October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated The German immigrant engineering genius John Augustus Roebling has been widely celebrated for inventing the modern suspension bridge. When Roebling spanned the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge (actual construction was completed by his son, Washington), he created a global icon that has been memorialized in poetry, painting, and photography. In the process, more or less on the basis of this one feat, the Roebling name became synonymous with bridge building.
Underrated While Roebling’s achievement was superb, the true giant among the masters of modern bridge building is another immigrant, the Swiss-German engineer Othmar Ammann. Beginning with the George Washington Bridge in 1931, a towering steel structure at once massive and graceful, Ammann undertook a series of projects that knitted together the New York metropolitan area with some of the world’s most beautiful bridges. These include the Triborough (actually a complex of three bridges), Whitestone, Throgs Neck, and Verrazano-Narrows.
Ammann’s original design called for the George Washington Bridge to be dressed in stone. The impact of the Depression forced him to leave the steel latticework exposed. Though dictated by economics rather than aesthetics, the result was an elegant embodiment of form following function that revolutionized the art of bridge building.
Robert Moses, the all-powerful public official who cleared the way for Ammann to proceed, has been pilloried for the dislocation and destruction he inflicted on many New York neighborhoods. But, though his name may be unknown to most, Ammann’s bridges are universally admired and beloved. They stand as enduring marvels of modern design and construction.