19 March 2017

"The Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin" by Michael English

In a recent post, I reviewed Annette Black and Michael Barry's "Bridges of Dublin", a survey of the many bridges spanning the River Liffey in Ireland's capital city. This time, I've been reading a rather more singular volume.

"The Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin" (Dublin City Council / Four Courts Press, 272pp, 2016) [amazon.co.uk] documents only one of Dublin's bridges, although certainly the best known.

Built in 1816, the Ha'penny Bridge (named for its toll) was the first iron bridge in Ireland. It was designed and fabricated by the Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire, the same as had built the pioneering Iron Bridge in 1779. The new crossing replaced an existing ferry, and was promoted by the ferry proprietors William Walsh and John Claudius Beresford as a private initiative.

The bridge has survived two centuries of often eventful Irish history, and this book wisely takes a very open-ended approach to documenting its subject.

The author, Michael English, is a graphic designer and photographer, and the book is beautifully presented and laid out throughout. It is filled with depictions of the bridge in art and photography, both historical and contemporary, and many of the excellent photographs are the author's. There are pictures of souvenirs, bridge poems, anecdotes, a plethora of directly and indirectly relevant material. In this respect it is a truly exemplary publication: any bridge would be proud to be recorded in this manner.

Different authors contribute different chapters to the book. The text drives onto, across, beneath and away from the bridge; treating it as a vantage point to explore the bridge, its surroundings, and its context from many angles.

David de Haan offers a history of Coalbrookdale, source of Englands' best known iron bridge, and of the cast iron shipped to Dublin. This explains everything from the iron smelting process to the broader industrial transformation which allowed iron to challenge stone for economy. Gerard Smyth recounts the main points of the bridge's history, while Logan Sisley describes the the fortunately ill-fated 1913 plan to replace the bridge with the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Michael English recounts the history of some of the people who passed beneath the bridge most often: the Guinness company, whose barges transported Guinness stout below the bridge for many years. Annette Black offers a more cultural history of the bridge, probably my favourite chapter. It's a history of the bridge, but also a history of Dublin with the bridge as merely a convenient nexus. For me, this gets under the skin both of the bridge and the city: the bridge is not a monument, or an icon, but a site which features in people's everyday lives, a home to the homeless as much as a crossing for others.

I was a little disappointed in Michael Barry's chapter describing the bridge's 1998-2001 refurbishment and restoration. There are a few extracts from drawings and one engineering diagram, but I felt there was just too little detail on what appears to have been a very sensitive and carefully-considered project.

The penultimate chapter, by architect Seán Harrington, describes his design of Dublin's Millennium Bridge, now one of the main places from which to view the Ha'penny Bridge, and a structure where the various differences and similarities are constructive. The final chapter consists of Michael English's photographs of the bridge taken at different times of day and different periods in the year. These are excellent, well portraying way in which such a simple structure can appear so very different as hours and seasons pass.

Although the book is extensive in its coverage, one area where it is lacking is in any discussion of the Ha'penny Bridge's siblings. The distinctive form of its cast iron ribs, with two layers of quadrilateral braced ribs (like the more modern Vierendeel girder), was not new in 1816, indeed the appearance of the bridge was essentially a copy of Thomas Telford and Thomas Stanton's Meole Brace bridge, completed in Shropshire in 1811 and supplied by William Hazledine. The same or very similar design was used again in 1813 for the Cantlop Bridge, and then repeated after completion of the Ha'penny Bridge, in 1818 for the Cound Bridge (now reconstructed in Telford) and in 1823 at Stokesay. If you look at close-up images of Cantlop Bridge, the relationship is very clear.

Overall, however, this is an excellent book, highly relevant to anyone with an interest in Dublin or in bridges, particularly the role that they play in urban history. As already noted, it's a very attractive book, exceptionally well-illustrated, and a great example of what can be produced by people who allow their passion for a subject to drive what they do.

14 March 2017

Winner announced in Upper Orwell Crossings competition


The winner of Suffolk County Council's competition to choose an architect for two new bridges across the Upper Orwell has been announced as Foster and Partners.

I discussed this RIBA-organised contest at length last August, and again in September. You may recall that this is not a conventional bridge design competition: it's quite possible that the winner's designs will never get built. It was a contest to select an architect to partner the project's engineering consultant, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, who had already been selected.

There was much to criticise in how the contest was initially set up: its limitation to large firms (overturned after protests), the desire for an arranged marriage rather than allowing natural design partnerships to form, and the intention for architects to demonstrate their worth in isolation i.e. without actually working with the project's engineer. Of the various shortlisted firms, several either had internal engineering expertise anyway or brought along their own choice of partner.

