03 January 2009

"Vom Holzsteg zum Weltmonument" by Andreas Kessler

A mere two months after visiting the amazing Salginatobel Bridge itself, I was delighted to get a book on it for Christmas: "Vom Holzsteg zum Weltmonument - Die Geschichte der Salginatobelbrücke" (ISBN 3 9520963 1 8, Verlag AG Buchdruckerei Schiers, 1996) [order from the author]. The title roughly translates as "From the boardwalk to the World Monument - The history of Salginatobel Bridge".

It's not the easiest book to get hold of. The Prättigauerhof hotel in Schiers didn't have any copies when I visited, and the local publisher communicates only in German. My copy was purchased directly from the author - follow the link above to email Mr Kessler. It can be paid for either with international bank transfer (expensive) or simply by posting cash. It's definitely best to email first as postage rates may vary and I don't know how many copies he has left.

If ever there were a labour of love, this 232-page book is it. The village of Schiers has a population of roughly 2500, yet this locally-published book is nonetheless an unexpectedly lavish tribute to one of the world's greatest bridges. To my knowledge, it's the only book devoted entirely to this very singular structure.

The book is in ten chapters, mostly written by Andreas Kessler, but with contributions from Jürg Conzett, Duri Prader (son of the bridge's builder, Florian Prader), and others. There is also an extensive bibliography, several pages of the original bridge design calculations, and three fold-out construction drawings showing the general arrangement of the bridge, the concrete reinforcement, and the timber falsework.

The book explains the difficult site on which Salginatobel Bridge was built - a deep ravine between the small village of Schiers and the tiny hamlet of Schuders. Before the bridge was built at high level, a number of low-level crossings of the Salgina existed, generally of timber, prone to flood damage, and providing access only to a steep path leading up to Schuders.

The book discusses the key figures reponsible for the design and construction of the bridge: Robert Maillart, the structural engineer (pictured); Richard Coray, who designed the falsework; Peter Lorenz, the district engineer; and Florian Prader, the contractor. Jürg Conzett explains the state of the art in arch bridge design at the time, and compares Maillart's various designs both built and unbuilt from the Stauffacher bridge of 1899 to the Lachen bridge of 1940, with the help of an excellent scale drawing showing them all. While the Salginatobel bridge is one of Maillart's most spectacular achievements, he proposed far greater arch bridges at Schaffhausen, Bern and elsewhere.

The book covers various proposals for a new Salgina crossing from 1914 onwards, including a suspension bridge design proposed by Richard Coray. Eventually, a competition was held to obtain design-and-build proposals, with Prader & Cie's tender (designed by Maillart) proving to be the least-cost design. The construction of the bridge during 1929 and 1930 is documented in detail, including a series of photographs which show the difficult cantilevering construction of the falsework very clearly. In the steep rocky terrain, the timber centering (pictured, in model form!) was a major achievement in its own right.

The book goes on to address the bridge's history since it was opened, including the period in the second world war when plans were made to install explosive charges for the bridge's possible destruction. There is also an extensive chapter discussing the bridge's growing reputation as a work of art or historical importance, citing the writings of architecture critic Siegfried Giedion in the 1930s, Max Bill's book on Maillart in 1949, the substantial writings of David Billington, and many less well known authors.

The bridge's award in 1991 of the status of an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) is also covered, including descriptions of the other IHCELs declared up to 1995.

Throughout, the text is supported by excellent black-and-white photographs and diagrams, many unavailable readily in print elsewhere, making this book a very fitting tribute to a marvellous bridge.

The only problem, for me at least, is that it's all in German, which I can't read. So I must apologise that I can't comment in detail on the text at all! Even with this somewhat major handicap, it looks to me to be an excellent book, with high production values and a welcome thoroughness. Expect a fresh review if my German is ever up to it!

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