It started out a bit shaky — and we mean that literally, as you'll read below — but the Millennium Bridge in London has become and important and much-loved part of London life. This modernistic pedestrian bridge connects the north and south banks of the Thames in a real human-scale way, brining the two parts of the city closer together than ever before.
The bridge itself is a work of art. And it should be, since sculptor Anthony Caro was part of the design team. It's also fitting that the bridge directly connects two other important monuments of art in London — the Christopher Wren masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, on the north bank, with the Tate Modern Museum and its brand-new extension on the south bank
Historically, London's south bank was always the wrong side of the river. This started with the Romans, whose main settlement was on the north bank of the Thames. Today, the Roman town is the City of London, or just "The City".
The north city became the centre of culture, government, and finance.
The poor lived on the south, lowlifes frequented the area, and later, as England industrialized, it became a sort of commercial wasteland. It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that Londoners began to look south with a different eye, and revitalization began.
Now the Millennium Bridge takes you to a vastly different south bank of London. Immediately in front of you is the Tate Modern Museum, housed in a former power station with the original chimney intact. Just behind it is the new multi-story museum extension.
Turn left or right to stroll along the river on Bankside Walk, a pleasant pedestrian way with lovely views of The City on the other side. To the left, by the way, is the accurately-reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, directly next to the Tate Modern.
As you stroll back across the Millennium Bridge towards The City, you'll see St Paul's Cathedral magnificently framed between the upright members of the bridge.
The idea was this. "London's third millennium is coming up," they thought to themselves in the later 1990s, "we need a celebratory monument." And since there hadn't been a bridge built over the Thames in 100 years, why not a new pedestrian walkway to connect The City to the up-and-coming south side?
Yes, everyone's on board. A team of architects, engineers, and a sculpture, designs a structure that is modern, sleek, and groundbreaking. A new type of support system is used that allows the bridge to be only about one-sixth the height of a typical suspension bridge. Sleek and modern.
Thee Millennium Bridge in London opened two month late (in June 2000) and about $3 million over budget (for a total of about $26 million), but it was a beauty and everyone loved it.
Until they walked across it.
For the bridge swayed. Older people had to grab on to the handrails. Other people felt motion sickness. Two days later the bridge closed until $8 million of repairs could be completed. But the story ends well. The engineers discovered that the bridge and its pedestrians had a sort of feedback effect. Every bridge sways a little bit, but on the Millennium pedestrians would unconsciously alter their walking pattern to compensate for the sway and this, in turn, made the bridge sway even more! Once they had figured that out, they were able to fix it.
Twenty months later the bridge re-opened to delighted walkers and it was completely swayless. Today it's known for its clever and pleasing low-rise design, the steel and aluminum construction, and even for the nifty handrails that deflect wind up over our heads, instead of buffeting us about.