Canadian Consulting Engineer

Ode to a bridge

I confess I'm cheating. After slogging through a major piece about current staff shortages (page 22), I'm "written out," as they say. So rather than trying to scratch any original thoughts from my own...

August 1, 2000   By Bronwen Ledger

I confess I’m cheating. After slogging through a major piece about current staff shortages (page 22), I’m “written out,” as they say. So rather than trying to scratch any original thoughts from my own tired head, I’m borrowing from a writer I discovered while doing research for the magnum opus.

Douglas Coupland is a Vancouver author best known for his novel Generation X. The title has become a household word, and is used to refer to the generation now in their 30s who had the misfortune to be born at the tail end of the Baby Boom. This is the very age group that is thin on the ground in consulting engineering firms.

Generation X was out at the local library, but I did find a collection of Coupland’s more recent writings, Polaroids from the Dead (HarperCollins, 1996). The Dead in this case is Grateful, i.e. the aging rock band whose California concert forms the backcloth to several of the stories.

But Coupland intends a double meaning. Running beneath his stories and essays is an undercurrent that suggests we all risk becoming deadened by living in a whirl of mass consumption and mass culture. It seems that the more globalized the world becomes, the more homogenous is our experience, and the more we lose our individual sense of ourselves. No-one feels this dislocation more than the people who were the first to grow up submerged in the global media culture — the Generation Xers of whom Coupland is one.

However, in “Lions Gate Bridge,” an essay that first appeared in Vancouver Magazine in 1994 as “This Bridge is Ours,” Coupland shows his love for this historic piece of engineering is one way of restoring an emotional attachment to the world. It’s a good reminder for engineers that sometimes functionality isn’t the most important thing, and that what they create can resonate in the psyche and heart of the people who live with those structures. Bridges and buildings, if they have grace, become precious things.

Near the end of his meditation on the bridge (happily, now being restored), Coupland writes: “Recently there has been talk of tearing down Lions Gate Bridge, and such talk truly horrifies me. … I think that when people begin to talk like this, they are running scared — they are doing something that I know I do myself: I try to disguise what I am really feeling by saying and doing the opposite thing. The bridge is not merely a tool, not a casually deletable piece of infrastructure, and it can never be deleted from memories like an undesirable file.”

He ends with a passage that soars: “I want you to imagine you are driving north, across the Lions Gate Bridge, and the sky is steely gray and the sugar-dusted mountains loom blackly in the distance. Imagine what lies behind those mountains — realize that there are only more mountains — mountains until the North Pole, mountains until the end of the world, mountains taller than a thousand me’s, mountains taller than a thousand you’s. … Here is where civilization ends: here is where time ends and where eternity begins. Here is what Lions Gate Bridge is: one last grand gesture of beauty, of charm, and of grace before we enter the hinterlands, before the air becomes too brittle and too cold to breathe, before we enter that place where life becomes harsh, where we must become animals in order to survive.”Bronwen Ledger


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