As originally promoted, entrants had to submit two entries for both bridges required, and would be evaluated 40% on price. I wonder whether these criteria survived, as only one design has been released from the winner, and they do not have the reputation of charging at the bottom of the scale. Alternatively, maybe they were the cheapest, and the design presented was only second best. I think we may never know.

It's difficult to comment in detail on what can be seen of the winning design. Without drawings or context, they say little. However, a few things are clear.

The competition jury appears to have treated this like a conventional contest: they praise the "economical elegance" of the designs, and comment specifically on how pedestrian routes have been integrated with the highway bridges. On both bridges, the walkway / cycleway is a separate structure tacked onto the main bridge, although not gratuitously, instead allowing the designer to consider what is best for different flow preferences.

The high-level bridge is the more exotic of the two, reminding me of a treetop walkway, with the non-motorised path nestled at the top of giant steel tree-trunks and below the fumes of the highway canopy. It has an expensive rather than structurally rational appearance, and in this regard it's interesting to read what local MP Ben Gummer has to say:
"The fact that we will have what will be a globally recognised bridge of beauty will say something powerful about our town's ambition and our place not just in our county, or our region, or our country, but in the world."
At the risk of offending locals, this is Ipswich, not Paris or Geneva. It's hard not to wonder how well a forced marriage between the incumbent consultant and a big-name architect will work. Ambition should not be scoffed at, but I do wonder whether Ipswich really needs something world-class, or whether they would have been better to set their sights a little lower.

The RIBA Competitions office has a track record of limited success (6 out 8 competition-winning bridges were never built), so it will also be interesting to see whether the Upper Orwell Crossings project bucks that particular trend.





17 February 2017

"Bridges of Dublin" by Annette Black & Michael B Barry

Dublin City Council seem to have done a good job recognising the importance to the City (and tourists) of the city's River Liffey, and not only the river but the many bridges which cross it. They maintain an excellent website devoted to these structures, which includes not just informative material, but plenty of bridge-related stories and a substantial insight into bridge history and engineering generally.

The City Council has also published a series of books on the city's engineering history (in cooperation with Four Courts Press). "Bridges of Dublin: the remarkable story of Dublin's Liffey Bridges" (Dublin City Council / Four Courts Press, 256pp, 2015) [amazon.co.uk] is to some extent the in-print companion to the Bridges of Dublin website, and also owes a debt to Michael Phillips and Albert Hamilton's paper Project history of Dublin's River Liffey Bridges, published in the ICE's Bridge Engineering journal.

The book covers 24 structures in detail, every span across the Liffey from Lucan Bridge to the sea.

Each bridge is documented with a large 2-page photo (generally of excellent quality), often an aerial image, a location map, and a range of other images including drawings, historical paintings and etchings, and old photographs. More recent structures are often accompanied by photographs taken during construction.

The associated text provides not just a history of each bridge, or the stories associated with it, but something of a history of Dublin and wider Ireland. Most of Dublin's bridges were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, the period starting with the Acts of Union of 1801, and including the Irish War of Independence and Civil War of the 1920s.

Emblematic of the role of the various bridges as political symbols, many of the spans have been renamed at key points in history. An example is the Rory O'More Bridge, renamed in 1939 after a 17th century Irish rebel leader. The bridge had previously been renamed the Emancipation Bridge in 1929 (the centenary of Catholic Emancipation), having originally been named the Victoria and Albert Bridge when first opened in 1861. This repeated renaming recurs throughout the book, and makes an interesting contrasts to other cities, such as London, where the need to mark major political change has been absent.

The bridges also encapsulate a history of engineering, as in many major and historic cities. The oldest surviving bridge is Mellows Bridge, a three-span masonry arch structure completed in 1768 to a design by military surveyor Charles Vallancey. However, older bridges crossed the Liffey in both timber and stone, and more recent structures include spans in cast iron, wrought iron, early steel, reinforced concrete, prestressed concrete, and modern steel. The most recent spans include highly contemporary structures such as the James Joyce Bridge, Samuel Beckett Bridge, and Seán O'Casey Bridge.

Much of the interest in Bridges of Dublin is in the ability to see so clearly the many historical, technical and architectural differences between the many structures, as well as their close similarities and relationships.

The text is generally good at providing some structural engineering detail for those with a more technological interest, and at crediting designers and builders. The text is not critical in nature, but is highly informative.

