Category Archives: Bridges

The Alcázar of Segovia, Spain. 2009

The Alcázar of Segovia was for me, the best grand building I saw on my European trip last year. Most palaces and their selfish and clueless ostentation leave me feeling cold. 

Warning bells went off in my head when I read that the Alcázar of Segovia was one of the buildings along with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, that inspired that great exponent of kitsch and schmaltz, Walt Disney, to design the Wonderland entrance to his amusement parks. I was surprised how much I disliked Neuschwanstein and I wasn’t too optimistic about enjoying Segovia’s main tourist attraction.

We stayed in a very beautiful hotel right at the back of the castle, and as soon as I clapped my eyes on it, I was gob-smacked. Appearing through the early autumn foliage was, what has become for me, the epitome of what a castle could be. 

Neuschwanstein rankled me so much because it was so ersatz; tacky in such a mad and over the top sort of way. A pure folly of  brainless selfishness.

Segovia’s castle is obviously a defensive structure where some very powerful had people lived, but for me what saved it from being dismissed as yet another monument to greed, was that as far as the palaces I’ve experienced, it was relatively restrained.

Sure, the form of the Alcázar follows function, but there is also plenty of evidence of a desire to build something beautiful that not just the owners will see.

One of the things that struck me about Europe, was the fact that architectural beauty is important. I guess it’s a sad thing about wages becoming more equitable in the first world in this modern age that we live in.  No more cheap labour to suck the life out of and exploit. No more decoration, just for the sake of it.

So many buildings (here in Australia at least) are built for a price nowadays and aesthetics have largely been abandoned in much of the public architecture I’ve seen sprouting up lately. For every Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry there seems to be thousands of tasteless architectural versions of Myrmidons, ready to churn out  as many eyesores as they can.

Although most of the Alcázar is comparatively modest and functional, compared to so many other royal residences I’ve been to, there has been a fortune spent on the ceilings. It’s obvious where so much new world gold was spent. After all, this was the home of Isabella and Ferdinand, the alpha couple of their time.

As I looked up at the ceilings, I found myself thinking about Christopher Columbus going cap in hand to the King and Queen as he promised to make them so much richer.

The ceilings are proof that Columbus was a man of his word.

Perhaps this heavenwards manifestation of wealth was an early form of prosperity preaching. Go with the right god and you’ll hit the big time. Jesus is my main guy and his co-pilot the pope, let me take all this great stuff  from those heathens.

So watch your step, or your arse will be mine!

Despite thoughts about what was done in Isabella and Ferdinand’s names, my wife and I never tired of seeing the Alcázar rising like a beautiful Renaissance stone battleship, out of the rocks.

Before and after on Gloucester Street. The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010

As I was wandering around town the other day I went through some back streets in The Rocks.

The Rocks is one of the very first places in Australia where European settlement began. For about 100 years The Rocks was basically a very dangerous open air prison that was almost a no-go zone for the colonial authorities. It was such a notorious place that the government soldiers never went in there alone and always would go in squads when ever they had to extract a miscreant.

Herman Melville in his book “Moby Dick”, basically says that the worst people that the whaling captains distrusted the most, were “Sydney men”, who were thought to be worse than “canallers” (the workers on the Erie Canal) which was saying something back in the 1860s in America.

Gloucester Street in The Rocks was bisected by the Bradfield Highway (the shortest highway in Australia and probably the world) when the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built back in the 1930s.

The mural is an attempt by the city to beautify an act of expedient civil engineering brutalism. It shows a scene from a 1901 photograph taken in the same place, looking in the same direction.

1901 is significant because it was a year after the bubonic plague broke out in Sydney and it was about this time that the government started cleaning up the area by resuming the properties with the intention of demolishing them. The government allowed people, for a very cheap subsidised rent, to live in the old houses until they were going to knock them down.

As with most government projects that get punctuated by a few world wars, progress was exceedingly slow and by the 1970s the area was such a slum that it was all going to be knocked down, but the unions stepped in and banned work in the area to preserve the housing for the poor.

Since The Rocks are a very short walk to the most expensive real estate in Australia there is no way any of the long term residents could afford to buy the houses and the unions weren’t going to let them be knocked down or sold on to the rich.

The solution has been to sell the houses at a very reasonable price to the long term tenants in the hope that they will fix up the old houses. Trouble is that many of the people who live in subsidised housing can’t afford to fix up the dilapidated houses. Slowly but surely, yuppies are weaselling their way into the area and The Rocks has been steadily becoming gentrified since the 1970s, to the point it’s in danger of becoming yet another a “Disneyfied” tourist trap.

A note on the photo.

I took the shot with my 10mm lens, and as such, the tops of the tall buildings almost came to a point so I straightened the verticals (like I would’ve in camera, if I had been using a view camera) in Photoshop and that is why the very top of the buildings are a bit blurry because they have been stretched so much.

Bored with barbed wire on the bridge. Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2010

I bought a second hand Fuji S5 pro on ebay the other day, so I thought I’d wander around town and take some shots with it to see if everything was O.K. with it.

