In 1935, the opening of the new Tower Bridge over the Sacramento River revealed a sense of optimism about our city during a difficult time.
America was still deep in the Great Depression, and architect Alfred Eichler crafted a design for the new bridge that “symbolized progress, modernization, speed, efficiency and technology.”
The structure was described at the time as “inextricably linked with symbolism of the future.”
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Sadly, when it comes to Sacramento bridge design in the 21st century, we’re in danger of being inextricably linked with the symbolism of the past.
For years, the city has been planning a replacement for the historic I Street Bridge, a handsome steel truss structure that dates to 1911. Happily, that bridge isn’t going anywhere, continuing to service rail traffic.
The unfortunate news is that in 2014, the city, via the transportation planning firm Mark Thomas, quietly selected an architect for said replacement. And it appears that the designer for this $160 million project was chosen for his familiarity rather than his big ideas.
The architect, Donald MacDonald of San Francisco, is best known for the recently completed eastern span of the Bay Bridge. While he’s clearly experienced, I fear the city and its consultants have their priorities backwards.
Done right, bridges have the power to shape the identity of entire cities. Look no further than the Golden Gate or the Brooklyn Bridge. In Redding, the Sundial Bridge – also spanning the Sacramento River – was designed by celebrated architect Santiago Calatrava, and elevated that town into a destination city.
Reverse this monumental mistake and initiate a design competition, as dozens of global cities have in recent years, from London and Warsaw to Tulsa, Miami, Los Angeles, Helsinki and Rome.
But what identity is Sacramento striving for?
If, for example, you’re looking for a house painter, you need a craftsman who knows how to apply paint. If you’re looking for a public mural that might last a century, you find an artist whose work matches the style you’re hoping to achieve.
When the canvas is our city, choosing the right artist is absolutely critical. That’s not to say MacDonald isn’t an artist. But is he the right artist for our city?
Based on his concept renderings – perhaps heavily influenced by the city or its consultants – the early answer is no.
I say this because MacDonald’s concepts achieve the opposite of what Eichler strived for with the Tower Bridge – reflecting his era while also looking forward.
A 2016 report prepared by the consultants at Mark Thomas suggested that “the use of exposed trusses as the main structural feature of both the lift bridge and the lift towers connects this new landmark with the existing I Street Bridge and the Tower Bridge just downstream to visually create a family of bridges.”
To that end, each of the architect’s concepts represents a Frankensteined mash-up of recycled visual references, such as exposed steel trusses (overtly referencing the I Street Bridge) and/or twin towers (echoing the Tower Bridge).
But perhaps the most egregious mistake is thinking too small. To wit, the city has characterized the future structure as a “pleasing” and “neighborhood-friendly” bridge.
Perhaps a small wooden walkway over a koi pond in Land Park should be “pleasing” and “neighborhood friendly.” But a $160 million transportation project is a potential civic game-changer that can help shape perception of the city as a forward-thinking metropolis.
We need to re-frame the aesthetic parameters using words such as “iconic” and “innovative.”
When MacDonald’s eastern stretch of the Bay Bridge opened in 2013, San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King opined: “The span that opened this month is an engineered act of architecture that wants to be iconic, and it doesn’t measure up to the task.”
Sacramento must do better.
Yes, the project managers will invite public comment this fall. And yes, they say they remain open to a modern structure even though that’s clearly not the direction they’ve been headed in behind closed doors. But frankly, it does the public no good to influence the direction if the architect has already been selected.
You wouldn’t ask Frank Gehry to design a horizontal concrete house any more than you’d ask Frank Lloyd Wright to craft a soaring, metallic, curvilinear museum. The design needs to come first in a project like this, not the designer.
Before that happens, though, we have to determine what we want and need as a city.
I believe what Sacramento needs, from an architectural standpoint, is to be bold. Yes, it’s important to honor our heritage, but we must also look forward, just as Eichler did.
Our only option now is to reverse this monumental mistake and immediately initiate a design competition, as dozens of global cities have in recent years, from London and Warsaw to Tulsa, Miami, Los Angeles, Helsinki and Rome.
In Providence, R.I., for example, a new bridge will open in 2018 after a contest that yielded 47 entries. “We received incredible designs from all over the world,” said Providence Mayor David Cicilline.
Ipswich, England, in March finished a competition for three new bridges and the winner was Sir Norman Foster, one of the world’s great architects. Similarly, Taipei’s recent bridge contest landed a striking design by fellow starchitect Zaha Hadid in 2015, less than a year before she died.
Leaders in these cities understand the potential impact of great design. When it comes to our riverfront, it’s time for our civic leaders to think bigger, even if that means burning a few bridges to build a truly great one.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org.