What do you do with a nearly-new railway bridge when the rail link it carries closes just six years after it was opened? Well, in the case of the city of Melbourne, Australia, you convert it into a visually exciting piece of landmark cycle/pedestrian infrastructure.
There are two main elements to Webb Bridge (which is, incidentally, just down the street from Melbourne’s equally dramatic Southern Cross station). The first is the original, decommissioned, Webb Dock Rail Bridge. This runs for 145m from the north bank of the Yarra River, to a point where the southern section of the original bridge has been removed and replaced with an all-new 80m curving ramp which connects the bridge to the south side of the river. Overseeing the redesign of the old bridge and the design of the new section was architecture practice Denton Corker Marshall, working with artist Robert Owen.
The changes to the original bridge have been fairly minimal. Apart from a new deck surface suitable for its new role, the biggest change is the addition of metal hoops which widen in spacing as users travel from the north bank over the river.
The spacing of the hoops then closes up again as users approach the new curved ramp.Here, there is a sudden and startling change in design to a filigree framework of seemingly random metal webbing enclosing the bridge, though underlying the design is the hoop structure used on the original part of the bridge. The two parts of Webb Bridge, old and new, clearly relate to each other, but the history of the bridge can be read in the difference between the treatment of the two parts.
According to Denton Corker Marshall, the bridge has an “emphasis on volume and containment, within the curved and sinuous form…Space seems atmospheric, dynamic and transitional.”¹
It’s hard to argue anything other than that Webb Bridge is atmospheric and dynamic. It’s become a widely photographed landmark in Melbourne’s Docklands area, and is exactly the kind of the infrastructure which plays a part in encouraging walking and cycling, simply through the sheer joy and attractiveness of using it. It won the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2005 Victorian Architecture Awards Urban Design Award, and the National Commendation for Urban Design in the same year.
Webb Bridge started off life as part of the Webb Dock rail link, a branch line which opened in 1986 to connect Webb Dock to the rest of Melbourne’s railway network. Unfortunately it closed in 1992², for reasons which aren’t entirely clear at this remove. According to Wikipedia, part of the reason was that the curves on the Webb Dock rail link were too tight. If true, that would have embarrassing shades of episodes like the one in which a Greyhound bus got stuck on the (too) tightly curved approach ramp to the new Hartford terminal in 1938. However, it would be extraordinary for a railway line built in the late 1980s not to have learnt from such early 20th Century problems, and I can’t find any other supporting source for Wikipedia’s contention.
Where the Melbourne authorities certainly didn’t learn from earlier mistakes was that the line was actually severed in 1996, at which point various parts of the track bed disappeared beneath redevelopments in the Melbourne Docklands. Failure to protect closed trackbed from incursions by new buildings has been the bane of British railway lines closed by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s. It has made reinstatement of many of them difficult if not impossible, even when later changes in local travel demand suggest that a reopened railway line would be a financially practical proposition. By 2007 plans to reopen the Webb Dock rail link were being considered, which would have required new (and I don’t doubt expensive) infrastructure to bypass lost sections. It’s no wonder such plans have never progressed beyond proposals, and Webb Bridge has never been reopened for railway use.
As an imaginatively designed re-use of a closed stretch of railway line though, Webb Bridge is pretty hard to beat.
How to find Webb Bridge
References and further reading
¹ Denton Corker Marshall’s project page for the Webb Bridge, here
Australian Institute of Architects citation page for the Webb Bridge’s awards, here
² Port of Melbourne’s history of Webb Dock, here