Monday 28 October 2019

The Politics of the Bridge

Posted by Martin Cohen

Bridges are the stuff of superlatives and parlour games. Which is the longest bridge in the world? The tallest? The most expensive? And then there's also a prize which few seem to compete for - the prize for being the most political. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s. surprise proposal in September for a feasibility study for a bridge to Ireland threatens to scoop the pot.

But then, what is it about bridges and Mr. Johnson? Fresh from the disaster, at least in public relations terms, of his ‘Garden bridge’ (pictured above) over the river Thames, the one that Joanna Lumley said would be a “floating paradise”, the “tiara on the head of our fabulous city” and was forecast to cost £200 million before the plug was pulled on it (leaving Londoners with bills of £48 million for nothing), he announces a new bridge - this time connecting Northern Ireland across seas a thousand feet deep to Stranraer in Scotland. This one would cost a bit too - albeit Johnson suggests it would be value for money at no more than £15 billion.

If Londoners choked on a minuscule fraction of that for their new bridge, it is hard to see how exactly this new one could have been afforded. Particularly as costs of large-scale public works don't exactly have a good reputation in terms of coming in within budget.
The 55-kilometre bridge–tunnel system of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that opened last year was constructed only after delays, corruption and accidents had put its cost up to 48 billion Yuan (about £5.4 billion).

When wear and tear to the eastern span of the iconic San Francisco Bay bridge became too bad to keep patching, an entirely new bridge was built to replace it, at a final price tag of $6.5 billion (about £5.2 billion), a remarkable sum in its own right but all more indigestible because it represented a 2,500% cost overrun from the original estimate of $250 million.
Grand public works are always political. For a start, there is the money to be made on the contract, but there is also the money to be made from interest on the loans obtained. Money borrowed at a low rate from governments, can be relent at a higher rate. Even when they are run scrupulously, bridges are, like so many large construction projects, moneygorounds.

And yet, bridges have a good image, certainly compared to walls. They are said to unite, where barriers divide. "Praise the bridge that carried you safe over" says Lady Duberly at breakfast, in George Colman's play The Heir at Law. But surface appearances can be deceptive. Bridges, as recent history has shown, have a special power to divide.

That Hong Kong bridge is also a way of projecting mainland Chinese power onto its fractious new family member. President Putin's $3.7 billion Kerch Strait Bridge joining Crimea to Russia was hardly likely, as he put it, to bring “all of us closer together”. Ukrainians and the wider international community considered Russia's the bridge to be reinforcing Russian annexation of the peninsula. And if bridges are often favourably contrasted with walls, this one, it soon emerged, functioned as both: no sooner was the bridge completed than shipping trying to sail under it began to be obstructed. No wonder that Ukraine believes that there was an entirely negative and carefully secret political rationale for the bridge: to impose an economic stranglehold over Ukraine and cripple its commercial shipping industry in the Azov Sea.

In this sense, a bridge to Northern Ireland seems anything but a friendly gesture by the British, rather it smacks of old-style colonialism.

But perhaps the saddest bridge of them all was the sixteenth century Old Bridge at Mostar, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and connecting the two sides of the old city. Upon its completion it was the widest man-made arch in the world, towering forty meters (130 feet) over the river. Yet it was constructed and bound not with cement but with egg whites. No wonder, according to legend, the builder, Mimar Hayruddin, whose conditions of employment apparently included his being hanged if the bridge collapsed, carefully prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the completed structure.

In fact, the bridge was a fantastic piece of engineering and stood proud - until that is, in 1993 when Croatian nationalists, intent on dividing the communities either side of the river, collapsed it in a barrage of artillery shells. Thus the bridge once compared with a ‘rainbow rising up to the Milky Way’ became instead a tragic monument to hatred.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The Macmillan Dictonary defines a bridge as a connection. It begins to connect two things, or ceases to connect two things. Two things which otherwise were not (much) connected.

As such, bridges would embody the motives of those who build them: there are reasons to begin to connect, or to cease to connect. That a bridge should be a pretext for something else seems less likely, although we humans are quite ingenious in our schemes.

This post gives pause for thought: what is the meaning of this or that bridge? Historically, by and large, perhaps they have symbolised conquest more than anything: the Arkadiko bridge, the Zhaozhu bridge, Trojan's bridge, and many more.

Today, of course, there are not only land bridges. There are many more ways to begin to connect two things, or cease to connect two things. And so there are wars over connecting-things of many kinds.

Keith said...

If I were to pick one bridge over the many that nations brag about, it would be the Ponte Vecchio, straddling the River Arno in Florence. Besides the bridge’s rich, ages-long history, there’s its notable platform for shops, the span serving not solely as a means of passage. By its being frozen in time, it has stood the test of time — remaining a fit for this century, still drawing throngs to it. In this case, the original ‘politics of the bridge’, partially for defensive purposes, has long since faded to irrelevance.

The bridge’s design, viewed from up river, ranks it as a rare work of both art and architecture — cleverly equalizing the roles of function and form. To my way of thinking anyway, these qualities — as opposed to mere length and height, as so often ballyhooed as the be-all metrics — combine to make the Ponte Vecchio unrivaled. Maybe I’m a bit jaundiced, but might nations’ infrastructural plans of today, notwithstanding their giddy price tags, result in anything equal, even by current standards? Arguably the ‘politics of bridges’ will prove the foil.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Bridges seen as an in-between are in a certain sense the most honest places we can stand upon!

docmartincohen said...

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments! I have been away visiting some iconic bridges just this week - including the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. What struck me about this one, is that firstly, pedestrians are allowed on the bridge, but only between the lanes of cars, not on the edge over the water, and secondly, almost all of them seem to walk the bridge from one end to the other - and then turn around to go straight back - again the flow of cars forbids much else.

So the idea of 'walking the Brooklyn Bridge' seems to be really more of a media fantasy than a practical project. Does this perhaps provide another example to the idea I pushed in the post that bridges are really symbols first and means of transport second?

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