Bridge thinking

The bridge is a popular architectural phenomenon in the discourse of twentieth century philosophy, with Martin Heidegger and Michel Serres among the key proponents. In Heidegger’s seminal chapter on architecture and space, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, he describes the bridge as an exemplary technological structure due to its capacity to produce an environment through gathering different elements together in harmony: “It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream” (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, 1971).

While the rendering of Heidegger’s German prose in English is often enough to muddy the issue, he identifies something that is surely agreeable for anyone who has attended closely to the experience of bridge crossing: the sense of bringing together, of connectedness being focal.

Serres upstages Heidegger by publishing an entire book on bridges. Published in 2006, L’Art des ponts is an extended mediation on the bridge as structure and as a metaphorical concept that encapsulates all activity to do with moving between: “Method or hyphen, those are soft bridges;/ viaduct or bridge, those are hard unions or methods./ Watch: I am constructing a new footbridge;/ moving from matter to the sign and from the abstract/ to the concrete, I am bridging the hard and the soft. Whether of one/ or the other kind, I find bridges everywhere.” (77). Serres sees bridges at work in his vocation as a writer and thinker between disciplines, and in his origin narrative, as someone born in the bridge town of Agan, which is home to a famous canal bridge.

 

Sydney and bridges

Sydney is a city famous for its road bridges, in particular the inescapable iconicity of the harbour bridge. Though the poet Les Murray makes a compelling case for the less looked at but similarly impressive concrete competitor, the Gladesville Bridge, which at the time of its completion in 1964 was the largest, single span concrete arch ever constructed. In the first of his series of poems “The Sydney Highrise Variations”, Murray offers an unimprovable description of the bridge: “Gigantic pure form, all exterior, superbly uninhabited/ or peopled only by transients at speed, the bridge/ is massive outline” (1994, 171-172). The quaint notion of gathering expressed in Heidegger’s bridge-thinking is entirely absent here. Murray’s Gladeville bridge is the antithesis of dwelling, “an abstract hill”, “without country”, though no less impressive for this fact: “It feels good. It feels right./ The joy of sitting high is in our judgement./ The marvellous brute-force effects of our century work./ They answer something in us. Anything in us.” (172)

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Gladesville Bridge “

 

Footbridges tour

Footbridges are less conspicuous. Yet they offer an experience of crossing for which automotive movement is no substitute. Keen runners with a taste for distance will seek them out to ensure uninterrupted momentum across car dominated space, I will favour a footbridge route over traffic lights even if it means twice the distance.

The footbridges I describe below are of a particular kind: over busy roads, in the eastern suburbs or inner west and publicly accessible. There are other tours to be taken: footbridges over water (Parsley Bay, Cooper Park…), the large, highway spanning footbridges further away from inner Sydney, and private or institutionally restricted footbridges (the UTS footbridge over Harris Street or between the GCA towers in Redfern).

Starting from Waterloo and heading east, I can bag seven footbridges if I’m prepared to run for more than an hour and half: over South Dowling Street, Tibby Cotter Walkway over ANZAC Parade, Nelson Street Bridge over Syd Einfeld Drive, the pedestrian bridge over New South Head Road on the Eastern side of Kings Cross, the bridge over Wattle Street between Ultimo and Wentworth Park and the two footbridges of Sydney Uni,  over Parramatta and City Roads.

 

South Dowling Street

The bridge over South Dowling Street links the eastern part of Redfern with the parklands of Moore Park; it’s stadiums, golf courses, athletics fields and the large expanse of Centennial Park. It’s a portal from one kind of environment to another. The, heavily built-up, car dominated streets of Redfern transition into open grassy fields, pedestrian pathways, landscaped native plantings and an abundance of sporting amenity.

The approach to the bridge at the western end is a footpath that deviates from Bourke St through the internal reserves of the Moore Park Gardens apartment complex. In a sense you could argue that the footbridge experience begins with the pedestrian crossing over Bourke St. Closer to the heart of the bridge there are a couple of barriers made from patterned laser cut cladding to prevent cyclists from going too fast. The pathway is well used and I’ve often had to negotiate a smooth trajectory with people coming the other way. Often people with dogs and sometimes fitness groups cluster in the internal reserves.

In what seems a particularly auspicious encounter as far as my morning runs go, I once saw Clover Moore and Ita Buttrose having an exchange on the bridge with their two little dogs.

The bridge itself is an impressive, suspension structure with the support for the walkway coming from a spray of white cables and an obliquely sloping steel pillar at the eastern end. If you run across it eastwards in the early morning the form mirrors the spreading rays of the rising sun which pops out behind it. The  lower railings have been extended with wire caging for the sake of safety, so it feels a little bit like a tube and less like the pure exterior to which Murray refers in his Gladesville Bridge poem.

