On a block that's a buffet of building styles, in a city whose future is in flux, the new Virginia Street Bridge really ties the room together
How do you design a new bridge for a growing city whose image is in transition?
For one thing, said Charla Honey, the city's engineering manager, "We wanted it to be consistent with the surroundings."
If mere consistency sounds like a low aesthetic bar to clear, consider that the site, the corner of Virginia Street and the Truckee River, is a buffet of architectural styles. Within a few blocks are the pre-war Washoe County Courthouse with its Corinthian columns; the Riverside Hotel's six stories of red brick Gothic Revival; the old post office, a blocky testament to 30s Art Deco; the modern tower that is City Hall; and The Pioneer Center, a mid-century geodesic turtle.
With all these style assertions, we were really going to need something to tie the room together.
We were also going to need something to bridge the varying concepts of what the Biggest Little City is about to become. Renoites seem to agree that we're on the verge of a growth spurt, but we don't seem to agree on exactly what's ahead, or what image we want to assert. "What does Reno want to be when it grows up?" is a phrase I hear in several different circles.
The design process began back in 2011, when the city formed a committee of "historic stakeholders," who were tasked with setting some aesthetic parameters. Committee members included reps from Nevada Department of Transportation, Reno Arts and Culture Commission, and several preservation societies. The committee considered about 10 different designs.
"A number of them were eliminated because of the size of the superstructure that would be required," Honey said. "Large things that would stick up far were thought to be inconsistent with the area."
These two designs were rejected early on. (IMAGES: City of Reno)
There were practical considerations also. The bridge would have to be three feet higher than the 100-year-old one it replaced so that it could meet flood regulations, and it could consist of only one span, as the former bridge's center pier had collected too much debris.
The remaining designs were put out for public comment. "Any way someone wanted to provide input, we would take it," said Honey. Hundreds of people commented at public meetings, online, and via fliers and forms. The idea was that the public's input on the bridge's design would be considered and the City Council would have the final say. It turned out that the public and the council agreed on the current design.
The new Virginia Street Bridge opened last week, and lo and behold, cohesion has been achieved. The structure consists of two graceful concrete arches connected by four-inch cables to a beam below the roadway. It's contemporary without being weird, elegant yet inviting, and extremely useable.
"It's very comfortable to walk on, the way the sidewalks get bigger, because it's all angled and curved," said photographer Dana Nollsch.
There's also room for creative expression. As people were milling on the bridge at dusk on opening day, waiting for the official lighting, there were selfie-takers galore and pro photographers with tripods ready to catch a long exposure. I saw one person grasp a cable with both hands, hoist herself up and do an upside-down split, possibly the bridge's first pole-dance move.
So, pole dancers, pedestrians and photographers like the bridge. How about design professionals?
Katherine Hepworth is a visual communications professor at University of Nevada, Reno. Her area of research is the political symbolism in logos and architecture.
"It's a nice focal point for the movement to, for want of better word, clean up downtown," Hepworth said. "Politically it is a smart, symbolic gesture on the part of Mayor Schieve, to have the bridge not only redone but redone in a style that is contemporary of big cities." She characterized it as minimal but "very architecturally striking."
She added, "It seems to me anecdotally that this project is a symbolic marker, a representation, it's like an aspirational thing, indicating the direction the city wants to take."
There's been a bridge at this site since 1859. PHOTOS: City of Reno
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