A new exhibition wants visitors to look again, peering on, under and even inside the structures spanning the River Thames. Without bridges, the show argues, London as we know it would not exist. “Bridges can often make a city what it is,” said Lucinda Grange, an adventure photographer who sneaked inside London Bridge and took images that appear in the exhibition of artworks at Museum of London Docklands. “What would New York be without Brooklyn Bridge?”
Yet London’s most famous bridge is also the biggest letdown. London Bridge — of “falling down” nursery-rhyme fame — is a dreary concrete-and-steel structure that has been disappointing tourists since it opened in 1973. The ancient London Bridge is long gone, and a 19th-century version is now a tourist attraction in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
Many visitors confuse London Bridge with the more impressive Tower Bridge, whose picturesque towers grace countless postcards. Grange said bearing the London Bridge name is “like being called Paris Hilton if you’re not Paris Hilton. No matter how good you look at the party, you’re going to be a disappointment.”
The first version of London Bridge was built by Roman invaders in about 50 A.D. For 1,700 years it was the city’s only bridge. Today London has 35 bridges, but with a few exceptions — pastel-painted Albert Bridge, silver spear-like Millennium footbridge — they are utilitarian rather than beautiful. London is a city of relentless change, and many of the structures haven’t lasted long.
As a result, there is something ghostly about some of the paintings and photographs in the exhibition. One early photograph, taken in 1845, shows the Hungerford suspension bridge built by pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s doubly haunting — the bridge lasted little over a decade, and the photo is so fragile that it will be displayed in a darkened room. Visitors can switch on a light to take a quick look at it.
Bridge-building continues to push the boundaries of engineering. The Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 — then shut for two years of tweaking after the first people to use it noticed an alarming wobble.
The latest audacious proposal comes from Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the 2012 Olympic cauldron and London’s new double-decker buses. He plans to build a plant-lined pedestrian “garden bridge” over the river in the next few years.
The exhibition explores bridges’ beauty, but also their dark side, as places associated with drudgery and death. Many modern London workers can relate to T.S. Eliot’s image in “The Waste Land” of commuters trudging across London Bridge: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”
But exhibition curator Francis Marshall said he was inspired by odes to beauty such as William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” which begins: “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”
“When you’re on a bridge, that’s when you see London,” Marshall said. “That’s when you feel, ‘Now I live in London.'”