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Redding, CA's Sundial Bridge Celebrates 20th Anniversary

By Chadd Scott on

Why was one of the world’s foremost architects – living in Switzerland at the time – interested in designing a bridge halfway across the world in unknown Redding, CA?

That’s a good story.

Located between Sacramento and the Oregon border on Interstate 5, Redding wanted a pedestrian bridge spanning the Sacramento River, linking Turtle Bay Museum to its arboretum and river trail. The city aspired to more than a basic concrete expanse the government was offering.

A small citizens committee was formed to elicit bids on the project and pick a winner. After interviewing three architects, the group had reached an impasse. The membership was split with no one willing to give up their vote and put either candidate over the top.

At the same time, the McConnell Foundation, a Redding-based philanthropic organization, was designing its headquarters in East Redding. It was using NBBJ architects in Seattle. McConnell Foundation’s executive vice president at the time, John Mancasola, traveled there for a design meeting on the Foundation’s project and noticed a Santiago Calatrava coffee table book in the office.

Calatrava (b. 1951) was, and remains, one of the most celebrated architects on either side of the Atlantic. The book included his work on bridges around the globe. At that point, he had not done a bridge project in the United States.

See where this is going?

“John came back to the citizens group and said, ‘I was just at this meeting in Seattle, did a little research on this Santiago Calatrava, what would you think if we reached out to him,’ and the committee said, ‘what do we have to lose,’” Shannon Phillips, a 30-year McConnell Foundation employee and now Chief Operating Officer, remembers.

This would be tantamount to seeing a Cindy Sherman photography coffee table book at the hairdresser and then deciding to see if she could shoot your wedding pictures, but what the hell.

“John picked up the phone and dialed Calatrava's Zurich office and Calatrava answered the phone,” Phillips said.


“John introduced himself, what our dilemma was, that he was representing a private foundation interested in doing a signature pedestrian bridge for this very important project in the heart of Redding and would he even entertain considering us as a client,” Phillips continued.

Yes, he would.

Equally unbelievable.


“During (Calatrava’s) first visit to Redding, as he recounted that phone call, he said, ‘I thought to myself, if a small town in northern California thinks I'm worthy of doing work for them, they are worthy of me seeing if I should do work for them,’” Phillips said.

On that visit, Calatrava was impressed by Redding’s beauty and natural landscape. The city is surrounded by mountains and national forest. Mount Shasta is 60 miles north on I-5. Parts of Redding reminded Calatrava of his hometown in Valencia, Spain.

“When he visited the actual site where the pedestrian bridge was proposed – walked the site, saw the river, understood what we were trying to achieve – he noticed quickly that there was a natural sundial and that intrigued him to do a design that could build upon that,” Phillips recalls.

So he did, and built a gorgeous, angular, futuristic – still – pedestrian bridge that doubles as the world’s largest sundial.

Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. Courtesy

Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. Courtesy

Sundial Bridge

Sundial Bridge opened on July 4, 2004, spanning 700 feet across the Sacramento River. It was constructed from 580 tons of steel, 200 tons of glass and granite, and is supported by 4,300 feet of cable. Its tall pylon cable stays are designed to avoid disturbing or interrupting the nearby salmon-spawning habitat.

The design is a cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge, with the dial of the sundial and a small plaza beneath the support tower decorated with broken white tile from Spain.

Cloaked in translucent glass casting a glow on the rushing water below, the bridge is equipped with a 217-foot angled steel pylon functioning as a gnomon – the object casting the shadow of the sundial.

“He's such a brilliant man. He's an architect. He's an engineer. He's an artist. He's a sculptor. He's a scholar. He speaks seven languages. His work is so beautiful and artistic and complex. Just being in his presence was awe inspiring,” Phillips remembers. “I think the community was a little bit taken aback that we were even having an opportunity to have someone of his caliber visit us and spend time with us.”

That doesn’t mean there was no resistance to allowing the Spaniard to take over the city’s most important public monument project in a lifetime.

“First of all, why not an American designer? Second of all, why not a local designer,” Phillips said of community objections. “Third of all, what’s something like this is going to cost (about $24 million ultimately), and then there was a whole conversation about culture. Some people felt we should look into the past and build a covered bridge. Some people were having a hard time understanding something so contemporary, so cosmopolitan, and so elegant and sophisticated in our natural environment.”

Contemporary art, be that French Impressionism or Calatrava’s architecture, challenges the status quo. It requires a futures mindset. Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower upon its completion. It was so strange. So modern. So unlike anything else.

New takes getting used to.

“We found ourselves saying, ‘think about the (Gateway) Arch or the Space Needle or the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower or even the Golden Gate Bridge – we found ourselves saying that in the community,” Phillips recalls. “If you talk to those communities, they'll tell you on the front end, people were skeptical and hesitant and critical, and on the back end, it becomes something that defines your community and gives you a point of pride and a point of excellence. That is exactly what the Sundial Bridge has done for Redding and our region.”

As Phillips tells it, Calatrava himself helped talk the skeptics into it.

“I remember distinctly we held a community meeting at the Holiday Inn on Hilltop Drive which at that time was our largest meeting room space. We invited community leaders, the mayor, the city council, people who were going to be important stakeholders in decision making – whether (Calatrava) went forward – and he had an overhead projector, and as he spoke, he sketched what he imagined for Redding,” she said. “No one could dispute the thoughtfulness. He went into describing our landscape and what he envisioned for it and why bridges are important and the purpose that they serve. That helped him to win over many hearts.”


The city agreed to move forward with Calatrava’s design in 1996.

Mancasola’s cold call and Redding’s faith in the outsider were rewarded.

“We did put up with a lot of contentious thoughts, and then the bridge was built and the noise stopped,” Phillips said. “Instantly, it became a community gathering place. It’s become the place where kids want to go on their first date, or they want to have their prom pictures or wedding pictures taken, or anniversary celebrations.”

Redding’s postcard.

Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. Courtesy 2

Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. Courtesy 2

Celebrating 20 Years

Visiting the Sundial Bridge is free. As is parking. It’s accessible to all physical abilities and ages. It’s right next to I-5 and constantly hosts public events.

Upon completion, the bridge connected 300 acres that has become the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, while adding one more link to Redding’s river trail, today stretching over 26 miles.

With the Sundial Bridge celebrating its 20th anniversary this July 4th, Redding is going all out in commemoration.

Oakland’s BANDALOOP aerial dance company will be performing on the bridge. “The angle of inspiration,” a 30-minute documentary retelling the story of Sundial Bridge funded by the McConnell Foundation will be showing in Redding’s original 1935 theatre in the heart of town.

There will be a DJ on bridge night. Fireworks on the Fourth. A community art competition and exhibit of sundial art. A rafting experience. “Brews on the Bridge.”

A week’s worth of Spanish cuisine served at the Sheraton Redding Hotel at the Sundial Bridge’s Mosaic restaurant in honor of Calatrava.

Most of the events are free and a full schedule can be found at


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