(Artvoice 22 April 1999)
 

Bruno Freschi:
"I'm Talking Pragmatism Here"

by Bruce Jackson
 
 

If one person is responsible for the continuing controversy over whether to build a companion span for the 1927 Peace Bridge or to put up an entirely new signature bridge, it is Bruno Freschi, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Freschi is an internationally-known architect who holds the Order of Canada, that nation's highest civilian award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Art, and he is an Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects.

Dean Freschi wasn't the first person to suggest that the companion or twinning idea of the Public Bridge Administration was a bad idea and a missed opportunity for the region, nor was he the only person to offer an alternative design, but his design is the only significantly developed alternative and it is the one that has fired the public's imagination and garnered support from nearly all elected officials with responsibilities to this part of New York State.

All five Canadian representatives on the Public Bridge Authority have insisted that the issue get no further consideration and that construction on the companion bridge start immediately. The Canadian government has taken the position that the bridge exists solely for the purpose of moving trucks and tourists, so aesthetic issues are irrelevant. We may be heading into an international diplomatic argument as intractable as the political one now going on between the PBA and the residents of the Buffalo area.

In all of this, Bruno Freschi has been cited, quoted, paraphrased, talked about, attacked, referred to--but never interviewed. Artvoice thought it would be useful to hear his responses to the questions that have been raised. What follows are extracts from a conversation we had last Sunday afternoon. My questions are in italics.

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You threw the apple of discord on the table when you came up with the design you worked out with T. Y. Lin. Why did you do it?

I was working on the waterfront for the city, helping to get the waterfront plan back on track. We took the big picture, we looked at the whole waterfront. In the course of that I was fascinated by this issue of bridges because there's a little bridge proposed in the inner harbor as well. This is '95, '96. I thought the claim of public consultation on this Peace Bridge was strange, so I refused get involved because I just saw it as a charade. I wasn't involved, but I had been working on some concepts. I had a small studio in the School and I had some students working with me because it's a fascinating idea.

Then I was in Korea and that's what really tipped the scale. I was speaking to the Kyonggi University faculty and after my talk a faculty member came up to me and said "I saw in your c.v. that you live in Buffalo, New York." I said "Yes." "And Buffalo, New York, has a PEACE bridge." I said, "Yes," totally unaware of what it meant until that moment: PEACE BRIDGE! What a phenomenal metaphor. I thought about how the bridge was built to commemorate a century of peace between our two countries. I had never related the name on the bridge to Peace.

I took the idea that we'd been percolating for about a year and we evolved this bridge. We had a magnificent structural idea and a magnificent kinesthetic idea of driving in a curve. The concept made intuitive sense, it made symbolic sense, and all the ideas came together. One of the things that pushed me over the edge of going public with it was that no matter what scheme anybody came up with, it was going to be a massive decade-long disruption of traffic. We looked for an alternative to that problem.

Then the notions came into the newspaper of a twin, to keep the old bridge. That didn't make much sense. I knew a lot about why the old bridge was built and how the mistake over the canal was made, and how it was arbitrarily patched together. Then the designer of the second twin span, having realized that the existing span was kind of an ugly bridge, suggested that they could change the Parker truss on the old bridge and make it look like the new twin, which was put there initially to represent the first bridge. Things were getting absurd.

I had the good fortune of sharing the idea with Stan Lipsey and in turn with Stan Lipsey and Senator Moynihan, and both felt as I did that public icons and the public work of the city are important symbols and it all ought to be looked at again. At that point, we weren't concerned about time or money or any of that.

How did T. Y. Lin get involved?

This whole thing had its genesis in the School of Architecture and Planning at UB. T.Y. Lin is one of the world's foremost engineers, one of the most experienced bridge builders in the world. I know him from a little bit of work on the West Coast. He happened to have been giving a lecture in the School of Engineering and the School of Architecture and Planning and I was able to do the traditional napkin sketch for him.

T. Y. got very excited. More than I anticipated. He took away my napkin. Later, he called me from San Francisco, and said "When can you come?" Then I was out there for a conference, I walked across the street to his office and sat down with his team. They'd been working. And they proved the engineering was even BETTER than even I thought. We were right. They convinced me to tip the pylon one way from another way. We worked out the spacing of cables, we talked about the issue of weather and how to avoid birds flying into cables-all the ordinary bridge design issues.

All that stuff had been played out in a hundred different bridge projects. There are bridges in the Arctic where ice was a far bigger problem than Buffalo, New York. then we talked about constructability, which is perhaps forgotten but most important point of all. He explained that and how this could be more efficient. This is why HE was excited.

