Mired in controversy since its inception, London’s Garden Bridge could waste around £40m of public money if it has to be scrapped. With the Garden Bridge Trust (the charity behind the £366m ‘floating garden’ intended to span the Thames between Temple and the South Bank) declaring it cannot guarantee the project as a going concern, it could well be that work never starts on the £185m plant-filled bridge.
Having recently published its accounts (after a conspicuous delay), the trust was shown to have spent £26m, over just 17 months, on preconstruction alone. It was also revealed that £13m in private donations had been raised to help fund the 270 tree-strong pedestrian overpass.
Blaming long delays and a new mayor of London, among other things, the trustees warned that the project could not be completed within the confines of the original budget. While they claimed to maintain their commitment to completing Garden Bridge, they also let it be known that the project still faced “challenges that must be resolved before construction can start”.
In light of such foreboding forecasts, what does seem certain is that - whether or not the project elevates itself over troubled waters and rides the tide to successful completion – it won’t be without considerable cost to the public purse.
Far from being the first project that’s cost the earth, Garden Bridge is just the latest in a long line of ventures that have broken the bank. Here we take a look at ten of history’s costliest buildings, many of which make Garden Bridge look like a bit of a bargain.
10 - Three Gorges Dam
You could be forgiven for thinking the Chinese government is intent on waging war against nature. Seemingly dedicated to all things urban, it’s not averse to knocking down mountains in order to build cities or to diverting rivers, destroying their banks and associate ecology, in order to harness their ability to supply power to homes and industry. The Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei province, is no exception to such methodology.
The project is enormous. It includes a dam for flood control, a giant lock for carrying ships up and down river and 26 hydroelectric power generators. Approved in 1992, it was predicted to cost $8.35 billion. However, the reigns of the budget rapidly slipped through someone’s fingers and the cost quadrupled to $37 billion upon completion. A degree of the cost was incurred by the need to rehouse 1.3 million people whose towns and villages were flooded by the rerouting of the river. To make matters worse, the landlocked reservoir is full of floating layers of algae and refuse while it’s banks are prone to landslides.
9 - Ryugyong Hotel
North Korea is pretty scary, especially when you’re an outsider. The totalitarian regime, coupled with the country’s nuclear aspirations, bolsters a sense of isolation from the rest of the world. Bearing this in mind, North Korea isn’t the most obvious place to build a luxury tourist resort but, in 1987, that’s exactly what then-dictator, Kim Il-Sung, decided to do.
With bitter rival, South Korea, set to host the Olympic Games the following year, North Korea made an attempt to steal their thunder by starting work on the 105-story Ryungyong Hotel. Planned as a three-winged triangle tower of glinting glass and modernist concrete, the hotel’s design looked like it might take a little limelight away from North Korea’s near neighbour and greatest foe.
However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, North Korea lost its major financial patron and construction of the hotel ceased. Since then, the $750 million structure has remained incomplete, it’s state of unfinished limbo outlasting the reigns of both Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il.
In 2012, a German hotel chain expressed an interest in managing the property but an internal inspection revealed little more than a shell of bare concrete and a bundle of wires. The empty space-age shell is world’s tallest unoccupied building and gives North Korean capital Pyongyang a distinctive landmark that should, also, serve as a reminder of what can happen when rivalry eclipses common sense.
8 - The MOSE Project
Venice is sinking. The beautiful Italian city is being swallowed by the sea at a rate of 2mm per year. Flooding has been a problem for centuries and the MOSE project was designed to help keep the waters at bay. Announced in 1988, by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianni De Michelis, after many years of political grapples, the project was given a 1995 deadline.
The plans for the MOSE project revealed an enormously ambitious undertaking involving putting 78 hinged metal gates, each weighing up to 300 tons and scaling 66 feet (20 meters) in height, in channels of the Venice lagoon. During episodes of flooding, the panels should rise to form a barrier against the waves. With estimated completion put back to 2018, MOSE's estimated cost has risen from $1.7 billion (1.3 billion euros) to $8.1 billion (6 billion euros) and has been swamped by allegations of corruption. In June 2014, Venice's mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, and 34 other officials and businessmen were arrested on bribery charges in connection with the project. Never mind fiddling while Rome burns. This is fiddling while Venice sinks!
7 - Montreal-Mirabel Airport
Whether it’s the moon landing or Iggy and the Stooges, there’s a fair bit that springs to mind when you think of 1969. Lesser known is that this was the year when the Canadian government announced the construction of a gargantuan new airport for Montreal.
In order to make space for the project, the government laid claim to 100,000 acres of private land (a space exceeding the size of the whole of Montreal). Nearly 2,000 residents were forced out of their homes in a move that, at $140 million, proved almost eight times the original estimate. Build costs were anticipated to be $276 million alone.
The airport opened in 1975 but it was badly let down by a lack of road and rail infrastructure which, given its location 31 miles outside of the city it was intended to serve, was a significant problem. Passengers simply found it too difficult and expensive to reach. By 1988 the airport handled just 2.5 million passengers each year and, in 2002, it closed permanently. Even empty, the building continued to cost the Canadian government $28 million to maintain annually. In 2014, demolition work began on what was once regarded as a ground-breaking air-transport panacea but, let's be honest, it never really got off the ground.
