Wilson Bridge
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  A Bridge Not Far Enough
Woodrow Wilson Design Is Elegant, but Uninspiring

Bridge illustration
An artist's drawing shows the design chosen for the new bridge. The bridge will be 70 feet high and rest on 18 V-shaped sets of supports.
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 1998; Page B01

The design of a new Wilson Bridge, unveiled Wednesday after years of consensus building between argumentative local jurisdictions, is an ingenious engineering stroke. And it is a whole lot prettier than the humdrum existing span.

It is not, however, the spirit-lifting gateway to the capital that a poetic engineer might have conceived -- a memorable structure that you cannot stop talking about, that becomes an identifying mark of the city and region. This good but not great result was perhaps built into the decision-making process.

Bridges have two purposes. One is utilitarian -- to get people and goods from here to there, in cars, trucks, trains, bicycles or whatever. The other is aesthetic and symbolic -- to make these crossings meaningful to participants and also to distant observers in boats, on river embankments, in neighboring buildings or even in planes.

It is not that the many, many people involved so far in the planning of a new Wilson Bridge forgot the aesthetic side. To the contrary, the qualities of beauty and fittingness were endorsed time and again, in hundreds of meetings.

But somewhere along the line, in a spirit of compromise motivated by politics rather than aesthetics, certain limitations were agreed upon. Suspension cable structures were said to be inappropriate for the Washington area. Arches were strongly suggested as the preferred solution to Potomac River crossings. Height -- the most contentious of the issues -- was to be held in check.

These conditions did not determine the exact form of the new design. Members of the panel that selected it emphasize that there were significant differences among the seven competing entries (submitted by four finalists). But the restrictions did send a signal to competitors: Caution would triumph over daring.

Bridge illustration Supports on the new bridge, a drawing of which is above, would be spaced 300 feet apart. The current supports are 100 feet apart.

Under the circumstances, the winning design by a consortium headed by two experienced engineering companies – De Leuw, Cather & Co. and Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist & Birdsall – is perhaps better than might have been expected. It can be characterized as cautiously daring.

It is, of course, a drawbridge. Because of the height limitation, this was inevitable. The added altitude of the new movable span – 70 feet rather than the current 55 feet at average river flows – will at least reduce the number of required traffic stoppages, officials say, from about 220 to about 65 per year. But it does seem preposterous to be designing a drawbridge of this size this late in the 20th century.

This anachronism aside, the new design is a reasonably elegant piece of work. From a distance, as computer simulations show, it will appear to swoop across the river rather swiftly and gracefully. Even up close, its massive, curving concrete supports will have a lot more grace than the uprights of the present bridge.

When accepting congratulations for the winning effort, Robert O'Neil, president of De Leuw, Cather & Co., pointed out that among its many accomplishments the firm had been in charge of engineering the beautiful vaults of Washington's underground Metro stations. "So," he quipped, "we know arches."

Actually, the curving concrete supports of the design are not true arches. Rather, the ingenuity of the design lies in achieving an archlike visual effect by other means. Peter Sluszka, president of the Steinman firm, explained that despite appearances the structural characteristics of the supports are more like conventional piers – they do not exert outward thrusts, as arches do, and thus can be built on lighter foundations.

This has several other benefits. It is philosophically satisfying, in that it defers to an honorable tradition of arched Potomac spans, but doesn't literally imitate them. To the contrary, the design has a contemporary feel. In addition, together with the slightly curved articulation of the bridge deck, the broad piers form large, open triangles, giving the immense bridge a certain lightness of effect, especially from a distance.

The strength of this structural system also means that the new bridge will touch the ground (or foundations in water) in fewer places – 18 as against 57 for the existing bridge. The advantages of this are apparent in an enticing computerized view of the bridge as it touches down in Alexandria's Jones Point Park. The immense structure takes up lots of space – with two spans of six lanes each, it measures more than 250 feet across – but its intrusiveness has been minimized. It does its necessary job with a certain amount of grace.

For these reasons the new Wilson bridge design is a huge aesthetic improvement. Then again, the existing bridge, like its contemporaneous brethren up river, is an exceedingly weak basis for comparison.

The post-World War II era was a terrible time for bridge building. To be blunt about it, the highway builders back in the '50s and '60s – Wilson Bridge was completed in 1961, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge in 1964, the 14th Street spans from 1950 to 1971 – simply did not give a damn about aesthetics. Moving the cars was the obsession, and for about two decades the highway lobby could not be stopped. The ugly Potomac bridges of the time are unfortunate reminders.

The Wilson Bridge is the first of these lamentable postwar spans to become obsolete – an auspicious opportunity. Yet, though the new design is proof that we can do better than we did back then, it also suggests that we are not doing our very best.

Oh, the encouraging words were all there in literature the competitors received. But the 70-foot height limit was a substantial clue that compromise was in the air. In addition to the practical advantage of eliminating the need for a movable span, a higher bridge would have offered important aesthetic opportunities – for more striking views of distant Washington or close-by Old Town Alexandria, for a more dramatic, memorable form.

All the talk about the desirability of arches, and the corresponding suspicion of cable suspension bridges, must have added to the dampening effect. Do not get me wrong. I have nothing against arches. All of the loveliest bridges across the Potomac are indeed arched spans, and those across Rock Creek, as well.

On the other hand, the Wilson Bridge is far enough from the monumental core that a different kind of design would not have been obtrusive. There is no question that some of the best looking new bridges in the world are suspension bridges – there is one in Seville, Spain, that expands your imagination in a futuristic way, and yet somehow complements the ancient city. There are all kinds of beautiful new bridges proving that engineers, even more than architects, can be great dreamers.

So, I am happy that there will be a new Wilson Bridge early in the 21st century, and pleased that the design is as good as it is. But it seems a shame that competitors were not asked to dream the impossible dream this time around – in Washington we often cling too long to ideas about what is good and what is bad, what is permissible and what isn't. For this bridge, figuratively as well as literally, we did not aim high enough.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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