Mismatch Of Goal And Path

Having a public competition to “reimagine” the Brooklyn Bridge strikes me as a terrible idea. Unfortunately, it’s a terrible idea born of a real need and sponsored by important and well-meaning organizations, so the results are almost certainly going to be widely published and may well influence policy.

The need is quite simple: there’s not enough room at this time for pedestrians and cyclists. The bridge has two levels: a lower roadway, with three (somewhat narrow) lanes in each direction for cars and an upper walkway, which in theory is divided in half between pedestrians and cyclists. Trucks are not allowed on the bridge, which is pretty much the only formal recognition of its age and the differences in design load between then and now. The number of people on foot and on bikes has increased, and a lot of the pedestrians are tourists, which has led to vendors setting up shop to sell water, tee shirts, and whatever else. Pedestrians stray into the bike lanes, cyclists stray into the pedestrian lane, people walk in large groups, and so on. The bridge is simply too crowded for an enjoyable experience, which is really too bad since walking across it can be one the great moments in this city.

There has been discussion for a few years about maybe extending the pedestrian walkways onto the tops of the trusses over the roadway. Discussion of the current competition has included ideas like new pedestrian ramps to skip the end approaches of the bridge. These ideas are not really the issue for me (see below); my problem is addressing a complicated architectural and engineering design problem with a public competition. Such competitions have been around for a long time, with the Tribune Tower in Chicago being probably the most famous result of one in the US. This kind of competition usually ends up costing firms that make serious efforts to win more than they get back and usually does not produce a result that much resembles what finally gets built. The gap between competition winning design and the built result is rather clear, for example, with the World Trade Center master plan won by Daniel Libeskind in 2003. So if it’s financially abusive to the entrants, and the winner’s design is not necessarily what gets built, what’s the point? What is likely to happen here is that hundreds of designs, many without much merit, will be chewed over in the press, obscuring the complicated issues at hand.

I’m not necessarily worried that the changes will change the appearance of the bridge. First, such changes are likely to be small: for example, adding decks over the road trusses would hardly change the bridge profile at all. Second, the bridge has been changed multiple times since 1883, with cars replacing rail, the pedestrian path getting ramps instead of stairs at the towers, and approach ramps added at the Manhattan end to connect the bridge to the East River Drive. The picture below shows the Brooklyn approach, with trolleys and elevated trains; the removal of the track ramps and the top structure to hold the trolley wires was a significant change that no one seems to remember. When the tracks were removed, the side trusses were also altered to match the middle trusses, so the 1950s saw a very different appearance than had existed before.

I’m less opposed to competitions for smaller designs, like garbage cans. But, in general, I think they’re a poor way to choose a design and a designer.

Scroll to Top