How can people live in cities, ascend skyscrapers, use subways, drive over mountains, fly over continents, and cross vast expanses of water without giving a thought to the engineers who made all of this possible?
All of it is essential, but some is also breathtakingly beautiful. Who can drive across the great expanse of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge or gaze at it from Coit Tower without being struck by the sheer beauty of it, the graceful lines and the imposing strength: a perfect union of utility and aesthetics. A work of art usually has a signature on it but bridge building, as the metaphor implies, brings people together, and to perform as one, like an orchestra, you need a director. In this case it was Ralph Modjeski, an engineer by training, and an artist in spirit.
The time has come to honor the engineer and the right people to do it are Southern California-based filmmakers, Basia and Leonard Myszynski, who have long admired Modjeski’s work. The Myszynskis had already made a film about his mother, Helena Modjeska, the great Polish and American actress, a woman of courage, passion, intellect and a will of iron. Their new film, Bridging Urban America, focuses on the son.
“We’ve always been attracted to stories about people who challenge themselves and who have a strong connection to art. Personally, the bond between mother and son was very significant to us. We knew the ties were deep, based on our previous film about Ralph’s iconic mother. So it was time to make this movie, a story that embodied all of our interests.”
Modjeski grew up in a milieu of intellectual and creative energy. An accomplished pianist who had once studied alongside Paderewski, he decided to study engineering and chose a school in France, the prestigious l’Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées.
When he returned, it was to a booming America with an economy growing at an unprecedented rate – an economy that provided great opportunities for men of vision to build the infrastructure the young country needed. As one commentator in the film put it, engineers at that time were “rock stars,” and the elegant, multilingual, cosmopolitan Modjeski was in his element.
“Experiencing Modjeski’s bridges first-hand was mind-blowing,” says Basia. “The sheer size and the complexity of the projects, the science and the skill that was needed, and the number of people required for it all was overwhelming. Erecting one such bridge is enough for the entire lifetime of an engineer. Yet Ralph designed and constructed over 40 such structures and almost all of them are still serving us…”
Basia Myszynski was struck by “the power of music in his life and the transference of this discipline into his bridge designs,” which is also noted in the film, the link between playing the piano and “playing the structural elements.” This is also reflected in composer Tomasz Opalka’s score.
Among Modjeski’s bridges are the Huey P. Long in New Orleans; the Quebec Bridge (the longest cantilevered bridge in the world); the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor (Canada); and Modjeski’s masterpiece, the Ben Franklin Bridge joining Philadelphia and Camden, NJ, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, there will be a screening at the Mandell theatre at Drexel University on July 10, 2016.
Bridging Urban America premiered, fittingly, at the World Steel Bridge Symposium on April 15 in Kissimmee, Florida (sponsored and hosted by the National Steel Bridge Alliance), before an audience of 400 bridge design engineers, construction professionals, academicians, transportation officials, fabricators and constructors, people who continue strengthening, rehabilitating and building infrastructure critical to our economy and to the progress of our nation.
“His influence in shaping our country fills us with great admiration … and we feel a touch of pride in the fact that we are connected by our Polish heritage.”
An excellent film. The Myszynskis have brought an important part of American history to life. Watch the trailer on their website.
All imagery courtesy of sOlar eye communications