Controversy dogs Venice's first new bridge in 70 years

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The Independent Online

Venice is to get a new bridge, its first in more than 70 years. This week the first piles were sunk on the bank of the Grand Canal by the railway station for Il ponte di Calatrava, which should be ready to bear its first cargo of tourists across to the buses and car parks of Piazzale Roma by the summer. The prefabricated sections were towed up the canal over the past two summers and are now ready to be bolted in place.

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish engineer whose dramatic projects in cities as far apart as Dublin, Athens and Buenos Aires have changed our idea of what bridges ought to look like, the Venice bridge is very different from the works that made him famous. It is the soul of discretion: no cantilevered webs of cable, no evocations of harps, lyres or lutes - just a sleek, arrow-like flight from bank to bank, with no visible means of support.

It is exquisitely modern, but stylistically it is not at war with its environment. Helping it to blend in is the fact that it is partly built of local Istrian marble, Venice's most important raw material.

But the bridge's low profile has not kept it clear of controversy. There was the high price tag, €4m (£2.6m) climbing to €6.5m. There was the question of safety: the long, unsupported arch, according to an expert who was involved in the technical evaluation of the project, must be precise to the millimetre if it is to work, and its pressure on the banks must be adequately contained. In an article in L'Espresso last month, Professor Gianfranco Rocatagliati warned that the tramping of the tourist battalions could cause it to collapse.

But the most persistent complaints focus on Calatrava's failure to make his bridge accessible to the disabled. The span is approached by glass steps: Calatrava has achieved his beautiful sweep at the expense of those who must wheel or hobble, and in contravention, it is claimed, of Italian law.

The Venice municipality and Calatrava's office have been inundated with letters of protest. Two solutions to the problem were proposed: the first was to give the disabled free vaporetto (ferry) passes so they would not need to use the bridge. The second was to equip it with two platform lifts, that would run on demand along the bridge's arc. Neither solution has met with much satisfaction. In an ideal world the architect would have been told to go back to the drawing board and think again, but for reasons possibly connected with his fame and the size of his fee this did not happen. The city has now promised to install egg-shaped lifts that will carry the disabled across the bridge - though Calatrava is said to be unhappy with them, and critics claim that at present they are no more than science fiction prototypes.

Venice is now debating whether to throw a party for the bridge's completion - or whether it might be better not to bother.