Aspiration and Isolation

Redding California’s attempt at a Bilbao Effect

Christopher Nelson (MAUD ‘20)


About 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, Redding, California is a small, relatively unknown city nestled away in the rural, conservative hills of Shasta County. It has always been ideologically and geographically separate from the rest of the state, content in its isolation. For decades it has been reliant upon its logging industry to carry the economy. However, as the industry began to decline in the 1970’s and the city’s unemployment rate soared to over 20 percent, Redding has had to diversify its economic base, opening it up to the rest of the state in order to attract tourism and commerce¹.

Over the past few decades, Redding has seen a drastic increase in population, rising from under 17,000 in 1970 to nearly 90,000 in 2010. This influx of people has coincided with a series of public projects mostly in the 90’s and early 2000’s, ranging from parks to a new city hall and library. Among this string of structures was the Sundial Bridge. Built in 2004, the bridge spans the Sacramento River, which bisects the city, to connect two disparate parts of a large city park. This link could have easily been provided by a modest footbridge designed by a local architect, but the city alongside the McConnell Foundation, a very wealthy independent foundation that funds local nonprofits and public projects, used the opportunity to brand the city, with the foundation offering to cover the majority of the cost in order to create a signature bridge¹.

After being “impressed by designs he saw in a book,”² the Vice President of the McConnell Foundation called Santiago Calatrava’s office and asked him to design the bridge. $23.5 million later and two years behind schedule¹, the Sundial opened in July of 2004 to become the architect’s only bridge in North America. The vast majority of the residents in Redding had no idea who Calatrava was and were both perplexed and excited by the giant white structure. In a city whose only escalator arrived in 2001, a 216-foot long spire sticking up at a 42 degree angle could be perceived as somewhat alien.

Over the past 14 years however, the bridge has largely been embraced by the population who regularly uses it for both its intended recreational purposes and as a backdrop for family and prom pictures. The Sundial has become an icon for Redding, quite literally as it has been incorporated into the city’s official symbol, but also in a more figurative way— demonstrated by the heavy presence of the bridge in a quick google image search of “Redding, CA.”

Redding has now become inextricably linked with the image of the Sundial Bridge, yet an image of the Sundial certainly doesn’t automatically signify Redding. The sort of symbiosis that would usually happen between iconic structure and geographic place is stunted here by the presence of “starchitecture”. The initial, seemingly rash choice of the architect in many ways countered the city’s aspirations for a signature bridge because of Calatrava’s repetition of his signature design form onto yet another locale. Redding (and the McConnell Foundation) wanted a standout bridge that was unlike any other, which they got to an extent, but they also got what is essentially just another Calatrava bridge, easily replaceable with his designs for Sevilla and Manchester amongst many others.

Apart from the generic-ness of the bridge as an image, the bridge’s omnipresence within the city’s symbology washes away a huge part of the underlying identity of the place. Redding has always prided itself as being an isolated, mostly rural community, purposefully different than the hundred or so other cities in California of a similar size. The bridge has taken on a role of both reflecting and guiding an attitudinal shift away from this isolationism, which is subjectively good, but not reflective of the desires of many in the community. Regardless of Redding’s choice in building the bridge, their decision to use it as the defining marker of the city is definitely contentious.


  1. 1.Mort, RE. "A Critical Analysis of Santiago Calatrava's Turtle Bay Sundial Bridge." April 2009. Accessed November 2018.

  2. "The McConnell Foundation 25 Years of Impact." October 2014. Accessed November 2018.

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