6 - Sagrada Familia Cathedral
Everyone is familiar with the breath taking beauty of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s designs. Breathtakingly awesome (in the true sense of the word) and seeped in atmosphere and synonymous with Barcelona, Gaudi buildings are as legendary as they are iconic.
Gaudi dreamed of building a fantastic cathedral in downtown Barcelona. He envisaged it to have towers topped with sculptures fruit and a central nave, capable of holding 14,000 worshipers, which resembled a forest. In 1883, work began on the ambitious task of bringing his vision to life. Tragically, when Gaudi was struck down and killed by a streetcar in 1926, the project was only 15% complete.
To add insult to injury, work was then delayed by the Spanish Civil War, during which shelling destroyed the room containing his notes and designs. Work restarted in 1952 but, remarkably, remains unfinished till this day.
The building committee has previously announced that the project 'might' be completed by 2026 to coincide with the centenary of Gaudi's death. However, it also suggested it ‘may’ only reach fruition two years later. While it’s not possible to accurately state the costs incurred by the 560ft structure, it is certain that any hopes it might not prove to be a money-pit haven’t got a prayer.
5 - The International Space Station
The construction industry is tough enough on earth. Schedules, budgets and estimating are hard enough when your feet are planted firmly on the ground. Imagine how much tougher all these become when your project is, literally, in orbit?
An orbital laboratory that's a joint effort between Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and the U.S the International Space Station (ISS) project was so complex and challenging that it was already four years behind schedule when work began in 1998. Furthermore, its original estimated cost of $17.4 billion ultimately grew to $160 billion, with the US kicking in $100 billion of that total.
On top of that expenditure, operating costs for the ISS are out of this world, with the US contribution amounting to $3 billion each year. With only a limited lifespan (previously set to end in 2020), the costs to the taxpayer seem even greater. However, In January 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would extend the station's operation until at least 2024. Even with an extended tenure, the ISS is likely to remain the single most expensive structure ever built.
4 - The Millennium Dome
It’s, perhaps, amazing how infrequently the Garden Bridge is mentioned in the same sentence as London’s ill-fated (and pretty embarrassing) Millennium Dome.
Designed as a venue for the city’s celebrations, as we began the 21st century, the dome was controversial from its inception in the mid-1990s. Throughout the planning and construction phases, costs rose steadily and the UK government kept having to open the coffers and hand out increased public funds.
In the end, it cost £789 million pounds to build (instead of a budget of £758 million pounds). The financial disaster was further underlined by ticket sales falling well below estimates.
Happily, in 2007, the dome was renamed the O2 and became a 20,000 seat concert arena at an additional cost of 600 million pounds. The O2 Arena is now a very popular and lucrative venue which is probably some consolation to the team who brought what was little more than a millennium white elephant to life.
3 - The Chunnel
The Chunnel, or the Channel Tunnel, is a trio of 31 mile long tunnels underneath the English Channel, connecting England and France. Completed in 1994 (after six years of work), the tunnel cost $21 billion, a staggering 80% more than projected. One of the most expensive construction projects in history, the Chunnel was privately funded through bank loans and selling shares. However, the original shareholders lost most of their money due to cost overruns. In 2004, they voted to oust the Eurotunnel board in charge of running the Chunnel. In 2009, thanks to restructuring, shareholders finally received a dividend.
The Chunnel has been largely successful, moving people and freight between the United Kingdom and France in just 35 minutes. More than 325 million people have used it since it opened. In early 2009, a new rail link connecting London to the British side of the Chunnel in Folkestone opened. It cost an additional $13.8 billion, keeping it on track as the single biggest construction effort in Britain's history.
2 - The Big Dig
In early 1990s traffic in the centre of Boston was a nightmare. On the main highway, cars were backed up 10 hours a day and cost the local economy $500 million each year. In an effort to combat the traffic chaos, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, or Big Dig, was launched in 1991. The ambitious project involved replacing the six-lane highway with an underground road of eight to 10 lanes.
The most expensive construction project in US history, the Big Dig involved building a number of other major bridges, roads and tunnels, with one of the latter running under Boston Harbour. Scheduled for completion in in 1998, the project was completed nearly 10 years late in 2007. Originally predicted to cost $2.6 billion expenditure eventually amounted to $14.8. Because of interest due on borrowed funding, it’s estimated that the actual cost is closer to $22 billion.
Traffic has sped up in the centre of Boston and the city looks a lot better for it. However, living in the fast lane certainly isn’t cheap.
1 - Panama Canal Expansion
Mudslides, malaria and downright misery were among the delights experienced by the US crew who built the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. Facing unprecedented challenges and overcoming terrifying obstacles, the team managed to complete what was widely regarded as one of the world’s most auspicious construction projects.
A century later, a substantial upgrade was planned so the canal could serve more ships and double the cargo travel to and from the Western Hemisphere. As soon as work began, so did tensions arise and, in early 2014, an argument about funding stopped work for two weeks.
The Panama Canal Authority and a consortium of European construction firms began argument over who was responsible and liable for a $1.16 billion cost overrun. Only after much debate did the two sides agree upon stopgap financing so that work could resume. As this article was published (2014), the canal upgrade was slated for completion by the end of 2015. Construction costs totalled $5.3 billion (a full 30% flood-gate opening increase on original estimates) but – as of June 2016 – the canal is under commercial operation.