I have a distinct memory from some years ago biking from the Northwest Side of Chicago to the South Side. Coming down Milwaukee Ave. approaching The Loop through River North, I suddenly found myself weaving through stopped traffic. I turned a corner, onto La Salle Dr. and to my shock I was immediately staring at the very road I was traversing. This was the first time since moving to the city that I had seen the drawbridges up. I was awestruck even though I knew this happened a few times a year. Something about the road being in front of my face threw off my bodily sense of the real and the possible. Albeit cheesy, I thought of the city bending scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. “I guess I thought that the dream space is more about the visual, but it’s more about the feel of it,” says Ariadne played by Elliott Page. “My question is what happens when you start messing with the physics of it.”
In 1965, Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John Myer, professors of Urban Design, City Planning, and Architecture respectively at MIT wrote The View from the Road, a book grappling with the aesthetics of moving through the city and the landscape via car. They express a particular interest in combating the awful aesthetic aspects of moving through the landscape and note that
the apparent motion of objects can become a delight in itself. The welling up, splitting apart, and falling away of objects can become intricate dances when groups are seen together on a road of complex alignment. Landmarks may move across a background, rotate one way, then another, disappear and reappear, coincide or disperse. The road itself may feint, jog, swerve, or slide past them.
They recall familiar city vistas particularly of San Francisco, or seeing New York City from across the Hudson River, or the “sweeping turns” of approaching Boston from the Mystic River. However, “occasionally, when the road makes a sweeping turn or the view is very restricted, the visual field becomes a dynamic one, rotating, rushing, or growing,” they write. “This is a powerful if unsettling effect.” We have a psychological response to seeing the city move unpredictably.
Appleyard, Lynch, and Myer emphasize that navigating by road is a succession of familiar imagery, recognizable landmarks, and other types of “approaches to goals.” Architectural theorist Mark Wigley picks up on this idea. “The visual image literally has an architecture, and even gives an architecture to the city, a spatial order within which people have to position themselves,” Wigley writes. “The image of the city is a kind of map, and it is this map that is inhabited, not the physical fabric. People travel within their images of the environment. The space of the city is first and foremost a psychological space.” He doesn’t, however, believe that being lost is a total loss. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-90s when architecture was less prone to obvious landmarking and simultaneously wayfinding technology was emerging, he believed we could afford some disorientation without complete psychological distress or aesthetic distaste.
But whether disruptions in our expectations of being oriented are seen positively or negatively, they demonstrate that concepts underlie forms. When I happened upon the bridge being up the breakdown of these concepts was a thrill. The slippages in forms are alarming because the concepts are, after all, sometimes at odds with what the forms seem to be.
Sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his 1909 essay “Bridge and Door” that the door and the bridge are more than just physical structures, but spatial paradigms that embody the human conditions of connectedness and separateness. His invocation of the bridge is intended in both a physical and ontological sense. When we appreciate the bridge as a picturesque aspect of the landscape, we are admiring both its aesthetic qualities and the very idea of overcoming distance.
Simmel says that “the door speaks.” Closing the door is an illocutionary act signaling the intention towards separateness. Of course, since he is dealing simultaneously in the literal and the metaphorical, many signals of this intention are doors. The raised drawbridge is so uncanny because it is “dooring” the bridge so to speak, an odd concept but a compelling one because we feel it even if we can’t put it into words. The crowd that inevitably forms waiting for the bridge to go down inevitably watches the slowly unfolding scene. Maybe they find the river below becoming bridgelike for the ships inching along “picturesque” as Simmel describes literal bridges. But there is always something uneasy, menacing, or insidious about a closed door, or even more a slammed door, a barricade, a checkpoint.
Summer of 2020 saw massive uprisings throughout the country and beyond following the murder of George Floyd and suequent police violence. In August of 2020, ProPublica and Blck Club Chicago reported that “for the second time in three months, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered most of the bridges up at night to limit access to the Loop, Gold Coast and surrounding areas after an outbreak of property destruction and unrest,” and went on to point out that it “offered the clearest symbol of Chicago’s divisions.” This act made doors out of the very tenuous connection between east and west, a symbolic and literal race and class separation.
Block Club cites a watchdog report that concluded that “there was no advanced planning around raising the bridges, and officials who made the call didn’t appear to know how complex a process it would be” and that “officers pushed and beat protesters who were on bridges, escalating violent clashes.” The report by the City of Chicago Inspector General’s Office detailed the violence and bloodiness towards protesters who were, by some accounts, not told to disperse on the Wabash St. Bridge near Trump Tower. Moreover, demonstrators were effectively trapped in the Loop with suspended CTA service while a curfew was imposed. Block Club provided a link to the Inspector General’s report.
To reiterate the words of Wigley, the city is a psychological space. Deviations from the recognizable and the predictable are destabilizing, whether in thrilling, intriguing, anxiety inducing, or violent. “Messing with the physics of it” can be radical.
Appleyard, D., Lynch, K. & Myer, J.R., 1964. The View from the Road, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press for the Joint Center for Urban Studies of M.I.T. and Harvard University.
Bauer, Kelly, 2021 “Even Police Thought Raising Chicago’s Bridges Was A Bad Idea During Unrest, Watchdog Finds” Chicago, IL: Block Club Chicago. Accessed October, 2021
Dumke, Michael & ProPublica Illinois, 2020 “In Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago, Bridges Have Become Barricades,” Chicago, IL: Block Club Chicago. Accessed October, 2021
Simmel, Georg, 1994. “Bridge and Door” London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Journals: Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 11 Issue 1 pp 5-10
Wigley, Mark, 1996. “Lost in Space” in The Critical Landscape Michael Speaks (ed). Rotterdam: 010 Publishers