Thursday, 28 August 2014

61. Wonder: The Golden Gate Bridge

(For the Golden Gate Bridge preview, please click here.)

A 10-metre jump into water takes less than a second, and still really hurts: I know from experience. It takes about 3 seconds to jump 40 metres, a distance managed by an elite group of divers, at high risk of injury. 75 metres takes about 4 seconds. That extra second makes all the difference, adding so much energy to the impact that no diver would ever attempt it. It would be suicide. The main deck of the Golden Gate Bridge is 75 metres above the water, and 98% of people who have jumped have died.

San Francisco has a loaded gun on its doorstep. In 1968, the number of confirmed suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge was tallied at 352, which just so happened to be neck-and-neck with the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower dealt with it by putting up effective safety barriers, and the number has barely budged since. The Golden Gate Bridge, however, has never had effective safety barriers. In 1973, two newspapers started countdowns to the 500th jumper - bridge officials even had to turn back a man with a cardboard sign saying "500" pinned to his T-shirt. By 1995 the official number had reached 997, and the media began to hype up "who would be 1000?". The California Highway Patrol decided to stop counting. Now, unofficially, around 1600 people have died from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, although that number only counts the bodies found or people spotted jumping; many more may have gone unnoticed. Despite a more discreet media coverage, it still has an established, irresistible appeal for some. Indeed, 2013 was reported to be its deadliest year, with 46, almost one death a week.

The first person to jump was Harold Wobber, in August 1937, just three months after the bridge opened. Three more people followed him that year. The first survivor was in 1941, Cornelia Van Ierland. Her thick coat billowed out, creating a parachute effect, although she still broke both her arms, her back, neck vertebrae, had the flesh from her legs and thighs torn, and spent four months in hospital. Her reason? She had "an irresistible impulse to jump". The founder of Victoria's Secret killed himself from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993. Over the years, a kind of "romance" has developed to the Golden Gate Bridge's suicides; it's become part of the folklore, almost part of the "appeal". But 1600-plus mentally ill or disturbed people being able to kill themselves easily is no charm.

"Who would want to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge?" Joseph Strauss told reporters, as it was being constructed. He was the chief engineer and driving force behind the bridge's construction, and was also the reason, so it is claimed, that the safety barriers are so low. He was a short man, only a little over 5-foot tall. The barriers are just 4-foot - he wanted them that height so that he could see over them. 4-foot is a very small number for a bridge with otherwise very big ones: 1.7 miles in length, both towers 227 metres above the water, weighing in at a very hefty 887, 000 tons, twice as heavy as the Empire State Building or 80 times the Eiffel Tower. It's a big bridge. And it's more than just a big bridge: it's an icon. People in the fog of depression or other illness don't want to throw themselves off a bridge, they want to throw themselves off an icon. And this icon makes it pretty easy.

By city standards, San Francisco is a very new city and by mega bridge standards, the Golden Gate Bridge is a pretty old bridge. San Francisco has existed without the Golden Gate Bridge, but not for terribly long: this wonderful city of micro-climates, severe slopes, and eclectic neighbourhoods is today inseparable from its landmark bridge. When it was built, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. These days, it's 12th on the list, but just as the Empire State Building is still tall, the Golden Gate Bridge is still long. It hasn't shrunk. And visiting a suspension bridge that is 1.7 miles long in total and connects one peninsula to another, with an ocean on one side and a huge bay on the other, there is only one correct response: wow, that's a mighty bridge.

Unless driving in from the north from Marin County, for visitors to San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge isn't something you might immediately stumble upon. Go downtown, along Market Street, through the financial district and to the Ferry Building with its distinctive late 19th Century clock tower, and it's a different bridge you'll see. The Bay Bridge connects San Francisco with the city of Oakland and is technically two bridges connecting each shore with Yerba Buena island in the middle, with a tunnel running through the island connecting the bridges. The longest part, on the San Francisco side, is essentially two suspension bridges joined together and shares some obvious similarities with the Golden Gate Bridge: they are vast suspension bridges connecting San Francisco with the world, and they were built in exactly the same era: the Golden Gate Bridge took from 1933 to 1937; the Bay Bridge from 1933 to 1936. But the story of the Golden Gate Bridge can be found in the differences. The Bay Bridge was federally funded, and cost $77 million (about $1.3 billion today). The Golden Gate Bridge was locally funded, with voters from the six counties affected voting 3:1 in favour of putting their properties up as collateral to raise the money. It cost half that of the Bay Bridge, at $35 million (about $580 million today). 28 people lost their lives building the Bay Bridge; only eleven died building the Golden Gate Bridge, and ten of them in a single incident near the end. The Bay Bridge is technically much longer, over four-and-a-half miles in total, but this is made up of various parts; the Golden Gate Bridge is purer in style, with the much greater single suspended span between its towers, 1280 metres compared to the Bay Bridge's 704 and 430 metres, and so looks much grander. The Bay Bridge is grey, the Golden Gate Bridge is orange-red: the Bay Bridge is an impressive, handsome bridge - but the Golden Gate Bridge is a whole different league. The Bay Bridge is a great bridge; the Golden Gate Bridge is a great icon.

