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Civic engineering: Scale Lane Bridge by McDowell+Benedetti

McDowell+Benedetti’s Scale Lane Bridge in Hull is not only an urban event, but also an accidental landmark, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Timothy Soar

As the digital bird song and chiming reaches a crescendo, the steel gates at the east end tail of Scale Lane Bridge close and its cantilevered shell drops 170mm as the wedges locking it in place are hydraulically removed. The gentle cacophony fades and the bridge slowly begins pivoting about the 16m diameter spool at its west end like a 1,000-tonne door handle and, standing at its eastern tip, you feel the River Hull air on your face as the movement accelerates under lever action before slowly coming to a halt.

Orchestrated by McDowell+ Benedetti Architects and open to the public since June, it is one of Hull’s rare cinematic urban moments. Atmospheric backdrops its narrow, cobbled, historic streets have in abundance but, for up to 1,000 people per crossing, this is a dynamic, symbolic experience, like taking the Star Ferry across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. There’s no toll because it’s a highway bridge - and this adds to the romance.

Scale Lane Bridge links the retail-saturated areas to the west of the River Hull, which have been expanding beyond the old city walls since the 18th century, and those to the east, contained by the expanse of the Humber, derelict and earmarked for regeneration. There’s not much love lost between their respective populations and after The Boom, a mixed development originally planned by Pure Urban and Benoy for the east bank went bust in 2009, the local press labelled McDowell+Benedetti’s heroic structure, which had become part of the regeneration proposal, a ‘Bridge to nowhere’. Conceived in a bullish economic climate, but completed in an age of public spending cuts, it was opened by the Lord Mayor & Admiral of the Humber. Local politicians weren’t queuing up to cut the ribbon.

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But, to return to the breathless years of the bridge competition, 2005-6, the brief’s objectives included connecting the river banks and expanding their use, providing an unsegregated foot and cycle crossing, maintaining access for large and small boats, establishing a new flood defence level at the river’s edge and, you guessed it, creating an iconic landmark for Hull.

Whether you perceive Hull as having an image problem or rave about its splendid idiosyncrasies, white phone booths and geographical remoteness, as many amateur and professional Hull bores do, it’s hard not to see it as a poor architectural relative to the noughties mouth and trousers of cities like Liverpool and Manchester. Leslie Martin drove a surge of Modernist energy in Hull in the ’30s and Terry Farrell’s aquarium, The Deep, has jutted out dramatically towards the south bank of the Humber since 2002, though failing to deliver the promise of its concept sketches, but - sorry Hull bores - there’s been nowt spectacular in between. Hull was also Britain’s worst-bombed town during WWII.

An easy-to-operate icon would do very nicely, said the brief. McDowell+Benedetti duly delivered a finely balanced electrically and hydraulically powered bridge, which costs operator Hull City Council 50p a swing, but was having none of the landmark malarkey. What McDowell+Benedetti wanted to create was a sense of place, rather than a structure towering over Hull’s repressed skyline, somewhere to discover or seek out, as if wandering through the calle and campielli of Venice, sensing the presence of the grand square of San Marco nearby.

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‘It wasn’t a case of “Let’s make it a tadpole bridge”,’ says practice director Jonathan McDowell. As it happens Scale Lane Bridge does resemble a tadpole, not least because of the decision to paint it black, which means it visually recedes into the surrounding riverscape of mud, brickwork, timber and cast iron. Any resemblance to a tadpole or a landmark was coincidental, a by-product of the quest for a sense of place.

McDowell never really explains what this sense of place is but, reading between the lines, you might infer that it involves, first, the notion of a public realm, to use a contemporary but pretty corny expression and, second, an event. Of course, public space, the idea that the bridge is a destination in its own right - ‘somewhere people can hang out and enjoy the river’, as McDowell puts it - is at the core of what has been achieved. The project includes landscaping of the river banks and Scale Lane Staith (staiths are the narrow passages to the River Hull’s jetties) with a sequence of ‘garden rooms’ - fiddly and overdesigned, but better than the former car park.

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This approach route aims to channel the energy of retail development eastwards and leads to a stone-paved square next to Scale Lane Bridge’s hub. The bridge’s meandering dorsal fin terminates in a glass lantern and gable, which glows orange for its son et lumière. Seen from the west, it’s a witch’s hat with heavy glazing frames, which seem to be more down to the form of procurement than the movement of the turntable it sits on. The 8mm steel plates of the crown, resembling the facets of a tissue paper-wrapped balsa model aeroplane, have a tough, warty aesthetic.

But the bridge’s essence is the two-minute mechanised event of its rotation into open or closed position, like an urban carousel. The spool at its west end - two circular concrete drums with a stiff, circular Vierendeel framework, on bogies and track like a railway turntable, rotates at half the speed of the London Eye, so people can safely walk on and off as if it were a ’50s Routemaster bus. McDowell+Benedetti also convinced the authorities that the light and sound installation, developed by Nayan Kulkarni in collaboration with artist Shauna McMullan, would do in place of a bossy warning announcement. Sound is broadcast from speakers below the benches on the bridge, its viewing platform and in the public square. There’s also back-lit text naming historic merchant ship components. Partly for cost reasons, the bridge’s mechanism is not on display. Its central pintle, annular rail, bogies and the hydraulic pipes in its cantilevered section are all below deck level and views of the electric bevel gear units from the proposed restaurant in the drum would be a disappointing Wizard of Oz moment.

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‘It’s about being here, rather than having a clever, efficient structure that gets you from A to B,’ says McDowell. Efficiency, that incantation of the pitifully obedient, is a very over-rated quality, but as a structure Scale Lane Bridge does perform well. The weight of the hub sitting on 30m piles on the west side of the river provides stability and is man enough to carry the lighter section of the bridge, which cantilevers over the navigation channel to the east, as the structure mutates and arcs, reducing from a diagrid to a shell. You might even see its design as a form-finding exercise. A straight ramp set to maximum permitted falls wouldn’t have achieved the rise which was needed but, because it follows a curved path, it can climb higher.

The mundane, soporific swooshing of cars crossing a nearby motorway bridge cannot help but spoil the magic of Scale Lane Bridge. McDowell links this to his bridge’s tough industrial aesthetic, but it’s a distraction and we can’t assume internal combustion engines will soon be a thing of the past. Despite the visual disappointments, Scale Lane Bridge succeeds as a rich, dynamic urban event. 1,000 people on a steel plate galleon/mechanised piazza hybrid is surely enough to eventually draw the crowds and funds eastwards and maybe even a bridge to that forgotten regenerated land of the future.

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