Eye Candy

Will the suspension bridges be the next roadside icon?

What kind of boring, unromantic soul could fail to see the wonder of Dallas' plan for new bridges across the Trinity River? Where now a row of dirty concrete slabs crosses a river that looks more like a drainage ditch, instead a majestic procession of fancifully modern suspension bridges would soar into the clouds like magic beanstalks.

What sourpuss wet-blanket party pooper could be against a thing like that?

Busted. It is I. I have been bitching about the bridge project for five years. My complaints have been based on cost, which is boring; sometimes on hydrology, which is even more boring; and once in a while on criteria having to do with "congestion mitigation," which sounds nasal and vaguely unpleasant.


Calatrava bridge

What if I'm totally missing the point? What if it's not an itchy wool scarf the lady needs to keep her neck warm but a string of diamonds and pearls to make her feel elegant and adored?

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Ahhh. A much more elevated and elegant thing that would be.

So. Will you be putting this on your Mastercard?

Do you have any idea how much that means you'll be putting on the municipal Mastercard? The total cost the city admits to is $409 million for new bridges. The first one is sort of a bridge to nowhere. The other two replace bridges that don't need to be replaced. We would be doing it strictly for the aesthetics. And right now the city only has half the money it will take to build the first bridge.

In 1998 we voters of the city of Dallas passed a $246 million bond issue for the entire Trinity River project, which we were told was about lakes and parks. These bridges weren't even in the picture. How in the world did they ever become so important? Whose idea is this, anyway?

Wait, wait. I'm bitching again, aren't I? What about giving romance a chance, Jim?

I can't help it. I am, by profession, a wet blanket. But look: The moment is coming when you and I, the lot of us, either will have to find a way to pay for the first Calatrava "signature" bridge over the river in downtown Dallas or maybe just give up on this whole Golden Gate-for-Dallas idea. Given the urgency, it seems fair to give romance and beauty a fair shot at defending themselves, since clearly that's what the Calatrava bridges are all about.

This is public art, flash and dazzle. Smart people out there will argue that flash and dazzle are the secret to keeping downtown alive. Nobody has to go there anymore. It's just another neighborhood now. The only way to keep it alive, they say, is by making it cool.

"That's what beauty is about," Dr. Gail Thomas told me. She's president of the Trinity Trust, a private group that lobbies for the bridge project. Thomas is also a founder of the Dallas Institute, an urban think tank with a long, proud record on city planning issues.

"The classical Greeks knew that, and Michelangelo knew this when he carved the David.

"The beautiful form draws you to it, and you are transfixed when you look at it. And that is the role of beauty. It's what architecture is about at its highest classical moment."

OK, I'm thinking we don't need Michelangelo's David to get us to West Dallas. But no, no, that's not the way to think, either. Donald Gatzke, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington since 2004, told me that a new bridge is exactly the thing we should make beautiful.

"A Calatrava bridge is a very romantic notion--to do something that is grand and that appeals to the spirit rather than just the pocketbook," Gatzke said.

"So much of American urbanism is controlled by unseen forces. And here's an opportunity to do something that says, 'No, we did this, and we meant to do it.' I think of the Calatrava bridges as in the same category as saying we're going to the moon. We go to the moon because we can."

He makes a valid point.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking of an invalid point: that for the price of the first Calatrava bridge, five or six of us could actually go to the moon. Or pretty close. For $20 million apiece, we could fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the way American millionaire Dennis A. Tito did in 2001.

My point is that Calatrava bridges are not cheap. The city has budgeted a total of $57 million to pay for the first one, which will link the dead end of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway downtown with a very bleak district of disused warehouses and small factories in West Dallas and, I should mention, Ray's Sporting Goods, a great gun and hunting store at 730 Singleton Blvd. with the city's best selection of wool outerwear by Filson, whose motto is, "Might as well have the best."  

This, by the way, is supposed to be only the first and actually the most modest of three Calatrava suspension bridges across the river downtown. When the city put it out for bids earlier this year, the lowest bid to build it was $113 million, almost twice the amount the city had in the bank for it.

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.

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."

Miller said the real value of the bridges is the part they will play in the grand scheme for the transformation of the Trinity River bottoms: "If we weren't doing the lakes and we weren't doing the wetlands, the trails and the islands, then the bridges are stupid because then we've just got pretty bridges over a ditch with power lines along it."

Yeah, but we're not doing most of that other stuff.

Why? No money.

I know, we were told we were going to do all of those things when we voted for the $246 million Trinity River bond issue in 1998. It's what we saw in the TV ads--sailboats on a lake, families on nature trails.

