George Washington Bridge Wins the Beauty Pageant

In an article called “The Brooklyn Bridge as a Monument,” published in Harper’s Weekly in May 1883, the month the bridge first opened to traffic, the American architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler called this remarkable creation “one of the mechanical wonders of the world, one of the greatest and most characteristic of the monuments of the 19th century.” He further wrote of the bridge: “Its towers, at least, bid fair to outlast every structure of which they command a view.” Did this mean, then, that Schuyler regarded the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural masterwork? Not exactly.

Schuyler was a stickler for the kind of distinction-artistic distinction-that separates even the most awesome “mechanical wonders” from genuine architectural achievement, and in the latter respect he found the Brooklyn Bridge wanting. “‘A Roman work,’ we often hear it said of the bridge, and it is in many ways true,” he wrote. “It is far beyond any Roman monument in refinement of mechanical skill. It is Roman in its massiveness and durability. It is Roman, too, in its disregard of art.” Thus, Schuyler’s critical assessment of the Brooklyn Bridge was: “It is a noble work of engineering; it is not a work of architecture.”

I have been prompted to reread Montgomery Schuyler (1843-1914), who may very well be the greatest of all American writers on architecture, by the exhibition called Bridging New York , which is currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York. Organized by Barbara Ball Buff, curatorial coordinator of the museum’s paintings and sculpture collection, Bridging New York is a documentary survey of 14 of the city’s principal bridges. Needless to say, the selection of these particular bridges is based not on standards of distinction in architecture and design but, according to the museum’s own statement of purpose, “because of their importance to the genesis and subsequent growth of Greater New York.”

This is not an interest to be despised, of course, but it does place some of the romance of the subject at a discount. So does the way the exhibition devoted to these 14 bridges has been organized, for what we are given is what may be called an “equal opportunity” exhibition, in which some of the dullest and most nondescript bridges are accorded virtual parity with some of the greatest. This is not the way we see and comprehend these bridges in our own experience, and it is not the way these bridges have played a role in cultural life. In the building of bridges, as in every other form of man-made endeavor, some results are bound to be better than others-both for what they are in themselves and for the level of imaginative response they inspire from one generation to another. To ignore such distinctions, as Bridging New York largely does, is to impart an air of unreality to the whole subject.

Thus, in the meager space allotted to the Brooklyn Bridge-meager, that is, in relation to the place the bridge has come to occupy in the American imagination-there are no quotations from Hart Crane’s poem The Bridge (1930) and no reference to, not even a reproduction of, Joseph Stella’s painting of Brooklyn Bridge (1917-18). There is, however, an interesting passage from the memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, of all people, that is worth quoting: “It is insane, admirable, imposing and it makes one feel proud to be a human being when one realizes that a human brain has created and suspended in the air 50 yards from the ground, that fearful thing which bears a dozen trains filled with passengers, 10 or 12 tramcars, a hundred cabs and thousands of passengers, and all that moving together amidst the uproar of the music of the metals.”

It was not to be expected that Montgomery Schuyler would be quoted in the exhibition, though I think this passage from Sarah Bernhardt pretty much confirms his assessment of the Brooklyn Bridge as “one of the mechanical wonders of the world.” Be that as it may, Schuyler’s judgment of the bridge is interesting now precisely because it is so much at variance with the way we have come to think about the subject. In a lecture called “The Point of View,” which Schuyler delivered to a meeting of the National Association of Builders in New York in 1891, he lamented what he called “the estrangement between architecture and building-between the poetry and the prose, so to speak, of the art of building, which can never be disjoined without injury to both.” In 1883, he clearly saw the Brooklyn Bridge as prose, yet it is as the poetry of building-and as an inspiration for poetry in others-that the bridge has won a place in the American mind.

Does this mean that Schuyler was wrong in his judgment or that the standards of what constitutes poetry and prose in the art of building-and not only the building of bridges, of course-have so woefully declined? Probably both. The sad truth is that most of the 14 bridges that are given documentary attention in Bridging New York are abysmally prosaic even by the standards of our day, never mind those of Schuyler’s. Only one other-the George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931-is in anything like the same class as the Brooklyn Bridge. Le Corbusier pronounced it “the most beautiful bridge in the world,” and he was anything but an abject admirer of New York. Indeed, he said of the George Washington Bridge: “It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city”-but then, of course, Le Corbusier had a mania for the kind of order that few New Yorkers would countenance. He was right about the G.W.B., however, and it is disappointing that it, too, has been given too meager a treatment in the current exhibition.

What Bridging New York largely consists of are photographs, drawings, paintings and prints that have been devoted to New York’s bridges since the times in which they were built. Some of these-the photographs of Berenice Abbott, for example-are superb works of art themselves. Many are not, of course. We don’t expect to find masterpieces among the paintings that are included in a documentary exhibition, and there are certainly none to be found in this one. Actually, many of the postcards are far more impressive, as historical documents and design information and for the beauty of their visual images.

Still, although its installation at the Museum of the City of New York is somewhat makeshift and the budget for the show was clearly unequal to the importance of its subject, Bridging New York does address an important subject. It remains, however, for the subject to be given its due. After all, that “estrangement between architecture and building” that Montgomery Schuyler spoke of in 1891 is still very much with us in New York in 1998.

Bridging New York remains on view at the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, through June 21.