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“Ribbon of Steel and Concrete”: A Cultural Biography of the Buffalo Skyway (1955) | Part 4 of 4

Author: William Graebner | See Part 1 | Part 2Part 3

One of the first to explore the artistic potential of reinforced concrete was Swiss engineer Robert Maillart (1872–1940), who in 1947 was the subject of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition celebrating his designs for a variety of European bridges in concrete, some of them of the simple “beam” variety that Lupfer would use in the Skyway. Maillart used the strength of reinforced concrete to make his bridges lighter, less massive in appearance, and more expressive—early examples of what would become known as “structural art,” a design mode combining “efficiency, economy, and elegance” and emerging from the “imagination of the engineer,” according to one bridge historian.

Most American engineers, caught up in the frenzy of bridge construction that inevitably followed the democratization of the automobile, seemed not to care much about structural art. One exception was Conde B. McCullough, the engineer/designer responsible for many of Oregon’s concrete bridges in the quarter century after 1920, including the steel-arched Yaquima Bay Bridge (1936).58 Lupfer was another.

In some sense, the Skyway was its own designer.

In some sense, the Skyway was its own designer. Because the central span had to cross the Buffalo River and the City Ship Canal without ground support, its roadbed had to be at least 110 feet high, and its “four great curves” were a function of its required course out of the city, over the river and ship canal, and down to Fuhrmann Boulevard and the Lake Erie waterfront.

Lupfer’s contribution was arguably one of restraint. Avoiding the historical references and ornamentation that marked his Peace Bridge as an early-modern structure with links to art nouveau and classicism, Lupfer’s Skyway was simple and unadorned, a slashing, soaring “ribbon of steel and concrete,” as Buffalo News reporter Ralph Wallenhorst described it on opening day, that expressed and reflected one aspect of the monumental high modernism of the mid-1950s.59

Two forms of modernism dominated architectural design in the postwar United States.

Two forms of modernism dominated architectural design in the postwar United States. One was the rectilinear modernism of the International Style, descended from the prewar Bauhaus School, deeply influenced by the stark, vertical, monumentalism of the concrete grain elevators that graced Buffalo’s waterfront not far from the Skyway, and represented by Mies Van der Rohe’s 1958 Seagram Building in New York City. The other was the curvilinear modernism of what historians have described as “vital forms,” a postwar development with links to 1930s moderne and streamlining.60

“Vital forms” can be found in postwar popular culture in kidney-shaped coffee tables, the boomerang pattern in Formica, the Charles Eames molded plywood chair (1948), the Al Capp cartoon figure of the Shmoo (1948), and in architecture in buildings as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1959), Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport (1958–62), Morris Lapidus’s Miami Beach hotels, and the curvilinear layout of Levittown (1947) and other new suburban communities. Scholars disagree on the meaning of “vital forms” design.

Some argue that the movement depicts the breakdown of confident rectilinear modernism and represents a culture of anxiety rooted in the insecurities of the Cold War and the atomic age. Others believe that the soft, fluid, organic, and biomorphic qualities of “vital forms” design reflect an optimistic, expansive, and regenerative postwar outlook. 61

Whether by intent or default, Lupfer’s contoured Skyway represents the optimistic side of vital forms modernism.

Whether by intent or default, Lupfer’s contoured Skyway represents the optimistic side of vital forms modernism. Indeed, the requirement that the structure follow a course laid out by the terrain gave the span a relationship to the land, investing the steel and concrete bridge with a measure of natural, organic vitality. The same has been claimed for portions of the interstate highway system (1956–), including the system’s signature cloverleaf interchanges, identified by one historian as “the most vivid symbol of the biomorphic awareness. . . .”

The sense of flight that motorists experienced while traversing the Skyway, and that one could sense from beneath the structure, links the bridge to more famous structures identified with the vital forms phenomenon, including the Gateway Arch (designed 1948) and the Dulles International Airport, both Saarinen designs, and the New Haven, Connecticut hockey rink (1956–58) and the Trans World Airlines Terminal (JFK, 1956–62), both designs by David S. Ingalls.

