The Tower and the Bridge

July 6, 2019

The beauty of a bridge can best be measured by how full of shit it is.

Some bridges have large stone towers at their ends that don’t support any weight at all, they just look strong. Some bridges feature columns in the middle to add some sort of decoration, like structural makeup.

The best bridges perform their duty, requiring no decor and no recognition. Each column, support, nut, and bolt is there for a specific and clear purpose. In short, the best bridges are not full of shit.

David P. Billington’s The Tower and the Bridge changed my perspective on just about everything, and I didn’t realize it until recently. In that 1985 book, he explains what makes a piece of structural art” so great, i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. As I understood it, great structures do exactly what they need to do without excess.

We often have an impulse to do more. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, he spends many pages to describe examples of iatrogenics—where a treatment or action causes more harm than it does good. These include lawmaking: When something happens, lawmakers make haste to pass a law that may or may not be ineffective or even harmful, and medicine: a doctor might not diagnose a patient correctly and put them through risky treatments for no reason at all.

It’s the same in art and design. We should do more. Add more. Make it more complicated than it needs to be, add decoration, something! Something to make our job look like more. 

In graphic design, that’s easy to do. Adding more typefaces, more colors, and more versions adds zero cost to the project, only a few minutes of your time. In a bridge, however, adding more costs lots of money, lots of time, and lots of planning. Not to mention, there’s risk involved. The bridge could collapse if the designers and engineers don’t do their jobs correctly.

Perhaps this is why bridges are some of the most fascinating design objects in the world. By necessity, they are (usually) reduced to their core elements. They don’t add more than necessary, because there’s not an unlimited budget. And they work—at least those still standing.