x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

City's newest bridge meets history

The new Sheikh Zayed Bridge has meaning beyond connecting the city centre to the mainland and the rest of the country.

May 2010: Construction of Span 7 begins on custom-made heavy-duty shoring under the main arches. In the background, Spans 4 through 6, between two crossbeams and supported by the smaller marina arches, are in advanced stages of construction.
May 2010: Construction of Span 7 begins on custom-made heavy-duty shoring under the main arches. In the background, Spans 4 through 6, between two crossbeams and supported by the smaller marina arches, are in advanced stages of construction.

The arch has a meaning beyond connecting the city centre to the mainland and the rest of the country

The Sheikh Zayed Bridge has been eight years in the making. When work began, in 2003, President George W Bush was poised to invade Iraq, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator in Illinois, face transplants were science fiction and J K Rowling still had three books to publish in her Harry Potter boy wizard series.

At times, the bridge has seemed like one of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, whose construction spanned decades and more, and were sometimes measured in the rise and fall of empires. None have felt this more than the long-suffering motorists of Abu Dhabi, whose view of its gestation has been assisted by the often sclerotic flow of traffic over the adjacent Maqta Bridge.

But now it is complete, and should be open for business in a matter of weeks. For those of us who make the crossing between mainland and island twice a day, there is a palpable sense of excitement and not just because it will reduce the daily commute and eliminate one of the most hazardous junctions in the country.

The Sheikh Zayed Bridge is a sign of things to come, like the Yas Island race track and the museums of Saadiyat Island. It is both figuratively and literally a bridge to the future. The design is described as a sinusoidal waveform, but visually it is like a great serpent or even a roller coaster (at least one observer has mistakenly believed that cars would be directed over the top of the great central arch, rather than the roadway underneath).

Barely half a century ago, the passage across the waterway to Abu Dhabi was made on foot or astride a camel and then only when the tide had fallen sufficiently. In the 1960s, the steel arch of the Maqta Bridge replaced the old causeway and was joined, a decade later, by the Musaffah Bridge. The Sheikh Zayed Bridge will connect to the main motorway as it comes in past the airport and from Dubai. It will feed directly into the new Salam Street highway that runs almost to the Corniche, connecting the centre of the city and its port to Saadiyat's cultural district.

That is the bridge's place in the city's infrastructure, but it has another role. Great cities are often defined by their bridges; they become a visual shortcut that immediately establishes where you are. Sydney has the Harbour Bridge, San Francisco the Golden Gate and in London, there is Tower Bridge, sometimes confused with London Bridge. New York has the Brooklyn Bridge and Florence, the ancient Ponte Vecchio.

Zaha Hadid's design, made solid by an army of engineers and construction workers, will surely do the same for Abu Dhabi. Indeed given that the architect is Iraqi-born, just as the Bosphorus Bridge connects Europe to Asia, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge is a new connection between the Middle East and the rest of the world.