30 June 2008

Calatrava "the McDonalds of bridges"

I thought this was an interesting little quote from an article on the opening of Santiago Calatrava's new light rail bridge in Jerusalem:

The Calatrava bridges around the world are brilliant in their design, engineering and marketing - and have earned their popularity. About 40 of them have been built so far all over the globe, so in a certain way they are the McDonalds of bridges. They all have the same processed and globalized esthetic, easy to digest but whose nutritional value is suspect.

Calatrava bridges are in their own way the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team of their branch. They trample all the competition, and wherever they spread their wings, there is no room underneath for other worthy bridges to sprout.

Calatrava is an unusual figure - he sits out and to one side of the bridge design profession to a great extent, while also being its contemporary exemplar. As far as I understand it, his firm now generally only produces the conceptual design of his structures, with the detail generally left to others to develop (see for example a PDF article on the Sundial Bridge). In this respect, they're more like architects than engineers, and it's possible to think of them as a franchise operation, passing out licenses in different communities to create and run their own piece of the Calatrava brand. He rarely, if ever, gets involved in engineering research, or publishing papers about his designs, unlike most of the great bridge engineers (e.g. Jörg Schlaich or Fritz Leonhardt). Calatrava gives the impression of being completely uninterested in the bridge design world outside his own office.

At the same time, his bridges are seen by many laypeople as the archetypal contemporary bridge design. Amongst professionals, it's easy to recognise a Calatrava design, as well as the numerous tribute structures. So predominant has been the post-Calatravan trend towards cable-supported gymnastics, that there is now often a very clear reaction against it (see for example RIBA's Bootle competition winner and New Islington competition runner-up).

Like McDonalds, Calatrava bridges may seem ubiquitous (especially so because of the number of similar tribute structures), and their consistent visual styling - tall; a cat's-cradle of cables; and puritan white in colour - creates a very effective brand image that promoters often want to buy into. In this respect, his bridges are more of an upmarket brand and in no way like McDonalds - think more of an expensive fashion label, perhaps.

Calatrava's bridges are also sufficiently neutral in all ways to achieve global success. They pay little attention to context or history; it's hard to imagine Calatrava designing a bridge that pays tribute to local heritage, for example.

For other bridge designers Calatrava poses a question: do you want the fame that comes from establishing a brand identity; or are you happy to be known only amongst your colleagues but retain integrity by respecting each site individually? It has to be said that most modern bridge masterpieces are by designers who follow the latter approach (e.g. Jürg Conzett). But I'm far from sure that makes Calatrava's method a bad thing. Whatever their merits in terms of cost (always too expensive) and their clear tendency to repeat and tweak a common theme, many of his bridges are hugely popular, and undoubtedly successful as sculptures. Is that enough, sometimes?

22 June 2008

A bridge within a bridge

I love this photo so much that I couldn't resist re-posting it here. The full size picture can be found at the http://www.brueckenbau-links.de/ website: bridge-in-bridge.

Someone once told me it must be photoshopped. Well, you be the judge. I have evidence that it isn't.

The maintenance nightmare doesn't bear thinking about. When it comes time to demolish one of the two bridges, it would be interesting to see how they do it without disturbing the other.

Welcome to the Happy Pontist

I used to think that the best word for a bridge-lover would be a gephyrophile (from the Greek gephyra = bridge) but about the only reference I can find on Google to the word is to a person who's aroused by crossing bridges. I find bridges quite exciting, but arousing would probably be going too far.

Pontist (this time from Latin, "bridge builder") isn't the most common of terms either, but, heh, perhaps it's time to popularise it. I know there are a lot of pontists out there, even if they don't know what to call themselves.

I've started this blog as a home for occasional thoughts on everything related to bridges. Quite how often I'll update it will remain to be seen. My interest in bridges is both personal and professional - my job as a bridge engineer came about largely by accident (I graduated as a civil engineer and bridge work just happened to be the thing that needed doing in the office I started in), but after eighteen years doing it bridges have grown on me, infected my mind, become a source of pleasure as well as salary. As with many subjects, the more you know about them, the more interesting they become.

