04 December 2008

A bridge with a twist

It seems the fashion for post-modernism in bridge design is steadily departing further and further from "normal" structural constraints to the extent that it's no longer post-modernism at all, it's good old-fashioned surrealism.

The latest case in point is a proposed new foot and cycle bridge in Houston, named the "Tolerance Bridge" and planned to cost US$7m. Announcing the winner of a 54-entry "international artistic competition" (whatever that is), mayor Bill White declared that "great art is part of a real city".

Like everyone else in the entire world, they were evidently looking for something unique, a landmark, an icon (etc etc etc), and the design chosen is definitely that. It's not entirely clear from this image, but it's intended to look as if the bridge deck rises up into an arch, twisting around as it does so into something that nobody other than the most ambitious skateboarder could possibly cross. In reality, the bridge deck is at grade. Other images of the design show streetlights on the arch, enhancing the illusion that a giant toddler has vented their frustration on a more conventional bridge.

As a structural engineer, comment seems largely superfluous. The "arch" is purely sculptural, it's not there to hold up the deck below, essentially the entire bridge is a one-note joke. Depending on taste, it's either a welcome dose of humour in a genre normally known for serious structural acrobatics, or it's a case of all common sense thrown overboard. I'm finding it hard to decide which is my view: my sensible structural engineer's heart rebels against the fundamental irrationality of it, while my brain tells me we should all be more open to the eccentric and unpredictable (even if it does cost 7 million bucks). At least one Houstonian seems inclined firmly to the more sceptical view.

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