“Only connect”, British writer E. M. Forster once famously wrote, which also describes the ambition that any self-respecting bridge used to aspire to. But not any more. The new Scale Lane Bridge by McDowell+Benedetti in Hull isn′t satisfied with just being a connection between A and B. It is a destination in itself, a place that attracts visitors, flañeurs and passers-by alike.
Spanning the River Hull in eastern England, this new pedestrian and cycle bridge does of course provide a valuable new link, connecting the core old city in the east with its western part, whilst its distinctive pivoting mechanism enables its whole cantilevered length to rotate, allowing larger river traffic to pass.
But the design also incorporates a public space, benches and space for a café, and people can occupy the bridge even whilst it is swinging open, a movement – animated by a sound and light installation by artist Nayan Kulkarni – that is so slow that they can easily step on and off it too at the same time. This means that this small bridge is in the tradition of famous inhabited bridge designs from the past, such as old London Bridge or the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, which purposefully extended the urban, social realm of the city.
All these elements, from mechanism to seating areas to the roof light for the prospective café, have contributed to giving the bridge a highly-articulated black muscular shape: one that has variously been described as a pinball flipper, a comma or a ship. Indeed its design references – with its expressionistic curves and black steel superstructure – make it look reminiscent of an Erich Mendelsohn sketch crossed with a submarine.
But the project has also been dubbed “the Bridge to Nowhere” by local press, as it was originally part of a larger masterplan, leading from the city centre to a projected development named, hubristically in hindsight, “The Boom”, which was put on hold after the financial crash. And as well as economic crisis, this bridge project has also survived political upheavel – its original client, a local regeneration agency, was abolished by the incoming Conservative government – and natural disaster: damaging local floods meant its design had to be increased by several inches in height. All this has meant, that the project has taken 8 years from the original competition until completion.
So whilst this bridge may once have been intended just as a piece of connective tissue in the urban infrastructure – on the way to the main event of bigger flashier developments, through its intelligent design interpretation making it a place in its own right, as well as a route from A to B, it now sits as a thoughtfully-designed piece of urban space, one that provides a new focus in the city in itself, whilst still quietly unlocking the potential of the west bank of the city.
Perhaps the comparison of its shape to a comma is not far off: it is a distinctive urban punctuation mark, a place to pause, sit, enjoy the view and catch the breath. But the bridge also represents a pause in the story of the city, helping unlock another chapter in its development, one that is still to be written.
– Rob Wilson