There are certain works of art the body wholly understands before the mind kicks in with its distancing powers of disembodied detachment and analysis. In the Twin Cities, there is very little art in the public realm — in what we now call "the commons"– that does this. Most public art, strained through the cheesecloth of three or four bureaucracies, is earnestly mediocre, almost by necessity. Much of what wins competitions is "plop art," dutifully commissioned to meet the tithing requirement for one-percent-for-art public building projects.
I can think of a few exceptions –not many– where viscerally beautiful works have come to see the light of day as public art despite the pitfalls of the commissioning process. One of them is the Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand, by the artist and architect James Carpenter, the bandshell with the saddle-shaped roof of glass on Raspberry Island in the river off downtown St. Paul. Another (right nearby, actually) is the powerful "Floodwaters," the roiling torrents of cast bronze flanking the southern gateway to Harriet Island Park, by Jeffrey Kalstrom and Ann Klefstad. Yet another, a work beautiful against all odds, is one that was never primarily intended as sculpture but turned out to be more compelling to the senses than many things currently called that. It is the new Martin Olav Sabo Bike and Pedestrian Bridge that spans Hiawatha Avenue and the light rail tracks adjacent to it, just north of 26th Street in south Minneapolis.
The Sabo Bridge, named in honor of the congressman who secured federal funding for the project, is of a type known as a "cable-stayed bridge." Although they employ cables, the mechanics of cable-stayed designs are different from those of suspension bridges like the Brooklyn or the Golden Gate. A display panel on the bike path’s western approach to the bridge explains the design principle. From an engineering standpoint, a cable-stayed design presented the most elegant solution to the problem of spanning six lanes of traffic and two sets of light rail tracks without having to resort to intermediate support pillars in the middle of the road. The design wasn’t imposed on the site; it was inspired by the site’s constraints.
The first time I saw the bridge was when I drove under it one evening at dusk a few months before it was completed. Its structural logic made itself understood on first sight. I felt it right away in my bones, sensing the forces working through and upon it the way people sense the rightness of the lines of a boat. Every one of the elements, the incredible back-bent mast, the deck, the fanned-out cables, the backstays converging onto bulwarks rooted deep in the ground, gave expression to the insight of the biologist D’Arcy Thompson that "structure is a diagram of forces." The bridge’s structure correlates with something internal, with one’s felt understanding of the structural mechanics of one’s own body. The sensation of it being in some way analogous to the way you yourself are put together tempts me to call the bridge a work of figurative sculpture-abstract, but nonetheless a human-figural representation of the forces and counterforces; metaphorically, of a tug-of-war; a stevedore hoisting a pallet aloft with a block and tackle, a puppeteer, a fisherman casting a fly. It is what it is –a bridge– but it triggers a chain of associations. It arouses the imagination in ways that few works of public art seem able to do, inert with virtue as most of them are.
Call it a bridge or call it a sculpture, the new Sabo bridge is an inspired work, a piece of lyric engineering in the tradition of such masters of structural music as Santiago Calatrava, Pier Luigi Nervi, Eero Saarinen, and Frei Otto. Its elegantly tapered steel mast, backbent at an angle almost equal and opposite to the angle of its massive, similarly tapered concrete footing below the bridge deck, is a form sprung from the soul of Brancusi. The bridge is a stirring sight as you approach and go under the deck by car or light rail, and it doesn’t disappoint up close, when you walk or ride a bike over it. It is lovingly detailed: the workmanship in the steel and concrete is rigorous and clean, the care of the contractors readable in the panoply of the hardware, in the tensioning turnbuckles, tie rods, and railing cables, in the dramatizing spotlights mounted alongside the protective rubber boots on the ends of the bridge cables where they connect to the deck, in the backstay cables as their sinews converge in massive connectors to the concrete footings on the ground below.
Cyclists in colorful gear flash across the bridge like shuttles of a loom. The balusters of the bridge railings are shaped with a bend like the mast’s. The railings themselves—the thin tension cables that pass through the balusters–are like the lines of a musical staff. They make the balusters read like the bars on a musical score, and a little like the frets on a stringed instrument, which in a way this whole construct is. The bridge is a lyre, a harp strummed by the wind. Reach over the railing and touch one of the cables that hold up the span. You can feel it thrum.