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High-Tech's high drama bridges the scepticism and symbolism divide

About half a century 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 to an infinite universe'.

This very poetic description turned out to be partly true but also partly false. It is many years since the American bridge to the Moon carried any traffic, while the claimed Soviet bridge was never a real one - even though there were plans to match its American equivalent, which fell victim to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The truth is that all bridges have a powerful symbolic significance - metaphysical bridges as well as terrestrial ones. Pictures of broken bridges, such as we have seen aplenty from Kosovo to Baghdad, 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 and this may be why they lack the symbolic value of bridges. They collapse just as readily but are more frequently rebuilt in the same place, often upon the same foundations and connected to the surviving service and sewage terminals. 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 racers stuck with bridges.

Instead of colonising the Moon they turned their attention to unmanned missions 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 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, whereas High-Tech architecture dramatised structure, 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 an extinct building: the first a 'historical' group clustered around the Crystal Palace, and the second a non-historical group loyal to the present in the shape of the Reliance Controls potentiometer factory, which stood in Swindon from 1966 to 1991. To the first, HighTech architecture was no more than a return to the ideals of 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 into them, the more sceptical we must become. In all but size the Crystal Palace turns out to owe more than a little to earlier greenhouse structures whose dates creep backwards into the 18th century. But in the same way, the pioneering role of Reliance Controls too begins to disintegrate under comparison with Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, Buckminster Fuller's Wichita House of 1945 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, finally, the Crystal Palace itself.

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