In addition to the sections on each bridge, there is an introduction by City Engineer Michael Phillips, which primarily relates the history of bridge engineering, and a useful chapter which sites the history of the bridges more clearly in context with the history of the city and its river (again accompanied by some very well reproduced historical images). Guides are given to two possible walking tours for the main city bridges, and a series of technical drawings are included covering key bridges, although these are reproduced too small to be of much value.

Overall, this is a very impressive book, not only for students of Dublin's architectural and engineering history, but for anyone with an interest in bridges. There are few books which bring so much well-researched information together with such an excellent range of imagery, and I can definitely recommend it to interested pontists.

06 February 2017

Calatrava in Greenwich

Plans have been announced for Santiago Calatrava's second bridge in the UK (the first being 1995's Trinity Footbridge). Yes, there's a whole load of other stuff as well, some yuppie flats and a super-sized greenhouse, but that's not what you read the Happy Pontist for, is it?

Ok, a little context. Calatrava's "Peninsula Place" is just part of a huge £8.4bn redevelopment of London's Greenwich Peninsula, albeit a key part as it includes the gateway underground station. The development is somewhat controversial, largely because of the very small proportion of "affordable" housing which is to be included, following pressure from the developers.

Calatrava's scheme is as grandiose as you would expect. The bridge is intended to link his part of the site, with station and apartment blocks, to the riverside.


It's a cable-stayed structure, so tall that they couldn't even fit all of it into one of the publicity images. In much of Calatrava's recent career the designer seems to have been largely rehashing all his older ideas, while making his designs steadily bigger and steadily more illogical. In line with this principal, he has chosen to stitch together two previous designs to make this new one: Calgary's Peace Bridge, and Valencia's Serreria Bridge.

Frankenstein would have been proud.

The bridge somewhat resembles a giant white snake shedding its skin, rearing up like some kind of super-sized horror-film monstrosity. It's far from clear what it actually spans (only a cycleway is shown in the visualisations), but it seems unlikely that it needs to be this big for functional reasons: like many of Calatrava's recent bridges, its giganticism seems purely symbolic.

The mast is restrained by a single vertical cable, necessitating enormous foundations to counter-balance the main span. (Perhaps it's also symbolic: look, the success of this enterprise is hanging by a thread.)

The curvature of the mast is to some extent structurally rational, as it reduced bending moments and hence should in theory slightly reduce the amount of steelwork required.

The main span is a tubular truss, with metalwork arranged in an intersecting helix, which evokes a futuristic sensibility without actually being structurally sensible in any way: there's a Jane Austen joke in there somewhere, I'm sure.


From the images, it seems as if the mast is on the riverside, which feels the wrong way round to me: the more visually and physically massive part of the bridge should be anchored further inland, I think.

Assuming this entire project doesn't go belly-up following an Brexit or Trump-related economic meltdown, I'm confident this will be a very interesting scheme to watch over the next few years.

04 February 2017

Deux livres sur les passerelles à Paris

I'll conclude my series of posts on the bridges of Paris with mentions for a couple more relevant books.

"Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvour, Paris" (Archives d'Achitecture Moderne, 128pp, 2006) is written by Armelle Lavalou, Francoise Lamarre and Jean-Paul Robert, and credited to the bridge's architect, Feichtinger Architectes.

It's a well-illustrated volume with text in both English and French throughout. It's filled with images of the completed bridge as well as its construction, but sadly the book is not large, measuring only 24cm by 16cm, which leaves some of the imagery and diagrams a little small.

The bridge is explained both in terms of its architecture and its engineering, although the explanation of the engineering is aimed squarely at non-technical readers: I was left with plenty of questions. A number of somewhat diagrammatic drawings are included, which are very interesting but without dimensions and again missing some of the details that would better explain how the bridge works.

There are some lovely pictures of competition-stage physical models and design-stage wind-tunnel test, which I'd like to have seen reproduced at much larger size. For me, the best section covers the construction of the bridge, including its static and dynamic load testing.

The book acknowledges the participation of RFR, the structural engineers, without giving them detailed credit, very much giving the impression that they were the subsidiary partner. I don't know whether this is a fair reflection or not.

Overall, it's an essential book for anyone wanting to learn more about this spectacular bridge, but it could have been much better.

"Passerelle Solferino Paris / Solferino Bridge Paris" (Birkhauser, 128pp, 2001) by Francoise Fromonot has the same page count but a larger format (30cm by 23cm). It is also well-illustrated, with shared French and English text. I didn't visit this bridge during my recent trip to Paris, but I thought it was worth featuring the book here anyway.

