Book Reviews

D. Plowden, Bridges: The Spans of North America

D. Plowden, Bridges: The Spans of North America. Series: European Contributions to American Studies. London and New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, 328 pp. US $ 75.00 cloth ISBN 0-393-05056-4

Wilson P., and A. Poussart, Montréal, par ponts et traverses. Québec and Montréal, Éditions Nota Bene and Pointe-á-Callières, 1999, 94 p. CAN $ 22.00 ISBN 2-89518-017-2 and Clusiau, E., Des toits sur nos rivières. Les ponts couverts de l'est du Canada, Montréal, Hurtubise-HMH, 2000, 117 p., CAN $ 39.95 ISBN 2-89428-420-9

A constant traveller through the years, David Plowden is an U.S. photographer and the author of some twenty books (but sadly, half of that number are now out of print). One of his most recent books, Bridges: The Spans of North America, appears in the series "Norton Professional Books for Architects & Designers"; it is a wonderful tribute to the visual beauty of countless bridges, with some 185 b&w photographs that he has taken since the late 1960's. This outstanding piece is not just an art book with lots of images; texts take most of the pages in the seven sections.

In the first two chapters, we follow a chronological history of bridges in the United States, from the early stone bridges, wood bridges and some covered bridges. Impressive arch bridges like the Great Stone Bridge (completed in 1883) on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and The Rockville Bridge (completed in 1901) in Pennsylvania are shown (pp. 24-27). Here and there, we also discover old posters or plans of bridges made in the late 19th century, often taken from the Smithsonian Institution archives (pp. 82-86).

The following sections present more familiar structures (in iron and concrete) for famous cases like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate, the very long Transbay Bridge in San Francisco (pp. 258-261), but also some lesser known, although spectacular structures such as The Alsea Bay Bridge in Waldport, Oregon, which is so long it takes two pages to be shown (pp. 318-9). There are not only immense structures that are shown; we also see with delight some little bridge from a New England alley, or the small bridge over the South Branch of Raritan River in New Jersey, that was destroyed in 1978 (p. 83). In fact, all styles of bridges are represented. Plowden's comments tell the story of each of the bridges, how they were built, the steps and problems encountered. Among recent examples shown here are The Clarck Bridge in Alton, Illinois, which was completed in 1994 (pp. 282-3).

Although it is difficult and perhaps unfair to range such a fine book into a category, I would say the Plowden's Bridges could rather be ranked into an "art book" for the photographs, coming with detailed and informative texts about architecture, geography and space. David Plowden's style can be seen as "classic": he shows the bridges from a general point of view, often at dawn, maybe to avoid the presence of persons, cars or trains. About none of the photographs gathered here were taken during night time. Some photographs highlight the lines, the harmony on compositions and visual perspectives, for instance in that impressive aerial view of almost ten bridges on the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh (p. 227).

I would have two quibbles to express about that huge book. First, there are no indication when the photographs were taken; we only find the years when each bridge was completed. Secondly, the book is not exhaustive and its title could be misleading. I agree that bridges really are the spans of North America, but most of the pictures show bridges in the United States, with some examples in one Canadian province, on the Fraser River (British Columbia) (pp. 145, 192, 225, 277) and none in Mexico. Therefore, there are important Canadian bridges which are missing here: the "Pont de Quebec" near Quebec City, that remains the longest cantilever bridge in the world, is mentionned here and there but not shown (pp. 173-177; 246-250). Similarly, The Confederation Bridge that leads to Prince Edward Island is double length of the longest U.S. bridge; that Canadian tour de force is mentioned but not shown here (p. 330). Two fine photographs of the New Jersey Turnpike Bridge and the Bayonne Bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey are quite similar; I would add another example from Canada which is seem like : the bridge Laviolette, on the St. Laurent River in Trois-Rivières (p. 274).

I would suggest two complements to Plowden's fine book, in order to cover other parts of North America that were overlooked here. First, I would think of photographer Éric Clusiau's Des toits sur nos rivières. Les ponts couverts de l'est du Canada, (2000), which is a nice illustrated book in French about covered bridges in eastern provinces in Canada. Most photographs are in color, it includes among famous ones the Hartland Bridge in New Brunswick, Canada, on the St. John River, near the Maine border, that is presented as "the longest covered bridge in the world (p. 21). We also see many covered bridges in Québec, many from the early 1920's, mostly in rural zones. Because of the quality of the pictures, that book would be appealing even for a reader who does not understand French.

Another fine example of a book about the history of bridges in Canada, Pierre Wilson and Annick Poussart's Montréal, par ponts et traverses (1999) [Montréal, by Bridge and Crossing], is an exhibition catalogue that gives a fine, historical presentation of the twenty bridges built around Montreal which, as Manhattan, is an island. That exhibition was presented in Montréal at the museum "Pointe-á-Callières. Musée d'histoire et d'archéologie de Montréal", in 1999. With some 250 small b&w photographs, the book tells the history of all the bridges crossing the St. Laurent River (in the Montreal region). The oldest photographs are from 19th century, but most of them are from the 1930's and 1960's, showing the making of each bridge: the most important projects depicted here being the "Pont Victoria", the "Pont Jacques-Cartier" and the "Pont Champlain". However, that small book would appeal more to historians than students in visual studies or architecture.

Although not comprehensive (it does not have to be), David Plowden's Bridges: The Spans of North America is a gorgeous book that will be instructive for geographers, architects, academics in urban studies, and art lovers as well. Many of the photographs are beautiful. The publisher (W. W. Norton & Co.) has to be acknowledged and thanked because of the high quality and exceptional definition of all photographs, always shown in a large format. In sum, all these three books show fantastic bridges, often in regions that are not well known, even among many Americans. That unplanned mix even proves to bring three fine complements for bridge lovers : there are no example appearing in two or more of these books.

Yves Laberge, Ph.D.
Québec City, Canada