Form beyond function

22 December 2018

For centuries, one simple rule defined bridge design: form must follow function. Yet, as materials have advanced and design programmes grown more complex, this edict has become less and less relevant. Greg Noone talks to architects and engineers including Naeem Hussain, global leader of bridge design at Arup, and Sara Göransson of Urban Nouveau, to discuss how building a crossing between two separate points is becoming less of an engineering feat and more of an art.

Toward the end of Paddington Basin in London, a strange bridge extends diagonally across the canal. When barges approach, the crossing quietly ascends, as if in salute, by means of a hydraulic system at its base. As the bridge rises, its walkway splits upwards and lengthways into strips to stand splayed in the air like the wooden spokes of a Japanese fan or, as its architect prefers, like five fingers of a hand.

“If you’re sitting in one of the nearby cafe’s, what you can see is narrowboats that are largely the length of our bridge turning around all the time,” explains the crossing’s designer, Bart Halaczek, a partner at Knight Architects. “If you had a bridge of the same scale and that slews around, that turns horizontally, no one would probably even notice.”

Opened in 2014, the Fan Bridge is one of a new breed of crossing, designed explicitly for design’s sake. The bridge itself doesn’t strictly need to be there: its presence really only allows pedestrians to forgo roughly three minutes of walking around the canal, and most barges have enough room to turn around before they even reach the basin. This is, unquestionably, a landmark – one likely to outlast the steel and glass offices around it. “All bridges – or most of them – become a defining part of the neighbourhood,” says Halaczek. “Being aware of that and using that potential… is very important.”

This remains a relatively radical concept in bridge design. Yet the idea that engineers and architects could work closely together to create something aesthetically pleasing seemed a strange idea to Halaczek’s peers at Stuttgart University.

“There was [a] very clear break between the world of engineers and the world of architects,” he recalls. “And they didn’t talk to each other. They were separated from each other geographically – one part was in the town centre, the other on the outskirts of Stuttgart – which was very strange, because [the university] was very famous for intertwining the world of engineers and architects.”

Public projects

Halaczek, who has made his name as a specialist bridge designer for Knight Architects, suspects the merging of those two worlds began with the advent of computational design tools in the 1980s. Naeem Hussain, Arup’s leading bridge engineer and the man behind projects including the Queensferry Crossing in Scotland and the monumental Hong Kong-Zhuhai- Macau bridge, prefers to see the change as emerging from a citizen’s revolt against blandly functional design in the public space.

“If you ever deal with any public sector department, their attitude is: ‘What is my minimum cost?’” explains Hussain. “And if you get a good designer, it doesn’t mean that the construction cost goes up. I can take the same amount of material as in a utilitarian-looking bridge, but I could make that into a much more sculpturally beautiful object with the same amount of material.”

Take the Hulme Arch Bridge in Manchester as an example. In this case, form follows function before it cuts loose skyward with the crossing’s diagonal arch, which seems like it would escape the structure entirely were it not for the steel cabling bolting it to the roadside. In the old climate, the bridge would have seemed flamboyant, unnecessary. In 1997, however, Hussain and Eyre not only made the arch essential to the engineering of the bridge, but succeeded in creating a symbol for a new Manchester. And symbols are worth nothing if they are not seen. “The reason it is a diagonal arch is that it looks like an arch from two directions,” explains Hussain. “If you drive underneath the bridge, it looks like an arch. If you drive on the bridge, it looks like an arch. And that’s the beauty of it.”

Best of all was the relationship between Arup’s team of engineers and the architects from WilkinsonEyre. According to Hussain, the finished design took all of a night to conceive. “We had plenty of wine, and we were just drinking and we were doodling and talking,” he recalls, before architect Jim Eyre raised the prospect of a diagonal arch. “That kind of conversation between designers, and I really mean designers – whether it’s an architect or an engineer is really beside the point – [it is] that collegiate approach where you’re sitting down, bending ideas and something comes out.”

