Tribute > Oscar Niemeyer (1907 – 2012)

 

“Here, then, is what I wanted to tell you of my architecture. I created it with courage and idealism, but also with an awareness of the fact that what is important is life, friends and attempting to make this unjust world a better place in which to live.”

 

Architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the last remaining Modernist design icons who were educated and rose to prominence in the early to mid-twentieth century, has died in Rio de Janeiro aged 104 years.

The centenarian designer was revered around the world and especially in his home nation of Brazil as a cultural force who will be best remembered by history for designing an entirely new capital for the country in the 1960s at a remote grasslands site, Brasilia. Among Lucio Costa’s master plan for the new city, Niemeyer designed a series of administrative buildings that adhered closely to the prevalent International Style of the time. That architectural movement’s emphasis upon strict functionalism and rectilinearity was expressed previously in the UN Headquarters in New York City, a project from the late 1940s that was based upon a preliminary concept by Le Corbusier but fully realized after Niemeyer provided significant contributions to the design.

Beyond his assistance with the UN Headquarters project, Niemeyer’s membership and outspoken support for the Communist party prevented him from further commissions in the U.S. even as his architectural prominence rapidly rose and East Coast design institutions were offering him teaching positions throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Niemeyer also collaborated with Corbusier on his first major project in Rio, the Ministry of Education and Health, above, which was completed in 1936 and contains all the Corbusian trademarks: building mass raised on pilotis, bries-soleil shading for the windows, and sculptural rooftop forms. Though he owed much of his early design influence and training to Corbusier, Niemeyer stood apart from many of his fellow modernists and gained widespread recognition for embracing the curve in architecture. In the 1940s, Niemeyer’s stature grew with the realization of a number of huge residential towers in Rio, such as the Edifício Copan, seen below, which employed a curvilinear concrete parti aggressively repeated to a dizzyingly tall and dense effect.

Niemeyer will be best remembered for his tabula rossa design of Brazil’s new capital city at Brasilia, a project spearheaded in the late 1950s by the nation’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, who specifically sought Niemeyer for the work. With the power of the country’s highest office behind him, Niemeyer designed a large number of administrative, residential, and ceremonial buildings within a span of months, all of which were to be operated and leased by the government on a previously uninhabited site located hundreds of miles inland from the country’s established urban centers along the Atlantic coast.

Conceived and completed in four years, Brasilia stands as a grand socialist experiment of spontaneous urban development in the midst of stunning isolation. Characterized by crisply modern administrative building blocks set far apart on grassy lawns but connected via wide, sinewy boulevards and bridges, the city cuts a stark profile on the barren natural landscape. Niemeyer offset the rigidity of these buildings with a series of hyperbolic structures that showcased his penchant for the curvilinear, based ultimately upon the shape of a woman that he found so irresistible.

The Cathedral of Brasilia is the sculptural centerpiece, a building composed of 16 hyperbolic, 90-ton concrete columns, said by Niemeyer to be representative of hands opened upwards toward the heavens. Completed in 1970, well after the rest of the city had been constructed, the religious project designed by an outspoken atheist was not immediately consecrated by the church but nevertheless cemented Niemeyer’s place in the architectural canon, widely admired for its evocative columns and their daring stance towards the sky.

Exiled to Europe because of his communist viewpoints as revolutions took hold in Brazil in the late 1960s, Niemeyer continued to work out of design offices in Paris and Champs-Élysées throughout the 1970s and 80s, focusing on smaller residential and commercial commissions throughout the European countryside. Well into his nineties, Niemeyer eventually returned to Rio and maintained an active role in his design practice, with the saucer ship Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum, standing atop a prominent seaside perch since 1996 and representing the best project from the twilight of his architectural career.

Though he maintained his communist allegiances even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his work has found admiration in newer generations of designers from the world over, for whom the social and structural upheaval of the mid-20th century is nothing but a faded part of history. Oscar Niemeyer was an architect and educator to the very end, teaching and giving interviews as recently as 2010. His utopian vision will live on in the audacious curvature and monumental concrete blocks of Brasilia and beyond, testaments to his lifelong infatuation with the curve and with the important idea that “form follows beauty” rather than function.

