Irony Alert: the barrier fencing – an addition that most heritage advocates and others feared – became the needed justification for the restoration of Burrard Bridge’s best heritage feature.
More backstory: Burrard Bridge was over-designed – at least for its time. Since it was being built during the Depression of the 1930s, it could have justifiably been much more utilitarian.
But its origins were in the late 1920s, as another recommendation of the Bartholomew Plan, where the bridge would be a gateway to the west side, to the downtown and, from the water, to False Creek, even though that was still an industrial basin. As a public works project, it was a chance to make an optimistic statement about the city.
So Sharp and Thompson, architects, were commissioned to come up with something special in the Art Deco styling of the time, with abundant references to the emerging metropolis of the West Coast, its nautical history, and subtly, a homage to the soldiers of The Great War, some for whom, like Major J.R. Grant, the bridge’s engineer, it was still a recent and personal memory.
Given the view to English Bay, even the concrete balustrades were designed so that at a certain speed for automobiles, the railings would seem to disappear.
Don Luxton, the heritage consultant, recognized the obligation to be rigorous in meeting heritage standards for such a singular engineering and architectural work, even at additional cost. The balustrades had to be completely rebuilt, and testing for the new ones was extensive. Three different precast concrete companies were commissioned. Details had to be consistent with the original design, with a high level of finish (even ironically the original rough finishes in the form work, done with wooden planks.)
But there was no budget for the concrete posts and lamps that decorated the balustrades and provided pedestrian lighting. Still, the bridge as much as possible would be restored to its original look … until those concerned with suicide prevention convinced council that barrier fencing (known as ‘means prevention’) should be added to the bridge. The proposal horrified some, who could see that such a structure would profoundly alter the look and feel of the bridge deck. Council, after hearing concerns but sticking with the requirement for a barrier, told stakeholders to come back with a design all could live with.
The first schemes were not good. “We hated all of them,” says Luxton. “Guantanamo” was the description of architect Roger Hughes on the Urban Design Panel, dismissing the idea of a long horizontal fence of metal bars. Without some vertical breaks, there would be no relief, no rhythm against the skyline.
But there was a solution: if the original posts supporting the lamps were added, the fence itself would not dominate so much. And so the money was found to do so.
Luxton gives credit to James Emery of Iredale Architecture, the architect on the bridge project, with doing a masterful job of making the fence work. He designed the lightest, most delicate structure that could possibly work, even though it was a challenge to construct because of its very lightness. (The bars, for instance, are set far enough part to allow cameras to get a clear shot.)
The result in the end was better than everyone thought it would be. Some even believe it’s part of the original design.