Oculus - Winter 2011/2012 - (Page 37)
Completed in 1909,
the Manhattan Bridge relied on the talent of architects Carrère & Hastings for more than superﬁcial design ﬂourishes
BY J O H N M O R R I S DI X O N , FAIA
he role of architects in the design of New York’s transportation infrastructure has varied widely over its history. In the heyday of the City Beautiful Movement around 1900, some of New York’s most prominent firms were commissioned to design subway kiosks, for instance, and piers for ocean liners. In 1904, the city’s Department of Bridges commissioned the architects Carrère & Hastings (think New York Public Library) to collaborate on the design of the Manhattan Bridge, the last of three suspension spans crossing the East River that were engineering marvels of their era. The choice of these architects and their mission reflected not only City Beautiful goals, but a widespread reaction against the utilitarian appearance of the recently completed second East River span, the Williamsburg Bridge. The first East River crossing, the Brooklyn Bridge, had been completed in 1883, its design credited only to the engineer John Roebling. The world has long admired its massive stone towers, without questioning their Gothic Revival derivation, along with its unique network of cable supports. By contrast, the Williamsburg Bridge, designed and built from 1896 to 1903, was widely condemned as an aesthetic embarrassment. Its towers are interesting expressions of steel construction freed from historical imagery, but the rest of the bridge undermines the suspension concept: the trusses along the roadbed are too massive for their secondary role; the end spans are clumsily propped up from below, rather than suspended, causing the cables to depart from the graceful catenary curves we expect. Reactions to the Williamsburg design and to the 1899 proposal for the starkly functional Queensboro Bridge led the mayor to appoint a new commissioner of the Department of
(below) The Manhattan approach to the bridge is a striking example of the architects' City Beautiful aspirations.
Bridges in 1902, and to subject all further bridge designs to Municipal Art Commission review. At that time, the distinguished architect Henry Hornbostel was brought in as design consultant for the Williamsburg crossing to add “architectural grace to a work hitherto directed by the minds of engineers alone,” according to an article in the January to June 1903 edition of House and Garden magazine. But since construction was far along, his design revisions were necessarily minor. Construction of the Manhattan Bridge began in 1901, with Hornbostel originally the architect on its design team. When the commissioner of bridges was replaced in 1904 under a new mayor, however, Carrère & Hastings was commissioned to work with the engineer Leon Moisseiff. The new team’s most radical revision was to redesign the towers in a form reminiscent of a triumphal arch. Details expressive of steel construction were replaced where possible with Classical Revival motifs. The granite-clad anchorage structures that loom over city streets to secure the ends of the main cables were given elegantly sculpted Classical details. For the Manhattan approach to the bridge, the architects designed a “Court of Honor,” with a triumphal arch and an elliptical plaza defined by colonnades and balustrades, which was completed in 1915. Street widenings have eliminated part of the ellipse, but it remains a striking example of City Beautiful aspirations. While it is easy for subsequent generations to see that plaza as a work of architecture, it is important to realize that Carrère & Hastings had a hand in shaping the bridge in its entirety. In fact, architects have collaborated on some of the city’s later landmark bridges. But those are stories for another time.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for journalism in 1960 and was editor of Progressive Architecture from 1972 to 1996. He wrote the Midtown Manhattan portion of the original 1967 AIA Guide to New York City. In recent years he has written for Architectural Record, Architecture, Architect, and other publications.
©John Morris Dixon
Up, Down, and Sideways
Winter 2011 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Winter 2011/2012
A Word from the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
From NIMBY to YIMBY
Complete Streets: If Only Mumford Had Lived to See This
Regional Transit: The Next Generation
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Winter 2011/2012
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