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


Role Model > Louis Kahn

“I merely defend, because I admire, the architect who possesses the will to grow with the many angles of our development. For such a man finds himself far ahead of his fellow workers”

Ask any architecture student in their first few years of school about their favorite historical architects, and you’re likely to hear the standard bearers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, or any other influential figure whose work dominates discussions of twentieth century design. Wait a few years and then ask them the same question, and chances are they’ll mention Louis I. Kahn.

Although there are many architects whose popularity is exclusive to those studying and practicing the profession, (Peter Zumthor comes to mind, but after his 2009 Pritzker Prize win that classification might no longer be valid) Louis Kahn, whose career spanned four decades from the 1940s until his death in 1974, occupies a unique place among his mid-century peers whose work is celebrated in mainstream culture. A true architect’s architect, Louis I. Kahn is widely considered to have been the driving force that introduced historicist monumentality to American modern architecture.

Perhaps because he was educated in the traditional Beaux-Arts pedagogy of classical proportions, symmetry, and scale, Kahn always found himself on the fringe of the minimalist International Style that had become the preferred hallmark of avant-garde designers of the mid-twentieth century. Rejecting the modernist doctrine of “form follows function”, Kahn employed pure geometric forms, repetitive massing, and substantial scale to elevate the stature of his varied educational and institutional projects. The following is a brief chronological exploration of his greatest buildings, fully realized:

Yale University Art Gallery (1951-1953) His best known commission from the early part of his career, this building was an addition onto an existing gallery located on the neo-Gothic campus of the esteemed Ivy League University in New Haven, CT. Standing in contrast to the overly arched and sculpturally complex character of the historic building to which it is attached, Kahn’s addition reads from the outside as a simple box comprising unadorned expanses of glass and brick, projected with horizontal datums that indicate the interior floor plates.

It is within the galleries themselves that Kahn reveals his penchant for repetitive geometries, with a concrete ceiling cast in a triangular pattern and concealing the lighting and mechanical systems above. This motif is repeated at a grand scale in the building’s monumental staircase, which is circumscribed in a large cylindrical void. The aforementioned separation of mechanical functions into their own distinct volume above the ceiling was just the beginning of Kahn’s explorations of a building’s served and servant spaces

University of Pennsylvania Medical Research Building (1957-1961) Commissioned by his Alma Mater for a new scientific building on their Philadelphia campus, Kahn’s design for the university’s newest research building is best known for its vertical articulation of servant spaces (mechanical shafts, stairs) as expressed through monumental brick towers. Cantilevered from these massive service cores are the scientific labs, partially supported by concrete columns that appear inconspicuous next to their immense brick counterparts.

The goal of this structural orientation was to free the labs from impediment by the many mechanical systems that were necessary for proper medical research, an objective that was further achieved with a deep floor-to-ceiling plate that allowed for future reconfigurations to take place uninhibited by ductwork or plumbing.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-1965) This seaside institute in La Jolla, CA is probably Kahn’s best known building in the United States. While cursory examinations of the large and complex medical campus usually focus on the majestic outdoor courtyard, with its narrow channel of water that bisects the whole composition and visually connects ocean to sky, the configuration of the large lab buildings is the real showcase of Kahn’s design.

Taking his notions of served and servant spaces to new heights, each of the three main labs in the mirrored buildings are served by interstitial mechanical ceilings whose full height allows for easy access to the ducts, tubes, and wiring that run from the campus physical plants. The sectional diagram below shows how these interstitial levels also conceal catenary trusses that support the concrete floor plates. The color gradients express the difference between the naturally ventilated interstitial floors and their sealed, climate-controlled counterparts in the labs.

Philips Exeter Library (1965-1971) Employing geometric forms and perspectival views to their maximum effect, this library for the distinguished New Hampshire boarding school is one of Kahn’s smallest but most powerful projects. Whereas the exterior is a wholly unremarkable brick-clad cube with canted corners, the real magic of the design is found inside the large rectangular void at the center of the plan.

The four concrete walls of this ceremonial central volume are punctuated by huge circular openings that stretch over four stories of library stacks, revealing the spatial complexity of the main library floors and offering dynamic views outward and across the void. The literal crux of the symmetrically oriented structure is found when standing on the floor of the Central Hall and gazing upward to see a concrete X spanning from the corners of the rectangular volume to support the roof above.

Any profile of Louis Kahn has to include the story of his convoluted and untimely death in 1974. At the height of his practice’s success, Kahn was traveling back from Bangladesh, India where he had been overseeing progress on a series of huge government assembly buildings. While in the men’s room at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, Louis Kahn died from a heart attack. Because he had crossed out the address on his passport, he sat unclaimed in a morgue for three days before his colleagues traced his whereabouts and discovered that they had lost their beloved mentor. It was a truly awkward ending to the life and career of a quietly brilliant designer. For more on Louis Kahn’s professional and sordid personal lives, see his youngest son’s 2003 documentary My Architect: