Bridges in the Sky



First of all, I am sorry for the delay. Let’s talk about bridges. I specifically mean skybridges: those pedestrian crossings from one building to another. I have two examples, both of which I like because they are skybridges, but only one of which I like architecturally. Lastly, I want to lament the skybridge we could have had, but lost.

Skybridges are great—in my opinion—because they provide pedestrian access between buildings without dealing with vehicular traffic. Calgary has entire networks of pedestrian routes throughout their downtown, through buildings and over roads, utilizing skybridges. Now, before the Post-Modern appropriators start leveling anti-Modernist rhetoric at me, saying that separation of use is segregation and therefore categorization of society, let me explain my affection for skybridges. I recognize that equality and safety arises from shared use and equal visibility, no party (cars) has power over another (people), but sometimes separation is good. Skybridges allow pedestrians to appropriate the sky, not just the street. We can provide safe roads for cars and safe walking spaces for pedestrians, without resorting to 100’-wide streets with car lanes, bus lanes, shoulders, bike paths, and walking paths (I’m looking at you, Portland). Also, Anchorage’s skybridges (unlike our road bridges) go places. The bridges from the parking garages to the 5th Avenue Mall are invaluable. Shoppers can arrive in their warm cars on sub-zero February days and walk in comfort, 20 feet above the snow and ice. Skybridges also offer unobstructed views of the city and our beautiful surroundings. There is something magical about standing high above rushing traffic and looking straight down 5th Avenue towards the Inlet.

Two new skybridges recently went up, both in the UMED District. KPB Architects with Neeser Construction Inc. designed and built a skybridge connecting the Alaska Native Medical Center with the new Patient Housing and parking garage. While I love it as an invaluable connexion and convenient point of access for patients, employees, and visitors, it lacks the spontaneity and comfort it should have. The design is unabashedly Modernist, with slender, exposed structure and transparent floor-to-ceiling glass—a floating glass box in the sky. Additionally, it is visually very cold and uninviting; it is more airport-like in its industrial appearance and sterile design. Purely utilitarian, the seating seems an afterthought. Although it fits the æsthetic of contemporary hospitals, it does not further the feeling of the Alaska Native Medical Center that Patient Housing respects. It is as though while patients never leave a conditioned environment, they have to pass through the cold to get from one warm place to another. The hospital interior is inviting and warm, with lots of wood and native crafts. The Patient Housing is also warm, with earth-toned woven vinyl floors, wood details, pleasant lighting, and wonderful signage. The skybridge has painted metal supports, exposed of course, and aluminum mullions; all the metal seems undersized and dainty.

Up the road is a skybridge connecting a University of Alaska Anchorage medical building with the new engineering building, and it is anything but dainty. Neeser worked with Livingston Slone Inc. to build a handsome, prominent, and altogether fabulous skybridge. Two enormous arches loft from the ground to an apex above the bridge, with strong supports below that cradle the deck. You may have heard of super-graphics, well this is super-structure. Yes, the design exposes the structure, but it augments it to such an extent that the structure becomes the design. The attention to the grotesque (in a good way) and awkward is pleasantly Post-Modern, and fits the context of its surrounding buildings perfectly. The bridge has glazing—for visibility—but is wide enough to create a space, not just a corridor. The UAA campus has a long series of skybridges connecting most of campus. From building to building, these ramps and corridors traverse over forests and streams, and roads. The bridges are wide, the furniture inviting, and travel through them is leisurely and free. The new bridge continues this motif. It is not very long, but seems even shorter because of the large scale. The skybridge does not try to disappear above the road, but dominates the view. Additionally, the metaphor of connecting the two hardest-working schools, one predominantly female and the other predominantly male, is poignant and coy.

Alas, this is where I must lament what could have been. The recent addition to the Anchorage Museum is sexy, sleek, and eye-catching (in a non-Chipperfield sort of way). I am also so happy to see vertical slats on the exterior: it is about time this town had a building that did not have T111 or glass for cladding. Early iterations of the design were more expansive. The museum wanted to purchase the property to the East and build a second building, connected to the new addition with a skybridge. Downtown has not seen a new skybridge since completion of the one connecting the Egan Center and the Performing Arts Center, and that was in the late 1980s. The reason for the denial of the design was that the skybridge “violated the public airspace” of the road; in other words, it blocked views. Now, the views up and down A St are amazing, I agree: you have the ugly skyline of Midtown and the shoddy skyline of eastern Downtown—talk about violating public airspace. Oh well, perhaps someday we will see another skybridge built in Downtown, and I’m not referring to KABATA.

Next week, houses...of a sort. Keep the faith and good night, my loves.

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