Canadian Consulting Engineer

What is a Bridge?

August 1, 2000
By Spiro N. Pollalis, with drawings Alberto Diaz-Hermidas. Cambridg

BOOKSReview by Norman R. BallSpiro N. Pollalis described his first meeting with Santiago Calatrava as "electrifying ... I was convinced that Santiago would transform bridge design forever."Pollalis se...


Review by Norman R. Ball

Spiro N. Pollalis described his first meeting with Santiago Calatrava as “electrifying … I was convinced that Santiago would transform bridge design forever.”

Pollalis set out to write “a single piece of work that epitomizes Calatrava’s approach to design.” A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Pollalis has done better than that. His study of the Alamillo Bridge, which opened in Seville in 1992, explores the links between architecture and engineering as well as the influence of production and construction methods.

The harp-shaped, cable-stayed Alamillo Bridge was one of three routes from Seville to Expo ’92. With a height of 142 metres and a span of 200 metres, it is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks as well as a daring piece of engineering: The bridge’s single inclined pylon without backstays was unprecedented in bridge and building design.

Reading What Is A Bridge? encourages the reader to think about how such extraordinary structures come into being. At least four factors were important.

First: occasion. In 1992, Spain was celebrating its membership in the European Union, the quincentenary of the discovery of the Americas, the Olympic Games in Barcelona, and the Universal Exposition in Seville. Nevertheless, in many countries, structures built to celebrate special occasions are inept, ugly, or merely bland.

Second: courage and the right rules. Spain has the nerve to recognize excellence openly. Calatrava got the commission for the Alamillo Bridge by a provision in Spanish law whereby direct commissions can be given to internationally recognized architects without an official competition or competitive bidding.

Third: a top-notch supporting cast. Pollalis praises the contractors, who had to bid before finished drawings were available. They “did not argue against innovations or claim inexperience with similar structures. Neither did they ask for unreasonable compensation for the many change orders. Above all, the contractors were willing to assume risks and responsibilities beyond contractual obligations in order to see the bridge built as close to Calatrava’s intentions as possible.”

Such praise for contractors reminded me of a conversation I had with Calatrava eight years ago. Never had I heard an engineer or architect talk in such glowing terms of the men who made his visions reality by making the forms and pouring the concrete.

Fourth: genius is not enough. Attention to how people experience bridges and buildings is a hallmark of Calatrava’s work. The Alamillo Bridge, in a seemingly undesirable location, has become a neighbourhood focal point. People like to walk on the bridge and enjoy the views of the river and the city. The bridge is “an extension of its Seville neighbourhood and part of the urban context.”

Could the Alamillo Bridge have been built in Canada? Can we have healthy consulting engineering industries without equally healthy politics, and construction, and manufacturing industries? Read What Is A Bridge? and ask yourself these questions.

Norman R. Ball, Ph.D. teaches technology and values at the University of Waterloo.


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