The new pedestrian and bicycle bridge in Providence has nudged me out of my lane. Its design is modernist. I like it. This does not compute.
I’d still prefer a traditional bridge, such as the one inspired by the Pont des Arts in Paris proposed, not long before his death, by the man responsible more than any other for the Providence renaissance. That would be Bill Warner. He was the architect who conceived of moving the Providence River, uncovering it, and lining it with river walks and lovely arched bridges, features that he also designed. He also conceived of the plan to relocate Route 195 to the south so that it no longer splits the Jewelry District from downtown. The pedestrian bridge sits on that old highway bridge’s abutments. Warner’s proposal for a pedestrian bridge across the Providence River, linking the two sections of the so-called “innovation corridor,” was thrown overboard after Mayor (now U.S. Rep.) David Cicilline decided to hold a design competition for the bridge, which was, I believe, rigged to allow only modernist entries.
So I have every reason to feel disdain for this bridge. I figured it would be one of those projects that would be improved by “value engineering” – that it would be trimmed, willy-nilly, into a traditional bridge. That’s what I had hoped, at least. Saved by the budget cutters! But that did not happen. The competition winner, InFORM Studio of Detroit, dropped a proposed bridge café as a cost-cutting measure, and the bridge opened on Aug. 9.
A few weeks ago, I saw from a distance, its wood flaming in the early evening sun (see the photo at left), and was smitten. On Sunday I strolled the span with my son, Billy, and while my flame for the bridge has dimmed – as had that of the wood now lit by a less brilliant sky – that very wood and its allure were difficult to resist. The sinuosity of the span’s curvaceous path across the river overpowered the metallic features that might have sunk the bridge had they not been rescued by its wooden elements: its sides, its deck, the arm rests atop its railings, and its curvy slatted seating – in short, almost all of it. The metal railings are the primary threat, indeed almost the only threat, to the natural feel achieved by the bridge’s wooden elements.
Yet even those metal railings – ten horizontal ranks of steel cording stretch between vertical steel posts, which seemed to be an obligatory reference to Le Corbusier – are set at a steep slant that leans over the bridge’s edge, and by following the curves of the span contribute to its voluptuosity. The steel posts are paced so as to offer a continuously pleasing rhythm as we crossed the bridge, further strengthening its opulent form. It appears that value engineering failed to rob this bridge of its luxury, which may account for its running 700 percent over its original $3 million budget. The bridge’s charming but modest forest of plantings cannot be blamed for that. (See Madeleine List’s story in the Providence Journal, “$21.9 million later, pedestrian bridge opens in downtown Providence.”)
Water under the bridge, as they say. The public will forget.
Views from the bridge to the east are a delightful mixture of Fox Point’s wide variety of traditional architectural forms, cuddled among the trees. The view of downtown to the north from the bridge is one we all love, and the new bridge’s view of it is closer than from the Point Street Bridge and the Route 195 (“Iway”) bridge. It’s a much better view all the more because you need not risk your life to take it in, as you must from those two bridges, which form much of the view from the new pedestrian bridge looking south.
Plan your visit for the late afternoon or early evening, when the setting sun lavishes its golden rays on the Brazilian wood of the bridge’s northerly side (if the sides are made of the same wood as the deck).
But don’t forget that much of the view along the riverbank to the west is plug ugly, with that blotch of God’s wrath on architecture called the Wexford Science and Innovation Center (or whatever) adding to the carnage the I-195 commission seems intent upon inflicting on the Jewelry District. But, hey, in several years the view of the Wexford will be mercifully blocked by … the Fane tower! (I, for one, doubt it will be built.)
Okay, so my nose is a little out of joint from having to admit I like something modernist. It has happened before, but not so frequently as to dilute the pleasure of surprise. Go and you will see what I mean.
I feel that the bridge could be wide enough to have vehicle and pedestrian traffic. I also feel that it won’t be much of an attraction since there are no stores, restaurants, and attractions nearby. It is like a bridge linking a dead zone to a dead zone. Like the exit from 195 to Wickenden Street, the bridge shouldn’t just be a pass by. There should be reasons for people to stop and stay for a while. Why do I have to enter a url?