I’ve been feeling a bit low in energy lately so I figured I should get some exercise by walking from town hall to North Sydney, over the Sydney Harbour bridge. It’s not far, at only 4.5kms or just under 3 miles. Today was a warm sunny day and the views from the Harbour Bridge promised to be as beautiful as ever.

The road that goes over Sydney Harbour Bridge is about 50 metres or 160 feet above the water and because it is so high it was a popular spot to commit suicide, back in the 1930s during the depression, wire suicide barriers complete with barbed wire were installed in 1937 and have largely been a successful, if very ugly, solution.

Landmark structures like the Sydney Harbour bridge, not only attract the suicidal but also climbers.

 

Back when I used to rock climb in the early 1990s many of my climbing friends had climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was considered a doddle with spectacular views. In those days, the fine for climbing the bridge was only $200 and most of my friends climbed it at night and didn’t get caught. Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge was something I always wanted to do but unfortunately the fine went up to $1200 and that put me off. Nowadays the fine is $2200 and the bridge is covered with detection systems that make getting caught assured.

As much as I would’ve like to have climbed the bridge, I can understand why all the security has been stepped up and the fines increased. For example, years ago, my good friend Paul decided it would be a simply brilliant idea to climb the bridge with some friends after a heavy drinking session at a buck’s party. Needless to say, he fell off after only (and luckily) 5 meters (about 15feet), onto the railway tracks below, with his arm behind his back, smashing it so badly that his arm is now held together with about 6 steel bolts.

Thanks to all the recent terrorism around the world, there are now security guards and cameras all over the bridge as well.

 

Now, not only has photography been made difficult because of all the wire everywhere, there is the added paranoia of whether or not it’s considered a preliminary act of terrorism if one photographs any of these security measures, intentionally or not.

I guess me being a pasty white guy who doesn’t look like he’s from the middle east goes some way towards my cavities being left unprobed. After all the anti terrorism ads on TV, where people are encouraged to report suspicious activities, I wouldn’t recommend anyone who looks obviously middle eastern, take photos of anything other than the view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Because if the big brothers watching the security monitors thought some malicious reconnoitring was going on, it would be highly likely they’d get frog marched off by a nearby security guard, probably of middle eastern appearance (sometimes it seems like almost every second security guard in Sydney is from a Lebanese background), for a “chat” in an enclosed uncomfortable place.

All this talk about people of middle eastern appearance reminds me of once when my wife and I were at the airport about to go overseas, when a security guy asked for my wife to step out and be checked over with a hand held metal detector. Anyone who has met my wife, Engogirl will know she is the embodiment of sweetness and light and it’s obvious that she would’nt hurt a fly, never mind blow up an airplane full of people.

The security guard was so apologetic, saying that he had to pick people out at random. We told him we understood and that for appearance sake they can’t just pick on people of middle eastern appearance. He said, “you’re so right!” they get so mad, they just blow up!”…… “I mean … I mean, I mean, get so angry”. The poor guy was so flustered that he had said something that was accidentally so politically incorrect. We tried to reassure him that the situation was O.K. and we weren’t going to report him. Poor sod, what a crap job. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. As for me, I wish everybody was thoroughly searched before they got on a plane, particularly one I was on.

While I acknowledge that the various security measures in place on the Harbour Bridge are necessary, I just wish the view wasn’t so obstructed. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a very popular tourist destination and many people walk across it to see the views. Surely in this day and age of the consciousness that cities should be beautiful places to live, rather than being purely functional money making machines, a more up to date and pleasing barrier could be erected on such an important landmark?

A picnic with an engineer. On A-6206 near Hinojares, Spain. 2009

On our drive to Granada today we crossed over an unusual bridge so we decided to have a picnic near it with the bread and dried chorizo that was kindly given to us by staff from the El Curro hotel in Burunchel.

We had driven this way because of suggestions made by Maria del Mar, an extraordinarily nice woman who worked in the El Curro. It’s always great to make connections with locals and find the paths less travelled (by tourists like ourselves).

Sometimes travelling can feel a bit like being a slot-car that just follows a well worn rut. So sitting out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere in Spain, eating some delicious sausage looking at an incredible landscape with my wife the engineer seemed to be close to perfect.

To paraphrase my old friend Omar Khayyam

 Here with a loaf of bread some chorizo,
 a bottle of water, a bridge and thou
 Beside me chatting in the wilderness
 and wilderness is paradise now.

As we ate, we discussed the bridge and its design while bearded vultures soared far above us on the thermals over the surrounding hills.

I’ve learnt so much about concrete and how it’s used since I’ve known Engogirl. The bridge we were looking at was quite unusual in that its vertical members looked very slender with only thin horizontal members with no diagonal bracing to stop them warping. Concrete is very strong in compression but relatively weak in tension so the vertical members have to stay straight or it’s “all over red rover”.  The bridge was a manifestation of “less is more” in concrete.

