Having been so dismissive of the design of the Spooner Street Bridge over the Southwest Bike Path, I really want to give credit where credit is due -- for the new bridge on East Washington Avenue, which I photographed recently.
It's truly spectacular. The East Washington Avenue Bridge, designed by Milwaukee's HNTB Corp., is not only about getting from one place to another, but is also a work of architecture that is rapidly becoming a destination itself (especially for photographers). If you want to really see it and feel it, take a moment to get out of the car and walk around its spaces, including the bike and pedestrian paths on both sides of the river, bridged by these vaulting, graceful spans. In the flickering light of the reflected ripples in the water, it's like an aquatic cathedral down there.
You may end up finding more than a passing resemblance to elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style. You and me and "Kent Williams.
I'm standing on the pedestrian/bike path just below the brand-new Prairie Style bridge on East Washington Avenue. The Yahara River flows gently by, the occasional motorboat rustling the placid water. And the underside of the bridge, with its series of low-lying arches, creates the effect of an indoor swimming pool, a natatorium.Williams, the film critic for Madison's alternative weekly, Isthmus, has been carving out an alternate (and award-winning) identity as a thoughtful, insightful writer on architecture. Be sure to read his entire essay, "He's back: Madison finally embraces Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style architecture." Not only is there more about Wright and the bridge, but Williams examines a number of new projects and the degree to which they may have been influenced by the Prairie Style, including the renovation of the Dane County Regional Airport terminal -- "less Prairie Style than Prairie Styling." Also, don't miss his conclusion about the "Frank Lloyd Wright house" he grew up in and what it says about Wright's lasting influence on the way Americans live. It's a beautifully written passage and a graceful tribute.
And the bridge over the Yahara, once an afterthought, a slight rise in the road on your way into town, now feels like a true gateway to the city, framing the state Capitol off in the distance and bringing an element of dignity to the proceedings. Driving by in a car, what you notice are the lantern-topped columns, that and the large planters that seem to have been brought over from Monona Terrace. On foot, you can walk over to one of the four corner lookouts and watch the river traffic — boats, bikes and bipeds — pass by. But the best place from which to view the bridge itself is from down here, where the vertical columns and the horizontal span resolve themselves into a pleasing composition, and where the various elements can be seen to engage in a little spatial play, the corner lookouts sheltering the paths below, the columns forming various sets of two and four, depending on where you're standing.
Allusions to Wright's work abound. The lantern-topped columns, with their incised ornament, evoke — to me, anyway — the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, which famously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then was demolished in 1968. The ornamental motif itself, an abstraction of a sumac plant, was perhaps borrowed from the Dana House in Springfield, Ill., where it appears in a profusion of T-square variations. And all that creamy beige (the bridge itself) and rec-area green (the railings) are offset by discreet touches of Wright's trademark Cherokee red. Surely that alone would have inclined him to accept this belated apology from a town that didn't always know what to make of the genius in its midst. That he was a great architect was undeniable. Just ask him. Or just look at his buildings. But it must have been one of the great disappointments of Wright's life that so few of those buildings are in Madison.