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Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Brooklyn Bridge

The 19th century equivalent of a trip to the moon.
When you begin talking about iconic American landmarks, it's difficult to separate the arts from the sciences--architecture from engineering, beauty from function. Take the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. I have a bridge I want to tell you (about). Okay, bad joke, yet quite apart from stand-up comedy, no bridge has been metaphorically bought and sold more often. German immigrant, John Roebling's engineering masterpiece has been far more influential as a subject for painters, poets, playwrights, novelists, and movie makers than any other bridge in the world, including the London Bridge (now in Arizona)&nbsp keeps falling down in the children's nursery rhyme.

Though rising to hair-raising heights, far more people died on the ground from
what was called "caisson disease" than from falls.
Graceful engineering, subject to
structural overkill, might explain why
the bridge has stood for 129 years.
Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge has never fallen down, though some, shortly after it was built (1870-83) weren't so sure it wouldn't. Six days after its opening, a rumor the bridge was about to collapse caused a human stampede in which twelve people were killed. Quite apart from those, the bridge was a killer. Worker safety standards were developed "on site" as the bridge was being built. The number 27 is often mentioned, but that's only an estimate of those killed during the thirteen years the bridge was under construction. Both John Roebling and his son, Washington, were incapacitated as a result of injuries sustained in simply supervising construction (John Roebling died of his injuries before the bridge was completed). Washington Roebling's wife, Emily, ended up supervising the project in her husband's place for some eleven years. (He gave her a crash course in bridge construction from home.)

Brooklyn Bridge, 1920s, Joseph Stella

The pedestrian level, Stella's inspiration.

Though the bridge was far from being the first suspension bridge ever built (it was Roebling's fourth), it was, at the time, the longest, at well over a mile in length (a record it held until 1903). At some $15-million, it was also the most expensive. Artistically, John Roebling's Neo Gothic tower drawings, indeed, the bridge itself, are works of art. As so often happens with graceful iconic landmarks, art inspires art. The most famous of the bridge's painters was undoubtedly Joseph Stella (above, right). He did an entire series of abstract futurist paintings peering through Roebling's soaring granite and limestone arches from the bridge's upper level pedestrian walkway (six lanes of vehicular traffic utilized the lower level).

Brooklyn Bridge, 1983, Andy Warhol
Joseph Stella wasn't the only iconic American painter to be inspired by the iconic bridge. Andy Warhol, some sixty years later, utilizing photo-silkscreen media (above), rendered his own impressions as have countless photographers, sculptors, muralists, even tattoo artists. In 2008, a Danish conceptual artist, Olafur Eliasson (bottom), went so far as to create a temporary waterfall cascading into the East River from one of the bridge's piers.

A bridge over troubled waters? New York City Waterfalls, 2008, Olafur Eliasson

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