Infrastructure as a Cultural Icon

Chris Wilkinson

The phrase 'iconic landmark' has acquired a similar status to 'A-list celebrity' in design journals, as a subject that can be referred to at any time and is sure to attract popular appeal. The landmark building is the architectural equivalent to the film star or supermodel only with a longer shelf life, its role being to provide the symbolic representation of a place or region.

The Eiffel Tower, for instance, is for most people their most memorable image of Paris, while the Sydney Opera House does the same for Sydney and possibly for the whole of Australia.The iconic building is not entirely a new idea, however. It relates back to the concept for the original 'Seven Wonders of the Ancient World' list and the fierce competition for which cultural monuments should be included. Whilst the Great Pyramid of Giza would definitely make the list, it was not always assumed that the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal would make it.

Modern feats of engineering such as the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge were recognised as the 'Seven Wonders of the Industrial World' but that list would now have to be greatly expanded to include all the many incredible technical achievements of recent times which would qualify as cultural icons.

It is clear, therefore, that the idea of man pitting his wits against the challenges of nature has popular appeal and there is a genuine desire to celebrate great engineering achievements. This includes major infrastructure projects such as the Great Western Railway, which was partly opened in 1838 and completed in 1841 from Paddington through to Bridgewater and later extended on to Penzance. This incredible feat of engineering included some of the most remarkable railway tunnels, bridges and viaducts ever achieved, earning the line its popular title 'God's Wonderful Railway'.

The GWR's iconic status was somewhat enhanced by the narrative describing the incredible achievements of the brilliantly talented young engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was only 27 years old at the time he was appointed Chief Engineer of the railway, and his vision was to provide a link from London Paddington to New York via the GWR, with passengers changing onto the Great Eastern steamship at Bristol for the second part of their journey across the North Atlantic. He did succeed in achieving this but not without considerable difficulties, which included a major dispute on the gauge of the railway.

This new-found freedom to travel considerable distances at speed brought with it popular romantic associations, as conveyed in JMW Turner's painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed'. The devastating affect on the rural landscape was largely accepted, which is almost unimaginable today, although new infrastructure does inevitably impose on its context and this is why it has to be designed to high standards.

People do seem to be more sympathetic towards infrastructure projects in the landscape than buildings, however, and it is interesting that bridges quite often achieve iconic status through their popularity.

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, for instance, which was built across the River Severn in 1779 with a span of 30m, made a strong visual intervention in a picturesque landscape with its innovative new materials and technology and yet it was almost universally accepted and revered.

At the time of its construction, it became a popular subject for artists and writers. A local artist, William Williams, painted two views that were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 before the bridge was completed, and engravings by the London artist Michael Angelo Rooker became so popular that they went into a second edition. The bridge became a favoured tourist destination in the late 18th century as a spectacle of modern engineering and it is still popular today as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution.

Half a century later, it was the incredible engineering achievement of the Menai Straights Suspension Bridge by Thomas Telford, completed in 1826, that captured people's imaginations. This elegant bridge with a span of 168m was the largest ever attempted at that time and stood over 30m above the river, with massive chains hanging in a graceful curve from the soaring brick towers.

Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864 and with a span of 214m and a height of 84m above low water level, also became a much loved cultural icon and it's not hard to understand why. The structural forces which are clearly expressed in these bridges can be understood as part of the engineering, with the whole structure in turn working in synergy with the natural surroundings.

In a less picturesque way, the more brutal structure of the Forth Bridge, designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and completed in 1890, is still widely appreciated and is described in the Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland as "the one immediately and internationally recognised Scottish Landmark". Its 2.5km length uses 64,800 tons of steel to cross the wide stretch of water with two main spans of 521m, two side spans of 207m and 15 smaller approach spans. The three huge cantilever tower structures which support the main spans make a dramatic silhouette on the skyline and although not beautiful in the conventional sense, earn their status as a cultural icon.

It is not just historic structures that qualify as iconic landmarks, however, as there are many modern structures - particularly bridges - that have achieved popular acclaim.

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, WilkinsonEyre 2001

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, for instance, completed in 2000, was almost instantly adopted by the locals as an icon. It won the coveted RIBA Stirling Prize for the architects Wilkinson Eyre and has been featured on the First Class stamp for the Royal Mail as well as a One Pound Coin. The success of this elegant rotating structure owes much to its context of historic Tyne bridges, making an exciting composition for industrial archaeologists and bridge lovers as well as the general public. The comparatively lightweight new arched structure can be viewed against the impressive Tyne Bridge of 1928 with William Armstrong's Swing Bridge of 1876 and Robert Stephenson's High Level Bridge of 1849 beyond. Together, these bridges seem to fill the gorge with powerful engineering structures that create a strong identity and sense of place that has popular appeal.

A One Pound Coin featuring the Gateshead Millennium Bridge

More recently, the Millau Viaduct in the Tarn Valley, France, by the British architect Norman Foster with French engineers Eiffel, has succeeded in capturing the public imagination. The seven beautifully elegant, tall concrete pylons support the road bridge deck up to 270m above the river with a delicate cable stayed structure that appears as sculpture in the landscape. Once again, the dialogue between nature and sophisticated engineering has earned both popular acclaim and iconic status.

This piece originally appeared in the English Heritage Conservation Bulletin 65.