The Bridge Too Far - or Not Far Enough?

"We - writers, artists, and architects who love our city - have come to protest with all our might against the monstrous and purposeless installation in the heart of our capital city."

Although these words express very well the recent objections to the Bridge of Strings in Jerusalem, which will be dedicated on June 26, they were written in another country, at another time, about a different structure: the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

That is how intellectuals described the tower in a manifest published in February 1887, in the French paper Le Temps. They used to scornfully refer to it as "a smoky and monstrous factory chimney stack," and "a tragic street lamp." And yet, as is known, in the end the Eiffel prevailed. The masses loved it, despite and perhaps because of the uproar. Will the fate of the Bridge of Strings, designed by the well-known Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, be similar?

The Bridge of Strings - built to provide passage for the light rail - has prompted intense reactions of both hatred and a favorable view from the public since the date it was presented.

"So long as it doesn't fall," a cab driver told me as we drove underneath it. The white bridge - held up in the air along the entire length of its 360 meters by 66 iron strings appearing to defy gravity - did not impress him. Even the mast that soars skyward did not impress the cab driver. "Who needs this pillar?" he wondered.

Many consider the mast that soars upward as a powerful symbol. And yet, the planning logic behind it is clear: from many directions in the city it is possible to see the bridge thanks only to its soaring mast, because the bridge that is meant to serve as a symbolic gate to the city is located in an empty space surrounded by buildings that conceal it from all sides.

Those coming up to Jerusalem will from a distance see the bridge - which occasionally looks like nothing more than a crane hovering over a building site - appearing and disappearing from view between the buildings. Only when approaching the bridge from other directions, for example from the direction of Mount Herzl or the Jerusalem Convention Center, does one get to see it in all its elegant, shining glory, which stands out even more against the backdrop of its ugly surroundings.

The municipality expects to turn the new bridge into a symbol of the city, and compare it to other municipal high towers and bridges, such as the Eiffel Tower. Isn't that too much to place on the new bridge whose strings are supposed to bring to mind David's harp, in the symbol-laden city? And does Jerusalem - in whose heart are the walls of the Old City and the Western Wall and the Tower of David - even need another symbol? It seems that the very choice of the internationally renowned Spanish architect was intended for this purpose, since his works have long ago become a brand for every city seeking to adorn itself with one.

'You can't force a symbol'

"A light rail and David's harp are outlandish," says Prof. Micha Broth, an urban planner and lecturer at the Technion. "And when people try to force a symbol on the public, there's a risk that the monument will turn into a farce."

According to Broth, "Calatrava cannot create a symbol. A symbol is nurtured from a given culture. People attribute symbolic meaning to an architectural monument as a result of an ongoing process. The Statue of Liberty was not created as a symbol, but it serves the ethos that many Americans cling to. The Golden Gate Bridge is considered the gateway to the Sacramento Bay and to San Francisco. But first of all, it was built as a fine bridge."

He concludes that "hanging a 118 meter bridge in a 140 meter opening is outlandish. It reminds me of totalitarian regimes that attempted to create many symbols and force their monuments."

Architect Hillel Schocken, a Jerusalem resident, thinks that in and of itself, the bridge is fascinating, but its location is problematic.

"I like Calatrava's structures," said Schocken. "They have large openings and resemble a nerve center, and they are something organic that is easy to connect to. But in Jerusalem, the location is not a successful choice. It's impossible to see the bridge in its full glory. If they were to put such a bridge at the Motza bend in an open panorama, and it could be seen in its entirety, then it would be possible to be impressed by the work."

Schocken also feels Jerusalem doesn't need any symbols.

"Bilbao, Spain, arrived on the map thanks to Frank Gehry's building there, because it was a city whose name previously meant nothing to anyone. Sydney arrived on the map because of the Opera House. But Sydney needed to arrive on the map. In Jerusalem, who needs this?"

Architect Saadia Mandel, who also appreciates Calatrava's work, has even harsher criticism of the bridge. "From artists who have made a name for themselves thanks to a given work, there is an expectation of replicas of that same whim in several cities," Mandel said. "In effect, this is an obstacle because you have to be a servant of the icon you yourself created. In the case of Jerusalem, this is a very serious problem. The bridge has no room to breathe. The Bridge of Strings needs a giant living space so that we'll be able to sense it."

Mandel stresses that a bridge requires perspective.

Lesser of two evils

"First you see it from the street, and then you approach and pass underneath. A bridge cannot land on top of you," he explains. Mandel also criticizes the meaning they are trying to attribute to the bridge. "The Old City has gates. An open, unwalled area doesn't need a gate."

Jerusalem architect and historian David Kroyanker actually has favorable view of the bridge.

"I like it," he says. Kroyanker hopes the bridge will acquire a different meaning, seeing it as a symbol of progress.

"Jerusalem doesn't need Calatrava's bridge in order to brand itself," he says. "It is a historical city thanks to its walls, the Dome of the Rock and its churches."

However, according to Kroyanker, the bridge will affect all of Jerusalem's environmental development and will contribute to the city's modernist image. "This doleful city deserves some secular symbolism," he stresses.

Kroyanker, like other architects, is also pleased that nothing worse was done in this location.

"In Jerusalem, there has been a tendency over the last few years to integrate elements that I call 'ultra-Orthodox esthetics,' like the menorah, the Star of David," he says. "The bridge is the least of all evils."

Similarly, Schocken also stresses "that kitsch using gold could have been built in Jerusalem. At least they built something in good taste."

Is the bridge beautiful or ugly?

"From my perspective, the bridge is ugly," says Arye Kamitzi, who lives in a building adjacent to the bridge. "That is, it's beautiful in and of itself," he quickly adds, "you can see they put effort into it. But it's not a good thing to have a bridge opposite your home."

Broth says it is possible that he will be proven wrong, and in the end people will come to like the bridge.

"With architectural objects, you never can know," Broth says. "In our culture, there is something aggressive. It is very possible that in the end, the bridge will turn into a gate of triumph."