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Building Big

By Margaret Schroeder | HUMANITIES, September/October 2000 | Volume 21, Number 5

An urbanite hurrying to work may take for granted the skyscrapers overshadowing her, and a harried commuter may travel across a bridge several times daily without thinking it unusual. But when we stop to contemplate how the cityscape became what it is, the mystery of mammoth structures such as skyscrapers and bridges prompts many questions.

"For all of us, young or old, real learning begins with a sense of curiosity--about the natural world, the world of our ancestors, and the world we build for ourselves," says Larry Klein. "If someone begins to wonder, for example, how a bridge is built, a river tamed, or a tunnel created, that person is now more receptive to understanding and appreciating the achievements of the past and the principles of physical science and technology."

Larry Klein is the executive producer of the upcoming television documentary, Building Big, which takes on these questions. The five-part series will air in October on PBS stations throughout the country.

What's all the commotion over large structures? "There's the image issue--big has always signified strength, stability, and longevity--a talisman for public confidence," says Klein. "Building tall can be spiritually uplifting, like the great cathedrals of Europe; a matter of civic and national pride, like the Washington Monument; or the outward expression of a profound inner drive--called vision by some and ego by others--to simply build as big and as tall as humanly possible."

The series takes a look at five architectural wonders of the modern world and how they came to be, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Toronto Skydome, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Aswan Dam, and the English Channel Tunnel.

While the five segments show many examples of architectural innovation, each focuses on a structure selected for its relative importance in the world and the difficulty of its architectural achievement. "When they appeared on the world's landscape, each of our structures influenced society and galvanized global attention," says Klein. "The stories of their respective creations are truly dramatic. And each became . . . a signpost of achievement that other builders immediately strove to match or even surpass."

Building Big illustrates how technological development happens and traces the scientific and intellectual breakthroughs that catalyze such development. But it's the human drama surrounding the building of bridges, domes, skyscrapers, dams, and tunnels that really drives the series. "These are, after all, big, dumb, silent things. But you have to find a way to make them tell their stories," Klein says.

The series tells dramatic stories such as the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, highlighting the ambition of the architects and the fearlessness of workers who labored in perilous conditions.

For John Roebling and his son Washington, the engineers who designed it, the Brooklyn Bridge became a symbol of their shared vision and misfortune.

Not long into the project, John Roebling was seriously injured on the site and developed lockjaw. After his death, his son took up the reins.

The Roeblings' many innovations, such as the first steel suspension cables, made it possible to build a bridge 50 percent longer than any other existing bridge.

Another invention, the pneumatic caisson, provided an airtight, underwater construction site seventy-eight feet below the East River. In dim light and a precarious air supply, workers dug the bridge's foundation. Many died from the bends, also known as caisson disease or decompression sickness, caused by emerging too quickly from the compressed atmosphere.

Washington Roebling developed the bends and was forced to monitor construction through binoculars from his room nearby. But in 1883 the Roeblings' dream was realized and the bridge was completed. Spanning 1,595 feet and able to bear 18,700 tons, the Brooklyn Bridge broke all records.

Project Director Paula Apsell says, "I think what most interests me is getting an understanding of how our ability to build these massive structures is really built on layers of effort. I'm always interested in people seeing science and technology as a process that evolves over many generations." Apsell adds that the monumental feats of engineering we see today owe a great deal to the great mistakes and tragedies that have occurred in the development of such structures over the years.

"We marvel today at the Gothic cathedrals. Yet many medieval churches collapsed soon after or during construction and were never completed," agrees Klein. "Massive building projects always carry such risks."

Building Big uses several different approaches to tell the stories behind the development of the world's architectural marvels. In addition to narrative, archival footage, and interviews with experts, the segments explain the physical, scientific side of the story through computer graphics and animated sequences. Host David Macaulay, author of The Way Things Work and a National Humanities Medal winner, with sketchpad and marker in tow, brings many of the concepts to life through simple drawings that explain the engineering principles behind the structures.

"Bridges" is the story of what drove people to span the distance between geographically isolated areas and what such a feat meant for human history. The narrative traces the development of bridge technology back to the rope and bamboo suspension bridges of ancient China and South America, and the advent of the Roman arch. The Romans used bridges for military purposes; and once they had conquered new lands, to bring materials back to Rome.

Returning to modern times and the era of giant steel structures, "Bridges" focuses on one of the world's most recognizable bridges, San Francisco's Golden Gate. Sixteen years in the making, the Golden Gate Bridge spans the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay.

Although no lives were lost during the first three years, bridge construction was full of harrowing moments. Two men, dubbed "connectors," stood on the thirty- five-foot high towers that made up the bridge to set enormous, hollow steel cells in place. "It was difficult to walk the beams carrying planks," says Al Zappa, a construction worker. "You were high and in the wind. There was a four-by-six panel board called a float, which you could swing out on. Sometimes the wind was so strong it would blow you out and hold you there until someone pulled you in. You had to be surefooted like a mountain goat and hang on like a monkey."

Chief engineer Joseph Strauss strung a safety net, circus-style, below the bridge deck. Although the net proved fallible, it managed to save the lives of nineteen men. With true gallows humor, those rescued by the net created the "Almost to Hell Club."

