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InterviewsDavid Billington

Great Projects: The Building of America
David Billington

Interview with Princeton University Professor David Billington for Program Three: "Bridging New York"

Note: This transcript is from a videotaped interview for the "Bridging New York" segment of "Great Projects." It has been edited lightly for readability.

David Billington (DB): It's a curious fact that at least the three leading bridge designers in our tradition in America were immigrants from German-speaking countries: Roebling, John Roebling then, in 1831, Gustav Lindenthal, who came over in 1875, and Othmar Ammann in 1904. And a major reason for that, I think, is their educational system. The fact that, at least in Roebling's case and in Ammann's case, they were trained in the very best engineering schools at the time. Those schools also, particularly in Ammann's case, emphasized strongly the study of completed structures rather than just merely the tools of analysis, as so often happens in engineering schools. And so when, during Ammann's education his head was filled with images of all kinds of structures and, therefore, he came with a strong urge to design large-scale works. So did Roebling.

DB: What they found when they came to this country, these immigrant engineers, in fact in a way what drew them to the country in the first place was the wide expanse of the country which meant the wide or the great possibilities in building. And in the sense of New York City, for example, this river, the Hudson River, which was an extraordinarily wide river close to a major city. So that this was a great challenge. Ammann had seen in his, from his teacher the earliest serious design of that by Gustav Lindenthal and this kind of huge project, far in excess of anything one would need in Europe, drew engineers to this country. Also one has to say that the political situation had an influence, particularly in Germany, all the disruptions in 1831. It's no accident that Roebling came in 1831, the year of revolutions in Europe, that other engineers came in 1848, and that they were leaving a politically unstable situation where it was difficult to build large works and where they were not often appreciated and also, in Roebling's case, where the actual political climate of constriction, bureaucratic control was offensive to him.

DB: Well, of course, in this country the engineering profession, particularly in the 19th century, was not very well established as a fixed profession as it was in Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland and France, where engineering schools had become quite powerful already in the first half of the 19th century and where the bureaucracy of the profession was quite strong. In America it was much freer. A lot of the engineers never went to school. They worked their way up out of the field and they were, therefore, more attuned to the practical matters of how things get built and also to the visuary matters of building things that had never been contemplated before.

DB: New York City, as a magnet for engineers, begins, I think, with Jervis and the High Bridge bringing water into the city, the first and most essential ingredient in any city, pure water. But the era of big bridges, starting with the Brooklyn Bridge, marks the true beginning of New York as a world city and as a city of great bridges. This is because of the intense population concentration between the near Long Island and Manhattan Island. And that concentration was separated by a fairly substantial waterway. This was a great challenge to bridge builders: how do you get across that waterway? It certainly stimulated Roebling and really provided him with a kind of, with a vision of the possibilities for, in effect, restructuring the whole country, as he wrote, most romantically, late in his life. So that was the first, in a way you might say the first great challenge to bridge builders, was the East River. And by 1909, it had the three longest spanning bridges in the country. So that it became, in a way, the standard against which all bridge builders thought about their designs. Also it didn't hurt a bit that the Brooklyn Bridge came along just as the American Society of Civil Engineers was reforming itself after the Civil War, and its first volumes in the 1870s had many articles dealing with the bridge. So that it began to work its way into the consciousness of the profession, again, as a kind of a benchmark, a kind of a standard against which people thought about large-scale building.

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