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Calatrava to fix - Venice bridge finally without glass

07 of January '22

Glass bridges can already be counted among the oddities of the cabinet of curiosities. Recently, the Chinese have closed or renovated at least a few dozen such structures. Now it's time for the Calatrava Bridge in Venice, whose slippery glass surface will be replaced by stone slabs. This will happen after 13 years of operation, even though the problems started right after it opened! Why so late?

The world's media have been reporting for several days about the spectacular decision of the Venice authorities regarding the Ponte della Constituzione - the famous crossing of the Canal Grande by Santiago Calatrava opened in 2008. The glass steps and flooring that were the hallmark, but also a drawback, of the 94-meter-long pedestrian bridge will be replaced entirely with trachyte slabs. This will end the incessant series of slips, topples, fractures and bruises that pedestrians suffered on the non-functional glass surface. Compensation for the battered has already cost the city's coffers hundreds of thousands of euros. And, it seems, it was the financial aspect that determined the significant change that awaits the iconic implementation. After all, the losses also include the costs spent on replacing at least dozens of damaged sheets of glass.

The decision comes more than thirteen years after the bridge opened, even though its defects were known from the very beginning. Immediately after opening, pedestrians complained about non-functional steps, and the bridge was closed for a month so the author could make improvements. A red capsule elevator for the disabled was also later attached to the structure. However, it was too slow, and got far too hot in the summer, and the mechanism was removed. But it was still dangerous, so various ineffective solutions were tested: anti-slip mats and resin, which was used to cover the glass panels. In 2018, the decision was made to replace the first 16 elements with stone. Now the replacement of all of them will take place. The cost? Half a million euros. Why, nomen omen, such a temporary slip? Yes, to err is human," reassured Seneca, only to immediately add that to persist in error is the devil's mistake. And that it is worth learning from other people's mistakes let's learn from the Venetian case.

three devils

As it seems, there were several devils. The first was the narrative encased in the iconic realization. Calatrava's bridge, the youngest of the four crossings of the Canal Grande, was intended not only to be a kind of convenient gateway to the city leading directly from Piazzale Roma, the last point reached by buses, cars and the streetcar. The footbridge with a contemporary form from one of the starchitects was seen as proof that Venice is not only about monuments and history, but also about modernity and daring to combine the new with the old. However, while the soft, contemporary line of the steel arch blended in perfectly with its surroundings, the glass slab pavement on which tourists tumbled became a nightmare for the authorities.

There was even a legal dispute with Calatrava, who was ultimately fined 78,000 euros in 2019 (for, among other things, design errors and the steps deteriorating too quickly), 2,000 less than the single compensation for the American tourist! However, on the occasion of the dispute with the architect, commentators stressed that, after all, the form of the bridge was approved at various levels by officials of many departments and special teams overseeing the preservation of Venetian heritage.

calatrava wenecja 1 calatrava wenecja 2

The bridge over the Canal Grande in Venice - designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Slippery surface of glass plates and damage to steps

photo: Jakub Głaz

The other devil, therefore, was probably, typical in such cases, the decision-makers' desire to save face. Especially since not the planned 6 million but 12 million euros were spent on the bridge, which was also the subject of controversy. In such situations, it is common to spell reality against the facts - for purely political reasons. Sometimes wading into a mistake can even mean expanding it, as exemplified by the Radom airport. No one was flying from it, so the decision was made to expand it.

The third demon? The famous architect's name. If the footbridge had been designed by someone less famous, it would have been easier to quietly make changes. However, when a project, even before opening, is credited to a prominent master's work, it's harder to get things right. The industry's media are not blameless here either. As recently as 2018, "Domus" wrote with satisfaction that the Venetian crossing had not shared the fate of another troublesome bridge by Calatrava in Spain:

In Bilbao the same problem was solved with rubber paving, (fortunately) Venice did not dare to go that far.

a bend in the kisser

The Venetian footbridge, by the way, is not the only designer mishap concerning bridges, aside from Chinese ones. A few years ago, quite a buzz was made around the Copenhagen crossing designed by Polish architect Cezary Bednarski. The so-called "kissing bridge" turned out to be impressive, but unfriendly to cyclists, for whom it was designed, after all. A sharp bend in the middle of the crossing forced sudden braking, there were collisions with the railing, and the steepness of the bridge proved too much. The railing of the designer footbridge, located before the bend, is therefore "decorated" today with bright tape warning cyclists of the danger.

So let these two European cases be a lesson for the future for designers and decision-makers. When it comes to constructions that are primarily of practical importance, one must not succumb so easily to designerly show-offs, one should test the materials used before starting an investment, and one should look more carefully at the hands of designers with a name. And if mistakes have already been made, correct them right away, which is also recommended in the case of other public spaces, such as Polish squares with a shortage of trees, which - although they need to be redesigned right away - will first be "monitored" from this point of view by officials in the coming years.

Jakub GŁAZ

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