19 March 2017

"The Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin" by Michael English

In a recent post, I reviewed Annette Black and Michael Barry's "Bridges of Dublin", a survey of the many bridges spanning the River Liffey in Ireland's capital city. This time, I've been reading a rather more singular volume.

"The Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin" (Dublin City Council / Four Courts Press, 272pp, 2016) [amazon.co.uk] documents only one of Dublin's bridges, although certainly the best known.

Built in 1816, the Ha'penny Bridge (named for its toll) was the first iron bridge in Ireland. It was designed and fabricated by the Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire, the same as had built the pioneering Iron Bridge in 1779. The new crossing replaced an existing ferry, and was promoted by the ferry proprietors William Walsh and John Claudius Beresford as a private initiative.

The bridge has survived two centuries of often eventful Irish history, and this book wisely takes a very open-ended approach to documenting its subject.

The author, Michael English, is a graphic designer and photographer, and the book is beautifully presented and laid out throughout. It is filled with depictions of the bridge in art and photography, both historical and contemporary, and many of the excellent photographs are the author's. There are pictures of souvenirs, bridge poems, anecdotes, a plethora of directly and indirectly relevant material. In this respect it is a truly exemplary publication: any bridge would be proud to be recorded in this manner.

Different authors contribute different chapters to the book. The text drives onto, across, beneath and away from the bridge; treating it as a vantage point to explore the bridge, its surroundings, and its context from many angles.

David de Haan offers a history of Coalbrookdale, source of Englands' best known iron bridge, and of the cast iron shipped to Dublin. This explains everything from the iron smelting process to the broader industrial transformation which allowed iron to challenge stone for economy. Gerard Smyth recounts the main points of the bridge's history, while Logan Sisley describes the the fortunately ill-fated 1913 plan to replace the bridge with the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Michael English recounts the history of some of the people who passed beneath the bridge most often: the Guinness company, whose barges transported Guinness stout below the bridge for many years. Annette Black offers a more cultural history of the bridge, probably my favourite chapter. It's a history of the bridge, but also a history of Dublin with the bridge as merely a convenient nexus. For me, this gets under the skin both of the bridge and the city: the bridge is not a monument, or an icon, but a site which features in people's everyday lives, a home to the homeless as much as a crossing for others.

I was a little disappointed in Michael Barry's chapter describing the bridge's 1998-2001 refurbishment and restoration. There are a few extracts from drawings and one engineering diagram, but I felt there was just too little detail on what appears to have been a very sensitive and carefully-considered project.

The penultimate chapter, by architect Seán Harrington, describes his design of Dublin's Millennium Bridge, now one of the main places from which to view the Ha'penny Bridge, and a structure where the various differences and similarities are constructive. The final chapter consists of Michael English's photographs of the bridge taken at different times of day and different periods in the year. These are excellent, well portraying way in which such a simple structure can appear so very different as hours and seasons pass.

Although the book is extensive in its coverage, one area where it is lacking is in any discussion of the Ha'penny Bridge's siblings. The distinctive form of its cast iron ribs, with two layers of quadrilateral braced ribs (like the more modern Vierendeel girder), was not new in 1816, indeed the appearance of the bridge was essentially a copy of Thomas Telford and Thomas Stanton's Meole Brace bridge, completed in Shropshire in 1811 and supplied by William Hazledine. The same or very similar design was used again in 1813 for the Cantlop Bridge, and then repeated after completion of the Ha'penny Bridge, in 1818 for the Cound Bridge (now reconstructed in Telford) and in 1823 at Stokesay. If you look at close-up images of Cantlop Bridge, the relationship is very clear.

Overall, however, this is an excellent book, highly relevant to anyone with an interest in Dublin or in bridges, particularly the role that they play in urban history. As already noted, it's a very attractive book, exceptionally well-illustrated, and a great example of what can be produced by people who allow their passion for a subject to drive what they do.

14 March 2017

Winner announced in Upper Orwell Crossings competition

The winner of Suffolk County Council's competition to choose an architect for two new bridges across the Upper Orwell has been announced as Foster and Partners.

I discussed this RIBA-organised contest at length last August, and again in September. You may recall that this is not a conventional bridge design competition: it's quite possible that the winner's designs will never get built. It was a contest to select an architect to partner the project's engineering consultant, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, who had already been selected.

There was much to criticise in how the contest was initially set up: its limitation to large firms (overturned after protests), the desire for an arranged marriage rather than allowing natural design partnerships to form, and the intention for architects to demonstrate their worth in isolation i.e. without actually working with the project's engineer. Of the various shortlisted firms, several either had internal engineering expertise anyway or brought along their own choice of partner.

As originally promoted, entrants had to submit two entries for both bridges required, and would be evaluated 40% on price. I wonder whether these criteria survived, as only one design has been released from the winner, and they do not have the reputation of charging at the bottom of the scale. Alternatively, maybe they were the cheapest, and the design presented was only second best. I think we may never know.

It's difficult to comment in detail on what can be seen of the winning design. Without drawings or context, they say little. However, a few things are clear.

The competition jury appears to have treated this like a conventional contest: they praise the "economical elegance" of the designs, and comment specifically on how pedestrian routes have been integrated with the highway bridges. On both bridges, the walkway / cycleway is a separate structure tacked onto the main bridge, although not gratuitously, instead allowing the designer to consider what is best for different flow preferences.

The high-level bridge is the more exotic of the two, reminding me of a treetop walkway, with the non-motorised path nestled at the top of giant steel tree-trunks and below the fumes of the highway canopy. It has an expensive rather than structurally rational appearance, and in this regard it's interesting to read what local MP Ben Gummer has to say:
"The fact that we will have what will be a globally recognised bridge of beauty will say something powerful about our town's ambition and our place not just in our county, or our region, or our country, but in the world."
At the risk of offending locals, this is Ipswich, not Paris or Geneva. It's hard not to wonder how well a forced marriage between the incumbent consultant and a big-name architect will work. Ambition should not be scoffed at, but I do wonder whether Ipswich really needs something world-class, or whether they would have been better to set their sights a little lower.

The RIBA Competitions office has a track record of limited success (6 out 8 competition-winning bridges were never built), so it will also be interesting to see whether the Upper Orwell Crossings project bucks that particular trend.