ESSAY
Winter 2022

concerning bridge-ness

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melissa chambers

In 1968 an American industrialist bought London Bridge. In the early 60s it was found that the 130-year-old bridge was sinking into the Thames. Unsuited to modern traffic and destined for demolition, a decision was reached by the City of London council to instead try and sell the bridge. As luck would have it, Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri-born businessman who’d made his fortune in chainsaws, had recently annexed an area of western Arizona on the banks of Lake Havasu and was in need of one. So, in the Spring of that year this, the most English of bridges was dismantled, shipped to the American West via the Panama Canal, then carried by trucks to the desert where it stands today.

 

At the time, questions abounded as to what McCulloch was doing, foremostly: why buy an old English bridge that was known to be in poor condition when you could simply build a new one? I hear this question, and raise you an existential one: in moving a 19th-Century English bridge to the North American desert, what are you saying a bridge is for? Where does a bridge belong? What have you done with its essential bridge-ness

 

I have my reasons for worrying about this. I have moved between landscapes more than anyone else I know. Born in one country and with a home in two others, my life reveals an extended patchwork of auto-grafts onto unfamiliar moorings. Built for purpose in one place but perpetually in another, often I feel myself reaching for a coherent principle of what I am given where I’ve ended up. Around me looms an ungraspable kind of quandary of which cultural banks I’m straddling, and why.

 

So, I did what you do with ungraspable quandaries: sought expertise in something else. Where a bridge’s bridge-ness is concerned, this is what I learned.

 

As it turns out, there are seven kinds of bridges: Arch, Beam, Cantilever, Suspension, Cable stayed, Tied Arch and Truss. Engineer David Blockley [1] tells us that a bridge is put together much like a sentence is, its grammar consisting of substructures: beams, arches, trusses and suspensions, which converse with its superstructural features: towers, anchorages, decks and cables.

 

According to Blockley the bridge sentence works because the combination of these things either pushes mass into the middle, or pulls it to either side. Underwritten by gravity, what results is a fantastic dance between in, out, and down. Understanding the way internal forces flow through a bridge is, in engineering parlance, known as reading it. The secret doing-ness of a bridge, rather than its more conspicuous being-ness, is implied in the way a bridge is referred to when it falls. In technical terms it is not said to have fallen, but to have failed.

 

So, if a bridge can fail at something, what is it trying to succeed at?

 

Unlike a road, a bridge overcomes not just a passive separation of space, but a deliberate cleft of nature. The possible hubris of this has not gone unrecorded in legend as, some have argued, creation might have had perfectly good reasons to halt human freedom with rivers and canyons and only diabolical forces would help to traverse them. Ancient bridges were thought to upset the River Gods; it is thought that many old bridges contain human sacrifices in their foundations by way of apology for trespassing where nature forbade it.

 

In Paradise Lost, Milton went so far as to say that the first bridge builder was actually the Devil who, groping his way from Hell to Earth through the murk of chaos, engineered a bridge in his tracks, where followed his children: Sin and Death. 

 

Notwithstanding the Devil, the earliest material bridge still in existence is probably this one, the Pont des Caravan (Kervan Köprüsü) over the River Meles in Izmir, Turkey:

Kervan Köprüsü

Dating from roughly 850 BCE, at the time, it connected the end of the Assyrian Route, the longest and most important trade route of the western world, to boats plying the Mediterranean. Resolving the small natural obstacle of the Meles, this tiny, single-arched structure, like a wishbone, provided a link between the great geographical masses of land and sea, the equal flow of people, goods and ideas over it making it integral in the history of culture and commerce in the West.

 

As it turns out though, bridges don’t always unify. In 2014 Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea by building a  bridge, or rather two of them, via Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait. If bridge-ness ideally forges egalitarian connection between two sides, the Crimean Bridge mucks with this form, turning Crimea into an appendage of its overbearing neighbour. Here, a unifier of interests becomes the tentacle of an ideologue. And a significant tentacle at that. It is currently the longest bridge in Europe.


2.

 

Everyone has a bridge in their heart. For five years I lived near the Eastern anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, this bridge is in mine.

 

Aside from the fact that for me it represents a time of life, a town of great importance to me, and a house that I loved, I also find this bridge to be beautiful. Blockley tells us that all bridges, like planes, or indeed birds, are known as raw engineered structure. What with the sensitivity of the out, up and down dance, cosmetic features are rarely added and architects seldom involved. So, when a bridge is beautiful to you, in almost all cases what you are admiring is an engineering outcome. Simply, the attributes required to make it work.

