It's amazing what a difference a bridge makes.

Before the Sundial Bridge, Redding for most travelers was a faceless, drive-by blip on Interstate 5 midway between Sacramento and the cool, piney promise of Oregon.

Now, thanks to the vision of famed Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, it's a put-on-the-brakes, get-out-the-camera destination for visitors from all over the world.

"Very seldom do I walk on the bridge and not hear a foreign language being spoken," says longtime resident Bob Warren, who led the regional tourism bureau when the bridge was in the design and construction phase.

"In America, there aren't so many people who follow architecture," he adds, "but in other countries, it's common for people to be phobic fans of a particular architect, and to travel to see their work."

Since it opened to almost universal "wows" in 2004, the one-of-a-kind pedestrian-and-bike span over the Sacramento River has become much more than a magnet for Calatrava groupies. It's also a focal point for Redding, a gathering spot for families and the gateway to an expansive trail system that woos cyclists and hikers from throughout California and beyond. "The bridge has become an icon that our city is identified by," says Krista Buckle of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association. "It's a great selling point, very beautiful and unique."

Public art


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Few would disagree. The 700-foot-long structure, decked with translucent glass that casts dapples on the river below, is a functional piece of public art whose 217-foot angled steel pylon functions as a gnomon, making it in essence the world's largest sundial. At night, with its 14 white suspension cables lit from below and glowing surrealistically against a black sky, the assembly resembles a giant harp -- or maybe a spaceship, or a stylized dinosaur spine.

To celebrate the bridge's first-decade anniversary, Redding is hosting Celebrate 10, a June 20-July 4 fest that will encompass everything from a troupe of "vertical dancers" performing acrobatic feats while suspended from the pylon, to family float trips on the river and special exhibits at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, a museum and arboretum complex spanning 300 acres on either side of the bridge.

That the bridge exists at all is a tribute to visionary planning and close collaboration between the city and the McConnell Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that footed most of structure's $23.5 million tab.

In the early 1990s, the city and foundation determined that they wanted a bridge connecting the two Turtle Bay campuses. Neither was interested in an ordinary concrete span. "With taxpayer money, you get a Caltrans bridge. That's not what we envisioned," notes John Mancasola, vice president for the foundation.

What they ended up with was something no one could have envisioned.

Aesthetic vision

Initial plans for a bridge did not involve Calatrava -- or a budget anywhere near what his aesthetic vision eventually would require. But when the bridge-design committee came to an impasse over concepts solicited from other architects, Mancasola and a colleague tracked down a phone number for Calatrava's headquarters in Switzerland. No one could have been more surprised when the architect himself answered the phone.

"Redding, California?" Calatrava had never heard of it, but he was intrigued. On his first visit, Mancasola recalls, the charismatic Spaniard immediately drew a connection between "the blue mountains of Redding" and his home region of Catalonia.

Still, controversy dogged the project from the start. Some residents complained that modern Spanish architecture had no place in a town like Redding. Others insisted that a covered-bridge type structure would better reflect the city's lumber and railroad heritage.

A challenging build

Construction on the Sundial Bridge began in 1999, and with it began five years of engineering and fabrication challenges. Calatrava despised concrete; his design was a curvilinear creation of steel, granite, porcelain and glass. In order to protect sensitive salmon-spawning habitat, the bridge reared above and across the river without touching it. And the decision to have no piers in the water bumped up the cost considerably, Mancasola says.

But when the Sundial Bridge opened July 4, 2004, even the naysayers were star-struck. The tourists started coming, and a decade later they haven't stopped -- and neither have the locals.

As Calatrava puts it succinctly in the documentary "Angle of Inspiration" (available on YouTube), "A bridge makes different a place."

Contact Janet Fullwood via travel@bayareanewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Redding is on Interstate 5 about 150 miles north of Sacramento and 125 miles south of the Oregon border.
Where to stay: Many chain properties, including Holiday Inn and Best Western, are represented here, but for something different, try Bridge House B&B in Redding (530-247-7177; www.reddingbridgehouse.com) or Gaia Hotel & Spa, an eco-friendly property in nearby Anderson (530-365-7077; www.gaiashasta.com).
Where to eat: A few Redding restaurants stand out for local color and decent eats:
Jack's Bar & Grill, an old-school steakhouse, specializes in succulent beef dishes served in a 1930s atmosphere. Dinner only. 1743 California St.; 530- 241-9705; www.jacksgrillredding.com.
Tail O' The Whale at Bridge Bay Resort on Lake Shasta offers decent food, friendly service, a lively bar scene and killer views of the lake. 530-275-302; www.sevencrown.com/lakes/lake_shasta/bridge_bay/restaurants.htm.
Nello's Place is a sink-into-a-booth-and-get-your-napkin-ready kind of place serving classic Italian in a classic atmosphere. Dinner only. 3055 Bechelli Lane; 530-223-1636; www.nellosrestaurant.net.
-- Janet Fullwood