It’s October 24,1931. The ribbon cutting ceremony of the George Washington Bridge – an enormous suspension bridge connecting northern Manhattan to New Jersey – is underway. Our debonaire Mayor is absent, and halfway through proclamations of the bridge’s grandeur, the man introducing the bridge blanks on the chief engineer’s name.
Othmar Ammann, the engineer, is noted for saying nothing.
A Swiss-born son of a hat maker, Ammann is responsible for building more than half of the dozen bridges that connect New York City, including the famed, stunning, Verrazano bridge.
Crazy trivia: the Verrazano was completed 12 years ahead of schedule.
I first read about Ammann during my undergrad years at engineering school. Surrounded by creative builders of all kinds, I was learning my digital craft and considering the many secret human gems that built our society’s bridges, structural and not.
The story noted above moved me; his skill, his humility, his interest in making the best possible thing in the best possible way inspired me and marked my path for years to come, and it’s no surprise.
From a family of engineers
I am the 4th generation to have gone to engineering school. The first known was my great grandfather, a “blue-blooded” mechanical engineer and pilot in the royal Russian army; the Bolsheviks wiped his kind out. His son, my mother’s father, was a mechanical and metallurgical inventor who ran from the government and changed his name, his alloy patents taken and applied to every metal household object in replacement of steel, absent in Russia post WWII. He also helped build the first Fiats, which I now see zip around the streets of New York.
My father and mother, also engineers with patents, ran all the way to America.
A common story, and one that may explain my love for those who make the useful, as well as my attempts at forgiveness for those who don’t notice or take it away.
Now I build systems, whether they’re sites or brands. A system is a system, an intuitive and deeply custom one, but nonetheless a system, and I like to think I “build bridges.” From a mental jumble to clarity, from one person to another, a bridge has many looks and forms, and it is not just about carrying people from point A to point B physically.
Bridges create opportunities others maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise, and this is a note of thanks to you – the often unknown and unseen people – who help daily in the thousands of ways we may never know of but rely upon nonetheless.
For your dedication, your time, your love and your craft – whatever it is.
Let your work speak for itself.
I can’t help but think, as much as I love humble people: if Social Media was around, would Ammann be a bigger name? What would he tweet about?
“Making sure these trusses are tight.”
“Saving the city millions of dollars during the Great Depression. #win.”
All seems absurd, but maybe it’s important to note something here:
You will be irrelevant one day.
The inventors of yesterday are honored in our minds sometimes, and the bridge now stands for everyone’s use; hardly anyone knows its creator’s name. This is because the George Washington Bridge is bigger that him, in all ways. It extends beautifully, lights up the night, carries millions across and for me personally, having grown up in the bridge’s Manhattan neighborhood, I have many fond memories of it from childhood. We tenderly called it “G-dubs”, partied near its buttresses, rode our bikes across it to watch the beautiful Hudson regularly. G-dubs is part of my life’s canvas.
Yet it was not until my early twenties, and in a class, that I considered its creator…and he turned out to be remarkable.
The lesson for me as of late has been to acknowledge that our good creations should outlive us if possible, that the objects, knowledge and art that come through us should become public commons, for we are here to share ourselves.
I like to imagine that someplace in Russia there is a spoon made out of some crazy alloy that my grandfather conjured, and even though his name may never be known, we need to think about what we’d like to leave behind and feel joyful that our lives have come to good.
And with that, I thank you, bridge builders of all kinds.