23 January 2013

Manchester Bridges: 19. New Islington Footbridge

It was October 2008 when I kicked off a series of "bridge competition debris" posts with a discussion of Manchester's New Islington Bridge. As with several bridge design competitions organised round about that time by RIBA, it garnered its fair share of attention, with 87 entries submitted for what was expected to be a relatively low-budget scheme.

The project demanded a new pedestrian bridge to span the Rochdale canal and an adjacent canal basin, connecting footpaths in several directions and at different levels. After the initial attention, it all went very quiet, and I thought the project had died due to lack of funding. Last year, I discovered this wasn't actually the truth, and the winning bridge had been built, seemingly with little fanfare.

Designed by Gollifer Langston Architects with Stockleys and Michael Hadi Associates, it's currently something of a bridge to nowhere. For canal towpath users, it's highly useful, but it was intended to be a focal point for a regeneration scheme that vanished down the black hole of the recession.

I've included a couple of the original competition images above, both to note how faithful the final bridge is to the original concept, but also to wonder whether from those images anyone could have predicted the reality of the bridge as-built. Particularly with the colour drained away, the real-life bridge is a little dull, squat even.

In form, it's a pathway which wends its way above a three arms of the canal, supported along one edge by a metal spine. The spine is triangular in cross-section, but feels more like a sheltering wall than a structural element. It allows the bridge deck itself to be very thin, minimising the length of the approach ramps.

The spine is a triangular steel truss in structural form, clad on both faces in perforated sheet metal. Unlike many contemporary footbridges, the structure is not the star here.

The bridge’s lack of colour is a particular disappointment given the canal setting – bridges over canals are often colourful, as may be glimpsed in the background of some of my photographs. If eventual development of the area introduces more attention-grabbing architecture, this will matter less, but for now the bridge is a gloomy monolith, a cheerless crescent offering only views of a wasteland.

The bridge is also let down by its construction. Minimalism thrives on sleek, simple lines, with well-crafted materials. Some of my photographs show kinks and unevenness in the parapets and their cladding, making the whole enterprise look considerably cheaper than I imagine was intended.

The bridge does feature one little conceit for those who look hard enough - printed onto its underside are the words "CAST NO SHADOW", which will appear reflected in the canal should it ever be perfectly flat. If you squint hard at the photograph on the right (click to enlarge), you may be able to see this.

The bridge was one of the few “concrete” achievements of a spate of post-millennial bridge design contests organised by RIBA. Many of its stillborn siblings were the victims of general economic malaise, and others perhaps continued the millennial trend for structural flamboyance beyond its natural lifespan. There is therefore, perhaps, an argument that understatement was what was necessary for an architecturally-led design on this budget to actually be made reality.

Compare Bootle’s Pennington Road Footbridge, the only other RIBA footbridge contest design of its period to reach completion, which I featured here in October 2011. That was also modest in conception, but I think better detailing and construction left it at least a moderate success.

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1 comment:

Daniel said...

Anybody knows why the bridge is closed now?