Its not that Engogirl thought it was a bad design, it was just different and showed a desire to make a bridge that was more than just functional. Although the construction of the bridge looked quite rough because it had been made with formwork on site, suggesting that it was just a fairly cheap bridge of no real importance, it had lots of character. In fact it was quite beautiful in its own way.

The Valencia branch of the Oscar Niemeyer fan club. Spain. 2009

Engogirl is presenting a paper at a workshop on environmental hydraulics at the University of Valencia and we are staying near Valencia’s City of Arts and Science (Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias).

The city within the city is mostly the work of Santiago Calatrava and from where I stand I’d say he’s a fan of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

To my mind, nothing dates faster than a vision of the future. While I applaud the Spanish for their architectural daring, Calatrava’s designs look to me like Jurassic Park meets Space Mountain at Los Angles Disneyland. Sort of like if Oscar Niemeyer had been asked to design something influenced by dinosaur bones.

On one hand I like seeing unusual buildings and what Calatrava has designed is very spectacular, I felt that they already looked out of date as if they were some kind of vision of the future from 1957 and it surprised me that they were designed in the late 1990s.

Geeking out over the Sea Cliff Bridge. Between Coalcliff and Clifton, NSW, Australia.

Since my wife (Engogirl) is an engineer, specializing in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), we often visit bridges and dams just to geek over them. We go to so many dams and bridges that I even have categories for them in the menu on the left.   

Do not be fooled by the cute counternance because Engogirl has a brain the size of a planet

When my wife was at university I used to help her with her assignments (mainly taking photos of dams and drains) and over time I have learnt to enjoy and appreciate such seemingly unlovely concrete things.  As a matter of fact, even the drainage by the side of the road have become interesting because I know more about the reasoning behind their design and what goes into making them. I now notice things like the size of the slots in the drainage grates or the distance between the drains and the camber of the roads and how it affects the placement of the drains.

Last Sunday we decided to go and have a look at the new Sea Cliff Bridge between Coalcliff and Clifton just south of Stanwell Park where Lawrence Hargrave conducted his famous experiments in aeronautics with box kites.  Bald Hill in Stanwell Park, which overlooks the bridge is still a very popular place for people wanting to enjoy the reliable up-drafts.  On any weekend, there will be plenty of people who are either hang gliding, flying model gliders, or just plain gawking all along the sea cliffs in that area.

The Sea Cliff Bridge in the centre of the shot, just below the hang glider

For years there has not been a reliable way to follow the coast by road from Sydney to Wollongong, due to the steep terrain which caused frequent rock slides. After a very big rock fall in 2003, the original road was permanently closed and the Sea Cliff Bridge was commissioned.  Two years and $45 million later, the bridge was completed in December 2005.

The coastal road between Sydney and Wollongong has now become somewhat of a tourist attraction thanks to this beautiful bridge. It’s quite a nice walk across, as the bridge as it affords spectacular views of the pounding ocean below.

The Sea Cliff Bridge is such a sexy piece of engineering, that it has been featured in various ads and shows about engineering. Here’s two videos. The first video is a Shell and Ferrari commercial which shows an F1 driving over the Sea Cliff Bridge in the rain about halfway through the ad.

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The second video is a jingoistic and sexed up Australian engineering association promo about various engineering projects here in Australia it has some nice footage of the bridge, about halfway through.

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Vermillion Cliffs and the Navajo bridge. Arizona, USA

On the highway southeast from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon the highway passes through the spectacular Vermillion Cliffs on the way to Lee’s crossing

Vermillion Cliffs Arizona 

Also in the area and of particular interest to my wife as she is an engineer, is the Navajo Bridge.

Navajo bridge Arizona

The Navajo bridge is a single arch steel span of 834ft (about 250 m) long and its 467 ft (about 140 m) in height from the river.  In one word, spectacular!

Sydney Harbour at dusk. NSW, Australia

It’s quite easy when you live in Sydney to forget about how beautiful our harbour is and take it for granted. The greater metropolitan area of Sydney is a pretty big place covering 12,144 square kms (about 4,688 square miles) with a population of 4,254,900 and believe it or not, most of us don’t have harbor views from our homes. For many of us, going downtown is a time consuming drag that we tend to avoid in our leisure. The weather has been getting much cooler lately as winter approaches, which means there are far less tourists than usual around the Circular Quay area. So on the way to the theatre last night I took the opportunity to take these shots of Sydney Harbour.  It was enjoyable to walk around the waterfront without the summer crowds.

Circular Quay

The Sydney Opera still delights me every time I see it. It’s an amazing structure and it’s even more amazing that it was ever built when one considers how conservative Australia is at times. The large building to the right of the Opera House, known as, “The Toaster” is a testament to greed and poor taste combined with political short sightedness. How the Toaster was ever approved, when it was so universally denounced by the public, I’ll never know, but it seems such a bloody minded decision that I can’t help but feel that it has the stink of corruption about it.

Opera House and Toaster

And of course there is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, our beloved “coat hanger”.

Sydney Harbour Bridge