A Need for Silly Public Works

(Image credit: Aaron Logan)

Some of us simply have trouble accepting things as they are. Apparently I do. There is hardly any sight in Northern California more beautiful than that of the Golden Gate Bridge. With its distinctive orange-vermillion paint job, faithfully maintained year after year, it can be seen for miles. I have no problem with the bridge as it is; I love it. But sometimes I get an urge to see what something might look like if it were different. In late 2007 I began to redesign the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried various schemes, and prepared enough drawings to satisfy my curiosity. I had fun, but my designs were pretty ugly.

Whimsically-designed public works are relatively rare in cities around the world, but not entirely absent. In Rome, tourists may occasionally encounter silly and amusing public sculptures and fountains. Working on my designs for the Golden Gate Bridge, I tried shapes that might be amusing to a child.  But honestly, a design like the one depicted above might not seem so funny to commuters who had to drive between its legs twice a day.

For sure, I lack the engineering expertise that I would need if I were to actually redesign the Golden Gate Bridge. My funky, wiggly and organic bridge support structure lacks gravitas and seriousness. An international competition would be needed for such an important project. The competition would offer an opportunity for talented bridge engineers to show off their unique plans for the bridge. Allowing engineer-sculptors to submit designs would be an exciting event, though emotions would run high, given the public’s sentimental attachment to the bridge’s dramatic and straightforward design that has attracted admirers during its entire 77-year history. Judges would need to assess entries to make sure they met standards for public taste and morality, engineering integrity and ease of maintenance.

Even though it would be possible to match the existing strength of the Golden Gate Bridge’s suspension system by using materials and structural members different from the original cable system, the public would likely rebel at a structure that is unpleasant to look at.

If my designs were built, the focus of the discussion would shift from the bridge’s virtues to a public debate concerning the designer’s sanity!

Bridge supports could become tourist attractions. Here, a ship that is loaded with tourists docks alongside one of the Robot Man bridge supports and lets off passengers. They ride the elevator up to Robot’s Chest Restaurant, or all the way to the top to Robot’s Head Bar.

Seriously, I am distressed by the dangerous condition of the aging bridges, highways, railroad tracks, and trestles that make up the nation’s transportation system. With declining or absent budgets, there is less room for public discussion about the need for high-level aesthetic input. Perhaps a general appreciation for the work of star designers and big thinkers is waning right along with shrinking budgets. And while humor is known to be an indispensable concomitant and byproduct of human intelligence, it is not listed  as a design criteria in public works budgets.

For decades I have believed there is a need for whimsy in publicly-funded works such as street furniture and urban signage. Here’s my idea sketch for 1983 that included a note: “What would happen if engineers in the Public Works Department had a bigger budget and an opportunity to express a sense of humor.”

No doubt, not all parts of the public infrastructure system are amenable to or improved by the application of whimsy. My 1990 drawing of a future public transportation system, dubbed Municipal Light Entertainment Rail, showed a system that would likely be more disturbing than comforting! For example, the experience of being mugged while riding inside a tunnel – one made to look like the rib cage and intestines of a monstrous fish – would be deeply unnerving! An individual might need years of therapy to recover from the event.

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