Riccardo Morandi – Profile of a revolutionary bridge designer

  • The use of prestressed concrete stays was revolutionary in its day but proved to be Riccardo Morandi’s downfall
  • Forever remembered for the Genoa and Venezuela bridge collapses, Riccardo Morandi was involved in many successful structures
  • Lasting less than half of its expected lifespan, the Genoa Bridge was flawed from day one
  • In a telling indictment, few bridge designers ever adopted Riccardo Morandi’s design stamp of using prestressed concrete stays

Born on 1 September 1902, Riccardo Morandi is very much in the news even though he passed away on 25 December 1989. Renowned as a groundbreaking figure in bridge engineering throughout his career, the collapse of the Genoa Bridge (official name Ponte Morandi) in 2018 cast a dark shadow across his reputation. While it is unfortunate that the Genoa Bridge collapse will take centre stage for many years to come, the life and times of Riccardo Morandi was never straightforward.

Early career of Riccardo Morandi

Riccardo Morandi was born in Rome and passed away in his home city. His revolutionary use of prestressed concrete in his various bridge designs can be traced back to his early days, working with reinforced concrete in earthquake ravaged regions of the world. He began his journey in this field after his 1927 graduation when he visited Calabria.

His fascination for creating innovative structures continued as he opened his own office in Rome coming up with groundbreaking designs for cinemas and bridges, all involving prestressed concrete. He was appointed professor of bridge design for both the University of Rome and the University of Florence. The current focus may be on his Genoa Bridge design, and the subsequent collapse, but he also designed the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge in Venezuela which also experienced a partial collapse in April 1964.

carpineto bridge riccardo morandi

The Carpineto bridge in Italy designed by Riccardo Morandi (Image courtesy of Glabb)

Structures designed by Riccardo Morandi

Between 1953 and 1974 the record books show that Riccardo Morandi was involved in at least 11 bridge structures around the world. The list includes:

While this is not the complete list, it does give you an idea of the esteem with which he was held around the world designing bridges from Canada to Libya, Ecuador to South Africa. Riccardo Morandi was also involved in a number of other structures including airport designs but it will be his specific style of bridge which he will be forever associated with.

Riccardo Morandi’s individual style

Bridges designed by Riccardo Morandi stand out because of specific characteristics, which few other bridge designers adopted. While cable stayed bridges were fairly common back in the 1960s and 1970s, designs by Riccardo Morandi featured as little as two stays per span. This was unheard of at the time and rather than using traditional steel cables his designs incorporated prestressed concrete reinforced stays. While these designs may be extremely impressive on the eye, the cost of maintenance and damage from general wear and tear has proved to be significant over the years.

We live in an era where every dollar needs to be accounted for with many bridges designed by Morandi now costing more to maintain than they did to build. When you consider that the Ponte Morandi structure was finished back in 1967 we are looking at a lifespan of just under 50 years. The decision not to follow in Riccardo Morandi’s design footsteps has been vindicated as the life expectancy of a bridge is generally perceived to be a minimum of 100 years.

Riccardo Morandi criticised his own work

Since the Genoa Bridge collapse on 14 August, killing in excess of 40 people, a significant amount of surprising information has emerged. While engineers today have been critical of the initial design of the bridge, with constant maintenance required since 1970, Riccardo Morandi published his own report in 1979 recommending “constant maintenance of the structure”.

It would appear that the renowned designer was concerned that the “well-known loss of superficial chemical resistance of the concrete” caused by pollution from a nearby steel plant and the sea air would eventually need addressing. He proposed using an epoxy resin which would be super-resistant to the air pollution, which together with the removal of rust from the stays and addition use of filler would return the bridge to good health. The constant maintenance of the bridge continued until that fateful day on 14 August 2018, with work improving the foundations of the bridge ongoing as the structure gave way.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, Riccardo Morandi will be forever remembered as the designer of the Genoa Bridge which collapsed  in 2018. The fact that he oversaw the design of many more structures around the world, the majority of which still stand today, would appear to have been forgotten. While we await the conclusion of investigations into the Genoa Bridge collapse it would appear that fatal flaws in the initial design, requiring ongoing maintenance effectively since day one, were at least a contributing factor.

Unbeknown at the time, the use of prestressed concrete stays has proven to be the downfall of Riccardo Morandi’s individual style of bridge. The fact that the Genoa Bridge has lasted just less than half of its expected lifespan is something which the revolutionary designer will forever be associated with.

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