A bridge is usually synonymous with unity. Take the Cross Border Xpress (CBX), for example. Mexican firm Legorreta designed this bold purple bridge to connect Mexico and the United States both physically and politically. The 1,374-square-metre enclosed pedestrian walkway links Tijuana International Airport with a new airport terminal in San Diego, making it the world’s first bi-national airport passenger terminal. Officially opened in April 2016, it has already received the Engineering News-Report (ENR)’s Global Award For Merit.
But there’s another side to the story. While bridges function to physically unite people, ideologically, they can be intensely divisive—in fact, they seem to divide opinion the world over.
In 1968, American Robert McCulloch bought London Bridge for $2.46m. The façade of the 19th century granite landmark was dismantled and shipped to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it stands to this day. The bridge was sinking beyond repair, and its sale raised vital funds for a replacement, but Londoners nonetheless remained unimpressed. “The idea that Americans could now come and buy our old bridges hit a nerve,” Travis Elborough, author of London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing, explains. A functional concrete replacement was built, but the remains of the 19th century version (itself a replacement for its medieval predecessor) have been preserved for posterity at Nancy Steps on the banks of the Thames.
Half a century later, bridges are still causing controversy in the English capital. Actress and activist Joanna Lumley first proposed the Garden Bridge in London as a tribute to Princess Diana in 1997, and the project has been mired in controversy from day one. Its most recent incarnation, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and Dan Pearson, was designed as a 366-metre wildlife-filled garden to be suspended over the Thames. Though a lovely idea, it sparked a litany of complaints. Aside from its spiralling costs, to its detractors it was representative of all that is wrong with urban planning. In a city once celebrated for its democracy and diversity, the housing crisis means that all but the uber-rich are slowly being forced out. Public spaces are increasingly becoming corporate-controlled, protected by security guards, and closed at the will of their owners. Despite the Garden Bridge Trust claiming to have the support of 78 percent of Londoners, Mayor Sadiq Khan finally put an end to the controversial project at the end of April with the decision that the taxpayer would not provide the financial guarantees required for work to continue.
If spanning the Thames can fire passionate debates, imagine what attempting to span two continents could do. The 10-lane, 1.5-kilometre Yavuz Sultan Selim suspension bridge in Turkey spans the Bosphorus Strait, connecting Europe and Asia from Garipce to Poyrazkoy. President Tayyip Erdogan certainly hopes the iconic bridge will secure his place in history, but critics say its placement threatens Istanbul’s last woodland, and its construction risks contaminating water supplies. Meanwhile, economists warn the costs of such large-scale building will be unsustainable. It remains to be seen how history will judge this particular bridge, and perhaps only time will tell.
Sometimes the old adage is true, and time is a great healer. The cable-stayed viaduct that crosses the valley of the River Tarn near Millau in southern France was once the topic of debate—over its design, location, efficiency, and choice of designer—even before it was built. But it appears British architect Norman Foster and French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux triumphed in the end. At 343 metres high, it is the tallest bridge in the world—one mast’s summit is higher than the Eiffel Tower—and truly a marvel to behold. Once it was constructed, locals were so smitten by ‘their’ bridge that they are now building a visitor centre. This change of heart may have been thanks to the overwhelmingly positive reaction from tourists and foreign dignitaries. The speed limit had to be reduced to compensate for so many cars slowing down for photographs.
But not all stories have such a happy ending. Over 400 bridges connect the 118 islands that comprise Venice. Traversing the complex network of canals, these bridges are what make the city walkable, and many are cherished by Venetians and visitors alike. Ponte della Costituzione, a 94-metre long steel and glass arched truss bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the Grand Canal as only the fourth bridge to be built in Venice since the 16th century. Calatrava is known for his striking, out-of- context architecture, so it was not the bridge’s contemporary appearance that spurred debate. Rather, its lack of wheelchair accessibility and hefty €10 million bill attracted the criticism. So much so that the city of Venice cancelled the opening ceremony and have since sued Calatrava for the cost of modifications. But linking the Santa Lucia Rail Station to the bus depot at Piazzale Roma, as it does, the bridge does serves an important purpose in a city that can be difficult to traverse on foot.
Bridges can be so divisive, that not even practical motives are safe. Fearful of causing controversy, the city of Dresden held a referendum before constructing the four-lane Waldschlösschen Bridge across the River Elbe to ease traffic congestion. The move was approved with the support of more than two-thirds of voters, but when the bridge opened criticism poured in. It was considered such an eye sore that World Heritage Committee of UNESCO revoked the ‘world heritage site’ status from the Dresden Elbe Valley, claiming the bridge marred the view of the city’s baroque palaces. The valley is the first European site ever to be de-listed, and it is only the second worldwide.
Perhaps one way to avoid controversy is to remove the human element all together. The ornate steel MX3D pedestrian bridge has been designed by Dutch designer Joris Laarman to span a canal in Amsterdam. It will be 3D-printed in-situ by two six-axis robotic arms, supporting their own weight as they work. “This is what we’re able to do right now and it’s just the beginning,” Laarman told UK design website Dezeen. Are we on the brink of a future where algorithms decide where and how to build bridges that are adapted to the needs of locals and city officials alike? Perhaps the debates of the future will not even be among humans. Seemingly in direct contrast to the machine precision of the MX3D, French artist Olivier Grossetête created a dysfunctional yet inspirational rope bridge. His three huge helium balloons supported the less-than-functional Pont de Singe for the Tatton Park Biennial. Although Grossetête maintained that the bridge was strong enough to hold the weight of a person, his claim was never put to the test because visitors were not allowed to use it. Had they tried, though, they would have struggled because the central positioning of the balloons left either end of the bridge dangling in the water. Many people were critical of this folly, but perhaps designers, architects and engineers can learn something from such flights of fancy.
It seems that bridges have as much ability to divide people as to bring them together, But one thing is certain: we are united in our division over these controversial pieces of architecture. When we take a step back to look at a bridge with new eyes, like the people of Millau, we realise the truth in the words of artists Bob and Roberta Smith “What unites human beings is huge and wonderful. What divides human beings is small and mean.” Whatever else they do, bridges have the capacity to unite human beings.