 

Making the Brooklyn Bridge work was uniquely difficult; it took 14 years to build. The chief problem was the feature it was intended to cross, the East River, which isn’t a river but a tidal strait, and in the 1870s, one of the most turbulent and busiest stretches of navigable seawater in the world. A bastard of a thing to build over, the East River was already a bastard to traverse, especially in winter. In The Great Bridge, historian David McCullough reports that thousands of Brooklyn residents were regularly forced to overnight in the Fulton Ferry house when the river flowed so low that ferries ran aground. In 19th-Century winters the river also frequently froze, so, despite almost 100 years of prevarication over whether to build one and how, a bridge was inevitable. 

 

In its day, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It was also one of the highest, with a 39-metre clearance to allow masted ships to pass underneath. The Blockley-an sentence of a suspension bridge goes like this: 

 

Suspension system, towers, stiffening girder, bridge deck, anchorages. 

 

The dance involves massive draped cables exerting a downward force due to their immense weight, while suspenders (and in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge, oblique cable stays) deviate in tension to manage the degrees of freedom the structure enjoys, given contingencies of wind, water, tides, people and traffic. To the eye, the Brooklyn Bridge is a harp, but only because the East River determines it to be. What is in fact an active agreement of immense, undulating force and weight comes off, because of its stringed appearance, as lightness.

 

Elsewhere, for another bridge, this agreement is notably tampered with. When he bought the old London Bridge, rumours flew that McCulloch had thought he was buying the far more iconic Tower Bridge, not realizing the error until they lined up the pieces. The reason that McCulloch may have bid for London’s Tower Bridge (if they’d been selling that one) wouldn’t have been because it’s important to engineering history, though it is; McCulloch would have bought Tower Bridge because of how it looks. 

 

When it opened, ten years after the Brooklyn Bridge, Tower Bridge was the most sophisticated combined suspension and bascule bridge ever completed. Bascule derives from the French word for see-saw. This bridge reads as a suspension bridge does with the additional phrase of a divided deck ballasted by immense counter weights that swing unseen inside two vast subterranean chambers.

 

Fine. Tremendous, even! And now, to the rest of it, for which we will find there is no practical reason. The fact is: Tower Bridge doesn’t need to look like that.

 

In the 1890s, Tower Bridge was confected in the Neo-Gothic style to match the Tower of London, its medieval neighbour. Masquerading as a much older bridge, the windows, balconies and turrets on its massive towers serve no essential purpose (there’s nothing inside them but stairs and elevators) and were put there to appease Queen Victoria, who was not amused at a bridge being built so close to the Tower. “It represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure” wrote journalist and architect Henry Heathcote Statham at the time.

 

The bridge’s appearance leads to an interesting folly. One (and for a long time, I) could be forgiven for thinking it was actually the approach to the Tower, wrongly casting it as an important character in the doom of multitudes delivered to imprisonment and death in the Tower, who in actual fact would have gone there by boat. As a faux architectural extension, Tower bridge insinuates itself into the older structure’s story and, despite its iconic stature, somehow loses its footing in time.

 

The government code names for official procedures following the deaths of individual English monarchs are all English bridges. Though undoubtedly the bridge that brings death most freely to mind, Tower Bridge remains notably unassigned.


 

3.

 

The story of lives in cities is implicitly a story of bridges. I’ve lived near important ones, commuted over them on bicycles, paused on them to gather my thoughts, sometimes I’ve cried on them. It’s from bridges that I’ve looked at adopted cities from above and, in a circuitous life story of leaving one home and arriving in another, there’s a comfort in the straightforward way they resolve place and experience. You know what you’re in for with a bridge. It’s impossible to get lost on one.

 

Ayn Rand, an ideologue of her own kind, but also a frequent philosopher of cities wrote in Atlas Shrugged:

 

“… they say that there's nothing but circular motion in the inanimate universe around us, but the straight line is the badge of man, the straight line of a geometrical abstraction that makes roads, rails and bridges, the straight line that cuts the curving aimlessness of nature by a purposeful motion from a start to an end.”

 

Bridges haunt our figures of thought and of speech, the unseen spaces they imply infect our imaginations. More than just a reassuring straight line from a start to an end, from one bank to another though, a bridge gives visual form to the idea of union, of togetherness.

