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The Sundial Bridge in Redding, Calif.

You’ve never seen a bridge like the Sundial, this glass-and-steel sculpture that now soars over the Sacramento River.

Santiago Calatrava's Sundial Bridge in Redding, Calif., at night
Photo credit
Photo: Lara Swimmer
Photo caption
Santiago Calatrava's Sundial Bridge spans the Sacramento River in Redding.

You can say this about the city leaders of Redding, Calif.: When it comes to building a footbridge, they're not afraid to get their feet wet. In fact, they hired one of the world's foremost bridge designers, Santiago Calatrava, an architect of an aesthetic sensibility so refined he has been described by Time as "the poet of glass and steel."

The product of this unusual collaboration, when it is unveiled with an appropriate celebration of fireworks on July 4, will be a $23 million, 700-foot-long, 23-foot-wide work of art, the likes of which has never been seen spanning the generally unadorned northern reaches of the Sacramento River.

Calatrava, who was born in Spain and makes his headquarters in Zurich, has designed a bridge so airy in concept that it will at no point touch the water. That's an important environmental as well as artistic consideration, since this particular bend in the river, called Turtle Bay, serves as a maternity ward for thousands of spawning chinook salmon. Instead, the span will be supported by 4,342 feet of steel cable suspended from a single, glistening white, 217-foot-high pylon that resembles an egret in flight more than it does an ordinary bridge tower. The pylon, situated at the exact north end of the bridge, will do double duty as a sundial, casting its elegant shadow on a grassy plaza.

"If it's going to be a sundial," suggested Bob Warren, tourist program manager for the City of Redding, with withering logic, "then let's call it the Sundial Bridge." And so it has become the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay. The span will connect the northern and southern campuses of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, a 300-acre, $64 million venue for museums, an aquarium, and bird and animal sanctuaries, all joined to a vast network of hiking and bicycling trails that will ultimately reach Shasta Lake, eight miles or so upriver.

But how on earth did such a backwoods project attract an architect of Calatrava's international renown? "Well, we decided we needed something more than a typical bridge," recalls Lee Salter, the white-mustachioed president and CEO of the McConnell Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that has pumped $12 million into the bridge project and another $23 million into the park. McConnell's executive vice president, John Mancasola, represented the foundation on an architectural search committee appointed in 1994 by the Redding City Council. He did extensive research in architectural books, and though he and his fellow searchers pored over dozens of designs, none of the plans they saw matched the pure, pierless structure they envisioned.

The name Calatrava kept popping up. Calatrava has designed more than a dozen bridges throughout Europe, as well as other structures ranging from concert halls to train stations. All display the creative passion of a man who paints and sculpts in his spare time. Indeed, though trained as an architect and an engineer, Calatrava has the soul of an artist. Mancasola thought he was the right guy for Redding. But since he lives halfway around the world and had never before built a freestanding bridge in the United States, getting him to come to California might have been a problem. "To be perfectly frank," Salter says, "we didn't think he'd give us the time of day."

But it was worth a shot. Mancasola picked up the phone and dialed Zurich. Calatrava himself answered.

"I was surprised, of course, to receive a call in Switzerland from California," Calatrava says. "But I was very much impressed by the commitment of these clients to do something special for their community. I agreed to go to Redding, and once there I saw how unbelievably beautiful their river was, with its surrounding mountains and forest. There was also the challenge to build something that would fit in with the topography, something that would not disturb the environment—a bridge that would not even touch the water."

Calatrava's design calls for a pedestrian walkway of nonskid glass that at night will be illuminated from underneath by 210 lights, creating an even more ethereal effect. "In the daytime, the bridge will cast only a minimal shadow on the river," Warren says.

Calatrava appeared with a model of his bridge at civic receptions and public hearings in Redding, "wowing everyone there with his engaging personality," Mancasola recalls.

But not all the townsfolk were wowed. In letters to the local paper, the Redding Record Searchlight, many asked what a burg like theirs was doing hiring this fancy European to build an artsy and costly bridge when a covered wooden job might do just as well. One protester accused the bridge propo-nents of developing a bad case of "big-time-itis." Actually, with a population of 85,000, Redding is the biggest California city north of Sacramento.

But what about the price tag? The McConnell Foundation is pretty much footing the bill. Redding's share will come from the roughly $1.7 million the city made when McConnell purchased the arboretum site and from a $1.4 million federal grant. The remaining $8 million is from a state grant. And because the bridge is practically certain to become a local icon and a major tourist attraction, Redding's business community should eventually reap a bonanza.

Ponying up for such projects fits McConnell's mission of "building better communities through philanthropy." The foundation was started in 1964 by Carl and Leah McConnell, a local couple who made a fortune in investments and decided to give much of it back through good works, originally for projects in Shasta and Siskiyou counties. Redding, a railroad and mining town that sprang to life in the 1870s, has been the principal beneficiary of the McConnells' munifi-cence. In recent years, foundation money has helped finance a new local health center and the restoration of the art deco Cascade Theater in downtown Redding. Turtle Bay Explor-ation Park, also largely underwritten by the foundation, has a little something for anyone interested in the outdoors; among its attractions are a large central museum with a 22,000-gallon aquarium that is a re-creation of the river including native fish. Nearby, Paul Bunyan's Forest Camp has an assortment of rescued animals, a forestry museum with a replica of an old mill house, an outdoor amphitheater, and the Brobdingnagian logger's impressive footprints.

The Sundial Bridge is the McConnell Foundation's and Redding's pièce de résistance. It may be Calatrava's. Although his U.S. interests now include an extension of the Milwaukee Art Museum, a symphony hall in Atlanta, and plans for a new $2 billion commuter train terminal at Ground Zero in Man-hattan, he admits to a special feeling for the Sundial.

"It's a bridge with great character," he says. "It tells a story."

And once you've walked across it, Salter says, "you'll know that it is much more than a bridge. It is art."

This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.