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InterviewsGay Talese

Great Projects: The Building of America
Gay Talese

Interview with Gay Talese, former New York Times writer and author of Bridge, 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.

Gay Talese (GT): My assumption about Mr. Ammann - I met him a few times as you know, but did not ever get to know him - my assumption is that he was a, a very private person who expressed himself as an artist on this grand scale that is characteristic of builders of bridges. He was a great designer whose concept was outlined against the sky. He found in New York, Mr. Ammann did, he found in New York the perfect setting for his artistic expression where his works could span masses of land but be written across the sky in steel and cables. And so he was in the great tradition of all great art, a large thinking man with more of a sense of what he was doing than in a sense of who he, himself, was.

He was, in terms of his own private form of communication, practically mum. He said very little and he didn't expect much to be said in his own behalf by those who admired him. He was very self-effacing. I doubt that that's characteristic of many great artists but it was certainly true of Mr. Ammann. His work, however, which he saw in its grandest scale represents art as we see it and also a functioning form of the great engineer's sense of space and time in measurement. And it's also enduring, it was all great art. It's an enduring expression. It is lasting from one generation to the other, to the other, and we now have more than a half a century of Ammann's representations around the city of New York and other places in this country.

My meeting with him, however, was never one that was very revelatory on any level. He had a withdrawn, old-century manner about him. His English was never spoken with such clarity that I felt through the verbal expression, I was getting much of what was inside his mind. But, of course, his mind was a mathematical mind as well as the artistic expression I refer to. And it was in the work that he sought to speak, not in what he might have told an interviewer such as I had been on a couple of occasions. I think I think he was maybe even a man who did not know how to tell people what he was doing. He did it in this, in this, in the equations of his brain but did not exactly know how to translate that into something that would be quotable. He would not have fit into the age of the sound bite.

GT: Ammann was an antiquated man who, in this modern time, did enduring things. But he was really by his very nature contrary to calling attention to himself. We are in an age of designer achievements. Everyone who designs a pair of blue jeans wants his name on there. Everyone who builds a building would like his name up there. It's, it's not only the entertainment factor, it's the celebrity age that I think, we are very much epitomizing as we go into this new century.

Ammann was an old-century fellow who believed not in recognizing what he, by his own nature did, but rather recognizing what his concept through his art was. And I believe he would have probably not made a very good television interview if you had the opportunity, were he alive today to be on this show. But, of course, we're here because of what he did, not what he said, not what he might of said of himself or others would have said of him if they knew him. We have the disadvantage, all of us, in not having too many contemporaries of Ammann around to speak for him. But his work has majestical proportions and there's no doubt that he was within his own private domain, a majestic thinker.

I had, on two occasions, a chance to sit with him as you're sitting with me now. One of those was, was in his penthouse apartment at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. And when I was there, and his wife was also present, when I was there, he would look up, out on the porch of this penthouse and he could, by moving around within the porch area, he could see parts of the city that was connected to the bridges that he had built. He could look uptown Manhattan and see the George Washington and he could look down, and this was in the mid '60s that I saw him, he could down see the, he could see the Verrazano Bridge that wasn't, at that point, open. But it, in terms of structure, it was completed. And, of course, he could look over to the East River and see all those other bridges that he built, including a footbridge which name does not even exist in my mind.

But he was a man who could see the result of his talent and I'm sure that that was a source of private, quiet gratification as it is to all of us who appreciate beautiful things. And so the greatness of the bridge builder is the capacity to build beautiful things that also have, quite incidentally, a functional purpose. But the bridge stands on its own, regardless of how functioning the purpose. I remember seeing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which is the bridge, of course, that I'm most familiar with because I saw it in it, in its period of innovation. I saw it actually coming up from under the water, the first levels of steel that were shooting up, for what would be the formation of the towers, I saw this. I was there. I was witnessing it. And I saw that bridge as it, going from that, from that infantile state of steel to the very completion three years later.

And it was for about six months, in its completed form, but with not yet the cement connecting that steel which would link Brooklyn to Staten Island. It was sitting there as a work of art. It wasn't even yet painted. It wasn't painted the current gray but rather it had the rust-colored steel, original. And it just stood there for about four or five months as a grand gateway to New York, as a real form of art that did not have any, in terms of scale at least, any comparable, comparable measure. And it was what he lived for. Mr. Ammann lived to see that sort of thing out of his head, go into the sky and stay there. And it does today.

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