02 May 2021

"The Architecture of British Bridges" by Ronald Yee

Where does engineering end and architecture begin? That's the question I was left with after reading Ronald Yee's wide-ranging and informative "The Architecture of British Bridges" (Crowood Press, 2021, 224 pages).

Books on the bridges of Britain tend to fall into three camps: big national surveys; more selective surveys following the author's specific tastes; and studies of niche topics like railway bridges. The new book by specialist bridge architect Ronald Yee surprised me by coming closest to the first camp.

The core of the book is a survey of bridges from around the UK, not comprehensive but very well-chosen. This is bookended by an introductory chapter on the architecture of bridges, and two final chapters on bridge parapets and lighting. There is a useful index but nothing in the way of references or bibliography.

Since much of the first chapter is given over to a layperson's guide to different structural forms, there are actually only three or four pages which specifically tackle the architecture of bridges. I had definitely hoped to read more about this, given the author's own area of expertise. There is a bit of a gap in the market here, as most books and articles about bridge aesthetics are written by engineers, not the architects who now play such a key role in bridge design.

Yee's own architectural approach is one that is very closely aligned to the engineering: he is not one for the outlandish or decorative. His approach to the book's topic is to "show, not tell", allowing the idea of good bridge architecture to emerge through example rather than through a didactic approach.

The message I got from the main part of the book is that Yee sees architecture and engineering as being to some extent complementary and to some extent inseparable. Bridges from all periods are described straightforwardly, with the same attention given to how they work (structurally), as to their place in history, their visual appearance, or their local context. Yes, they may have specific architectural attributes (the description of Chester's Grosvenor Bridge includes its "archivolts of red Peckforton sandston ashlar" and "a frieze and cornice with rectangular modillions", amongst other features; Stirling's Forthside Footbridge's "visual effect is gymnastic and an undeniably spectacular sight"), but these are never anything other than part of the wider story.

This leaves many of the individual bridge entries a little dry, even where the bridges themselves can be seen to have some degree of special interest. In other cases, Yee ventures more of an opinion and I'd certainly like to have seen more of this.

The key strength of the book lies in how well the entries have been curated, and illustrated with generally excellent photographs. Given that Yee is well known for his sketches and drawings, I'd love to have seen more of those - they are few and far between.

I have read many books about bridges in Britain, but I still found plenty here that I was unaware of or which has not been celebrated previously in print. It surveys an excellent range of often exemplary bridges, at all scales great and small.

Presenting the bridges in a gazetteer format, structured by materials and bridge typology, does mean that much is left unsaid about architecture: the way in which bridge design in Britain moved through phases of craft construction, master builders, the era of "scientific" engineering, and the slow and then more rapid rise of architects as the leaders of the design narrative. Yee's book therefore leaves room for some very different treatments of the subject, and hopefully others will step into the breach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having read this book I am left feeling - as perhaps you were - that there is a space for a book of the same name and a totally different premise. A book genuinely exploring the unique architectural features of British bridges, and including a critical appraisal of how the appearance/function of structures can be influenced by good design, would be a wonderful thing.