Published: 02 November 2015

Every bridge is unique

Bridges, Structural Awards

The Merchant Square Footbridge is a landmark new structure across the Grand Union Canal in London. It received a commendation at The Structural Awards 2015. Here Bartlomiej Halaczek, an Associate at Knight Architects, discusses his career and his work on this remarkable bridge.

I was trained as both structural engineer and architect, and have been working in the field of architectural design of bridges for over eight years. Having studied in Stuttgart, Germany, I was highly inspired by the works of Jörg Schlaich, Fritz Leonhardt and especially the pioneer of lightweight design, Frei Otto. His interdisciplinary designs and concepts still have a great influence on architecture and structural engineering alike.

As a major European capital city with very many significant clients, a number of universities renowned for teaching Architecture and Civil Engineering, and many engineering companies and institutions, it’s no wonder London is very successful in promoting design innovation.

Merchant Square Footbridge is a unique structure in its architectural and structural concept, consisting of 20m long independently moving beams sitting side by side, separated by longitudinal gaps of no more than 3mm width. Designed completely in 3D, it is both an innovative piece of engineering and a public work of art.

The approach to designing a bridge is not dissimilar to the design process of any other product, like a car, skyscraper or vacuum cleaner. First, you need to define the problem you are trying to solve. In the case of a bridge, the problem seems obvious - you are trying to cross an obstacle - but there are a number of further questions that need to be answered.

You need to know what the bridge is crossing: a river, a motorway or a deep valley? What will be the span (how far must it reach)? How will it be built?  Will it carry heavy trains or pedestrians?  Where is the bridge located - in an urban environment or in a pristine national park? How will it affect the lives of the people using it and living near it?

Each bridge is a unique response to all these questions. The London Tower Bridge, for example, is a moving structure because the density of the city wouldn't allow for the long ramps required to elevate carriages over the tall-mast ships that would pass beneath the bridge. Often it’s the constraints that give a structure its unique appearance.

Today new technologies are also fuelling an evolution of bridge design. The design of the Merchant Square Bridge, for instance, would have been much more challenging without the use of parametric design software, which allowed us to quickly vary geometrical details - for example to find the optimal balance between bridge beam and counterweight.

In general, bridges are designed to last over many decades, often even longer. Their maintenance is important but expensive and modern designers aim to minimise these costs by urging a higher investment in the original design: in the case of Merchant Square Footbridge, all components have been designed to be easily accessible for inspection and require a low amount of maintenance. Hopefully we’ve created a lasting and attractive new bridge for London.

It has certainly been widely accepted by the local people as a connection and as a landmark. It is lifted three times a week, and I’m proud to say it always attracts a great number of enthusiastic spectators.

Learn more about The Structural Awards here.

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