In words that might be used to describe the Buffalo Skyway, historian Martin Filler suggests that Ingalls’s TWA building “recalls the avian aspect of a bird in flight, a return to an architecture parlante in which a building’s form ‘speaks’ quite directly about its function.”62 As speculative as these connections might seem, they are consistent with what we know of Lupfer’s values, especially his idealism and his lifelong commitment to a humanistic approach to architecture.

The Buffalo Skyway represents the postwar moment.

The Buffalo Skyway represents the postwar moment as surely as the city’s Olmsted parks and parkways speak to the Gilded Age, or Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building represents the Victorian precision of the 1890s, or Buffalo’s art deco City Hall trumpets the high optimism of the 1920s. That moment found Buffalo poised between its glorious past and a “rustbelt” future it could not yet see or feel, still making steel and building cars, and, in 1955, opening a bridge that would provide driving freedom for workers in two industries on the cusp of decline and make life easier for those commuting from suburbs that would soon suck the middle class out of the city and help bring on its economic woes. Although the Skyway would join the grain elevators as the harbor’s outstanding icons, it was constructed by a community committed to manufacturing rather than commerce, and ambivalent, at best, about what remained of its Lake Erie/Erie Canal waterfront heritage.

The Skyway also can be understood as an example of what David Nye has called the ‘technological sublime.’

The Skyway also can be understood as an example of what David Nye has called the “technological sublime.” Nye applies the term to nationally known structures, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Hoover Dam, and Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition, that were so big or vast, so spectacular or extraordinary, that they produced in the public a “powerful surge of emotions” consisting of “experiences of awe and wonder, often tinged,” he notes, “with an element of terror.”

Bridges and skyscrapers, an example of the sub-category of the “geometrical sublime,” achieved the status of the sublime by “appear[ing] to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk” and by offering the eye new panoramas and new visual perspectives that allowed and encouraged observers to reconceptualize humanity’s relationship with urban space and the natural world.63 Similarly, the “magisterial gaze” that the Skyway made possible allowed area residents to reinvest themselves imaginatively in Buffalo’s waterfront, looking backward, on the one hand, to the city’s golden age of lake-based commerce, and forward, on the other hand, to the remote possibility of waterfront tourism.

The Skyway was not on the scale of the Hoover Dam or the Brooklyn Bridge, but at a mile long and 110 feet high, it was big, bold, and dominant.

To be sure, the Skyway was not on the scale of the Hoover Dam or the Brooklyn Bridge, but at a mile long and 110 feet high, it was big, bold, and dominant. And when it opened in 1955, and for some time thereafter, it produced an emotional response, and new ways of viewing and conceptualizing the waterfront below, that were consistent with the sublime. It came “tinged” with that “element of terror” that Nye noted; several religious figures, speaking on opening day, “sought God’s intercession for the continued safety of travelers over the Skyway.”

As Nye recognizes, however, the experience of the sublime is neither universal nor necessarily permanent. An object’s power can decay over time, and reasonable people will differ in their response to it. “One person’s sublime,” he writes, “may be another’s abomination.”64

The confidence with which today’s politicians and developers attack the Skyway and call for its demolition would suggest that the structure has lost some of its affective power; for a community desperate for economic transformation, and looking to the waterfront for it, the Skyway’s pleasures may seem trivial or unaffordable. Perhaps its scope and grandeur, qualities that in 1955 signified a future of growth and prosperity for Buffalo, now serve as reminders of the city’s unfulfilled dreams and expectations. In this climate, in which the Skyway appears to be—and may actually be—an obstacle to “progress,” to Buffalo’s economic development, it may be time to tear it down, if only to see what, if anything, will replace it.

