Form and Function 

It's a great opportunity for Caltrans to recognize that beauty, in fact, is essential. But the most beautiful things are not so by adding something to them as an engineering solution. The great engineering solutions are beautiful on their own.

— Robert Behrens to the MTC Bay Bridge Task Force, June 10th, 1998.

Following are the texts of two documents distributed at the San Francisco
AIA Community Critique on April 16, 1998 by Coman Feher Associates.

A decorated viaduct for the 21st Century?

Engineers and architects will have to tell their children to ask the political-science professor to explain this bridge. Here is a bridge which is in two dissimilar pieces for no reason, a bridge which heads away from its destination just to make a statement. And what statement is that? We need a bridge design which will address seismic safety rather than repudiate it. Tomorrow "The Oakland Bridge" will evoke the bizarre and corrupt works of man, as the Winchester Mystery House, or the L.A. Metro do today.

As long as it exists as a little cropped picture in the newspaper, the fraud can be perpetrated that here is a safe and beautiful bridge. But once it is built it will be a laughing stock. Those who drive over it only once will see that the suspension (or cable-stayed) bridge is 14 percent of the span and not even The San Francisco Chronicle will be able to cover the 86 percent that looks like a Nebraska freeway on stilts.

Function follows form?

A "signature bridge" conceived and executed to serve an aesthetic purpose—Caltrans' official justification for it—violates the most basic tenet of architecture.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires only the 500-foot clear spans of the proposed viaduct; there is no shipping lane, and no requirement for a 2,000-foot span. The geology of the Bay near Yerba Buena Island was not considered by Caltrans engineers to be a problem for its preferred 100-percent viaduct, thus there is no reason to "add on" a suspension bridge. The southern alignment, which was preferred by the Caltrans Bay Bridge Project Director, is indeed the shortest and most economical. An added suspension bridge, limited by the trajectory of the tunnel, adds considerable length to the viaduct with attendant cost and structural penalties.

During evaluation of design concepts, an official said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"—a confession that no one will find beauty in the bridge. By this reasoning there are no laws of composition, no considerations of logic, of order, of function, of relationships with nature, which should be used to evaluate a bridge design.

Adding one-fourth billion dollars for viaduct beautification is extravagant. And while two design teams churn out ever more versions of masts and pylons for the beautification project, the public is clamoring for a functional bridge. All of the public who spoke at a recent Bay Bridge Task Force meeting criticized the emerging designs for not meeting the basic transit needs of the present, let alone the future.

A post-and-beam reinforced-concrete viaduct adds at least two major faults to the geological ones already there. A high-mass deck on concrete stilts in earthquake country would not have been excusable in the 1960s but today it is a horror. Kobe and Northridge, the Cypress, the steel-jacketed columns throughout California, the shear-walls at Richardson Bay, new monolithic beams under San Rafael's freeway, and many other retrofits show us dramatic evidence of the seismic performance of such structures. It is an anachronism.

In 1936 the Oakland side of the new bridge was almost ignored by photographers, who could easily see it as an undistinguished product of last century's industrial thinking. Bay Area residents see today's proposed viaduct (or enhanced viaduct) as an insult, in a bay which has been the home of two of the most splendid suspension bridges in the world since the 1930s.

Denmark, a tiny country with a population of five million, will soon see completion of the Great Belt Bridge, a suspension structure with a center span greater than a mile, and a total length which could reach from Oakland to Yerba Buena. Why can't our own Bay Area, the nation's center of high technology and international tourism, do at least as well?


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