The empire twangs back

June 21, 2000|By Al Webb

LONDON -- London's newest bridge is not exactly falling down, but it is more than a little wobbly on its pegs, a quivering monument to modern engineering that often is too clever by half. And if you ever get a chance to saunter across its span, best eat a light lunch and take along a barf bag.

This, mind you, isn't the London Bridge, the one that Jack the Ripper probably used to get to and from work. That one the wily burghers of Britain's capital sold to an American oilman, who promptly rebuilt it in the middle of the Arizona desert.

That London Bridge was built of stone blocks, 10,246 of them, in the 19th century and lasted nearly 140 years before it, indeed, began falling down from old age. The new span was built of wires and struts and slabs of aluminum and stainless steel, and it lasted two days -- about one-fourth the life expectancy of a decent razor blade -- before it had to be shut down.

This flawed masterpiece is the Millennium Bridge, the first new crossing over the River Thames in more than a century, and the only one solely for pedestrians. It links the majesty of St. Paul's Cathedral on the north side with the south bank's Tate Modern gallery, where urinals and stacks of planks, bricks and cinderblocks pass for art.

As inaugural day neared, the $27 million bridge was hailed as a "blade of light" cutting across the dark green of the Thames. Within minutes of the gates opening, the blade was more of a bent rapier of embarrassment, and the green most noticeable was spreading across the countenances of strollers frantically grabbing for safety rails.

The Millennium Bridge is not so much a link as a 13-foot-wide guitar string, twanging and throbbing and vibrating and bouncing, and the foot folk who crowded onto its 350-yard length by the thousands got an idea of what it's like on the deck of a steamer crossing the English Channel in a gale.

The first impression that visiting Australian Jackie Mildwater had of London's newest tourist attraction was that "it was all right at the beginning -- but I've been hanging on for grim death since the middle." Added Ashley Hirons worriedly: "I can feel it a bit in my stomach ..."

"When we first walked on the bridge," recalled Bill Hulse, himself an engineer, "I thought there must be a pub at the other side because everyone was drunk." His wife, Barbara, was a bit more specific: "Everybody was walking along looking as though they'd had eight pints of beer."

The sublime proceeded apace to the ridiculous. Workers quickly showed up with a collection of wooden blocks which they attempted to pound into strategic places with 6-inch nails. The result was about what you might expect when you try driving 6-inch nails into a steel and aluminum bridge.

Now the Millennium Bridge is closed, to remain so for an indefinite number of days and the additional millions of bucks it will take to enable it to do the simple job that a dozen other bridges have done for centuries -- enable people to travel from one side of the Thames to the other without getting their tootsies wet.

"Me and my company are very embarrassed," said Tony Fitzpatrick, doing for English syntax about what his engineering firm, Ove Arup, did for the Millennium Bridge.

Tony and company built the thing on a plan by reputed architectural genius Sir Norman Foster (he dreamed it up from his childhood memories of the "bridge of light" in the Flash Gordon films, which may explain a few things). "We are responsible for the design," he said, "and this is not something we would have wished."

But Tony is nothing if not determined in the face of adversity. "Isn't it just fantastic that we have this bridge? We could have built one with 15 piles going into the river. Isn't it fantastic that we didn't? Just hang on, and it will be fine."

It was precisely having to "just hang on" that caused all the kerfufflein the first place.

The problem, as more than one critic has observed, is that with much modern architecture, novelty has come to be the dominant criteria for praising new buildings. The occasional failures that result, says one, "are the price we pay for a culture obsessed with progress and innovation."

Meanwhile, our Tony's fancy footbridge is draped across the Thames, an empty triumph of style over substance. The other bridges -- the ones built on big, ugly piles -- carry on their labors of load much as they have done for decades and even centuries.

The lesson is, if you must ignore tradition, remember to bring along your barf bag.

Al Webb is an independent American journalist living in London.

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