Tryon Bridge Beacons Beckon
By William Morgan
The Tryon Bridge Beacons signal a remarkable design event for Charlotte. North Carolina’s largest city may be wealthy, but it forever seems to be one of those Sun Belt skylines in search of a city. And even though it has a school of architecture, Charlotte has lacked a strong architectural identity. That may change with the construction of the two bridge pylons that flank one of the major streets that enter uptown.
The catalyst for this revolutionary construction was a group of local philanthropists—none of whom are design professionals—who call themselves the Queen’s Table. Over country club dinners or businessmen’s lunches, these latter-day Medici work quietly behind the scenes to enhance the quality of urban life in Charlotte. Until now they have underwritten outdoor sculpture, but their decision to commission Friedrich St.Florian Architects to build a symbolic gateway was a brilliant stroke of civic patronage.
St.Florian has created a symbolic gesture that redefines the entrance to Charlotte’s commercial heart. The twenty-five-foot-high stainless steel pylons are triangular in elevation; their upward-sweeping canopies provide a sense of lightness, while sinuous, cast acrylic curtains billow out from the canopies. The bases of these framing devices are sixteen feet square and the sail-like canopies displace eighteen square-feet. The curtains are lit along their edges by LED fixtures that create an ethereal glow at night.
Charlotte’s movers and shakers undoubtedly knew St.Florian as the designer of the World War II Memorial in Washington. The Austrian-born and Columbia-trained Providence, Rhode Island architect has nevertheless had a distinguished, if under-heralded, career as an avant-garde designer of monuments. A finalist in the competition for the Centre Pompidou, St.Florian also designed a Constructivist tower as a monument to the Third Millennium in San Juan, a laser-lit bridge across the Charles River for Harvard, and a giant hologram of the Statue of Liberty that could sail the skies above an apartheid-era South Africa. He worked at MIT’s media lab before becoming a professor at Rhode Island School of Design.
St.Florian’s solution for Charlotte is remarkable because it draws intelligently upon forms as old as civilization—the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, Roman triumphal arches, or more recent commemorative portals such as Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate or Claude-Nicholas Ledoux’s barrières in pre-Revolutionary Paris. Friedrich St.Florian’s Tryon bridge beacons are supremely contemporary works of architecture that celebrate a moment of arrival—that of a more architecturally literate Charlotte.
William Morgan: The Tryon Bridge Beacons are your first project in the South. What are your impressions of Charlotte, North Carolina?
Friedrich St.Florian: Charlotte seems to me to be the quintessential 21st-century American city. My first visit was before the current recession and I counted twenty building cranes on the skyline. Unlike the older northeastern cities I am familiar with, like Boston and Philadelphia, Charlotte is a “City in Process,” one that looks forward to its best days. This aspect had an influence on my design. The seven civic leaders from the Queen’s Table who interviewed me were impressive. None were architects—most are developers and bankers. But I found them civilized and sophisticated and the entire experience of working in Charlotte was totally positive.
WM: Why Friedrich St.Florian? How did Charlotte come to choose you?
FSt.F: The Queen’s Table had supported public sculpture in Charlotte, but they wanted to create some bridge heads for this entrance to what they call uptown. For that they knew they needed an architect. So, they hired LandDesign as their professional advisor. Working with LandDesign, four firms, including one each from New York, Chicago, and Charlotte were invited for interviews. I have no doubt that they considered me because of the World War II Memorial in Washington.
WM: Tell us something about the design process?
FSt.F: After my firm was selected as the designer, we presented three distinct proposals for Charlotte. These ranged from somewhat conservative to the one upon which we finally agreed. My sense was that some committee members had fixed ideas about what a “bridge head” should look like—something solid and traditional, made of stone. Based on my impressions of Charlotte, I argued for the most contemporary interpretation.
Once that was chosen, we began the real design process, refining the pylons with the canopies and the curtains.
WM: What is the significance of the canopies and the curtains?
FSt.F: We envisioned the Tryon Beacons as points of entrance, as gateways–as metaphors of “arrival.” Hotels, train stations, airports all have canopies. The lighted curtains were crucial to the design. The bridge heads are framing devices that offer focus and compression, not unlike the opening of a curtain at the beginning of a lyric opera.
WM: Besides Charlotte, you designed a bridge across the Charles River in Boston, you are in a competition for a highway bridge in Calabria in southern Italy, and you built a handsome yellow bridge over a major thoroughfare in downtown Providence. Are you becoming a bridge designer?
FSt.F: No. But bridges are less complicated than, say, a high-tech laboratory. Bridges and other monuments are public art, and thus are more liberated from function. Such works of art can be more purely architectural.
William Morgan is an architectural historian and critic based in Providence, Rhode Island.