23 December 2008

When bridge design competitions go bad (and good, sometimes)

I recently went to a very interesting talk in Preston by architect Cezary Bednarski, billed as "River Douglas Bridge - architects and engineers in competition", but which turned out to be a far wider journey through the murky waters of bridge design competitions past and present.

In the process, many interesting points emerged, not least the astonishing statistic that despite Bednarski's exceptional success rate in winning bridge design competitions, only about 1 in 10 of his competition-winning structures have ever been built. The reasons are many - some competitions have little real support to begin with (e.g. Liverpool Cathedral's Glass Bridge); others are the pet projects of politicians and hence quickly dumped when a new regime is voted in (Carlisle's Hadrian's Bridge); others underestimate the funding required to complete an ambitious landmark structure (e.g. Helsinki, Glasgow). It seems that bridge design competitions are great both for getting some publicity and free optioneering for a promoter, and also to allow designers to flex their creative muscles. But they're perhaps not the best way to get a real bridge built.

Bednarski did discuss the River Douglas footbridge competition, for which he had acted as a juror. This was run by RIBA on behalf of REMADE, a local development agency, and sought to restore a river crossing on the line of a long-disused railway. The contest was initially controversial because of RIBA's absurd insistence that teams could only enter if led by an architect. There were 110 entries altogether, whittled down to a shortlist of seven by the jury. The competition was won by Arup and JDA architects, with a combined stress ribbon and arch design.

It was interesting seeing various examples of Studio Bednarski designs, such as the Kelvin Link competition entry, a stressed ribbon supported by an arch (top). Compare this with the winning entry for River Douglas, another stressed ribbon supported by an arch (bottom):

Spot the difference!

We were told that many of the entries to the competition were very poor, and even the shortlisted ones far from perfect. An open competition such as this avoids the predictability of an invitation-only competition, giving newcomers their fair chance to shine. However, it's also far more likely to bring forward designers who lack the knowledge or resources to actually take a bridge through to being built, and the number of entries (and hence low chance of success) puts off experienced designers who do have those resources.

Bednarski showed several entries to the River Douglas competition which brought smiles to our faces: but these were entries to a childrens' competition, colorful, ambitious, and naive. You can find these online at Remade's website.

Another theme which came up repeatedly in Bednarski's competition examples were the many cases where competitions are won by structures which are either stretching the boundaries of feasibility, or simply not feasible at all. Understandably, losing competitors feel somewhat disgruntled when beaten by something like this (I've been in this position myself). But that's a subject to return to another time ...

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