-MJC 

De-Architecture

We just marked the tenth anniversary of September 11th here in New York and around the country. I remember watching the day’s events play out on TV as a high school freshman, astonished as the situation morphed from bad to worse and forever affected by the grim moment when the first of those two behemoth towers came crumbling to the ground. As that surreal day progressed into an eerily plane-free afternoon and evening, I remember thinking how removed and fictively catastrophic the whole day seemed in the immediate aftermath and beyond. After a tumultuous decade reflecting and reacting to that era-defining day, last week 9/11/11 arrived to the nervous anticipation of a nation whose institutions and attitudes have been forever changed by the attacks of that clear Tuesday morning.

Fast forward to today and me writing this entry as a recently entitled Master of Architecture and New York City transplant. Witnessing the epic failure of two iconic skyscrapers at a young age certainly factored into my considerations of what I wanted to be when I grew up, a designer of buildings. Every time I see the 1WTC tower rising in the distance as I go about my day, I’m reminded of the integral role that skyscrapers have always played in the life and identity of any major city.

Written in 1975 when the twin towers stood brand new and wildly out of scale in Lower Manhattan, sculptor and architect James Wines‘ essay “De-Architecturization: The Iconography of Disaster” is a critique of urban renewal projects successfully propagated by architects and planners of the era in which the World Trade Center was created. Building upon an argument brilliantly voiced by Jane Jacobs a decade before, Wines’ essay criticizes the “diversionary utopianism” utilized by politicians and planners alike to sell the public on a wide range of urban renewal projects throughout the 1960s and 70s, based ultimately upon Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse concept from the early modernist era.

Citing the proliferation of disaster films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake as an expression of people’s wariness about living in cartesian skyscrapers, Wines believes these movies served as both entertainment and psychological compensation for a public that was resistant to the changes wrought by historic neighborhood clearance and subsequent high rise development. Claiming that the subversion of form to function makes architecture the “inadvertent chronicler of a dehumanizing autocracy”, Wines strikes a populist tone in his critique of cold and monotonous skyscrapers going up in place of low-rise, human scaled settlements. There is a clear connection between Wines’ ideas about urban renewal and early reactions to the twin towers of the World Trade Center, briefly the nation’s tallest buildings.

Wines felt that the purgative power of calamity and ruin was the only force capable of eliciting a broad and predominant reaction among a mostly preoccupied urban population. Considering the destruction and communal despair wrought on 9/11/01, Wines’ ideas about “monolithic institutions crumbling under their own weight” and missing parts acting as the “humanizing questions to replace intransigent answers” are an eerie portent for the absence of the twin towers as a part of the NYC skyline in the years since their abrupt, calamitous removal.

Though not a residential project, the World Trade Center stood as a reminder of what happens when a revitalization project is pushed to a dizzying scale by designers and developers. Featuring a prefabricated system of perimeter columns rising 110 stories up and enclosing over 10 million square feet of open floor space, the twin towers stood for nearly three decades as triumphant evidence of function coldly dictating form. De-Architecture subverts this routine design dogma, defining a condition in which some element or quality of architecture is deliberately removed in order to challenge ideas about the two.

Wines’ concept of de-architecture found its greatest expression in a series of stores he designed for the now-defunct Best Products company between 1971 and 1984. Operating through a design organization he called SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), Wines took a pervasive but oft-overlooked building type, the retail box, and infused it with a series of simple and subversive gestures that upended traditional concepts of retail architecture and served as an early signal of Post Modernism’s obsession with surface manipulation.

The first of these nine projects was the Peeling Facade showroom in Richmond Virginia, featuring a veneer whose shape evokes a giant brick sticker, an ambiguous gesture that literally stopped passing motorists in their tracks. The Indeterminate Facade of Houston Texas came next, followed by my favorite, the Notch Showroom of Sacramento, with an irregularly cut corner on automated tracks forming the entryway and sole relief to an otherwise monolithic black box. Said Wines in a recent interview with Wallpaper magazine: “We were trying to take the basic dumb materials like brick and block and invert their associations. For me, the highest compliment we received was when customers said that they had never thought about architecture before visiting a Best showroom.”

