Home & Garden Columns

Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge Puts Redding on the Map

By Dorothy Bryant, Special to the Planet
Friday July 21, 2006


On Dec. 15, 2005 the New York Review of Books ran a long article on Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, written by architecture critic Martin Filler in the great tradition of NYR sneers. 

Almost no put-down was omitted: “overelaborate designs,” “obfuscate,” “theatrical aesthetic,” “a naivete similar to Disneyland.” There are references to a crafty “game plan” that involved hiring “a New York public relations firm,” which got Calatrava the commission to design the new Transportation Hub for the World Trade Center at Ground Zero. 

More dismissive adjectives include “kitsch,” “shallow symbolism,” and “underlying sentimentality,” which explains why (sniff) his “appeal to a popular audience makes perfect sense.” Some of Calatrava’s bridges and buildings are listed, like the Milwaukee Art Museum, as evidence of his “avian obsession” as well as his use of moving parts that sometimes malfunction. 

However, spread across the page above the article, as if mocking Filler’s judgment, is a breathtaking (to this ignorant member of the “popular audience”) aerial photograph of Calatrava’s pedestrian bridge, spanning the Sacramento River in Redding. 

Redding? Did I read that caption right? Redding? 

Bob and I are 70-plus Northern California natives, who have seen all the changes: orchards and rolling hills buried by freeways, housing tracts and shopping malls. Bummer. But we don’t romanticize what the freeways replaced—highways with occasional two or three-block stretches of a ramshackle “main street” of an undistinguished and indistinguishable “town” you had to drive through on your way to the natural beauties of the coast or the mountains. 

In between, the great agricultural valleys lay—in hellish heat or in bone-chilling-blinding winter tule fog. The bread basket of the world combined the virtual slave labor of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with the wasteland of his story “Chrysanthemums,” a portrait of a woman’s parched soul withering like her dying flowers. The current and spreading infection of shopping malls and housing tracts (where the more fortunate residents huddle throughout the summer, prisoners of their air conditioners) seemed consistent with the historic nature of the valley.  

But now, according to this condescending NYR article, there is, for better or for worse, something to see there. So in May (my cut-off point for entering that three-digit Fahrenheit hell) we drove four hours into the valley to Redding. 

If you go on the net, you’ll learn that the 700-foot walking bridge was conceived in 1995, largely financed and developed by the McConnell Foundation (which a friend called the brainchild of rich retirees who own property in Redding), that it cost $23 million, and involved various land swaps and buy-outs to create a 300-acre park preserve on the shores at either end of the bridge. 

Then there were complicated negotiations for federally mandated preservation of salmon spawning grounds—no pilings could be driven into the river bed. These preparations ate up half the costs before ground was broken in 1999. The bridge was completed in 2004. 

A Calatrava trademark is the soaring white wing (or sail?) at one end covered with a million broken pieces of Spanish tile, from which steel cables radiate like harp strings down to the bridge (whether decorative or structural or both, I don’t know). In the case of the Redding Bridge, the shadow cast by the wing actually indicates the time of day, hence the title Sundial Bridge.  

From the parking lot we could see the gleaming white wing piercing the sky; we used it as a guide post as we walked wide, wheel-chair accessible paths toward the bridge (other paths go off to hiking trails). The botanical gardens on either shore were not open to guided tours when we got there but we were able to wander around and see plantings and plans for developing the parkland preserve. 

We walked the short bridge span on a tread made of thick glass. (We didn’t stay to see it at night when powerful lights under the glass light up the whole span.) People walked, bicycled, pushed baby strollers, stopped to look down at the water or across at the forested land, or up at the hills and mountains beyond. Nothing to do on this bridge but hug your lover and look over the side and watch the water stream by, or chase your kids, or, perhaps meet your neighbor and talk? I wondered if, in this state where everyone is always on the move in a car, this short bridge—where we were all moving but slower—had, by design or by accident, become a new kind of town square. 

On July 7, the New York Times travel section Escapes devoted a page to “Redding, California,” verifying that the bridge had made the formerly “just another Podunk” town a tourist destination. It maps the town and surroundings, lists restaurants (pricey but definitely not serving the Velveeta-soaked chops typical of the old valley truck stops) that have appeared, and names some reasonably priced and comfortable hotels like the one we stayed in before driving on to Lassen Volcanic Park and the Lake Shasta Caverns.  

I confess that I take a certain old-Californian proprietary pride in the Redding Bridge. I don’t see its sharp, gleaming lines as a “Disneyland” violation of nature but as a contrasting, humanly-crafted homage to that landscape. We could do—and have done—worse. All my life I have longed for architecture that at least aspired to being worthy of the natural beauty of California. (How many times can you walk across the Golden Gate Bridge?)  

I’m told that the idea of the Redding Bridge inspired the green-tinted foot-bridge arching over the freeway just south of University Avenue. All right! What’s next?  

Oh, and I don’t have to tell you to save your trip to Redding for late September or early October. Japanese tourists show up even in Death Valley in August (no kidding!), but we know better.