Bridge of Strings: Monstrosity or Beauty?

by Brian on July 10, 2008

in Only in Israel

Some have called it a monstrosity. To others it’s a thing of beauty. One thing’s for sure: the new Bridge of Strings at the entrance to Jerusalem, which was formally dedicated two weeks ago in a multi-million dollar ceremony, has generated a huge amount of controversy both online and with the general public at large.

One thing everyone can agree on, though: it is a striking piece of architecture. The NIS 246 million bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was built to provide an uninterrupted overpass for the city’s new light rail line, slated to start running in 2010. The white bridge is held up in the air along the entire length of its 360 meters by 66 iron strings that descend gracefully from a 188-meter high tall spire that towers over its surroundings.

Calatrava is no stranger to bridge building – he has built more than 40 around the world, including, most recently, a bridge nearing completion over the Grand Canal in Venice. The bridge in Jerusalem, he said, is his unquestionable favorite, reminding him of a harp or a tent in the desert.

The design of the bridge is not the problem, say local architects; it’s the location. “It’s impossible to see the bridge in its full glory,” explained architect Hillel Schocken to the Haaretz newspaper.

“The bridge has no room to breathe,” added architect Saadia Mandel. It “needs a giant living space so that we’ll be able to sense it.”

Mandel and Schocken are quite right. The bridge is boxed in by some truly ugly apartment buildings, the kind where laundry hangs down from the balconies. From the main entrance to the city, all you can is the bridge’s tall white spire; its delicate strings only come into view when you are nearly upon them.

Possibly realizing that its surroundings might not do it justice, Jerusalem City Hall handed out a colorful pamphlet at the inauguration ceremony with a computer-simulated image of the bridge in the future, surrounded by two modern high-rises that do not yet exist.

Jerusalem architect and historian David Kroyanker, while liking the bridge in general, nevertheless wondered why Jerusalem needs a new landmark “in order to brand itself. (Jerusalem) is a historical city thanks to its walls, the Dome of the Rock and its churches.”

Local pundit and comedian Jackie Levy also appreciates the bridge, calling it “a spectacular and interesting creation in and of itself.” However, he went on in an article in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, “this bridge is the kind of luxury that is given as a gift to someone who already has everything.” Jerusalem, he explained, is lacking in so many things that a bridge of this magnitude, whose price tag tripled over the course of its construction, is “pretentious and wasteful.”

However, not all the opinions were negative. Architect Kroyanker hopes the bridge will contribute to the city’s modernist image. “This doleful city deserves some secular symbolism,” he said. And he is relieved that “nothing worse” was done. “In Jerusalem, there has been a tendency over the last few years to integrate elements that I call ‘ultra-Orthodox aesthetics,’ like the menorah, the Star of David,” he said. “The bridge is the least of all evils.”

My own opinion on the bridge is positive. I agree that it is out of character in its bleak surroundings, but the entrance to Jerusalem has always struck me as pitifully uninspiring with its narrow winding road ending in a profusion of plebeian traffic lights and pedestrian traffic.

The northern entrance to San Francisco, where I grew up, is flanked by the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. The New York skyline never fails to draw gasps from visitors approaching it from all sides. Even our own little Tel Aviv has its share of skyscrapers and a wide highway flowing into its bowels (not to mention a huge billboard from Chabad proclaiming the Lubavitcher Rebbe as the messiah – only in Israel!).

If the Bridge of Strings can add a little grandeur to Jerusalem, it may be able to restore some of the pride that we have lost as the city gets poorer and dirtier. A simpler, more traditional bridge might have saved money, but it’s not the sort of statement that would proclaim to the world that we are about more than ancient relics, that we are a modern metropolis full of verve and creativity.

That’s a tall task for a bridge but it should be pointed out that Paris’ venerable Eiffel Tower was also derided as a “monstrous and purposeless installation in the heart of our capital city.” It is my hope that, in time, Jerusalem’s Bridge of Strings may become similarly beloved.

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