Bridges That Blink

Kurt W. Forster

The expanse of today's urbanised lands has given bridge construction a new lease on life. Well beyond their undeniable utility, bridges still carry associations strong enough to kindle collective imagination. Heated political controversies routinely surround their proposal and construction, as in the case of the bridge over the Strait of Messina, and competition over the length and height of their spans never fails to flare up around them. Bridges always pose the problem of construction and assembly under tricky topographical conditions that call for such structures in the first place. Not the least part of the builder's ingenuity goes into anticipating an economical way of transporting and assembling the parts that need to be joined on site.

What the Stratford Market Depot did for Wilkinson Eyre's emergence as a firm with the capacity to handle projects calling for complex engineering, the Gateshead Millenium Bridge accomplished in the domain of bridge construction. Wilkinson Eyre's ability to find a perfect fit between the specific purpose and site of a bridge has been put to the test in three major crossings so far: the Poole Harbour Second Crossing, the Nescio Bridge in Amsterdam, and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Each is based on a different principle, responds specifically to the requirements of the site, and invokes an image of its performance. By linking the nature of the architectural image to the type of crossing the bridge needs to make, I mean to suggest that although the image necessarily preexisted the bridge, Wilkinson Eyre succeeded each time in collapsing bridge and image into a metaphor of the particular nature of a specific crossing. Moreover, each of these three bridges transforms its location into a site of ingenuity, rendering memorable what would be, without its presence, a fairly nondescript stretch of water.

The suburban link with a landfill island north of Amsterdam snakes across the canal in a side-winding motion that plays down its suspension from two pylons to the point of insignificance. Would it be an exaggeration to speak of a flying snake? The Poole Harbour Crossing, on the other hand, folds down into a causeway, when it doesn't sheer open, unlocking its sail-shaped segments as it lifts them in homage to the yachts cruising through the strait. Finally, the architects themselves have likened the rotational movement of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge to a slowly opening eyelid. Surely, the twisting accordion of the Royal Ballet bridge in London, linking two buildings across Floral Street in Covent Garden, encourages one to think in ways that defy both conventional associations with passerelles and a tendency to limit engineering to pedestrian roles.

Each bridge not only answers its unique requirements but also conjures an image fashioned from its structural or functional essence. Each bends type to its own purpose, while extending the reach of its model. No Calatrava could have made so lean a shape and so airy a pair of arches as those at Gateshead, distinct in their purpose yet tightly locked into affinity. Wilkinson Eyre do not yield to the temptation of making the peacock spread its fanned tail, but simply allow the component parts of the bridge — two parabolic curves — to perform. As an intimation, the moving "eyelids" match the delicacy of the double curvature with its graceful balance, as well as its cyclical movement day and night. Gateshead is indeed looking up, after a series of catalytic attempts have led to complete renovation of the areas on both embankments. Lord Foster's Concert Hall now redraws the profile of the hillside using the current technology of envelopes to house two conventionally conceived halls under a roly-poly enclosure, while the nearby Baltic Mills are the periodic venue of such installations as Anish Kapoor's Taratantara.

This is an extract from Kurt W. Forster's essay 'Hulls held Aloft and Bridges that Blink: Thoughts on the Architecture of Wilkinson Eyre' which appears in the practice's monograph Exploring Boundaries (Birkhäuser, 2007).