19 November 2008

Swiss Bridges: 7. Traversina Footbridge

From the Pùnt da Suransuns, we walked to our final bridge of the day, and our final bridge of the study tour. Built in 2005, the second Traversina Footbridge is another design by Jürg Conzett, and replaced his previous structure on the site (you guessed it, the first Traversina Footbridge), which had been destroyed by a falling boulder.

One thing that's impressive about Conzett is his ability to apply equal levels of ingenuity and imagination to the design of very disparate structural forms: in addition to those at Via Mala, his Coupurebrug in Belgium is another unusual example. While at first sight the second Traversina Footbridge looks like a relatively conventional suspension bridge, it turns out to be far from conventional and probably unique.

Spanning 56m across a 70m deep gorge, the levels of the hiking trail on each side are very different, and as a result the bridge is a staircase which increases in steepness towards one end. The deck and handrail are a mixture of steel and timber elements, hung from two suspension cables with a truss-like arrangement of hangers. The main suspension cables hang from abutments which are at essentially the same height, with the result that the hangers are short at the upper end of the staircase, and progressively longer towards the lower end.

The geometry and cable forces were derived using that quintessentially Swiss technique, graphic statics, specifically a Cremona diagram. Where many engineers would plunge in with the latest non-linear form-finding software, Conzett gets out a pencil and graph paper and harks back to the methods of a century ago. The trussed hangers make the structure far stiffer than a normal suspension bridge, and in practice it barely sways at all in use.

I've given links below to a couple of websites that have photos of the bridge construction, and these are well worth a look. Building a bridge above a gorge where the only access routes are steep, narrow mountain paths, is quite a challenge. As several people on the study tour noted, the people who work out how to build a bridge are often the unsung heroes of any project. All the five Maillart arches we saw relied heavily on the falsework designer to bridge the gap first, and the erection engineering at Sunniberg would have been a major design package in its own right.

To build Traversina, a specialist firm installed a "cable crane", essentially a travelling crane running on cables strung between the trees. This allowed materials and most importantly the concrete for the abutments to be brought up from much further down the hillside. The cable network and deck panels could then be assembled in mid-air using a helicopter and roped-access specialists. It's quite a feat in a place like this.

The bridge that results is magnificent but also highly peculiar. This was pretty much the only bridge we saw where I got vertigo just crossing it, let alone leaning over the side. I think this was a combination of the precipitous location and the fact that it's a staircase - you never really feel you're on a level platform, and it's mildly disorienting.

It was getting quite late by now, and much of the return journey down the hillside was in near darkness. Looking back across the Via Mala gorge, I could only just make out the bridge, a pale grey ghost amongst dark grey shadows. It did seem afterwards like something out of a dream, the genius loci returning to its home in the spirit world.

Further information:

1 comment:

Alexander Sehlström said...

That bridge is great! I visited it last fall during a school field trip in Switzerland. Afterwords we visited Conzett's office where Jürg himself described the bridge and the construction procedure.

We also visited his bridge Pùnt da Suransuns (http://en.structurae.de/structures/data/index.cfm?ID=s0001754) and the construction site of a new car bridge in Vals.