Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s ‘Screwarch’: The Pop Art Bridge That Never Was

The drawings are stunning--a design of two massive screws, one on either shore, that were bent in an arch so the narrow tips would meet in the middle—but Oldenburg’s amazing bridge remains unbuilt.

Courtesy of Tate Museum

In 1996, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam was officially unveiled in a ceremony presided over by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It is a beautiful work of design—a sleek and modern expanse of cables sweeping in an upward arc from one shore to reach the point of a steel column that anchors the bridge on the other.

Still, there is another work of art that could have stood in this space, one that would have delighted pedestrians and drivers alike with its quirky sense of humor.

In 1977, artist Claes Oldenburg and his wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen created a proposal for a bridge intended to span the same Niewe Maas river in Rotterdam. From the start, the proposal was just theoretical, but, as it went along, the Pop Art duo created drawings, plans, and even a model in the hopes of convincing the government to bring it to life.

The project was called the “Screwarch Bridge,” and it was just that—a design of two massive screws, one on either shore, that were bent in an arch so the narrow tips would meet at an anchor point in the center of the bridge.

The now 87-year-old Oldenburg is considered one of the great Pop Artists, but his artistic career started as a child obsessed with drawing, one who used his imagination and drafting talents to create his own country, Neubern. No doubt influenced by his diplomat father, the young Oldenburg--who was born in Sweden but grew up largely in Chicago and became an American citizen in 1953--crafted a country from scratch complete with houses and cars, residents, and even a navy and an air force.

“I spent a lot of time drawing,” he told Interview in 2015.

After studying literature at Yale, Oldenburg returned to his early passion and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. As he embarked on his career as an artist, he quickly joined the burgeoning world of performance art and Happenings that were being staged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Throughout his long career, Oldenburg has experimented in multiple disciplines of art, and these forays have often inspired and blended into each other.

In the early 1960s, the artist debuted his “soft sculptures,” large objects made out of flexible materials like naugahyde and vinyl that achieved the same size as traditional hard sculptures, but were malleable and subject to constant change. He used this innovative and revolutionary technique to create pieces like his “Floor Hamburger” and slice of “Floor Cake,” “Three-Way Plug” and “Ice Bag.” All were ordinary objects, but ones that were blown up into enormous sizes and created in vibrant pops of color. Oldenburg designed the works of art, while his first wife, Patty Mucha, helped sew the objects into being.

This interest in transforming everyday objects into fun, whimsical, and sometimes ironic pieces of art has stayed with Oldenburg since the beginning of his career. “I’d like to get away from the notion of a work of art as something outside of experience, something that is located in museums, something that is terribly precious,” he once said.

After debuting his new “soft sculptures,” Oldenburg set his sights on the outside world. He became interested in public works of art and large-scale sculptures. His first of these pieces was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks,” a substantial monument installed at Yale and funded by the student body as part of their demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In this piece created in 1969, a massive tube of pink lipstick sits atop a charcoal black tank.

In the mid-60s, Oldenburg also began playing around with the interaction of art and architecture. In a series of works he called the “Proposed Colossal Monuments,” he created drawings of wonderful and outrageous monuments that were tied to specific locations.

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There was a skyscraper-sized vacuum cleaner propped up against neighboring buildings in the Battery in Manhattan; a giant fan stood guard on Staten Island in a parallel position to the Statue of Liberty; a train station in Florence was sketched out in the form of an oversized wristwatch; and an enormous teddy bear was plopped down in the middle of Central Park.

These projects may not have been realized, but they did lead to a series of public art sculptures that Oldenburg continues creating to this day that maintained the sense of humor of all of his work, while also interacting with their surroundings.

His first of these sculptures was a 45-foot “Clothespin” debuted in 1976 and situated between two office buildings in Centre Square in Philadelphia.

In this same year, Oldenburg says he began to notice—as he and his soon-to-be second wife and partner in art, Van Bruggen, traveled around the Dutch countryside—that the arches of bridges mirrored a screw.

They set about creating plans for a bridge that would bring this artistic observation to life, and, after learning that Rotterdam was planning on constructing a new bridge, they chose the center of the city as its location.

“Of course we realized how unlikely it was that a large bridge of our design might be chosen by the city, but we proceeded as if it could happen,” Oldenburg wrote in a statement on the project.

In addition to continuing Oldenburg’s series of real and theoretical large-scale art installations connected to their environments, the “Screwarch Bridge” project also had a personal significance for the couple.

Oldenburg revealed that “Van Bruggen” means “of bridges” in Dutch, and that the couple had also observed that “B” laid on its side resembles a bridge.

The drawings and plans for this bridge led to etchings in both black and white and in color. But the biggest contribution to this ultimately unrealized project came in 1978 when Oldenburg and Van Bruggen were chosen to participate in a show at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.

For their exhibit, they collected all of the materials they had prepared for the “Screwarch Bridge,” and created a new table model and a single large-scale “Screwarch” sculpture in aluminum, 3.86 meters high, or a model of what would have been half of the bridge.

And that’s as far as the “Screwarch Bridge” went. The project was only ever meant to be a fantastical idea—albeit one with the kernel of hope that some enlightened city officials might surprise the artists and choose it as the final bridge design.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead forever. After all, there are many crazy bridges in the world, like the Slauerhoffbrug also in the Netherlands, a bridge that uses the idea of a catapult to move the road out of the way of incoming boats, and the Rokots (or “Devil’s”) Bridge in Germany the creates the optical illusion of a circle using the water below.

And then, of course, there’s the Da Vinci Bridge in Norway, a bridge based on designs the master artist and inventor created in 1502 for the Golden Horn in Istanbul. Those city officials may have rejected the design, but, nearly 500 years later, others in Norway discovered the sketches and gave it a chance, debuting a smaller scale version of the bridge in 2001.

Maybe, just maybe, the “Screwarch Bridge” will enjoy the same fate and one day, years from now, the lucky residents of some European city will find their morning commutes brightened by a delightful drive across a bridge that looks like two giant screws doing a backbend to meet in the middle.