How the Swiss Othmar H. Ammann (1879–1965) built the most important bridges in New York, but remained unsuccessful in his home country.
Francesco Della Casa
Cantonal architect, Geneva
Othmar Ammann lived in an age when engineers and architects were more likely to wear a straw hat than a hard hat when visiting a construction site. In the eyes of many professional colleagues, the Zurich native was the greatest civil engineer of the 20th century.But he’s still relatively unknown in his country of origin. The hilly topography of Switzerland has always produced outstanding achievements in the field of bridge and tunnel construction. The rest of the work was done by the Eidgenössische Polytechnikum in Zurich, founded in 1854, which became the ETH Zurich in 1911. It was here that, in 1902, the young Othmar Ammann completed the training he had started eight years earlier at the Zurich Industrial School. One of his professors was Wilhelm Ritter, who in turn was the spiritual model for another renowned civil engineer who had received his diploma eight years earlier: Robert Maillart.The work of the pioneers of the Polytechnic at this time differed from that of other schools of engineering primarily in one respect – the important role of aesthetics in the design of their structures. Just like Maillart, Ammann always remained true to this philosophy, and it is largely thanks to his work that, in the planning of bridges, even greater emphasis is now placed on the idea of a ‘work of art’. Towards the end of his life he expressed it as follows: “When designing a bridge, the aesthetic impact is just as important as the technical details. Building an ugly bridge is a crime!”In the early days of his career Ammann decided to emigrate to the USA, where the boom in railway construction offered many opportunities for a young engineer. In 1912 he became assistant to Gustav Lindenthal in New York, and worked on the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge and the Sciotoville Bridge. But when in 1917 Lindenthal embarked on a project to design a bridge over the Hudson River with 12 railway tracks and 16 lanes for cars, Ammann had doubts about its feasibility. He decided instead to produce an alternative proposal for a road bridge. This plan was ultimately accepted, and established his reputation as a bridge builder. The George Washington Bridge is a suspension bridge with an enormous span length which, thanks to the innovative construction of the deck, is much lighter and more streamlined than other bridges existing at that time, but can still withstand winter gales. It opened in 1931 and was the first bridge to connect Manhattan Island with the mainland. Meanwhile, Ammann had already made significant progress with the planning of a magnificent steel arch bridge: the Bayonne Bridge was completed in 1932, and for 45 years held the record as the longest bridge of its type in the world. Even today, it is still one of the most elegant.In 1933, Ammann was appointed director of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He worked closely with Robert Moses, the famous New York urban planner, and built the Triborough Bridge and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, as well as the Lincoln Tunnel, for him. He was also involved as a consulting engineer in the design of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In 1946 he relinquished his post to set up his own engineering firm with Charles S. Whitney. Ammann and Whitney built the final two of his six New York bridges – the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Although he had received American citizenship in 1924, as an acclaimed bridge builder Amman clearly owed it to himself to maintain his relationship with his country of origin. Sadly, his efforts remained unsuccessful, at least on a professional level. In 1963 the engineering firm Ammann & Whitney presented a cable-stayed bridge for crossing the Lake Geneva basin. But like many before and after him, the project was rejected by the city planning commission, which was evidently unimpressed by the reputation of its USA-based compatriot.
Ammann had three children with Lilly Selma Wehrli, to whom he had been married since 1905. After Lilly’s death in 1933 he embarked upon a second marriage, with Kläry Nötzli, widow of the specialist dam engineer Fred A. Nötzli, who had also emigrated to the United States.
Othmar Ammann’s adopted country was generous with recognition. He was the recipient of numerous honours and awards, and his bronze bust – albeit without a straw hat – sits on high in the bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge.
Trailer for the film “Gateways to New York” (2019) about Othmar Ammann by Martin Witz.YouTube
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