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Building bridges in space but roundabouts on the ground

About this time forty years ago the Russians launched a rocket called Lunik II that landed on the moon. It placed there metal pennants bearing the emblem of the Soviet Union and the date. Although universally seen in the West as the prelude to a manned mission, the Russians insisted that they had no immediate project to land a man on the moon. Instead the flight was described as 'The first bridge in an infinite universe.'

This very poetic description turned out to be partly true but also partly false, for it is many years since the American 'bridge' to the moon carried any traffic, while the Soviet bridge never really existed, although there were plans to match its American equivalent that only fell victim to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The truth is that all bridges have a powerful symbolic significance. Pictures of broken bridges, such as we saw last year in Kosovo, mean defeat in any language. On the other hand pictures of bridges completely put back together again are a rarity because most collapsed bridges of any size are replaced rather than repaired, frequently in locations other than their original position. Oddly enough this seldom happens to buildings. They collapse just as readily but are more frequently rebuilt in the same place, often upon the same foundations and connected to the original service and sewage lines. As a result, while pictures of restored buildings are plentiful, their significance is correspondingly diminished. Which in turn may be why the post Cold War space race, instead of colonising the moon with buildings, has concentrated on building Soviet-style bridges through the infinite universe to Mars.

Readers of this homily on the value of bridges will no doubt be put in mind of the argument that once raged on this page about what exactly it was that distinguished High-Tech architecture from Modern architecture, and also the contingent argument about the identity of the first ever truly High-Tech building. Neither of these arguments was ever really concluded, although it is probably fair to say that what ended up as the majority position on the first was that High-Tech architecture dramatised structure, while Modern architecture expressed function. The non-conclusion to the second argument was equally enlightening. By and large the trend- spotters who concerned themselves with this question ended up in one of two camps, both centred on extinct buildings: a 'historical' group occupying the Crystal Palace, and a 'non-historical' group clustered around Reliance Controls. To the first, High-Tech architecture was no more than a return to the ideals of Victorian engineering - bridge building in fact. To the second, it was something entirely new, invented in the 1960s in Belsize Park.

The difference between these two positions illuminates the whole phenomenon of the virtual bridge in space. The more we look for it the more sceptical we must become. The Crystal Palace turns out to owe more than a little to earlier greenhouse structures whose dates creep back into the eighteenth century and the obscurity beyond. But in the same way the pioneering role of Reliance Controls too begins to disintegrate by comparison with Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house; Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house of 1927, and so on back to the bowstring-trussed Nissen hut of 1916; Gustave Eiffel's 1879 airship hangar at Chalais Meudon, Sheerness Boat Store and the Crystal Palace by another route.

All of these structures have more than a passing claim to be considered High-Tech architecture, yet some of them miss the dates of the two popularly accepted leaders by as much as a century. The melancholy truth appears to be that learning from the past in architecture is not like building bridges in space. It is more like building roundabouts.

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