Footbridges as New Urban Spaces

Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, Dietmar Feichtinger, Paris, 2014

Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, Dietmar Feichtinger, Paris, 2014

Footbridges as New Urban Spaces.

A cultural project for contemporary landscape.

Fabrizia Zorzenon



By now, it is ascertained that towards the end of the 20th century a radical process of renewal concerned the modus operandi that regards the infrastructural design. The theme of footbridges, in particular, has undergone a change that has led to an enrichment of the engineering project with values and meanings that once were only typical of architectural works. Until a few decades ago, the importance of the bridge was usually defined on the basis of its length and of its size and, in this sense, footbridge often had a subordinate role. Many designers were convinced that these small structures had not a real importance and that therefore they were suited to those engineers that took their first steps in the construction of bridges. This led to prefer especially the use of girder structures for pedestrian bridges, for which the process of dimensioning and verification could simply be carried out manually, i.e. without the use of a computer. As Hugh Pearmen has however noted, in conjunction with the advent in the new millennium these singular works have been rediscovered as “vessels of metaphors” and a growing number of architects, as well as a new class of project engineers, have started to notice the potential hidden behind their design. The reasons for this transformation are multiple and find a common denominator in the response that the main European cities, since the middle of the last century, have been trying to give to the big ecological, social and urban crisis weighing on them. Drawing inspiration from the principles of sustainable urban development, these facts have marked the beginning of a new project season that has also seen the birth of a new generation of footbridges: deeply different from what was previously produced, they are a tangible sign of the change occurred in the way of conceiving these structures, both by virtue of a new aesthetic and of new semantics. So from simple, anonymous structures capable only of crossing an obstacle, they have become, in little more than 20 years, real “urban devices” that, with their renewed appearance, contribute to redefine the image of contemporary city giving it a more sustainable dimension.

As attested by the success achieved in recent years also at a media level, that of footbridges is therefore a very topical theme of great world interest: above all, it is no longer an issue just for the experts of this field. More and more magazines, specialized and not, deal with this topic. The cycle of conferences on this theme, Footbridge, is a three-yearly international event inaugurated in 2002, which draws the attention of numerous designers and critics of architecture. Also at a communication level, the pedestrian bridge has recently found a place also in unusual areas such as, for example, cinema and literature, a sign that this reality is appreciated not only as urban signified but also as social signifier.

The topicality of the theme is easily recognizable even in the current events. The conference on climate that has just taken place in Copenhagen deals with complex issues that affect the entire planet with answers, yet so uncertain, that don’t seem to be avoidable. The reflection on climate and environment protection, as well as the preservation of the reality in which man lives and wants to live his own future, concern the same issues underlying the reflection on the quality of life, and therefore man’s space. This work wants to be a contribution also in this sense.

Therefore, this research aims at understanding the importance of the cultural revolution which at the end of the XX century marked the birth of modern footbridges. The ultimate purpose is to define what the pedestrian bridge represents today and the real factors that helped to build its current popularity.

In this sense, the work is divided into three main parts. The first intends to identify the reasons that led to this change, which occurred both at a geographical and temporal level. Dating back to the second half of the 1980s, it falls within the policies of urban regeneration that the main European cities adopt before the main questions that grip the contemporary world. More specifically, they are projects that aim at redefining the urban and social fabric through extensive operations of redevelopment of the public space, intended as that element that more than others contributes to build the image of the city. These interventions also include the modern footbridges which, in short time, become valid instruments to promote a policy of sustainable development, by offering a substantial contribution at an environmental, social and urban level.

For this reason, the way of conceiving this infrastructural work radically change and it is transformed, from a service structure, into an “urban project”: the pedestrian bridge becomes itself urban space so as to realize a restructuring of the city starting from its founding characters. It defines then a new project methodology that doesn’t conceive the bridge as an object disconnected from its context but as an “urban architecture”, morphologically integrated into the structure of the city. Generalizing, this is a method that makes the infrastructure an object of the landscape and that sees in the latter the founding matrix of its design. This topic, developed in the second chapter, starts from some preliminary considerations on the modern meaning of the term “landscape”, and then develops initial useful indications to face the infrastructural project giving it a renewed landscape dimension. In this sense, the phenomenological discipline gives a substantial support, through which the landscape becomes the expression of our living space, i.e. the expression of the relations that link man to the territory he belongs to. These relations, of sensory nature, are the product of our psycho-physical interaction with the environment we live in. According to these, we model the architecture that becomes a metaphor of the landscape, i.e. the representation of the metaphorical relations that compose it.

This topic is specially dealt with in the second chapter, where the relationships between man, work and context is analyzed, with reference, on one hand, to the visual perception and, on the other hand, to what will be then defined “unconscious perception”, a type of perception that is based on the sensory experience especially derived from touch and hearing. Their combination gives life to a new creative approach that looks at the infrastructural work as a whole and that finds its meaning in its being within sight and within reach of the body: a methodology, therefore, that considers the bridge in its entirety, from the outside and from the inside. Only then it will become an urban space itself, i.e. an area in which the ways, the forms and the relationships through which the society represents itself find their expression. Consequently, the footbridge acquires so a structuring role in the definition of the urban and social fabric of the city.

Finally, the third part considers the semantic variations arising from the consideration of the footbridge as a place of life in the contemporary city. Making the infrastructural work an “urban project” leads to a redefinition of the object itself not only at a morphological level, but also at a conceptual level. Beginning from some considerations on the semiotic character of architecture, the purpose is to reach a modern revision of the current meaning of the footbridge. Ascertained that it is more than a mere instrument able to overcome an obstacle, the pursued aim is to understand what this particular infrastructure represents for us today, and with particular reference to its being an integral part of the architecture of the city. In this sense, the concept of “semantic connotation” is helpful, through which it becomes possible to enlarge the functional qualification of the object and to notify its social value, giving it so an additional and deeper meaning. In specific terms, from a comparison with the famous essay by Kevin Lynch, it emerges that the topical image of the bridge is present at the same time in three figures like path, node and landmark: path as an instrument to give new structure to the city, node as a strategic point from which and to which to move, landmark as the essential element to move within the urban context. However, this triad is not new and seems to throw us back into that past when the inhabited bridge was the economic, social and symbolic fulcrum of the big river cities.


Footbridges as new urban spaces. A cultural project for contemporary landscape.

Fabrizia Zorzenon / Edizioni Accademiche Italiane / 2014 / ISBN-13: 978-3639714432