To really appreciate the achievement of the Swiss ferro-concrete bridge designer Robert Maillart (1872-1940), you have to look at the first bridge he built in 1899-1901: Innbruecke Zuos, a heavy, not-yet-quite-Jugendstil masonry structure with heavy-breathing. It’s got imperial standards—a visual millennium away from the elegant ethereal sculptures he’d ultimately design to span the heart-stopping reaches of the Alps.
Maillart’s first effort was like a hundred such roadways built across Europe in the 19th Century to express how pleased Euroman was with himself as a cluster of modernizing powers. The recent Maillart retrospective at the Museum of Zurich’s Design School was a brilliant exercise in museology, with videos and slide shows (original photos commissioned to reveal the present condition of his creations).
Negotiations are under way to bring the exhibit to the U.S.—one of the principals organizing it was David P. Billington, the Princeton professor of civil engineering who convened the first symposium of Maillart at Princeton in 1972 and who has followed up with three books on the man.
Maillart was no prima donna seeking to elicit gasps from jaded tourists. Each task was an exercise in applied geometry, the shapes coming out of the equations. The workaday glory of his Simmebruecke in Garstatt BE (1939) is “merely” a roadway with chastely elegant banisters held low in place over a small stream by two trapezoidal concrete slabs of different shape, as befit the topographical differences in the two banks he was connecting.
It hardly prepares you visually for the astonishing mountain bridge of the Salginatobelbruecke bei Schiers GR (1929-30), spanning a width of 90 meters, 80 meters above the riverbed. And neither bridge foretells the power of the concrete shell 16 meters across that forms the Zementhalle an der Schweiz, Landesaustellung, Zurich (1939).
In short, Maillart’s elegantly ethereal solutions in a medium as gross as beton really do give new credence to that now-often-derided formula, “Form follows function.” He began with his slide rule and followed its formulations. This is not the tactical brutalism of Oscar Niemeyer’s Casino Park Hotel, Madeira, Portugal; there is no attempt to gussy up the surfaces to relieve their crudeness. The art in Maillart is truly in the engineering.
Let’s hope Princeton delivers on its aspiration to stage the exhibition over here. A consolation prize, for readers of German, is Claude Lichtenstein’s 88-page catalog for the exhibition, its own cool graphic symmetries as apt a tribute to Maillart’s genius as book can fashion.
Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard at Large, April 17, 1991