Most vehicular bridges tend to go unnoticed, made invisible by routine commuting, but footbridges in gardens and parks are not only noticed but celebrated. In a garden there is pause. In a garden the science and art of the bridge, and its role in defining the edge between humankind and nature, can be contemplated. Touching both sides, but belonging to neither, bridges express life’s many dichotomies: order and spontaneity, depth and surface, permanence and change, stillness and movement. Appropriately, hashi is the word for both “bridge” and “edge” in Japanese.

As transitional points between the natural and the built world, garden bridges are charged with symbolism, and with meanings that vary across time and cultures. The Japanese garden, for instance, is inspired by the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. European gardens reflect human mastery over nature, an idea that is gradually eroding in the west.

The first traditional Japanese gardens emerged during the Heian period (7841185) and were influenced by earlier Chinese gardens, whose refined design was shaped by Taoist and Buddhist values of harmony, order, and balance. By framing views and controlling the experience of gardens, bridges were an important element of their highly codified spatial and symbolic compositions.

Not a single thing Have I closely observed; My feet on life’s way Are too vigorous.

MORI OGAI (1862-1922)

The formal geometric gardens of seventeenth-century France, epitomized by Andre Le Notre’s gardens at Versailles for Louis XIV, became, in the hands of the English, paeans to nature’s thrilling wildness. In the eighteenth-century,

Palladian bridges, along with other classical architectural follies, were inserted into the vistas of great English private estates as conspicuous ornaments (see here).


Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) continued this romantic pastoral tradition when they were commissioned to design New York’s Central Park in 1858. In the matter of the park’s bridges, however, they broke from the English tradition. Convinced that nature, without artifacts, was the only antidote to the park’s urban setting, they concealed the bridgessome forty in all, no two alikewith skillful grading so they would not be seen until the stroller was upon them. Vaux was responsible for most of the bridge designs, with assistance from Jacob Wrey Mould on the cast-iron crossings.

Bridges also exerted a strong pull on artists’ imaginations. Japanese artists, notably Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), integrated bridges into the landscapes of their woodblock prints. These prints, exported abroad in the nineteenth century, had a marked influence on the impressionists. The most memorable paintings of bridges were by Claude Monet (1840-1926), who by the end of 1890 was making enough from the sales of his work to buy property at Giverny. His improvements to its garden included damming a stream to form a pond over which he built a bridge “in Japanese taste” that he immortalized in his lush and atmospheric Japanese Bridge series.

More recently, bridges are being repurposed for new uses, perhaps none more successfully than the High Line in Manhattan, a park 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) long built on an abandoned spur of the New York Central Railroad. Architects James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro revealed the original tracks and steel girders, transforming the roadway into a multifaceted urban oasis. The planting scheme emerged from the self-seeded landscape that, over the decades, had enveloped the rail tracks, inspiring landscape designer Piet Oudolf to “keep it wild.” Today alive with gardens, art, and people, the park opened in three phases from 2009-2014, and stretches from Gansevoort Street up to West 34th Street. Central Park’s photogenic Bow Bridge (1862) is the second-oldest cast-iron bridge in America. In 2008 the Central Park Conservancy installed eight cast-iron urns on the bridge, replacing originals that had disappeared in the early 1920s.

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