Early on the Monday of Easter week, I took a train from Berlin to Bamberg, an old city in Bavaria. I was looking for a bridge built there during the 1860s to a design made by a German engineer called Heinrich Gerber. I had originally intended to visit a different bridge he’d designed in nearby Haßfurt, but while doing some desk research for my trip the week before, I realised to my surprise and disappointment that the bridge was no longer there. I learned, however, that the bridge built in Haßfurt and the one built in Bamberg were similar, so I decided to see if the one in Bamberg was still in use.
I got to Bamberg at two in the afternoon and checked into a fusty hotel in the centre of town. At the nearby tourist office a lady who I spoke to in broken German showed me a map of the city. She indicated to me that the Regnitz river splits in two at Bamberg and reforms again just beyond, a few miles before it joins the Main. She said much of the old part of the city sits in the island between the right and left arms of the river, and that the bridge I sought most likely once spanned the broader right arm, but that all of the bridges there had been replaced in the last twenty years. She directed me towards the city archive on the other side of town, which was by then closing up for the day. I decided to make use of the pleasant late-afternoon sunshine and walk along the arms of the river to see if I could find anything old enough to be Gerber’s bridge.
My interest in Gerber emerged from an interest in the Irish engineer Peter Rice, who worked on many postmodern buildings throughout the world – most famously the Sydney Opera House, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Rice died in 1992 at the age of 57 when he was one of the most sought-after engineers in the industry. He had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, and in the period of time left to him he wrote a book recounting experiences from his thirty-year career. The book, which is one of my favourite books, was published in 1993 and is called An Engineer Imagines. One of the chapters details his involvement in the Pompidou Centre, a building Rice worked on during the mid-seventies with the Anglo-Italian architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. This building is famous for putting its workings – the structure, and the pipes and vents that service it – on show, as part of the exoskeleton.
The story goes that one day in January 1977, a few days after the building opened to the public, Rice noticed an elderly Parisian lady perched next to one of the structural joints connecting the posts and beams of the building’s frame to the floor structure within. This joint was called a gerberette, and it was shaped like a large door handle. The lady was sitting there stroking it as if it were a dog. It occurred to Rice that the approachable surface of this cast-steel object gave the lady a type of familiarity and access to the nature of the larger structure. In his book he describes how the gerberettes came into being, and though it is unusual to use bridge-design techniques in buildings, the idea for these gerberettes stemmed directly from Gerber’s Haßfurt bridge, constructed over a century before. There is a mysterious photograph of this bridge in Rice’s book, with the caption “oldest metal cantilever bridge in the world”. In the foreground people are dotted along the shallow bank of the river and a boat floats beyond the bridge, its mast protruding above the rolling, river-valley landscape. The bridge truss gathers up and falls and gathers up again in two curving assemblages of criss-crossing metal elements running from one shore, over two piers in the middle third of the river, and on to the other side. Since I first saw this photograph I’d developed the romantic notion that I ought to go to the place where the idea for these gerberettes originated.
Next morning, in my creaking Bamberg hotel, I woke to the smell of fried food and fresh coffee seeping up through the floorboards of my bedroom and into my mattress. I rose, showered and went for an espresso at a small, elliptical building which was once a Bauhaus-era bus stop, but was now a café called the Rondo. I sat on the bench which curved along the outside of the building and watched the morning traffic go by; then I hightailed it over to the city archive – a fine, three-storey building with an expansive pitched roof and expressive paint-and-plaster patterns on either gable.
I’d conducted a few conversations in German over the previous day so my confidence in speaking had improved. I first studied German in secondary school, but didn’t use it again until I moved to Berlin in late 2013. In Berlin, though, almost everyone can speak English to a higher level than I can speak German, so I was finding it a difficult place to learn the language. I felt I was living at a frustratingly distant parallel to German culture. To counteract this, I have gone, every Wednesday for the last few years, to one-on-one German-language classes in a café in central Berlin with a Heideggerian scholar who has given up on academia. He is a lively tutor who gets a kick out any new German words that we happen upon and I find beautiful. Ja, he often says, das ist ein schönes Wort! As such, I have developed a store of words and phrases that only immersion in speaking the language seems to bring out. The word for ‘translation’ in German has a bridge-like quality itself: übersetzen. When I first arrived in Germany almost every word I heard or read had to be clumsily carried over and back from German to English until eventually, as more words became habitual, the mechanism of transmission for each fell away.
Such is my rudimentary knowledge of the language that I still get easily drawn in to how elementally evocative a single-word translation can be. Recently, for example, I learned the German word for ‘considerate’: rücksichtsvoll – full with the capacity for looking back. This suggested a type of awareness or thoughtfulness to me, but what is lacking – and perhaps this is what is artful about the word – is that it doesn’t suggest there ought to be any application for what might be learned from looking back.
