Monday, 23 September 2013

Preview: The Golden Gate Bridge

On the west coast of America, two peninsular strips of land almost meet. But they don't, and that gap between them links the Pacific Ocean with the large bay and natural harbour within. It is, in a sense, a gateway, and in 1846 a US army captain called John C. Fremont named it thus. He called it the Golden Gate, in reference to the harbour of Byzantium, which was called the Golden Horn. The name was prophetic - two years later gold was discovered in the area, and the small town on the bay called San Francisco exploded in just a couple from years from around 500 people to 35,000. This number continued to rise. Until eventually people thought that, to speed things up a little, it might be handy to have a bridge linking one peninsula to the other. So they built one.

This, of course, is the Golden Gate Bridge, the bridge that spans the Golden Gate, and not a bridge with golden gates. This fact seems to surprise, even disappoint, quite a few visitors to the city, who I guess picture either end of the bridge being graced with ornate solid-gold gates, perhaps with Classical and Baroque flourishes, even if it would impede the traffic flow somewhat. I think it would be nice if the tourist board played on this, and built a couple of shoddy gold-painted wooden gates for pedestrians wanting to walk across, with a sign saying "Here's your golden gate!" I can guarantee you it would be a tourist hit.

But the Golden Gate Bridge was never designed to be a tourist hit, it was just designed to be a bridge. The sprawling San Francisco Bay meant that people wanting to get across from San Francisco to northern California either had to take a ferry or a very long land route. Both were time consuming. A bridge was the obvious answer, and the Golden Gate the obvious location, being the shortest point between the two peninsulas. The idea had cropped up in the 19th Century, and later in the late 1910s, at which point the prospect was more realistic. The city engineer, Michael O'Shaughnessy, discussed it with various bridge engineers. One of them was a man called Joseph Strauss, who upon hearing about the idea virtually grabbed the entire city of San Francisco by the shirt collar and shouted at it "We are DOING THIS!"

Strauss was a small man with a big ego - to say he had Small Man Syndrome wouldn't be so far off. Only an estimated 5 feet 3 inches, it's said that the reason the bridge's barriers were reduced from 5 feet 5 to just 4 feet - and thus facilitate the bridge's infamously high suicide count - was so that he could see over them and enjoy the view. Born in 1870, by 1902 he'd established a practice as a consulting engineer for the general design of bridges, and had been innovative and successful. In his life, he built over 400 bridges, mostly by his own design. However, they had been smaller scale, and practical rather than aesthetic. Strauss had frustrated dreams of grandeur and was determined to make a big statement. In his university thesis, he'd suggested the bridging the Bering Strait, that is the sea between Alaska and Russia, an insanely ambitious idea. And so when the prospect of bridging the Golden Gate came up, he grabbed it with both hands.

If Strauss hadn't existed, there's little doubt the Golden Gate would have been bridged eventually, but who knows when, or how it would have looked. It's unlikely the combination of factors would have fallen as they did to create something as beautiful and iconic as we have now. The distinctive Art Deco of the two towers could surely only ever have belonged to the one era. So we have Strauss to thank for making a vision possible. Even though his initial vision was this:

This immense beast was Strauss's cantilever-suspension combination, and was the vision that persisted for much of the 1920s. During that decade, there were many surveys and plans made, and even more legal battles with all kinds of people. It is thanks to the sheer pushiness of Strauss that these were overcome, and funds raised despite the numerous, usually spurious, objections. Like a furious terrier, he just didn't let go. Even though the proposal for building the bridge was passed in 1923, it took another six years of hard campaigning, legal defence, and popular promotion until work started. "There is no better place for the 8th Wonder of the World than Northern California," Strauss once told a meeting of investors. It was clear that Strauss knew this would be no ordinary bridge.