The eventual failure and liquidation of the Best Products company in 1997 also spelled the demise of most of these fantastic retail projects, though one building, the Forest Showroom, still stands today in Richmond as a Presbyterian church. Fortunately these projects and Wines’ concepts have enjoyed a worthy afterlife in textbooks, exhibitions, and design magazines the world over. The eventual razed fate of these buildings seems appropriate to Wines’ subversive approach to architecture and its inherent links to destruction, as laid out in his manifesto. The physical evidence may be long gone, but the ideas will always remain.

-MJC

Update: NBC News visits 1 WTC in April 2012 as the building is set to reclaim the title of New York’s tallest:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati Transit

I was born outside of Chicago but grew up in two very different neighborhoods in the city of Cincinnati. Before me and my mom and brother made the move from the sprawling Chicago suburbs to this humble Ohio metropolis, we drove diagonally across Indiana several times to get a feel for the so-called “Queen City”, nestled cozily among the foothills of the Appalachians. On one of these first tester trips, I recall driving through a darkened downtown Cincinnati, stores and restaurants closed, nearly no one on the sidewalks, and thinking that the city reminded me of a large LaGrange, the small suburb right next to where we were living at the time and where I’d been born, Western Springs. It didn’t seem like a real city to me. Certainly the scale of Chicago, where you can see the tops of Sears Tower, John Hancock and other Loop high rises from forty minutes away on the clearest of days, simply doesn’t compare to the cozy confines of Cincinnati. This was an adjustment, the first of several in our initial years living just north of downtown in the hillside neighborhood of Mt. Auburn.

The downtown basin of Cincinnati is comprised of a street grid that dates back to 1789, with primary North-South thoroughfares originating at the Ohio River and ending at Liberty St., running along the base of Mt. Auburn. Immediately north of the central business district, separated once by the Miami-Erie canal and now by Central Ave., is the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Initially settled by German immigrants who built great and successful breweries along Liberty St. in the late nineteenth century, OTR is well known for being the largest intact urban district registered with the National Register of Historic Places, with 943 buildings counted.

Despite the neighborhood’s beautiful concentration and variation of late 19th century brick and stone row houses recalling other immigrant districts such as New York’s Greenwich Village or Lower East Side, many area residents are still too stigmatized by neighborhood’s lingering reputation as a ghetto to live in or even consider visiting the area. Their opinions were cemented by a few days of rioting that occurred in the spring of 2001, in response to the killing of a young, unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas at the hands of the Cincinnati Police in a darkened OTR alleyway.

In the wake of this unfortunate civil unrest, what had been a remarkably successful effort to revive and renovate much of the neighborhood’s architectural assets in the 1980s and 90s fell mostly apart. Demand for apartments disappeared, galleries closed, and some businesses had to relocate because customers refused to even drive into the area. We ourselves relocated from the tony but still urban Mt. Auburn to the even tonier first ring suburb of Hyde Park, located about three and a half miles east of downtown. The riots were not the only factors that precipitated this move, but they definitely hastened it and tellingly coincided, for we had relocated by the time I graduated from Middle to Upper School in June of 2001. I was now living very close to my eventual alma mater The Summit Country Day School, whose campus spreads out atop a plush riverside hill with beautiful views to the pocket city in the distance, the canary yellow Big Mac suspension bridge in the foreground.

The spring riots of that tumultuous, defining year for the city and the nation set Over-the-Rhine’s brisk redevelopment back a decade. The aftermath of the looting and arson coincided unfortunately with the expiration of many longtime OTR residents’ federal housing contracts from back in the 1960s, and in the five years immediately after the riots the neighborhood’s population shrank to historic lows, with pervasive squatting, crime, and general malaise. Even worse, the Cincinnati Police, in the wake of the heat they were receiving for their pattern of brazen, racially-tinged actions, reduced their patrols of the area. This only perpetuated the neighborhood’s slum state and reputation, which was canonized in the Oscar-winning film Traffic. Remember when Topher Grace leads Michael Douglas to his drugged out, naked daughter towards the movie’s end? She was in OTR.

