Several weeks ago, the members of Bridging the Design Gap, an informal design charette, posed the question: â€˜when is a bridge more than just a bridge?’ At what point does a lowly piece of infrastructure reach out and touch people in ways they never thought possible? We asked this in response to a vague proposal the City received for a bridge which will link Concord’s CityPlace development with Front Street to the north.
The idea of a bridge here is wonderful. It will connect neighborhoods and people and help foster a friendlier and more livable city. The reality however, is that the proposed bridge is a simple box truss. While such a structure fits into the context of the railway lands with relative ease, it is an undeniably underwhelming solution to an opportunity which rarely presents itself.
Our charette closed last week and a total of sixteen solutions ranging from simple Microsoft Paint schemes to more advanced work from professional offices, were received. All submissions were given equal treatment as it was clear their designer’s faults lay only in their inability to model their designs on the computer, not in their dedication to or passion for the exercise.
The winner of Bridging the Design Gap was submitted by the appropriately named Office for Responsive Environments (O.R.E.) and was entitled The Braided Strands. O.R.E. envisioned a cable stayed bridge with multiple walkways at different heights and levels of enclosure. Near the support pier, a small performance space allows for impromptu concerts and other informal events, furthering the notion of a bridge as a destination rather than a transitory space. One judge felt that O.R.E’s submission: “…is what great design is about – solving the practical problems and elevating the mundane to something poetic that can add beauty, usefulness and experiences to – rather than detract from – the urban landscape.”
It is clear that The Braided Strands is a far better solution than anything the current engineers, MMM Group, could come up with. Their online portfolio only shows one pedestrian bridge – a seven span, corten steel truss structure in Brantford, Ontario – much like the one which will soon grace the railway lands in Toronto. The city however, insists otherwise.
Over the course of our charette, we heard from several sources including the ward Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20), city planners and other staff that the bridge in question “…will not be a truss bridge.” Furthermore, they claim they have: “have no intention of missing an opportunity, nor have we all been working this hard to build a boring truss bridge.” This all sounds fine, but when pressed, no one could confirm that a box truss would play no part in the final solution.
A response to this simple question could have had encouraging results, but in the absence of a firm answer we had no choice but assume that we are getting little more than a truss-in-drag. Council and Concord have explained to us that an artist (Francisco Gazitua of Chile) has been hired to â€˜design’ the bridge and that it will be nothing short of a “spectacular gateway.” Still, in a comment posted on Spacing, Councillor Vaughan encouraged Bridging the Design Gap participants to â€˜unleash [their] imaginations’ and see what Toronto’s design community could come up with.
This â€˜damning with faint praise’ was redolent of an attempt to censor our efforts, but Toronto’s vibrant design community would not be so easily contained. One excuse presented to us by multiple parties was that the conditions imposed by CN Rail and GO Transit concerning the location of a support pier and retaining wall were too restrictive and that we were clearly unaware of the problems they raised. We were in fact, fully aware of all conditions imposed by these two organizations but whereas the City saw them as limitations to the finished product, we merely saw the envelope within which the structure must be designed.
Often the most engaging architectural concepts emerge out of tight sites, problematic neighbors or a host of other situations, unique to the parcel in question. A talented architect looks at the brief he or she is given and uses it to their advantage by allowing it inform rather than deny their concept. By contrast, an amateur might see the limitations of a particular site as an obstacle which disallows a specific design from being built. Unfortunately, it seems the city and Concord feel that the latter approach is more appropriate, which might also explain why few have seen renderings of the bridge outside of a small group of consultants and the residents who participated in the preliminary consultation(s) over a year ago.
The mysterious architect Louis Kahn often spoke of â€˜serving’ and â€˜served’ spaces in buildings. By â€˜serving,’ he meant the building’s infrastructure – the hallways, stairs and corridors which every building needs to function efficiently. â€˜Served’ spaces are the rooms and areas which function as â€˜destinations’ and are the spaces in which we spend the majority of our time. Kahn’s theory can likewise be applied to the city since it too is comprised of similar groups of spaces – served and serving – which form the built environment within which we live, work and play.
One of the reasons O.R.E’s submission was successful among both the public who were invited to rate and comment on each submission through the UrbanToronto website and the professional jury, was that it intentionally blurred the lines between â€˜served’ and â€˜serving’ and celebrated the chance encounters which such hybrid-spaces promote.