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2 april 2017

I lived on an island – a pretty big one, Long Island – for quite a few years over the course of two decades, 1987-2008. In all that time, I rarely crossed a bridge to get to Long Island from the mainland or from other islands. I wasn't even a "bridge-and-tunnel" guy; I was limited to the tunnels, like some kind of blind mole rat.

Tunnels elide the experience of crossing a river or a strait. As Peter Bishop argues in Bridge, bridges can do that too: many mundane bridges are imperceptible. Only the big-ticket spans truly smack one with the experience of doing something unnatural, and those are the ones that become iconic. I've been lucky enough to cross some of those iconic bridges, whether driving myself, being driven, or occasionally (as with the Brooklyn Bridge) on foot. I've driven across the Golden Gate Bridge (that's fun in the fog), and I've taken a bus across the Øresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark (which has the unsettling effect of disappearing into the earth on an island halfway between the two countries). I've made almost a project of crossing the Mississippi River at every possible bridge, and I've almost completed the portfolio. Most of the Mississippi bridges are frighteningly high and even more frighteningly look like they were built a hundred years ago and maintained infrequently since.

We rarely pay much attention to bridges until they collapse. Many highway bridges in the US span streets, railroads, or other bridges. When they go out, as one did on I-85 in Atlanta while I was writing this review, their loss is dramatic; but we rarely sense a corresponding drama in their everyday use. Even the Golden Gate commute must be mundane for Marin suburbanites.

Bishop spends some time on those great iconic bridges, and some time on bridges as infrastructure, but his main interest seems to be in comprehensive projects of bridge-building that accompany continent-wide development of megastates. Bishop is Australian, and offers sharp analyses of railway projects that have spanned his continent. The closer we get to the present, the more respectful Anglo-Australians have been of aboriginal ways of perceiving the landscape. Yet basic conflicts remain to this day between a worldview that sees the irreducible complexity of a habitat, and one that sees the complexity of that habitat as something to be planed away in the construction of a modern transportation network.

Bishop compares problems of bridging Australia with similar ones inherent in bridging paths from China into Tibet – though here a different, increasingly imperial attitude characterizes the central government's appropriation of topography by means of bridges. These are stories we don't hear much about in the US, and it is interesting to see Bishop approach them via the historical contexts of the American transcontinental railroad and the wholesale transformation of Great Britain into a tracked and bridged commonwealth.

Bishop is also good on some real-life examples of surrealist bridging. Touted as connectors, bridges have brought many a community into existence, as with the city of Budapest (115-16). But bridges can also be excluders. Parts of the Croatian coast are separated by a Bosnian right-of-way to the sea. A long-planned bridge that may never be fully constructed would unite the two parts of Croatia as if the Bosnian territory did not exist (179). Similar overpasses link Israeli West-Bank settlements to Israel proper, traversing not rivers or railways but the existence of the Palestinians that these bridges elide (173).

Bishop talks about bridges as vantage points and as structures that people live underneath. There is little here, however, about life on bridges, as on the old London Bridge and the old Pont Notre-Dame in Paris, or on Florence's Ponte Vecchio. There were once shops on the Pont au Change in Paris; in Patrick Süskind's novel Das Parfum, at least, the shops collapse and take the bridge down with them. Bridges, in other words, are sometimes not mere roadways, or even prospects of cities; they can also be integrated into the street fabric itself.

Bishop's book may be ultimately a bit ambitious. Bridges, like many a phenomenon in the light of 21st-century theory, turn out to be everything and nothing and thus to blend into all other phenomena. Luckily a threat of applying Heidegger (42-43) never really plays out, but there is a sense that bridges must be all things to all people, and a little over 200 pages isn't enough to flesh that sense out. There's some repetition, and some gratuitious, if impressive, illustration that sometimes doesn't complement the nearby text. But Bridge is a fine introduction to the study of the ultimate mediating technology.

Bishop, Peter. Bridge. London: Reaktion, 2008.