Over the past decade, as the wounds of what happened in Over the Rhine in April 2001 gradually started to heal, Greater Cincinnati saw remarkable development along its interstate corridors and riverfront, particularly along the other banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Architecturally, Cincinnati has tried to keep up with its cross-river counterpart through a new tallest tower for the city, Gyo Obata‘s recently completed Great American Tower at Queen City Square. This wholly unremarkable office tower, with its glowing tiara top “inspired by Princess Diana” (because it’s in the Queen City – get it?) surpassed the art deco Carew Tower as the city’s tallest building, a distinction the Carew had held for the better part of eighty years.

This new skyscraper overlooks Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds MLB franchise, as well as the highly touted Banks redevelopment – still currently under construction. The shift of cultural and leisure activities across the river to Covington is epitomized by the contrasting designs of Obata’s staid, safe office tower and Liebiskind’s daringly avant-garde Ascent Tower, completed in 2008. In contrast to the humungous auto-oriented developments on the Kentucky banks of the river such as Newport on the Levee and several glassy condo towers, the historically dense and pedestrian scaled parts of old Covington offer an excellent example of what OTR is gradually becoming: a diverse and compact urban district with beautifully restored residential and commercial building stock, lively sidewalk life, and the most crucial ingredient, the young creatives.

Set to open in 2013, the Cincinnati Streetcar is a multi-phased mass transit system with great implications for the city’s economic and social future. Citing the success of surface streetcars in cities like Portland and Memphis, Mayor Mark Mallory, a majority of city council, and many Over-the-Rhine and Downtown residents and business owners are eagerly anticipating the system’s construction.

I am happy to report that in spite of the defeatist intentions of some intractable suburban and state political figures, Cincinnati is in the earliest stages of building the system’s first phase, running through the heart of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, linking the two neighborhoods with a dedicated public transit corridor for the first time since trolleys roamed the city’s streets and ascended its adjacent hills over seventy years ago.

It will require just under $100 million dollars to construct the streetcar’s first phase, consisting of a loop between the northern confines of OTR and Fountain Square. The project’s initial capital cost of $125 million was recently parsed down to $98 million by removing a planned section that would have connected streetcars to the nascent Banks development and stadiums along the river. This last minute alteration to the Phase I route is due to the short-sightedness of the state’s new Republican governor John Kasich, who has a trendy Tea Party aversion to the price tags that come with mass transit projects. Over $30 million dollars in TRAC funds that were previously set aside for the streetcar project have suddenly become unavailable, even though the project received an 83% approval rating from the state transit board, far surpassing many other state transportation proposals.

Since constructing Paul Brown Stadium for $403 million and Great American Ball Park for $290 million, city planners and regional developers have been touting The Banks riverfront redevelopment but currently the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (by Boora Architects of Portland, OR) stands alone on the site, with nothing but asphalt lots and parking garage pylons to keep it company. This is due mainly to the fact that land rights and air rights for the site are split respectively between the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, creating a huge logistical and bureaucratic headache for redeveloping these prime riverfront parcels into a new urban residential district. The willingness among some area taxpayers to help pay for intermittently used stadiums for barely winning teams but not a modest, pragmatic, job-growing transit line is the worst kind of hypocrisy leveled by the system’s detractors.

My excitement about the Cincinnati Streetcar is tempered by a note of caution, for the city has a history of starting transit projects only to give up on them. Underneath the streets of downtown are about two miles of subway tunnels and four subway stations. The abandoned (or incomplete?) Cincinnati Subway was constructed in the early 1920s with the intent of carrying passengers around downtown and to adjacent suburbs on a rapid transit system modeled after those built in Boston and Philadelphia during the same era.

When the automobile’s swift rise in prevalence coincided with the city’s depletion of its allocated funds for building and running the system, they simply abandoned it, demolishing long suburban portions of tunnels and using their right of ways to make room for the Mill Creek Expressway (I-75) and Norwood Lateral (I-285) highways. Just below the feet of pedestrians and the tires of cars at street level in downtown sits an impressively well preserved series of subway tubes and station platforms that have never seen a single train or rider, used only sporadically since for rations storage and bomb shelters during the second World War.