Great article, David.Thank you for sharing. The hardwood for the deck is Ipe, for long use and high durability. The wood ‘below deck’, that emulates a ship’s hull, is Wana wood. Both species are sustainably harvested and will weather naturally in a marine environment.
Thanks you, Chris. Coincidentally an old friend of mine had just written me the following note. (and by the way, he refers to a mutual friend whose wife, also named Chris, left him and took the kids. Sad story, but not related to the wood):
“When I returned from Deutschland, I got euchred into helping Xxxxx work on an outdoor deck made of this incredible wood. This was when he was still in Sharpsburg, Maryland with his kids & the wicked witch, Chris. It is a tale of nightmarish proportions. I don’t know that I ever gave you the skinny.
“Anyway, unless the wood on the new Providence pedestrian bridge is treated with oil from time to time, the color of the wood will eventually turn a cadaverous grey, especially those sections with longest exposure to direct sun. A pity, alas. Same thing happens to cedar, which, as you know, is a beautiful terra cota and vanilla beige color. I remember the old Coast Guard station at Bethany Beach when they rehabbed the entire structure with cedar shake shingles. Oh, the glory. The fresh cedar was so beautiful. Now it’s a dingy hideous gray.
“Otherwise, I like your new bridge. Nice design.”
So, Chris, I hope the city, which has taken ownership of the bridge, will keep the issue of its proper oiling and other maintenance, in mind.
It’s hard to fault the design and materials of this structure . Expensive but the result is exhilarating.
Does it have a name? Who designed it>
This is a much larger conversation: I truly Love, deeply, the Vietnam Wall in DC, Unity Temple in Chicago is magic, Ingalls Rink at Yale is the best sports venue I know of: “Style” as a polemic is not how humans experience buildings: the failures of Modernism are more of hubris and narcissism than “Style”: I think what we make reflects the makers: I am sure you more than most (or at least me) can site disappointing “Traditional” architecture…
David: It is a wonderful bridge. And I thank for for your wonderful comments. Ray
Love you, Dave. Please take pics (and post them) when the first tagger who defaces it is hanged from that beautiful new railing.
I really hate people continue painting their wooden houses white, as there’s no reason anymore, as modern wood treatment doesn’t need paint anymore. And before people didn’t paint their houses, except for window frames and details, because of painting was too expensive except for the rich and big farmers. Even at 15 stops of dynamic range, white houses burn out on my sensor, left like pointless spots with no details in the cultural landscapes on my images. Natural wood would be exposed correctly, like the surrounding fields.
Manil and I went on this bridge a week and a half ago even though it wasn’t open yet since we’d seen another couple scoot through a gap in the construction fence. We got about five minutes on the bridge before we were scolded by a construction inspector and preferred off. The bridge is really good and will get a lot of press. I’m thankful that an earlier concept to have a cafe on the bridge was ditched because, even protected by the hurricane barrier, it will be subject to flooding from the Providence River. It might only happen once every fifty years but since infrequent events are now frequent events, that would be a bad chance to take. I’ve read Brussat’s articles for many years starting when he had a column in the Providence Journal and while his anti-modernist prejudice has found some worthy targets, wanting to dislike something so you can hold onto that prejudice is just dumb. Definitely check out this bridge when you’re up there next. It will soon be legitimately open.😁
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I’m glad, Laurence, that you mentioned the original plan for a cafe on the bridge. I still think that would have been nice, but it was too costly. As for your suggestion that I want to dislike the bridge (or any modern architecture) for the purpose of maintaining my prejudice, that is absurd. Rather, I admit when I like something against my normal tendencies because I am honest about it, and want to enhance my credibility with both sides in the “style wars.” Most readers whose knowledge of my writing goes back to my years at the Journal will understand that I am not against all modern architecture. I am against it in principle, and when modernist architects follow their own misbegotten principles, I come down on them like a hammer. But on occasion, a modernist building will have enough hints of tradition that it will catch my fancy. That is what happened with this bridge. It is rare, but it happens, and I acknowledge when it does.