ever in London? Probably St Paul’s Cathedral. There was huge resistance to St Paul’s being built.” (Heatherwick, in Walsh, 2015)

CGI render from Garden Bridge @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


Heatherwick and Johnson frequently invoked St. Paul’s Cathedral as a natural predecessor of the Garden Bridge, by asserting that since its construction had some opposition in its time, then logically all opposed developments would be similarly as important. They stated that the Garden Bridge would become so central to London’s heritage that in “1000 years’ time people will still be using it” (Heatherwick, in Frith, 2015).

The cathedral is not only semantically woven into the Garden Bridge’s narrative ―views of it are key to its aesthetic form―. From the centre of Waterloo Bridge (where, after 25 years, the planting was intended to have reached full growth), St. Paul’s Cathedral would be nestled within the former’s two artificial copses; a classical, symbolic moment of London’s history cradled by nature, and set in front of the successful, modern backdrop of the City’s iconic cluster. This is a vision of pure picturesque which would undoubtedly compose a striking image for London to present to the world: a re-iteration of its montage of nostalgia, future, spectacle and triumph, albeit as a static representation of place aimed more at its status as a corporate and world city than at any public, community or environmental benefit (despite Lumley discussing the project as a benevolent “gift to London”).

As with so many modern development projects, the Garden Bridge relied immensely on mediated CGI to generate public and philanthropic interest and persuade authorities and stakeholders. The first images of the proposal as a complete architectural proposal were released in June 2013, surprisingly soon after Heatherwick was awarded a £60,000 award for a feasibility study into whether a footbridge was needed in any central London location only three months prior. Without any design competition or public call for a bridge in this location ever being made, the images of the Garden Bridge hit the media suddenly, and it appeared in them as if this crossing could drop into the centre of the capital as easily as the renders appeared on screens.

CGI render of Garden Bridge @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


In a view looking east along the Thames from a slightly raised perspective, a higher-than-human-gaze ―that would be revisited to present the project― showed the fully-grown trees in a summer evening glow, St. Paul’s centre frame with the glass towers of the city behind it. Alongside it, two other images were published. One, from the Southbank ―a rare human-vantage towards the bridge― featured the HQS Wellington, built in 1934 and used in the evacuation of allied troops from French beaches in 1940, under the bridge; an imperial framing to match that of St. Paul’s in the panoramic render. The other, from the narrowest point in the bridge, looked towards one of the copses, bathed in a soft, chalky atmosphere, as a surprisingly low number of people occupy the space. Though the design and use of images changed over time, the tropes of imperialism, rootedness, the function of people in the images and their sublime atmosphere remained as techniques for selling the vision throughout.

Left: HQS Wellington and the Garden Bridge. Right: view from narrowest point of the Bridge, both @ Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss 


The deployment and function of CGIs became more essential to the GBT ―which scarcely engaged with the public save through imagery and press releases― as the project developed. But the scenes ―of a serene, pastoral and relaxing space in the centre of urban business― married to the persuasive, optimistic language used by Heatherwick and Lumley, didn’t tally with the architectural, environmental and community voices describing an alternative expected outcome.

Media reporting on the hurdles the GBT faced ―even opinion pieces highly critical of the development― were almost always accompanied by one of the seductive CGI renders. Just as the role of the design was to be dominantly iconic in the centre of the city, if built; so too the images would be iconic in printed or digital media, an architectural clickbait which, with constant viewing, would only become more embedded into the collective consciousness. Within a media marketplace in which images dominate traffic and content, many who saw them repeatedly would not read the articles or adjoining criticism, and so the powerful, lingering aura would be that of the picturesque image. Journalists stated they did not have the power to choose which images were used, that this was the function of a picture editor, even if the image compromised the message of the text beside it.

The Garden Bridge after Year 1, from the Planning Application @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss


Of course, a picture editor needed only open the planning documents (GBT, 2014a) to see a wider selection of images showing the project in a less idyllic atmosphere. But though they could have aligned with the journalism conceptually, these images don’t have the punch of the artfully cropped, designed and framed CGI renders. The sublime and the picturesque are still dominant in image making, choosing and reading, especially in a struggling media landscape which needs visual hooks to generate clicks or buy-ins. And so, in choosing these images to illustrate a critical news article, the media organisation did exactly what the Garden Bridge’s developers and masterminds required. The medium is the message, and in a visually prevalent, image-devouring culture, the message set forth by the CGI was more powerful than any critique accompanying it.

