23 January 2011

"Landscape and Structures: A Personal Inventory of Jürg Conzett"

I'd been looking to get hold of this book since I narrowly missed out on visiting Jürg Conzett's Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. "Landscape and Structures: A Personal Inventory of Jürg Conzett" (Scheidegger und Spiess, 272pp, ISBN 978-3858813213, 2010) [amazon.co.uk] presents a travelogue of civil engineering structures throughout Switzerland, drawn from a series of joint trips by Conzett and the photographer, Martin Linsi.

I managed to get a copy from buch.ch, and it's a delightful tome. Divided into chapters both geographically and chronologically (so the early chapters begin with a winter trip, and the final ones in early summer), a wide variety of structures are selected by Conzett for their ability to exemplify successful aesthetic outcomes from an engineering process. They are pretty much all highway, railway or footway structures, from all periods of history, and several examples are of the highways themselves rather than the walls and bridges that support them.

All the structures are photographed in black and white, and accompanied by text both in English and German where Conzett explains various points of interest. A bibliography gives details of further information where it is available. The photos are generally very good, and in several cases quite beautiful, often due to the landscape as much as the structure.

The bridges include everything from historic masonry arch and covered timber spans through to the most recent designs, including several of Conzett Bronzini and Gartmann's own structures. Of the better known structures, Robert Maillart's Salginatobel Bridge is conspicuous by its absence, but it is perhaps over-exposed anyway. The joy here is in the fresh perspective and the exposure of unseen delights.

Much of Conzett's emphasis is on vision and visibility, how a bridge offers a fresh perspective along its length, or how the curve of a road is not merely an exercise in checking sightlines but the opportunity to improve the driver's perspective upon the surrounding landscape. Looking at a seemingly minor retaining wall in the Graubünden, Conzett's attention is drawn to a low-level ledge which both improves driver visibility as well as reducing the apparent height of the wall.

Similarly, the sagging deck curve on Conzett's own Traversinersteg (pictured) is both a means of stiffening the bridge (it allows the deck to react against the prestressing of the support cables) and also a way of reducing the perceived steepness of the bridge's precipitous stairway. This concern for a design that synthesises structural, perceptual, and aesthetic demands, runs through the whole book.

Another welcome aspect is the attention given to designers who have, certainly in English-speaking countries, perhaps been overshadowed by others. Three lovely bridges by Alexandre Sarrasin are included, as is the spectacular Dala Gorge Bridge by Zumofen und Glenz.

My favourite bridge in the whole book is one of the newest, Conzett's Dorfbrücke in Vals, designed with Peter Zumthor. This is a work of purest genius which on first sight appears to be a concrete decked bridge supporting unusual masonry parapets, but in reality is a masonry arch from which a concrete slab is hung, the slab also acting as the arch tie. The engineering is ingenious, but it's the bridge's juxtaposition of brute minimalism and tactile appeal that is most admirable.

This is a very unusual book. It seems at first to be too unstructured a travelogue to hold its appeal, but the combination of excellent photography with Conzett's consistently impeccable judgements makes for a very enjoyable read.

Further information:
Jürg Conzett: engineering matters - an interview about the book

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