At the opposite end of the city–Wall Street being at the south end of Manhattan–at the northern extremity of the island, the George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson–an arm of the sea or an estuary rather than a river. The floor of the bridge, as in other bridges, is high enough to allow the passage of large ships. Thus the approaches have to be carefully designed ramps which gradually dominate the city. American bridges are of the suspension type. That expresses a trait of mind. What are bridges for? To enable you to cross over on a horizontal platform, but also to allow a free space below for the passage of boats: that principle is accepted everywhere. Monumental arches? They are not in question, it is a question of the bridge! Daring is a virtue, and, assisted by technique, it has made possible at certain happy moments the attainment of architectural splendor.
The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp, the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apron; the second tower is very far away; innumerable vertical cables, gleaming against the sky, are suspended from the magisterial curve which swings down and then up. The rose-colored towers of New York appear, a vision whose harshness is mitigated by distance.
The bridge has a story which almost turned out ridiculously. Mr. Cullman, president of the Port of New York, told me about it. The bridge was constructed under his supervision. The problem required the utmost engineering boldness. Calculation aided by a fortunate hypothesis gave the work the severity of things which are exact. the bridge leaps over the Hudson in a single bound. Two steel-topped concrete piers between the banks and the apron hold the suspension chains. I have mentioned the extraordinary dimensions of the two towers. Constructed of riveted steel they stand up in the sky with a striking nobility. Now the towers were to have been faced with stone molded and sculptured in “Beaux-Arts” style (New York term for the aesthetic ideas current on the quai Voltaire in Paris).
Someone acted before it was too late. Then the whole committee of the Port of New York Authority. Little by little spirit of modern times makes itself felt: these men said, “Stop! no stone or decoration here. The two towers and the mathematical play of the cables make a splendid unity. It is one. That is the new beauty.” They made some calculations; the maintenance of the towers by proper painting would cost an amount equal to the interest on the capital which would have been invested in stone-faced towers. Thus the proposals were financially equivalent. They were not looking for a means of saving expense. But “in the name of beauty and of the spirit” they dismissed the architect with his decorations. Those men are citizens!
Throughout this account I have been speaking of things done on a grand scale. Through personal experience I know that it is necessary to have seen; I do not care for literary evocations. Drawing cannot give you the inexpressable sensation of a work thus suspended between water and sky. Neither can photography. The reader of these lines, then, will not be able to appreciate as I do, in the fervor of his heart, the miracle that happened at the right moment, when a sensitive and sober-minded man cried: “Stop!”
In my lecture at Columbia University I began with the evocation of the bridge and thanked the unknown man who had saved it and had given to New York that place of grace and joy.
Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White (1947)