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Desert Companion

Grace under pressure: How to appreciate the Colorado River Bridge

Colorado River Bridge

Few structures still stand tall in Southern Nevada after 75 years -- and fewer that do still leave you in awe. But standing on the Hoover Dam, it's still inspiring to peer over the edge into the river far below your feet. (Even more impressive is the fact this structure was conceived in four years with a total of 76 drawings - and without computers.) Now the newly opened Colorado River Bridge complements the dam's sense of power with a touch of grace.

That's complement, not compete. It's hard for anything to compete with the enormity of the dam -- besides the sheer canyon walls it spans. But where Hoover Dam relies on force of mass to inspire, the new Colorado River Bridge spans the canyon walls with a slenderness of form. Its arch frames the distant mountains while also recalling the dam's massive concrete backside. The bridge stands in sharp contrast to the bulk of the dam, enabling a dialogue between them.

However, outside that dialogue, the Colorado River Bridge (formally known as the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge) is also feat in itself. Slender upright columns supported off a graceful arch appear to suspend the bridge in air. The form should not just be seen as a means to speed travel to Arizona, but seen from the dam as you envision humanity's pure desire to overcome obstacles and dream.

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But with the concrete structure's simplicity of form, have we lost the intricate detailing of a steel bridge, with girders and beams that would have added both delicacy and drama? If it had been a cable suspension bridge, would its form be overshadowed by the dam's weight?

These questions aren't intended to detract from this engineering marvel, but rather to raise the question of the impact design has on our everyday lives. From objects we take for granted to our city roads, have we accepted just getting things done over potential aesthetic delight and function? For instance, what if the bridge had included a pedestrian bypass to a visitor's center or a restaurant hung from the apex of the arch? Can you imagine your astonishment overlooking the gorge or looking back onto the dam at night, lit in all its beauty? No more would we just have pictures of the dam taken from helicopters, but we ourselves could stand witness to its power and beauty. In solving everyday transportation issues, we cannot continue to ignore their inherent ability to inspire and celebrate life and travel.

On my recent trip to view the bridge, there was another admirer there who joked about the frightening prospect of bungee jumping off it. I much prefer my feet on the stability of the dam to appreciate this new engineering marvel - one mere feet from another Southern Nevada original we've called our own for 75 years.

Architect Eric Strain is principal of Assemblage Studio. Among his current projects is College Villas, a community-focused senior housing project in Henderson.

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