My main interest is in design of new bridges, particularly those with a more architectural slant, but I think this blog will cover anything relevant, with a few unlikely digressions as well. I have in mind reviews of bridge-related books, comments on bridge design competitions, hopefully even reviews of bridges themselves (I think the art of structural engineering criticism is much neglected, possibly something to return to at some point ...) Wait and see.

21 June 2008

RIBA bridge design competitions

The big controversy in New Civil Engineer magazine, the weekly magazine for members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, has been a row over bridge design competitions run by RIBA. Although the row might seem on the face of it to be just down to a single person (Expedition Engineering's Chris Wise), this is only the latest instalment in a longer-running battle which shows no signs of nearing a conclusion. The crux of the most recent dispute is RIBA's insistence in its competition rules for a bridge over the River Douglas that entrants must not only include an architect in their team, but that the architect must be the lead designer. Although RIBA have since changed this rule, it came a little late, what with only a week or two to go until the competition deadline.

The underlying problem is that many clients looking for a new bridge see it not as an opportunity to solve a transport problem, but an opportunity to create an architectural landmark, and hence either attract funding (for regeneration), or simply publicity (as a prelude to funding). They see RIBA's competitions office as the right way to achieve this - it takes away the hassle of actually running the thing, and it offers an simple way to gain attention (some recent RIBA bridge competitions have attracted over 80 international entrants, even for comparatively minor structures with a budget under £0.5m). It doesn't just secure a design - it can secure an architect, and everybody knows you can't design a bridge without an architect these days. Wasn't it Norman Foster who designed that bridge over a river in London somewhere? So what if it wobbled - think of the publicity!

It's not clear whether RIBA genuinely believe that the presence of an architect is essential to a great bridge design (while there's little doubt they can make a tremendous contribution, they're equally clearly inessential), or are just protecting their members' commercial interests by insisting on their presence. I supect the latter, as they're joined by their Irish counterparts, the RIAI, who have included a similar requirement for the presence of an architect in two recent bridge design competitions, at River Liffey and Ballsbridge-Dodder. The latter case is particularly egregious, as not only is an architect required, but only architects can enter. To be precise, only Irish architects. To the RIAI's credit, their prizemoney is at least meaningful (50,000 euros for Ballsbridge-Dodder compared to £8,000 for the RIBA's River Douglas), and in the case of the River Liffey competition they've piled on the paperwork at prequalification stage in an attempt to narrow the field and rule out the chancers and no-hopers, thus hopefully avoiding the massive waste of expensive professional effort that RIBA deliberately encourage.

Complaints about RIBA's undesirable dominance of this field are nothing new - they were a key theme of IABSE's 2007 Henderson Colloquium, which debated how to improve the way that bridge design competitions are organised. All that the engineers have so far achieved is the ICE's and IStructE's agreement to field a token bridge engineering expert as one of the judges on RIBA's bridge competition panels. It does seem that more recent RIBA competitions have managed to avoid the fiasco of the 2005 River Wear crossing competition, where a winner was declared, but the "structurally challenging" winning design has never since been publicly revealed.

However, the fact that RIBA still needs to be publicly rebuked before dropping their insistence on the presence of architects for a bridge design competition (and that RIAI still sing exactly the same tune), suggests that they retain a thoroughgoing ignorance of what might actually help achieve a successful design, hence a successful project and ultimately a satisfied client. You would think that a greater focus on the engineer's role in ensuring buildability and maintainability would go some way to assisting in that goal. Given the number of clients complaining that they can't afford to build winning designs, or maintain them once built, it seems we're still a long way from a competition regime that can reliably deliver bridges that lead to satisfied clients. And insisting that bridge engineers play second fiddle (or as with the RIAI, can't take part at all) isn't helping matters.