I came back and said, "We gotta do it." And so I did it.

I believed that in a thing this big, this important, if there was political will, timing was irrelevant. Then when we did the research, it turned out we were also faster and cheaper!

Your opponents say that your numbers are just pulled out of the air, while they've spent five years developing their numbers.

No, our numbers are not pulled out of the air.

I involved the firm of Cannon, which I'm associated with (I'm not a partner in Cannon, I'm not in any way a corporate officer, I have a functional title) because I can work with them, I can consult with them on projects all over the world. I went to Cannon because I know they have a good engineering office, and they have an extraordinary construction cost analysis staff. I've worked with them on large-scale projects and I trust their numbers. They have very competent project management and understand scheduling and the whole process. They did a thorough analysis.

I also went to T. Y. Lin and said, "T. Y., tell us what it costs and tell us how long everything's going to take-- construction documents, bidding time, construction time, and what kinds of questions we should have about the Environmental Protection Act and its reviews, the Coast Guard, et cetera." They researched it from current bridge projects.

Then a local major contractor volunteered to do yet another arm's-length cost analysis and to add his understanding of this area's weather and the conditions of the Niagara River. He looked at other comparable bridge constructions project in the country. His work included a thorough estimate of the demolition costs of the existing bridge.

We have those numbers. Those are the numbers that we reported. This alterative is indeed cheaper. In other words, this bridge will cost less and be completed sooner.

I'm talking six lanes in one step. Not three and three in two steps which takes three or four years longer.

One of your critics said that you gave the Bridge Authority a good design, but not a real plan, whereas the twin span designers had a real plan. He said there was no way to evaluate your plan because it was apples and oranges.

This a concept design by a competent team. Behind this concept there's a lot of talent that honestly believes it's a legitimate alternative. Certainly, further engineering details should be done. We have not had three to five years to do this. All the effort by all members of the team has been volunteered.

The twin span design has been detailed to a far greater extent. However, one must address the premise of maintaining the old bridge and the subsequent design concepts and no solution to the plaza problems. Nobody knows what fixing the old bridge will cost. It would appear that it's going to be ten years until you see six lanes and a new plaza, maybe more.

They also say you would have to get new clearances and you couldn't do that until you had detailed drawings so it would put the project back by five years.

That assumption was based on their designs being accurate, and their costing being accurate, which of course since has been proven wrong. And it was based on the questionable policy decision to keep the old bridge. So who's going to take longer?

We are a group of people who really know this complex process, who've done it, and we went to all the agencies on the American side. The Canadian side had apparently all been approved. The American side was the question mark. Our reviews included meetings with the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA. We have included in our schedule a worst-case projection of time for review: eighteen months. And keep in mind that these reviews are processed simultaneously with the preparation of the engineering details. It's not like the project is on hold while you wait for them.

Would your bridge be cheaper to maintain?

Yes.

Why and how?

Firstly, the pylon. The pylon can be concrete or steel. Steel today can be coated and permanently protected as opposed to just paint. There are alternatives in the coating that protect steel from salt and the weather and all that. But we've actually proposed a concrete pylon with space inside an elevator.

Second, the new cabling is permanently protected and wrapped. They used it on the bridge in Tampa. I've gone and touched and felt those cables and I've talked with the guys who built it. They don't need the sandblasting and painting that older bridges need. How many times have you driven across the Peace Bridge and not seen them doing that kind of work?

They're painting it all the time. But the Tampa bridge exists in an ambience very different from here.

Salt! Seawater! Worse! Worse than here!

Never mind. So what about ice?

Heating coils. All you have to do is prevent the formation of ice and you don't need a lot of heat for that. This isn't the first bridge in the north, there are worse places than Buffalo, New York. It's a concern on a steel bridge: a steel superstructure, just like cable, will hold ice. The old bridges don't have coils, they're a problem; the new bridges have this technology; they're not a problem.

What about inspecting the cables? Your pylon is so high. How can anybody check it out and make sure it's holding up properly?

You use the modern technology of stress gauges. You can measure and keep track of the stresses. You can get up the cables, they have rigs that do that, but since there's so much less need for it, it's not a permanent structural thing that you need to build. None of this is a big deal. There isn't a bridge in the world that hasn't provided for these routine inspections.

What about the birds? Opponents of your design keep bringing up bird migrations.

One: there is not a river in the world that is not a migratory path. They thought it was a discovery that this was a migratory path. Name a river that isn't. Birds use rivers. That's the way they fly.

Two: Most rivers have bridges on them.

