Photo by Jouko van der Kruijssen
It would have been painted in black and yellow stripes if the US Navy had had its way, or a stark black and white if the city had given in to the Army. Luckily, the directors of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge listened to consulting architect Irving Morrow instead.
“Orange vermilion is luminous, undergoes atmospheric changes with great beauty, is prominent without insistence, enhances the architectural scale to the utmost, and gives weight and substance,” he wrote enthusiastically in 1935.
The opening, only 80 years ago in 2016, was a defining moment for the city. Until then, San Francisco had been known for the Gold Rush, a devastating 1906 earthquake and its subsequent fire. Now it would be a luminous beacon for innovation and progress. In the decades that followed, the Bay Area nurtured cultural movements that would sweep the nation and the world, and that still guide the footsteps of the city’s 16 million annual visitors.
The Golden Gate Bridge was an idea as much as a feat of engineering. It was the first time the city had made a conscious attempt to muscle its way onto the world stage, to deliver something not just functional but inspirational. It is just a bridge in the same way that the iPhone is just a mobile phone. Both are crafted with a care that raises them far beyond the ordinary. Morrow’s justification for painting the bridge shocking orange, for instance, could have come straight from Apple founder Steve Jobs. “The color recommended is undoubtedly not the cheapest one that could be chosen,” he said. “But the margin of difference between the cheapest thing and the right thing is not sufficient to justify jeopardizing a project of this magnitude.”
Like Jobs, Morrow was a perfectionist. While the Bridge was still just scaffolding and raw steel, he was already specifying the exact position, angle and wattage of floodlights to showcase it in the dark: “Towers enveloped in a mellow glow at the base and at the tops practically disappearing into the night.” Morrow was also responsible for the strikingly modernist towers and the many art deco details visible on a leisurely bike ride across the Golden Gate, the only way to appreciate it properly.
His fellow designers were equally innovative. Structural engineer Leon Moisseiff experimented with an all-steel roadway that his “deflection theory” told him would remain flexible even over the bridge’s record-breaking 1,280-meter span. He was right – although his similar design for a crossing of the Tacoma Narrows in Washington succumbed almost immediately to wind-induced torsional flutter.
Looking for a Truly Wonderful hotel near the bridge? Our San Fran expert Juliette recommends this one!