I have a deep admiration for the works of Robert Maillart, an appreciation I owe entirely to David Billington. Billington used what is Maillart’s most famous work, the Salginatobel Bridge (1930), on the cover of his overview of Maillart’s works, and at Princeton he never missed an opportunity to emphasize genius of this bridge’s design. Almost any photograph of the Salginatobel Bridge is an interesting landscape in its own right; for the bridge creates the impression that it is nature that is a complex and chaotic material world, while Maillart’s structural works align the material world to a higher aesthetic and functional order. The appearance of Maillart’s manmade concrete in the context of the natural building materials of stone and timber in this picture I find particularly striking.
Maillart’s works possess a remarkable structural integrity: the leanness of his pale concrete, the simplicity of the two arches reaching out to the other, these create a unity of material and form that culminates in a single aesthetic and functional principle in the structure. The viewer is drawn to the center of the bridge where a complex hinge enables the structure to expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. This vanishing point bisects the bridges and clearly articulates its constituent parts. This is quintessential Maillart: an aesthetic deeply grounded in an efficient (if not minimalist) use of material and outward expression of structural dynamics.
As Maillart deals with the different function of his bridges, from automobile bridges to Fußgängerbrücke, his structural aesthetic develops as well. The bridge of the River Töss of 1934 I find quite different from the Salginatobel of four years earlier.
The graceful arch of the deck enables the supporting arch to be thinner than normal, even thinner than the walking deck, making the entire structure astoundingly light and delicate. The lightness of the bridge is further emphasized by the very narrow vertical deck supports on either side. Unlike the Salginatobel, the Töss Footbridge invites your eyes to sweep up and down its long, elegant curve, rather than focusing on a central vanishing point of two independent arches. This bridge leaps across the stream, it does not simply cross an abyss. The difference between the two bridges reveals the true brilliance of Maillart. If form, material, and function are inseparable, as I would argue they are for Maillart, any change in one of these has a significant effect on the others. Thus as deck and winds loads, spans, rises and general environments vary, from mountainous auto-bridge to valley footbridge, so does the structure’s aesthetic form.
I think Maillart’s approach to these types of structures is a valuable one. It seeks the most elegant and efficient means of achieving a given task, and is not surprised when structures of engineering simplicity are the result. I do not think it is a coincidence that those structures directly intended for the particular use of embodied persons, that is, Fußgängerbrücken, appear to be the most beautiful.
(Images from Structurae)
- P. Langdale Hough