Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Calatrava's Troubled Bridge Over the Grand Canal


NOTE: The following is a piece I just finished writing for a monthly column I have in America's oldest Italian-American newspaper. In the year since I've been writing that column there's inevitably been some thematic overlap between it and the three years of content on this blog, but no outright duplication. However, since I haven't written about Calatrava before on this blog, I wanted to also post a version of this new piece here.

When part of the Biblioteca Marciana collapsed during its construction in 1538 its eminent architect, Jacopo Sansovino, was immediately thrown into jail. A group of his influential friends, Pietro Aretino and Titian among them, managed to get him released on the condition that the architect himself pay for the needed reconstruction.

The problems that have plagued the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione since its long-delayed opening in 2008 over the western end of the Grand Canal haven't reached the point of any kind of complete collapse, but that doesn't mean more than a few Venetians wouldn't be happy to see him behind bars. Instead, on November 13 Calatrava will be in a Venice courtroom to defend himself against the city's attempts to recoup 3.8 million euros for which the Veneto's Court of Auditors determined he is partly liable due to "huge errors" in his design and construction of the bridge.

In fact, Calatrava's bridge has been controversial since the day in 1996 that his commission was announced. Critics claimed there was simply no need for a fourth bridge over the Grand Canal in such close proximity to its third, the Ponte degli Scalzi, and that the roughly 4 million euros budgeted for the project could be much better spent elsewhere. As it turned out, by the time the bridge finally opened in 2008 the total bill came to at least three times that amount--and perhaps as much a five.

In the distance is Venice's third bridge over the Grand Canal, the Ponte degli Scalzi, as seen from its fourth
In a September 24, 2013 article about Calatrava in the New York Times, Suzanne Daley points out that cost overruns aren't unusual for high-profile international "starchitects" such as Calatrava, but the Spaniard is racking up a particularly extensive list of such miscalculations, delays and litigation. In addition to a Dutch councilor in a town near Amsterdam who is urging his colleagues to "take legal action because the three bridges the architect designed for the town cost twice the budgeted amount and then millions more in upkeep since they opened in 2004," Calatrava is already in court in two different regions in Spain over faulty projects. Indeed, Calatrava's errors, overruns, and trials have become so extensive that a blogger has devoted an entire site to keeping track of them: http://thefullcalatrava.wordpress.com/

It's not just that Calatrava's works are expensive to put up, they are also--the charges against him in Venice assert--absurdly expensive to keep from falling down. Carmine Scarano, the Regional Public Prosecutor in the Court of Auditors, is quoted in the March 5, 2013 Corriere del Veneto as saying that Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione is so badly designed as to be "suffering from a chronic disease." As an English bridge designer explains on his blog The Happy Pontist (http://happypontist.blogspot.it/2010/10/venice-bridges-4-ponte-della.html), "traditional Venetian bridge designs never venture beyond a span to rise ration of 7:1," as any greater ratio--resulting in a long, less humpbacked bridge--would place too much horizantal pressure upon the soft terrain on which the city is built. The long gentle arch of Calatrava's bridge in Venice has a span to rise ration of either 16:1 or 17:1 (depending on one's sources), and the mechanism he designed to compensate for this excessive horizontal thrust has proved inadequate to the task. As a result, constant monitoring of the bridge is required, along with expensive and unending maintenance.

Calatrava's broken "egg"
But, you may ask, how does the bridge work on a less technical level? Not very well, I have to say. Though it was specifically put in to provide another, faster route toward the historic center for tourists, it does not do so for everyone--and not without some danger. Five years after the bridge's opening, and ten years after the city council first demanded the architectural plan accommodate them, the bridge remains inaccessible to disabled people. Though a spherical red lift--derisively called "the egg" by locals--was tacked onto the design at great additional cost in 2008, it sits idly upon its track that runs along one side of the bridge, still not operational.

Moreover, while the bridge's low broad steps allude to the shape of steps on early (and much smaller) Venetian bridges, they are spaced so irregularly that stumbles and injuries have been a regular occurrence since its opening. Reports in the world-wide press in late September 2008 noted that no fewer than 10 tourists had sought treatment for twisted ankles and other minor injuries in the first 20 days of the bridge's use. City officials sarcastically responded by simply blaming the tourists, whom they claimed have always been staggered by the city's beauty. But though I've passed over the bridge countless times myself, I still find it requires all of my attention not to mis-step.

Even in dry weather many locals tend to avoid walking on the slippery glass panels
In fact, walking on the bridge gets even more challenging when the weather is the least bit inclement. Most of each very wide step consists of glass which, as everyone but Calatrava himself seems to know, becomes slippery in the fog that characterizes a Venetian winter, not to mention in rain or snow. The glass panels, whose pale-green-blue tint already suggests the surface of an ice rink, also freeze quite easily. These weather-related issues have caused such problems at another of Calatrava's glass-paneled footbridges in Bilbao that the city, much to the architect's dismay, carpeted it over to prevent more falls, injuries, and potential lawsuits.