The publicly disseminated digital images have a sense of the uncanny. The time is always high or near-high tide, the sun is always rising or setting, there are never crowds in them but ―of those images that do have people― they are mainly couples or families, usually lingering or leaving and admiring the distant view, or examining planting; reflections of Lumley’s “half dream world” (2014d). But while the images show sparse and peaceful vistas, without the sense of being in the middle of a huge tourist attraction, the numbers in the planning documents suggest otherwise. They state the Garden Bridge would aim for a Pedestrian Comfort Level B similar to a shopping street and explained, in TfL guidance, as “people start to consider avoiding the area” (TfL, 2010). Around the Southbank, crowds would sometimes reach Pedestrian Comfort Level D or “very uncomfortable” (Moore, p. 384). Yet the renderings showed a clear expanse of empty space which you ―the future user dropped into the spectral future― can explore at your leisure. The Garden Bridge was promoted as both an empty space in which to hear bees and water, and a major World City for over 7 million people a year; as a place in which to pause and dream, but also as a critical route for commuters to rush to their office from Waterloo Station; as a grand, iconic statement into the London skyline, but also as a delicate and sublime knitting-together of the city. In short, the project depended on the disjunction between instant image and harder-to-digest detailed information, using the visual as a veneer to layer over the clunkier truths beneath.

A CGI scene of the Garden Bridge @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2015


When facing the strongest pressure from all those who opposed or critiqued the project, the GBT released new imagery. In December 2015 they disseminated a “winter scene”, in an apparent attempt to counteract criticism that it was always summer on the Bridge and that it served no function as a useful transport route. The ten people present in the CGI were not dawdling,  but intently walking in serious business attire, as if to show the Bridge as a critical piece of infrastructure to London’s financial future. In contrast to previous renders ―mainly populated by couples, families and curious tourists― only two of the ten characters featured were a pair, and even they were looking straight ahead and not at each other. One person tangentially glances at the view off the bridge; another is looking at their phone to signify activity and connectivity. These are important people rushing to work, fuelling the city and powering the economy, and the image says, “we are the moment of respite, nature and pleasure before the graft of the modern office”. Here, again, within these characters, the relationship to power and the city is made evident as a structural element in the construction of London imaginaries. Green writes about this immediacy and how wrapped up it is in the contemporary urban narrative:

“In the morning you are gambling on the stock exchange or seated at Tortoni; by the afternoon you are walking solitary among woods and fields, watching the sun set behind the trees. It is precisely that counterpoint between moving (physically) away from the city and yet remaining in touch with it which gives a distinctive shape to the urban experience of nature.” (Green, p. 93)

Artist Alberto Duman calls the characters who populate CGIs ghosts in reverse, “their visual presence performs a deliberate act of prefiguring the occupation of future… anticipating their existence in affirmative and expressive ways through projected identity and lifestyles, actions and positions in public space.” (2018, p. 148). These renders are part of what Gernot Böhme calls the aesthetic economy, starting out “from the ubiquitous phenomenon of an aestheticisation of the real, [which] takes seriously the fact that this anaesthetisation represents an important factor in the economy of advanced capitalist societies” (2003, 72). He goes further, to say that it gives “an appearance to things and people, cities and landscapes, to endow them with an aura, to lend them an atmosphere”. CGIs have a particular aesthetic and mode of production (Rose et al., 2016) which lends itself to the atmospheric, utopian glow of neoliberal development and economic forces. They are smooth, impenetrable and sublime in a manner not dissimilar to the fantastical glass and steel forms of global finance in the London skyline that reflect both St. Paul’s and the passers-by, what Simpson calls “a dialectical image counterposing the utopian dreams of the collective against the neoliberal delusions of fictitious and hyperreal capital” (2013, p. 366):

