It's a cliché to say that Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, because we see them everywhere. An underappreciated part of this legacy is that the best bridges come from designers who have emphasized the aesthetic quality, and not simply the function, of their work. Gustav Lindenthal built the lenticular (lens-shaped) trusses of the Smithfield Street Bridge in 1886 with an eye toward beauty. He earned national engineering awards as a result. By the 1923 construction of the 16th Street Bridge, architects commonly collaborated with engineers to make the structures pieces of civic art. Warren & Wetmore, co-architects of New York's Grand Central Terminal, worked with engineer Henry Balcom to give the bridge a pleasant sense of City Beautiful pomp.
These days, we are lucky if we can repair a dull one like the Birmingham Bridge while keeping more historic structures in decent fettle. Still, the sense of artistically designed bridges persists, not just in additions, such as the West End Pedestrian Bridge competition, but in utterly new structures. For instance, the proposal for a new pedestrian bridge across Ellsworth Avenue, connecting Shadyside to the new East Side development, will be a relatively modest connection, but it offers considerable promise for the neighborhoods and the prospects of artistic bridges more generally.
The renewed commercial activity of the East Side development made a pedestrian bridge seem desirable, and the idea of an artistically designed structure came in 2005, when East Liberty Development Inc. solicited and received funding from the Heinz Endowments for such an undertaking. Renee Piechocki, director of Pittsburgh's Office for Public Art, organized community meetings to show examples from other cities, and a selection process began to find a qualified and engaging artist. "We wanted someone with a lot of experience working with engineers and in the built environment," explains Piechocki.
Seattle-based Sheila Klein won the commission, based on her experience with site-specific pieces that often work as adornment on architectural forms. As a bonus, Klein grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Peabody High School. "Shadyside is a place where I started to become who I am today," she recalls.
Klein's work on the bridge design has engaged similar processes of transformation. Rather than starting with a clean sheet of paper, she received from PennDOT a baseline design for a rather undistinguished beam structure that also had to include leap-preventing "suicide fencing." The latter, ugly bordering probably causes more dread than it prevents.
"I'm kind of a mixmaster," Klein announces, "taking those parts and making more out of them." She makes the fencing into a sculptural element that expands and recedes along the path of the bridge. The undulating gaps make room for mounds of soil where native grasses will grow. The curving fence poles will become fixtures for hanging glass orbs, and large glass sequins will decorate the fencing itself.
Klein references tunnels and passageways from the Highland Park Zoo and from Kennywood. "I want it to have some modality change as you're going through it," she says.
One of the design's best elements is one of its most subtle. The concrete walking path will be painted with arrhythmic, overlapping stripes in white and yellow, an idea that comes from the unintentionally beautiful pattern in the Liberty Avenue parking lot where street-line painters test their equipment. It looks really cool, and it's more brilliant the more you think about it. The visual detritus of automobile infrastructure is reframed as graphic beauty and harnessed for a pedestrian-only structure.
Construction is scheduled for completion in spring 2009. Certainly, praise goes to all involved for bringing art to an urban vignette where it might otherwise have been absent. The results promise to be as funky and experiential as Klein foresees. The next step, though, is to have bridges that incorporate artists and other designers into their very inception. If the absence of cars in this bridge becomes the source of artistic inspiration, then surely a reconsideration of rigid PennDOT requirements could be an even more powerful stimulus. While Pittsburgh is no longer ahead of the game in its bridge designs, those who lobby for a greater degree of art are showing how we could work toward such status again.