Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
How the span that unites can make arch-rivals of us all
OUR BRIDGE 75th anniversary special souvenir
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is a columnist and academic who writes on architecture, planning, design and aesthetics each week in the Herald.
Right from the start, the bridge has been a metaphor for the splits and skirmishes within Sydney society, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, closely modelled on the 1916 Hell Gate Bridge in New York but nearly twice as long, is an icon of which we are justly proud. It paved the way, further, for that answering icon on the opposite point, forming the icon-pair – one so linear and masculine, the other a shellburst of feminine exuberance – that now guards Sydney’s symbolic entrance like yin-yang lions at the gate.
But the Harbour Bridge’s story, like the Opera House’s, has a darker side, a side that plants this exotic icon absolutely in our convict soil.
Bridges, although designed to connect, just as surely divide. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, not content even with this dual role, has extended its paradoxical tendrils into the mythic realm, stirring our collective psychic pot, as well as our city.
At a physical level, the connections and divisions are obvious, though no more amenable for that.
Sydney may see itself gathered – crowded, even – around its harbour like a family at dinner. But in fact, bridge or no bridge, the city remains divided both by its harbour and by the bridge itself; neatly, into compass-point quadrants.
Sure, a 10-minute bridge crossing beats a half-day row, as of old, with the Jamaican boatman Billy Blue or, for that matter, a three-day dray-haul via Parramatta. But the conceptual barrier remains. North still implies bourgeois privilege – as in “North Shore maidens” – while for southerners in particular, crossing to the “other side” for a dinner party or children’s birthday becomes a genuine test of friendship.
East-west, the bridge’s divisive effect is even more emphatic, as noted by the painter Lloyd Rees. For Rees, ever picturesque, the bridge had erected a proscenium, or maybe theatre curtain, between the harbour’s real, working life in the west and its leisured, play-going classes.
Even now, with the working harbour dead and the working classes becoming aspirational, the bridge is a ruthless class divider. Separating that silty, brackish estuary – crowded now with vast residential developments like some relentless fleshy fungus – from the tide-washed beaches of the harbour “proper”, the line is quite as decisive as the Western Distributor’s between fumey, rental-class Ultimo and professional-class Pyrmont.
Metaphorically the divisions surrounding the bridge are just as real. Not just due to the Irish fascist and ex-hussar Francis de Groot, either, slashing his way into history with a ceremonial sword, a hussar’s uniform and a schoolgirl’s borrowed horse on Opening Day 1932.
De Groot’s performance was less risible than it sounds. De Groot was an army captain and a member of the paramilitary New Guard, which, in response to the combination of Depression times and Jack Lang socialism, had swollen to 50,000-strong. Even now some historians believe a coup d’etat was genuinely on the cards.
Three years earlier, though, a different bridge controversy had raged; less dramatic, but maybe more significant. It was about design, but also about honour, honesty and ego.
Engineers are not usually feted as “designers”, certainly not in the precious auteur sense we expect of architects and film directors. But here, in a classic paternity row, all that grown-up restraint was abandoned in an out-and-out public row over who had designed the world’s longest span.
It erupted part way through construction, March 1929, with a prolonged exchange of fire in the Herald between John Bradfield, the director of public works, and the British consulting engineer (Sir) Ralph Freeman.
Bradfield had been involved with the bridge for more than 20 years, nursing the harbour-crossing idea from tunnel to bridge, from Bennelong to Dawes Point as springing point, from cantilever to arch-bridge and through World War I to the point of tender. Clearly, he felt, it was his bridge.
Freeman, who had designed the winning tender in 1923 for his old firm the Cleveland Bridge Company; taken it, on the death of his boss, to Dorman, Long and Co; selected steel type and detail and drawn the winning tender-drawings, as well as supervising the working drawings and amendments, also felt it was rightfully his.
Who was right, given that the broad “look” of the bridge was taken in some detail not, as commonly supposed, from Newcastle’s 1928 Tyne Bridge, which was completed earlier but designed later than Sydney’s bridge, but from the much earlier and much more similar Hell Gate?
There is clearly a real sense in which Bradfield’s claim was supportable; in which it was his bridge. And yet it is also clear that, on the specific question of design, Freeman was right; Bradfield no more designed the bridge than Cahill designed the Opera House, or Napoleon, Paris.
Bradfield, in his ongoing and overarching role as the bridge’s patron, would have lost nothing and gained international stature in acknowledging the accuracy of Freeman’s claim. But he didn’t, wouldn’t and couldn’t.
Dorman, Long threatened to sue the NSW government if it attached a plaque to the bridge naming Bradfield as designer. And yet the plaque that sits on the north-east pylon attributes “the design” to “J.J.C. Bradfield … Chief Engineer”, while giving Freeman, who missed the opening, a strictly minor role. Bradfield had won.
Just as neatly, then, as the Harbour Bridge helped form that first icon-pair, it takes its place in the history of our design debacles. Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra and Joern Utzon’s Opera House both recognised the designer while compromising his design by committee.
For the Sydney Harbour Bridge, coming between, this pattern was inverted, sustaining the design’s integrity while repudiating its author.
None of which detracts from those glorious yin-yang lions at our door. Perhaps, though, as an equally glorious third act, what we really need is not another icon on the tip of East Darling Harbour but to restore poor old quarried-down Pinchgut to its god-given bony spire.
Our own harbour spirit-rock. Imagine how mysterious a trinity that would make.
PHOTO: Pique hour … when an icon is hard to love. Photo: Andrew Taylor