This image from the Città di Venezia website might lead a few folks to think that the impracticality of glass steps is a fair price to pay for such a glowing vision of beauty--except, alas, I've never seen the bridge lit up like this
Finally, and ironically enough, this bridge whose entire raison d'etre is mass tourism, has turned out to be particularly unable to support it, as the wheels of rolling suitcases damage its glass panels. According to a report published last June in La Nuova Venezia, each glass panel must be individually made or repaired in an artisanal process, and there is no ready replacement inventory. At the time of the article, 14 of the steps needed to be replaced, at a cost ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 euros each, depending on the type of damage.

Given all of these problems, I sometimes wonder what the imperious directors of the old Republic of Venice would have done with an architect like Santiago Calatrava in the 16th century. No matter how unpleasant next week's trial may turn out to be for him, he should probably thank his lucky star that it's not taking place four or five hundred years ago. 



23 comments:

  1. It seems Venice is becoming a prey of charlatans again and again.

    A few days ago I saw a film made by Russian television in 1993, "Walking with Brodsky". He is supposed to show film "the city he loves and knows as no one else can". Brodsky is walking somw alley and addresses the camera: - Venice has links with Orient...with Byzantium...specially with Byzantium...very good relations specially with Byzantium. Up till eighteenth century....No, till the end of seventeenth century...Then these relations began to deteriorate. -

    In seventeenth - eighteenth centuries. With Byzantium.

    I was violently appaled (c)...

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    1. to show the film crew, I mean.

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    2. Well, perhaps by suggesting that the Byzantine empire survived beyond 1453 Brodsky was in fact demonstrating that he did indeed "know Venice as one one else can" (or would even want to)--not accurately, that is, but in his own peculiarly self-absorbed and untrustworthy way.

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  2. What an interesting post. I knew there were a number of problems, but to this extent? Appalling. Although I have to wonder how glass treads ever got approved in the first place. Anyone who has crossed a Venetian bridge during frost or inclement weather would be wary of glass treads. Does the bridge get salted in the winter?

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    1. The cult of the (usually male) genius often seems to lead to folly, and I suppose Venice can take whatever cold comfort there is to be had from the fact that many other places who paid Calatrava are faced with similar problems and costs. Will his commissions start to decline, I wonder? Meanwhile NYC has its $4 billion dollar Calatrava train station at the WTC site--not entirely completed yet, I also wonder how the world's most expensive station will work. I wish i knew the answer to your good question about salting the bridge, Susie. I can't imagine it would be recommended, given the materials.

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  3. Growl, I hope Signor Calatrava doesn't get away without paying through the nose for this structure that has been on the nose from before it was ever opened. The glass panels not only become treacherously slippery at the mention of moisture, they soon became scuffed, scratched and downright ugly to look at.

    Well, lets' see how clever his lawyers are ....

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    1. Why do I have the feeling, Yvonne, that his lawyers will be awfully clever indeed? And, yes, that's been my big problem with the bridge: for all it costs, it just doesn't hold up or look very good. In spite of all the money Venice must spend on its upkeep, perhaps they still aren't spending enough?

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  4. According to the Full Calatrava, the annual maintenance costs are 1.8 million euros! That is almost unbelievable. I can only believe it because he says the budgeted maintenance costs were 740,000 euros. How can the maintenance of the bridge cost that much? If either figure is correct, surely it would be cheaper in the short run, never mind the long run, to demolish it. I cannot see how it would cost 1.8 million euros to demolish it. Perhaps Lake Havasu, Arizona, might buy it. When the lowest tender for a job like this is accepted, they should ask the people who submitted the highest tender to explain why the lowest tender will never come in on budget.

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    1. That is an amazing figure, Bert--especially in a town in which school kids must supply their own toilet paper, classrooms are left unpainted & unmaintained from one year to the next, and the kids' desks are a mismatched collection of whatever can be scraped together along with a random assortment of kitchen chairs for them to sit on. I've thought of writing a post on the way one can't help but feel at times that the economic model for the city of Venice has become that of some destitute cruise ship port in the Carribbean.

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  5. I gave my comment on the wrong blog (of the two guys patiently wating for their bait). Please read it as a comment on the bridge. Gijs

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    1. Yes, as you say on the other post, Gijs, it is an example of Venice's enslavement to mass tourism; an example that is particularly galling as more and more studies show that the number of tourists in the city must be reduced, while those who run the city (not the mayor, but the Port Authority, for example) devote themselves to increasing the flow, and getting them in and out of the city ever more quickly. The Port Authority and the airport make their money on sheer numbers of people moving in and out of the city, and remain committed to it, in spite of consequences.

