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Brunel’s Clifton bridge is a catalyst for celebrating the timeless appeal of crossings

What is it about bridges that so inspires people? From the significance of historic bridges such as the Mostar to the technical thrills behind the Millau viaduct, bridges speak to people in a way that few other structures do. The greatest bridges transcend their functional purpose and become a symbol of something deeper – a connection between communities, the mark of humankind on a landscape, a showcase of individual brilliance and collective endeavour.

So it has been exciting curating a show on them to mark the 150th anniversary of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Desire Lines: Romance and Rationalism in Bridge Design, at the Architecture Centre in Bristol is an exhibition celebrating the creativity and ingenuity behind contemporary engineering achievement.

  • Spinningfields Bridge, Manchester (2011), by Ramboll.
    Spinningfields Bridge, Manchester (2011), by Ramboll. · Credit: c-Ramboll
  • Lower Hatea River Crossing, Whangarei, New Zealand (2013). Structural engineer: Peters & Cheung. Architect: Knight Architects.
    Lower Hatea River Crossing, Whangarei, New Zealand (2013). Structural engineer: Peters & Cheung. Architect: Knight Architects. · Credit: Patrick Reynolds
  • Scale Lane Bridge, Kingston upon Hull (2013). Structural engineer: Alan Baxter Associates. Architect: McDowell+Benedetti.
    Scale Lane Bridge, Kingston upon Hull (2013). Structural engineer: Alan Baxter Associates. Architect: McDowell+Benedetti. · Credit: Timothy Soar
  • Visualisation of the Queensferry Crossing, Scotland (2016) by Arup.
    Visualisation of the Queensferry Crossing, Scotland (2016) by Arup. · Credit: Arup
  • Taunton Third Way Bridge, Taunton (2011). Structural engineer: Flint & Neill. Architect: Moxon Architects.
    Taunton Third Way Bridge, Taunton (2011). Structural engineer: Flint & Neill. Architect: Moxon Architects. · Credit: Simon Kennedy
  • Castleford Bridge, Wakefield (2008). Structural engineer: Alan Baxter Associates. Architect: McDowell+Benedetti.
    Castleford Bridge, Wakefield (2008). Structural engineer: Alan Baxter Associates. Architect: McDowell+Benedetti. · Credit: Timothy Soar
  • Poole Second Harbour Crossing, Dorset (2013). Structural engineer: Gifford (now Ramboll). Architect: Wilkinson Eyre.
    Poole Second Harbour Crossing, Dorset (2013). Structural engineer: Gifford (now Ramboll). Architect: Wilkinson Eyre. · Credit: Dave Morris, Speirs+Major
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol celebrates its 150th anniversary in December 2014.
    Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol celebrates its 150th anniversary in December 2014. · Credit: ICE

The story of contemporary British bridge design is examined through five case studies exhibiting a variety of structural types, scale and purpose. Each case study is designed by different engineering firms – interestingly revealing the ‘house style’ of a supposedly objective and purely rational profession.

While the bridges vary in style there appears to be a preference for steel in contemporary British bridge design, and strength in designing and building bridges that open – which tests the prowess of both structural and mechanical engineers.

A section on bridge design throughout the world features weird and wonderful timber bridge designs from the Netherlands and Finland and the extraordinary contemporary masonry bridges of Swiss engineering maestro Jurg Conzett, highlighting cultural differences in the approach to structural design.

The exhibition has a hands-on engineering focus with construction models of different bridge types for the public to try building structures. The Architecture Centre is also hosting a series of talks and a debate ‘Who Owns Bridge Design?: Engineers vs. Architects’ which aims to examine the changing roles of the two professions. Panellists include architect Jim Eyre, engineer Ian Firth, engineering historian Julia Elton and the RIBA Journal’s own Hugh Pearman, and it is chaired by Buro Happold engineering project manager Tanya Ross. A talk in October brings engineer Alan Baxter into conversation with architects Martin Knight and Renato Benedetti, with whom he has worked on a number of projects.

@ArchCentre #Bridge150 will also have a daily series of tweets on 150 bridges through history.


Desire Lines: Romance and Rationalism in Bridge Design is at the Architecture Centre, Bristol, 1 October – 16 November 2014