The Bay Lights

Today, a special guest post from Dr. Bridget Gilman on bridges and the remarkable Bay Lights project. Bridget studies postwar American art and is particularly interested in representations of the built environment. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan.

by Bridget Gilman

It is difficult when writing about a bridge not to indulge the form’s metaphoric resonance. Bridges, of course, are built to connect landmasses, but also connote human mobility, connection, and transcendence. Like trains, highways, and other conduits of mass transportation, bridges are also often part and parcel of nation shaping and thus bear the weight of the governmental ideologies that propel their construction.

White City, World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893 (Image source: Flickr)
White City, World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection. (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brooklyn_museum/2784211121/)

If bridges are inevitably metaphoric, light is likewise unavoidably symbolic—both in material and spiritual realms. Thus conceptions of the modern city are enmeshed with the presence of electric light, not simply on a utilitarian or technological level. To think of the world’s largest cities—and many of their monuments—is often to envision them at night, their skylines transformed from hulking masses to twinkling bodies of light and shadow. Iconic moments of urban luminosity range from the famous “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to New York’s “Tribute in Light” memorial at the World Trade Center site, the combination of artificial light and architecture signifying an array of hopes and losses.

Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)
Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)

City lighting and urban infrastructure are clearly topics with deep, complex histories; discussion of their import and associations can get bogged down quite easily. But they are also things encountered in the everyday, and thus are fundamental to daily paths and routines. As someone fairly obsessed with the look and structure of the postwar American environment, practically nothing delights me more than the spectacle of vintage neon at old dive bars, motels, and restaurants. Likewise, there is perhaps no more thrilling ordinary spatial experience than a car ride over a large bridge. For just a moment life seems to become both distinctly physical, defined by the opposing pulls of the terrestrial and atmospheric, and existentially precarious, as the smallness and insignificance of a single body becomes all too clear.

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