Bridges are a great paradox, they not only use nature against nature, but magically the best examples do not defeat or damage nature but enhance it, and, in ways that are sometimes hard to fathom, achieve a deep harmony with their surroundings.
— Dan Cruickshank, Bridges
In art forms we see frequent attempts to incorporate the past into the present and offer up something for the future. Painters, poets, architects, composers, photographers, novelists, choreographers, comedians, filmmakers and sculptors build on the ideas of others, paying homage even as they create something new. They steal like artists, as Austin Kleon claims. They blur and elide. It is like the photographs that were briefly popular earlier in 2014 as we commemorated the D-Day landings: modern-day images of Normandy beaches blended with wartime shots of the same locations from 1944. It is a Modernist idea, holistic in scope and intention: all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. Ideas co-opted from science and woven into the artistic works of people like Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges. Cultural hopscotch, the embracing of diversity, the bridging of borders — east-west, conscious-unconscious, public-private, craft-industry — all prompting creativity and innovation.
We are social animals, and one of the ways we have learned throughout human history is by means of imitation, repetition and refinement. We were doing this before we had speech, painting or writing. We copy what we perceive to be necessary to our survival. We copy what we like. We copy what works, making adjustments when we come across something better. But also because we inevitably make mistakes, seek variations and attempt personalisation. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture, describes this as a form of visual theft, echoing the views of Kleon. It is one of the defining features of human history and the longevity of our species. We bridge back to what went before and innovate for the future. We can see evidence of this in our great cities. London, for example, serving as a palimpsest in bricks and mortar.
With a bridge — both literal and metaphorical — either/or is replaced by and. With a bridge, it is no longer a case of here or there but here and there. Not in or out but in and out. Not us or them but us and them. Not past or present but past and present — and future too. You can see the metaphor applied in professional cycling. A rider bridges the gap when they ride off the front of the peloton and catch up with the breakaway riders. They bridge across through both time and space. When they make their move, they are simultaneously part of the peloton and part of the breakaway. They are in both places and in no place. Standing above the River Thames, I am on both the North Bank and the South Bank and in neither place.
[Photo credit: Pont du Gard, Richard Martin, August 2014]
In our moment, in our time, we complete building the bridges from the past to the present even as we begin working on the bridges to the future. We look both backwards and forwards at the same time, learning from our forebears, sense-making and amplifying, while exploring how our knowledge and work can benefit future generations. We advance to repeat. The result is a spiral-like sense of time. This can have both positive and negative implications.
In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux draws parallels between our various organisational models and the history of human consciousness. He highlights the accelerated changes of the past couple of centuries. Crucially, though, he draws our attention to the fact that many of these models exist concurrently. That it is not simply a case of linear, evolutionary progression from one model to another. That, in fact, conscious choices can be made to move from an apparently progressive, networked-style of model back to a command-and-control centralised regime. We do not destroy our bridges as we move forwards. The option always remains to move in either direction. If the mood takes us, we can move backwards in time and try again, develop a different pattern or repeat the same one. From city state, to nation state, to union of nations and back again.
Consider this scenario, for example. A financial collapse is followed by an extended period of economic recession. Political extremists make their move, with a notable swing to the right. Scapegoats are sought for the financial woes. Immigration becomes a hot topic. Nationalist rhetoric is prevalent, permeating both media and politics. Anything that departs from the ‘ideal’ promoted by these right-wing extremists is treated with suspicion and disrespect. Trust is eroded. Simmering resentment boils over, manifesting itself in popular uprisings and armed conflict. Is this Europe in the 1930s or the West in the 2010s?
Consider too the spiral like progression from a nomadic existence to one based on settlements. Then back again to global nomadism enabled by technological advancement. With WiFi and mobile technologies, where you work is largely irrelevant. The hyperlink opens up multiple opportunities for working in different times, places and with different business partners. The hyperlink is our digital bridge.
We have choices in which direction we build our bridges. We can proceed in the same direction as the one that arched from the past to our present. Or we can twist the turntable a couple of notches and build in another direction. Indeed, in multiple directions, constructing a network of bridges. A web of potential and multi-way influence.
In his study of bridges, Dan Cruickshank observes that, ‘bridges are, in their way, a form of alchemy — they transform, they bring life.’ For me, they epitomise Lois Kelly’s observation that ‘our work is our art.’ They are the product of hard labour and artistic vision, merging science, engineering, design and aesthetics into incredible structures. The bridge is a symbol both of choice and connection. We determine in which direction we wish to travel. Which connections we wish to establish between people, places and knowledge.