Bridgebusting!

The local morning radio show on CBC Radio One includes a weekly segment called World in One City. Each week, they visit the home of a local resident who cooks a meal from their country of birth (or their parents or grandparents’ country of birth). I find it more interesting for the stories the residents tell, than the food itself.

This morning, the focus was on Don Westwood. He is originally from England, and with the Olympics now in London, the media is looking for excuses to focus on that city.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that Westwood sounded familiar. I assumed it was because his accent is very similar to Michael Cain’s. Then it struck me after I got to work and remembered that he also taught architecture for 30 years at Carleton University here in town. Westwood had a series on TVO called The Science of Architecture, and I believe the parenthetical subtitle was Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. I enjoyed the series but that isn’t what I remember most.

Every year, one of the projects he assigned his architecture students was the construction a of a model bridge. It had to span a 75 cm gap and the acceptable construction materials were very limited: balsa wood and cotton thread. No glue, nails, or screws! Westwood and the bridge builder would test the span by loading bricks upon it until the structure failed. The best part was that this testing phase aired on the local community cable channel. It was surprisingly entertaining.

As Neil Fraser, a former student of Westwood’s, and a bridgebusting participant, wrote in a blog post from a few years ago,

Banning glue results in structures that bend and twist as loads are applied, not structures that simply shatter when the epoxy fails. … the commentary and slow motion analysis is key to unlocking the lessons that each bridge tells. This event isn’t just a demolition, it is truly educational.

I recall that they would diagnose and discuss exactly how each structure failed using slow-motion footage of the moment the structure failed catastrophically. I don’t know how I ever stumbled onto the broadcasts, but I watched them for a several years and always looked forward to the next airing. It was popular enough that you can find VHS recordings of the show transferred to YouTube.

I eventually lost track of the yearly event, but I have very fond memories of Bridgebusting. Westwood was a remarkably dynamic and engrossing speaker. He retired sometime around 2001.

He was the man making Cottage Pie on the radio this morning!

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