There are alternatives to Caltrans Brutalist style
- Published Wednesday, June 30, 2004, in the San Francisco Chronicle
Walking bridge that soars
REVIEW: Calatrava design spans river with lighter-than-air effect
By John King
REDDING -- Some people visit Europe and return with leather boots or a
tweed cap. Philanthropists from this former timber capital returned
with a Calatrava -- and anyone in California who loves design is in
[BATN: Heinously Flash-infested official web site <http://www.calatrava.com>.
Better: <http://www.google.com/search?q=redding+calatrava> ]
It's not that the new Sundial Bridge here is Great Architecture, or a
career peak for Spanish visionary Santiago Calatrava. It isn't. But
it's a wonderfully calibrated delight -- an artistic feat of
engineering that resembles nothing around it except perhaps the angled
neck of an egret rising from the riverbank toward the sky.
In short, it stirs the imagination. That's what Calatrava sets out to
do with every project, and why he has become one of the world's most
Indeed, if there's a silver lining for Redding in the costly and
almost comical wait since Calatrava was approached by the McConnell
Foundation in 1995 to design a footbridge that would link their
planned museum to riverside trails and a new botanical garden, it's
that Calatrava has of late become something close to a media
This year he's been profiled in Time and Newsweek. He designed the
Olympic Stadium in Athens. He's working on plans for a new canal
bridge in Venice and a major transit station where the World Trade
Center once stood. Yet his only existing works in America are at the
Milwaukee Art Museum, where winglike roofs open and close -- and on
the Sacramento River in Redding.
It's as if the foundation bought futures that now are paying off.
What hasn't changed since 1995 is Calatrava's instantly recognizable
style: He's one of the few designers for whom architecture and
engineering are inseparable. Always white, and with a bare minimum of
decoration beyond steel or concrete and glass, his bridges and transit
stations slice through the air at unexpected angles, turning
infrastructure into sculpture.
Or is it the other way around?
That said, this lyrical white form isn't just a counterpoint to the
folded green and blue of the river landscape: It is a cantilevered
cable-stayed bridge with a single pylon that's 217 feet high. The
pylon leans back at a 42-degree angle to create an upward pull on 14
galvanized steel cables that, in turn, support the steel trusses and
translucent glass surface of the 700-foot span.
The result is a deft balancing act. The strength of the pylon holds
the bridge in place; the weight of the bridge keeps the pylon erect.
But what's captivating about Sundial Bridge isn't the engineering
pyrotechnics. It's how everything looks effortless, lighter than air.
For instance, you don't see the engineering calculations that direct
most of the pylon's weight onto a single ball bearing that's hidden
inside the base of the pylon, resting in a bowl fused to a concrete
foundation that sinks 45 feet into the ground.
Nor will you think about how that concrete foundation frames a small
plaza underneath the broad base of the pylon. What you'll appreciate
is the shift in scale from the drama above to the intimacy below. Yet
this snug plaza also offers unique views upward -- the pylon narrows
from a 105-foot-wide base to a 5-foot-wide tip and it's hollow, so the
interior glows with natural light.
Another nice touch in the plaza is that the concrete walls are covered
by broken white tiles imported from Spain. They're an unexpectedly
delicate touch that creates an icy cool sheen even in the thick summer
heat of Redding, where triple-digit days are almost as commonplace as
the hum of traffic on nearby Interstate 5.
For all the hype that surrounds the Redding project, the result isn't
profoundly different from many of the bridges that Calatrava has
designed in Europe. Other footbridges of his rely on a single pylon,
for instance, or let pedestrians amble on the same sort of translucent
In a telephone interview this week, Calatrava said that a bridge has
"few variants -- a beam or an arc, up above or down below, cable-stay
or suspension. But a bridge has its essence." Here, he said, the
essence was "the opportunity to do something ecologically and
He's right: The Sundial Bridge is uniquely rural for this urban
architect. But it is not some indigenous design that emerged
naturally from the surroundings. It is a Calatrava -- as surely as if
he had spray-painted his signature onto the pylon.
Ultimately, the structure in Northern California that the Sundial
Bridge relates to most is one that seemingly could not be more
different: the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
That billowy glass relic of Victorian excess looks nothing like
Calatrava's taut pylon, but each is a pure act of architectural
whimsy. There's no practical reason for their existence, or at least
their exuberance. So what? They give you a smile just to look at
That's why a triumph like the Sundial Bridge should be heeded in other
communities. Look past the unusual circumstances of its creation.
What remains is the core reason that the bridge exists: People wanted
to make the place they love a little better. And that should be the
goal of every community as it grows.
E-mail John King at jking@...