Danielle and I decided for our first visit to the Golden Gate Bridge to walk there, all the way from downtown. Turns out it's quite far. Beginning at the Ferry Building, with the Bay Bridge in sight, we enjoyed a pleasant walk along the waterfront. Passing lots of piers, with boat trips and tours to Alcatraz, lined with souvenir shops and bars boasting of Happy Hours, this initial part of the waterfront was very much inclined towards tourism. The Golden Gate Bridge still wasn't in view. But shortly after the San Francisco peninsula turns a corner and our route changed from north-west to west, the crowds thinned out, the souvenir vendors disappeared, and locals start to appear. It was about this time that we glimpsed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.

So far, so good. A big bridge in the distance, but from this distance the Bridge's glories are just hinted at. The hint of red, the undoubted length. But this is still a couple of miles away. It's when we got a little closer that it started to become clearer what makes the Golden Gate Bridge so special.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a bridge, sure, but it's also Art Deco gorgeousness, looking poised, powerful, and ever so handsome. It grows more and more special the closer you get. It is a landmark bridge, both in its history and iconic status, but also as a simple visual spectacle. Great pieces of art and architecture compel the viewer to just stand and behold them, and the Golden Gate Bridge indeed does this. What makes it so special? There are a lot of suspension bridges in the world, so why does the Golden Gate Bridge stand out? To my eyes, its magic factor is the colour. A rich, burnt red, it gives the bridge a warmth and personality, as well as a natural quality, blending with the Marin County cliffs. It didn't have to be this way. The military wanted this:

Black-and-yellow bee stripes, so that passing planes and boats would be able to see it more easily in foggy conditions. It's a man named Irving Morrow we have to thank for the red colour, or International Orange to give the proper name. Originally, a standard grey had been planned, but he thought that was boring. He was a local architect and aware that this would be a permanent city landmark, so wanted something attractive and sympathetic to the area, not a cold, grey, metal brute. While the bridge was being constructed, it was covered by a temporary red lead paint to prevent corrosion, and Morrow encouraged this as the final colour. Fortunately, Strauss agreed, and even the military could have no objection with the bright choice.

As it happens, the red lead paint was fortuitous for us, but not so much for the workers. It was slapped on early, without any finesse, even before sections had been put together. Riveters fastened together the bridge's many steel sections, including the insides of the towers, which are composed of claustrophobic honeycomb-like cell spaces piled on top of each other. In these confined spaces, the lead of the paint caused problems, and many riveters found themselves hospitalised, some losing their teeth and hair. Ventilation was improved as a result, helping matters. 

As well as the colour, the towers too can't be underestimated as to the effect they have on the bridge's overall aesthetics. Each stand at 227 metres above the water level, or 152 metres above the deck, and were the tallest structures in San Francisco for over 30 years (even today they're the fourth tallest). Their characteristic Art Deco style could only ever have belonged to one age, and a movie theatre designer called John Eberson is to thank for first suggesting it. Irving Morrow then ran with his idea, further shaping the towers to look like gateways, and giving them a streamlined verticality. Between the International Orange and the Art Deco towers, we have a lot to thank Morrow for.

It's not just the bridge itself, it's the location. This cannot be underestimated – the Golden Gate Bridge occupies a quite remarkable part of the world. It spans the Golden Gate, so named in 1846 by an American army captain called John Fremont, as two peninsulas – San Francisco and Marin - almost meet, with the gap becoming a gateway between the Pacific and San Francisco Bay. Fremont could not have come up with a better name: when the Golden Gate was first named, San Francisco was a small, irrelevant town, but then gold was discovered – and it became a city. Despite the devastating earthquake of 1906, which levelled most of it, San Francisco's urban sprawl soon took over its peninsula, and that's what the bridge connects today – the densely packed urban area of San Francisco to the rugged cliffs of Marin County. On one side, the endless Pacific, on the other the wide bay, dotted with islands, and with the hills and towers of San Francisco clustered to one side.