“part of their glamorous atmosphere derives from the glow of unwork that permeates them. Like movie special effects and computer games, digital visualisations seem almost magical in their ability to show, in a quasi-realistic visual language, something that does not exist. In their seamless mix of photorealistic elements, the work that has gone into making them entirely disappears.” (Rose et al., 2016)

The future ghosts in the CGIs have a similar reflective function. You, the viewer scrolling or flicking past the image of the Garden Bridge, are suddenly transplanted from the room around you onto the Garden Bridge, inhabiting it in your imagination in a hyper-realistic re-location. In his theory of non-places, Marc Augé referred to this:

“As if the position of the spectator were the essence of the spectacle, as if basically the spectator in the position of a spectator were his own spectacle. A lot of tourism leaflets suggest this deflection, this reversal of gaze, by offering the would-be traveller advance images of curious or contemplative faces, solitary or in groups, gazing across infinite oceans, scanning ranges of snow-capped mountains or wondrous urban skylines: his own image in a word, his anticipated image, which speaks only about him but carries another name. The travellers’ space may thus be the archetype of non-place.” (1995, p. 86)


Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Huysman’s 1884 novel A Rebours, is a sort of flâneur, the figure developed by Walter Benjamin to consider early nineteenth century Parisian streets, architectures and commodity cultures. Just as Benjamin’s flâneur might have done, des Esseintes escapes a downpour by ducking into an arcade, a glass-roofed, steel structured passage of shops between streets which had developed as a new architectural vernacular. Sitting in a bodega, he opened a guidebook to London.

“He settled down comfortably in this London of the imagination, happy to be indoors, and believing for a moment that the dismal hootings of the tugs by the bridge behind the Tuileries were coming from boats on the Thames.” (Huysmans, p. 138)

It had been des Esseintes’ intent to travel to London, but instead he returned home, satisfied in the imagined experience of place the guidebook had led him to (Donald, 2003). The nineteenth century expansion of reproducible imagery, both visual and written, made a large impression on the distanced understanding ―and romanticisation of― place, much as when, earlier in the century, the scenic tourism industry had in part developed due to Gilpin’s writings on the picturesque. Rebecca Solnit (2001, p. 95) notes “a taste for landscape was a sign of refinement, and those wishing to become refined took instruction in landscape connoisseurship”. In this same vein, the reproducible form of imaginaries ―whether textual or, increasingly, visual― has a direct lineage to the CGIs we are being constantly subjected to today.

When Benjamin famously wrote “now a landscape, now a room”, he was alluding to the ability of the flâneur to read the urban as landscape, and to how the aura of various commodified objects and spaces was perceived by a gaze that could oscillate between a sense of the urban and crowd and that of the individual and domestic. He may have also had in mind the way in which detached views of nature and landscape were reproduced and for sale as prints alongside other objects for the home. One could purchase prints of picturesque views to curate a sense of self within the newly commodified domestic space. Just as the picturesque had taken its name from landscapes that could look like the pictures of Claude Lorrain and other Grand Tour artists; the pictures on display in dealers’ windows, and the images in newspapers, included huge amounts of picturesque imagery (Green, 1990, p. 95).

“There were panoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, diaphanoramas, navaloramas, pleoramas, fantoscopes, fantasma-parastases, phantasmagorical and fantasma-parastatic experiences, picturesque journeys in a room, georamas; optical picturesques, cineoramas, phanoramas, stereoramas, cycloramas, panorama dramatique.” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 527)

The experiences of nature, the sublime and picturesque were entering the urban not only via mechanically reproduced images, but also through experiential entertainments. The panorama was a vast painting hung in the round, in the middle of which visitors would sit on a raised platform and believe themselves to be inhabiting the scene surrounding them. Fashionable in France from the beginning of the nineteenth century, popular scenes were sublime and picturesque landscapes, and the sense of being in nature was now possible as an urban experience in a far more convincing and immersive way than printed and painted imagery had offered. In 1822, Louis Daguerre developed the diorama, an evolution of the panorama featuring projected light-effects over the top of painted scenery to create a semi-real ―even a hyperreal― aura which was, in a spectacular way, more sublime than being in nature itself. By changing lighting techniques, colour, front and back lit projection, and using different sources of illumination, time could pass, streams could flow, or a drama could unfold (Arcades, p. 690).

