Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Bridges are among the most perennially potent city symbols. The medieval London Bridge was an urban wonder, a riposte to Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. This teeming microcosm of the city bore a chapel, shops and tall houses all crowded together so it created its own skyline of pointed gables, domes, chimneys and crenellations. Its nursery-rhyme fame was such that even its less theatrical successor was important enough to be bought by a US businessman to give gravitas to his otherwise anonymous Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

The bridges that once served as both critical transport link and fortified city gate later became a more straightforward chunk of transport infrastructure. At their nadir, the railway bridges that crossed London’s river became clunky engineering constructions with minimal concessions to aesthetics. The hulking Hungerford railway bridge that we see today between Westminster and Waterloo bridges replaced an elegant suspension bridge by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ghost of that bridge now appears in a darkened room in a new exhibition on London’s bridges at the Docklands Museum, photographed when it was new by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1845 on a faintly sepia-toned print that is fading away to nothing.

It is a sublime centrepiece for the exhibition, an image as transient as the city’s bridges themselves. It was an American, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who with his Japanese-ey nocturnes redefined the Thames and its bridges in a mist of Aesthetic Movement elegance. Even clumsy iron structures reappeared (as they had done in JMW Turner’s dramatic oils) as half-formed ideas, neo-Platonic archetypes emerging from the fog.

Unfortunately, Whistler is not represented here by his magically crepuscular paintings but by some rather pedestrian engravings. Even these, though, illustrate the centrality of bridges to the image of the city. There might be no Canaletto here but there is a wonderful 1766 engraving of the complex scaffolding and the construction of the stone arches of Blackfriars Bridge designed by Robert Mylne but engraved by Giambattista Piranesi. The Italian had never visited London but was set the task by the architect, who so admired his engravings of awe-inspiring Roman ruins.

There are also a pair of beautiful interwar prints by CRW Nevinson that capture the vitality of the river as an urban artery, a place in which the cranes compete with Wren’s church spires and the spewing factory chimneys as the real symbols of the city. Very different from his stylised, futurist/deco/vorticist abstractions, the blackness of their tones evokes a dirty, sooty, working city with bridges as smudges across the gushing river.

The rest of the show is dominated by photos of rush-hour streams of commuters in which the traffic on the bridge seems to outdo the urgency and volume of the river below. Just as Whistler and Nevinson portrayed the bridges as poorly differentiated dark streaks, so the mush of traffic, daytime commuters and night-time headlights captured as lines of light present the city’s bridges as structures in motion, temporary and temporal structures in constant flux.

Suki Chan’s 2011 panoramas of the city, meanwhile, intriguingly reveal the extent of its infrastructure, with snaking rail lines and roads, yet also celebrate its drama. These big pictures are counterbalanced by dozens of anonymous everyday snaps in which London’s bridges become the equivalent of Eugène Atget’s Paris streets or Andreas Feininger’s New York skyscrapers, symbols of the city.

Among the bridges of the past there is also a rendering of the proposed Garden Bridge, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, that could link Temple and the South Bank. Heatherwick was responsible for one of London’s great bridges with his magical Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin, built in 2004; this scrolls up on itself like a snail shell to allow boats to pass. His new project, however, is half-bridge, half-park: a thoroughfare for pedestrians lined with trees and designed for strolling and enjoyment, leisure rather than transport.

It prompts a few questions about what bridges are for. This theme is not addressed in the exhibition but the most recent incarnation of new thinking about bridges is Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, which connects the precincts of St Paul’s with London’s contemporary place of pilgrimage, Tate Modern. A pedestrian bridge more about leisure than work, it addresses a fundamental shift in the city’s psyche in which the river becomes a site of cultural consumption rather than a negotiated barrier or a conduit of trade.

Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge concretises this shift. But, unlike the razor-thin Millennium Bridge, Heatherwick’s is a lumpier, pseudo-organic structure that attempts to mimic the trees in the park it carries, a contemporary version of the bridge as garden folly. This is a strange idea for a city that is still careless of its riverside, the waste of which is an ongoing aesthetic and urbanistic scandal that is little remarked on.

Also not covered here is the imbalance of the bridges west of Tower Bridge (of which there are 22) and east (just one). London’s pressing need is for new crossings to the east to enable housing construction. Last week the revival of a long-touted east London crossing was announced. First proposed in Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 plan for the reconstruction of London, this proposal has been constantly resurrected, constantly killed anew. The new design by HOK and Arup is not particularly dramatic, skilful or sculptural but it is sorely needed as the weight of the city’s population shifts eastward.

For some decades, bridges became a marker for urban ambition. Cities around the world rushed to commission architects to create distinctive bridges as instant icons: both a metaphor for regeneration and the union of once-segregated post-industrial sites. The trend has faded just in time for London to reveal its own plans, and the proposed Heatherwick bridge seems like a gesture that answers a question no one was asking rather than a functional structure to address a social and economic need.

This is a delightful little exhibition that manages to avoid nearly all the big questions but does, at least, illustrate how central bridges are to the city’s image of itself – and how acutely they reflect the changing needs, desires and vanities of its administrations.

‘Bridge’, Museum of London Docklands, to November 2, Museum of London; Tower Bridge Exhibition

Photographs: Arup; Museum of London

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