FORT WORTH — More than a decade ago, in a bit of architectural doodling, Dean Van Landuyt drew up an arch-shaped bridge with a weave of stainless steel cables on the sides. The lines of his bridge were elegant. Odds were that it would never be built.The reason? Van Landuyt, a veteran design engineer, works in relative obscurity for the state of Texas, designing bridges for the Department of Transportation. In his line of government work, cost and function are paramount, aesthetics much less so. The sketch of his arch-shaped bridge went up on the wall of his state cubicle in Austin. Van Landuyt looked at it wistfully for years.“When you get into the reality of the bridge business, working in tight urban environments, when bridges need to be done quickly and at low cost, unfortunately, aesthetics walks,” Van Landuyt said recently. “Unfortunately, you can’t do it all.”But a guy can dream.And, in recent years, there came a state bridge project in the heart of Fort Worth that pretty much demanded both function and at least a measure of art.Which leads to what will be a dreamlike moment Friday night for the 54-year-old Van Landuyt. At a party over the Trinity River, his creation, the new Seventh Street Bridge, will fully come to life. Pedestrian and bicycle paths will be opened. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price will flick a switch and embedded lights on the bridge will be turned on for the first time. The lights will illuminate the stainless steel mesh and 12 signature arches on each side of the thoroughfare.The party, and a parade the next day, will celebrate the new gateway between a resurgent downtown on the east side of the river and the Cultural District and newly thriving urban neighborhoods along West Seventh Street. The old bridge, built exactly a century ago, had fallen into disrepair and needed replacing.“I immediately saw it as a rare opportunity,” Van Landuyt said. “You’re there at the junction of downtown and the Cultural District. You’re in a park setting. It was just the right place to do a bridge that was appropriate and attractive.“I’ve had it in my mind’s eye for over a decade and [Friday] we’ll see it for the first time. I can’t wait.”The formal unveiling comes between two other historic debuts, one on each side of the river. On Nov. 1, Ed Bass, the lead developer of the downtown district, christened Sundance Square Plaza. The one-acre gathering place of fountains, massive umbrellas and lights was decades in the making, another milestone in a remarkable urban renaissance.On Nov. 27, on the other side of the Trinity, the Kimbell Art Museum will debut the Renzo Piano Pavilion, named for the renowned architect who designed it. Like the plaza and museum expansion, the new bridge is attracting widespread plaudits.“The Seventh Street Bridge is a truly elegant piece of engineering,” Bass said last week. “More than just beautiful; I don’t think people realize the complexity of the structure and the innovation that went into designing and building it. Essentially, Texas taxpayers have contributed a great piece of engineering innovation to the world.”Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell, called the bridge “a remarkable structure that serves as an important artery — transitioning visitors between the bustling downtown business district and the architectural marvels of the Cultural District.”The new Fort Worth landmark and its $26 million price tag have invited favorable comparisons to the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in West Dallas, which was finished last year. Designed by the famous and expensive Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the bridge and its 40-story arch cost about $180 million.“I drive [the Seventh Street Bridge] every morning, and I guess I’ll get accustomed to it,” said William Meadows, a former member of the Fort Worth City Council and a former Texas Transportation Commissioner. “I went to the plaza opening, and I was thinking how the Seventh Street Bridge is a wonderful tie between these two events. “It’s a great example, a perfect place where art and function meet.”Doodle comes to lifeVan Landuyt was part of early deliberations among local and state officials when the goal was to rehabilitate the existing Seventh Street bridge.“There came a point when it was finally apparent that we were throwing good money after bad,” he said. “I was asked to come up with some ideas and show them around. One of them was a precast arch bridge that had been fermenting for a long time.”That was the doodle, done originally for a proposed bridge on Interstate 35 in Central Texas. That project never got off the ground.“I drew it up and pinned it on the wall of my cubicle, and it sat there for years before the time was right,” Van Landuyt said. “One of the engineers I used to work with came into my cubicle one day and said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s just an idea for an attractive, low-cost arch bridge.’ He said, ‘That’s awesome.’”Then came the decision to replace the Seventh Street bridge. Van Landuyt dusted off his arch bridge concept, and came up with a few more-modest designs featuring traditional girders. Government leaders embraced the arch concept almost instantly.“We could fail terribly if we did the wrong type of bridge,” he said. “On the other hand, it would be a terrific opportunity to do something unique, that would be special to Fort Worth. We needed a bridge that was in keeping with and worthy of the great architecture that had already been established.”The larger question was how to minimize the amount of time that West Seventh Street traffic over the river needed to be shut down. An estimated 12,000 vehicles cross over each day. It is the primary artery to the Cultural District and thriving retail and residential neighborhoods that have emerged between the river and museums in the past decade.“What got presented was a year and a half to two years being out of service,” said Fort Worth architect Phillip Poole, a board member of the Cultural District Alliance. “If you wanted to kill off nearly $2 billion in new construction on the west side of the river, simply cut off the link to downtown.“A group of people went to the city, went to [the Department of Transportation] to say how unacceptable that was. There was an extremely creative solution to replace the bridge as expeditiously as possible without the impact on the businesses that had been established.”That was to cast the cement arches, each of them 163 feet long and weighing 300 tons, in a vacant lot a few blocks from the bridge. The arches were cast on their side by pouring concrete into what amounted to a giant Jello mold, then rotating them upright and transporting the arches to the bridge.“I was able to visit the casting yard with the head engineer during construction of the arches,” Bass said. “I was astounded at how sophisticated and precise the work was.”Van Lauduyt said the bridge is the most visually appealing and most technically complex of his career.“This was walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope in 50 mile-an-hour winds while you’re spinning plates,” he said. “It’s got to be good-looking. We’ve got to have wide sidewalks. We’ve got to build it quickly. We’ve got to get water underneath.”“I just feel tremendously lucky. We had a fantastic contractor [Sundt Construction of San Antonio]. It was very much a collaborative relationship between the contractor, the city of Fort Worth, Streams and Valleys and all the business owners. We had the patience of the residents of West Seventh Street and downtown.”Traffic over the bridge was shut down in June. What is the world’s first precast arch bridge was reopened to vehicles after only four months, a minor miracle of modern engineering.And the bridge was elegant, too.“I think it’s exceedingly pure, and it does have somewhat of an homage to the Kimbell, with the shape of those arches,” Poole said.He referred to the main Kimbell Museum building, designed by legendary architect Louis Kahn in the 1960s. The Kahn creation also features six concrete arches.“A happy coincidence,” Van Landuyt said, smiling. “They both have six vaults and six arches. These might be a little more difficult to pull off. They have to support four lanes of traffic, 18-wheelers, and they span 163 and a half feet.”All of which began with a doodle.“I stuck it on the wall and moved on to the next project,” he said. And continued to dream.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan