Thursday, April 7, 2011

The New Hoover Dam Bridge

OK I Love Bridges

Perhaps it was growing up with an unobstructed view of both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges from our living room window. It might have come from knowing that many of the places I wanted to see would require crossing a bridge. Maybe it was just seeing the elegance of the structures in bridges. I am not totally sure why. But for whatever reason I love bridges.

Lion's Gate Vancouver BC

When I see a bridge like Calatrava's Alamillo bridge near Sevilla, or the perfectly counterbalanced elegance of the Newcastle Gateshead Bridge in England I swoon. 

To see the Newcastle bridge in action click here. Then of course hit your "Back" button to return here!

I love the grace of the Sunshine Skyway cable supports. Then there are the Lion's Gate and Capilano suspension bridges in Vancouver. Oh, and what about the Tower Bridge in London, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, or the Rialto Bridge or Bridge of Sighs in Venice?

Ponte Vecchio 

The Rialto Bridge

The Bridge of "Sighs"
On the Left The Doges Palace On the Right Dungeons

Well this weekend I made a point of seeing, driving over, and walking over the new Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, rather unceremoniously known as the new Hoover Dam Bypass. 

Being a Phoenician to me it will forever be simply The Tillman Bridge.

The Tillman Bridge

The bridge is a classic concrete arch design. It is 1900 Feet Long and soars 900 feet above the Colorado River. An average of 14,000 vehicles cross it each day. The bridge cost $240 million and took five and a half years to build. For those keeping track, this means it took slightly longer to build and cost about $200 million more than the Hoover Dam. Now, before I get pinged, I know that the budget comparison is not remotely fair since the dollars aren't adjusted for time.

To walk over the bridge you must go to the Nevada side and take the Hoover Dam off ramp. You'll go though the vehicle security checkpoint and then make your way to the free parking lot providing bridge access. There are porta-johns if you are in need. To get to the bridge requires climbing a few sets of stairs or zig zagging up the (seemingly endless) ADA ramps. 

Once you reach bridge level there are some interpretive displays and access to the bridge itself. Being able to walk across the bridge was very cool, but certainly not for anyone with vertigo. And the views of the Hoover Dam from the bridge are breathtaking.

Hoover Dam Viewed From Mid-Span

Perhaps I am just a wimp, but I also found walking across a bit terrifying. The walk surface is 64 stories above the Colorado. Between the wind and the vibrations of every semi-truck rolling across I found myself pretty creeped out. 

I was very surprised by the lack of a suicide barrier. The last thing we need is for Pat Tillman's sacred legacy to become linked to suicides.

Update April 12: On April 9, 2012 Patricia Ann Oakley of San Jose California became the first person to commit suicide by jumping from the new bridge.

Update July 27: April through July Witnessed 3 additional suicides. Despite a rate of one suicide a month, the Nevada Department of Transportation (the group responsible for the operation of the bridge) has no plans to add suicide barriers, saying they will continue to "monitor the situation".  

The Bridge's Reflection in The Colorado River

The Apex Medallion

Walkway and Guardrails

From a practical point of view, the bridge is wonderful. It cuts about 45 minutes off the drive time to Las Vegas. All traffic on US 93 no longer bogs down and crawls across the dam.  The security of the dam is enhanced now that traffic is safely diverted away from it. Also with the heavy traffic from US 93 elsewhere, the actual touring of the dam itself is much safer.

While the bridge is toll free, visiting Hoover Dam itself has suddenly gotten very expensive. They now charge $7 to park in the garage, $30 / person for the tour of the Dam, and $8 / person just to get into the Visitor Center. So it will cost a family of four $159 to park, take the tour, and visit the Visitor Center. Wow! 

Is it worth it? You bet. But Wow! Nonetheless.

The Scaler Sculpture With The Bridge Beyond 
(This Sculpture Was Added in 1995)

Oskar J.W. Hansen's 30' Tall Bronze Winged Figures of the Republic 
(Polishing the Toes Brings Good Luck)

OK, so when one walks the length of the new bridge and then drives back to visit Hoover Dam, one observation becomes very apparent - a jarring lack of art. The bridge aesthetic is limited solely to its structure. There was no attempt to integrate art into its materials of construction, physical shape, and the displays and interpretive materials are pretty weak.  

Conversely, the design of the dam was halted by Harold Ickes (head of the Bureau of Reclamation) when he felt that the initial designs were not successful in integrating art into the planning effort. 

This led to Los Angeles architect Gordon B. Kaufmann being brought in to recompose the dam's overall aesthetic. 

As a result a new deco modern shape was created for the dam. It is the shape recognized and admired around the world today. It carefully integrated bass relief and dynamic sculptures into dam planning. Artwork included themes of water conservation, power, along with Native American influences.

Extreme Drought Has Resulted in Exposing the Dam's Stunning Intake Towers
Keep in mind this passion for design in the Hoover Dam project was all carried out during the Great Depression. In direct contradiction to today when artwork is frequently vilified in public projects as being wasteful, during the depression the incorporation of art in public projects for the WPA was viewed as an essential way to inspire the American public. 

Despite all odds, the design of the dam demonstrated then and now the collective national will to succeed and prevail, not merely endure. It proves that society never has to apologize for incorporating beauty into its great public works projects. 

Allen Tupper True's Swirling Terrazzo Designs 
Featured Navajo and Pueblo Motif's 

So, despite being an engineering marvel and a tribute to the resourcefulness of its builders, the bridge clearly suffers from a tragic lack of imagination in its overall form and design. 

The bridge left me with the overwhelming sense that it lacks soul. In my opinion, it represents an opportunity not fully realized. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2011


coco said...

Great piece on bridges, surpassed only by those fabulous photographs! (Is that "Sigh" under the Ponte Vecchio an allusion to the Bridge of Sighs?)

Roadboy said...

The kind words are much appreciated! Actually the "Sigh" was just a sigh. But after seeing your comment I thought it would indeed be a nice idea to amend the post with one of my photos of the Bridge of Sighs.