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Entries in bridges (6)


passport to pimlico: 2015

scheme 025 of the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition

Found this image in a list of what someone thought were the more interesting entries in the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition for a pedestrian and bike bridge across the Thames from an old district to a rebuilt old district now covered in glass towers.  This scheme, 025, presents itself as a Turner painting, a minimalist way of crossing the river, everything thinned to fragility. In true modernist fashion, the differences in the two sides of the river are neither exacerbated or promoted; the bridge is an instrument of locomotion, functional within an engineering context, which is a long, rich and exciting history.

After looking at the rest of the submissions, here, I became very depressed. Except for a few, they are the worst of some first-year studio exercise in a not very good architecture school. Open competitions are always interesting for they give one a register of current architectural conversations and the degree to which the architects and designers who enter the competition are in touch with some of the more rarified levels of the discourse. 

Increasingly, the 'discourse' as practiced in the schools and critical journals does not seem to reach any other level, especially not the levels that actually do design things.  Or even pretend to design things by showing a shallow idea drawn by software that accurately puts reflections of said bridge on the river in all weathers. Even if not a blueblood modernist, the agonies of post-modernism are also missing. Where is the deep context for most of these proposals? Whatever it is, it is abstracted as a meaningless background to The Object: The Bridge.  Why am I depressed?  Because this is a conversation that has been played out for the entirely of my now-long career. It never seems to move on. All the work I have done, all that I have taught and written about, has been totally ineffective, because although this is Nine Elms to Pimlico, my own small Canadian city is also engaged in the acrobatic pedestrian bridge as the locus for civic creativity, with similarly irrelevant results. 

I'll have scheme 025, above, please, but I doubt it will be the one chosen. 


Tales from the Bridge

Millenium Bridge, London.

The Millennium Bridge crosses the Thames from the Tate Modern to St Paul's Cathedral.  During the Olympics it was the site of a sound installation, Tales from the Bridge, by Martyn Ware and David Bickerstaff: a one hour loop composed of music and a poetry narrative for two voices about the Thames by Mario Petrucci.   Speakers were placed the length of the foot bridge creating a vast ambient sound environment: music spatialised in Ware's terms.  Plus Daniel Hirschman's interactive component means that walkers themselves trigger other tracks so that the experience is never the same twice.  The poetry narrative is about the river, its role in London, its poets, its economic lifeline, its anecdotes, its history.  The music is Water Night, written by Eric Whitacre and performed by Whitacre's Virtual Choir.

Not only does the sound literally come from and spread out in all directions, the technology and the content too come from all directions.  The immersive nature of the new urban sound works are both beautiful and sophisticated, complex and content-heavy.  It isn't just ambient music anymore, but something much more sited, in space and time.  We can listen to Tales from the Bridge, below, but it will be a much different experience than listening to it over the water, in London, on that bridge. 

Illustrious Company


the Mintlaw bridge, 1911

construction of the Mintlaw Bridge over the Red Deer River, 1911

1911: the construction of a steel trestle across the Red Deer River, 644m long, 33m high.  Like an east-west pipeline, it was resource-related; the Alberta Central Railway was meant to carry coal from the coal fields near Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House to Vancouver. It went bankrupt and the line was leased to the CPR for 999 years.  What a curious concept that is, leasing for a millenium.  

The line was underused (WWI, the depression, WWII and the discovery of oil in Alberta changed the energy landscape somewhat) and eventually abandoned in 1983, but the Mintlaw trestle bridge still stands.  It's a grand picture, the construction of the bridge.  The bridge is its own construction scaffolding. 


Maracaibo: oil city

Riccardo Morandi. construction photo of bridge over Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela from - The Concrete Architecture of Riccardo Morandi by Giorgio Boaga & Benito Boni. Praeger, 1966

Maracaibo was isolated from the rest of Venezuela across a large lake and closer therefore to Colombia, until  El Puente Sobre el Lago was built by the Jiménez regime of the 1950s.  A competition had been set in 1957, and won by Riccardo Morandi, an Italian structural engineer, who designed it in concrete. It was the longest prestressed concrete bridge at the time, 8.67km.

