(The Golden Gate Bridge. Image credit: WikiCommons, Differen2une)

“It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

Montgomery Schuyler on the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

“A work of bare utility”: that is a phrase which nicely sums up the simple power of bridges, whose functional purpose has the potential to yield huge improvements to our quality of living. Where skyscrapers create distance between us, raising some above others, bridges by definition bring people together, overcoming all manner of natural and man-made barriers to forge new connections, shorten our journeys - and make them cheaper and safer too. In many ways bridges are symbols of progress, the bonds of civilised society.

It’s no wonder they have such a hold on our imaginations. Their destruction runs throughout Hollywood history, from For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Bridge Over The River Kwai to The Good The Bad and The Ugly and The Dark Knight Rises.

They have the power to become city icons (Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) and draw visitors from around the world – so much so that modern engineers now specifically design bridges as tourist attractions: China’s Henan and Hunan Provinces have constructed transparent glass ‘sky walks’ to tempt thrill-seeking tourists, and London plans a “Garden Bridge”.

This reflects a surge in recent years for more and more innovative and ambitious bridge designs, with schemes to put them to use as everything from power generators (mounting wind turbines and solar panels), to habitats in their own right.

Whatever their impact, there’s no doubt that bridge design is at the heart of structural engineering. Structural engineers overcome all kinds of challenges to ensure these crossings remain safe for the people traversing them, and able to withstand all the stresses and strains to which their environments can subject them.

It’s no wonder our Regional Groups use bridge building competitions (employing cardboard, weights and tape) to introduce children to the principles of engineering. There is no better way to showcase the full range of the engineer’s skills, from fundamentals of structural behaviour to design creativity and innovation. 

That’s why our Structural Awards have two categories specifically reserved for bridges.

In part two of this blog, we will look back at some of our previous award winners, and discuss how they showcase the remarkable impact bridges have on our world.


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