After running uphill for what seemed like a mile, my breathing was labored, but my breath was only taken away when I stopped at the crest and looked around. I was on the walkway of the George Washington Bridge. I was high above the Hudson River looking south. The bright sun was reflecting on the water and mirroring off the windows of the Manhattan towers. Ships and boats and barges were working and playing on the river. I read the signs in New Jersey always looking somehow lonely and forlorn. I turned around and watched some of the fourteen lanes of traffic. I looked beyond the vehicles and saw the magnificent Hudson until it curved out of sight looking as if it went on forever.
I had seen the Bridge many times before and from different vantage points—highways, buildings, parks. Driving up Manhattan’s west side, it had curves silhouetted against the sky and the northern hills. It seemed like a majestic fortress separating New York City from the rest of America. Coming from the north, it was a harbinger of home. From a distance, it looked unchangeable. The Bridge has many vehicular approaches, and I had learned that each one made it seem as if I might be driving onto a different Bridge, but once on the Bridge it was always the same magnificent structure. I could never decide, however, whether it looked better during the day when all its intricacies could be seen, or at night when the lights improbably gave it a fairy tale aspect.
Le Corbusier wrote a prose poem homage to the George Washington Bridge in which he concluded that it “is the most beautiful bridge in the world. . . .It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city.” You don’t have to agree with all his extravagance to concede that it is a beauty, and to this should be coupled its utility. In a year’s time, more cars, truck, and buses cross this bridge than any other bridge in the world.
I had absorbed the GWB’s remarkableness many times over a long period when I finally thought, “I have no idea who built it.” That was not surprising, I realized, for I knew few of the architects of a structure or space that I admired, and I almost never knew who actually built them—the engineers. The rotunda of Grand Central Terminal is a perfect city space. I love to pause there to watch people streaming in and out and on their ways to offices and homes and tourist sites, making new patterns every moment, but somehow still always the same one under the high star-painted ceiling lit by commingled and artificial light. Someone or some group had created this room and space that makes me feel both purposeful and peaceful, but I had no idea who was responsible for it. I could cite other examples, but my point is that I, and I am guessing that I am not alone, am often unaware of who was responsible for a building, space, or vista that has given me repeated pleasure.
Finally, I tried to relieve some of my ignorance and found that Othmar Ammann was the Chief Engineer for the George Washington Bridge. Before my research, I would swear that I had never heard of him. And then I found he also was the designer for many other bridges around New York City, including the Triborough (I know that it has another name, but come on, it is still the Triborough), the Whitestone, the Throgs Neck, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridges. Shouldn’t all New Yorkers, at least, recognize his name?
For the non-New Yorkers, I am sure many of you feel there is some building or lobby or park space or view that gives you a sense of satisfaction regularly, but you do not know who is responsible for it. Consider it your necessary act of homage to find out who it was and memorize that name. I certainly am hoping that I will continue to remember Othmar Ammann.