China's Dragon King Bridge connects two architectural concepts
Bridges exist to transport people and traffic from one point to another in the shortest possible time. China has many examples of bridge-building expertise: the world's highest suspension bridge (Sidu River Bridge in Hubei province), and the longest and widest cable-stay bridge (Jiashao Bridge, which stretches across Hangzhou Bay), rate among the engineering marvels of the world.
Apart from a purely utilitarian function, bridges can also play a role both in defining cities - consider the Sydney Harbour Bridge or San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - and bringing communities together. Typically built by engineers, China's bridges could hardly be called iconic (the 56 replica bridges of Suzhou, which include a copy of London's Tower Bridge, don't count) but that may be about to change now that architecture has a hand in infrastructure development.
Dutch firm Next Architects has won international attention - and first prize in a global competition - for its design of a curvaceous new walkway in Changsha, a bridge variously described as crazy, beautiful, trendsetting and even one of the sexiest projects of 2014.
Next partners John van de Water and Jiang Xiao Fei led the project to design a pedestrian bridge that would be "more than just a connection", but a key public space within the Dragon King Harbour River development.
Recreational, ecological and touristic programmes will be integrated into the construction of the 150-metre-long, 24-metre-high bridge. Construction began in May and the bridge is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The three-dimensional design is modelled after the Möbius ring, a never-ending form whose end connects to its beginning.
"It is basically an endless stair," says Van de Water, explaining how construction limitations met architectonic ambition in a design intended to exploit the view of the landscape and lights along the river, as well as connecting a series of levels from mountaintop to the road below.
"So our ambition was not a shape, the ambition was an endless connection."
That was the starting point. What happened next was somewhat serendipitous.
As the architects began sketching out designs based on the Western concept of the Möbius ring someone mentioned that it was starting to look like a Chinese lucky knot, a highly significant form derived from ancient folk art."
As a European firm working in China for more than 10 years, this overlap was interesting for us," Van de Water says. "We didn't want to make a superficial reference to Chinese culture [such as with a dragon or yin-yang imagery]. We wanted to create something potentially more meaningful."
From there, the story unfolded. The bridge was envisaged as a place for young people to meet, and beaus to take their girlfriends. Could walking across it feel like climbing a mountain? And how about a romantic setting for wedding pictures?
"Then it started to gain significance by itself. That is something we architects cannot do; we can only provide the context," Van de Water says.
Interestingly, the bridge is one of the first structures in a new town that barely exists yet. Its design was possible, Van de Water says, because the local government considers bridges a significant part of the future development of the district.
In China, this is a rare example of a bridge playing a role in city branding. After convincing the client that the bridge should be more than a symbol - and winning the Changsha Meixi Lake Landscape Bridge Competition - Next was engaged as a consultant for another 12 bridges in the district.
Van de Water recently finished a book on what it means for a Western architect working in a different cultural context ( You Can't Change China, China Changes You), in which he outlines the potential for overlap of Western and Chinese architectural concepts.
The Dragon King Bridge, he believes, shows that it really can work out.