Eye Candy

It's overpriced, it's gaudy and we have to put it on a credit card. Yep, that Calatrava bridge says Dallas all over.

Bill Hale, Dallas district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, told me that a "normal bridge" could be built to Ray's Sporting Goods for $40 million. "When it came up $113 million," he said, "everything above that $40 million was the responsibility of the city of Dallas."

The difference between this bridge and a "normal" bridge is that this one has been designed by Santiago Calatrava, the famous Spanish architect whose bridges have made him a global superstar. Using a system called "cable-stayed" construction, Calatrava's bridges are held up by wings of cable draped from single arches or leaning towers, so that they look unlike any other bridges in the world.

That's also why all the bids were so high. Plain vanilla freeway bridges are basically huge sections of extruded concrete slapped down on top of giant sawhorses. Presumably there's a factory somewhere that cranks them out like Mars Bars. Every Calatrava bridge, on the other hand, is a unique creation--the kind of very complicated, worrisome challenge that keeps contractors awake at night and can cause the public works equivalent of erectile dysfunction.

Donald Gatzke, dean of architecture at UTA, says building suspension bridges downtown is like a mission to the moon: "We go to the moon because we can."
Donald Gatzke, dean of architecture at UTA, says building suspension bridges downtown is like a mission to the moon: "We go to the moon because we can."
City council member Angela Hunt says the park is what's cool, not the bridges.
City council member Angela Hunt says the park is what's cool, not the bridges.

But it's also why the city's gotta have it. Veletta Lill, a former member of the Dallas City Council and ardent champion of the Calatrava project, told me, "I read a quote in The New York Times once about Calatrava. This was prior to the time that he came to Dallas. It basically said, 'In the world of bridge-building there is Santiago Calatrava, and then there is everyone else.'"

I looked it up. She has a good memory. I assume the piece Lill quoted was a 1998 story in which Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote: "When it comes to bridge designers practicing in the world today, there's the Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava and there's everyone else."

Once that was said, I don't think Dallas was ever going to be able to do without him.

Lill insists the uniquely recognizable signature of one or more Calatrava bridges in downtown Dallas will become, in fact, the symbol by which the city will be known forever after.

"It's important because from the day the construction is completed, it will be a defining icon for Dallas.

"There is something that connects us to our bridges," she said.

Ramps? No, no, something much more ethereal, at least in the case of a genuine Calatrava.

"Sometimes when you look at them," Lill told me, "you can even hear the symphony in your head."

Well, that's me again: I don't want to hear a symphony in my head when I'm driving across a freeway bridge. On the radio, fine.

I expressed some confusion about icons. I'm not against them. I'm just not sure I know exactly what they are.

"If I say a city's name," she asked, "what's the first thing that comes to your mind? If I say St. Louis, obviously it's the arch."

Darn. Flunked. I would have said my grandfather, because he lived there. That would have been stupid. She tried me on Chicago, and I said the lake. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. It was supposed to be some damned museum.

Later I decided the icon quiz must be part of a certain party line on why we need Calatrava bridges, because I got it again from Ed Oakley, chairman of the city council's Trinity River Committee:

"Let me ask you a question," Oakley said. "What do you think is synonymous with Dallas? If you think of Dallas, if you look at a picture of Dallas, what icons do you see as you look at downtown?"

Long dumb pause on my part trying to think of icons.

"The ball on the Hyatt is one of those things that's synonymous with Dallas," he said helpfully, "and you see it in the skyline." He was referring to the revolving restaurant in a big globe dotted with light bulbs on top of a concrete tower next to the all-glass Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Dallas.

"Is there an intrinsic value to the ball and a restaurant up there," Oakley asked, "or could they have saved a bunch of money and built a restaurant that wasn't nearly as impactful?"

I just don't know. I don't think impactful is even a word. But Oakley's point was that the Calatrava bridges will be even more impactful.

"Is it worth building a TxDOT bridge, or do we spend private money and public money to create public art that people and children and grandchildren will look back at?"

Still at a total loss. But I'm glad he brought up the money. The question of how we're going to pay for the first bridge, let alone the other two even bigger ones, is where I, as wet blanket, begin to feel at home. That's what I like about money. It's just money. You don't have to be that smart. All you have to do is count.

A lot of crazy stuff gets said about the money for the bridges. For example, my chat with Mayor Laura Miller not long ago: She said, "I think the first two bridges will get built. And I think it just really adds a big bunch of eye candy that I like. I just like them. I like those bridges. I think they're pretty."
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