Saturday, December 17, 2011
A Pox on the Brooklyn Bridge
The most beautiful part of the Brooklyn Bridge is a metal rod protruding from the edge of its pedestrian walkway. This rod is on the south side of the walkway, closer to Brooklyn than Manhattan, covered in rust and connected to a large pipe daubed with gloppy grey paint and plastered with graffiti stickers.
The most beautiful things on the bridge that are not part of the bridge itself are the dozen or so padlocks dangling from this metal rod.
The bridge is renowned for its design—its thick, substantial stone columns, the sturdy reach of its powerful arms spanning the East River—but what really make the bridge beautiful are its flaws: the pits in its sculpted stone, its oxidized metals, the anomalous abandoned padlocks hanging like neglected Christmas ornaments in February. The entire massive majesty of the bridge bows to a vibrant orange pox on a hunk of metal left out in the rain.
Relentless engineering has produced one sort of perfection—the perfection of lines, of pressure point supports and cable tensions—but flawlessness of this sort is only necessary, not beautiful or interesting. The Brooklyn Bridge is fortunate in its old age, because thanks to the effects of time and weather and sloppy artistry it has in some ways achieved a sort of attractiveness in addition to its functionality.
It’s certainly no longer notable for its technical achievements—as I crossed it on foot recently I marveled at the sheer amount of human effort needed to span such a narrow creek as the East—but as it wears away, it gains a beauty of its own: the beauty of roughness, of edges rubbed smooth or broken off jagged, of stains and natural colors. Give me this any day over perfect spires and spit-shined glass.
People themselves will certainly never be perfect, so the pursuit of and obsession over an arbitrary perfection and precision in aesthetics seems a bit inhuman. And it can be callous—see the example of New York’s pending “Freedom Tower” (now thankfully known by the less offensive name “One World Trade Center”), an image-driven structure that, when completed, will plumb the depths of both blind nationalism and sheer silliness with a rooftop needle culminating at precisely 1776 feet. Why? Because America, that’s why.
Then again: I like clean lines sometimes, and dramatic swoops, and shapes you never see in nature. My aesthetic sensibilities are no more stable and unchanging than anyone else’s. As Whitman triumphantly yawped: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.”
But the sight of those rust-rashed padlocks was more compelling than the bridge itself, and their erratic clinking in the river’s cross-breezes seemed more complex than any human-arranged symphony.
I tell myself this even as I sit (right at this moment) in the carefully-curated lobby of the Ace Hotel on West 29th, drinking coffee prepared by self-conscious baristas who probably spend as much time finding the perfect tilt to their fedoras as they do pouring milk into leaf and heart designs. I’m arranging and rearranging these words as if I can hit upon their perfect sequence. Writing about nature’s sublime ravages.
Do I contradict myself?