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The Place of Aesthetics in Bridge Design

Christian Menn, Prof. em.

Chur. Switzerland

Bridges occupy locations of promi- on the environment and beauty of the bridges, which can become objects of
nence in both natural and man-made structures themselves. Although it is pride for communities. Proper atten-
landscapes. Indeed, they are often the impossible to quantify elegance ratio- tion to the visual and environmental
only visible structures along highways nally. the interaction between the tech- aspects of bridge design is therefore
and railways. Visual prominence has nical and the visual aspects of bridge not only important of itself, but also
brought many bridges recognition design implies that elegance is also because it increases the likelihood that
as landmarks in their surroundings. governed by certain criteria. In partic- new structures will be accepted in soci-
Bridges are powerful reflections of ular, elegance can be judged objective- ety. Cost savings achieved through
both the state of technological devel- ly with a well trained sensitivity for avoiding community opposition to
opment and of the intellectual climate visual form. projects. and the associated reduction
at the time of their construction. Those in time required to bring projects to
bridges for which artistry has tran- Economy and elegance cannot be opti- completion can easily outweigh the ad-
scended mere craftsmanship in design mized independently of each other. ditional cost incurred by designs that
have become unique cultural monu- For a wide range of cases, these two are visually elegant and mindful of the
ments. Spanning over obstacles and objectives are closely related. Design- environment.
linking the banks of wide rivers and ers must determine the relative impor-
deep canyons, bridges have acquired a tance of economy and elegance for a Pressure to minimize construction
strong symbolic meaning that tran- given bridge, and decide how much costs has led to aesthetically unsatis-
scends their purely technical function. money can be spent to improve aes- factory bridges. Concern over the ap-
It is perhaps for this reason that thetic impact. Additional costs ranging pearance of bridges has prompted
bridges have been a source of fascina- from 5 to 20% (or even higher for transportation authorities and other
tion to poets and painters throughout pedestrian bridges) above the least ex- owners of bridges to give architects
the ages. pensive solution can be justified to im- equal or even superior roles to engi-
prove the visual appearance of bridges. neers in bridge design competitions.
(Additional costs greater than this Collaboration between engineers and
range have been seen for special struc- architects in the design can be positive.
Design Objectives tures, such as bridges intended to be provided it is based on mutual respect
symbols of world's fairs or urban de- and recognition. Bridge concepts aris-
Bridges must satisfy specific functional velopments.) ing from capriciously chosen architec-
requirements and constraints such as tural themes are of dubious value,
clearance and construction schedule. The optimization of economy and ele- however, particularly when the archi-
In addition to these requirements. the gance requires more than the crafts- tects involved have little or no experi-
most important design objectives are: manship component of engineering. ence with bridges, and are not used to
— structural safety It requires creativity, fantasy, and sen- using structure as a means of visual ex-
sitivity to visual form. These talents pression. Under these circumstances,
— serviceability collectively constitute the art of engi- engineers are forced into subordinate
— economy neering. roles as analytical specialists. Unfortu-
nately, many engineers do not find
— elegance. anything wrong with collaboration of
Criteria defining structural safety and this kind.
The Importance of Bridge
serviceability are specified in design
standards, which reflect the current Aesthetics Damage to the professional image of
state of the art of the technical aspects engineers due to poorly designed and
of bridge design. Structural safety and The aesthetic aspects of bridge design poorly received bridges, and the sec-
serviceability are achieved by engi- are more important than commonly ond-class status of engineers on some
neers working primarily as craftsmen, admitted. Engineering structures usu- bridge projects. are indeed disconcert-
i.e., through the logical application of ally produce significant impact on the ing. As the image of the profession be-
well-established principles. natural and human environments. The comes further eroded, so do the quali-
users of bridges also produce new and fications of the next generation of en-
The cost of a given bridge can be esti- usually unpleasant effects on the envi- gineers. This disastrous downward spi-
mated based on experience and on ronment, such as noise and exhaust ral must be stopped. Bridges of high
studies of alternative concepts. Econo- gases. For these reasons, bridges are technical and aesthetic merit, and a
my depends mainly on the design con- often regarded negatively in society. leading role for engineers in any col-
cept. laboration between engineers and ar-
In spite of this situation, there is sup- chitects in bridge design are two ways
Elegance relates primarily to impact port in society for visually elegant in which this can be achieved.

Structural Engineering International 2/96 Aesthetics in Structural Engineering 93