The frustrating delays were the best thing that could have happened. In that time, technology had conveniently progressed. A suspension bridge is not like other bridges - it is more like a clothesline, swinging in the wind. A lot of complicated mathematics, stress calculations and educated guesses were involved in building this mega-clothesline capable of holding hundreds of heavy vehicles. Previously, the 2737-metre distance across a gap of uncertain foundations was stretching the realms of possibility, but advances meant that, yes, a suspension bridge would now be possible for the Golden Gate. This seems to be the point where Strauss quietly began retreating to the background. He had assembled around him a team of expert engineers and designers that, if truth be told, were at a level beyond him. From then on, he entirely entrusted them to run the show. Strauss effectively spent a decade preparing the show and as soon as the show begun, he disappeared into the background. At least in doing anything useful related to the bridge management that is - he stayed in the public eye, hogging all the glory.

Soil on the San Francisco side was first broken on November 25th, 1929. Suspension bridge engineer Leon Moisseiff came up with the basic suspension design. A mathematical whizz called Charles Ellis (later controversially sacked by Strauss for taking too long) further developed the design and made it structurally feasible. Strauss's deputy and later equal partner, Clifford Paine, effectively took over the running. An architect called John Eberson suggested an Art Deco look to the towers, and a local architect, Irving Morrow further stylised these to the handsome structures we see now. The famous orange-red colour - Dulux International Orange - was more-or-less a fluke. Just as being a suspension bridge was never part of the original plan, neither was painting the thing orange. One engineer's report advised painting it silver, so it would shine day and night, and the Navy wanted it to have yellow and black stripes, like a bee, to assure visibility. I'm very surprised nobody ever thought of painting it gold to be honest. But while being built, it was covered in a basic red lead paint simply to prevent rust, with the expectation that different colours would be tested later. But it proved a popular colour, and by 1935 Morrow suggested they go with something close to that for the final shade. Importantly, even though he was very much taking a back seat by then, Strauss agreed. Probably, Dulux International Orange is the small detail that lifts the Golden Gate Bridge from being attractive and impressive to having that truly world-class star quality.

By mid-1934, the tower on the far side of the Golden Gate from San Francisco - the Marin tower - was complete. The San Francisco tower took a little longer, due to a devastating storm that wiped out months of work, but was finished by mid-1935. Both are 227 metres tall, then the tallest structures in the city, with only a couple of buildings superseding them in the last 75 years. The cables - that is, the clothesline part of the design where the roadway hangs from - were complete by May 1936, by the same company (John A Roebling and Sons) that had built the Brooklyn Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge has 80,000 miles of wire in total. On May 27th 1937 the bridge was officially opened. And less than one year later, Joseph Strauss, aged 68, died suddenly of a stroke. A statue of him was built within sight of the bridge.

There's no doubt, the Golden Gate Bridge is a good looking bridge. Handsomely tapering Art Deco towers and boldly orange, it exudes a confidence, and a blend of necessary function and finely judged aesthetic, all against a scenic backdrop. Another product of the 1930s American spirit despite the Depression, and a bone-fide global icon for the city of San Francisco, it's surely the most famous bridge in the world.

And not uncommonly is it talked of as a World Wonder. The American Society of Civil Engineers named it as one of their 7 Wonders of the Modern World and a simple Google search sees the association made frequently. I worry a little that it may end up being a little "regular", no more than just a very large suspension bridge that happens to be famous - but then, I might say that about the Great Wall of China, and I know how wrong that would be. On a more practical level, I worry that the famous fogs of San Francisco might mostly or entirely conceal a clear view of the whole thing, which would kind of hamper my assessment. How long am I willing to spend in San Francisco to wait for a clear day?

We'll see. I intend to visit the Golden Gate Bridge perhaps from late next year, and if the weather behaves itself I'll give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those structures that is a short hand for the country that it is in. I call them "guidebook cover buildings" (not meant in a bad way), like the Coliseum or the Taj Mahal. They symbolise a lot more than just their immediate surroundings.

    By the way, another way of describing a structure that is typical enough to be on a guidebook cover is as a Hollywood shortcut: show the Golden Gate Bridge for a few seconds on the big screen and you don't need to waste time explaining to the viewers that the action takes place in San Francisco.

    As you point out, it wasn't meant to be iconic or representative of anything, it was just meant to be a useful and much needed piece of infrastructure; in a way I prefer things like that. Cathedrals, the Pyramids, and various palaces were meant from the very start to be grand and impressive. I find it a lot more interesting when something becomes a site to behold almost by accident.