Stairs leading from street level at the abandoned Race St. station

Would you want to spend a night in an abandoned subway?

Rendering of the proposed streetcar system, with Cincinnati Public Library and Kroger Co. headquarters in background

Due to the same auto dominated development patterns that killed a nearly completed subway system and displaced tens of thousands of poor and lower class from the West End neighborhood, the Banks and the two sports stadiums are frustratingly cut off from the city’s central business district by Fort Washington Way, an entrenched eight-lane highway that is mostly open air, only spanned from above by bridges that carry the city’s main north-south streets (Walnut, Elm, Vine, Race). Large portions of the city’s historic riverfront settlements were cleared by the 1950s to make way for this connection between I-75 and I-71. Since being effectively separated from the city’s largest employment center by the span of an entire block, the riverfront area has long struggled to find an identity outside of its role as occasional sports venue and parking lot.

Nevertheless, the city sees its competitive priorities rising across the river, and thus has focused heavily on making Cincinnati’s riverfront district a worthy competitor to Covington. In the meantime a couple miles north, hundreds of beautiful, existing buildings dating to the city’s faded heyday have sat in vacancy and occasional squalor. The potential for redeveloping existing building stock immediately along the streetcar route has engendered a wide basis of support among city residents and civic leaders, but streetcar naysayers such as Governor John Kasich oppose the project on the basis of its capital and operating costs, claiming the money could be better utilized elsewhere in the state’s budget. The streetcar’s projected operating cost of $2 million annually will be funded by tax revenue from a new casino development on the city’s storied Broadway Commons site, which has long been a vast and underutilized asphalt parking expanse situated in a strategic urban location.

The newly branded OTR Gateway Arts District

In addition to the federal level support for Cincinnati’s streetcar, just in the past several years there has been a concerted and corporate-backed effort to jump start OTR’s next chapter as a leading artistic district for the city and region, with the streetcar playing a huge role in Cincinnati’s ambitious goals for future inner-city settlement. The city is hoping to drive excitement and interest back to the OTR neighborhood for impressive urban character. The latest spark of investment and acquisition of once-vacant properties has been carried out primarily through the private stakeholder corporation 3CDC, an entity formed in 2006 by the city’s major businesses, whose offices and interests lie directly south of OTR in Downtown.

Backed by this influential organization and other developers, OTR has been receiving steady reinvestment and repair of its uniquely dense housing stock by a new generation of twenty and thirty year olds who are seeking an urban lifestyle without leaving southern Ohio. Cincinnati is anticipating a wide range of economic and civic benefits from the new streetcar system, hoping to renovate and populate at least 1,100 new housing units in addition to 92 acres of underutilized surface parking, whose adjacency to the transit corridor make them rife for residential and mixed use redevelopments. To help ensure this inner-city revival and re-densification, the city is seeking to establish a transit-oriented zoning classification for both Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a critical step for reducing parking demands and maximizing the streetcar’s ability to catalyze development within its service area.

View north on Race St., near Findlay Market, a part of the Phase I Streetcar Loop

Cincinnati Music Hall, built 1872

Music Hall, home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and cherished annual events such as May Festival, has and will continue to be Over-the-Rhine’s primary cultural anchor. Soon to undergo a comprehensive renovation, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Over the course of researching this post, I discovered that Music Hall was actually built upon a plot of land had been historically used as both an orphan asylum and then a mass burial ground for the itinerant and homeless populations of the city. Until 1872, thousands of people were buried in unmarked graves on the formerly detached site, at which point the Music Hall Association acquired the now strategic parcel in the heart of OTR to construct Music Hall, with Washington Park directly across the street. Not surprisingly, Music Hall has many stories of paranormal occurrences, and workers who have dug below certain points in the building’s foundation have repeatedly found extensive amounts of human skeletal remains.

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, by Zaha Hadid Architects

To supplement the spooky, legendary Music Hall, a number of other influential arts institutions are now headquartered in Over the Rhine as well, including the School for Creative and Performing Arts (their best known alum: Nick Lachey), the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and ArtsWave. The latter two of these three organizations made deliberate, well-publicized moves in their headquartering from adjacent neighborhoods to embed themselves permanently within OTR’s artistically driven transformation and take a true stake in the community’s exciting prospects for reinvention.

While the standard bearing Cincinnati Art Museum remains in nearby Mt. Adams, since 2004 the Contemporary Arts Center has been housed in a Zaha Hadid-designed museum at the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets, her only built work in the United States to date. Hadid’s composition of solid concrete and black clad boxes hover atop one another, projecting into the streetscape and overlapping at a series of shallow, oblique angles. Visitors are drawn into the museum along an “urban carpet” that leads you from the sidewalk and through the lobby, then curves ninety degrees upwards to form the back parti wall for the corner building.

Outside of the University of Cincinnati campus, the CAC is one of the city’s most daring buildings to be realized in recent history, but represents only a sampling of the rich architectural and artistic character that will certainly draw more and more Cincinnatians to live, work, and play downtown in an energy expensive future.

For more on Cincinnati’s Streetcar system and future energy adaptation strategies, follow the jump.

-MJC

Case Study > Golden Gate Bridge

The case study is a research and review methodology that is commonly used in the social sciences for detailed investigation of a single event, in order to learn from the experience and improve future practice. Always initiated after said event has reached its obvious conclusion, the case study template model is a particularly helpful guide to compiling raw data and assessing the outcomes of certain planning decisions in plain hindsight. The point is to improve the performance of future endeavors, and the format is implemented in fields ranging from medicine to law to architecture.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has an established format for writing architectural case studies. My first class of each school day this semester is Case Studies, taught by AIA registered architect Daniel Hewett. Far from a traditional design studio or seminar course, this is a class unlike any other that I have taken thus far in my education. With an eye towards the impending careers in architecture that our Master’s degrees will hopefully afford us, discussions and exercises are heavily focused on interpersonal skills, group speaking abilities, and teamwork dynamics. While the course began with a series of storyboard presentations about episodes of miscommunication and mistakes in our professional co-op experiences, it has since been focused largely on the case study method and how we can improve it for our own benefit as we prepare to enter the professional field.

To warm us up for the highly methodological and speculative work that we are currently doing (writing grant proposals) we initially had the opportunity to team up and create our own case studies for a selection of iconic examples from the architectural canon, among them the Empire State Building, Hagia Sophia, Sydney Opera House, and my choice, the Golden Gate Bridge.

Me and my partner‘s research and analysis of the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t concerned with design or engineering features, but rather on the key events and circumstances that coalesced to produce the end result: a beautiful and iconic structure that has come to symbolize not only a city, but an entire state and region of the country. Though widely admired and romanticized today, there was considerable opposition at the time to the bridge project, for a variety of reasons.

There had been talk of a spanning the golden gate inlet to connect the burgeoning port city of San Francisco to neighboring Marin County as far back as the late 19th century. However, the first concrete step to realization of the ambitious project did not occur until the formation of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District in 1928.  This organization represented a coalition of community leaders from five of the counties north of San Francisco and the city itself, with the main task of securing the necessary public support and funding. This was no easy task considering that the project transitioned from conception to construction during the devastating outset of the Great Depression. Despite the Department of War’s interest in linking the important Pacific Ocean access point, the lack of federal funding meant that the projected $35 million it would take to build the suspension bridge needed to be covered by public bonds.

Financial insecurity was not the only obstacle the Golden Gate initially faced. A ferry service operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. had found great success for years by shuttling people across the water, and led a considerable lobbying effort against the bridge, in addition to the logging industry who did not want Marin Co. wilderness opened to exploration and preservation, and local Unions that were wary of outside bridge experts taking away all the potential jobs.

Despite their opposition, the bridge had the benefit of an enigmatic chief engineer named Joseph Strauss. The Cincinnati born and educated Strauss served more of a role as the bridge’s public face and biggest proponent, having much less to do with the actual design of the structure itself. Whereas the more technical and aesthetic tasks fell largely onto the plates of assistant engineers Charles Ellis and head architect Iriving Morrow, it was Strauss’ bureaucratic and public relation efforts that resulted in resounding public and political support. In addition to popular consensus that the bridge was a worthy project, the fledgling Bank of America completed the planning puzzle by purchasing all of the offered bonds and allowing construction to commence on what would become the world’s longest suspension span. Remarkably, construction remained on schedule and lasted just four years, 1933 to 1937. Even more remarkable was the fact that the bridge paid entirely for itself through tolls, including accrued interest, by 1971.

Finally, I have included some of the best historical photos of the bridge’s construction, all of which are featured in Stephen Cassady’s 1979 book Spanning the Gate:

A gigantic wood and steel fender was placed into the water and drained in order to lay the footings for both towers

After lowering and draining a massive fender in the bay, three gallant men inspect the bedrock for stability.

With the concrete base poured, one of the bridge's Art Deco towers begins to rise with every steel cell

Approaching top out

Two workers give scale to the suspension cable saddles atop each tower

Jutting out from the cellular steel tower are a web of safety nets for catching falling tools, and men

Between installation of the suspension cables and space frame road deck

-MJC

Neighborhoods > Midtown, Atlanta

I have been living in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood for nearly two months now. With a single speed bicycle serving as my only means of getting around this driving city, most of my explorations and discoveries have been focused around Midtown and its immediately surrounding environs like Poncey Highlands, Little Five Points, and East Atlanta.

As a byproduct of being Atlanta’s unofficial gay neighborhood, Midtown contains many of the city’s best art museums, theaters, bars and restarants, along with a host of other cultural diversions. There are a number of thriving commercial districts centered mainly along Peachtree and 10th streets, while the neighborhood’s residential fabric is a diverse mixture of sleek high rise condos and older single family homes that border on the neighborhood’s crown jewel, Piedmont Park. The photo below is from a recent walk around that park, looking towards a portion of Midtown’s impressively evolving skyline. Alternatively known as Lake Clara Meer, this is the largest body of water within the 189-acre park and is particularly stagnant and algae-covered at the peak of the summer. There are several signs posted to discourage swimming, but they hardly seem necessary given the smell and soupy consistency of the water.

Looking west from along Piedmont Road you can see the contrast between Midtown’s varied residential districts. Whereas eastern Midtown is characterized by leafy streets lined with wood frame Victorians and mid-century brick apartment blocks, the western portion that borders on I-75 is a spectacle of glassy offices, condos and hotels that have only gone up in the past twenty years. Looking northward from the rooftop of the Georgian Terrace Hotel, the photo below shows the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Midtown.

Also seen from atop the Georgian Terrace is our apartment building at the corner of 3rd and Juniper streets. The yellow brick structure contains roughly twelve units and occupies a transitional zone between the leafy low rise blocks of old Midtown and the spacious condo towers of new Midtown.

The aerial shot above was taken from Google Earth and is looking vaguely southeast, with Piedmont Park highlighted to the left and Interstate 75 (a vital North-South throughway) highlighted in fuchsia at right. The Nook on Piedmont Park is a cozy neighborhood bar and restaurant where Megan and I have both been working since our second week here. The proximity between work and home is ideal, with the blue line tracing my <5 minute commute by bicycle. The orange and pink lines trace varied return routes along Myrtle and Juniper streets, respectively.

The yellow line in the upper right follows Ponce de Leon Avenue, the unofficial border between Midtown and Downtown and a historical division line between the mostly caucasian districts to the north and their black counterparts to the south. Today Ponce de Leon’s reputation as a border seems increasingly irrelevant, as both sides of it are characterized by newly developed residential buildings, rising land values, and sporadic pockets of street life.

A westward looking view over Ponce shows a number of condo and apartment blocks in the foreground, with the comparatively suburban Midtown and Poncey Highland districts in the distance. With close access to major business districts, an idyllic city park, and substantial swaths of street life befitting of a city with higher population densities, it’s obvious why Midtown has become  a desirably urbane neighborhood for Atlanta’s upwardly mobile classes. Though I am perfectly comfortable around the condo dwellers of the world, my search for the city’s bohemian and hipster enclaves has lead me to nearby Poncey Highlands and Little Five Points, the latter of which has an old high school converted into trendy lofts, but that’s a whole different post. Stay tuned!

-MJC