Start talking about bridges, and the metaphors threaten to take over the substance of the conversation. Bridge the gap. Burn your bridges. Build a bridge to the future. The language of bridges tends to overpower other ideas. If you think these turns of phrase are easy to avoid, well, I've got a bridge to sell you. And yet, the Riverlife Task Force actually does have a bridge to sell you. Right now it's a few, actually, but in potentially good ways.
In its ongoing mission to make Pittsburgh's rivers more beautiful and habitable, the Task Force has sponsored an international competition to design a pedestrian-friendly addition to the West End Bridge.
The competition itself is almost as complex as a piece of civil engineering. Eighty-five architects submitted proposals for a pedestrian bridge. The jury chose three finalists from this group: Endres Ware, of Berkeley, Calif.; Index Space Architecture, of Miami, Fla.; and Llonch + Vidalle Architecture, of Buenos Aires and New York City. In addition, 24 firms were invited to submit their credentials and examples of their previous bridge-design work. From this group, the jury chose four finalists, including Bridgescape LLC, of Columbia, Md.; La Dallman Architects, of Milwaukee; TEN Arquitectos, of Mexico City and New York City; and West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. All seven firms are now invited to produce more refined, final designs. The jury will choose a winner in May. Designs by all of the finalists as well as a broad selection of entrants are currently visible on the Web at www.riverlifecompetition.org (though higher resolution would be helpful).
As in conversation, the language of bridges also tends to have an overpowering effect on design. Starting with the West End Bridge. This is one of the most beautiful structures in this notoriously bridge-filled city. It's a gateway, it's a monument, it's a grand piece of machine-age engineering with architectural detail from lost arts.
The temptation to say it ain't broke looms like a gigantic arch. In fact, though, the bridge does need a few things: better access for pedestrians, and also better harmony with the landscape and street grid of the river's edge and nearby areas. And while competitions often favor the most dramatic, eye-catching and, in this case, structurally ambitious designs, the West End bridge, as Patricia Lowry has already said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calls for a much lighter hand. This will be at least as much a problem of landscape and urban design as it is an exercise in structural heroics.
Maybe the proposal by Endres Ware will be the basis of the winning entry. Its scheme shows a poetic but unobtrusive footpath suspended by cables from the large arch and curving outward to a point. It responds to the existing structure without overpowering it.
Even better, maybe LaDallman architects will design the winner. Their firm submitted credentials and sample projects rather than a design. Still, their example of the Marsupial Bridge in Minneapolis, which makes an underbridge space into a designed landscape with a temporary movie theater, reflects exactly the sort of light but crowd-drawing touch that this task calls for. It proves that the best design might not be the most photogenic.
When it comes to the roller-coaster trusses of West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, and the agreeably bombastic glass vitrine from TEN Arquitectos, projects of these sorts could work for Pittsburgh's rivers. They just need to be chosen for sites that will not overpower existing work that is already good.
The process of this competition has been both meticulous and open in ways that have generated good ideas and positive press for Pittsburgh and the Riverlife Task Force, and more seems likely to come. But the West End Bridge needs only subtle changes to enhance its accessibility. This process has identified design talent clearly; it just needs to be sure that a competition winner isn't something that ruins the already-outstanding West End Bridge.
After all of this effort and expertise, a new pedestrian bridge has to be one that we want to cross when we come to it.