The dioramic screen with worker behind and spectators in front, 1848 @ Dead Media Archive, 2010


In his writing on the picturesque, Uvedale Price spoke of the ‘glimmering’ he experienced in the paintings of Lorrain, “the playing lights, and colours, which often invert the summits of mountains” just as he had seen in “real nature” (1794, p. 154). This was the atmosphere that dioramas tried to recreate when they attempted to “bring the countryside into town” with a “perfect imitation of nature” (Benjamin, 2008, p. 99). For Benjamin, images were the key component in the phantasmagoria of capitalist progress, and through reproducible and persuasive imagery, the mythology of progress could take hold in popular consciousness (Stavrides, 2016, loc. 2802).

As one of the founding figures in the invention of photography, Daguerre was also responsible for the decline of the diorama as a popular attraction. He created the first photograph to ever record a human presence, a shoe-shiner and his client in an 1838 Paris street, who appeared in the image due to remaining in one place throughout the ten-minute exposure. Everybody else in it, whether walking or in carriages, disappeared as they moved too fast, and even the two who remained in the image appear as blurred ghosts, in what Benjamin refers to as “the earliest image of the encounter of machine and man” (1999, p. 678).

Daguerrotype of Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondisement @ Phaidon Press. London, 1997 [1838]


One day before the first Daguerre photos, or daguerreotypes, were revealed to the public, a journalist had a preview of them, to excitedly announce that soon, travellers would be able to buy a machine “to bring back to France… the most beautiful scenes of the world” (Gaucheraud, 1839). The most striking early images, however, were urban picturesques of Paris using an approach to pictorial representation that had been honed in painting; partly because it was easier not to have to carry the equipment and chemicals out into the field, but also because the colours of nature did not lend themselves to the emerging processes:

“Trees are very well represented; but their colour, as it seems, hinders the solar rays from producing their image as quickly as that of houses, and other objects of a different colour. This causes a difficulty for landscape, because there is a certain fixed point of perfection for trees, and another for all objects the colours of which are not green. The consequence is, that when the houses are finished, the trees are not, and when the trees are finished, the houses are too much so. Inanimate nature, architecture, are the triumph of the apparatus which M. Daguerre means to call after his own name—Daguerreotype.” (Gaucheraud, 1839)

Panoramas, dioramas and photography were ongoing developments in the effort to conceive of a pictorial rendering that was more real than painting, but that still carried a sense of aura. Their direct predecessor was the phantasmagoria, a late eighteenth century magic lantern entertainment involving a glass-painted image of a figure, back projected onto a screen in a darkened room or glass pane. Accompanied by metaphysical speech or the sounds of a glass harmonica, the animated, movable images enlarge and get smaller, seem to float in the air, and ―to an audience who had not seen moving images before this spectral apparition― were magical and fascinating (Mannoni & Brewster, 1996).


In Capital, Marx discussed commodity fetishism by employing the German “dies phantasmagorische form”, translated into English as “fantastic”, which misses out on the subtleties of Marx’s understanding of the aura of seduction the phantasmagoria shows exuded (Gunning, 2004).

“There, the existence of the things [between] commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things… This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” (Marx, 2013, p. 47)

His thoughts on the aura of commodified objects ―and people, relating to one another― was further developed by Benjamin who, thinking more upon the magic lanterns and dioramas, also considered the very apparatus of their projection into the world, as well as the expansion of the idea of them into whole architectures, landscapes, experiences and dreams of transcendence (Murphy, 2016, loc. 3353; Blaettler, p40). For Benjamin, phantasmagoria was an aura which transformed the individual, or the citizen, into a consumer through their relationship to objects or to a place which has its own aura related to a use-value superseding any function. As Graeme Gilloch states, “the metropolis is the principal site of the phantasmagoria” (1996, p. 11) in that it aids in the creation of the modern myths of urban life. And if the city can be thought of as the ultimate monument to the subjugation of nature by humankind, then the Garden Bridge can be considered as a icon of this colonial control and commodification of nature, serving a higher capital function.


