When Santiago Calatrava was first commissioned by Venice in 1999 to design the Ponte della Costituzione, it was meant to be a dramatic gesture imbued with symbolism: the first new bridge to cross the Grand Canal in 75 years, literally connecting the city’s past to its future. It would take nine years and nearly twice the original budget to realize this future, but that’s pretty standard, both for Italy, a country known for its oppressive bureaucracy, and for Calatrava, whose firm is known for delivering projects to cities rife with delays, cost overruns, excessive upkeep, and inevitable litigation. Venice is part of an exclusive club within that club that includes at least four cities or clients that have taken or threatened legal action against Calatrava over the past decade. The Ponte della Costituzione is unique, though, in that it has allegedly caused bodily harm. The bridge is the scene of “almost daily” falls, according to one city official, and this structure designed by someone known for his skeletonlike forms has managed to break at least two people’s actual bones. That’s all changing now, the New York Times reports: After years of lawsuits, the city has finally made a decision to replace the bridge’s glass-paneled “pavement” with stone.
The bridge, opened in 2008, is somewhat of a stylistic departure for Calatrava, who is best known for ebulliently sculptural suspension bridges and bleached-rib-cage buildings. (The red steel underside of the Ponte della Costituzione does look a little like a gutted whale, but you can only really see this from a boat traveling below.) I was in Venice for the 2012 architecture biennial, when the slippery bridge had already gained quite a bit of notoriety, and when I went to see it, I noticed several people, clearly architects, inspecting its surface on the ultimate design Schadenfreude pilgrimage. Just crossing the bridge in dry conditions, I was shocked at how easily my sandals glided across the glass. But it’s not just the lack of friction that’s the problem; the bridge itself creates an optical illusion. At the apex, the panels of glass lie flush to evoke a freshly Zamboni’d surface, yet on the inclines, they are staggered into shallow, unpredictably spaced steps. It’s extremely difficult to discern, either by eye or by feel, when and how this starts to happen as you descend. For years, the bridge was stuck with not-so-artfully-applied striped CAUTION tape; now, there are giant official warning signs nudging people toward the center of the bridge, where a thin band of stone provides a suitable, yet narrow, strip of grip.
Calatrava was first sued by the city in 2014, after a series of eight glass panels meant to be replaced every 20 years broke after four. One prosecutor described the bridge as an “unbelievable chain of errors,” and in 2019, a Roman court found Calatrava guilty of “macroscopic negligence” and fined him €78,000. Yet Calatrava has maintained the bridge’s (and his own) integrity. Before that judgment came down, he told The Architect’s Newspaper that the bridge was “no more slippery than other parts of the city” — a city that, it should be noted, was largely built 800 years ago. Still, as the cases made their way through the courts, the city attempted various mitigation efforts. The steps were covered in resin nonslip strips because the city couldn’t use salt to de-ice the glass in winter months. (Venetians posted photos of themselves wearing skis on the bridge during snowstorms to hit the point home.) In 2013, the bridge was retrofitted with a bright-red orb-shaped lift that was eventually removed because it was too slow and too stifling inside and perhaps because it resembled a maraschino-cherry garnish traveling over the canal. (However unsuccessful, this was at least a move toward some semblance of accessibility in a city where nearly everything requires stairs. The bridge is otherwise impassable in a wheelchair.) In 2018, more parts of the bridge were laid with trachyte, the locally quarried stone that paves a majority of the city’s streets. And now, all the walkable glass will be replaced with this stone, although that won’t necessarily solve the odd spacing of the steps.
What happened with the Ponte della Costituzione isn’t even Calatrava’s first pedestrian-bridge misstep — in fact, he repeated the exact mistakes he made on a Bilbao bridge completed just before it, proving that basic walkability isn’t his major concern. Bilbao’s Zubizuri footbridge, completed in 1997 to connect the city’s downtown to the new Guggenheim, is made from similar tempered-glass planks that caused slips and shattered until the city installed rubberized flooring over the glass. (The glass panels cost an estimated €250,000 to replace, according to a 2007 city report, but Bilbao didn’t sue Calatrava; in fact, Calatrava sued Bilbao for making unrelated modifications and ended up winning €30,000 in damages.) In New York, the polished white marble of the Oculus at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is also notoriously slick underfoot when wet, which shouldn’t have been a problem except that the skylight kept leaking. It is also, in places, chipping and crumbling under the footsteps of commuters; Grand Central is a century older, and the floor is in better shape. Both of those surfaces, like that of the Ponte della Costituzione, seem like major oversights when they should have been the structure’s metaphorical bedrock.
In one of the Venice-bridge rulings, a lower court at first sided with Calatrava’s argument that “incorrect use” of the bridge, in the form of rolling carts, is what damaged the steps. (The city has proposed bans of rolling carts as well as hard-wheeled roller bags but has not strictly enforced such rules.) The higher court ruled that Calatrava should have known better when selecting such fragile materials, particularly due to the location of the bridge, which is directly adjacent to the city’s only train station. But he also should have known better when it came to the design, because it takes about 15 minutes of observation at any bridge in Venice to see someone yanking their belongings over another ill-suited, antiquated surface. To build a brand-new bridge in one of the world’s most famous tourist cities that is not suited to basic, globally established tourist behavior demonstrates a fundamental arrogance — and a deep misunderstanding of the job.
Editor’s note, 1/5/2022: After publication of this story, the office of Santiago Calatrava sent this statement: “Ponte della Costituzione has been highly praised by the city of Venice and its users since opening in 2008, becoming one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. The original glass paving installed on the bridge consisted of an anti-slippery upper surface that complied with all local regulations and was tested and considered suitable by all control departments of the administration. In the daily use of the bridge, the inadequate use of certain heavy elements or even acts of vandalism have led to the breaking of some glass panes of the original flooring, which unfortunately were later replaced with inadequate glass. In the current situation, our office supports the Municipality’s substitution of glass panes for trachyte stone paving slabs, consistent with the bridge design and the surrounding cityscape to maintain its beauty and functionality.”