Bridges can be major architectural works. Multifunctional, innovative and iconic, they do far more than connect people and places.

Bridges are increasingly becoming contemporary iconic landmarks. And in the competitive field of architecture, all eyes are on the offices that are stretching the boundaries of what a bridge can offer.

From Zaha Hadid to Jean Nouvel by way of Santiago Calatrava, today's architects are coming up with groundbreaking, sculptural designs for bridges. A bridge is often symbolic and representative of political aims, having deeper connotations than simply connecting A to B. Contemporary commissions are also turning into headline-grabbing modern landmarks. Bridges can signify important achievements for architects and, due to how they link parts of the world together, have a philosophical resonance.
With her Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion in Spain, Hadid has proved how multifunctional and interactive a contemporary pedestrian footbridge bridge can be. Acting as a gateway for the Zaragoza Expo 2008, which runs until September 14, 2008, she created a two-level structure with a diamond-shaped section generating four pods serving as permanent exhibition spaces, linking two riverbanks on either side of the river Ebro. By turning the bridge into a protected, living space where projects could be mounted and presented, the Iraqi-born, London-based architect recalls the tradition for urban river bridges to be places for trade. In her trademark style of sweeping, fluid and interlocking spaces, Hadid's structure references animated Italian bridges such the Rialto in Venice and the Ponto Vecchio in Florence, where vendors manage stands and sell their goods, turning the bridge into a place of commerce. The Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion is Hadid's first realized bridge project, yet her interest in bridges goes back a long way. She actually designed a footbridge for her thesis project at the Architectural Association.
Interestingly, Hadid's former teacher Rem Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf from the Office for Metropolitan Architects are also been busy designing an ultra-innovative, mixed-use bridge. The bridge, which has an open, lattice framework-like design, is part of OMA's proposal for the Ras Al Khaimah Jebel al Jais Mountain Resort in the United Arab Emirates. Spanning the two sides of the mountain, the bridge will be multilayered and multifunctional, incorporating various spaces ranging from sports facilities to recreational areas.
Larger-scale bridges are known for facilitating travel and business. Examples are Berdj Mikaelian's Rion-Antirion Bridge connecting the Peloponnese to the Greek mainland, Norman Foster's Millau Viaduct that spans the valley of the River Tarn in the south of France, and Hadid's Sheik Zayed Bridge that will connect Abu Dhabi island to the mainland. Sometimes meeting with opposition from local inhabitants, as was the case with the Millau viaduct, bridges can be controversial constructions due to their imposing, geographical impact. Because of this and their public function for thousands of people, the pressure is on to design an iconic, aesthetically pleasing structure. For instance, Foster took inspiration from the form of the Eiffel Tower for the design of the Millau Viaduct's pylons. It was a subtle tribute to one of the most emblematic, best-loved pieces of French architecture.
The construction of bridges can also have wide political significance. An example is how the French architecture group R&Sie(n) has been commissioned to design a steel footbridge being sponsored by the EU over the Olza river dividing Poland and the Czech Republic. "The bridge was used by Hitler to invade the then-Czechoslavakia after Poland," Franois Roche of R&Sie(n) informs. "It was later destroyed by the Czechs, who were afraid of the Poles contaminating their own country." R&Sie(n)'s design contains a loophole, requiring users to step down into a slope-like passage and then turn back on themselves, metaphorically referring to the physical difficulty of crossing the boundary.
Certainly, when such political agendas come into play, it falls to architects to rise to the challenge of designing bridges evoking hope. When Calatrava was commissioned to design the Jerusalem Light Rail Bridge, Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem's mayor at the time, said to him, "You have done many bridges, but you will do a bridge for Jerusalem that means something. This will be the most beautiful thing that you have ever done." Dubbed the Bridge of Strings due to its harp-like design, it serves as an entry point to the holy city. With this in mind, Calatrava who has designed 40-odd bridges in his career wanted to design something that would seem to fly and act more like a gate than a wall.
In these ways, bridges serve to connect previously inaccessible points, lead to new human experiences and transform landscapes. And bridges are getting endlessly longer. Over in China, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which opened this May, is the longest sea-crossing bridge in the world, linking Ningbo's Cixi county in the south to Jiaxing in the north. Meanwhile, Wilkinson Eyre has just completed the 170-meter-long Nescio Bridge, which is the longest cycle and pedestrian bridge in the Netherlands.
Yet Wilkinson Eyre's most sculptural bridge is perhaps the stunning Gateshead Bridge. A crossing for pedestrians and cyclists, it has become a new landmark for Gateshead and won the London-based firm the 2002 RIBA Stirling Prize. (The firm has also won the RIBA European award 2008 for the Living Bridge at the University of Limerick.) Other bridges brightening up the urbanscape include Norman Foster's Millennium Bridge in London. On a smaller scale, there are also Denton Corker Marshall's Webb Bridge, produced by in collaboration with the artist Robert Owen, in Melbourne's Docklands area and Calatrava's bridge over the Hoofdvaart River in Lute. One of three bridges that Calatrava designed over the river, the latter cleverly double-functions as a roundabout, once again showing how architects are stretching their minds about how contemporary bridges can interact with society.

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