Controversy dogs Venice's first new bridge in 70 years

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Venice is to get a new bridge, its first in more than 70 years. This week the first piles were sunk on the bank of the Grand Canal by the railway station for Il ponte di Calatrava, which should be ready to bear its first cargo of tourists across to the buses and car parks of Piazzale Roma by the summer. The prefabricated sections were towed up the canal over the past two summers and are now ready to be bolted in place.

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish engineer whose dramatic projects in cities as far apart as Dublin, Athens and Buenos Aires have changed our idea of what bridges ought to look like, the Venice bridge is very different from the works that made him famous. It is the soul of discretion: no cantilevered webs of cable, no evocations of harps, lyres or lutes - just a sleek, arrow-like flight from bank to bank, with no visible means of support.

It is exquisitely modern, but stylistically it is not at war with its environment. Helping it to blend in is the fact that it is partly built of local Istrian marble, Venice's most important raw material.

But the bridge's low profile has not kept it clear of controversy. There was the high price tag, €4m (£2.6m) climbing to €6.5m. There was the question of safety: the long, unsupported arch, according to an expert who was involved in the technical evaluation of the project, must be precise to the millimetre if it is to work, and its pressure on the banks must be adequately contained. In an article in L'Espresso last month, Professor Gianfranco Rocatagliati warned that the tramping of the tourist battalions could cause it to collapse.

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