Rediscovering The Bridge As a Destination
A London exhibit shows how bridges can become habitable, thriving places
A bridge's purpose is not usually up for discussion. Linking one parcel of terra firma with another has traditionally been a question of "how" rather than "why." But an exhibition in London shows a bridge's role can embrace more than the obvious.Skip to next paragraph
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Art gallery, arboretum, multistory car garage, convention center, even skyscraper apartments - all of these have been wrapped into new bridge designs in recent decades. As radical as it may sound, however, the idea is actually centuries old.
Hundreds of inhabited bridges stacked high with shops and houses thrived in European towns for 600 years. Ponte Vecchio in Florence and Ponte di Rialto in Venice, two of the few remaining and perhaps best known, still flourish commercially. In fact, says Jean Dethier of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, who has pioneered research on the habitable bridge, "A bridge lined with shops can be regarded as the ancestor of our ... modern shopping mall."
But inhabited bridges offer more than an expanded marketplace. By extending town life onto the bridge itself, Mr. Dethier says, an organic relationship between the two banks is created that helps knit a naturally divided city together. The elegant Pulteney Bridge across Britain's River Avon, one of the last habitable bridges to be built in 1773, served just that purpose by drawing Bath's fashionable set to the less-developed south side.
Since the decline of these multifunctional thoroughfares in the 18th century, however, not a single new habitable bridge has been built.
The exhibition "Living Bridges: The Inhabited Bridge, Past, Present and Future" at the Royal Academy of Arts in London may end that hiatus. It aims to raise the profile of the inhabited bridge and help put it back into the lexicon of city planners, after decades of being viewed as historically interesting but functionally irrelevant.
For engineers and architects, on the other hand, the habitable bridge has long been a favorite form open to tremendous expressiveness and even flights of fancy.
In fact, most of the two dozen exquisite models in the exhibition are bridge proposals that never made it off the drawing board. One ambitious project by the American architect Raymond Hood in 1925 envisioned huge skyscraper bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, each housing 50,000 people. The plan fell by the wayside after the 1929 Wall Street crash.
The goal of reviewing the habitable bridge's development is not simply to copy a historical model, however, but rather to reinvent it for the 21st century.
To that end, the exhibition's finale includes scale-model designs from seven internationally renowned architects for a new "Old London Bridge" across the River Thames. As part of the Thames Water Habitable Bridge Competition, a diverse group of architects was given a brief to design a bridge connecting Temple Gardens to the South Bank (between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge). The bridge had to be a destination in its own right, help reduce the divisive nature of the river, and be self-financing.