Two structurally impressive London bridges you might want to visit when social distancing is behind us

Posted by Derek Mason

9th June 2020

Today, let’s look at the intersection between art and engineering. I like to think we’re all in this line of work (at least partly) because we take some joy from the work we’re doing. So let’s take a moment to look more closely at two of the more interesting feats of engineering we can see in London – or at least we can when everything opens up again.

What started as a hexagonal sketch in the designer’s notepad, became the octagonal work of structural art that sits in the Paddington Basin today.

Built and tested off-site, before arriving in Paddington via canal in 2004, the rolling bridge is an attraction that tourists flock to, with the bridge being unrolled every Wednesday and Friday at noon, and on Saturday at 2pm (at least, that is what happened before lockdown). It’s popular enough to be number 396 out of 1115 Sights & Landmarks in London on TripAdvisor.

It starts in the rolled up position, where it’s not clear it’s a bridge at all, before unrolling into a usable footbridge across an inlet of the Grand Union Canal.

Conceived by Thomas Heatherwick, (who designed the 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the new Routemaster bus amongst other notable achievements), the award-winning bridge has eight triangular sections, hinged at the walkway level. Hydraulic cylinders, mounted vertically between the sections, enable the bridge to collapse downwards, or “uncurl” into a 12-metre footbridge.

Then, to raise the bridge again, the hydraulic pistons are activated and the folded up octagon is back in place on land. Although it’s called a rolling bridge by the designer, it’s more accurately described as a curling bridge.

Nearby, there is the newer fan bridge – slightly less popular on TripAdvisor, but still structurally and artistically impressive.

Completed in 2014, it looks like a normal footbridge and is in place as such most of the time. But three times a week, to tie in with the rolling bridge unrolling, the bridge lifts to reveal how complex it really is. Made up of five “fingers” which open in sequence via hydraulic jacks, the bridge’s action is meant to mimic that of a traditional Japanese hand fan.

The five steel beams that form the bridge open up in sequence, with counterweights assisting the hydraulic mechanism to reduce the energy needed for the bridge to operate.

Designed by Knight Architects, it’s an eye-catching bridge that’s been featured in the 2016 film Jason Bourne, and is well and truly on the London tourist trail.

While both of these bridges could be seen as unnecessary –  for while boats do need to be able to pass, there are undoubtedly simpler solutions – these bridges are a clever way to combine art and structural engineering – and to bring greater footfall to an area that was not previously a tourist attraction. Hopefully that footfall will return soon, when it’s safe for that to happen.

It could be some time before life and business gets back to normal, but I’ll be talking about the gradual easing of lockdown and the impact on businesses in my next article. Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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