Credit where it’s due

That, at least, is the idea. While Hussain celebrates this new era in aesthetic bridge design, coverage of the phenomenon has left him a little jaded. The Arup engineer has been outspoken in the past about the allocation of credit after the completion of prestige projects, pronouncing rather indignantly in 2012 that his close friend, the structural engineer Michel Virlogeux, “is the man who made the Millau Bridge, not Lord Foster”.

“Most of the major bridge [projects] are actually led by engineers,” explains Hussain. “They’re not given enough credit because, I would say, of the ignorance of the people who write about it.”

Hussain hasn’t experienced nearly anything like the level of tension between engineering and architectural teams that this might suggest: indeed, he is careful to add that he never heard of Virlogeux ever experiencing similar difficulties. Nevertheless, it has influenced the type of architect he chooses to collaborate with.

“Personally, I would never work with Foster,” says Hussain. “I would not be able to get on with him, because [his] approach is, ‘I’m going to tell you what I want.’ And that’s not how I work.”


Viet Anh Vu, on the other hand, counts Foster as an inspiration. The architect appreciates the simplicity in his UK counterpart’s buildings, and those of Renzo Piano, divining from them what he describes as his “perception of modern order”.

One might see echoes of Piano’s iconic crossing at Ushibuka in Anh’s Golden Bridge, nestled high in Vietnam’s Ba Na Hills. Behind it a former hill station turned local tourist resort, the crossing is gently lifted atop the forest canopy by two vast stone hands, cut off at the wrists. “The bridge is the connection, the pathway and also a dialogue between [human] and nature [at] Ba Na Mountain,” he explains.

Within a few months of its opening, the crossing had gone viral, attracting hordes of tourists eager to take the perfect pose above the outstretched forest. Indeed, its popularity suggests that the view from the bridge is becoming as, if not more, important in its final design as our view of it. This is certainly the case in Urban Nouveau’s proposals for the Lidingöbron, a pedestrian and tram crossing from the island that bears its name to neighbouring Stockholm.

Changing times

Sara Göransson has fond memories of walking across the bridge in winter, when the water begins to freeze. “The landscape changes dramatically,” says Urban Nouveau’s founding partner. Underneath the steel rafters of the bridge’s stubby archway, she marvelled at the transformation of the channel beneath from a swirling, black maelstrom to a silent, formless white.

It is Göransson’s fear that this landmark could soon be lost forever. The bridge is old now, and its steel – of diverse sourcing and quality – is starting to fail. Stockholm’s city council is resolved to demolish the crossing and replace it with a new one, a prospect that Göransson is determined to avoid. Just as Stockholm’s suburbs have jumped the water to Lidingö Island, Urban Nouveau proposes they also cling underneath the Lidingöbron. The sale of the flats touching the waterline below will, in turn, fund the creation of a public park on top.

“This would be the most spectacular place to live in the city,” says Göransson, who makes no bones about the apartments’ exclusivity. Naturally, she is also intrigued by a form of adaptive reuse that has few working precedents – Ponte Vecchio in Florence; London Bridge in the medieval period – and that draws its inspiration from the changing face of Sweden’s capital.

“Stockholm is one of the fastestgrowing regions currently in Europe,” says Göransson, and one with an acute housing shortage. “This is an attempt from us to connect [Lidingö] to the municipalities.”

The realistic prospect that an inhabited bridge could become a signature feature of a European capital again is just one sign that the relationship between form and function has blurred. One might consider that the new possibilities offered up by this shift could result in a loud carnival of designs unmoored from the urban or rural context in which they are placed, where form exerting an unwelcome dominance over function.

Such prospects seem unwelcome to Halaczek, who is careful to weigh the influence of each new crossing he designs on the direction of the route it bears, the circulation of people, and even the character of its neighbourhood. “Every bridge, on its own, is a landmark by itself,” he explains. “Every bridge is a solitaire.”

Golden Bridge, Ba Na, Vietnam: this bridge has become a popular tourist spot
The Fan Bridge, London, UK: this landmark defies the idea that form must follow function.
The Hulme Bridge, Manchester, UK: the diagonal arch was designed in order to appear as an arch to those driving on the bridge as well as those driving under it.

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