August 18, 2007

Bridges should be beautiful as well as safe

One of the things I missed when I moved to the Boston area was bridges that add drama to the urban vista.

Bridges into, out of and through New York City may be choked with horrible traffic jams, but many of them are beautiful as well as functional. Not only the well-known like the Brooklyn and Verrazano are postcard-worthy; others, such as the Throgs Neck and George Washington, are striking in their own right. As a high schooler, I even recall one of the bridges at sunset moving me to write poetry. But for the most part, the best I could say about bridges in the Boston area were that they were functional (until the Zakim bridge brought some style to local span structures). How many bridges around here are worthy of landmark status -- or even a snapshot? Besides the Zakim and Mass Ave., not many come to mind.

Safety must come first, of course, but there's no reason that "safe" and "cost-effective" must be synonymous with "ugly" and "boring," I was happy to see Princeton structural engineering professor David P. Billington writes in the New York Times today.

"Public bridges are all too often designed by anonymous teams, and the results can be seen on our highways," he says

"The goal of good bridge design is to integrate efficiency, economy and elegance in a single design. Few bridges built over the last century have achieved this. Most are efficient but strictly functional; a few that aspire to elegance have done so at the expense of efficiency and economy, like the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is estimated to cost more than four times its original budget."

Yet it doesn't have to be that way, he argues persuasively:

"[T]here are often opportunities to improve design even in the case of very ordinary bridges.

"For example, a few years ago, in a discussion with bridge engineers from a Midwestern state, I suggested an alternative to a conventional overpass they had built, only to be told it would have cost too much. Challenged, I redesigned the overpass myself, and sent the plan to a steel fabricator the state worked with. The fabricator did a cost analysis and, to everyone’s surprise, found that my version would have cost slightly less than the standard design. The revision was also, in my view, better looking.

"American bridge engineering largely overlooks that efficiency, economy and elegance can be mutually reinforcing ideals."

That's not the case elsewhere, he notes. But in order to get to a place where American engineers can "educate the public in the possibilities of turning our nation’s bridges into safe, economical and beautiful landmarks worth maintaining," we need to get our collective heads around the fact that aesthetics are important. Without visual and visceral appeal, streetscapes can wither and die, along with local business districts. Functional yet hideously Stalinesque public housing projects can turn into colossal failures. If we truly care about our communities, we need to value our public space, not only our own, privately owned space. And part of valuing a space is understanding that how it looks does matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment