The art in the Golden Gate

A BRIDGE connects. That simple fact offers reason enough for celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge's 50 years. But the connection is also one of the finest of technological gestures, a graceful and a direct way of inviting land to meet. Buildings erupt from the land; tunnels gouge its subsurface; roads and railroads scar its fields and plains. The bridge alone enhances space by leaping over it. Among the various forms of open-air architecture, the suspension bridge appears to be the most artful. It is poetry - a metallic heroic couplet, with one line, the supporting cables, sweeping downward; with the other line, the roadway, lifted slightly upward.

Yet the suspension bridge has been praised for other than its pleasing form. First constructed on a grand scale in the age of iron and democracy, this bridge has been a utilitarian conveyance in the service of the masses. John Roebling, our nation's foremost suspension bridge designer, described metallic engineering as popular art, leading to ``a higher spiritual culture.''

More than any other modern design, the suspension bridge marks the cultural axes of our secular existence. The vertical of the towers represents human aspiration; the horizontal of the roadway responds to human restlessness. The architect Le Corbusier once stated that a house ``is a machine for living.'' If his idiom is adapted, a bridge must be ``a structure for getting over and going on.'' It stands for progress.

What makes the Golden Gate Bridge exceptional, a one-of-a-kind in an era of great bridge building, is no single feature but a confluence of factors. The tall towers, uncluttered with bracing above the roadway and slightly tapered to assure grace, elegantly support the 4,500-foot span which seems to glide over the bay. The protective paint of the structure, ``international orange,'' dramatizes the effect and allows, with some license, the bridge to stand as the golden arch of the ``Golden Gate.''

However, it is the site that makes all the difference. The bridge is fixed in a magnificent attitude, aloof from the turbulence of the tide changes below but engaging in its relationship with the daily fog.

This panoramic commingling of the 21,500 tons of riveted steel of each tower, and the near weightlessness and formlessness of the fog silently raises and answers all questions about earthly contingency. No other bridge in the world gives richer meaning to that single-syllable, but heavily-freighted word ``span.''

Well, there are no jokes about someone trying to sell the Golden Gate Bridge. And no poet of the stature of Hart Crane has written a poem about it. Moreover, its designers are not recalled as easily as are those other great bridge builders, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Gustave Eiffel, and John Roebling.

All of this is unimportant. Now officially 50 years old, the Golden Gate Bridge seems to be ``naturally'' a part of San Francisco Bay. Many persons have said this, thus providing untallied confirmation of the resounding success of this engineering feat which was accomplished with democratic purpose and graceful effect. Few human contrivances can claim so much. There's the real reason for celebration today.

Raymond F. Betts is director of the honors program at the University of Kentucky.

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