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  6. Why not leaving Calatrava publicly exposed in a cheba in S. Marco (very much like Jago in Othello).

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    1. At the very least, Francesco, I've been thinking that the old practice of running people like him through a gauntlet from the Piazza to the Rialto deserves to be resurrected.

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  7. Hi Sig. Nonloso, I recently climbed the Calatrava bridge for the first time in the dark and I was surprised at how difficult it was to descend - it was hard to see where the 'steps' began and ended especially with the light reflecting on the stair treads. The next day I had to walk up the bridge in the rain and it was incredibly slippery. I actually thought it was old age creeping up on me so I am a little bit glad to know I'm not the only who finds it difficult the negotiate this bridge. I wouldn't like to use it on a regular basis.

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    1. I think you can rest assured that the bridge is a problem for people of all ages, Capturing Venice. I keep thinking I'll "get the hang of it", but I have the same problems you described. It seems to be that the very low profile of the steps makes them all appear almost to be on one level, as you say, as you descend. Also since some steps are two panels deep and others are only one panel deep, you can't really be sure whether you should be expecting an actual step down at the edge of a panel or simply another panel. But I don't think Calatrava designs for the "real world" or actual people in it--both of which his practice suggests are beneath his consideration.

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  8. I wonder what the maintenance costs are for the wooden Accademia bridge?

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    1. The city claims the Accademia bridge has become too costly to maintain--as costly as the Calatrava bridge? I sincerely doubt it. As you can read here (http://happypontist.blogspot.it/2011/08/outcry-over-plan-to-rebuild-ponte.html), the bridge was rebuilt as a steel bridge in 1986 and the wood of the original design has been more decorative than actually functional since that time.

      Given the fine job the city has done with the Calatrava bridge, would anyone really trust them to replace the Accademia at this point?

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    2. The wooden one is much more attractive than the British designed iron one it replaced. I hope that the shape of any replacement will be similar to what is presently there.

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    3. I think the shape of a the proposed replacement would be similar, though I can't recall where I've seen it. But I hope no change will be made any time soon, simply because there's no money for it, and whatever money there is could be better spent--on schools, for example.

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  9. Seeing as it took forever for La Fenice to be repaired one has to wonder how anyone would let Calatrava design and build anything in Venice at all.

    Maybe a bike rack in front of the train station ...

    This travesty is like a McMansion in the middle of St. Marks Square. Vomit inducing, like most modern art. Oppressive, defies criticism and a reflection of the artist's insecurities.

    Solution is to tear the dam(ed thing down and start over with a design that is Venetian. It can't be hard, a bright child could do it: a central cycloidal arch made of hard stone, ramps on both sides inclined toward the center with smooth granite paving, not steps. Decorate with soffits, quoins, crockets, moldings, ogee, etc. to taste. Design the bridge wide enough to accommodate carts so venders can sell their trinkets.

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    1. Calatrava's reputation preceded him, Steve, and he was commissioned to do the bridge at a time when that reputation stood for elegant eye-catching designs--especially of bridges. I just wonder if that reputation can withstand this latest barrage of information about how his designs actually fare in the real world, rather than on paper or in computer simulations. People are bound to have different opinions on the aesthetics of the bridge, but the fact that it just doesn't work as a bridge and continues to be a big financial drain... There were reports that before the bridge, a person in a wheelchair could actually get to the train station from Piazzale Roma much faster on the boats provided to get them across the canal than they can now using the "egg", which is supposed to be functioning now, finally, but takes a very very long time to simply get across the canal.

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  10. Glass is a lethal surface, levels of grip are measured by Coefficient of Friction (the higher the level the lower the slip risk), to use glass even in dry, internal areas as a walkway is a no-no, but to use it externally with no roof, in exposed conditions (where it can freeze) and on an incline is complete insanity! UKSRG guidelines stipulate a minimum CoF level (using Pendulum) of 36 in wet conditions. I am an anti slip tape consultant and thought that this was really interesting, I have wrote an article, it can be seen at http://www.heskins.com/blog/slippery-glass-on-venice-bridge/

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    1. You provide some interesting information, Larry, which makes me think Calatrava doesn't much concern himself with "little things" such as the Coefficient of Friction. But just imagine if you could secure accounts to provide anti-slip tape for every misbegotten bridge designed by Calatrava around the world! You'd probably have a steady supply of more orders than you could keep up with. For the sake of those who commission him, though, let's hope he re-thinks his use of glass. Venice doesn't even have the money for schools, much less anti-slip tape.

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