But since then most of those things have been gutted because of the enormous growth in the amount of money to be spent on the bridges and on a freeway that wasn't even in the bond package we voted for. The city's own table showing what will and will not be paid for from the 1998 bond issue is sad reading for people who thought they were getting a park. I urge you to go look at it online at TrinityRiverCorridor.org under "implementation costs."

"Stormwater wetlands," it says. "None."

No money. Money's gone. The list goes on:

"Headwaters wetlands. None. Boardwalks for nature observation. Not included. Natural lake amenities. None. Whitewater rafting course. None. Park access roads. None. Active recreation terraces (two). None. Amphitheatre. None..."

I can't read it all. It's too grim. All the stuff I voted for: None. Tell me something. Why would you put "recreation terraces (two)" on the list if the number you're actually going to build is none? Are they just trying to break my heart? Why not have, "Big Rock Candy Mountain with lemonade springs where the bluebird sings--NONE!"

I didn't vote for the bridges. Or the freeway. Neither did you. Nobody did. We voted for the sailboats on the lake. NONE!

The list is staggering--things we voted for that now are not paid for, because the money has been shifted to the road and bridge items that we did not vote for.

In 2001, the city argued in court that it was not bound by any of its promises in advertisements or by official city pamphlets describing the river project. The city said it was bound only by the very broad language that appeared on the ballot itself in the bond election, which basically allowed it to shift the money in any way it wished. The city won that case.

The reality now is that the first Calatrava bridge is going to get paid for one way or the other, unless somebody comes along and forces a new election to de-authorize the entire Trinity River project. About a month ago I saw something that showed me just how far local officials will go to get it paid for--a dicey chapter that was not reported in the pages of the city's daily newspaper.

This is a nasty little detail way down deep in the bowels of regional government, in the dark inner reaches of technocratic politics where public eyes almost never intrude. By the way, that's why technocrats love regional government. They're the only ones who even know where the meetings are held, let alone when.

Thank goodness for little birdies.  

A while back, a little birdie called and told me to take a look at the agenda for a body called the "Regional Transportation Council" of the North Central Texas Council of Governments for its July 13 meeting at the Six Flags La Quinta Inn & Suites in Arlington. So maybe you're like me, and you figure, "How much can happen at a La Quinta?"

Plenty. The city of Dallas had been saying it could actually pony up more than the $57 million for the first Calatrava bridge--more like $65 million, although it was unclear where the extra $8 million was coming from. But even if they had 65 big ones, that still left $48 million Dallas would have to find in order to take the lowest construction bid of $113 million.

Well, there it was on the agenda of the Regional Congress of Whatever: "Action: Approve $48 million of additional Category 2 funds from the City of Dallas I.H. 30 Canyon/Mixmaster project to Woodall Rodgers Extension."

Translation: Gob onto $48 million in road money that was slated to help fix the worst traffic mess in North Texas, the so-called Mixmaster where Interstate 30 and Interstate 35 collide in downtown Dallas, and stick the money instead on the bridge to Ray's Sporting Goods.

A completely flabbergasting idea! We poor schlub motorist/taxpayers have been told for decades that the single most important transportation project in our city is fixing that Third World bump-'em-cars carnival-ride-in-hell joke of a freeway intersection downtown. So now somebody's ready to quietly filch $48 million out of it to pay for an icon? A new icon, by the way, since Councilman Oakley told me we already have the ball-on-the-tower thing. I guess that's a used icon.

First I had to find out exactly what the Regional Transportation Council was and how it could do a thing like that. Bill Hale, the regional state highway director, explained to me that the RTC is a regional body with the power under state and federal law to divvy up highway money between projects, even when the roads in question belong to the state.

"Those roadways are state highways," Hale said, "but the RTC is empowered to determine how they want to spend their money in that particular area."

But it did not happen. Lo and behold, the $48 million grab for the Calatrava Bridge seems to have been pulled from the RTC agenda at the last moment before the big July 13 La Quinta conclave, a little after I began making the first of what I mistakenly thought were discreet inquiries about it.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, who has vowed publicly that the first Calatrava bridge is going to get built no matter what, confirmed to me that she knew about the proposal and decided against it: "There was a suggestion made that we might be able to work something through that, but it didn't turn out to be a good idea."

I asked why it was a bad idea.

"It's a bad idea because I don't want to pay that much for a bridge. It's just really not the way I want to do business."

Later I managed to buttonhole Michael Morris, director of the transportation staff at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He confirmed that he was the one who had put the item on the agenda and then pulled it. But Morris told me repeatedly it had never been his intention to take the full $48 million out of the Mixmaster project.

"I think something less than that might have been reasonable," Morris said.

