Bridges as art
Golden Gate Bridge, USA
Millau Viaduct France
Cables enable us to build bridges with a lightness of touch that can be beautiful.|
Indeed they enable us to make bridges that are not simply beautiful but can lay claim to be conscious public works of art.
The light and shallow curves of the cables of big bridges like Golden Gate and Tsing Ma, the slim elegance of the Millau Viaduct in France and the graceful sweep of a masonry arch bridge or Maillart's concrete Salginatobel Arch Bridge in Switzerland all demonstrate the principle of the beauty of harmony between form and function.
However they are arguably not works of public art.
Their undeniable beauty derives naturally from their structural form in a naturally harmonious context. It is almost an unintended consequence of their structure - the flow of their internal forces.
Their aesthetic quality is like that of many garden plants - a naturally evolved beauty through form. If you hold the view that artistic beauty can derive from natural form then they are beautiful - but they are not works of conscious public art.
Their beauty arises from their principal duty - to be an efficient structure.
So what is the difference between a bridge which qualifies as public art and one that doesn't?
A firm definition of art is elusive.
Nevertheless art can be created and enjoyed without one.
People make art but also decide what objects do and do not qualify as art.
What experts consider as high art changes through time - there are few absolutes.
Classic definitions often refer to two basic elements - knowledge and production.
Art was knowledge of the rules for making things - but also the capacity for making something - a power of the practical intellect.
So designing combinations of naturally beautiful plants in a garden is a form of practical art that requires knowledge of how to nurture plants.
Art is about making - it is a skilled way of living.
Modern definitions of art tend to refer to an exploration and expansion of perceptual awareness of the world around us.
How do we know fine art when we see it?
Art is about changing the world and getting a reaction.
It is not simply about beauty but it is about taste or the validity of aesthetic excellence.
So how do we judge a bridge as public art?
I am going to suggest four criteria.
The first concerns the intensity of your initial emotional reaction.
If when you first look at a bridge your eye is drawn, you are stimulated, engaged, absorbed, then there is artistic quality.
Good art is arresting so my first criterion is to what extent do you agree with the statement:
When I first saw this bridge I experienced a powerful emotional reaction.
My second criterion is about composition and harmony.
A bridge in context is an exercise in composition as surely as when an artist paints a picture or prepares a sculpture.
Good composition requires a bridge to fit its context.
Appropriate proportion and scale are all important.
In summary my second criterion is to what extent do you agree with the statement:
The bridge is in total harmony with its context.
The third criterion is about frozen movement.
Photographic snapshots of people are more interesting when people are not merely standing still with arms by their sides but are doing something natural.
A sculpture is effective when there is implied movement.
In summary my third criterion is to what extent do you agree with the statement:
The bridge gives me a sense of frozen movement.
The fourth criterion is about clarity and unity of flow of line, shape, texture, contrast and form.
Is its form pleasing to the eye?
Do you get a sense of the parts coming together to form a whole?
The opposite of simplicity is clutter. It is distracting and takes our attention away from the essence of something.
In summary the fourth criterion is to what extent do you agree with the statement:
The bridge has clear form that makes sense to you.
If you wish to test these criteria against some real bridges then
try completing a bridge aesthetics questionaire..............
Bradford on Avon, UK
Salginatobel Bridge, Switzerland