Switzerland: Tunnels and Bridges

I have an irrational fear of disused industrial spaces: large abandoned warehouses freak me out, especially when they have derelict, decaying doors. Don’t ask me why: i already caveated it with ‘irrational’. Once i stayed in Belgium at the end of a street of warehouses (it was a budget hotel…): the walk home at the end of an evening was so traumatic that i eventually opted to walk the much longer indirect route. Going around the problem rather than tackling it head on. The Swiss would have gone under it.

Switzerland

There are many tunnels here, some so short, that you catapult through with a short blink, others so long that you cross mountain ranges, so long that you lose memory of the light. All are dark, all lost spaces. Tunnels are cheating, and the earth knows it. Tunnels steal space from rocky mass: they make mockery of the landscape, subverting it through pickaxe and dynamite, barrow and train. Tunnels don’t break a sweat with the climb: they reach down through the cracks and fissures, taking the low road, taking the cold road.

Bridges soar: concrete beams carry forces along engineered lines. They are a triumph of aesthetic violence, an equilibrium of entropy and art. Bridges partition air, creating arcs and arches, solidifying space, conjoining disparate edges. They complete and traverse. Bridges are beautiful, either through simplicity or guile.

Switzerland

Tunnels have none of this: they are all bleak mass. Shale and power. Tunnels are about removal and loss. They are wrung from the earth, carved and shattered, blown and chipped. The earth resists the tunnel, denies progress, resents completion.

Rock is a fickle thing: sometimes solid, immovable, ‘standing like a rock’, to be ‘my rock’, a rock in times of trouble, but sometimes frail, friable, rotten and loose, splintered shales and sandstone slipping, rock slides, rock falls, collapse and catastrophe, shifting, biting, trapping, moving, earthquakes and volcanoes spewing forth molten rock, punishing, pushing, progressing, sometimes geologic but sometimes immediate in it’s timescale, never certain, never truly solid, changing colour in the wet: smoothed and polished, washed and tumbled, hard yet sculpted by water or the hand of man, made beautiful yet with that beauty fragility and risk, the sculpture cracked, the mountain hewn, the flint knapped, the ragged edges ground to dust.

When you fracture flint you can see the conchoidal fracture: concentric rings of warbled stone that look like frozen ripples in a lake. The tension within exhibited for all to see: frozen power and grace. Stone is like this: the outside rough and weathered, the beauty within. Frozen at formation and teased out by artist and architect, or simply the action of sun and ice.

Switzerland

We can imagine the bridge designer standing at the edge of the abyss: staring into the void, captivated by the vista that stretches around them, horizon to horizon, the shape of the mountains, the curve of the river, calculating the span, estimating the reach, thinking about loads and forces, newtons and pounds, traffic volumes and pedestrian views. Bridges are the sweep of pencil curving across the paper, the graphite gliding smoothly, completing the art. Bridges are cables and decks, suspension and cantilever, redirected force and leveraged power.

The cables of bridges are spun in place: looms running up and down the wire, interlocking, interlacing, weaving and twisting, tiny strands uniting in strength and tension. In some sense, they are single strands, a hairs width, twined and intertwined into enormous hanks of potential and tension.

Switzerland

Bridges impinge upon the landscape, they are part of the landscape, they extend the reach of our journey, the distance the last stride. We talk about ‘bridging a gap’, as if the gap must be closed, the circle complete. We bridge between spaces: to bridge is to connect, to align, to cross. We bridge the divide, we bridge a gap in understanding. Without the bridge there is simply ignorance: it completes the knowledge, it empowers exploration.

We ‘build bridges’ when we want to reconcile, when we wants to befriend, when we want to close years of conflict through simple acts of conversation and connection. We build bridges of olive branches, reaching out, across that which separates us. The bridge is literally the symbol of connection: a disjointed bridge would collapse.

