12 November 2008

Swiss Bridges: 1. Rossgraben Bridge

Setting out on the first day of the IABSE study tour of bridges in Switzerland, we were told by our Swiss guides that many local civil engineers are unaware of the marvellous historic bridges to be found in their country. I'm not entirely sure I believe this. Sure, young engineers everywhere are often surprisingly ignorant of the achievements of their forebears, but come on - this is Switzerland - we're talking about several of the greatest bridges of the last century here!

Zurich itself held little hint of what was to come: there is an 1899 Maillart bridge here, on Stauffacherstrasse (glimpsed briefly from our coach later on). However, it was neither innovative for its time, nor visually interesting, having had its concrete structure faced with a conventional masonry spandrel wall at the insistence of city architect Gustav Gull. Most of the city's other bridges are similarly unremarkable, although there is an interesting rail station at Stadelhofen by Calatrava, one of his early works.

It was only as we left Zurich and headed along the highway towards Bern that hints of Switzerland's rich engineering heritage began to appear. We passed an unidentifiable building where massive steel arches supported a low-level flat roof. I also spotted Heinz Isler's incredible twin Deitingen shells. Built in 1968, these ultra-slender concrete shells are each supported at only three points, and are amongst Isler's most daring works. They were nearly demolished in 1999 (see John Chilton's book on Isler for details), so it's great to see them still in use.

Our first destination was Robert Maillart's Rossgraben Bridge, in Schwarzenburg. Built in 1932, it's a three-pinned reinforced concrete arch, spanning 82m and very similar to his better known Salginatobel Bridge (which we would be seeing the next day). Salginatobel had been built two years earlier, and there are various features at Rossgraben which are improvements: the centre hinge is made more visible, and the heavy concrete parapet at Salginatobel is replaced with a lightweight steel parapet, making the deck look far more slender.

Maillart's bridge designs are noted for two key types which he developed well beyond what his contemporaries achieved. One type is the deck-stiffened arch, for which we had three examples lined up to visit later in the day. The other, of which Rossgraben is a great example, is the three-hinged arch.

The three-hinged arch was often used in early concrete and metal arch bridges because it simplifies design calculations. It is also less vulnerable to ground settlement than other arch forms. It's rarely used in modern design partly because the hinges themselves are very difficult to design and to maintain. Rossgraben, for example, has a limited live load capacity partly because of corroded reinforcing steel in its hinges, which are of the Freyssinet hinge type.

In Switzerland, bridges in lightly-populated areas with little traffic, such as Rossgraben, are the responsibility of the commune, the smallest level of local government. More than half the communes have a population of under 1,000, and little money available to maintain bridges like Rossgraben, however historically important they may be. It's a tribute to the ongoing ingenuity of Swiss maintenance engineers that these bridges are sufficiently well refurbished to survive.

Where Maillart surpassed his contemporaries with the three-hinged arch was in his shaping of the concrete to very carefully mirror the internal forces. The distinctive near-triangular concrete side walls at Rossgraben and Salginatobel very closely match the shape of the bending moment diagram for a bridge of this type, with the result that there is a very even state of stress throughout the bridge, such that material is used very economically.

Rossgraben was a great start to our bridges tour: it's an excellent structure, totally at home in its environment. There's nothing inessential about it - every part does what it needs to and no more. Its shape isn't structurally optimum, but looks far better than if it were indeed optimum. Maillart reduced the curves on later three-hinged designs (most notably at Garstatt), but the more conventionally arched soffit at Rossgraben seems to soar across the river, quite a feat for hundreds of tons of the lumpy grey stuff.

What I most liked about the bridge is it's rough-hewn concrete physicality. Climbing up the arch towards the box section, you can get up close to the sawn-boarded surface finish, the only trace left from the original timber formwork. Concrete is much disliked for its monolithic grey intransigence, but striding between rocky outcrops it's far more at home in the landscape than an equivalent steel solution.

It has also weathered well. Like several other bridges we saw, lichen growth and staining add subtle colour to the surface, a yellowish hue which matched the autumn leaves when we visited.

It certainly isn't perfect. From certain angles it's apparent that the soffit curve isn't quite smooth. Also, because the arch widens out slightly at its ends, it gives the visual illusion of a reverse curve towards its springings, which looks wrong if seen from a very sharp angle.

However, these are just quibbles. Rossgraben is a mighty structure, beautifully shaped and charmingly textured. Still, we couldn't hang around to admire it for long - time was short and we had to walk to the nearby Schwandbach Bridge.

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