Page One


‘Great Projects’ constructs monument to engineering feats

By Lynn Elber, The Associated Press
Wednesday July 03, 2002

LOS ANGELES — When Clifford Holland died of exhaustion during building of the tunnel linking lower Manhattan and New Jersey, a newspaper in 1924 extolled him as the “martyr engineer.” 

Ask people today where the Holland Tunnel got its name and odds are they’re more likely to credit the city’s Dutch roots than the dedicated scientist. 

That’s the estimation, at least, of Kenneth Mandel and Daniel B. Polin, filmmakers who give Holland and other should-be famous engineers their due in “Great Projects: The Building of America.” 

The four-part PBS documentary pays tribute to their enduring and often graceful work: the roadway, water and utility systems that make up the vast American infrastructure. 

Want to appreciate anew marvels that have stood for decades? Watch dramatic footage of the 1940 wind-whipped death of Washington state’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge, an engineering failure that torqued itself apart. 

Architects have boosters as lofty as Ayn (“The Fountainhead”) Rand to gush over them; engineers are akin to accountants, ignored until the paper hits the shredder. Mandel, a former engineer, and Polin were intent on showing the sweep and social impact of engineering, and even its romance. 

“Great Projects,” airing on consecutive Wednesdays beginning this week (check local listings for times), also focuses on the role that politics played, and play, in the development of the nation. 

Narrated by actor Stacy Keach, the documentary begins with “A Tale of Two Rivers” and the projects that tamed the powerful Mississippi and Colorado. A scientist-turned-politician had a hand in both efforts: Herbert Hoover, the rare engineer to serve as U.S. president and for whom Hoover Dam is named. 

In “Electric Nation,” airing July 10, the limelight shines on Thomas Edison and his longtime assistant Samuel Insull and on David Lilienthal, who through his work with the Tennessee Valley Authority became a champion of public financing and control of utilities. 

“Bridging New York,” on July 17, focuses on two engineers, Gustav Lindenthal and Othmar Ammann, who helped link New York’s terrain over a six-decade period with, among others, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Holland’s tunnel, one of the few projects to carry an engineer’s moniker, also is featured. 

The series concludes July 24 with “The Big Dig,” the nickname for a contemporary highway project in Boston that’s attempting to correct what previous builders got wrong by taking a 1950s elevated freeway underground. (The $14 billion project is far above budget and prompted a cost-overrun investigation.) 

The Big Dig is in sharp contrast to the past, when America tackled ambitious projects with vigor and, often, disregard for those opposed to them. “Mitigation,” the film says, is the key word for rare new projects like the Big Dig — meeting the objections of residents, environmentalists and others. 

Has America, as one newspaper columnist wrote concerning a proposed Southern California mountain tunnel, simply lost the will to move large amounts of dirt? 

“I think there’s a fear to embark on major projects, partly because we’ve made it so difficult to build them,” Mandel said in an interview. 

As with all the best documentaries, “Great Projects” is rich in historical sights and sounds, including 35mm film of the building of Hoover Dam that was shot by a construction firm and discovered in a university library. 

The documentary also is filled with intriguing interviews and reminisces, including one that improbably pairs Donald Trump with the memory of engineer Ammann. 

As a youth, Trump attended the 1964 opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and heard politicians and others bask in congratulations while Ammann drew a tip of the hat but wasn’t mentioned by name. 

That may have inspired the decision to emblazon his identity on Trump Tower to guard his legacy, the modest developer muses. 

Engineers, in contrast, generally emerge as unsung heroes who fail to insist on their place in history. 

“I once asked Milton Brumer, one of the engineers who worked for Ammann on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, if he ever thought about how much he was contributing, about how important these bridges were to the future of New York City and America,” said Mandel. 

“He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ’No, we were into production, not reflection,”’ the filmmaker recounted. “I couldn’t think of anything that better sums up the attitudes of engineers. They just do the job.” 

Some would welcome a little understanding, if not glory, as Mandel learned after showing “The Big Dig” episode to project employees. 

“One of the young guys comes up to me and says, ’I was crying for the whole 60 minutes. I finally can tell my mother what I’m doing in life.”’