Last Wednesday, I hopped on the tram and headed to the State Library to chase up the photograph of the swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool, which sits above the fireplace at the local pub, the North Fitzroy Arms. My memory is that it was labelled “Melbourne Times, 1926” but after searching the catalogue, there is nothing and I give up. So I switch the search to the West Gate Bridge.
It’s hard to imagine another more thoroughly documented project, perhaps with the exception of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Opera House, certainly not in Victoria. Did the National Gallery garner as much attention during its construction? Was there a need to rival the Sydney Harbour Bridge and define Melbourne in some way that had always been missing? The West Gate is, after all, twice as long, as Melburnians liked to remind themselves and others. Or perhaps it distracted public attention away from the ugliness and brutality of the Vietnam War and the abortion debate. Ironic that it should eventually join the ranks of disaster, as the worst industrial accident the country had ever witnessed. Then again, perhaps the enthusiasm for the bridge is just Melbourne, where else are roads so embraced? Where else would crowds of people gather to walk through a newly opened section of freeway, whether it was the bridge or in recent times, new freeway tunnels in the eastern suburbs?
Working my way through the library’s imagery collection provides some telling clues about the imagining of the bridge and its reserved place in the minds of Melburnians. The vision of a bridge across the Yarra had been nurtured since the late 1950s, and in iconic fashion, gathered momentum as construction proceeded and the structure took shape. It dominated the skyline in photographs and paintings by Rennie Ellis, Wolfgang Sievers, Rick Amor, John T. Collins and Fred Williams. The early imagery records the toothy gaps between the central spans, and an army of spindly construction cranes, slowly bringing the bridge to life, clustered around stout, boxy piers standing solitary, and improbably, above the waters of the Yarra. Looking at these photographs, it’s almost conceivable that a collapse could have been predicted, so tenuous do these structures appear. It’s easy to imagine the piers starting to totter at any time, although that’s not how the bridge collapsed. There is another photograph of a young engineer, in high-waisted flairs, long hair spilling from under his hard hat, in jovial discussion with a foreman.
The idea of a bridge over the Yarra was galvanised in 1965 with the formation of the somewhat humbly named Lower Yarra Crossing Authority which appointed joint consulting engineers based in London and in Melbourne. The essential structure consisted of a bridge 2,590 m in length, rising 58.6 m above the river below, described as a suspension bridge or alternatively and probably more correctly, of cable-stayed box girder design. There were five steel spans, the longest 336 m, divided into three compartments by vertical ‘webs’.
Construction proceeded with the end spans erected first, each of these consisting of two full length longitudinal halves which had been assembled on the ground, then lifted and joined on the top of the piers. The boxes were then lifted and mounted on top of the erected spans, and the remaining spans cantilevered toward the centre of the bridge until the two ends join. On October 15th, 1970, the 112 m long western span collapsed and 35 men, including four engineers, were killed after 30 bolts were removed from a transverse splice. The intention was to flatten a buckle that had developed after fifty-six tons of concrete were loaded on top to correct a 4.5 inch difference in camber between two of the half spans after they had been jacked up to the top of the piers. Other reports say eighty tons, well in excess of the engineer’s directive. This unconventional action of ‘adding kentledge’ and the subsequent undoing of the bolts reduced the safety margin, already appallingly inadequate, to nothing.
The collapse and subsequent review following a Royal Commission revealed other design problems and a huge number of highly stressed components. Every single design and structural aspect of the bridge was scrutinised – its aerodynamics and capacity for ‘significant excitation’ in high velocity winds, its ability to withstand fatigue, its loadings and stresses, the panel stability of webs and flanges, towers and cables, its roller and rocker bearings and the serviceability of its deck. The engineers were indefatigable in their investigation. Only the original concept and geometry were retained in the re-design. By early 1973, new contractors Redpath Dorman Long and John Holland started work to resurrect Melbourne’s dream bridge. From “The Dawn of a New Era” described by the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority in a pamphlet published in 1969, to the Royal Commission into “The Failure of the West Gate Bridge”, to a reinvented, bomb-proof, modern structure. The bridge evolved far differently than was ever imagined. It spawned the bland and boring Bolte Bridge which replaced the Yarra Bridge, barely more than a causeway, built as part of the CityLink project and connecting the West Gate Bridge with the Tullamarine freeway to the north, and the Monash Freeway to the south.
There are no Fred Williams paintings of the Bolte Bridge but there are two paintings in the SLV collection titled ‘West Gate Bridge Under Construction’ I and II, both dated 1974 and a couple of others in the National Gallery dated 1970. The former two were both were painted ‘en plein air’ and both dated March 6th, after the collapse. The date doesn’t seem quite right given that Williams was reportedly on Erith Island in Bass Strait and according to his wife Lyn, was supposed to have lost interest in his series of river paintings after the bridge’s collapse. It also seems unlikely that Williams would have painted both, on opposite sides of the Bay, on the same day. No matter.
The bridge looks almost completed in the first painting, although the cranes are still there. The khakis, blues and dirty orange smears of the polluted western shore of the river and the thick grey sky are strikingly different from the playful scene of tug boats, a child holding up a red beach ball and the aquamarine blues and greens in the second painting from the other side somewhere near Port Melbourne. Even the cottony puffs of smoke from the factories in the background look decorative. It’s only after a while that you notice what could be the grubby haze of bushfire smoke pluming from the south west. The central span is clearly incomplete in this painting but the cranes look larger and more commanding.
I like how Williams has positioned the bridge within the broader urban landscape. If the date of the painting is correct, later confirmed by an enquiry to the SLV to be so, then the impending disaster of the bridge collapse was known. The naïve belief in construction and the built environment, and impending calamity, might be represented by the smoke gradually engulfing the suburban sky.
The image of the bridge persists throughout the photographic record as subject or in the background. Even the administration building was recorded by architectural photographer Wolfgang Sievers in 1975. Since the bridge dominates the skyline, it is and always will be there. However, surely the most stately photograph is by John T. Collins, in black and white, taken in 1970, before the collapse. It is classical and contrived. Yet the bridge’s structure and the curve of the span, dispassionately photographed against Edwardian red brick industrial buildings, factories and power pylons reflected in the still river water below, and even incomplete and with the knowledge of what is to come, is harmonious and graceful. Briefly, the bridge’s meaning is captured.
Rennie Ellis continued to photograph the bridge well after its collapse, or rather the bridge appeared in his photos of the Bay beaches. I never liked his work, although now I am pleased that it exists, in all its volume and unkempt, undated carelessness and haste, it’s lack of composition and precious record of the ordinary. They are snapshots really, photojournalism at a stretch. In his work, the bridge is a careless presence among sunbathers, yachts and traffic jams. It’s a half constructed silhouette, shot on Kodachrome and undated, or foreshortened through a telephoto lens off Port Melbourne Beach in the late 1980s like some prosthetic extension of Princes Pier, the sunlight reflected off windscreens as cars climb and descend from the summit, matching the sparkling Bay below. There is some sort of loss in this photo which I can’t put my finger on. The topless sunbathers and the threads of silvery Spinifex on the foredunes, since replaced with concrete bike paths, shrubs and tussock grasses, belong to the era of beachballs and tugboats, before beach tents and the unrelenting, shrill sound of jet skis. The bridge belongs to that earlier time and the artists have secured a place for it there.