“We are in the presence of a work of art only when it has no preponderant instrumental use, and when its technical and rational foundations are not preeminent.”1
The words of George Kubler, a prominent twentieth century art historian, support the notion that art cannot be useful or necessary to society outside of its artistic expression. Kubler’s belief, however, is not solely a contemporary idea. The eighteenth century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, formally proposed this theory. Kant separated fine art from useful art, maintaining that an artist’s goal must be to convey aesthetic ideas through form and design. These ideas are original and creative and therefore have “purpose without a purpose.”2 In short, both Immanuel Kant and George Kubler, even though separated by more than a century, believe that art only exists for the sake of art, without any other functional value to society, and thus anything that possesses utility fails to be art.
Initially, we can easily agree with this notion since art does exist in this form. Famous works of art such as Monet’s “Waterlilies” or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” demonstrate that art exists for art’s sake. These artists express their ideas through form and design, giving the work “purpose without a purpose.” Even though art exists for the sake of artistic expression, we can also find art that defies the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
Bridges exist as art, and thus engineers exist as artists. Although bridges stand as feats of engineering that perform the task of connection, bridges also display great beauty. Undoubtedly, beautiful bridges evoke an array of emotions from observers, much the same as an inspired painting, and thus offer warnings that Kubler’s statement has its faults. Specifically, we can look at the works of Othmar Ammann, who used New York City as a museum for his many masterpieces of structural design, including the George Washington Bridge. Built upon rational and technical foundations, the George Washing Bridge possesses inherent utility, while also standing as a beautiful work of art.
Although all of Othmar Ammann’s bridges, which include the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and several others, were built in America, Ammann was born and educated in Switzerland. Switzerland’s Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich has produced an amazing number of notable bridge engineers, considering Switzerland’s small size. The Federal Polytechnic Institute shaped the century’s two most influential and accomplished bridge designers in Othmar Ammann, who was a master in steel, and Robert Maillart, a genius in concrete bridge design.3 Recent graduates, such as Christian Menn and Santiago Calatrava, continue to lead the way in creative bridge design. Switzerland’s distinguished tradition in bridge design is rooted in the influences of France and Germany. Switzerland blends the detailed scientific analysis...