Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Christian Menn: Brücken / Bridges

"Do you remember your first bridge?" Caspar Schärer asks Swiss civil engineer Christian Menn, one of the great contemporary bridge builders. It is difficult to think of a less uninspiring question and the rest of the questions by Schärer aren't much better but might serve as proof that it doesn't really matter who is asking what for when the person asked is willing to tell stories he will – regardless what has been asked, and by whom.

Brücken / Bridges comes with texts in German and English and is introduced by Christian Menn's My Philosophy of Bridge Building in which he elaborates on the antecedents of a bridge design, competitions, standards, the goals of bridge design, safety, durability, serviceability, economy, aesthetic quality, bridge aesthetics, the balance of cost and aesthetic quality, and the development of a bridge concept.

For somebody like me, who has never really thought about anything to do with bridge building, sentences like: "Bridges are functional objects that play an essential role in transportation systems, carrying pedestrians, highway traffic, railways, and even ships. They must satisfy challenging and complex requirements relating to transportation, structural function, exonomy, the environment, and culture" sound akin to revelations for they are clear, simple, and to the point.
Christian Menn, born 1927 in Meiringen, attended high school in Chur and studied civil engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) from which he graduated in 1950. In 1957, he started his own engineering company in Chur and began work on various bridge projects in Switzerland and, later on, also abroad. "After retiring, Menn remained actively involved in numerous projects, many of them for prize-winning bridges that have won international acclaim, such as the Sunniberg Bridge near Klosters."

The Sunniberg Bridge was opened on 9 December 2005. In his inauguration speech, Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger, said: "This bridge is culture. It is a work of art not just in appearance, but also in how it came about. What brings people together is not just the finished bridge, for its planning and construction were also collective undertakings entailing the interaction of all the various human and technical elements." In the words of Christian Menn: "A bridge cannot be built by one man alone. It is the work of many hands."

Brücken / Bridges is a formidable tome that contains, on the one hand, projects by Menn's engineering firm from 1957 to 1971 as well as designs and consultancy projects after 1971, and, on the other hand, texts by David. P. Billington (The influence of Robert Maillart and Othmar Ammann on Christian Menn), Luzi Bärtsch (Bridge building from the politician's perspective), Werner Oechslin (An ideal balance of harmony and elegance), Joseph Schwartz (On architecture in bridge building), and Iso Camartin (Bridge stories).
Looking at the photographs in this tome fills me with awe. Needless to say, this has primarily to do with the constructions. It has however also to do with the photographer or the photographers. Most of the photos were taken by Ralph Feiner who did a truly outstanding job – I cannot remember having seen more impressive photographs of bridges and by this I mean that the photographer's ingenuity in identifying the angles from which to shoot is definitely remarkable. Obviously, quite some walking, hiking, and climbing up and down was required to get to the spots from where the photographs were taken.

I felt most fascinated by the views of bridges in my vicinity  – the bridge over the Rhine, Bad Ragaz; the Swiss Federal Railways overpass in Buchs  – that I've never really paid attention to. This has now changed  for photos, there is no doubt about it, can make one see.

In sum: Works of art photographed by an artist.

Caspar Schärer / Christian Menn (Hrsg. / Eds.)
Fotografien / Photographs Ralph Feiner
Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürich 2015

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