Gilloch remarks that commodity fetishism doesn’t just derive from the singular objects for sale behind the arcades, but from the experience of the modern city itself. “The arcades, the boutiques and the department stores are shrines to the commodity; they are its temples, where one goes to pay homage” (1196, p. 119). From this array of commodities, the new consumer could choose those which best suited their self-perception to decorate the “phantasmagoria of the interior, which are constituted by man’s imperious need to leave the imprint of his private individual existence on the rooms he inhabits.” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 14).

Passage Choiseul @ 3:AM Magazine, 2014


The Paris of this period was, for Benjamin, a city composed of mirrors and glass (Mertens, 1996). The bistros glowed due to their mirrored and glazed surfaces, resulting in a city offering spaces where “women … look at themselves more than elsewhere”, and even the “asphalt of its roadways is as smooth as glass”, with the gazes of passing strangers as “veiled mirrors” (1999, p. 537). Glass operated two-fold in the consumer palaces of the arcades: as the barrier between the individual and the fetishised product on display ―keeping it simultaneously immediate and at bay― and as the material in which these products were frequently made. Benjamin remarks on Apollinaire’s observations of “shoes in Venetian glass and hats in Baccarat crystal” (1999, p. 19). The glass cases in the shops contained aspirational products of the latest fashion which crystal lamps illuminated from above. On a more macro level, the arcade also acted as a social vitrine, with the precious commodities being the consumers themselves.


“World exhibitions glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity. He surrenders to its martipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others.” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 7)

The steel and glass used as the modern materials to frame the phantasmagoric products in the arcades were pushed as a vernacular no more than in plant houses, such as Joseph Paxton’s at Chatsworth and Kew. These heated spaces could house exotic blooms collected from all over the world and display the wealth and power they implied to guests. When Paxton was invited to replicate his spectacular architecture as a palace of consumerism for the Great Exhibition of 1851 among the elms of Hyde Park ―a row of which the construction encased― it was instantly well received as a juxtaposition of contemporary design and nature (Benjamin, 1999, p. 158). In this space, the intermingling of industrial objects, plastic arts and exotic nature became a montage to create a site of overwhelming phantasmagoria:

“Lightly plumed palms from the tropics mingled with the leafy crowns of the five-hundred-year-old elms; and within this enchanted forest the decorators arranged masterpieces of plastic art, statuary, large bronzes, and specimens of other artworks.” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 184)

McNeven, J. and W. Simpson. “The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition” @ V&A Museum, 1851


Understanding the power of nostalgia, Boris Johnson flirted with the idea of allowing a Chinese developer to recreate a simulacrum of the Crystal Palace on the south London site the original was relocated to before its end in flames in 1936. Conversations had been going on since 2011 to create a version of “in the spirit” of the palace, housing a 6-star hotel, jewellery showrooms and art galleries, with local planners approving plans claiming it would support London’s World City role. By late 2014, the project was called off amid wide consideration the Chinese developer was simply using the Great Exhibition’s aura to get their hands, cheaply, on a prime public park in advance of more aggressive development (Murphy, 2017, pp. 93-119). Johnson’s other project from this period, however, was slowly progressing, and it could even be argued that the Garden Bridge was closer to the original Crystal Palace than any interpretation of it on its former site could have been.

For Benjamin, phantasmagoria had a useful function for elites. As the “political concept of equality was displaced onto the realm of things” (Buck-Morss, 1983, p. 231), the citizen became a consumer, and the fear of revolution was subdued by the intoxicating promise of commodity abundance. Johnson took on the proposition of the Garden Bridge one year after the 2011 London riots, brought about through urban inequality, social exclusion and government cuts just as the Great Exhibition had been launched amid increasing political unease. Rooted in nostalgia, it is possible that Johnson saw in the Garden Bridge his own legacy of future, nature and spectacle combined, which would, as the Great Exhibition had in its time, spread around the world in mediated form and ennoble London’s World City status.


