White suspension bridge is newest Jerusalem landmark

Thursday, June 26, 2008

JERUSALEM -- A ship's sail, a crooked nail or a giant headache -- the people of Jerusalem can't agree about how best to describe the newest landmark their ancient city inaugurated Wednesday.

The $73 million bridge designed by the Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava has suddenly become the most dominant shape on the city skyline. The bridge, which curves across Jerusalem's western entrance and will eventually carry a light rail line, is suspended from 66 white cables attached to a spire 387 feet high that towers over the surrounding rooftops and is visible from miles away.

The gala dedication ceremony itself, with fireworks, dancers and speeches, cost more than $500,000.

Calatrava's bridge is a flamboyant departure for a city whose famous architecture was provided by people like King Herod and Suleiman the Magnificent and where most modern construction is functional and uninspiring. It has a hard act to follow, joining famed landmarks like the 1,300-year-old golden cap of the Dome of the Rock mosque and the stones of the Western Wall, which date back two millennia.

It is also a striking -- some would say jarring -- architectural contrast to the more contemporary structures in the city. The pure white spire leaps skyward among buildings faced in Jerusalem stone, an off-white limestone quarried in Israel as required by municipal bylaws.

Architect Ami Ran, who edits the "Architecture of Israel" quarterly, criticized the structure as a "monster." He said it "expresses the ego of the architect and not the city of Jerusalem itself."

"Jerusalem is a unique city," said Ran, who teaches at Tel Aviv University, "and architecture should reflect its nature."

Binyamin Nakonechay, a 27-year-old Orthodox Jew, said he liked the bridge but thought it was out of place. "I don't think Jerusalem needs something like this. We have our own monuments," he said.

An informal survey of residents Wednesday found them generally positive about the new bridge, if unsure quite what to compare it to.

"From everywhere in the city, it looks like a giant crooked nail," cafe owner Yaron Kortik said.

Ran Yaakov, 17, said the bridge reminded him of "David's harp," referring to the biblical monarch and musician. Evyatar Tzuberi, 23, thought it looked like a ship's sail. And 19-year-old Orlie Marin compared it to a spider's web.

Alison Gustorff, 23, thought it evoked the Sydney Opera House. The bridge doesn't suit the city, she said, but that isn't a bad thing: "Jerusalem needs change."

At a news conference ahead of the opening, Calatrava said the structure's strength came from the fact that it is "120 percent modern" and yet has a "dialogue" with the rest of the city.

"The most important aspect of the bridge is being in Jerusalem," said Calatrava, who designed the "Turning Torso" building in Malmo, Sweden and is behind the planned transportation hub at ground zero in New York.

Calatrava said the bridge reminded him of a harp or a "tent in the desert."

Some of the bridge's massive steel components were cast in Italy, shipped to Israel and then brought to Jerusalem on flatbed trucks. Raising the central spire required the tallest crane in the country.

Originally planned as a simpler concrete bridge costing $30 million, the bridge turned into a major project to reshape a charmless part of Jerusalem characterized by grimy apartment blocks and hotels. City Hall put out a colorful pamphlet with a computer-simulated image of the bridge in the future, nicely accented by two modern high-rises that do not yet exist.

The image also shows the new light rail, but that project is years behind schedule and will begin running only in 2010.

Besides aesthetic arguments, complaints so far have been related to the budget, which critics charged could have been better spent elsewhere, and to the traffic snarls the bridge has caused, which included a 10-hour closure of some of the city's main routes for the gala opening.

"This bridge is just one giant headache," said Ilan Cohen, 27, who was standing at a snack stand not far away.

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