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Swiss design in Big Apple spans generations

The George Washington Bridge in dense early morning fog (Reuters)

New York's George Washington Bridge, considered one of the greatest works of Swiss bridge engineer Othmar Ammann, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Ammann, who spent most of his career in the United States, has been widely hailed as one of the most important bridge builders of the 20th century.

One of the Big Apple's landmarks, the George Washington Bridge (GWB) spans the Hudson River from New York City to New Jersey. When it opened in 1931, it was the world's longest suspension bridge and still is the only 14-lane suspension bridge worldwide.

Speaking at the GWB's recent 75th anniversary celebrations, city officials described the 1.5km bridge – which is used by 300,000 vehicles a day – as "the living legacy of designer Othmar Ammann".

"For 75 years the George Washington Bridge has stood watch over the Hudson river, witnessing decades of astounding growth in the region," said New York Governor George E. Pataki.

"The bridge itself has played such an important role in New York's development – proving a major artery for commerce, employment opportunities and tourism."

Swiss and the city

Ammann was born in Schaffhausen in 1879 and completed his education at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In 1904 he emigrated to New York.

He began by working for the great railway bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal. By the 1920s the car had started to overtake the railways in popularity and Ammann started to develop fresh ideas for car-based bridges.

In 1931 Ammann, at the time the New York and New Jersey Port Authority's chief engineer, also completed the Bayonne Bridge, the longest steel arch in the world when built. It was opened a month after the GWB.

Over the years he also designed a number of other New York bridges such as the Bronx-Whitestone (1939) and the Verrazano Narrows (1964).

Legacy

Ammann was not only famous for his bridges' technical achievements – the GWB was twice the span of the longest spanning bridge of its time – but also for their beauty.

His designs were simple, light and inexpensive. Cost was crucial during the Depression era and the GWB was completed under its original budget of $60 million (SFr75 million).

"Ammann built the most important and most spectacular bridges in New York and these were not only suspension bridges but also arch bridges," Christian Menn, a leading Swiss bridge engineer, told swissinfo.

Menn added that Ammann's legacy was a new generation of suspension bridges, mainly made of steel.

"He influenced the concept of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which was originally absolutely not convincing... it was not a very nice design. The construction of the bridge was [then] influenced by Ammann and it is now a beautiful bridge," said Menn.

Work of art

Like Ammann, Menn was educated at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology. Menn also later taught there as a professor.

The institute is renowned for turning out good bridge engineers. Other Swiss luminaries include Robert Maillart and Heinz Isler.

"To me Ammann was always my professional example," said Menn, who built the Felsenau Bridge in the Swiss capital, Bern, and the Sunniberg Bridge in Klosters. He also designed the Leonard P Zakim Bridge in Boston in the US.

Ammann's long and distinguished career saw him win a number of accolades, including the National Medal of Science – the first one ever awarded to a civil engineer – in 1964. He died aged 86 in New York just one year later.

"A great bridge in a great city, although primarily utilitarian in its purpose, should nevertheless be a work of art to which science lends its aid," he once said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Othmar Ammann:
1879: Born in Schaffhausen, educated in Zurich.
1904: Emigrates to New York
1924: Became US citizen
1931: GWB and Bayonne Bridge
1936: Triborough Bridge
1939: Bronx-Whitestone Bridge
1964: Verrazano Narrows Bridge
1964: Dies in New York

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