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Image from : Neil’s Wollongong & Sydney

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Cars between the city and the south race underfoot, disappearing and reappearing from tunnels networking beneath the ground. In this sense the layer of soil or cement we call the ground is an accidental bridge of sorts, with an entire world of unseen flows (worms, water, roots, cars, electricity, gas) hollowed out beneath the crust. Perhaps the substance of the earth will become increasingly riddled by these flows till we begin to think of ourselves as in the middle ground, always able to see another world moving beneath when we look down.

At the eastern exit the foot traveller is confronted with a tee intersection. An asphalt path traces the perimetre of the golf course and the fields to the northern end. For off road types, a bush track deviates from the asphalt paths and runs up the hill, directly along the golf course fence. In the morning, heading east, this track makes for a wonderful  detour through sun filtering eucalyptus to the top of Mt Steel, one of the four sandy hills that once gave the area the name The Sand Hills. It’s one of the best views of the CBD, which seems to float like an island on the horizon, at once another world away and seemingly close enough to reach out and touch.

Tibby Cotter Walkway

Next up, the infamous Tibby Cotter Walkway is as grand as footbridges come. It’s both long and wide, an elaborate snaking form giving walkers the most gentle of slopes as they move over Anzac parade between the different playing fields of Moore Park.

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It’s a far cry from the cramped, steepness of many of the other footbridges. There’s no sense of penny pinching here, if anything it seems there might have been excess money and material to use up. This bridge is a red carpet, the perpetually unfolding garment of royalty. Unlike the other footbridges over busy roads, Tibby Cotter is substantial enough to make it feel as though the roads have vanished and you are walking through a landscape of an altogether different kind.

The only problem is its location. It’s seemingly orphaned from key cross roads and the direct route it provides is exclusive to the sports fans who frequent the stadiums. It’s as much a piece of public art as it is a functional walkway: a concrete sculpture, flanked by gold gleaming lazer cut cladding, gathering up the abundant sporting amenity of the area into its bridgeness. The ample width allows cyclists to cruise across without dismounting and prevents the bottlenecking of large crowds.

The eastern entrance is graced by a new outdoor gym, complete with dips and chin-up bars and a forgiving rubber surface. With the tranquil waters of Kippax Lake and the large Port Jackson figs nearby, this is among the most scenic places to exercise in the city.

Although I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, the occasional lumps of horse manure that litter the bridge suggest our equestrian friends occasionally make the journey across this raised expanse. I can imagine few sights more uplifting to behold than the mounted police riding westward, over Anzac Parade, into the sun over that generous, slightly uneven concrete surface.

Those sleeping rough might be less impressed by the waffled concrete lumps that protrude from the surface underneath the bridge. An example of hostile architecture designed to ‘ungather’ the affordances brought into relation by the structure and discourage people from staying the night beneath its shelter. Although, with soft, generous, sheltered beds of wood chips nearby, it seems these disagreeable lumps might be more of a signal than a practical deterrent for the homeless population.

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Nelson Street Bridge

The Nelson Street Bridge is a marked contrast to the generous cement ribbon of Tibby Cotter. Tucked away in a backstreet of Bondi Junction, it is cramped, steep, and endearingly unsafe.

The Nelson Street Bridge is perhaps unique among highway footbridges due to its relatively meagre railings. If the bridge isn’t soon pulled down, these will almost certainly be augmented with cage extensions in the near future. MHN Design Union’s recent architectural report on the West Oxford Street Vision make note of this feature along with its narrowness and steep steps.

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Despite its inconspicuous positioning the Nelson Street Bridge is a crucial conduit for pedestrians wanting to move between Woollahra and the Bondi Junction shopping precinct. Rarely have I crossed it and not seen another foot traveller. The alternative routes are the mess of traffic lights and median strips at the top of Ocean, Birrell and Oxfords Streets. Or through the bowels of the overpass further to the east.

Like the South Dowling street bridge, the Nelson Street Bridge is also prominently positioned for traffic moving to and from the east and is often brandished with an advertising banner. The bridge facilitates a pronounced transition from the grimy backstreets of Bondi Junction (“lacking a sense of identity”, according to MHNDU report) to the more salubrious, tree shaded, embassy lined, streets of Woollahra.

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New South Head Road

The pedestrian bridge over New South Head Road seems to be of a similar era to the Nelson Street Bridge. Its low railings and narrow walkways speak of what is now perhaps a forgotten era of pedestrian bridge building in Sydney. This relative meagreness of structure exposes the foot traveller to the full-bridge-effect. Cars rush underfoot and there’s a nice view to back to the east towards Darling Point.

