The Eureka Skyway, Ashford, Kent
An Infection of Iconic
Bridges. What are they for? To help transport people over an obstacle? Not if they were built in the last decade and a bit. Bridges are now a much beloved metaphor for councils and landowners, they “connect communities”, “cross boundaries” and provide “iconic” structures for “transforming the landscape”. But, why? Why do they have to do these things, why can’t they just get people from one place to another?
It’s not hard to trace the lineage of this lust for iconicism. In the late 90s there was an abundance of money around to pay for anything transformative and shiny for the millennium. The two, vastly successful, examples of this trend that spring to mind are The Millennium Bridge in London (here) and The Millennium Bridge in Gateshead (here) but for these two landmarks there are dozens of others out there crossing lonely canals and motorways that have been built as icons but will never be such.
I’ve always been slightly irked by the relentless lust for landmark status that has infected architecture in the last decade but it wasn’t until I walked across the new Porth Teigr Outer Lock Crossing in Cardiff that I really contemplated its effect on bridges. The bridge in question, which you can see (here), doesn’t even have a proper name because it crosses an incredibly short lock-entrance. The previous bridge was a small and inane affair but that simply will not do for an area so full of landmarks and breathless iconicism. So now we have the new bridge, a bright-red explosion of a bridge that clashes astonishingly with the low-key surroundings of the Norwegian Church and the Lightship. A £2.5m reminder of Cardiff Bay’s incoherence and desperation.
Why does something as simple as the crossing of a lock have to be turned into torturous architectural theatre? Why not just build a simple bridge for half the price? It seems almost unthinkable that a bridge could be built today that is simply a bridge, at least where there’s money sloshing around to make it otherwise. There’s a common process to be followed; architectural competition, council commission, local outrage/delight, sky-high costs, building delays, local paper grumbling and then finally the inaugural opening/spinning/lifting/swinging/blinking of the bridge.
A great example of this process is in evidence (here) where we can see a half dozen ’iconic’ designs for, what should be, a very simple crossing of a footpath over a motorway in Sheffield. There’d have been no local discontent if a low-key crossing was built here, it could have been done in about a month with a pre-fabricated steel walkway but, no, the council must have its icon so the locals have to wait longer for their bridge and when they get it it may well be a vortex or a porcupine.
Bridges aren’t like buildings, there’s no-one to look after them on a day-to-day basis. They rust and their metal dulls and people graffiti all over them. A bridge I cross often is Valentine’s Bridge in Bristol which you can see (here), a curvy, suspended piece of nonsense that creaks incredibly loudly under foot and is always covered in stickers and gum and then there’s the nameless footbridge not 200 yards downstream that is in an even worse state and is even uglier, see (here).
I’m not arguing against all exciting bridges here, not at all, Stockton’s Infinity Bridge is truly a landmark, see (here), but could Ashford really have dealt perfectly fine with a girder bridge instead of its £8m Eureka Skyway (here) and could Poole have not thought of something better to spend £37m on than a bascule bridge which was predictably beset by displays and chronically ugly warning lights, see (here). Please can someone tell me why a bridge can’t just be a bridge any more and why something as simple and practical as this is so unfashionable and unthinkable to icon-obsessed councils and developers.