Architecture

William Buckley Bridge

August 17, 2012

Peter Elliott Architecture and Urban Design tackled a deteriorating bridge in the small town of Barwon Heads, producing the William Buckley Bridge and winning over locals in the process.

This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure.

Barwon Heads is a small town in the Australian state of Victoria, best known for golf courses and television-grade coastal scenery, as immortalised in the popular late-90s TV show Seachange. The township sits on the western banks of the Barwon River, slightly shy of where it meets the sea. On the other side of the river, just a 10-minute drive away, lies the township’s sister settlement, Ocean Grove, which serves as the ‘central business district’ for the region. For close to a century the two townships have been connected by the Barwon Heads Bridge, a rational, no-nonsense 1920s structure and the longest timber bridge of its kind in Victoria. For the locals, it’s as much a part of the landscape as the regal limestone bluff above the town at the river’s mouth.

Replica meets companion: the new pedestrian bridge alongside the remodelled heritage structure.

 

In 2006 an inspection of the bridge by VicRoads, the state road authority, identified extensive deterioration of its concrete deck, steel beams and timber structure. VicRoads suggested the bridge be totally demolished and replaced with a new bridge. Described by some as better suited to a freeway overpass than a quiet coastal town, the proposal provoked outrage and protests followed, triggering a lengthy process involving community consultation, heritage assessments and an inquiry from an independent panel. Although Heritage Victoria ruled that the existing bridge be ‘saved’, it came with the recognition that preserving the structure in its entirety, while still meeting contemporary requirements, would be extremely difficult.

A compromise was arrived at: the bridge would be dismantled and rebuilt in concrete, steel and timber as a ‘lookalike’, using whatever could be salvaged from the existing structure. To preserve the original dimensions and meet safety standards, it would no longer accommodate pedestrian traffic. Instead, a companion bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, eventually named the William Buckley Bridge, would be constructed downstream at a sufficiently respectful distance from the heritage-listed (albeit new) road bridge. For many in the town, particularly those concerned with preserving the briny, 1920s character of the waterfront, the heritage ruling was now a pyrrhic victory.

The bridge is pragmatic, with ample space for walking and cycling, yet inherently romantic.

 

Peter Elliott Architecture and Urban Design was the ‘lucky’ practice that took on the commission to design the William Buckley Bridge, a project that was, for many locals, an unwanted addition to their town. The firm was well suited, though, because unusually for an architectural practice, it has a long history with infrastructural projects, and much of that work has been recognised with major local and national design awards.

As Elliott himself describes it, the firm is attracted to the gritty and rather unglamorous field of infrastructural work because it’s where architecture can be genuinely effective in making wide-ranging and substantive improvements to the public domain.

How then are we to judge the William Buckley Bridge, a source of division and a product of compromise? The previous bridge and its replica offer qualities no doubt familiar to many from seaside wharfs and boardwalks the world over. The insistent visual rhythm of ancient timber beams crosshatching the seascape is prosaically picturesque, but the undersides of these hulking carcasses are also strangely compelling, an uncertain combination of littoral and interstitial terrain, where otherwise hidden structure is stripped bare. Despite being fundamentally pragmatic, though, these structures do have a romance to them, something the new bridge is not completely inured to, despite its contemporary resolve.

Although understated and elegantly resolved, the bridge's visual 'hero' is the underside, with its timber batten-clad structural secrets.

 

Elliott’s practice is not known for formal novelty or brashly photogenic architecture. Instead, for more than three and a half decades it has cultivated a reputation for understated, sensitive and elegantly resolved design. However, if you were to isolate one aspect of the William Buckley Bridge as the visual ‘hero’, it would be the underside. Here, rather than the structure exposed to the elements, we find the bridge’s structural secrets hidden behind a timber batten cladding. In elevation, this cladding reads as a repetitive, serialised array of vertical timber members, a visual nod perhaps to the formal language of its companion.

Meanwhile, for the beachcomber passing beneath, there is a surprise. Seen in profile, these apparently regimented elements become an undulating series of curves, the visual result of each member in turn fanning slightly forward or backward from its neighbour. The architect describes this subtle formal move as producing an aesthetic recalling the shape of a boat hull, but it is also a recognition of the pleasure people draw from these spaces, a contemporary counterpoint, and complement, to the classic coastal experience found below the boardwalk.

Public 'squares' at either end underscore the bridge's civic-minded infrastructure.

 

Among the bridge’s most vital aspects are its tiny but considerate details, such as the holsters provided for fishermen to sit their rods in, or the gentle way the balustrades angle up just-so for elbows and arms to lean against while their owners stare out to sea. Then there are the small public ‘squares’ at either end of the bridge and the generous amount of space allowed for both walking and cycling. These are not ‘capital D’ design moves in the heroic or photogenic sense, but their effect is profound. Quietly, but assuredly, they demonstrate that even in the face of its hostile reception, this bridge is fundamentally a civic-minded piece of infrastructure.

Only time will tell whether the community forms the same degree of attachment to this contentious project as it did to its first, solitary bridge. There is evidence to suggest, however, that sentiment is shifting, with the new structure’s spacious boardwalk now playing host not just to fishermen and weekend visitors but also to local festivals and community events. Should this bridge’s time eventually come, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the powers-that-be may well have another battle on their hands.

www.peterelliott.com.au

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