On May 27, 1937, the day the bridge opened, two hundred thousand people crossed the Golden Gate Bridge--running, skipping, dancing, and on stilts.

"Domes" shows viewers that both the beautifully crafted masterpieces of centuries- old cathedrals and the overhead shield keeping the rain off them during sporting events have their roots in the Roman amphitheater. Tracing the legacy of efforts to span large areas without supports or columns, "Domes" highlights engineering feats throughout history that led to the creation of Toronto's Skydome. From the Roman Pantheon to the U.S. Capitol Dome, the program explores what such structures mean for the societies that erect them.

"The Pantheon was an opportunity for Emperor Hadrian to outdo his predecessors--to build something no one had built before," says Klein. "Some have suggested that the temple's focus on interior space, in its great geometric symmetry, was intended to reflect man's harmony with the cosmos--its dome acting as a metaphorical sky. Whatever its true zeitgeist--science, art, religion, public relations--it remains a wonder of the world and has inspired imitators from Russia to America." "Skyscrapers" explores the historic and mythical predecessors of the modern skyscraper, relating how stories of building high enough to touch the sky permeate the collective imagination. The Tower of Babel is most likely based on Babylonian towers called ziggurats, or stepped pyramids. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos of Alexandria, is believed to have been a lighthouse the height of a forty-story building. Built in 280 bc for Ptolemy II, the Pharos survived until the twelfth century. The legacy of these structures has influenced contemporary architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who sketched plans for a mile-high cantilever skyscraper called the Illinois.

The program looks at the scientific innovations that made modern-day skyscrapers possible, from the development of iron and steel structural framing to the invention of the elevator.

At 1,476 feet, Malaysia's twin Petronas Towers are currently the world's tallest buildings--twenty-two feet taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago. Designed by Cesar Pelli, the towers took five years to construct and contain the equivalent of forty-eight football fields of office space. The towers' design is based on an Islamic Arabesque and an eight-point star in each tower symbolizes the relationship between heaven and Earth.

Producer Joe McMaster says understanding the way skyscrapers are built should prove revealing to people who rarely take notice of the buildings around them. "I hope people will start to look up more," says McMaster.

"Is the fact that we can build such things reason enough to build them?" asks Klein. "The Eiffel Tower, once a wonder in its own time, actually 'does' nothing but prove the possible........How do we evaluate the need for huge and expensive civic projects?"

"Dams" investigates this question in terms of Egypt's Aswan Dam, which alters the flow of the Nile River. Although the dam regulates irrigation and provides hydroelectric power, diverting the Nile necessitated displacing ancient monuments and produced unforeseen environmental consequences. The eradication of several species of fish, the rise of parasitical diseases, and the occurrence of serious and unprecedented earthquakes means that the dam's long-term implications on the region's ecology are still being discovered.

Dam-building itself is not a new enterprise. Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia eight to ten thousand years ago, dams were built to harvest the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

"Tunnels" takes a look at some of the earliest efforts to burrow beneath the earth to mine, bury, create aqueducts, and travel from one underground place to another.

As told by a medieval legend, a Roman sorcerer dug the first road tunnel in only one night with the help of eighty thousand devils. The experience of Roman slaves digging tunnels was in fact close to the type of infernal scenario described by Dante: toiling in very tight quarters and breathing sulphurous fumes, slaves and prisoners of war were forced to work amidst the screams of their wounded and dying fellows.

Tunneling has developed dramatically since ancient Rome to make projects such as the English Channel Tunnel a reality for present-day commuters. Linking Britain and France was a major venture in financing, engineering, and international cooperation. Three tunnels were planned: two for one-way traffic and one for servicing and safety. To dig the Chunnel, Tunnel Boring Machines were fashioned, each two football fields long. The French christened one "Catherine" and the British dubbed another "#6." Using laser technology to stay on track, the T.B.M.s bore through the eighty-foot-thick chalk marl lining the Channel floor. On June 28, 1991, after three and a half years of digging, the T.B.M.s met in the middle. When the Chunnel was inaugurated in 1994, the final price tag on the project was $13.5 billion dollars--twice as much as projected.

Learning the principles behind these massive structures is what unifies the series, but the individual stories that come from century after century of efforts to master the natural environment bring Building Big to life.

"You are looking at structures that people really didn't think would work. The single-minded vision that it could in fact be done drove these people forward," says Klein, explaining that the series focuses on the designers and engineers who made their ideas a reality. "I think we moderns have grown a little blase about these structures. I would love for people to come away from this series with a better appreciation for the skill and determination of the people who created them."

In hosting the series, Macaulay hopes to show that regardless of the size of these structures, behind them all is a "fundamental, common-sense logic." Providing the historical context for the building of each of them is essential. "One of the things that makes them so amazing is that in many cases they were completed during times in which technology was not as developed," he says. "You learn how these things work, how they were built, and where they came from. And in the end these things have changed the way we live."

About the Author

Margaret Schroeder is a writer in Springfield, Illinois.

Funding Information

NEH provided $300,600 in funds for Building Big. David Macaulay is writing a companion volume to the television series, and there will be online resources and activities, videos for classroom use, as well as partnerships with several organizations to provide activities for local communities.