When you think of Serbia, what comes to mind? Could it be a certain war criminal? A nasty eruption of ethnic cleansing? Right. Well, Slobodan Milosevic is dead now, and Serbians are trying to move on. They would prefer the rest of the world did too. In Belgrade—where, eleven years ago, NATO bombed the fight out of the city for 72 days—that means rebuilding the infrastructure and attracting foreign investment. And that means, among other projects, building a bridge over the River Sava.
The bridge, fittingly, will connect old Belgrade with new Belgrade, and will be an expression of Serbia′s reemergence, fast-growing economy, and confidence in the future. The bridge will have six lanes of traffic, pedestrian and bike paths, and tracks for a light rail metro system that the city doesn′t even have yet. The works. When it is done later this year the bridge over the River Sava will be the widest cable-stay bridge hung by a single pylon.
That pylon is not just single—it′s singular. It is conical—wide at the bottom, pointy on top—requiring workers to cast ever narrower segments of concrete till they reached the tip. We got to be there when they did. At 525 feet tall, it will be the tallest landmark in Belgrade and it was a lovely, if disconcerting, spot from which to drink a glass of champagne. Looking down (I know, I shouldn′t have), we could see where the pylon was anchored in Ada Ciganlija Island, in the middle of the river. Well, not the middle exactly—about two-thirds of the way across. That asymmetry presented an engineering problem: wouldn′t one side of the bridge be vastly heavier than another? Wouldn′t the pylon end up pulled to one side like a guy carrying a suitcase in one hand and a sandwich in the other?
It would. Except that they made the short span out of high-density concrete and the long span out of lightweight steel, so that they ended up with different lengths, but equal weight. They put the cables not on the outside of the bridge, where they usually would go, but inside, on either side of the train tracks, so that people crossing in cars have an unobstructed view of the city. And those cables are, incredibly, being built on site, handcrafted along with each section of the bridge. (Normally they′d be shipped in pre-fab from Korea or the like.) Which means that when one of the million-dollar cables needs repair, local labor can fix it.
Of all the cool facts about this bridge, it was that local labor that I found most fascinating. For one thing, the young engineers on the project had never built anything of this magnitude before—or seen anything like it built. Since their childhoods, Belgrade had been a place of destruction, not construction. Watching them be a part of the city′s reemergence was pretty amazing.
Even better was watching the construction workers. For this first mega-project since the war, Belgrade had laborers travelling in from all over. And that means Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians working side-by-side, some for the first time in more than a decade. Some of them approached the work with trepidation, but they were relieved to find that much in common. And by working together they created much more. When the project is complete, they will have built more than just a bridge: they will have built a space for collaboration and even reconciliation.