Commentary: Can we love this bridge?

  • Article by: LINDA MACK
  • Updated: October 12, 2007 - 6:50 PM

Winning design conveys modern simplicity, but fails to inspire -- yet.

What do we love about bridges? The soaring aspiration of the leap across a chasm. The marriage of form and function. Materials and details that express a particular place.

The I-35W bridge design unveiled last Monday wins kudos for some of those qualities but not others. Still an outline waiting to be filled in, it inspires admiration but not yet love.

A 21st-century bridge should reflect its time, and the design submitted by the team of Flatiron-Manson and Figg Engineering does so beautifully. The sculptural white concrete structure is clearly modern. It is simplicity itself.

A 21st-century bridge should also marry structure to purpose, as this one does. The parabolic curve rising slightly to the middle is the most efficient way to address the 504-foot span, said Figg president Linda Figg, lead design supervisor.

The 70-foot-high piers at either end of the central span curve gracefully to hold up the structure of box girders, which also slightly curve. The concrete edges are smooth. The geometry is flawless.

It appears that the bridge could look great at night, when LED lightposts of differing heights will form a visual arch, and lighting will wash the entire bridge structure in color. Of the four final designs submitted to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Figg one is the most graceful.

"The art comes from the efficiency of design," Figg said.

We want something to love

So why was there a sense of disappointment when the design was presented? Because we want something to love.

We're awestruck by the Golden Gate Bridge. We feel warm and fuzzy about historic arch bridges such as St. Paul's Robert Street Bridge. We're inspired by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's daring designs, where the tension of the steel cables creates a visceral response.

Efficiency doesn't inspire emotions -- unless you're an engineer.

The clarity of the span makes total sense. It frames the piers of the 10th Avenue Bridge and creates an unusually light and uncluttered underside -- so open that the idea of a pedestrian bridge suspended beneath or an observation platform overlooking the river sounds appealing.

The clean deck of the new bridge makes sense, too. With this length of span, there was no engineering need for any structure above the deck, Figg said. To build one would have been "a forced fit." The fakey Hennepin Avenue "suspension bridge" comes to mind.

But all this cleanness only goes so far. We crave arches and columns to carry our spirits upward. We long for texture and details that relate to our human shape and our collective past.

The good news: Those elements have yet to be designed.

And that's where the public, or at least part of the public, will get to weigh in. Later this month Figg plans to conduct a daylong workshop or charette to solicit input on details of the bridge design such as railings, gateway monuments (vertical elements that signal the beginning of the crossing), feature lighting and surface treatments. Participants also will vote on one of two options for the piers, although that should be an open-and-shut case for the more graceful option A. (Of two color options put forth -- sandstone or white -- white is the clear winner.)

The limited nature of the input and the fact that the participants will be selected to make sure that various stakeholders are represented makes the charette seem more like public-relations window dressing than substantive design democracy. But the way these elements reflect our place will help make the difference between generic geometry and a bridge we can love.

Case in point: The proposed designs for the gateway monuments are abstract and unappealing. Designed by a local artist or inspired by local history and people, they could be powerful points of psychological connection.

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  • ROADS NOT TAKEN

    The three bridge designs not selected were also sleek and modern but were less graceful than the Figg design. The selection was made on both aesthetics and other factors, such as experience.

    Ames/Lunda: The design would have blocked the arched profile of the 10th Avenue Bridge from upstream, as seen here. The sheath of piers is inelegant.

    C.S. McCrossan: The design features vertical towers, but the piers underneath are massive and are not integrated with the towers. The 10th Avenue Bridge is in foreground.

    Walsh/American Bridge: Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava offered an alternative to this distracting design, but it was rejected as potentially unsound.

    Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation

    DETAILS OF THE WINNING DESIGN

    The clean lines and 70-foot-high piers of the new I-35W bridge create an unusually light-filled underside. The thin-waisted piers in Option A, shown below, mirror the geometry of the parabolic curve in the bridge. The piers in Option B, below right, curve parallel to the river.

    Pedestrian bridge: Figg has suggested that a pedestrian bridge could be suspended from the piers to link both sides of the Mississippi. It would hang about 60 feet above the river. Its cost is not included in the current budget.

    Observation decks: Platforms on both banks bring people close to the river. Landscape architect Tom Oslund will design this area.

    Gateway monuments: Figg suggested these two options -- a river marker and a water sculpture -- but is open to others.

    Sources: Minnesota Department of Transportation, FIGG

    THE RÉSUMÉ BRIDGES DESIGNED AND BUILT BY FIGG

    Clark Bridge, Alton, Ill.

    Completed Jan. 1994

    Two pylons with cable-stays make a dramatic river crossing.

    Natchez Trace Parkway Arches, Nashville, Tenn.

    Completed May 1994

    This sleek concrete bridge seems to soar.

    Wabasha St. Bridge, St. Paul.

    Completed July 1998

    A Figg bridge designer was part of the team.

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