If Benjamin thought World Exhibitions were spaces of pilgrimage for the commodity fetish, one can only wonder what he would have made of the Garden Bridge. He would have instantly grasped the phantasmagoria imbued in the GBT’s imagery (Benjamin, 1999, p. 804). Indeed, he may have read the Bridge as a neo-Haussmannisation, in the sense that public open space was being enclosed by a private development, while public views from Waterloo Bridge would be “re-located”. Just as, to Benjamin, Haussmann’s boulevards, imposed into the dense fabric of Paris, were meant to ease passage for the military between barracks and workers’ districts to retain imperial Napoleonic power (1999, p. 12), so too the Garden Bridge would have served neoliberal and capital power by depoliticising space amidst the phantasmagoria of a brand-new world of promises and ecological progress (Stavrides, 2016, loc. 1786). As a tool for “strategic embellishment” (ibid.), it would have acted as a device of passive respect to the financial state, using nature as a shock absorber and an instrument to funnel 7 million tourists from the popular Southbank to the north side of the Thames, where new developments would have benefited hugely in financial uplift from both footfall and iconic aura.

Passages and bridges act as thresholds between distinct other spaces, symbolising and reifying the act of connection (Stavrides, 2016, loc. 949). This was an image the GBT wished to project, though theirs was an enclosure project limiting the hours and days in which the public could have access to it. Its function as a threshold was entirely atmospheric. This was a private space designed to appear public, a programmed space made to look free, an enclosure phrased as a threshold, a space with heavily commodified function presented as a gift for pleasure and relaxation.

In this sense, was a neo-arcade. The arcade and the Crystal Palace alike appealed to contemporary architectural approaches to enclose spatial functions by offering spaces for commodity fetishism in which precious objects ―the space itself, as well as the self and one another― were imbued with a phantasmagoric aura. It wasn’t just the moneyed bourgeoisie that could partake of the arcades or the fair; those who couldn’t afford to buy could still window shop, dreaming of interiors decorated with the objects on display. The Garden Bridge replaces glazing with projected (and perceived) openness, though barriers and regulation still control the space. It replaces the aesthetic of nature with actual nature, though this nature is mediated, managed and a tool of the phantasmagoric experience.

The objects that were neatly arranged in the vitrines of the arcade shops have been replaced with the neoliberal London City cluster. Visitors to the Garden bridge would have passively gazed out into the most spectacular, phantasmagoric objects that we have, the forms and icons of the commodified skyline. The architectures of the Gherkin, St. Paul’s, Lloyd’s, the Walkie Talkie and their brethren would have been transformed into immediate, yet remote, objects of awe; framed by nature, the contemporary architectural equivalent of the arcade. Perhaps, we would have stopped on the bridge to take a selfie toward the city, compressing our self into the commodified aura, much as a visitor to the arcade would have had their own face reflected back at them as they peered through the glass.

“The modern city endeavours to present itself through its monumental facades and structures as the zenith or culmination of progress. The past is as much a part of the ‘phantasmagoria’ of modernity as the commodities and dream-like architecture of the cityscape. For Benjamin, however, such monuments, read critically, unveil the metropolis as the locus of self-deception and folly, ignorance and inhumanity, myth and myopia.” (Gilloch, 1996, p. 75)

If the design of architecture to suit a framed, picturesque and atmospheric CGI serves its function and progress pre-construction in what Kaika (2011, p. 9484) calls “the objectification and ritualisation of nonexistent buildings through metonymic referencing”, it has a similar function for the developer post-construction. The rise of the icon runs parallel to the increased affordability of digital photography and the exponential rise in personal image-making. That social media is now folded into this mix makes contemporary architecture, individual constructions and the urban montage not merely a variable for businesses and advertisers looking to lend signifiers to their product, but also to the individual who now acts as brand ambassador for a city or a place when wielding their Instagram-ready mobile down a street.

Citymaking, led by neoliberal agents and forces, might have more interest in creating the image of a city with a strong aura than in engaging with what a functional and socially complex metropolis may need to be. It is a stage-set in which we are actors and spectators all at once, playing out scripts written by others, the controlling powers in the shaping and programming of our world. This creates representations of a city more than actual polity, through a dominant phantasmagoria which promotes World City images and subdues populations that experience place as passive commodification more than active sites of citizen engagement.

CGI of the Garden Bridge (detail) @ Arup/Heatherwick Studio, 2013 ss



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Will Jennings is a London-based visual artist and writer with particular interest in the built environment and how it relates to wider culture, histories, politics and social concerns. He has a Research Masters in Architecture from the University of East London.

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