30 Bridges By Matthew Wells. Laurence King, 2002. 192pp. £35
This book is curiously undersold by its title.
If the same self-effacing attitude had been taken by Simon Schama, his History of Britain would have probably been entitled 30 Monarchs. Matthew Wells' introductory chapter presents a fascinating review of 150 years of bridge design. The story contains the full range of human triumph and disaster, and supplies the context from which some of the 20th-century's most famous built icons arose.
The author combines the evolution of the technical and constructional developments in bridge design with a description of the economic and social environments to which they responded. But this history is neither dry nor overly technocratic, and is illuminated throughout by the humbling heroism and endeavour of the pioneering individuals involved.
It is a wholly unsubstantiated personal observation that architects who find bridgedesign interesting are generally sound, in a way that those who play golf every week, or subscribe to Wallpaper*, generally are not.
This indefensible prejudice may have some substance, in that bridges highlight so many aspects of design that make architecture a unique vocation. When successful, aesthetically and symbolically, they are the result of flair, imagination and virtuoso technical ability. A great bridge is sometimes more than a great building, and in the main section of the book, Wells presents 30 of them.
All the projects one would expect to find are included, along with several others, largely overlooked until now, which will be new discoveries for most readers. Of these, Jiri Strasky's Swiss Bay Footbridge (pictured) and the Punt da Suransuns in Viamala are particularly eye-catching.
Each description is little more than one would expect from a good magazine article, but their combination and juxtaposition results in the sum being more than the 30 parts. Illustrations are adequate rather than exceptional, but the book generates more than enough interest to ensure that many of these bridges will receive extra visitors in the future.
The introduction by Hugh Pearman is also worthy of mention. His articles are generally notable for their conciseness and precision, and this is no exception. It is also strangely enjoyable to read an author who employs words like 'quotidian', when its use is anything but.
On first impressions, 30 Bridges seems an uncomfortable compromise between a more comprehensive, academic volume and the standard coffee-table offering, but - engaging and informative - this is not the case.
Indeed, this fine book may make its own bridge between architects, engineers and the reading public.
Alex Wright is an architect in Bath