A bridge so far
IT’S BEEN a great week for engineering. On Wednesday scientists demonstrated the extraordinary capabilities of probably the most complex and largest machine ever made, the Large Hadron Collider, by identifying evidence of Higgs bosons. On Monday Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev “unveiled”, though that hardly seems the right word, the breathtaking new $1 billion bridge that links the far east city of Vladivostok to the small island of Russki.
The 3.1-kilometre cable-stayed bridge has the longest central span of any in the world, supported by its two record-breaking pylons. At 1,104 metres that span is 16 metres longer than China’s Sutong bridge. Its 320- metre-tall pylons are just short of the Eiffel tower, while among the 168 steel cables that support the road are also some record-breakers, at 582 metres long.
Unlike a traditional suspension bridge, the cables of which hang vertically from one suspended between the pylons, the cable-stayed bridge has its cables linked from the road directly to the top of the pylon like the stays of a ship’s mast. 3,700 tons of steel cable support a road 70 metres above the sea that is shaped aerodynamically like the upturned wing of a plane so that it will not fly away. The bridge is built to withstand hurricane-force gales, temperatures from -31 to +37 degrees, and ice formations in winter of up to 70cm thick.
There’s something of the folly to the whole project, however, a bridge of this gigantic scale built to an island with a population of only 5,000. Delays and accidents have dogged construction, and there have been allegations of corruption, even murder. The bridge caught fire in December, and two weeks ago heavy rain partly destroyed an access road. Conceived in the golden days of Russia’s oil boom, its ostensible purpose is to provide access to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on the island on September 1st, the preparations for which are reported to be costing Russia $20 billion.
An economic turn to trading with the booming Asian markets is seen as crucial by Russia which hopes that Vladivostok can be its gateway to the east. Russki island will now also be the site of an international university which Russia hopes will attract students from Asian countries, and the site for luxury property for the super-rich. The bridge is perhaps best described as the architectural equivalent of bling.
But, begrudgers notwithstanding, it is a triumph, a glorious, beautiful expression of human ingenuity and engineering genius at its best. Of the belief all is possible.