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

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