I have a love of bridges. Particularly at the moment, when we are generally confined to our own homes and their surrounds, they are a representation of our links to everyone else.
But they are so much more than a representation. In normal times, they connect people; without them, journeys to visit friends and relatives would take much, much longer and many of those connecting journeys just wouldn’t be made. So they are a part of our social fabric, of the glue which holds us all together.
Many of us don’t give them any thought, as we queue to get to the other side in rush hour, but bridges are the most amazing constructions. The calculations of civil engineers, estimating the the required compressive and tensile strengths of the materials to be used, to be able to cope with years and years of stresses and strains in all weathers and temperatures, avoiding buckling and snapping, makes the mind boggle. To be able to do that within the constraints of the architect’s design, so that we end up with a beautiful design, which fits in the landscape too, is nothing less than extraordinary.
Bridges come in many different types, but mainly adhere to four main types, beam (or girder), arch, truss (beams with braces) and suspension. The type used will depend on many things, but mostly they distance needed to be crossed without intermediate supports.
Many bridges are just functional, particularly when they aren’t easily seen. Those in cities, especially, require more design thought. Some have become landmarks in their own right and occasionally representative of their city. One only has to think of the Golden Gate suspension bridge in San Francisco, Tower Bridge suspension bridge (also a bascule, or lifting, bridge) in London, Rialto arch bridge in Venice, Brooklyn suspension bridge in New York and Sydney Harbour through-arch bridge.
Suspension bridges are perhaps the most delicate in design terms and give me the most pleasure to paint, due to their reliance on a web of fine stay cables, rather than large concrete or steel planks and iron or steel lattices. Hence, my love of the Albert Bridge in London, with its cables and columns lit by thousands of bulbs at night, their dancing reflections highlighted on the constantly moving Thames underneath. The bridge was built in 1873 and has the sign “All troops must break step when marching over this bridge”, to ensure the effects of mechanical resonance would not cause the bridge to collapse as had happened on the Broughton Suspension Bridge in 1831.
The Brooklyn Bridge is more muscular and powerful, partly because you don’t normally get to see it from a distance; you turn a corner and it is immediately there in front of you. The first fixed crossing across New York’s East River, it was also the longest suspension bridge in the world when opened in 1883. It’s twin arches bring to mind a cathedral, increasing the sense of awe.
So there it is; bridges can be functional or beautiful, but they are always extraordinarily conceived and constructed. And they bring us all closer together.