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A Zest for Bridges: 2012 Award of Excellence Winner Theodore Zoli

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"I am informed a bit by a Buddhist mentality," he says. He evokes the "unknown craftsmen" who for centuries produced Korean rice bowls, always with a handmade sensibility and discipline but almost "with no mind." Those bowls evolved into the teacups used in elaborate Japanese tea rituals. "It is a sense of responsibility, not ownership—a collective work."

Referring to the recent spate of media attention, he says, "I feel over-recognized. For me, there is a problem of overestimating the contributions of individuals. I believe there is a continuum of engineering contributions—for the many, by the many."

There is also a continuum of a history of bridges from which to learn, Zoli believes. "Bridge failures become more precious as they become fewer," he says. As a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, he speaks of the too-thin gusset plates and the lack of redundancy that led to the Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007 from multiple factors. "We're missing the important lesson: The connections should not have failed. We have not come to grips yet with the intrinsic flaws in our industry. It should not be about fracture-critical but about failure-critical," he observes.

Zoli's passion for improving infrastructure is never long out of the picture. On the drive to Princeton, he talked about his goal to explore "the space of what can be" in design. As a rusting, decrepit-looking overpass loomed ahead on the New Jersey Turnpike, he interrupted himself to mutter, "That bridge is awful."

Contrarian and Collaborator

As Zoli walked toward his classroom, he joked whimsically about the lack of female students during his undergraduate days at Caltech. He earned his master's degree in civil engineering at Princeton, where he organized an "eating house"—Princeton's version of fraternities—that he likened to "the land of misfit toys."

Zoli has never been afraid to be the oddball. At age 14, just before the working-class adolescent was to attend prep school, he lost the tips of three fingers in an accident at his father's concrete plant. "It probably made me a lot more serious than I would otherwise have been," he says. "I became a bit of an outsider. Even in the bridge world, I'm a bit of a contrarian."

That quality—combined with a preference for simple solutions over polished product and an appreciation of the messy process and the imperfections—as long as they are not dysfunctional—has not always pleased everyone. Renowned Swiss engineer Christian Menn had worked with Zoli and others on the Zakim Bridge in Boston; Menn was the conceptual designer. When asked to do the same for the Streicker Bridge at Prince-ton, he asked Zoli to be the engineer-of-record.

"Ted made some decisions on his own, and Menn was rightfully upset," says David Billington, a professor emeritus at Princeton who has written books about Menn and the Swiss engineering legacy. Zoli strove to retain the striking, slender, converging geometry of the bridge, but his economics-driven engineering changes included light poles, bent and tilted I-sections for the railing, and a truss system of weathered leftover steel rather than precise sections.

Mixed campus reviews came in, with some even calling the bridge ugly. But to Zoli, "unpolished" aspects such as the rust color of the pipe trusses and the visible post-tensioning bolts in the deck are not drawbacks. "I don't mind showing the way something was built," he says, noting that the pipes evoke the dark, aged trunks of nearby trees. "The edges also support utilities, and we changed the truss member sizes to fit what was available. You use what you have."

Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer involved in the designer selection process, says, "Ted has a certain innate resistance to art for art's sake. He won't aestheticize something, but he will enhance an intelligent solution with an elegant touch. Menn brought a level of experience and maturity and sense of aesthetics."

Noting Zoli's relatively young age of 46, Nordenson adds, "I think he's still in the earlier stages of self-development." A stronger meshing of practicality and innovation with classical aesthetics, Nordenson believes, "will emerge over time because of the clarity of his thinking and intensity of his work."

Others see Zoli's different perspective as part of what makes him unique. "He doesn't follow the classic engineers—and that's how innovation happens," says George Deodatis, a civil engineering professor at Columbia University, where Zoli is an adjunct professor. "Ted is in the inspirational phase. I've discussed with him new ideas and forms and new materials—it's a period in time [similar to] the iron and steel revolutions. Ted is at the forefront of this revolution."

One of the new materials is black locust wood, the main component of Zoli's 400-ft-long Squibb Park footbridge in Brooklyn. Curving between trees and buildings and over streets, the bridge will use the wood as a durable, eco-friendly, context-sensitive material and connect with a new park designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Zoli also is exploring new materials in the name of public good using the five-year MacArthur grant of $500,000. His three projects involve disaster-relief structures: lightweight shelter roofs, extensions to temporary bridges and, in Morocco, a 175-ft-long synthetic rope bridge to be built this year. The goal is to build post-disaster structures quickly, with easily transported materials. Columbia University students will build the bridge as part of Engineers Without Borders.


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