Tone on Tuesday 115: Big Projects: The Sydney Harbor Bridge
“Make big plans: for small plans have no magic to stir men’s blood and in themselves may never come true. Make big plans; aim high in hope and labor, remembering that a noble and logical diagram once recorded will never die’. Daniel Burnham, American architect and urban planner, 1910.
The Sydney Harbor Bridge turns 90 this week. My addition to the celebrations is a series of lithographs by Robert Emerson Curtis, and in this story there is a curious connection to the authorship of the very idea of the ‘big plan’.
Curtis was an artist, draftsman, illustrator, painter, graphic designer, printmaker and draughtsman. He was born in England in 1898, educated in Chile and at Farnham Grammar School in England, and came to Australia with his family at the outbreak of World War I, working on the family farm until 1919, when which he moved to Brisbane. He worked as an illustrator and caricaturist in Brisbane until he sailed for the United States in 1922.
Her cabin mate and close friend was Charles Chauvel, the pioneering filmmaker. Curtis studied at the Art Institutes of San Francisco and Chicago, which sparked his lifelong interest as a commercial artist documenting modern industry. In Hollywood he met and married Ruth Baldwin, moved to Chicago and had a daughter.
In Chicago, Curtis worked as an architectural draftsman in the office of Daniel H. Burnham, designer of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the plan of Chicago, the Flat Iron building in New York, and more than 1.3 million square feet of space commercial. Burnham was later described by critic Paul Goldberger as “the most successful power broker the American architectural profession has ever produced”. And he was the author of the top quote, the word of every ambitious planner.
After working in Burnham’s office (designing a new urban plan for San Francisco), Curtis returned to Sydney in 1928 and began recording the erection of the Harbor Bridge. He visited the chief engineer, Dr JJC Bradfield, showed him his wallet and was allowed to “walk the whole bridge, as long as he stayed clear of the bloody path”.
He quickly sketched several times a month in pencil and then drew with precision in pencil for the lithograph. On opening day, March 19, 1932, he hired Charles Kingsford-Smith to show him around the harbour. The work was published in 1933 as “Building the Bridge: Fourteen Lithographs Celebrating the Construction of the Sydney Harbor Bridge” with a foreword by Bradfield, who said “in these designs are expressed the strength, the work, the romanticism of a big business”. (The book was reprinted in 1981 as The Bridge by Currawong Press).
The publication led to orders from many industries, including BHP, MacRobertson Chocolates, and Commonwealth munitions factories during World War II, where Curtis worked as a camouflage officer in Australia and with the RAAF in New Guinea. He was appointed an official war artist to record the country’s wartime industrial production and over 200 works are in the Australian War Memorial collection.
From 1959 to 1962 he returned to his original theme, documenting the Gladesville Bridge for the NSW Department of Main Roads, while creating a visual record of the erection of the Sydney Opera House for the SOH Trust. These works were published in 1967 as ‘A Vision Takes Form: Sydney Opera House (AH & AW Reed)’ and the original paintings and drawings are housed in the building itself.
It seems fitting that the ‘big plan’ for the Sydney Harbor Bridge was documented by an artist with a keen eye for the romance of big business, and moreover for the hard work that kept so many from the poverty during the depression. Next week we celebrate 50 years since the opening of the Snowy Mountains program and ask, “Is it time for another big infrastructure project?”
Tone Wheeler is Principal Architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and President of the Australian Architecture Association. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not owned or endorsed by A+D, the AAA, or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by only reading and responding to comments directed to [email protected]