But before that happens, it is important to retrieve and savor those elements of the Skyway’s biography that may be obscured by the current enthusiasm for demolition: its practical origins as a carrier of vehicles above Buffalo’s waterways, a function it retains; its appeal as a means of re-imagining the city and its harbor, from above; its form, an example of the optimistic, future-oriented, monumental, vital forms modernism of the 1950s; its status as a sublime object, its height and length and shape yielding experiences of awe and wonder, especially for drivers, and especially for drivers in the golden age of the automobile, when the driving experience so directly represented the essential American values of movement and mobility.

To understand the Skyway one must recapture and re-experience the pleasures and thrills of driving it.

Above all, to understand the Skyway one must recapture and re-experience the pleasures and thrills of driving it. For those who did so, whether for the first time or the one-hundredth, it was at once more than a time-saver and less than a symbol of the nation’s imperial hubris, a metaphor for Buffalo’s goals and illusions, or a representative piece of postwar architecture. It was about the exhilaration of driving, on a special road that magnified that exhilaration. It was about speed and flight and motion in the “sacred space” of the highway, at a moment when those pleasures had yet to be questioned or sullied. Cresting the Skyway, the sensation of the road falling away, projected over the glimmering surface of Lake Erie, one imagines Kerouac’s Moriarty, hunched over the wheel of a ’53 Mercury, radio blasting, beating on the dashboard. “‘Whooee!’ Yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’”

Lead image – Figure 7: A “noir” image of the Skyway, May 13, 1958. Courtesy, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

This article was originally published in the journal American Studies in 2007 | American Studies, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 77-100 (Article) | Published by Mid-American Studies Association | DOI: 10.1353/ams.0.0051

For additional information about this article.


58. David P. Billington, Robert Maillart and the Art of Reinforced Concrete (New York: MIT Press, 1990), xii, 86, 90, 116 (“imagination”); David Plowden, Bridges: The Spans of North America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 319 (McCullough); David Plowden, The Hand of Man on America (Riverside, CT: The Chatham Press, 1971), no page number (photo of Yaquima Bay Bridge); Lupfer, “The Peace Bridge,” 46. On designing in concrete, see also Julius G. Potyondy, “Aesthetic Problems in Contemporary Bridge Design,” in American Concrete Institute, Concrete Bridge Design (Detroit: American Concrete Institute, 1969), 7-18.

59. Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming,” 1.

60. Craig Whitaker, Architecture and the American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996), 58 (Seagram); Martin Grief, Depression Modern: The Thirties Style in America (New York: Universe Books, 1975), 72-73, 96; Patton, Open Road, 130. On the impact of grain elevators on modernism, see Rayner Banham, “Buffalo Industrial,” Little Journal 3 (February 1979), 5-19.

61. Kevin L. Stayton, “Introduction,” in Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Kevin L. Stayton, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940–1960 (New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art, in association with Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 26 (boomerang, coffee tables), 27 (Eames chair); Paul Boyer, “The United States, 1941–1963: A Historical Overview,” in Vital Forms, 72 (Shmoo), 69 (Guggenheim); Martin Filler, “Building Organic Form: Architecture, Ceramics, Glass and Metal in the 1940s and 1950s,” in Vital Forms, 128 (Saarinen), 139 (Lapidus), 134-135 (Levittown). On the meaning of vital forms design, see Boyer, Vital Forms, 39, 74, and passim.

62. Stayton, “Introduction,” Vital Forms, 26-27 (relationship to the land); Filler, “Building Organic Form,” Vital Forms, 146 (“biomorphic awareness”); Boyer, “United States,” Vital Forms, 69; William Graebner, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 60, 124; Filler, “Building Organic Form,” Vital Forms, 129 (hockey rink), 130-131 (TWA terminal), 181 (Dulles terminal), 129 (architecture parlante).

63. Nye, American Technological Sublime, 85 (“surge of emotions”), 23 (“awe and wonder,” “terror”), xvi, 77 (“bulk”), 87, 96, 104-105 (visual perspectives).

64. Wallenhorst,“TrafficStreaming,”10(“God’sIntercession”); Nye, American Technological Sublime, xiv (decay), xvii (“abomination”).

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