Unexpected Beauty: Thoughts on a New Bridge
by Richard Whittaker, Nov 22, 2013
The experience of driving across the new Bay Bridge span one recent evening was a revelation. I’d already driven the span several times since it had opened, but this was the first time I’d done it after dark.
Everyone knew about the cost overruns. How could the 6.4 billion be justified? Especially since the estimated cost for an alternative design with no great aspirations was 1.3 billion. Even with the inevitable price inflation, it would have come in at a fraction of the cost of the new span. The argument in favor was that the longest, widest, self-anchored suspension bridge in the world would give the East Bay an architectural monument to feel proud of.
While looking into this, I ran into a review of the new span by Michael Gibson on the Forbes website: “New Bay Bridge Is All Yawn And No Awe: Bring Back the American Technological Sublime.” Comparing the new span with the Golden Gate Bridge, he writes, “A sole white tower defines the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. It looks like a carpenter’s level jammed perpendicular into the water. By contrast, the grandeur and majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge continue to arouse astonishment and hold an irresistible power over the minds of all who come to see it.” A little hyperbolic? Perhaps, but the Golden Gate Bridge is definitely special.
And although this new bridge is pleasing to look at from any vantage point—Gibson is too dismissive—unless you are actually driving across it, its real beauty cannot be experienced. And only as daylight disappears and nighttime comes does it come into its own.
While the new span was under construction, I drove over to Yerba Buena Island a few times to gaze at the stunning spectacle of its construction. And I was eager to experience the new bridge when it opened. Early one morning I took advantage of its bicycle lane [can we pause for applause?] and rode from Emeryville to the tower [when finished, the lane will go through to Yerba Buena Island]. It was a memorable treat, although no trumpets were heard from above.
In the next couple of weeks, I found myself driving across the bridge during daylight hours. One of the first surprises was the way the broad, five-lane decks tilt gently. It seems that if you looked at a section through the suspension part of bridge, you’d see the two decks forming a slight v, like wings. And I found seeing the massive cross braces extending between the two sides of the bridge gratifying. Perhaps there’s an aesthetic based on the visible logic of engineering.
I’m not an engineer, but I found my sense of the bridge’s force-balancing elements unexpectedly satisfying: the tower, decks, suspension cables and cross braces forming a great triangle all stablized under the strength and weight of its elements. Taking in this impression engendered something like a cozy feeling, and gave rise to a silent, “beautiful.”
Over the next few weeks, crossing the bridge in the evening a number of times, my feeling for its exceptional lighting began to grow—from simple appreciation to something like wonder. The down-lit, white light produced by the LED lighting (48,000 individual lights and 1521 fixtures) produces a sublime effect. And the way the lines of light standards go through a continual visual transition as one drives, is another subtle treat in the overall experience of passage. The bridge’s lighting is remarkable and constitutes a major element of its true beauty.
But it wasn’t until I was crossing the bridge from the west one evening that I experienced its full glory. As one is leaving the Yerba Buena tunnel, and coming out from underneath the traffic deck above, one sees the white, illuminated suspension cables and tower ahead against the dark sky. The impression is dramatic and, as one approaches, the beauty of it all continues to evolve. Putting it in the terms of the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, we could say one experiences an infinite number of views, each a tiny bit different from the one before.
If you’re driving in the left-most lane, approaching the suspension section, you’re brought gracefully into alignment toward the center of a unique vertical space that’s defined by two banks of illuminated cables slanting inward to an apex at the top of the bridge’s single tower—a soaring, almost immaterial, chamber made of light.
It’s impossible to hold the beauty at any one point because it continues to change as one drives. Still, craning my neck as I passed into the center of this ethereal space, I tried. And the word “cathedral” appeared unbidden. Maybe the fact that the impression remains incomplete adds something, just as a glimpse of heaven might.
This was an experience I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s of a separate order from all my other apprehensions of the new bridge and one that couldn’t have been taken into account ahead of time.
It made me think about its high cost in new terms.
A quote from a friend, Bill Miller, expresses this question between money and the experience of deep beauty perfectly: “This simply illustrates that fact that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the material realm and that of life and spirit. The former can be quantified and therefore priced whereas the latter cannot.”
This is difficult territory to write about. There are certain experiences we need. I’m reminded of the work of James Turrell. Light is his subject matter. Some of the things he said in an interview I did with him in 2000 are relevant here: “There is truth in light.”
“If you look at the history of religion, and just take a concordance and look up ‘light,’ you’ll see reference after reference to light in terms of religious experience. It is something, I think, that is very powerful in that regard. You can literally come to a different state.”
In those few seconds of first experiencing the sublime beauty of the new bridge while crossing the new span at night, I realized there was an element that no one can really take into account in terms of cost. What is it worth to have a place where, over a period of decades, the spirits of millions of people will be lifted if only for a few minutes? In that realm, just as dollars cannot serve as a measure, neither can time.