How Not to Market a Big Public Works Project

Starchitect Santiago Calatrava has unveiled a new bridge for Calgary—and the project's naysayers are screaming bloody murder.

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Once upon a time, Santiago Calatrava could do no wrong. Where his starchitect competitors like Daniel Libeskind specialized in eccentric designs that made the public uneasy, Calatrava was a crowd pleaser, owing to his soaring testaments to technical wizardry. And then the recession hit, and things haven't been the same. He saw a handful of marquee projects in Chicago and New York either cut back or scrapped. Meanwhile, in Ontario Calgary, he's been embroiled in an ongoing fight over whether the city ought to spend $25 milion on a bridge despite all of the city's other budgetary woes. The new design was just revealed. Rather than quieting the critics, it's merely stoking their ire. An inspiring flight of imagination? Maybe. An enormous Chinese finger trap? Definitely.

In his defense, Calatrava, as the Calgary Herald reports, says that the bridge is "the most accessible, functional and technically challenging one he's ever made." The trick is that the 430-foot long, 20-foot wide span has no visible supports—no beams, arches, or cables. The structural integrity comes from embankments, buried in the river banks. It's red, in a nod to Canada's colors; it has separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians.

What's more, Calatrava claims that the bridge—and whether or not it gets built—is nothing less than a generational challenge:

The Spanish-born architect said he's aware of public and council lambasting of the project's cost and extravagance in the midst of recession. But he said the rebuttal is offered by New York City, which he currently calls home.

"I think the greatest achievements in New York is the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, the George Washington Bridge. Those were all built in the Great Depression," he said.

"One day or another this crisis will be finished and we will show ourselves to the future generations as courageous people, living in their future, not only in our future. I mean, in New York you have those great buildings, the greatest in the city, built in the most beautiful time."

Not exactly a love letter, if you're trying to convince the city you're not an egomaniac who plans to fly in and plant your big red flag. And this is actually the sixth pedetrian bridge crossing the same body of water. City officials think it will be a bold addition to the city—setting the bar for future works, and proving what great architecture can be. Citizens have railed against it.

But there's a bigger issue at hand, and that's how you go about selling a project like this to the public. As Unbeige notes, the city decided to carry most of the upfront planning in secret. Reports of the budget leaked well before the design was ever unveiled. And that put Calatrava in a tight spot: Rather than unveiling the project in one fell swoop—where the eye-candy of the architecture helped defray controversy over the cost—his design had to fight an already vocal resistance when it was finally released. At that point, what design could ever hope to conquer the city's hearts and minds?

That should serve as a cautionary tale to city planners worldwide. Better to conduct everything out in the open, and, at the very least, hold a public competition to spur people's imaginations before any budget numbers are ever mooted.

Santiago Calatrava bridge

Santiago Calatrava bridge

[Via Unbeige]

Related Stories:
Dublin's Brand New, Beautiful, Bumpy Bridge
A Bridge Too Wild for an Architecture Competition

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4 Comments

  • Dino Mason

    I like the style of the bridge- but since it mainly uses the embankments as support, why is it so expensive? What kinds of materials is Calatrava suggesting?

  • Bok CHoy

    :) thanks for correcting. Maybe ugly is too harsh to describe the bridge, but the closed door tactics of this $24M+ project were definitely ugly ;)

  • Bok CHoy

    Calgary is in ALBERTA not Ontario. Yes this bridge is ugly, but it is not in Ontario. Please revise.