How much? Unclear, he said. In fact, I never got to the bottom of exactly how and why the $48 million got onto the agenda, who told him to put it there, or how and why it got taken off. But everybody I talked to agreed it would have been in the power of the RTC to hoist $48 million out of the Mixmaster and put it on the bridge.

It was suggested to me in very general terms that the item got pulled because somebody figured out at the last moment such a move could have uncomfortable political repercussions.

The membership of the RTC includes elected officials from Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties and all of the suburbs. How much do they care about hearing the symphony when they look at the bridge? In fact, how many of them even want to get to Ray's Sporting Goods?

"I'm not sure what the vote would have been, because I-30 and I-35 probably have more transportation significance than Woodall Rodgers going across the Trinity River right there," Hale said.

Yeah, well, I agree taking $48 million out of the Mixmaster to pay for the bridge could have had some political consequences. I know I personally would have called for legalizing the guillotine. But that's just me.  

The really interesting question is how on earth these bridges could have become this important. What is the will? Where does it come from? Who is it who thinks these bridges are more important than the park in the river bottom that the people of Dallas voted for when we passed the bond money eight years ago?

Gail Thomas of the Trinity Trust told me she had started out focusing much more on the river park and didn't even understand why we needed the bridges at first. But she changed her mind when she began talking to people in the community.

"College kids would say, 'What river? Where's the river?' And people my age who had grown up in Dallas would say, 'Oh, God, no one cares anything about that old stinky river.'

"So I started realizing that one way to get people's attention was through those bridges. That's when I supported rethinking and revisiting the whole notion of the Calatrava bridges."

She said she thought, "Well, for people who have the means to help, the money to help, their attention first will come through something beautiful. So, therefore, the bridge."

Among people who have had "the means to help" so far have been descendants of H.L. Hunt. The Hunt Petroleum Corp. kicked in $12 million for the first bridge, which is to be named the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge after the family matriarch. The second bridge is to be named the Margaret McDermott Bridge after the widow of one of the founders of Texas Instruments. Presumably someone is searching for one more rich Margaret to name the third bridge after even as we speak.

The city's nickname, when it's all in place? How about the Big Margaret. Margaretville? The City by the Margarets?

I go too far. These are people, generous with their money, who mean well. And if I were fair (a very big if), I would have to concede that iconic roadside architecture and symbolism have played major roles in creating the geography of America as we know it today.

In doing a little background for this article, I came across a wonderful book published in 1984 called The Colossus of Roads, written by Karal Ann Marling, now a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. In the book Marling explains how Americans have used various totems and iconic structures to define their space from the early days of the nation, especially in the Upper Midwest, where I grew up. She focuses on Minnesota and talks about some of the great roadside attractions I remember from childhood trips and later young adult excursions into neighboring states (and altered states).

One in particular that I remembered fondly was the giant Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Marling explains that the territorial marking that people hoped to accomplish with these icons incited jealousy in other locations. People in neighboring towns thought they should be visited and remembered too. Hence Minnesota today is home to several giant Paul Bunyans including one in Brainerd that talks and moves its lower jaw, like Big Tex, the great figure that welcomes us to the Texas State Fair each year.

I thought of Big Tex, in fact. What if we weatherproofed him and put him somewhere down by the river where he could be seen? On top of the ball at the Hyatt? He could be seated on top waving his hat and sort of wahooing like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove. But I guess there wouldn't be much moolah from the Margarets for that.

Marling talks about how the greatest manmade landmarks of North America have always entailed a certain reality-bending trickery, as if each one tells a joke that we're all in on but pretend not to get. How could Paul Bunyan be that big? Why would we expect to see gigantic heads of presidents gazing out from Mount Rushmore?

The tradition of roadside giants may have begun, Marling postulates, with the "Cardiff Giant," a 19th-century hoax involving a crudely made stone figure presented at peep shows as a petrified North American aborigine. Marling doesn't think anyone was fooled by such hoaxes. Part of the attraction was the fraud itself.

"Public naïveté does not explain a positive relish for being duped," she writes. "Indeed, if a fraud bolstered local or national pride, its success was virtually assured."

Could this be closer to the true nature of our desire to build fanciful suspension bridges across our measly little river? Would these bridges be our own very fancy, very sophisticated joke on nature, our hoax?  

Look: A part of me wants to believe or at least pretend to believe. Something is charming, almost mythological, in the idea of a magic bridge to a golden future, like the magic beanstalk. I don't want to be Jack's crabby old mother, berating him because he traded the family cow for some beans. Look how it worked out for him!

But I can't help it. Jack got into the beanstalk business with an investment of one cow. The total cost for Dallas' Calatrava bridge project is estimated at more than $400 million. That's a lot of beans.

