A gap between screen and page
Bridge: The Architecture of ConnectionEdited by Lucy Blakstad. <br>Design: Iain Cadby<br>August/Birkhauser, £24<br>
This is the book of the well received British TV series ‘Bridge’. The book is a documentary using a combination of history, reportage and cultural analysis based on material from the TV series. The lead roles in the text are given to the Millennium Bridge, The Brooklyn Bridge and Mostar Bridge. Other bridges from the Clapper Bridge on Dartmoor to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the one filmed falling apart in a high wind) appear as minor characters to support the narrative structure divided into the sections, Vision, Connection and Division. Around these elements are arranged transcribed interviews with Lucy Blakstad which focus on her feelings about each of the main bridges and various essays she deems pertinent to her subject either specifically or tangentially. These are interspersed with quotes from (and photos of) local residents. Last in each section are visual essays on each of the three main bridges by Blakstad, Cadby and Gautier Deblonde.
The main strength of this book is the stories that can be told about the Brooklyn and Mostar bridges which, like all good stories, are not dependent upon the skills of the narrator. In Mostar bridge Lucy Blakstad has stumbled upon a scoop, a story dying to be told. By comparison, the story of the Millennium bridge reads like an interior decoration problem. In a TV programme this unevenness of material can be smoothed out by editing, but that can’t be done in a book. The ability of time-based media to string together a large number of disparate subjects without the need of any more than a stylistic link is the strength of the medium. Books demand a more logical set of connections between elements. And because they are not time based, they can be read in a variety of ways which gives the reader an interpretative freedom. Books are given meaning by the reader; television hands most of is interpretative power to the producer.
The measure of Blakstad’s abilities on TV are also the major faults of this book. What appear as a wide survey of opinion in film becomes an unevenness in the quality of material in the book. The essays vary widely in language and quality and the TV vox pop interviews disintegrate into captions for weak images. While the TV programmes are spaced by weeks allowing the memory of one episode to fade, the book allows the weak to be directly compared to the strong, which in this case reveals the boringness of the Millennium bridge story in comparison to the others. This also has the effect of making the book begin badly and end well. Again, in TV this is good, while in books it’s bad.
While the TV programme seems to unify disparate voices around its subject, the book emphasises the quality of its parts with good essays on the Tacoma Straights, Brooklyn (Julie Lasky) and Mostar bridges seeming to stand out from some really average analysis elsewhere.
The weakest element of the book is its use of imagery and graphics. The best imagery is that which is most conventional, particularly the powerful comparison of Mostar bridge in a postcard held up in front of the site of the demolished bridge. But much of the imagery suffers from the graphic designer’s tendency to destroy significance in favour of pattern – this is particularly true of the visual essays through the undergraduate-like use of video grabs and serial enprints to create composite panoramas.
Bridge‘s qualities are due to the innate strengths of its subjects and contributors rather than the skills of its editor or designer, who too often bury good stuff under piles of weak design, imagery and comment. This is surprising, given the undoubted quality of Blakstad’s television work (which is happily much more lucrative).