There’s an interesting thing about arches: they can crack and move in three places before they collapse: they are resilient through design, through form, resilient through their actual beauty. The Romans knew this: it’s the keystone that locks them in place. You can build one yourself out of bricks: build a wooden former, then lay bricks sideways over it, until you lock it with the keystone. You can remove the wooden former and the arch remains intact: the forces locked in. The weight is not lost, held or displaced: it’s transferred, moved sideways and down until the earth itself can bear it. Arches are almost magical in the way they transfer force through simple beauty.

Swiss Mountains

Tunnels, by contrast, are beasts of need: we undermine, we dig deep, we burrow. The tunnel is never visible except where it ingests and disgorges. Dysfunctional in the extreme: function over form the nth degree.

The tunnel is never the destination: it’s sole purpose is to get us there, to increase the speed, to reduce the distance, enable passage where previously we simply stopped.

Stone Age man may have retreated into caves to avoid predators, to seek shelter, but the tunnels of today are not new caves, but rather places sacrosanct, reserved for cars and trains, these places do not beckon with the light.

As I travel through Switzerland I experience both: incredible bridges sweeping over water, deep tunnels taking me underground. They are two parts of the same journey: the journey cannot be complete without them both, and yet both are not equal. The bridge engages me with the view, completes the vista, whilst tunnels dislocate and separate, providing successive snapshots of reality, disjointed by the dark.

In this landscape, this is a thing of necessity. Switzerland is a truly chequerboard landscape, some squares green and farmed, others scoured from the slopes, terraced and planted, reclaimed and sometimes ancient, other squares just inaccessible, mountainous and precipitous, sharp and deadly. This is a fractured landscape, beautiful in its disconnection, but nonetheless almost impossible to traverse in anything approaching a straight line. Switzerland is corners and curves, this is circumnavigation and relocation, it’s about height and depth, not simply North and South, it is about angles and slopes, not simply left and right.

It brings a certain third dimension to geography, not simply an inconvenient hill, but an impassible range. The language of bridges and tunnels is one that was hard learned, learned by necessity, and mastered as an art. We talk about landscape as if it is natural, but this landscape in many ways is man-made, connected by man. Without us, it would still be disjointed, fragmented, but with these railways and roads, carried through the tunnels and bridges, it becomes enjoined. It becomes coherent. The Canton’s become connected, and through these connections is built a nation.

Whilst mountains are measured in feet and metres, tunnels are measured in years, years taken to construct, and often lives lost during that construction. The danger is apparent: these things are hewn with dynamite and drill, pneumatic pressure to fracture, cracked and leveraged, shattered and broken, pulled from earth, stone pulled from stone. They are excavated not simply built. Whilst the bridge builder looks out and imagines arches, the tunneller is all angles and distances. It is all fine tuning and brute force. It is engineering at it’s most violent. It’s the primitive instinct to dig and hide, tamed and entrusted to deliver us to our destination.

Breakthrough.

Bridges are built slowly, the purpose apparent from the outset, slowly constructed, hands reaching out across the water, they are built in stages and sections, and as they do so, they slowly gain grace, slowly gain form, bridges can be almost organic in the ways that they stretch, the ways that they finally connect. There is no sudden surprise in the completion of a bridge.

By contrast, the tunnel is abstract until the breakthrough. The final stick of dynamite, the final few metres, the final explosion. Rock, noise, and dust. Smoke and trauma. And, finally, after all the years, after all young lives, daylight.

The tunnel is only a tunnel when it is complete: this is the final fracture which gives it purpose, which makes it functional, which proves its meaning. Without it, it is simply folly, it is quite literally just a hole in the ground. The tunnel exists in a digital state: it either is or is not. Like a flickering zoetrope, it is true purpose is only visible when the light flickers and the movement is apparent.

The journey through Switzerland is one of beauty, a hard-won beauty, beauty of connection. The viewed experience, the journey that we paint, the maps that we draw, are drawn through the connection of many spaces, bridged and tunnelled, but finally complete. The final span, the final flicker, the journey complete.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Adventure, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Switzerland: Tunnels and Bridges

  1. Pingback: Choose Wisely: Survival Skills for the Social Age | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: Commuter Communities | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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