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Build a bridge and make your name

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Winning a bridge project is a sure way to raise your profile and a create a piece of enduring public realm, says Malcolm Reading

Malcolm Reading

Nine Elms Bridge, Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge… one could be forgiven for thinking bridge competitions are the hottest of architectural potatoes right now. For cities, they are the ultimate linkage – regenerative, highly communicable, tourist draws, both jewellery and infrastructure. For architects, they are something Platonic – to have a bridge competition win in one’s portfolio is proof of having arrived.

As someone who’s had form explaining to the nation live on the Nine o’clock News why the Millennium Bridge was unexpectedly wobbling (thank you, integrated design team!*), I feel empathy, and also have an eye out for the particular genre that is the brilliant yet contentious, vexed yet inspirational bridge that brings designers, citizens and planners together to share personal growth in a strangely charged vortex.

Bridges link communities, regenerate cities and carry dreams

The procurement of bridges has long been a tricky area. The replacement for the 600-year-old London Bridge was put out to competition in 1799. An eminent jury of contemporary giants in design (architecture and engineering having more blurred professional boundaries then), including John Nash, John Soane and Robert Smirke, sifted through 48 submissions and awarded their prize to Joseph Gwilt – a decision immediately overturned by the client in favour of a design by Charles Fowler. Even that wasn’t the end of the story. Fowler was then replaced by John Rennie who, to add to the insult, was by this time dead.

Andrew Saint wrote revealingly about the creative bond between the professions in his book Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. Each is essential to the design of a bridge; it is impossible to differentiate the respective contributions. So, this is a good area of business development for the right architect/engineer partnership.

And how to find the right partner? Easier than you may think. The big engineering practices see the benefits of architectural input, so are worth a call; and some, such as Buro Happold, expressly encourage contact. Also seek out boutique engineers and those who have broken away from the large firms, because competitions are a good way for them to raise their profile.

Bridges are extraordinarily complex projects. The idea that there is a single hand on the design is absurd. They are designed, tested and constructed by highly proficient teams, bringing together skills in architecture, engineering, fluid dynamics, materials science and construction logistics.

Often, their conception stirs up unanticipated controversy and strong feelings. But on reflection, perhaps that’s not so surprising. After all, bridges link communities, regenerate cities and carry dreams.

They may appear to go from A to B, but they can change lives: the Stari Most, in the city of Mostar, stood for 427 years, until it was destroyed in 1993 during the Croat-Bosnian War. A new bridge, reconstructed as an exact replica, symbolises reconciliation and renewal.

Stari Most

Stari Most (1566) by Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin, Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina (rebuilt 2004)

The International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE) launched a set of guidelines for bridge design competitions two years ago. Only a little over half of recent design competitions have resulted in a finished bridge, and the association is hoping to improve this rate. It offers advice for avoiding common pitfalls – aiming to make clients stop and think, rather than imposing a rigid process.

Pertinently, IABSE identified six factors that influenced success: from funding to political commitment. Design is only one of these factors – and I would agree with this from my own experience. Bridge designers need courage, stamina and diplomatic skills just as much as creativity if they are to create a piece of public realm that will be seamlessly absorbed into the fabric of the city and bring enjoyment for years to come. 

* Of course, now wobble-free – brilliantly resolved and fixed by Arup.

  • Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a leading independent organiser of design competitions
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