Today, a lesson in shameless grandeur and
simplicity. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We call the confluence of
the Harlem and the East Rivers in New York City
Hell's Gate. Dramatic, I suppose, but why not! A
bridge opened over Hell's Gate in 1917. It's an
arch of iron girders. The arch thickens at each
end. It thins toward the center. You get a feeling
of buoyancy looking at it.
Othmar Ammann, who designed the bridge, caught Hell
for it. This, says writer Christopher Bonanos, was
an age of ornament, gravity, solidity, and dignity.
Ammann's design was imperfect in some ways. But its
simplicity, lightness, and freedom signaled a new
era in design.
Ammann had finished an engineering degree in
Switzerland in 1902 and had come here soon after.
Now -- in 1930 -- he was hard at work on two really
grand bridges that're sure to carry his name far
into the 21st century.
One was the Bayonne Bridge -- an expanded version
of his Hell's Gate triumph. It's a huge graceful
arch of open structural steel. The other was the
longest suspension bridge up to that time. It's the
George Washington Bridge with its 3500-foot span.
The George Washington Bridge also has open
structural steel towers. At first they were to've
been faced with stone, but the Depression required
cost cutbacks. Had Ammann meant all along for that
great steel span to stand naked at the north portal
of New York City? He never would say.
Whatever Ammann's intentions, the outspoken modern
architect Le Corbusier called it the most beautiful
bridge in the world. Meanwhile, Ammann kept tying
New York to land. He built the Bronx-Whitestone
Bridge. He built the Throgs Neck Bridge.
When Ammann died at 86 he'd just finished his last
masterpiece. For the second time he'd given us the
world's longest suspension span. The Verrazano
Narrows Bridge is a plain study in grace, with a
4300-foot central span.
He created a radical new deck design for the
Verrazano Bridge to keep it from galloping in the
wind. The deck thins toward its edges to guide wind
around it. Ammann's work was meticulous. The towers
are an inch and a half wider at the top to keep
gravity's force dead-vertical -- despite Earth's
So this remarkable 19th-century engineer left his
stamp on bridge-building down through the 20th
century. He helped shape a new attitude toward
design. Ammann was born ten years before the Eiffel
tower was built. And he showed us the steel at the
heart of design. Writer Bonanos says that he
expressed structure without shame. It is that
shameless joy in naked function that touches us. It
is the simple grandeur of open steel against the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds