Tacoma's new bridge looks like the first deck you built in your backyard

$849 million buys Washington a new bridge to cross the Tacoma Narrows, but we miss an opportunity to depart from the dull. Paging Norman Foster.
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On the left, the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

$849 million buys Washington a new bridge to cross the Tacoma Narrows, but we miss an opportunity to depart from the dull. Paging Norman Foster.

On Sunday, July 15, citizens of Washington formally dedicate the New Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built at a cost of $849 million. As a Seattle resident, I'm going to put aside my envy. Tacoma already has a working light rail line. Now it gets a new bridge while our two bridge problems get promises of process to be perfected – mediation for Highway 520 across Lake Washington and a commitment to work together for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement on the waterfront. At least we get Ichiro through 2012, for a little less than the cost of a bridge. Opening to cars on Monday, the new Tacoma bridge is a thing, but not a thing of beauty. It's as dull and as serviceable as its new name, the new bridge. (Was that focus-tested? How about a name honoring the speaker of the state House of Representatives, who decided the financing? The Thank Frank Bridge.) With some exceptions, the roads and bridges we build in Washington are ugly. There may be concrete lovers who sees an honesty in the purity of a blank wall. They like the downtown Sheraton Hotel, too. I see ugly, but I see some effort to pretty up some walls. Along Interstate 90 east of Issaquah, you can find retaining walls stamped with fish or leaves, I'm not sure which. It's feeble, but it's an acknowledgment that relief is needed. Lady Bird taught us to put wild flowers along roads, but we also need to make the concrete flow. As design challenges, roads are tough. Bridges are always an opportunity. A bridge can be a triumph of form and function, steel and wires and concrete supporting vast amount of weight, providing a route for the automobile but also a form that is pleasing, restful, even romantic. Think Brooklyn Bridge in Annie Hall. Ugly is too harsh for the New Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Homely is closer. It's decidely blue-collar. It looks more like the first deck you built in your backyard, extra heavy with too many nails from Home Depot. It's more broad-shouldered than it's cousin, the old bridge. And both are designed to stay put during winds. Galloping not allowed. Washington has a history of bridges falling down, at the narrows, on Hood Canal, and once (almost twice) on Lake Washington, so we go for belt, suspenders, and another belt. Better to look dumpy, than to sink. But if Boeing can put a little flare in Dreamliner, can't we put a little pizzaz in our highways and bridges? Great design doesn't have to be a budget-buster. A few years ago, Spain's Santiago Calatrava was invited to town and asked to consider the Viaduct replacement. Rather than fight, some suggested, why not turn the new Viaduct into something beautiful, a giant sculpture, but with cars. There's merit to this thought. Our biggest, costliest built things – namely roads and bridges – should look better. Norman Foster might be available. He's the architect hired for the new Civic Square across from City Hall. He designed one of the world's most beautiful bridges, the Millau Viaduct, in the Tarn Valley in France. Let's ask him. Can Seattle build a good-looking bridge?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.