Fremont's name became doubly appropriate, because the Golden Gate Bridge also acts as a gateway into San Francisco. Although actually getting it built was a struggle, that there would eventually be something called the Golden Gate Bridge was surely inevitable. By the early 20th Century, cars were becoming more and more popular, and the ferry system connecting Marin County to San Francisco was struggling. Delays were frequent and huge. The simple solution was to build a bridge, and the gap at the Golden Gate was the shortest. Less simple was how exactly to build a bridge there. The water was deep and turbulent, and the gap was a still significant 2000 metres. The technology didn't yet exist, or at least any solution was prohibitively expensive. And the government weren't inclined to help – it would have to be privately funded.

What then occurred was a fluke of character and timing. A man called Joseph Strauss stepped in. He was an experienced bridge builder, with over 400 bridges to his name, but most were practical rather than aesthetic. His design for the Golden Gate Bridge was a monstrously ugly design - but with a drastically more affordable budget. The project was to be funded by bonds, bought by the public and to be repaid by bridge tolls, and $25 million was a lot better than previous projections of $250 million. Whether it was realistic, we'll never know, because although his proposal was passed in 1923, and the war department gave approval by the end of 1924 (they had been concerned it might interfere with ship traffic), the need to raise the required funds and other delays, including the Stock Market Crash of 1929, meant construction didn't begin for another nine years, in January 1933. By which time, the design was radically different.

The delays - and advances in structural engineering in that time - meant that Strauss's monstrous Golden Gate Bridge had become a beautiful suspension bridge. Strauss assembled an elite team of mathematicians, engineers, and designers: in reality, the Golden Gate Bridge is their bridge. Strauss's actual role in the eventual design wasn't much; his real role was in continued promotion of the thing, although that was something he did with vigour, keeping the idea alive when a weaker man would have found it easier to move on. One of the key men he employed was a man called Charles Ellis, a professor of structural and bridge engineering, with an academic background in maths and Greek. There hadn't been much of a living in Greek translation, so his maths skills had led him into bridge design and he'd become part of Strauss's workforce in 1922. Together, during the delays with the Golden Gate Bridge, he and Strauss built a few other big bridges, including the 1070-metre Quincy Memorial Bridge over the Mississippi in 1927, and the 2.5 kilometre Longview (now Lewis and Clark) Bridge over the Columbia River in 1929 (although neither of them were suspension bridges). He did a mountain of work to prove that a suspension bridge could span the Golden Gate, involving a lot of very complicated guesses, maths, and stress calculations in a day before computers. In effect, he was designing a giant clothesline, that would swing in the wind, expand in the sun, contract in the cold, capable of supporting tons and tons of lorries.

Ellis's reward for all of this? He was fired. At the end of December, 1931, Strauss felt he was taking too long getting the design for the bridge's towers, so sent him packing. Not only that, he entirely expunged his name from his final report upon the bridge's completion, giving him no credit whatsoever, an unforgiveable and unprofessional act. Perhaps Strauss was simply jealous: his own, ugly bridge had disappeared in the hands of the maths genius that was Ellis, and he didn't want Ellis stealing his glory. Only in 1997 was Ellis given official recognition for his part in the designs.

Ellis's work was based upon the theories of another man, Leon Moisseiff, a leading designer of suspension bridges, who also joined Strauss's team. Another man, Clifford Paine, took the reigns of chief engineer after Strauss chose to take a backseat in the actual construction; they eventually became equal partners in Strauss's renamed firm, Strauss and Paine, Incorporated. John Eberson suggested the Art Deco theme for the towers, and Irving Morrow further developed this, and decided the bridge would be International Orange. In August 1929, this team first met, and although the bridge was still in design, the first bit of soil was drilled on the San Francisco side three months later. Actual construction began in January 1933, and the bridge formally opened on May 28th, 1937. An icon was born.

