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Learning from Ammann: Politics as a Design Problem

Originally printed in ArchitectureBoston

July 1, 2004
David Luberoff (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

Many architects study Othmar Ammann, the well known engineer, because the bridges he designed which include the George Washington Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - are exemplars of economy, efficiency, and grace.

Virtually no architect (or anyone else for that matter) studies Othmar Ammann, the political entrepreneur. In a feat unnoted in most architectural history books, Ammann designed and carried out a brilliant campaign to have the Port Authority of New York build the George Washington Bridge and to hire him to design it and oversee its construction. Ignoring this lesser known side of Ammann is a mistake, because he can teach usefull lessons to architects, who often mistakenly view policics as an irrational and immutable process that just gets in the way of good architecture.

I came across Ammann's story and the lessons it offers in a 1995 essay titled "Politics and the Engineering Mind" by Princeton University professor Jameson Doig, a longtime student of how private and public actors shape the built environment. A native of Switzerland, Ammann came to the United States in 1904 to pursue a career in engineering. By 1912, he was appointed chief engineer for the Hell Gate Bridge, a privately funded railroad bridge across New York's East River designed by Gustav Lindenthal, the internationally known bridge designer and former New York City bridge commissioner.

In 1920, after the completion of the Hell Gate Bridge, Lindenthal hired Ammann to help develop a proposal for a massive bridge across the Hudson River near midtown Manhattan - a project ultimately calling for a privately financed bridge big enough for 10 railroad tracks and 20 lanes of vehicular traffic. The proposal, however, soon ran into serious problems. Civic and business leaders in New York City opposed it on the grounds that it would create intolerable traffic problems. Railroads and other potential investors balked at its enormous price tag, and New York governor Al Smith made it clear that he did not approve of privately funded transportation facilities.

By late 1922, Ammann had concluded that while Lindenthal's bridge might be an architectural masterpiece, it could never be built. He further concluded that political and economic realities meant that any bridge across the river would have to be located away from Manhattan's core and would have to be smaller and cheaper than Lindenthal's bridge, which meant it could not carry trains. Given Smith's opposition to privately financed infrastructure, Ammann also concluded that the Port Authority - which had been created in the early 1920s to carry out a plan for better rail connections in the region - should build the bridge.

Ammann now moved to put his plan into action. While Ammann the designer began working on the bridge's design, Ammann the political entrepreneur mounted a sophisticated and dogged campaign to win support for his plan. He convinced George Silzer, the newly elected governor of New Jersey, who had been an investor in a pottery company Ammann had run for a few years, to support his plan. Moreover, he and the governor agreed that Ammann should take the lead in building local support for the new bridge in northern New Jersey, which was a Republican stronghold that might not look favorably on a proposal made by the Democratic governor. Ammann met regularly with local businessmenin the areast he bridge would serve and painstakingly convinced them that the bridge that he was proposing would benefit them and their communities.

After two years of work, the legislatures of both New Yorkand New Jersey authorized the Port Authority of New York to build a bridge across the Hudson connecting northern New Jersey and New York City. Not long afterward, with prodding from Silzer, the Port Authority hired Ammann to design and oversee the construction of what was later named the George Washington Bridge (and two smaller bridges connecting New Jersey and Staten Island).

Today, Ammann's George Washington Bridge is rightly regarded as a masterpiece As the story of Ammann's behind-the-scenes campaign makes clear, the bridge is an equally masterful political achievement. The key to that achievement, Doig writes, was that:

To Ammann... the substantive arguments and the political strengths of his opponents deserved the same steely-eyed analysis that a good engineer devoted to understanding the stresses on bridge cables and the stability of the ground under proposed bridge towers. Any good engineer knew, for example, that you had to design your bridge in relation to the character of the terrain where the towers would sit. Therefore, if preliminary studies suggesting the tower footing would be solid rock, and closer exploration revealed softer ground, adjustments and even major redesigns would be necessary; and sometimes long weeks and months of arduous work would be needed to solve the problem and ensure that the tower and the bridge would hold. Moreover, bridge engineering was not an armchair activity; you had to go into the field continuously, marshal and motivate your workers and modify your abstract designs. So too, close exploration of the
political ground associated with any large project was essential; and this exploration might require meetings with local politicians and business people ... in order to work through the proper combination of engineering, esthetic, and political designs.

Curiously, Ammann never again engaged in such overt and detailed political work. It would be a mistake, however, to think that his work was not political. Rather, having identified the Port Authority as an entity that had the political characteristics that could be mobilized to build needed bridges and having successfully reengineered the Port Authority's mission so that it could and would build those bridges, Ammann now focused on designing and building those bridges. He could do so because others at the Port Authority were continuing the work of laying the necessary political groundwork.

How can we apply the lessons of Ammann the political entrepreneur to today's problems? Consider the common scenario in which a proposal for a well-designed new building faces opposition from residents concerned about the project's effect on the quality of life in their neighborhood and the value of their own properties. Some individuals and entities, moreover, may not care greatly about the proposal  but recognize that they can use the threat of opposition as a way to extract concessions and resources to address problems that may be only tangentially related to the project at hand. As a result of either factor (or both) the project is stopped, redesigned, or forced to pay for a host of unrelated amenities.

To many architects, such outcomes prove that politics is irrational. And yet an Ammann-like analysis shows that the outcomes  flow from key actors' rational analyses of the threats and opportunities presented by the proposed building. In particular, careful analysis of such disputes shows that:

  • Most people act out of their perception of self-interest, not some vague concept such as the public good.
  • People fear the unknown and fear downside risks more than they value potential upside benefits (e.g. people prefer current zoning and their existing neighborhood fabric to some unknown).
  • Most of the time, most people are uninvolved and prefer the status quo. If, however, people perceive that their interests are at stake (or values they hold dear are threatened), they are likely to get involved. The more their interests are affected, the more likely it is that they will become involved.
  • Successful projects and policies tend to involve some intensely motivated beneficiaries who find ways to widely diffuse costs (so they don't encounter much opposition) and often create other beneficiaries (who can be mobilized to support the project.)

In short, like Ammann, architects must understand that their proposed projects create two potential constituencies: one that will enjoy the benefits and therefore are potential supporters; and one that will bear the costs and, therefore, are likely foes. Success will come only if they can identify and address the motivations and needs of each group.

The lesson Ammann teaches is not that architects must be as engaged with politics of their projects as they are with their physical design. Rather, it is that no major project can be built unless someone - possibly the architect, possibly the client, possibly a senior public official - pays as much attention to political designs as they do physical ones.

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