During our recent cycling trip through Holland I was repeatedly struck by the beauty of what we would call the ‘infrastructure’ of the place. The street signs, the light posts, but especially the bridges.
In a country with as many canals as roads, you’re going to have a lot of bridges. I was surprised to see that many of them had unique and beautiful designs. They were functional works of art. And many of them had the builder or designer prominently displayed right on the bridge.
I can imagine the effort that went into designing these bridges. The design competition and the decision process to install this bridge here, and this different design three blocks over. It would’ve added to the cost, but added something remarkable into the landscape.
There’s a new footbridge near my home in Saskatchewan too. It connects the high school with a park and, beyond, a small library on the way to the city centre. The old bridge, no more than 60 years old but, alas, made of wood, must have been deemed unsafe in this modern age.
There is no art to my new bridge. It’s exactly the same as the other new footbridges that cross Wascana Creek. It’s made from galvanized steel (same as the recent grey/silver light posts) and pressure treated lumber. It may not be beautiful but it’s likely the cheapest way to cross the creek on foot. There’s no name on the bridge, or any of the other bridges crossing the creek, identifying the designer or the builder.
No doubt the decision to build the bridge in my town was based solely on cost. What design can give me the most bridges for the least money? Can we use existing ‘off the shelf’ components? Which installation crew is the cheapest? Then ask those questions in a blind bidding process and pick the cheapest option.
It won’t create anything lasting, or beautiful. It won’t make my heart sing every time I walk to the library. The galvanized steel handrail won’t feel good when I hold it. But hey, at least the builder was chosen through an objective and fair process. And Our Tax Dollars were used ‘responsibly.’
I find that sad. And a missed opportunity.
There are a hundred opportunities every year to add art and beauty and good design to the world we live in. To choose the beautiful and interesting as well as the functional. To move people with our public spaces.
It’s time to add beauty to the conversation.