By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
A few years back, when the developer Hines proposed replacing a small early-Twentieth-Century building on the Embarcadero with a midrise office building, and then again a few months later, when changes to the Planning code concerning historic preservation were debated, an architectural historian and ardent preservationist asked me, “If someone proposed changing the Golden Gate Bridge, would you support that?”
He intended the question to be rhetorical; he assumed that as an Iron Worker I would consider the bridge sacrosanct.
This month the Golden Gate Bridge closed one weekend to allow placement of a moveable median barrier. The yellow pylons that once divided opposing directions of traffic are gone. Now instead a low segmented ridge of gray galvanized steel filled with concrete and with an orange stripe on each side runs the length of the bridge deck. The structure of the toll plaza at the bridge’s south end has also been altered, in part to accommodate one of the “zipper” trucks that will periodically reposition the barrier.
Later this year work should begin on a greater alteration to the bridge: Tubular struts will protrude outward from the bottom chord of the bridge’s longitudinal trusses, and from these a stainless steel net will be hung as a suicide deterrent. At the same time, to improve the bridge’s performance in high winds a curved plate fairing will be installed along the west side, along with a new west rail with pickets of plate instead of channel. The bridge’s underside traveler platforms will also be changed, and side travelers added.
The social composition of the City is changing, but so is the physical City itself.
The preservationist’s assumption about me, then, has proven to be incorrect. I have served four years on the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. I voted in support of both the moveable median barrier and the suicide deterrent net. No, they do not fundamentally alter the appearance of the bridge, its towers, cables, anchorages, and approaches. Ardent preservationists, though, can be appalled at small changes in such things as windows, doors … and certainly in rails.
The structures we build and we ourselves stand in a kind of mutually subservient relationship.
Our building serves us in many ways. We build to shelter our sleep, meals, work, play. We build to facilitate our travel. We use building for these needs as a form of expression; architects design not just for function, but to suit the sensibilities of the day. Cross braces above deck in the Golden Gate Bridge towers are clad in plate that follows an Art Deco esthetic, and the illumination of the towers is mandated not by safety, but by the pleasure of seeing the play of light and shadow it creates.
But the things we have built make demands on us to serve them in return.
Some of these demands are simply practical. We patch a roof to eliminate leaks, drill wedge anchors through sill plates to keep a home on its foundations in an earthquake, paint a street lane red so that buses can move more efficiently.
But we do not necessarily upgrade a kitchen for better cooking, or a bathroom for better personal hygiene.
And we did not spend so much money and sweat reinforcing and refurbishing City Hall after the Loma Prieta earthquake because the Board of Supervisors needed such elaborate woodwork in its chambers to conduct its business. The things we have built make demands based on what we have expressed and continue to express through them.
The most strident historical preservationists will value more in this relationship the demands of the things we have built on us than would most of us. Most of us would agree that the obligation of things we build to serve us is far greater than ours to serve them.
This simple preference of human need over the needs of objects dictated my votes on the moveable median barrier and the suicide deterrent net. Both will save lives. No more should need to be said.
If extreme in the instance, the principal in these votes of valuing human need over the needs of objects nonetheless applies to the current debate over the future of San Francisco. I have heard some complain of “losing their city” in the recent boom that includes so much of our work. By this they mean two things: The social composition of the City is changing, but so is the physical City itself.
The two changes are linked, and yet distinct enough to ask separate discussion.
I will discuss the fear of physical change in my next column, the fear of social change in another.