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A work of its time

IRELAND: Structures

The changes afoot in modern Ireland can be mirrored in changes over the Liffey. A trip along its quays not long ago was an unforgettable experience, sadly because of the gut wrenching smell. The stink was almost the signature of an impoverished place, the body-odour of a city unconcerned about its appearance. Today the smell has gone, and a new pride abounds.

Most of the Liffey's existing spans are old Georgian bridges, dating back to 1764.

Additions in the 1970s and 1980s such as the Matt Talbot and Frank Sherwin bridges would turn few heads and represent the conservative times in which they were built.

The most recent city centre road bridge over the Liffey, the East Link, opened in 1984, is dull and industrial, a world away from Calatrava's creations.

Dublin Corporation's decision to bring in Calatrava illustrates a sea change in approach. Two new bridges were needed to help cope with the huge surge in the city's traffic, one linking Usher's Island and Ellis Quay near Blackhall Place, the other at Macken Street in the Docklands.

'The Corporation decided that the bridges would be statements of our ambition for the areas in which they would be built, ' says deputy city engineer Tim Brick.

The notion of designs matching the existing bridges were abandoned. 'We looked at the history of these bridges.

Each is a statement of its time, and reflects the technology and conditions of its time.

Designing to match them would be a retrograde step and would not have worked, ' he continues.

'It was agreed that we needed landmark statements, so we looked for the preeminent engineer who would meet the brief. There was broad agreement that Calatrava was that person.'

Calatrava has links with Dublin: he lives in the house in Zurich where the Irish literary genius James Joyce spent some of his exile. And ironically, the site of the Blackhall Place bridge is situated beside the house where Joyce set his most famous short story The Dead.

He was enthusiastic when approached.

Constraints influenced the shape of the bridge, says Brick.

The uninterrupted line of the quays are a feature of the city, ruling out intruding abutments into the river. Building on the quays or roads which are essential traffic arteries was not an option.

'The span of a suspended bridge would have been very small and disproportionate, ' he adds.

Calatrava's solution met the constraints on all fronts. 'We didn't suggest the tied arch structure - he did. But it meant we could protect the quay walls, it did required no heavy abutments, and could be constructed in the water (meaning no disruption to traffic), while fabrication off site would guarantee higher quality, ' explains Brick.

The Macken Street Bridge, with an even more spectacular harp-type design, awaits the approval this autumn of Irish environment minister Noel Dempey.

The Blackhall Place name is likely to remain only during the works before a new title is chosen by the city's councillors, with the Joyce connection already prompting some local support.

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