HUMBER BRIDGE BETTER BY FAR
- Colin Vaughan, The Globe and Mail
Unless they are prepared to park along the lakeshore and walk - perish the thought - motorists are condemned to catch only a glimpse of the wondrous new addition to our urban landscape: the cycle and pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of the Humber River.
Lazy motorists will be the losers for, even though the distant view of the graceful white structure is striking in itself, the intricacy of the superb design can only be enjoyed with a visit.
The need to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians first arose at the time of the decision to replace the crumbling Humber River highway bridges. The first idea was to glue a path hard against the road lanes. During the design process the pedestrian and cycle path became unstuck and emerged as a separate structure and important link in David Crombie's plan for a waterfront trail stretching from Burlington to Trenton.
Designers engaged for the highway-bridge reconstruction - architects Montgomery and Sisam, landscape architects Ferris and Quinn and Environmental Artworks Studio - are responsible for the look and feel of the new structure. Strung from the graceful, sculpted and soaring arches spanning a clear 100 metres are stainless steel rods supporting a thin concrete deck slung eight metres above the river. The ends of 300-tonne steel arches press on concrete abutments sunk 35 metres into the bedrock on the river's banks.
When I first visited the bridge I was struck by the contrast between the strong sunlight on the river and lake and the soft light on the bridge deck, a light diffused by the tracery of the structure above. Architect David Sisam tells me that the intention was to create "a room-like quality" when on the bridge itself. The designers have succeeded.
On that first visit, the shape of the geometric cutouts in the steel plates joining the steel arches high overhead struck a chord. It was Brad Golden of Environmental Artworks Studio who explained that the shapes are an abstract representation of the Thunderbird, "the ruler of all airborne species, an icon of the woodland native peoples who occupied the site in the past."
The theme of linking the new structure with the past inhabitants of the riverbanks runs through the whole design. Mr. Golden says that, after talking with Tom Hill of the Woodlands Cultural Centre on the Six Nations reserve at Brantford, the native concept of the junctions between fire, air and water were incorporated in the design. Mr. Golden talks of the Thunderbird cutouts "catching fire from the sky, connecting light and air, a skylight to the heavens."
There is more to marvel at under the bridge. Interpretive plaques trace the prehistory of the river and compare the engineering wonder of canoe structure with the structure above.
There's more, much more. Visit and discover the magic for yourself.
There was a time when bridge design wan an important feature of the architectural repertoire. Arched masonry bridges from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance grace European cities. Intricate cast-iron arches and spectacular suspension bridges were among the engineering wonders of the 19th century. Swiss engineer Robert Maillart's elegant and delicate curved concrete spans defined bridge design in the first half of this century.
Bridge design went down the drain when the highway engineers took over. See one dumb highway overpass and you've seen 'em all.
Hail the designers of the Humber Bridge - and those Metro Transportation Department bureaucrats who took the risk of blazing new ground - for reviving the art.
-the late Colin Vaughan, architect and former member of Toronto and Metro Councils, reported on politics and architecture for CITY-TV and the Globe and Mail