Design: Spanning the great divides with works of art

There's more to a bridge than providing a route across water, a concept that Chris Wilkinson, who will design the new Tyne bridge, understand s only too well
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The Independent Online
A BRIDGE carries a whole lot more than just the railway trucks, lorries and cars and pedestrians that use it. It links divided communities, makes connections between diversity, it enables man to conquer nature. When wars begin, bridges are the first to be blown up. Without them, Lord Rogers once observed, "rivers are more like ravines".

Chris Wilkinson, who together with his partner Jim Eyre has spanned more waterways than any living architect, realises that much, much more is required from a bridge than just a functional solution to crossing the water. "They are landmarks and have to respond to their context, either in the town or country," he says. "Tower Bridge interests me because it is aesthetically all wrong. Yet, it works as an icon."

Wilkinson's latest venture, which is about to be built across the Tyne, promises to become an icon of the North when it opens in 1999. Together with structural engineers Gifford and Partners, he won a competition to build this bridge, beating Norman Foster in collaboration with Chris Wise of Ove Arup. When Wise saw the winning design he said that he no longer minded losing: "It was such a brilliant design."

One of Wilkinson's strengths is the ability to make substantial structures look light and luminous as well as moveable. They pivot or hinge or rotate to let ships pass. With the Tyne project, Wilkinson hinged a pair of arches, providing a reference to the old Tyne bridge beyond. One arch forms the deck, the other supports it and pivots around their common springing point to let ships pass.

Wilkinson's talent has been recognised by the Design Council, which has made his slinky, elongated, S-shaped South Quay footbridge (designed with engineer Jan Bobrowski) at London's Canary Wharf one of its Millennium Products. One would think it would be difficult moving it into the Millennium Dome, where 150 other best of British design products will be displayed, but the novelty about this bridge is that it is designed to be moved. Half of it pivots on a line with Canary Wharf tower, opening slowly and purposefully to let ships through. "For pounds 2.5 million they got two for the price of one," Wilkinson says. That is why the shape snakes like a ribbon across the Thames. The mast leans one way, the deck another and the shapes counterbalance each other.

Versatility in the vernacular is his strength. Like rivers, no two bridges are the same. At Lockmeadow in Maidstone he designed a bridge in a flood plain with a pier like the bow of a ship and raking masts of such delicacy that it makes the heavy brick and stone buildings on either side look positively cumbersome - no mean feat for a 90m span. He has even designed a bridge indoors, the Challenge Bridge in the Science Museum in London. Because it was in a new gallery called the Challenge of Materials, he rose to the challenge and made the walkway of glass, given a phosphorescent sheen by fibre optics. Crossing it is like walking on water.