It was an immediate hit, as it remains today. The day before it opened, a special “Pedestrians' Day” was declared, with the general public turning up in force – 200,000 of them, in full party mode. Tubas, unicycles, dancing, the entire city embraced the bridge with gusto. The numbers were bettered in 1987 for the 50th anniversary celebrations – up to 300,000 people turned up, in what was almost the greatest single man-made disaster in history. In an astonishing act of stupidity, officials let the people march from both sides, meaning the crowds met in the middle, causing hours of gridlock. Hundreds of thousands of people standing on the bridge all at once, unable to move. The bridge sagged a couple of metres under the weight, and started swaying. The Golden Gate Bridge was engineered to hold 4000 pounds for every foot of the bridge's length (that's equivalent to about 2700 kilograms per metre, but let's stick to imperial here as it keeps things simpler); that day the added weight of the pedestrians took it to 5400 pounds per foot – twice the weight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Fortunately, just the year before, the bridge had been strengthened, to 5700 pounds per foot. Disaster was narrowly averted, and the blissfully innocent crowds eventually managed to untangle themselves and dispersed peacefully. These days, with smartphones and Twitter, you wonder what the consequences of a mass panic might be.

After Danielle and I admired the bridge for a while, it was time to cross it. I won't pretend otherwise: it's pretty scary. I'm not bad with heights, but I'm not keen on low barriers either; the wind was blowing hard and I had images of a sudden gust picking Danielle up and flinging her over the edge. A six-lane motorway runs alongside the walkway, and the constant roar of traffic is anything but calming. We were far from the only people making the long walk, crowds of people were walking back and fore, and last year's suicide statistic - almost once a week - kept playing in my head. Perhaps that person ahead might suddenly vault over the side! What's that man doing, just staring over the edge? Do I have what it takes to talk someone down from jumping? Would "please please please don't jump" be enough? These ridiculous fears added to the distinctly low barrier and distinctly high drop to the water below meant that walking across the Golden Gate Bridge wasn't the most relaxing experience of my Wonder career. In fact, it bordered on slightly terrifying. Slightly terrifying, but more than slightly tremendous.

The holes in the deck didn't help my nerves much.

As we finally made it to the end, my nerves a little shaken, and after many hours of walking from the Ferry Building, just a little tired, we enjoyed the views from the other side.

And we looked forward to getting a bus back. Except... from where? We couldn't figure it out. And so, back we walked...

As you may have seen from the picture of above of Danielle celebrating, there are some higher barriers. Like this one too.

These are in the minority, only on parts of the bridge above land, to prevent people dropping objects (or themselves, I guess) over, potentially onto people below. And there's no doubt, they don't look very nice. Which seems to be the main reason that effective safety barriers haven't been built: the bridge's aesthetic appeal is more important. A poll of 1600 locals in 2008 suggested 75% opposed to any changes. A common misconception is that suicidal people will just find another means to kill themselves, something that simply isn't true. But just this year, it seems, the Golden Gate Bridge authorities have finally changed their mind, and a $76 million steel net, jutting out from the sides, is planned. It's due to be completed in 2018, and doesn't look so bad at all.

The Golden Gate Bridge has just about everything a World Wonder needs: it is massive, it is iconic, it is strikingly beautiful, and it is manifestly an impressive feat of engineering. The best Wonders out there simply compel you to stop and stare, and the Golden Gate Bridge does this. It has star appeal. There is no doubt upon seeing it that you are seeing something special. And for a while upon seeing it, I was thinking, "this might trouble the Top Seven..."

But. But but but. Remember I mentioned there were longer suspension bridges out there? Well, it's not an irrelevant thing. The Golden Gate Bridge's suspended span, that is the part held up between the two towers, is 1280 metres. Here are some longer ones:

This is the Akashi Kaikyo (or just Pearl) Bridge, connecting an island to mainland Japan. Its span is 1991 metres.

And this is Xihoumen Bridge, crossing a bay south of Shanghai. Its main span is 1650 metres.

And this is the weirdly-named Great Belt Fixed Link, connecting some Danish islands, with a 1624-metre suspension span.

