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InterviewsGay Talese

Great Projects: The Building of America

GT: The bridge engineer is, of course, the central artist at work. But, in order to achieve his art, in order to have the final fulfillment that is necessary to deal quite intimately with a large number of other personages who range from the fundraisers which, in this case of Mr. Ammann, would have been the late Robert Moses who incidentally was like a producer if you're thinking of it in the theatrical sense. If you're thinking of the bridge as a stage of a great expansive form that has to be filled with functioning parts when it's completed.

But you think first stage is the producer, the man who, who's out to sell the product, to sell the idea of the product, to garner the income that will allow the product to be constructed. So Mr. Ammann really, in the beginning, having done his own paperwork, his design on paper, measuring everything including, in his case, the curvature of the earth because the two spans of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge were so widely distributed that they had to take into shape the dip in the earth on either side of it. But first there is the money-raising to support the cost of steel, to support the cost of labor, to support, not only that, but the cost of removing people whose homes, whose lives are in the way of the approach-ways to a bridge.

So the relocation costs, the damage costs, there is so much that precedes the edifice that we see and call a bridge. And all of this is taking place behind the scenes and it's taking place in series of offices by people like the late Robert Moses as the premiere person.

Then there is the vast cast of characters who do all the heavy work of toting steel on barges to the bridge site. The men who actually will climb to high altitudes to put these pieces in place, this great jigsaw puzzle that Ammann had put on paper. But it requires others than Ammann to put it in place, to rivet it, to swing it, to do all sorts of heavy and risky, risky endeavors to make this look like a bridge is supposed to look. And the final part, of course, is the not-so-artistic but, nevertheless, necessary work of paving it all and building those roads that will lead people in motor vehicles to support the bridge with their money to pay off the investment that, years before, a Robert Moses had sold to investors as a useful and necessary force to connect two parts of New York City.

In this case, Brooklyn and Staten Island, that had had to be connected -so Moses thought. Not that the people who lived there necessarily wanted a bridge because a bridge has a destructive element as well. Not only does a bridge, in its early stages of concept cause people to be moved forcibly from their homes as whole neighborhoods are eradicated, are destroyed like a bomb destroys, like a war destroys, like Dresden was destroyed by bombs, you have that. You had Brooklyn and Staten Island to administer to in a Dresden-fashion of destruction. Then you have the relocation of these people, forcibly relocated, losing, for them, what is familiar and loved, their homes.

And all of this is done for the practical purpose of connecting two parts of, of New York City that in, in the representation of those who did many of the outcries and led many of the protests didn't want to have done. But Moses believed, and many others believed, it was an essential part of the growth of the city to have these two boroughs, Brooklyn and Staten Island connected through the Verrazano Bridge. And it fell to Mr. Ammann, joyfully in his case, to design what would connect the bridge. It is the bridge itself that we recognize, that we look upon as a great achievement and do not think of the return on the investment as really a factor. But, of course, it is.

GT: Mr. Ammann, having designed a bridge, in this case the Verrazano, as I'm talking about, [was] in a kind of staging position of waiting and watching for long period. We know that other great bridge builders-the father and son that built the Brooklyn Bridge-go through a period of waiting and watching while what they have in their conceptual sense in mind, they wait years sometimes for it to actually transpire and to take shape in the sky, over the water.

In the case of Mr. Ammann,--and I knew him a little bit as I interviewed him periodically during the construction that took three and a half years, from 1962 to 1965--I knew him as a man who was, not only watching eagerly but sometimes with anxiety because there's always the possibility, and not only the possibility but the reality of a lot of wrong moves, of a lot of accidents that do occur. I'm specifically referring to deaths, the inevitably of deaths that are part of every great bridge, that are part of every great construction effort because every great construction effort is connected to inherent danger.

And so the bridge is a great center of risk during these formative stages and people do fall off or they fall on the bridge and are injured beyond repair. They are no longer able to function as bridge construction crewmembers. And Ammann is well aware of all this. Every day he gets like a football coach, the injury report of the game or the practice. And so this is, is not a very comforting time for a man who's concerned.

GT: There must be some parallels between what Mr. Ammann went through as a designer and what a writer, like myself, goes through. You first have a sense of what you want to do and you stake out a kind of area, a territory in which you're going to have your story evolve-in this case, a territory in which his art will rise. And then you go through that period of creativity. You have to do what is done in solitude.

Mr. Ammann designed in solitude. All of the factors that would be the component parts of a bridge and how they interrelated to one another and how they had to be in balance with one another as well as in balance with the vibrations of the earth and the expected vibrations of moving traffic. Not only the moving traffic but the weather's effect on moving steel, the wind moving in and out of cables, the fact that in cold weather and in warm weather, steel contracts, rises; all of these factors are part of the balance that a great designer must bring to his work. And Ammann, of course, did.

The form of a writer, you know, you must also do similar things in terms of balance. You must know where you're going. You must have a kind of outline. You must see the road ahead of you before you try or dare go there. And, and then when you finally have a kind of beginning and then another progressive turn in the story, you must know where you're going. And then when you're finally there, or you think you're there, you must go back and check. And Ammann had to constantly check and recheck his own balances

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