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Some Thoughts About Bridges

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Introduction

Much of this website is concerned with the forces in bridges, and it says little about the people who built them and the reasons for building them.  As to the builders, hints of their personality come through in the the structures they have left behind - in their delicacy or their massiveness, and in their ornament or their bareness, for example, and in their suitability or otherwise for the landscape or townscape in which they are seen.

 

Mythological Bridges

Bridges do not figure in mythology anything like as much as animals, for example, but you can find some references by clicking here and typing bridge in the search box.

Devil's Bridges

Bridges have had such an effect on some people that the legend of the devil's bridge has arisen in several European countries. Click also here.  Even today, if you stand around with a camera near a skew masonry arch, someone is likely to stop and say something complimentary about the builders, for there is indeed something special about these bridges, even when you know how they work.  After all, the gulf between knowing how something works and building an example is huge - it takes an engineer to bridge it.

 

But generally, fascinating though they are, bridges are not often the destination of the tourist, apart from a few very famous examples.  This is not entirely logical: you can see people near a row of ruined gothic arches, looking at a plaque that says something of along the lines of "It is said that King Weolfric may have sat under one of these arches and dreamed of a way of defeating the invading Nerdians in battle."  "It is said that" is a phrase that occurs all too often in guide books and guided tours.  

Aside from that, it seems that we are not much interested in structure, only in the human associations.  As Sir Thomas Beecham is said to have said - "The English don't understand music: they only like the noise it makes."  (Does this comment actually make any sense?  Do we have to "understand" music to enjoy it?)  So a similar row of arches in the form of a bridge will generally attract less attention than a gothic cathedral which is essentially an assemblage of vaults and arches.

An extreme example of non-interest is the football stadium or athletic stadium.  Many are superb examples of engineering, and aesthetically interesting, but are seldom visited for that reason.  And how many travellers through JFK airport bother to walk across to Saarinen's terminal building?

Effects on the Landscape

The building of the bridge that connects Skye to Kyle of Lochalsh, and more particularly the toll, produced a stream of protest.  Some people disliked the design of the bridge, though they didn't all provide any alternative suggestion.  Some resented the loss of choice when the ferry was closed, though before the bridge, there had been no alternative to the ferry.  For tourists wishing to visit the Isle of Skye, doing so over a bridge rather than on a boat may make a profound difference.  But even if tourism is one of the biggest parts of the economy, how much can we allow tourism to influence what we do?  Tourism probably began with people travelling to see famous or interesting paces, as in the 18th century grand tour, which was in most cases a once in a lifetime occurrence.  

Travel is now so commonplace that millions of people can create their own version of the grand tour.  But a consequence of mass tourism, inevitably, is that what the tourists find when they arrive is not what used to be there.  Facilities and shops for tourists appear, and in a few cases the whole character of the place is changed, especially when the tourists greatly outnumber the local people.  From there, it is not a great step to building "attractions" purely for tourists.

Some bridges, such as the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle railway, do seem to enhance the landscape.  This is not uncommon when the landscape is large enough to contain the structure, and the structure is fitting.  But some large flyovers in towns, such as the Chiswick and Hammersmith flyovers in London, create a dead zone below and around them, where traffic is the only life form.  The page on appearance discusses this point.

Effects on the Town

The proliferation of railways in the 19th century, and of large roads in the 20th, introduced a feature that had hitherto been almost absent from towns and cities, namely, the over bridge.  Both railways and main roads often pass through towns on embankments or cuttings, which have the effect of dividing the place into two parts.  Bridges are needed wherever an existing road is crossed by a large road or motorway.  These bridges are often so wide that they are more like tunnels for the people going under them, and they can be massive and ugly, though great care is usually taken these days to minimise their impact.  

BristolRollKK.jpg (191922 bytes)On the other hand, it would perhaps be unfortunate if too much importance were attached to the idea of a bridge as a decorative object or as a "statement" of some artistic principle.  The curved objects on this bridge are necessary counterweights, which could be of any shape that would provide the correct moment to counter the weight of the span.  These shapes have the merit that they get the centre of gravity away from the pivot and maximise the moment.  They could, of course, have been given more prosaic shapes, and certainly more ugly ones.  What do you think about this, and also about the piers at the left end of the span?

To get to the other side

This is the answer to an old and feeble riddle, but it's obviously an answer to the question - "Why is there a bridge here?"  But in some special cases this utilitarian answer is not the important one.  Wilton House in Wiltshire possesses a Palladian bridge, built in 1737 by Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke.  This design was copied at Prior Park, Bath and Stowe, Buckinghamshire.  A massive bridge, in a completely different style, by Vanbrugh, is found in Blenheim Park.  No doubt the owners of these lands occasionally strolled across these bridges, but their decorative effects, and their statements about the taste and wealth of their owners, were probably as important as the practical considerations, for the actual crossing could be made using much simpler and cheaper constructions.

Crossing the bridge - one

You are crossing a magnificent suspension bridge, but you hardly notice it.  You are less than ten minutes away from the building where you will, if all goes well, sign the business deal that will make your reputation.

Crossing the bridge - two

You are crossing a bridge, alone, in the dark of the night.  You know that as you cross, another is crossing from the other side, though you cannot see.  You know know, too that like you, the other is already smiling with pleasure, because you are lovers, meeting in secret because the people on the two sides of river are antagonistic toward each other.

Crossing the bridge - three

You are crossing a bridge, alone, in the dark of the night.  You know that as you cross, another is crossing from the other side.  You will pass in the middle, neither looking nor acknowledging.  You both know that there are hidden infra-red watchers.  This is an exchange of prisoners, and in another minute you will be free.

Crossing the bridge - four

You are crossing a bridge.  As you emerge into the open, another emerges on the other side.  In the centre of the bridge is a table, almost surrounded by guards, officials and journalists.  You will do very little when you meet your counterpart, simply shake hands, sit with her at the table, sign the peace treaty between your countries, shake hands again, and pose for the photographers.

Crossing the bridge - five

You are crossing a bridge, alone, in the dark of the night.  As you start to cross, another figure emerges from the shadows on the other side, one you will not see or meet, for this figure is your death approaching.  You are going to walk to the middle of the bridge.  You are going to hesitate for a few seconds, and then you are going to do what you have planned, and jump into the blackness.  But some people are alive who planned this action, because they saw a notice on the approach to the bridge.  The notice referred to Samaritans.

Crossing the bridge - six

You are crossing the bridge.  So are hundreds of other people.  The bridge is ancient.  The bridge is new.  How?  Because it was destroyed in a war, and now it has been rebuilt.  Today is has been re-opened, and people are crossing it to symbolise an attempt to harmonize their communities again.

Crossing the bridge - seven

You still haven't crossed the bridge, even after seven hours of supreme effort.  Most of your colleagues are dead or dying.  Unless the promised reinforcements come soon, you will face the choice of death or surrender.

Bridges for Strolling and Viewing

In Japan and China, the design of gardens was for a very long time a high art.  Bridges were provided along the strolling route, though of course the route could have been diverted to avoid crossing the water.  But the existence of these bridges was often fundamental to the design.  When viewed from a distance, they were not only a part of the composition, but they also acted as a obstacles that partially concealed what lay behind.  Even when actually being used to get to the other side, they performed a very important function, by defining viewpoints.  A humped arch bridge invites the stroller to stop on the crown and admire the view.  Other bridges might be provided with sharp corners or steps, again, strong hints that these were the correct viewpoints, for the gardens, though attractive from any position, were designed to form ideal compositions when viewed from these places.

The pictures below show some typical Japanese garden bridges.

 

 

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