Venice Gets a Grip on a Star Architect’s Slippery Bridge

VENICE — As tourists wandered obliviously on the glass floor of the footbridge, locals proceeded with caution. Venetians made sure to walk on the narrow stone strip at the center, some lifting fogged glasses to keep their eyes on the ground. When a visitor tripped, they barely lifted their gaze.

“That is not a bridge,” said Angelo Xalle, 71, a retired port worker who recalled helping people with broken chins or foreheads get up from its sleek floor. “It’s a trap.”

The bridge, Ponte della Costituzione, by the star architect Santiago Calatrava, is a multimillion-dollar work of glass and steel that opened in 2008. Its smooth curve above the Grand Canal, near Venice’s train station, was meant to symbolize the city’s embrace of modernity, but it has become better known as a stage for ruinous tumbles and dangerous slips.

Now, after years of protests and problems, the city has decided to replace the translucent glass with less slippery — and less glamorous — trachyte stone.

“People hurt themselves, and they sue the administration,” said Francesca Zaccariotto, Venice’s public works official. “We have to intervene.”

The city’s decision to allocate 500,000 euros, or about $565,000, to replace the bridge’s glass section comes after several failed attempts to limit slips with resin and nonslip stickers. Last month, as the winter cold and rains made the floor especially dangerous, officials placed keep-off signs on the glass portion of the bridge, which is most of it.

Locals prefer walking on the center stone path to avoid slipping and falling on the glass tiles of Mr. Calatrava’s bridge.Credit…Francesca Volpi for The New York Times

Acclaimed around the world for work including the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York, Mr. Calatrava was commissioned to design the bridge in 1999. When it opened nine years later, after protests about delays and soaring costs, complaints about falls began quickly.

Protests intensified in 2013, when the city installed a cable car on the bridge to make it more accessible. The red, round cabin — not designed by Mr. Calatrava — cost about 1.5 million, was slow to cross the bridge and became unbearably hot in the summer. It was later dismantled.

In 2018, the city replaced some of the slabs of glass with trachyte, but during the pandemic, when national television filmed people walking over the bridge to illustrate the return to normalcy after a lockdown, it inevitably caught someone slipping. This past year, the administration gathered the funds to fully replace the glass.

Venice is not the first city to experience problems with Mr. Calatrava’s projects. In 2011, Bilbao, Spain, laid a huge black rubber carpet over a Calatrava footbridge paved with glass tiles because so many pedestrians had slipped and fallen.

The city installed signs warning pedestrians not to walk on the slippery glass section of the bridge.Credit…Francesca Volpi for The New York Times

While Venice’s plan still needs to undergo structural tests and be approved by the city’s architectural authority, city officials are determined to proceed to prevent the “almost daily” falls, Ms. Zaccariotto said.

While she appreciated Mr. Calatrava’s work, she said that aesthetic criteria should not outweigh safety principles and that because the lawsuits were addressed to the city and not to the architect, Venice was going to handle the situation.

“We can’t always do poetry,” she said. “We must give security.”

Mr. Calatrava has faced lawsuits and fines for troubles relating to the bridge, but has defended himself against detractors. “The bridge was checked with sophisticated methods,” he said in 2008, “which determined that it has a solid structure which is behaving better than expected.”

Mr. Calatrava’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the new safety plan or criticisms about the footbridge.

One of the claimants, Mariarosaria Colucci, a retired Roman teacher, was headed to the theater to watch her son perform in 2011 when she broke her humerus — “in five parts like an artichoke” — by falling on the Calatrava bridge. She sued the city and was initially awarded compensation of about 80,000, but she lost in the appeal and is awaiting a decision by Italy’s Supreme Court.

“That bridge is beautiful for an architecture magazine,” said Ms. Colucci, 76, “but you must be good not to fall.”

Anna Maria Stevanato, who took a bus to the city for a burraco tournament that year, broke her shoulder on the bridge.

“I fell like a bag of potatoes,” she said, adding that Mr. Calatrava “ruined the most beautiful years of my old age.”

Some Venetians say that the Ponte della Costituzione bridge is a work of art, but many lament its lack of functionality.Credit…Francesca Volpi for The New York Times

To Ms. Stevanato, 80, the problem stems from the fact that Mr. Calatrava, who is Spanish-born, has not mastered the art of building safe bridges like locals. Venice has some 400 bridges, and Ms. Stevanato and many Venetians pride themselves on being able to cross them while reading books, or with their eyes closed. On the Calatrava bridge, though, Venetians say the mixed dimensions of the steps and the color of the tiles leave them confused and their feet adrift.

“A Venetian would have never built such nonsense,” Ms. Stevanato said.

Some welcomed the new change to the footbridge. “It’s going to be uglier,” said Leonardo Pilat, 19, whose mother fell on the bridge, “but it’s necessary.”

Not everyone agreed.

“It’s an exceptional bridge, and they should keep it like this,” said Demetrio Corazza, 85, a retired professor who frequently crossed the bridge with his wife to go grocery shopping. “Beauty must save the world.”

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