 

Jeanette Winterson lingers in this space in The Passion when she writes:

 

“We didn't build our bridges simply to avoid walking on water. Nothing so obvious. A bridge is a meeting place. A neutral place. A casual place. Enemies will choose to meet on a bridge and end their quarrel in that void... For lovers, a bridge is a possibility, a metaphor of their chances. And for the traffic in whispered goods, where else but a bridge in the night?”

 

4.

 

All histories of bridges are histories of people, including the people who died making them, and those who’ve ended their lives from them. In antiquity, bridge-junctions to the realm of the beyond are, like rivers, a recurring motif. In our own time, certain bridges, notably the Golden Gate in San Francisco, are so synonymous with suicide as to stand as soaring mass monuments. Ironically, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge was so preoccupied by the risk of falling that during its construction it had a safety net below it. The 19 workers who fell into it were known as the Halfway-to-hell-club. 

 

In one of the worst industrial accidents in Australia’s history, the West Gate bridge in Melbourne collapsed during construction in 1970, killing 35 people. In 2006, Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin created Structure and Sadness, a dance performance about this tragedy. In its first movement, dancers in duet manipulate symbolic objects of super and sub-structure (planks, elastics, lengths of dowel) while behind them, other dancers with the same materials slowly compile a vast balanced structure which covers the stage, rising upwards like a vertical row of dominoes. Like dominoes do, and because the West Gate did, you know that the structure will fall. Watching the performance, what struck me was not necessarily how awful (though given the actual narrative certainly it was) but how surprising it was when this happened.

 

We do not expect our structures to fail. As a species that builds, the horror of actual death on a bridge (especially mass death) converses with a kind of existential confounding of will. For the failure of a bridge is something bigger than a bridge, it is a collapse of hope.

 

In a weird perversion of the myth, some bodies were never recovered from the site of the West Gate tragedy and are thought to be interred forever in its foundations. In the final scene of Guerin’s piece dancers lie in a diagonal line and a plank is placed on top of them. A single dancer walks over the plank and into the darkness at the edge of the 

stage.

~

Nietzsche imagined human existence as a rope stretched over an abyss: on one side, nature in the raw, and on the other an aspiration of how we want that nature to be. “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal…” he wrote. 

 

No McCulloch moved me. I did it to myself. Unlike the London Bridge, I have no one else to blame. Perhaps the secret doing-ness of London Bridge still prevails, even over the cobalt blue Arizona waters, so foreign to its footprints. And maybe, so does mine, or maybe I am like this essay: an over-researched yet nevertheless loose compendium of facts, places and feelings that reaches towards a landing on a far-off bank obscured by mist, grasping on and on into the open air. Maybe I won’t be drawn together into a coherent principle, or ever understand the concert of structures that bear me across. What I do know is, my story started elsewhere, but that story might still hold. Then again, you can’t be sure, it could go either way.

References:

[1] Blockley, David. Bridges. Oxford University Press, 2010

Guerin, Lucy. Structure and Sadness. Malthouse Theatre / Melbourne International Festival, 2006

McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. Simon and Schuster, 1972

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Milton, John. Paradise Lost. quoted in Harrison, Thomas. Of Bridges. University of Chicago Press, 2021

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Penguin, 2007

Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. Vintage, 1990.

MELISSA CHAMBERS is an Australian theatre artist who lives in South East London. She is co-founder of The Signal House and The Signal House Edition. She has created shows for companies in Melbourne, New York (where she lived from 2008–2014), and for The Signal House in London. She teaches theatre-making at conservatories around London, and her original work has toured to festivals in New York, Amsterdam, Norway and Australia. She has been published in Freerange, her essay 'Fishing with Hemingway' is in Issue #1. and her memoir on leaving New York is in Issue #7 Website.

JEN ORPIN is a Manchester based landscape painter whose work responds to themes around the journeys we make, the open road, memories, nostalgia and documenting the often overlooked dark gritty corners of the urban environment. She has previously been long listed for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize, selected for the ING Discerning Eye, The New Light Art Prize and both Manchester HOME Open exhibitions. She also appeared in Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year where she was chosen in the judges top three. Her work has been shown at the Manchester Modernist Society, Saul Hay Fine Art, The Gallery Holt in Norfolk and the Wells Art Contemporary among others. She has been featured in the Guardian online and The Observer’s New Review arts and culture magazine. She is a member of Rogue Artists’ Studios, Manchester for whom, in 2019, she co-curated an exhibition of 45 female artists from around the UK, shining a light on female artists often overlooked in the art world.

(Image Credit: 'I'll be back before you know it'  2022 oil on canvas board, by Jen Orpin. By kind permission of the artist. INSTAGRAM, WEBSITE)