If my readers will indulge me in a moment of inclemency, I have something to get off my chest: I absolutely loathe crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Part of it is, I’m sure, leftover resentment from the way my marriage crumbled in nearby Santa Rosa between 2013 and 2015. San Francisco got tangled up in the endless bickering and sniping, and, as an everlasting and unmistakable symbol of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge took on some grim psychological baggage.
But mostly my objections are practical. The Golden Gate Bridge is narrow, and, with both directions of traffic in such close proximity to each other, I end up white-knuckling it all the way across, convinced someone’s going to make a terrible mistake. For another thing, it’s a hotspot for tourist foot traffic – which also strikes me as unsafe, since tourists, in my experience, frequently forget that roads have cars in them. Finally, it’s a toll bridge, but one without the good graces to supply even a single cash tollbooth. This means that if you cross the Golden Gate Bridge from the north without a prepaid toll pass sticker on your bumper, you’ll be getting a bill in the mail, and the bill will probably be outrageous.
But it’s pretty and red, I guess, something about an engineering marvel blah blah blah, and it looks nice in a delicate fog, so people tend to like the Golden Gate Bridge.
Fortunately for iconoclasts like me, there’s more than one way to cross the San Francisco Bay.
All told, eight bridges crisscross the sprawling saltwater estuary. Three span the slim north-eastern arm, and, since that area is less populated than the rest of the Bay, tend to go unmentioned. This leaves five: the Golden Gate, which is the shortest, connecting San Francisco to Marin County to the north; the Dumbarton Bridge, the southernmost, connecting Fremont to Menlo Park; the San Mateo Bridge, the longest in California, connecting San Mateo and Hayward; the complicated Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland; and finally, my personal favorite, the Richmond Bridge, northernmost of the main bridges, connecting Richmond to San Rafael.
My affection for the Richmond Bridge is the primary reason I tend to dismiss divorce-trauma when considering my dislike of the Golden Gate. As a citizen of Santa Rosa five-plus years ago, situated well into the North Bay, I tended to drive the Richmond Bridge more frequently than its famous and glamorous sibling, heading towards Oakland, Fremont, San Jose. You’d think if anything, I should hate the Richmond Bridge more than any of the other bridges.
But I love it.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the celebrated architect, called the Richmond Bridge “the most awful thing [he’d] ever seen,” which is exactly the sort of recommendation to thoroughly endear me to a structure or object. His objection was aesthetic: the Richmond Bridge is, to put it mildly, kinda funky. It’s five and a half miles long (8.9 km for my metric-system friends) and has a kink in it midway across the Bay, as though the designers started building at either end simultaneously and then realized partway through that they weren’t going to meet in the middle without some tweaking. And it’s wavy, with two high points and corresponding low points as you cross, like an extremely long, gradual roller-coaster.
These features have their reasons. First off, when the project was begun in earnest in the early 1950s, a fairly small budget was allotted to get the job done, which meant the funds were put towards functionality rather than engineering elegance. Any problems to be solved would be solved practically, with no frills or flourishes to disguise the ensuing awkwardness.
And the main problems to be solved were thus: (1) get people from the East Bay to the North Bay without forcing them to pass through San Francisco, and (2) allow two separate shipping channels in the area to continue operations uninterrupted.
This second was particularly important, as places in the calm North Bay, like Sausalito and San Rafael, were the sites of major shipbuilding operations for the US Navy. Nothing built in the area could risk obstructing such important projects.
So: the kink in the Richmond Bridge is there because the two shipping channels each required room to pass beneath the bridge at a perfect right angle – and the two shipping channels were not parallel to one another. Ergo, to accommodate shipping, the bridge itself could not be built in a straight line. That’s just geometry.
The waves are there for the same reason. Each of the bridge’s high points corresponds to a shipping channel, allowing room for gigantic ships to pass beneath. The bridge dips between the high points as a cost-saving measure: the closer the bridge is to the water, the less metal is required to support it.
So the Richmond Bridge looks weird, I’ll grant you that, but it’s utilitarian, and frankly, to me, the unevenness of the thing makes it look more natural. Almost organic.
Also, to double down on my iconoclasm for the briefest of moments, I think Frank Lloyd Wright’s objection to the Richmond Bridge is pretty rich. This is the man who said that “Form and function should be… joined in a spiritual union,” after all. Give me a funky-looking bridge that gets the job done any day of the week – that’s a spiritual union to me. Frank Lloyd Wright can traverse his hoity-toity Golden Gate all he wants.
The Richmond Bridge is a glorious double-decker construction with westbound traffic on top and eastbound below: no risk of any inattentive or impatient fool clipping into the wrong lane to hit you head-on. Lanes are broad and plentiful enough for breathing space. The tollbooths on the westbound level provide cash options to those of us who have so far been too lazy to get prepaid stickers organized. Pedestrians are partitioned off with a cement median along the upper deck.