Now, my point is not to say that these are better bridges than the Golden Gate Bridge: certainly they are not. But certainly they are handsome and not insignificant bridges either. These are just three of eleven bridges that are bigger, but there are plenty of other huge suspension bridges out there that are only just a little smaller: the Bay Bridge is one, the Forth Road Bridge (one third of the Wonder candidate that is the Forth Bridge trio) another. The visual similarity can't be doubted. And although I haven't visited the vast majority of these giant bridges, I can't help but feel the Golden Gate Bridge might suffer a little from Cathedral Syndrome, that affliction that makes even the greatest cathedrals just a little less special simply because so many other great cathedrals exist. The best Wonders should feel special, they should feel unique. And don't get me wrong, the Golden Gate Bridge is very special. But then, so is Chartres Cathedral, but all the many other Gothic cathedrals in existence mean it's not quite so unique. The Golden Gate Bridge is still the best suspension bridge out there, likely by quite some margin, but it definitely has quite a lot of lookalikes. If I happened to visit all eleven bigger bridges out there, would I still feel so awed by the Golden Gate Bridge? It's hard to say, and I suspect Danielle may not be so keen on me adding yet more locations to my list...

Some criteria then.

Size: Huge, at 227 metres above the water, and a total of 1.7 miles long. The suspension span between the two towers is the most eye-catching part, at 1280 metres.
Engineering: At the very limits of what was then possible: it could not have been built ten years before. 
Artistry: You wouldn't think that colouring a bridge red and giving it subtly Art Deco towers could make such a difference, but it does. The Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful.
Age: About 80 years old, which is pretty geriatric for a suspension bridge of this size. It requires constant upkeep, however, due its position by the Pacific, and San Francisco will have to fight to keep the Golden Gate Bridge alive over the centuries.
Fame/Iconicity: I'm pretty sure this is the most famous bridge in the world.
Context: Truly glorious, connecting the city of San Francisco with the cliffs of Marin County, acting both as a gateway to the city, and a gateway from the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay. Even if the bridge was the ugliest brute in the world, the view would still be celebrated.
Back Story: A story of a pushy man getting a bridge built against the odds. The ongoing parallel tale as a suicide magnet is also an inescapable part of the bridge's folklore.
Originality/Distinctiveness: It was the first suspension bridge of this magnitude, although hardly the first big suspension bridge. And these days, it has quite a few companions.
Wow Factor: Beautiful big bridge plus beautiful surroundings equals a lot of wow.

As a bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge is a great success: it hasn't fallen down, which most would regard as a good job. As an investment, it's done a pretty good job too: by 1971, the tolls had officially paid off the construction costs. As an icon, its role is beyond question, as a symbol of San Francisco, but also of the triumph of modern engineering and technology. That last bit isn't my view, it's the American Society of Civil Engineers, who named the Golden Gate Bridge as one of their Seven Wonders of the Modern World (along with the likes of the Channel Tunnel, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal). Their criteria is a little different from mine, with a greater focus on design and function, but we can both agree that a Wonder needs to have a meaning in the larger scheme of things. As King of Bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge does. It's more than a bridge. That's why I think it can snugly sneak into my list of Wonders, though with a lot of other great bridges out there, it lacks the absolute distinctiveness of the top bunch. I'd slip it below the mystical, mysterious Borobudur, but above the definitely unique Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Thiepval Memorial (I'm still troubling over this one)
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom


  1. Did Danielle wear that orange dress in honour of the bridge?

    You hit the nail on the head (or should I say the rivet in the metal plate in this context) when you compare it to "cathedral fatigue". Its design is a victim of its own success in terms of diluting its uniqueness. But that doesn't knock it off the top spot in terms of suspension bridges in my opinion, if someone were to draw a rough sketch of a suspension bridge and ask me which one did I think it was, Golden Gate would be the first (the only) one to spring to mind.

    In terms of most famous bridge, that is subjective: I reckon that it would face equal opposition from Tower Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and possibly the Bridge of Sighs.

    1. She claims it was just chance, but I am going to push hard for her to colour coordinate her future Wonder visits.

      I suppose a comprehensive world survey would make the Golden Gate Bridge's claim for most famous bridge less subjective. I don't have time for that, but I did type in "famous bridge" into Google, and the first ten image results returned:

      3 Golden Gate Bridges
      2 Sydney Harbour Bridges
      1 Tower Bridge
      1 Gateshead Millennium Bridge
      1 Brooklyn Bridge
      1 Tyne Bridge
      and something called the Kouri Bridge in Japan

      A scan down the rest of the results shows a whole range of bridges, with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge perhaps nudging it.

  2. I've just realised that I've contradicted myself by saying that the Golden Gate Bridge is the only suspension bridge I'd find instantly recognisable, and in the next paragraph saying that I consider another suspension bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, to be equal in fame. Maybe I should qualify that: the Brooklyn Bridge has those unique neo gothic towers that really make it stand out quite differently from other, later suspension bridges.


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