When part of the Biblioteca Marciana collapsed during its construction in 1538 its eminent architect, Jacopo Sansovino, was immediately thrown into jail. A group of his influential friends, Pietro Aretino and Titian among them, managed to get him released on the condition that the architect himself pay for the needed reconstruction.
The problems that have plagued the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione since its long-delayed opening in 2008 over the western end of the Grand Canal haven't resulted yet in its complete collapse--but that doesn't mean that more than a few Venetians wouldn't be happy to see him behind bars. Instead, on November 13 Calatrava will be in a Venice courtroom to defend himself against the city's attempts to recoup 3.8 million euros for which the Veneto's Court of Auditors determined he is partly liable due to "huge errors" in his design and construction of the bridge.
In fact, Calatrava's bridge has been controversial since the day in 1996 that his commission was announced. Critics claimed there was simply no need for a fourth bridge over the Grand Canal in such close proximity to its third, the Ponte degli Scalzi, and that the roughly 4 million euros budgeted for the project could be much better spent elsewhere. As it turned out, by the time the bridge finally opened in 2008 the total bill came to at least three times that amount--and perhaps as much a five.
|In the distance is Venice's third bridge over the Grand Canal, the Ponte degli Scalzi, as seen from its fourth
It's not just that Calatrava's works are expensive to put up, they are also--according to the charges against him in Venice--absurdly expensive to keep from falling down. Carmine Scarano, the Regional Public Prosecutor in the Court of Auditors, is quoted in the March 5, 2013 Corriere del Veneto as saying that Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione is so badly designed as to be "suffering from a chronic disease." As an English bridge designer explains on his blog The Happy Pontist, "traditional Venetian bridge designs never venture beyond a span to rise ration of 7:1," as any greater ratio--resulting in a long, less humpbacked bridge--would place too much horizontal pressure upon the soft terrain on which the city is built. The long gentle arch of Calatrava's bridge in Venice has a span to rise ration of either 16:1 or 17:1 (depending on one's sources), and the mechanism he designed to compensate for this excessive horizontal thrust has proved inadequate to the task. As a result, constant monitoring of the bridge is required, along with expensive and unending maintenance.
|Calatrava's broken "egg"
Moreover, while the bridge's low broad steps allude to the shape of steps on early (and much smaller) Venetian bridges, they are spaced so irregularly that stumbles and injuries have been a regular occurrence since its opening. Reports in the world-wide press in late September 2008 noted that no fewer than 10 tourists had sought treatment for twisted ankles and other minor injuries in the first 20 days of the bridge's use. City officials sarcastically responded by simply blaming the tourists, whom they claimed have always been staggered by the city's beauty. But though I've passed over the bridge countless times myself, I still find it requires all of my attention not to mis-step.
|Even in dry weather many locals tend to avoid walking on the slippery glass panels
|This image from the Città di Venezia website might lead a few folks to think that the impracticality of glass steps is a fair price to pay for such a glowing vision of beauty--except, alas, I've never seen the bridge lit up like this
Given all of these problems, I sometimes wonder what the imperious directors of the old Republic of Venice would have done with an architect like Santiago Calatrava in the 16th century. No matter how unpleasant next week's trial may turn out to be for him, he should probably thank his lucky star that it's not taking place four or five hundred years ago.