Maracaibo is the oil city of Venezuela; the lake is attached to the Maracaibo Basin, part of the Gulf of Mexico and the site of Venezuela's oil reserves.  In 1964 part of the bridge collapsed after being hit by an Esso oil tanker. There wasn't a resultant oil spill, however there is no such thing as failsafe oil transport.

Puente Sobre el Lago de Maracaibo visto desde el paseo del Lago

The Esso Maracaoibo II, the tanker, had been the US Navy gasoline tanker, USS Narraguagas.  It had been bought by the Compania de Petroleo Lagos in 1947, so the US Navy must have been decommissioning its support fleet after WWII.  It ferried crude oil from Lake Maracaibo to a refinery at Aruba.  At the time of the accident it had 236,000 barrels of crude on board; an electrical failure occured and the tanker drifted, smashing into the bridge and a 248m section collapsed.  Seven people, in four cars, fell off the bridge and died. 

Hace 44 años el Esso Maracaibo se estrelló contra las pilas20 y 21 del coloso sobre el lago 259 metros de la estructura se desplomaron El capitán español Avelino González Zulaika no pudo controlar el barco debido a una falla eléctrica . Ocho meses y una semana se tardó la Creole Petroleum Corporation en reparar el Puente Rafael Urdaneta. Hasta 1985 el Esso Maracaibo estuvo navegando aguas venezolanas.


João Luis Carrilho da Graça: Ponte Pedonal, Carpinteira

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Ponte Pedonal, Covilha. see reportage 403 when you get to the website.

It is odd which architects in other countries come to our attention and which don't.  João Luis Carrilho da Graça has a huge reputation in Portugal, many awards, a long and stellar career of relentlessly minimal sculptural modernist work.  Websites are full of dramatic photos of shooting white wall planes, hard blue skies.  The work of Alvaro Siza, who has a much larger critical reputation outside Portugal, appears almost hand-made in comparison: shaped and trogdylitic, lots of saudade, absent in Carrilho da Graça.

However, FG+SG sent us this da Graça footbridge over the Carpinteira near Covilha a little while ago: new photographs, the bridge was designed in 2003 and finished in 2009.   It is a 220m pedestrian bridge, centre piece perpendicular to the stream bed and valley, the two end sections determined by anchoring points.   Hard to find much hard information on the engineering, materials or constructions but I did find this news clip which appears to discuss the controversial nature of the project:

As I write this, I'm also listening to a radio program about Louise Bourgeois who died a couple of days ago.  She says 'all my work is suggestive, not explicit.  The explicit is boring'.  This footbridge is very explicit, its engineering is beautifully calculated to just draw a brave line across the valley — and there it sits, nothing ulterior or mysterious about it.  One might wonder if this is the ultimate limitation of the modernists, that in the past 30 years of layered signification in urban environments and in architecture, this kind of minimalism ultimately says too little to sustain a conversation beyond its engineering. 

The question is perhaps why we have asked our architecture to speak eloquently about the human condition, rather than just containing, with some sort of grace, the human condition. 

Fernando Guerro, FG+SG. Ponte Pedonal Covilha, 2010


Park Bridge, Golden BC

Park Bridge in construction, 2006. Kicking Horse Canyon, east of Golden, BC

One of the most spectacular bridges on the Trans-Canada is the new (2007) Park Bridge on the descent into Golden.  Now that it is open you barely know you are on a bridge, so wide and smooth is it, but during the several years of its construction you drove on the old highway underneath it (the highway and the CPR tracks show in the image above).  The central piers are about 150 feet high, tall and elegant; from the old highway it was clear we were all going to pitch off into space way up the hill, shoot across the ravine and catch the hill on the other side, bypassing the dangerous twisting old road all together.  You can't see any of this now from the new road, it is all just more highway, safe and fast and that marvellous registration of the extreme topography is lost. 

Anything under construction is so exciting.  It is when concept, theory and practice are all evident to the eye, and the architecture, in its widest sense, is diagrammatic and understandable.  Construction workers give the scale, one understands the size of the project.  Once it is all done, scale is subsumed by a comfortable opacity, the process of building has become an object, with a function, and we use it unthinkingly.

Placing the girders on the piers

This photo is from the Park Bridge girder launching on the Kicking Horse Canyon highway construction website photo gallery.  This is the link to the girder launching, but the rest of the site is worth a look.