McDowell + Benedetti’s Castleford Bridge is the most impressive result of the town’s TV-led transformation says Richard Waite. Photography by Timothy Soar
An s-shaped bridge is not the quickest way to cross a river. But that is not the point of McDowell + Benedetti’s gently curving bridge over the Aire, with its stop-a-while benches and plush cruiseliner deck.
Because not only has the practice created a new public space where the chatty locals can enjoy Castleford’s only ‘chocolate box’ view, but a slim-line landmark.
This modest £4.8 million footbridge has also reopened access to the town’s forgotten waterfront.
Crossing the bridge, with its smooth Brazilian teak (sustainable) handrails, which meanders over the noisy force of the weir has the feel of some Victorian promenade combined with a nature-taming set play. The experience of hanging over broiling waters as you peer through the slats beneath your feet is spoilt only by some shopping trolleys on the neighbouring banks.
Yet for more than a century Castleford purposely shunned the river - once a cauldron of chemical plant and industrial pollutants that often formed into huge mountains of toxic foam which blew in car-size chunks across the town.
Thanks to the Environment Agency, the river is now virtually pollution free and there is even a new fish pass up running up the weir under the northern end of the bridge.
‘The town doesn’t have many assets, but it does have this weir,’ says Renato Benedetti, the project architect and practice co-founder. ‘The bridge turns people’s attention back onto the river and I can’t over estimate the importance of that.’
This pearly new structure links the town centre (effectively the bottom of Sagar Street) with the rows of houses on Duck Island to the north. Its opening means the end for the perilous elbow-to-wing-mirror ‘adventure’ while battling to cross the 200 year-old road bridge 100m downstream.
However it has taken the practice five years of hard work, one failed scheme and endless ‘selling’ of the project to get to last Friday’s ‘razzmatazz’ grand opening.
Having been picked by the residents as their preferred architect in 2003 as part of the Channel 4 Castleford project, Benedetti first proposed a ‘floating’ bridge set back, upstream from the weir. The design featured two hinged spans resting on a tethered, former colliery barge in the centre of the river which meant the bridge could rise and fall with the water.
But after two years, British Waterways killed off the scheme, claiming the proposals did not allow maintenance boats to reach the weir edge. So in 2005 Benedetti started again.
The new designs borrow from a failed competition entry for the Millennium bridge over the Thames, drawn up in 1996. To keep the bridge as low and light as possible, Benedetti stole the idea of using the supports between the legs of the bridge as benches. Imagine people sitting on top of a row of flattened, miniature Sydney Harbour bridges. Yet from the delicate way the benches arch out of the floor of the Castleford bridge, it is not initially apparent that these seats are in fact integral parts of the structure.
The bridge, at 131m, is almost twice as long as the first scheme and at 3.5m nearly twice as wide. This meant the budget - initially £2 million - also ballooned resulting in project backers Wakefield Council, Yorkshire Forward and English Partnerships having to stump up extra cash.
Designed to closely follow the bend of the weir, Benedetti admits he wanted to build the bridge lower so that the experience of the frothing water below was heightened further - but he was constrained by the ‘1 in a 100 year’ flood rules.
Viewed in profile, Benedetti has though succeeded in his aim of creating ‘something truly minimal… like a magic carpet ride’. The three sets of steel legs, piled 15m below the water level and painted in white, disappear into the foaming landscape beneath. The stainless-steel handrail supports and fittings look refined but resilient.
On the bridge, every beam (made from Cumaru, or Tonka wood) is curved, and fixed in position by a clamp-like system pioneered by the firm which avoids any drilling. These ‘planks’ - inset with non-slip carborundum - run along the length bridge rather than across its width, allowing constant views through to the water as you walk along. Benedetti claims this was ‘a fundamental’ he fought to hold onto.
Not everything about the new bridge works though. The entrance to the span on the south side has been marred by the ill-though-out placement of a bus shelter which blocks the routine up Sagar Street to the centre, although the practices has plans for a new, open public space there.
On the same side, the bridge currently possesses a strange stunted outcrop which one day, Benedetti hopes, will ink up to a cantilevered, riverside ‘boardwalk’ - the future of which has yet to be secured.
Benedetti himself is also disappointed at the lighting - changed by the contractor - which is no longer flush with the bottom of the hand rails and gives off a ‘not-so-nice’ light.
Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a fine, quietly elegant bridge which should prompt further waterside development. The community, who have been instrumental in its design, are delighted with it while the quality of thought and delivery has set a high standard for the future regeneration projects across the town.