Beyond Buildings


A Bridge Too Ugly: Replacing the Brent Spence

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Photos: Brent Spence Bridge


Last week, Preident Obama was here in Cincinnati to argue for his latest job bill. The reason he chose this city that just happens to be in a swing state and is a few miles South of Speaker Boehner’s district was to highlight his support for the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects us here to Kentucky across the Ohio River. The bridge is a bit of bottleneck and not in the greatest shape, but it is also in the wrong place and a thing of profound ugliness. I am afraid that Obama will not be able to do anything about that, even if he can talk Congress into authorizing the funds for this multibillion dollar project.


Photos: Brent Spence Bridge

The Brent Spence carries I-75 and I74, which merge briefly just north of here before splitting again douth of airport in Kentucky, over the river, and is thus an important chain in the north–south trucking and trade route, as well as a major commuting conduit. It is crowded, carrying almost double the amount of traffic it was designed to, but that has more to do with the fact that it is right next to downtown on one side and feeds into a slot that engineers cut into the first ridge of the rolling hills of Kentucky to the south. It is no wonder that the original replacement proposal envisioned a new bridge further west, away from downtown and with its own access points. For reasons that appear to be political as much as economic, that will not happen.


Photos: Brent Spence Bridge


The various proposals to replace this hulking double-decker that have been floated around the media are as clunky and bland as the current design, which dates back to 1963. The six ideas include arched, double-cable-stay and single-cable-stay alternatives. None of them break new ground or seem at all related to their context. The single stay has the advantage of adding the least elements to the skyline, but its height and placement make it overwhelming. I hate to say it, but I prefer the most traditional arches, for the simple reason that they are the least dissonant and dissolve the structure to the point where it becomes a little bit part of the surrounding mess of other road and railway bridges.


The real point is that aesthetics will have very little to do with the final decision on which of the alternatives–if any—are finally built. As a result, one of the most dramatic urban settings in America, especially when you approach from south across the river, will be further marred. It had to suffer the addition of a succession of mediocre-looking sports stadia and high-rises, a lack of any concern for the relationship between the human-made and the natural geography, and an overwhelming amount of both people and freight traffic. That will only get worse even if the new bridge manages to ease those flows.


Photos: Brent Spence Bridge


Aesthetics and, what is more important, considerations for site and context, have not been a concern in the planning of American infrastructure for decades. With a few exceptions, the bridges, roads, and tunnels we have built have further marred our landscape. Yes, we need to get America working again today, but not at the price of leaving a further devastated landscape we inherited from our grandparents to our grandchildren.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.