The core of the book has less text, giving more space to images of the design competition, the bridge under construction, and the completed span. The larger format works well for these.

The key attraction, for me at least, is the inclusion of a lengthy section covering the engineering design and construction issues, which gives extensive and numerical detail on key points such as foundation loads, vibration modes, steel grades etc. While I'm sure this is of limited interest to some readers, it opens up the opportunity for specialists to much better understand the merits of the design.

The book also features a number of detailed design drawings, which are fascinating because of the bridge's extensive geometric complexity. Indeed, perhaps the only thing missing here is a more critical voice, as this is a bridge which was criticised from several quarters, both for the complexity of its fabrication as well as its dynamic behaviour and initial lack of slip resistance.

Nonetheless, it's a thorough and well-presented book, and I can recommend it to anyone interested in this bridge.

29 January 2017

"Bridges of Paris" by Michael Saint James

This book offers a big contrast to The Glow of Paris, reviewed in my last post, even though ostensibly its subject is the same.

Both books are hefty coffee table photographic surveys of the river bridges of central Paris. Glow squeezes 35 bridges into 208 pages, while Michael Saint James's Bridges of Paris fits 37 bridges into 280 pages (Citron Bay Press, 280pp, 2015).

The photographs in Glow are all taken at night, in black-and-white, and in a fine tradition of photography which takes as its subject landscape, architecture, and light. The Bridges of Paris is more varied in approach and style.


Most photos are taken in daytime, some on short exposure, and others on long exposure, traffic and pedestrians becoming only a blurred presence. Most photos are reproduced in full-page size, but there are also plenty of smaller photos, taking in not just overviews of the bridges but also details such as sculpture or love-locks.


Each bridge is accompanied by an explanatory text giving key facts (dates and dimensions) as well as something of each structure's history. There are satellite maps to locate the bridges, and a very nice introduction with several reproductions of historical paintings of key bridges.


However, the main attraction to this book is its focus on the bridges not only as beautiful architecture, but as lived spaces. Most of the photographs include people using the bridges, people looking at the bridges, people looking out from the bridges. In several photographs you'd hardly know there was a bridge there at all: they focus on how they provide public spaces, occupied by artists, street traders and performers.


The quality of the photography is probably more uneven than in Glow, but there are some stunning photographs in Bridges of Paris, and the sheer variety shows how each bridge's character changes with season, time of day and weather.


There is more information on the book at its dedicated website. US readers can pick the book up fairly easily from amazon.com (currently at a significantly discounted price). Readers elsewhere may find it more difficult to get hold of, but for any admirer of Paris and its bridges, I think it's certainly worth the effort - it's an excellent book.





26 January 2017

"The Glow of Paris - The Bridges of Paris at Night" by Gary Zuercher

Having spent the last few posts on a whistlestop tour of some of the bridges of Paris, I'm going to round things off by featuring a few particularly relevant books which I consulted.

Gary Zuercher's The Glow of Paris - The Bridges of Paris at Night (Marcorp Editions, 208pp, 2015) [amazon.co.uk] is a photographic survey of the 35 bridges which span the Seine between the points where it is crossed by the Boulevard Périphérique.

It's a serious coffee-table tome, 30cm square, with all the photographs reproduced at least full page size. They are all in black-and-white and all photographed at night.


The photos have generally been shot on a long exposure, which gives a landscape quality to the bridges, softening the sky and river and eliminating fast traffic and pedestrians. Indeed, the images are posed to remove signs of life as far as possible, to focus on the structures and their context. This is clearly a conscious choice, and while it ensures bridges are depicted clearly and beautifully, it does divorce them from the cityscape as a lived space rather than merely a collection of stone and steel.

There is a good mixture of scales, from wide open shots depicting bridges in their setting, through to close-ups of architectural details. Throughout, the emphasis is on the interaction of form and light.


The book includes maps to help the reader understand where each bridge is, and each bridge is accompanied by typically a couple of pages text, describing the bridge's history and any interesting stories about it. These are aimed at the general reader, but are informative enough for all but the most serious bridge enthusiast. I referred to them quite a bit while preparing my Paris blog posts, although I did have to look elsewhere for more detail. The text isn't referenced, but it's simply not that kind of book!


I very much enjoyed the book and am really glad to have it on my shelves now. Taken together, the bridges cover a long and varied period of history, with numerous different materials, technologies and architectural styles. The photographs are excellent, and the book is recommended for admirers of photography, Paris, bridges, or all three.


There's an interview with Gary Zuercher about the book online, and you can find out more about it at his website, including many more sample images than I've had space for here.