This bridge links the back streets of Darlinghurst to the picturesque green amenity of Rushcutters Bay. In a sense the bridge begins with the steep, pedestrian friendly walkway at McLachlan Avenue that cuts across Womerah and Barcom Avenues. A group of water fountains and lawn are a nice touch at the southern end.

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The angled ramps at either end have long provided shelter for people sleeping rough, in particular the Rushcutters bay side. It once housed a decent contingent of homeless people who also made use of the services of the Wayside Chapel, though it now appears unoccupied.

The space under a bridge, eulogised by Kurt Cobain in Nirvana’s ‘Something In The Way’, has traditionally been a place of refuge for people without access to more secure dwellings. It’s doubtful  Heidegger had this hidden affordance in mind when he spoke of the different spaces a bridge brought into relation. He wrote of the stream, the bank and the landscape and the coming and going bridges afforded ‘mortals’ (that’s Heidegger for humans). But in addition to being a pathway over and between, a bridge is always an under to rest. As Murray astutely observes in his poem, a bridge is both an “abstract hill” for those going over, and “a ponderous grotto, all entrance and vast shade” for those staying under.

It’s a relatively long stretch from Kings Cross to the footbridge over Wattle Street from Ultimo to Wentworth Park. The entry to the bridge from the Ultimo side is a steep decent down Quarry St. The bridge is the only wooden surfaced bridge in this series and is more modern than Nelson St or New South Head, although it still retains a rustic, industrial feel. It’s also the only bridge with a lift.

The wall of safety mesh from ground to roof makes the bridge into a wire tube. The strong sense of enclosure means the vertiginous rush of the more exposed bridges is absent.

The steps at the western side are often used as part of fitness routines for the exercise groups that use the outdoor gyms and open grass areas of Wentworth Park. There’s also a bubbler nearby.

Like many of the other examples, this bridge facilitates a kind of portal effect: from pedestrian hostile, urban street, to a distinctively new environment. The sense of being magically transported from one place to the next, as though being placed in a new context, would be reduced if it were simply a matter of traffic lights and road crossing. In this sense bridges are smoothness and levity in crossing, eliminating the humiliating affects of waiting.

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The bridge from Forest Lodge into Sydney University is a much needed safety route for students across one of Sydney’s most hectic roads. It’s the only footbridge I know to have a theatre named after it.

The Sydney University footbridge was built in 1972, after a number of student protests. Apparently it was more or less a continuous game of Frogger across Parramatta Road and accidents were not uncommon. This isn’t surprising, based on my knowledge of the large numbers of students bolting across the mid-section of Harris Street between the different buildings at UTS (even though there is a footbridge above them!).

The bridge is in the low railing style of the older footbridges I’ve described. Appropriately, this means it’s accessible to banner wielding students and is often adorned by a political status update.  The steps and railings at either end are more up-to-date than the pockmarked asphalt surface. The unique twin stairways on the university side could almost be described as expressionistic. If you’re thirsty there’s a bubbler and water refill station as soon as you enter the university and there’s the opportunity to enjoy the unique knitted brickwork of the John Roberts’ Footbridge Theatre, a great example of the late-twentieth century international style.

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The last bridge on the circuit is perhaps my least favourite of the seven. The Keith Murray Footbridge connects Camperdown and Darlington sections of the Sydney University campus either side of City Road. The original footbridge was built in 1966 with the new iteration completed in 2008.

The difference between the old and new Keith Murray bridges encapsulates the changing focuses of footbridge building in Sydney. Safety measures are the order of the day and on balance that is probably a good thing. The technological means by which humans gain immunity from death have become increasingly elaborate, robust and numerous. This leads to things like patterned safety screens, through which the dark green leaves of Moreton Bay Figs are visible. This perhaps the source of my antagonism towards this bridge–why not just leave it blank so you can see the tree, or is it something to do with the safety of birds?

The entry to the bridge from the Camperdown end is almost as gradual as Tibby Cotter, with a long, straight ramp. At the Darlington end, it’s a contrasting collision of steps leading underneath the SciTech Library or down to the other side of City Road.

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This concludes my series of real footbridges. Many vaguely conceived, unbuilt imaginary footbridges might be added to this list: across Cleveland Street at the corner of George and Cleveland where the cycleway meets Prince Alfred Park; where Cleveland Street meets Anzac Parade in Moore Park; from Central Park across Broadway to UTS. These are specific to the regular routes I take in the city. There are no doubt many other imagined footbridges nesting in the minds of people out there. I’d be very happy to hear about any of them.

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