Multnomah County has, on its Sellwood Bridge website, unveiled six prototypes for a replacement span. “Depending on the type of bridge that is chosen,” the website explains, “a replacement Sellwood Bridge could blend with or completely redefine the landscape of Portland’s south Willamette River area.” I couldn't tell you which of those is more important; is it naive to think it could be both?
A county-sponsored working group comprised of local bridge experts has recommended the six replacement bridge options, and a Community Task Force will weigh public input when recommending options to the Policy Advisory Group, which (after an environmental impact statement) will make the final decision about a bridge type over the course of the next year. In 2009 the ensuing design phase will develop refinements to the bridge type to arrive at the actual design and cost.
The renderings of the bridge types, the website warns, “are not meant to depict the final designs and they do not include design details like color, texture, lighting, etc.” The finished product will also be wider on the west end to give vehicles enough space to queue before turning.
For all I know, this is probably the same way other communities and municipalities choose their bridges. And as the city cautioned, none of these illustrations show the details that will make the bridge uniquely ours. They also should be commended, as the county and city often are, for their public involvement in the process.
Yet somehow it feels like we’re just picking out of a catalog here. I wonder how much creativity, originality and overall design excellence will be possible given such strict parameters about what form it will take. Are these the conditions that Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster (arguably the world’s most acclaimed contemporary bridge designers) encounter when they set out to do something dazzling?
Obviously nobody that original will be working on Sellwood, and we don’t need a famous name to get a good bridge. But what will it take to get one? Picking a type is not exactly the inspiring step I'd hope would be taken by the county per se. However, it's nice to be asked. One way or another, I'd imagine the county will give us the bridge we ask for. I'm just not sure we're asking for something unique and beautiful.
And it has to be said, however monotonous the sound has become: What about a design competition?
That said, I’d have to go with the “cable-stayed” and the “Extradosed” as my favorites. Certainly it should be possible do create a very fine bridge that functions well and is beautiful as well, without an enormous budget. Who out there is optimistic or pessimistic that it will be?