08 May 2021

"Link it! Masterpieces of Bridge Design" by Chris van Uffelen

There ought to be a name for this sort of coffee-table architecture book, churned out seemingly by the dozen every month, heavy on the photos, light on text, and filled with an uncritical gosh-gee-whizz approach to its subject. Publishers like Braun have a formula that works, whether the book is about bungalows, home conversions, factory design, corporate gardens, cinema architecture, bamboo architecture, apartment buildings, or, eventually bridges. And all those examples are just a small part of the output from one author, Chris van Uffelen.

Something similar can be found on architectural websites like Dezeen, Archboom, Architizer and Designboom: an ever-growing torrent of archi-gloss, much of it unedited from designer's self-promotional submissions. And make no mistake: it is responsible for a genuine and substantial dumbing down of how "design fans" perceive the built environment, such that even the worst examples of toxic architectural bloat are slurped down like nectar by an audience increasingly addicted to the hyperreal and incapable of rational analysis.

None of which is to say that I find nothing of value in "Link it! Masterpieces of Bridge Design" (Braun Publishing, 2014, 208pp).

This is essentially a sequel to van Uffelen's "Masterpieces: Bridge Architecture + Design" (2009), which I reviewed when it came out. I say "van Uffelen" as if he wrote these books, but they are actually put together by "Editorial Office van Uffelen", who provide publishers with the complete ready-made coffee-table service, even if much of that is simply emailing suitable architects and asking them to submit their marketing material. A disclaimer at the end of the book makes clear that if anything is incorrect, it's the fault of the design firms, not editors or publisher.

So: there's almost nothing in the book that you can't find freely on the internet, and essentially you're paying to fund the marketing efforts of the designers who participate in the publication. And yet ... there are plenty of structures and projects in this book that I was unaware of and intrigued to discover.

"Link It!" includes a smattering of generally remarkable bridges that should be well-known to dedicated pontists: Dublin's Samuel Beckett Bridge; the Millau Viaduct; the Hovenring; the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir; Calgary's Peace Bridge; Jerusalem's Bridge of Strings; etc. I am sure these will be interesting and attractive examples of bridge design for the non-specialist (who are obviously the book's core audience).

Beyond that, there are bridges in China, Austria, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Indonesia which are interesting, in some cases attractive, and often have features that a designer could take inspiration from, or in others spot details to avoid. The quality of the designs is, inevitably, uneven, and each bridge has minimal explanation and certainly nothing in the way of criticism. There are, thankfully, only a handful of complete stinkers amongst those that have actually been built.

I mention that because the book also features a number of unbuilt bridges, generally with little or no detail on when they may be built, or whether they will happen at all. Some clearly won't, like the daft "Bouncing Bridge" proposed in Paris, the deliberately conceptual "Hydraspan" proposed for San Francisco, or the notorious Kazimierz Ludwinow Pedestrian Bridge, in Krakow, Poland.

There are a few designs which I would hope even the more cynical pontist would find appealing. Examples include the Wupperbrucke in Leverkusen, Germany; the timber truss Enniger Bridge in Switzerland; the Phyllis J. Tilley Memorial Footbridge in Texas; and the Green School Millennium Bridge, in Bali. Sadly, it's not hard to think of plenty of other fine bridges that didn't make the cut.

The photographs throughout the book are generally of an excellent quality that show off the subject matter to its best, although they are often the "day-before-opening" images beloved of the architectural press, showing the bridges pristine and generally unsullied even by people or traffic.

In summary, it's best to see this sort of book as a glossy brochure, assembled without any expert curation; but which can still provide some pleasant browsing if not taken too seriously.

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