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Bridges

  • Date: 12/17/2005
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Great structures create powerful symbols in our society.

    And, while all great structures create a powerful symbolism, including the many new and exciting buildings that Vice President Curtis and his staff have constructed so well on our campus, the one type of structure which I believe conjures up the most compelling image, at least metaphorically, is the bridge.

    Today, I want to tell you about two bridges, both seemingly going nowhere.

    In the first case, perhaps you noted that nothing seemed to have captured our national attention so well in the last few weeks as the political skirmishes related to the so-called "bridge to nowhere".

    Political opposition seeks powerful one-liners and certainly a bridge to nowhere will be remembered among those quintessential political one-liners.

    Of course, Alaska's so-called bridge to nowhere had a real purpose, namely to link the airport for Ketchikan, Alaska, located on an island, to the city that it serves and which now has to transport passengers by ferry. But never mind! The powerful one-liner had done its job of thwarting any hope of broad congressional support.

    Please remember, however, that people have always questioned the sensibility of visionary plans and structures. Indeed, it was not so long ago that people opposed constructing the Golden Gate Bridge, because travelers could just as easily drive around the San Francisco Bay. Yet today, the bridge not only is highly functional, it is a landmark for San Francisco, a landmark that has become a great piece of art as well.

    And with more modern suspension techniques, new bridges elsewhere are still functional while increasingly creating an energy that is even more aesthetically powerful than that of older bridges.

    There are many across the world ...and their existence creates a symbolism that was captured last month in an article by Jan Morris entitled "Spanning Past and Present."
    (Morris, Jan, "Spanning Past and Present," The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2005, p. B12

    The story was based on a footbridge spanning the highway that links Oslo and Stockholm. The bridge was erected by Norwegian artist Vebjørn Sand and based on a 500-year-old design by Leonardo da Vinci. In a practical sense, it is a bridge going nowhere. Yet, symbolically, it is a gateway to the world - transcending space and time and inspiring hope and admiration.

    Bridge Image

    "It is only a footbridge...about 400 feet long, going nowhere in particular..." Morris writes, "It is, however, extremely beautiful. A sweeping structure of pine, teak and stainless steel, its path is supported by complex parabolic piers that give it a majesty far beyond its size - an allegorical majesty, in fact."
    (Morris, Ibid)

    From the terrace of a nearby café, "...you may contemplate the curious allure of the thing, so modest and yet so suggestively massive, so timeless of feel, standing there in open country with no evident purpose, as though it has been floated out of the empyrean by helicopter, or more properly by silent balloon and indeed looking rather like some exquisite species of insect."
    (Morris, Ibid)

    "...Vebjørn Sand had a profounder allegory in mind, too." Some five-centuries later, "He saw da Vinci's design not simply as a bridge...but as a tangible image of the bridge in the abstract. His bridge crosses no (water)...It stands alone on the plain...far from a river or a gorge..."
    (Morris, Ibid)

    "But the absence of practical purpose...gives Mr. Sand's visionary project extra metaphorical power. He wanted not only to unite past with present, but also to remind the world that technology is at its best when it is informed with a sense of the transcendental..."
    (Morris, Ibid)

    "...this little bridge...really does seem to me to express a universal hope...It is an allegory of humanity's better whole. It is at once a bridge and The Bridge, bigger than itself, but no more beautiful."
    (Morris, Ibid)

    So you see great structures create powerful, yet often controversial symbols for our society.

    Ada Louise Huxtable, an architectural critic for The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote that "There should be a lesson in the vicissitudes of...great (structures)...If those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it, those who lack the understanding of the uncommon, and the eternal need for its existence, are sure to sabotage it over and over again. The one certainty is that politics, power plays and personality conflicts will always endanger the dream."
    (Huxtable, Ada Louise, The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2003)

    Structures reflect human aspirations, and to put it another way, what we build reflects what we value and who we are.

    Let me suggest that great institutions, just like great buildings and structures, can be powerful symbols.

    Paraphrasing a commentary on the meaning of great structures and applying it to the world of universities as institutions is instructive in this regard: "...(universities) become admired symbols that give us a lasting sense of (who we are and what we know). It is through these extraordinary (institutions) that we identify with the beautiful and the exceptional, that we understand ourselves and our aspirations."
    (Huxtable, Ibid)

    You see, the power of universities lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the connectedness of life, in the sense that we can, and we must, advance our common future.

    As you now cross this bridge of graduation from The University of Akron, you now must go forward and build your legacies. Be they great or small, whatever you build will reflect what you value and who you are.

    So as you cross this bridge today and continue to learn, strive to build a better future for yourself and for those around you. Because with knowledge, the metaphorical bridges you cross in life will never be destined for nowhere.

     

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