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Symbols (2 p.m. Summer 2010 Commencement Address)

  • Date: 08/14/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, Akron
  • Great structures create powerful symbols.  They capture our attention visually and can serve as metaphors for lofty aspirations.

    As a society, we often are defined by what we build, and those occupying the structures are afforded a sense of identity through these metaphors.  For example, not only have you received an outstanding education during your time here; as alumni, you always will be identified with the transformation that has taken place. 

    The structures that I believe conjure up the most compelling images – the best metaphors – are the great bridges of the world.   

    At one level, bridges are ubiquitous.  They have come to be one of the most important products of our civil infrastructure as they carry us safely over rivers, gorges and other barriers that need spanning.  At the same time, bridges have come to symbolize safe passage over life’s obstacles; the triumph over chasms of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.  They symbolize a link to the past and a gateway to the future.

    One of the most dramatic bridges in the United States, if not the world, spans the Golden Gate, which connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.  Not only is the Golden Gate Bridge highly functional, the San Francisco landmark has become a great piece of art as well – an engineering masterpiece fusing civilization with nature.  

    A recent article depicts the Golden Gate Bridge as “…an event of steel, concrete and suspension to be worshipped, for (it is) ‘a testimony to the creativity of (humankind).’” 1

    In his book, Golden Gate, Kevin Starr describes the famous bridge as “…a global icon…In American terms, it was shaped by the City Beautiful movement, the Progressive Era and the Great Depression.  More mysteriously, the Bridge expresses those forces that science tells us constitute the dynamics of nature itself.” 2

    He recounts American poet Hart Crane’s famous tribute to his favorite bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, in which Mr. Crane talks “…about its portentous symbolic meaning as 'a triumph of engineering offering a portal into the American past.’” 3

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

    The Millau Viaduct in France, for example, is the world’s tallest cable-stayed bridge, which transverses the ancient Tarn River.  The viaduct boasts a road deck that soars nearly 900 feet above the valley and has a mast taller than the Eiffel Tower. Some of you may have noticed that your University used this bridge’s image in a public statement to the Northeast Ohio Community.

    A more modern fusion of art and function is Britain’s Rolling Bridge which spans part of Paddington Basin in London.  To allow the passage of boats, the retractable, pedestrian bridge curls up onto itself at one side of the walkway until its two ends join to form an octagonal shape. 

    And right here in our own backyard, some of your classmates took first place in a recent competition to design the nation’s first pedestrian bridge made from the newest generation of materials: Titanium.  Their design ultimately will connect the University’s Quaker Square Inn with the rest of the campus.

    There are many exciting bridge structures being planned and built around the world, and their existence creates a symbolism that was captured in an article by Jan Morris entitled "Spanning Past and Present."

    Most compelling of these symbols is the so-called Leonardo bridge, a structure that literally spans both space and time. The story was based on a footbridge crossing 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, who correctly surmised that complex, diverse forces could be unified using simple geometric principles. 

     In a practical sense, it is a bridge going nowhere in particular. Yet, symbolically, it is a gateway to the world, transcending space and time and inspiring hope and admiration.

     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." 4

    From the terrace of a nearby café, "...you may contemplate the curious allure of the thing,” she tells us, “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." 5

    "... (Mr.) 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..." 6

    "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..."  This bridge expresses "…a universal hope...an allegory of humanity's better whole.” 7

    So you see, great structures become great art and serve as visual metaphors of human aspirations, and akin to the bridges I’ve just described, so do other great structures such as the Sidney Opera House or, for that matter, great institutions themselves.

    Paraphrasing Ada Louise Huxtable is instructive in this regard, because "... (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." 8

    Metaphorically, universities, like bridges, not only are portals into the past, they are harbingers of the future.  Their power lies in the relentless pursuit of truth; in the progressive discovery of knowledge; in the connectedness of life; and in the sense that we can, and we must, advance our common future. They provide passage over obstacles yet to be crossed and symbolize visions yet to be dreamed.

    When you cross this stage to receive your degree, you cross the bridge to your next destination in building your legacy.  I urge you to continue to learn and to strive to build a better future for yourself and for those around you. Because with knowledge, the metaphorical bridges you cross in life are destined for success.



    1. Gold, Herbert, “Resplendent in the Western Sun,” The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2010, p.W10

    2. Starr, Kevin, Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, Bloomsbury Press, July 2010

    3. Starr, Ibid

    4. Morris, Jan, "Spanning Past and Present," The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2005, p. B12

    5. Morris, Ibid

    6. Morris, Ibid

    7. Morris, Ibid

    8. Huxtable, Ada Louise, The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2003
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