Design concept for a cable-stayed bridge on tall piers at Kiosters, Switzerland

Aesthetic Criteria for Bridge — Coherent, unified shaping of the Meaning of the Design Concept
Design cross-sections of all structural com-
The design concept is understood here
Bridges must be compatible with their to include not only the overall concept
Artistic shaping
environment, and visually pleasing as for the entire structure, but also the
entities unto themselves. These are the — Refinement of the raw statical form concept for structural members and
two most important aesthetic criteria through visual expression of the details. The design concept, from over-
for bridge design. flow of forces, light and shadow ef- all structure to details, is always the
Environment is understood here to in- fects through shaping, and clean de- most important, challenging and cre-
clude both space and time. The follow- tailing ative part of engineering. It defies ana-
ing two components must therefore be — Structural ornamentation, for ex- lytical treatment and conventional
considered when evaluating the com- ample. with evolving arrangements quality control measures. Good design
patibility of bridges with their environ- of structural members concepts minimize difficulties both in
ment: — Non-structural ornamentation the design office and on the construc-
through the use of non structural tion site. Since it is possible today to
Spatial component components, color, etc. calculate and build just about any-
All of these criteria except artistic thing, many engineers are unfortu-
— Scale and character of the landscape nately of the opinion that the quantity
and topography shaping must generally be considered
during the development of the engi- of problems considered in design di-
— Scale and character of the man- neering concept. Architects participat- rectlv assure the quality of the design.
made environment. ing in bridge design could usefully con- It is not true that visually pleasing
tribute to the task of shaping structural forms are guaranteed by either struc-
Temporal component members artistically. Since important tural efficiency or economy. Good en-
— History and tradition of local bridge aesthetic issues must often be dealt gineering concepts are always a sound
construction with during preparation of the engi- basis for high aesthetic quality, howev-
neering concept, however, participa- er. since visually pleasing designs can
— State of technology and culture. tion and advice from architects can be generally be achieved through refine-
desirable during this phase. ment and artistic shaping of the basic
In the design of bridges themselves, form. Many examples have shown that
the following three major components The preceding description of the tasks
required in the visual design of bridges the converse of this statement is also
niust be considered: true, i.e., when the form is not satisfac-
clearly shows, however, that engineers
tory, the engineering concept also
Visualization of technical efficiency themselves must have a good sense of
visual form. For a variety of reasons, tends to be unsatisfactory. It follows
— Transparency (particularly for sub- severe shortcomings in this area exist that shortcomings in the engineering
structures) among structural engineers. The visual concept can often be detected by a
aspect of design has long been neglect- careful review of visual form.
— Slenderness (particularly for super-
structures) ed in engineering education and prac- The only adequate means of reviewing
tice. Far more importance is currently visual form is a scale model. Models
— Spatial, stabilizing development of placed on exhaustive and often unnec- must be built to a sufficiently large
the structural system essary calculations and tests. This is scale and must incorporate the sur-
— Integral structural action. due in part to the excessive complexity rounding area to reveal the interaction
of current design standards. Most stu- between the structure and its environ-
Order and unity of the entire structure dents and practising engineers are not ment. Since sensitivity to visual form
even interested in visual aspects of de- in bridges must include an informed
— Clear organization of the structural sign, and for many owners of bridges, understanding of the flow of forces, it
system aesthetics has little relevance. follows that the suitability of a given
94 Aesthetics in Structural Engineering Structural Engineering International 2/96
visual form would be more appropri- curricula. Changes of this nature will the topic of bridge aesthetics are
ately assessed by engineers rather than invariably meet with considerable op- worthwhile, they are unfortunately of-
architects. position. It would be possible, howev- ten disappointing, because the speak-
er, to exert some influence on the engi- ers normally concentrate on polishing
neering curriculum from outside the their own image rather than on the ac-
academic world. tual problem at hand.
Measures to Improve the
Aesthetic Quality of Bridges Stronger and more carefully directed What is required is a long-term strate-
support for aesthetic quality by engi- gy to support and promote the cultural
neers representing the owners of value of engineering structures. Such a
The following two measures are of strategy would begin with the educa-
critical importance for the improve- bridges would be extremely valuable.
Although transportation authorities tion of young engineers. Only when
ment of the aesthetic quality of the majority of engineers have been
bridges: that consider bridge aesthetics to be
important exist in all parts of the sensitized and are ready to design
— Comprehensive training in the visu- world, owners are in general not pre- bridges giving serious attention to the
al aspects of design for engineering pared to accept any increase in cost to visual aspects can true progress be ex-
students at the undergraduate level achieve better visual design. It is often pected. As changed attitudes towards
the case that engineers who make poli- bridge aesthetics become widespread.
— Support for aesthetic quality by economic benefits will follow. The
transportation authorities. cy decisions on behalf of owners have
little sensibility for problems involving process proposed is long and difficult.
Comprehensive training in the visual the visual aspect of bridges. It will clearly take a lot more than a
aspects of design would require sub- few pretty pictures of bridges taken
stantial changes to current engineering Although lectures at conferences on against a blazing sunset.

IABSE recognizes the importance of aesthetics in structural

engineering. At the 15th Congress of IABSE in Copenhagen a
Plenary Session will be devoted to this topic, with invited lectures
by distinguished architects and engineers. Topics will include:
15th Congress of IABSE — The Aesthetic Potential of Structures
Copenhagen, Denmark — Structural Criticism and the Aesthetics of Structures
June 16—20, 1996 — Design for Coming Generations
Structural Engineering — Bridges and Structural Art.
in Consideration of
Economy, Environment, Meeting the aesthetic expectations of society requires consideration
of a new structure's surroundings, especially in areas of natural
beauty and/or historical significance. The topic of the design context
For more information will be addressed, for example, in presentations on
and to register,
— Relating Bridge Aesthetics to the Indian Architectural Heritage
— The Cable-Stayed Bridges in the Finnish Lake and River Districts

IABSE Congress 1996 — Integrated Design of River Dikes.

c/o DIS Congress Service Similar considerations will also be the focus of a presentation on the
Copenhagen A/S
"Aesthetic Design of the Tatara Bridge" in Japan, currently the
2C, Herlev Ringvej
longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. And structural aesthetics in
DK-2730 Herlev
Japan will be further explored in a separate lecture.
The Session will allow engineers and architects to explore and
Phone: +45-4492 4492
expand their views, and promises to be a lively meeting on a topic of
Fax: +45-4492 5050
real professional and social importance.
It is one more reason to catch up with the state-of-the-art of structural
IABSE Headquarters in Zurich engineering at the 15th Congress of IABSE in Copenhagen!

Structural Engineering International 2196 Aesthetics in Structural Engineering 95