Three: Definitive research has proven that birds fly into unlit objects, like dark buildings at night. You will notice in that poster of the bridge in Tampa that it's brightly lit and it looks gorgeous. If you built this bridge you'd WANT to light it. Birds, believe it or not, are just like us: they can see a lit object. Sure, there's going to be a dumb bird that flies into a cable. Not often.

Would you keep the same plaza they're using now, and if not, why didn't your design reflect that?

I would not keep the plaza that is there now. We proposed in the original design a bridge which delivered to a new plaza just downstream, or north of the existing plaza. The new plaza would be at the point where Niagara Street divides into an access road to the Thruway and, more importantly, becomes a primary gateway to downtown Buffalo. This area and its adjacent escarpment is empty. We have proposed a plaza to be constructed in the air and on the ground over the Thruway and railway below. The design of this plaza could deliver traffic to the Thruway, and most importantly, a Niagara street gateway to Buffalo.

A block that's empty now?

Yes. It's just a leftover triangle. To properly address this gateway, a block of houses and small commercial buildings should be removed to provide an appropriate entrance to the city. Remember that Niagara Street takes you right to Niagara Square and City Hall. What we have now, is a spaghetti roadway system that has destroyed Front Park. The park is dead, it's inaccessible, it's a green patch in the middle of nowhere. Our design would restore the Olmstead Front Park as a park for the West Side.

So why didn't we see this plaza in your design?

It was in the original proposal, but we were asked to consider the alternative of connecting to the existing plaza because the process which we agreed to participate in had removed the plaza from consideration. And believing in the process, as a good Canadian architect, I went along with it. You can do either one, but if you ask me now what my choice is, it's a new plaza at a place that serves the traffic and the city far better.

In one construction phase and in the shortest time, one could have a signature bridge of six lanes, a new American plaza, an integration of the bridge on the Canadian side-all with minimal disruption of traffic. Further, this design would support the green parkway concepts for the Niagara River. In one day, you open the new bridge and plaza and close the existing bridge. After that, demolish the existing bridge and plaza and restore Front Park.

Won't demolishing the old add a huge amount to the cost?

Our analysis shows that it will be between $7 and $9 million.

You referred to yourself as "a good Canadian architect." How come there's such a distance between what you seem to find important and what the five Canadian members of the Public Bridge Authority and the Canadian foreign office find important? They seem to be taking a cold business-oriented approach to this whole issue and the Americans, who are usually accused of that, are taking an aesthetic and green space approach. Does that make any sense to you?

It makes sense, but I'd use different adjectives. I think that the Canadians really believed the Authority. Canadians tend to trust their government, they tend to trust their elected authority. Canadians aren't less democratic, but they have less process. I like it, it's kind of nice that way. I believe that they were sold a concept and they've invested heavily in that concept and don't want to change direction now and are upset with the timing of all this. I don't blame them.

The only issue here is, why the decisions were made. I'm not here to condemn anybody. I make good ones and bad ones every day, just like everybody else. So we should be big enough to come forward and admit there were some bad decisions. To quote David Crombie, there's a "hunger for this symbolic issue." What's important isn't to justify a decision made three or five years ago, it's to make the right decision now.

What's happened is a moment of learning. That doesn't mean you accuse somebody of being stupid or backward. It's a discovery, it should be a really great discovery, it is a visionary discovery by the community. The people want this. That's what leadership must recognize. The only person who reacted at first was Senator Moynihan. Now there's Senator Schumer, Attorney General Spitzer, the county executive, the Common Council, the mayor, and all the others. Gradually, I think, we Canadians will also appreciate the faster and less expensive signature proposal.

But if the Canadians, are primarily interested in this project only to increase truck and automobile traffic capacity, why should they incur the extra costs required to change plans?

It's the opposite: we would have more traffic faster for less money. More traffic. Less cost. Sooner. Forget the symbolic quality. I'm talking pragmatism here. That's what we are all talking about.

It seems to me that if Canada's main interest is truck throughput-

It should be. I agree with them.

-then your proposal is not in conflict.

That's my point. The issue has been misunderstood. They want to say "It's not about aesthetics!" They're right: it's about faster cheaper. Wake up! You're not going to get it faster and cheaper the way they're going now.

Here are the salient facts:
One: We have a single pier in the water. Big-but one. They want ten.
Two: This signature bridge can be constructed more quickly than building a companion bridge and rehabilitating the old bridge.
Three: There could and can be a new gateway plaza and a restored green Front Park.
Four: This can be achieved at less cost in shorter time with the least disruption of traffic.

That's just true.

I'm saying this: We'll give you a spectacular bridge, six lanes, and a new plaza in 2004. Cut the ribbon! It's all there! I'm serious.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson
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