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When are bridges public art?

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By David Blockley


The costly controversy over the abandonment of the ambitious Wear Bridge scheme  and current plans by Sunderland City Council to ‘reduce down to a simpler design’ is a manifestation of what can happen when thinking about various forms of art is confounded.

I am going to suggest that if structural art rather than architectural art were used for the redesign then an iconic solution can still be delivered within all constraints including affordability. Then I will set out four criteria that you could use to judge.

Let’s start by looking very briefly at what we mean by art. As we all appreciate art is not straightforward – it is many faceted and difficult to ‘pin down’. Nevertheless we can probably agree that art is something of more than ordinary significance. It helps us to see the world differently; we experience it emotionally. It can inspire, deepen, and confuse as it provokes us to see the world and the human condition through ‘new eyes’. Examples include reaching out to the mystical, the divine and the aesthetic, capturing likeness (portrait) and sheer beauty. Interpretive art includes impressionism, modernism (in many forms such as cubism and minimalism) and some post-modernist pieces that may be designed to shock such as Tracey Emin’s famous unmade bed. In all cases art has depended on the highly talented and inspirational individuals with exceptional craft skills.

The Angel of the North

I find that one useful way of thinking about public art is to recognize a spectrum of forms of art that depend on context, i.e. where the art form is exhibited. At one end we have the fine arts and crafts – normally found in galleries, churches and halls. Artwork installed outside has a context or environment that is integral to the whole experience, for example Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. The Orbit in the London 2012 Olympic Park is a sculpture where people are invited to enter the space and so their safety has to be a priority and the art can no longer be the work of one inspired individual. Of course the idea of the piece still has to be inspirational but many people will contribute to its fulfillment. Next on the spectrum is architectural art – usually a building and not primarily an artwork. Architectural form concerns the sense and use of space, occupancy by people, symbolism and relationship to setting and it can be decorative and sculptural. The art now becomes part of a bigger picture and there are major constraints of delivering functionality, affordability, sustainability and safety. Finally at the very end of our spectrum is the less well-known concept of structural art – an idea first muted by David Billington in his book The Tower and the Bridge (Princeton University Press, 1983). This becomes particularly important when the physical forces become large. Structural form is about the need to live with the forces and hazards of the natural world including self-weight, wind, snow and earthquakes. Well-designed structural form can have the beauty and excitement of controlled strength. Billington built on the ideas of the Roman Vitruvius who wanted his buildings to have firmitas, utilitas and venustas or durability, utility and beauty. A more modern interpretation might be resilience, purpose and delight – indeed venustas is a Latin term for the qualities of the goddess Venus and so has a sensual meaning too.

I have built on these ideas to suggest four criteria to judge whether a bridge is a piece of public art. The first concerns the ‘fine art’ component – the intensity of your initial emotional reaction. When you first look at a bridge is your eye drawn, are you stimulated, engaged, and absorbed? The Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the UK had that effect on me when I first saw it. I just wanted to walk on it, touch it and photograph it. The Millau Viaduct in France has the ‘wow’ factor. So my first criterion is to what extent do you agree with the statement: When I first saw this bridge I experienced a powerful emotional reaction.

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge

My second criterion is about composition and harmony. A bridge in context is an exercise in composition as surely as when an artist paints a picture or prepares a sculpture. Good composition needs balance. However while symmetry is balance, balance is more than mere symmetry.  Asymmetry can be balanced if it creates a sense of interesting flow on a visual journey without rifts or abrupt changes. So to what extent do you think: The bridge is in total harmony with its context. 

Photographic snapshots of people are more interesting when people are not merely standing still with arms by their sides but are doing something natural. A sculpture is effective when there is implied movement as in the muscles of Michelangelo’s David even though he is just a slab of stone. So my third criterion is to what extent do you think: The bridge gives me a sense of controlled strength and frozen movement.

My final criterion is whether: The bridge has clear form that makes sense to you. Many people will judge by line, shape, texture and contrast. In a concern to deal with the large physical forces the structural engineer will look for clarity and unity of flow of force through the structure. You can think of the flow of force through a bridge rather as water flows through pipes. If a structure is allowed to find its own shape (subject to particular constraints) for a natural flow then it will self-adjust to a position in which the internal forces are in equilibrium and contain minimum energy. This is the key to structural art because these natural structural forms are also very pleasing and indeed delightful. Through a better understanding the natural flow of force we can attain a natural harmony between firmitas, utilitas, and venustas — resilience, purpose, and delight.

Professor Blockley is an engineer and an academic scientist. He has been Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers, and the Royal Society of Arts. He has written four other books including Engineering: A Very Short Introduction and Bridges: The science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures.

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Image credits: 1) By Tellyaddict at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons 2) By Axel Steenberg [CC-BY-2.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

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