Another thing. I only ever heard of one magic beanstalk to a castle in the clouds. But Calatrava bridges are everywhere. They're all over the world by now, especially in Europe and in the United States.

Calatrava's bridges are very distinctive. But they are distinctively Calatrava. Everything about a Calatrava bridge says Calatrava. Nothing says Dallas. If anything, Calatrava is an example of the school of architecture called "brandscaping," more commonly associated with commercial and especially retail architecture.

The idea, if I may oversimplify, is that place itself is overrated anyway. We're all from somewhere else and passing through. In our journey we are identified not by the places we briefly occupy but by the brands we carry with us on our way.

In an article called, "The poetics of augmented space: learning from Prada," Lev Manovich, a professor of visual arts at the University of California in San Diego, talks about a store in New York created by the famous Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, for Prada (as in The Devil Wears...).

Manovich writes: "Rem Koolhaas's Prada store in New York (2002) pushes brandscaping to a new level. Koolhaas seems to achieve the impossible by creating a flagship store for the Prada brand--and at the same time an ironic statement about the functioning of brands as new religions."

Brands as new religions? Is this starting to sound like home?

I want to go along with it. I really do. I know that the people pushing for this first bridge and the even bigger ones to follow have the very best interests of the city in their hearts and minds. They believe that the most luxurious brand of bridge is the kind of iconic statement Dallas needs to make in order to feel good about itself.

But back in the wet blanket department, I am truly worried about one thing. I think Dallas would understand this easily if we were talking about oil futures. What does it mean when every cab driver in town is yakking about how it's time to rush out and buy oil futures?

Easy. It means oil futures are about to tank. When everybody wants in, it's time to get out. Contemporary art is not much different--especially when you've got a guy like Calatrava who's cranking out so much product.

Lately Calatrava has been trying to one-up himself. One of his new buildings looks like an eyeball that actually blinks.

Some critics are beginning to get queasy. As Robert Wilonsky reported in the Dallas Observer last winter ("Exuberantly Shallow," January 19, 2006), Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a lecturer in the Architecture Department at Harvard, has even impaled Calatrava with the dreaded K-word.


In an article in The New Republic last January, "Santiago Calatrava's Moment for the Birds," Goldhagen expressed great respect for Calatrava's early work but said he's turning out junk now. Goldhagen homes in on the icon thing.

"People like the simplicity and the obvious iconicity of Calatrava's architecture," Goldhagen writes. "It is popular because it is comprehensible.

"There is a word that characterizes the phenomenon that I am describing," she says in the article. "That word is 'kitsch.' And as Calatrava builds more architectural projects, it becomes increasingly apparent that much of this work is not even well-considered kitsch."

Goldhagen works Calatrava over pretty brutally for the way he ignores materials, terrain and the environment itself. Wait until she gets a look at his San Francisco Bay bridges in downtown Dallas, Texas.

And please don't say, "Who cares what some architecture critic at Harvard thinks?" Remember. We got into this whole deal in the first place because of what architecture critics thought. They were our shopping guides.

But let me ask a final question. What if the people who have pushed this project so far, including Mayor Miller and Gail Thomas and Veletta Lill, no matter how good their intentions, are not, in fact, the people who know what's cool? Remember: That was our opening hypothesis--that downtown now is just another neighborhood. To survive, it must appeal to back-to-the-city types, and to do that it must be cool.  

Even if the Calatrava bridges are impressive, are they cool enough to make you want to live near them?

I spoke with city council member Angela Hunt, who was careful to say good things about Calatrava and how the bridges might look if completed but who also said she thinks the bridges generally are not the kind of cool thing people want to live near.

"You know why people are going to move downtown and why they're going to gravitate toward the Trinity?" she asked. "Not because of the toll road and not because of any grand bridges, but because of lakes and parks and trails."

She went off on a little reverie about what it would be like to wake up on a nice weekend day, get on your bike and flow down a bike path into the Great Trinity Forest, past kayakers and fishermen, past people listening to the Dallas Symphony at an outdoor amphitheatre, past people playing soccer and picnicking.

Yeah. That would be cool. Very cool. Lots of people would want to live near that.

But I remind you of that $48 million. That almost happened. It will happen again. City Manager Mary Suhm has put the Woodall Rodgers bridge out for bid again. They'll whittle it down a bit, fake it up so parts of it can be charged to other projects, and then they will grab what they need out of the kitty. And don't let them lie to you: Every cent they put in those bridges comes out of the cool stuff.

The only way Dallas could turn the Trinity River project around and change it back into what we voted for in '98 is by holding a new election to de-authorize the project and start over from scratch.

If we did that, it would be the new, cool Dallas finally stepping up--the birth of an incredibly exciting new era.

Tell me I'm not romantic.

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