It’s the Platonic Ideal for a bridge across the Bay.
This is a pattern with me. When a fixation on aesthetics makes an object unusable for its intended purpose – sculptural cakes so encrusted with fondant flourishes that they’re scarcely edible, fanciful quilts so embellished and finely-wrought that they can’t be wrapped around a sleeping person, whimsical themed kitchen utensils so full of nooks and crannies that they’re impossible to truly clean – I consider the object ruined. I’ve been known to shout at the TV during cooking shows over this.
So a beautiful bridge that’s a nightmare to cross is by no means a marvel in my estimation. Bridges aren’t for looking at. They’re for crossing.
I hope my readers know that, as an artist myself, I have absolutely no objections to art. In fact, my artistic tastes often veer unapologetically into the baroque. I just subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s school of thought, as laid out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Bearing in mind Wilde’s penchant for truth through hyperbole, I understand him this way: before creating or critiquing, understand the essential nature of the object at hand, and let that essential nature be your guide.
I’ll end this section by acknowledging that it’s entirely possible I’m dramatically misunderstanding both Wilde and Wright. This isn’t meant to be an art theory lesson. So I’ll return to the Richmond Bridge.
I have crossed the Richmond Bridge in the lonely black pre-dawn hours and past sundown in heavy commuter traffic. I’ve sped across as the sun came up over the Bay and as it dipped below Marin’s emerald hills. I’ve crept across in the morning rush, one car of thousands headed into another day of work, with the stop-and-go traffic offering time to marvel at the area’s famous microclimates: the warm blue sky above and behind me, and a heavy grey fog looming across the bridge’s western terminus. I’ve glimpsed the full moon glistening on the water below me and I’ve seen the sun glinting golden on the sea.
As I said, the bridge is over five miles across. Passage from one side to the other takes several minutes in the quickest circumstances. Slowly up and down one goes, turning partway through as the bridge changes direction. Far from being awful, the shifts are a boon for me: offering pleasant changes in view of the gorgeous northern Californian landscapes and cityscapes stretching across the horizon. Shipyards and marinas, lush hills and rolling fog, shipping docks and heavy freighters, homes tucked against hair-raising cliffsides, mysterious historical buildings, trees and rocks and calm water dippling in nature’s rhythmic light.
I can’t enjoy any of that from the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh, I can see it: the forests to the north, the shimmering skyscrapers and colorful city to the south. But I can’t enjoy it for the claustrophobia, and the massive, oppressive red beams (red, I know, to alert ships to its presence in the strait’s indomitable fog) overshadowing me in the universal color of alarm. The Golden Gate Bridge itself demands all attention.
The Richmond Bridge gives all attention to the world beyond it.
Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t find any free images of the Richmond Bridge to use for this essay (much to my disappointment). Because the bridge is an excellent bridge, it does its work well and without fanfare, conveying travelers across the Bay and allowing unobstructed shipping without attempting to divert attention to itself. Indeed, the bridge’s design allows attention (limited by safe driving, of course) to the world beyond it. Melting into the world as much as it can, the Richmond Bridge creates a spiritual union with the splendid without ever demanding the favor of praise.
Do you have a favorite bridge – or an iconoclastic opinion about a local landmark? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
I’m so grateful to every one of my readers for bearing with me during my move! Thank you all!
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4 thoughts on “Loving the Richmond Bridge: Definitely Not a Rant about the Golden Gate”
Hi Crystal, Welcome back!
I guess engineers have to have something to get excited about hence the hoohaw about the Golden Gate. As I’m terrified of bridges and heights I tend to close my eyes when crossing them. I do like the trend in cities towards pedestrian bridges over waterways. We have two in Ottawa over the Rideau Canal and I like those because they aren’t high or wide.
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I’m definitely sympathetic towards anybody in the Bay Area with a fear of bridges and heights – there’s really no getting around them around here unless you want to spend many extra hours in the car! It’s especially nerve-wracking when you consider how prone this area is to earthquakes. But yeah, I myself am much more afraid of human error when I’m driving (both my own and that of others), so narrow lanes (which are unforgiving if you need to swerve around a piece of detritus or worse, a pedestrian) and higher speed limits without barriers between those coming and going make for a pretty terrible bridge experience for yours truly.
And I adore the pedestrian bridges of the world. So many different ways to build them, and you can allow your eyes and mind to wander much more on foot. Whenever I see the pedestrians on the Richmond Bridge (once again, over five miles long!) I’m tempted to walk it myself. I’m sure the views of the North Bay are gorgeous from there! But it’s both high and wide, so… probably not something I’d recommend for you.
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Gotta say, I’m a fan of all the Bay Bridges. The Richmond Bridge is probably my #2 🙂
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I certainly can’t imagine living here without them. It would much, much different!