The designer, Techniker, has mentioned me in passing as part of a lecture to graduates in Newcastle, available on their own blog. Amongst lots of interesting material on the evolution of their design, they have this to say:
"I have really enjoyed following the blog of the Happy Pontist, a self-appointed critic of bridge design. He is a bit sad but the point is he is genuinely aggrieved. He is not the only one to use their technical authority to say this couldn’t be built then when the figures were out move to the position of it shouldn’t be built then when the cost-benefits come back set up a rear-guard action that it’s just plain ugly. For structures that are permanent, that will effectively be there for all to see forever, across all booms and recessions what is the proper thing to build?"I'm happy to be "self-appointed", and indeed would hope that no formal license is required simply to go online and post the same views I'd happily share with people in person. I'd also note that I've never called the bridge "ugly" (I have, indeed, called it "amazingly beautiful"), nor suggested it is unbuildable.
But set these aside, because the substantive point at issue here is the final sentence, and the question "what is the proper thing to build?"
The Techniker design is structurally, and hence economically, extravagant, in the service of an essentially architectural vision. Pylons without back-stays (or with "virtual backstays", as Techniker would describe it) do not follow from any purely structural response to the logic of the bridging problem. Here's what Techniker's Matthew Wells had to say on structurally extravagant design back in March 2006 [sorry, that link may only be available to NCE subscribers]:
"'Following the Calatrava route isn't necessarily the best option. Iconic structures don't have to be overweight or over engineered. I believe there is a moral duty not to waste money on infrastructure projects. Efficient structures that give value for money don't have to be dull."He also identified the demand for such structures to act as beacons for investment in economic regeneration. Discussing the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Wells went on: "The contribution it's made to the image of the area and the inward investment it's attracted are priceless. That's what clients are looking for, the so-called Bilbao effect - the same impact as the Guggenheim museum had there."
So on the one hand there may be a "moral duty" not to follow (let alone out-do) Calatrava-style flamboyance, and instead to promote efficiency and value for money. On the other, there's the desire to create spectacular icons signposting urban revitalisation. The tension between the two is at the heart of any disagreement on whether, in engineering terms, the River Wear bridge is a "good" design, and at the heart of many a discussion on "iconic" bridges.
The conventional engineering point of view is straightforward, and was aptly summarised by Woodruff and Billington in their review of Calatrava's costly Sundial Bridge: "the drive for landmark bridges has led some engineers to disregard the engineering ethic of economy with some recent footbridges". I've covered this sort of philosophy before, as it has been espoused by most bridge engineers writing on aesthetics: Menn, Leonhardt, Virlogeux and others. As I noted when discussing Woodruff and Billington, value should be more than just a monetary concern, and hence an obsession with economy unfortunately tends to reduce value to a matter of bean-counting. While engineers instinctively like anything that is measurable, there is more to life than a conventional cost-benefit analysis can capture. What price joie de vivre?
Clearly, the River Wear design could be considered visionary, innovative, monumental, even inspiring in its ambition. It puts the "icon" in "iconoclastic". It will have a value both for the spirit of the neighbourhood and for whatever investment in regeneration it can trigger. The question for me is not whether it meets these goals, but whether a different design could also have met them, and whether such a design could be more structurally efficient, and hence offer the taxpayers a better balance between value and cost overall.
I don't see how else you can balance the scales of cost and value other than by comparing a number of alternative options, and I find it hard to believe that in this instance, a more efficient design wouldn't have delivered substantial value for significantly less cost. I think my difficulty with the Wear design also comes down to a bridge engineer's basic instinct: there are other "iconic" bridges which are notable for their extravagance (e.g. the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, one of the most expensive footbridges ever built, for its size), but which have a more conventional structural logic.
Perhaps only posterity will tell whether the Sunderland bridge is destined to be regarded as an engineering marvel along the lines of Eiffel's tower (much criticised when it was first proposed), or simply the bridge world's equivalent of an architectural folly.