At the reception desk in the Bamberg city archive, a slight, white-haired and easily flustered man told me that he did not know if the head archivist was in. He suggested that I come back again, and next time to email at least two days in advance. I went outside into the quiet public corridor, a little despondent, and flicked through some historic pamphlets about Bamberg. I spread my map of the city onto the ground and by going through these books, reading the captions of prewar photographs with bridges in them, I began to piece together the name and shape of the city’s thirteen river bridges. Then, a man in his early fifties padded past and asked if I needed assistance. It was the head archivist, Herr Gehringer – a neat, pleasant man with small brown eyes behind rimless glasses. After we spoke for some time about my particular interest in Bamberg, he disappeared for ten minutes before returning with two large, newly published tomes. He ushered me into the reading room and described to me in great detail the documenting and archiving of art monuments and civic and social structures in a city as old as Bamberg. Then he opened the books out and explained their scope and form of indexing. He told me there were many more books of this kind, but that the archiving was not even nearly complete and that the small part they had completed and digitised had taken decades. Then he said to call him if I needed anything, and he left.
I found a passage on Gerber pretty quickly and it told me that the bridge he designed in Bamberg was built almost concurrently with the one in Haßfurt. Though I was under the impression that the bridge in Bamberg was in theory exactly the same as the one in Haßfurt, the note under Gerber went on to say that the bridge in Bamberg was merely a precursor to the one in Haßfurt; the bridge description went from a Balkenträgerbrücke in Bamberg to a Gerberträgerkonstruktion in Haßfurt. (The verb tragen meaning to carry, or, strangely, to wear.) Once I realised the innovation occurred in Haßfurt I decided I had to go immediately.
Haßfurt is a small town about forty-five minutes west of Bamberg. I found the town archive wherein I got chatting to a friendly, curly-haired receptionist who told me that the head archivist, Herr Schindler, was on holiday. We swapped contact details and I asked her to tell Herr Schindler I would be in touch once I got back to Berlin. I think she was a little perplexed as to why an Irishman would have such an interest in this long-gone bridge, so I sketched out the connections for her. Then, with a quizzical smile, she asked me how I could speak German so well. I said she was being very polite. I left to have a look at the new bridge and to get a physical sense of the distance Gerber’s construction once spanned.
The breeze picked up a little as I leaned over one of the bridge’s ramparts and peered along its length. Two brutish steel girders ran underneath, supporting the concrete and tarmacadam carriageway. The two piers that once held the mid-span of the original bridge were still in use too; they split the water coursing by. I walked the length of the bridge and back, then descended a set of steps to the underside where I photographed the construction details of the bridge, which were painted in neat white lettering onto the side of one of the main beams. The bridge had been built in the summertime of 1962, over the course of four months.
A week later, an email from Herr Schindler told me that, before the full replacement in 1962, the middle truss of Gerber's bridge had been destroyed by a group of Croatian soldiers retreating at the end of World War Two, and the gap in the middle had been filled with a chunk of bridge taken from elsewhere. I wrote back saying I thought this detail very poetic. He then told me, in a subsequent email, that the photograph I had obsessed over in Rice’s book was a fake – a montage; this image had come from an article printed before the bridge had been completed. Herr Schindler reckoned that, to make that image, someone collaged a photo of a model of the bridge over another photo where there was no bridge at all. Also attached to this email were scans of correspondence between Gerber and the mayor of Haßfurt in 1866, while the bridge was being completed. The letters were hand-written, with neat forward-slanting words. In them, Gerber and the mayor discuss what type of road surface they should put onto their new bridge. Gerber suggests steel plates covered over in tarmacadam, but the mayor, who has his hand on the town’s finances, asks if there is a less expensive solution. They decide on using timber, so the whole bridge-surface is covered over with thick planks, and this feature after some time earns the bridge the local nickname: die Donnerbrücke on account of the noise of the traversing traffic. It seems a shame to me that such an elegant engineering innovation is remembered locally for the great ballooning din it produced through its lifetime.
This part of the Main river is about one-hundred meters wide. The pace of the river is slow as it meanders expansively through the countryside. The land rises and dips gently around it, and the far side of the bank was almost completely clear of buildings. It seemed suddenly very rural. I wandered along the river bank in order to gain a full side-on view of the bridge. I then continued in a U-shape around a quiet harbour that spurred off a large bend in the river, and on past a grain silo, then past a few modest industrial units. The view of the bridge was opening up nicely to me when a man called out after me. He asked what I was doing taking photographs around his property. I explained where I was from, and about my interest in the bridge, and he softened. He told me that his name was Hans and that he was from Haßfurt, and that he had dozens of photographs of the old bridge being dismantled in 1962. Apparently they built a temporary bridge alongside Gerber’s, until the present steel-and-concrete version was complete, so for two very brief periods of time there would have been two bridges, side-by-side on this part of the river. Hans gave me his email address, saying he would gladly send me scans of these pictures. I continued on my way to the end of the harbour, took some photographs, and tried to visualise the pattern of the Gerber bridge rippling across the river.
An hour later I was sitting outside a small café sipping a Weissbier. The sun was pleasant and I watched the town gently going about its business. Older people came and left, wandering down and across the neatly paved street. The place, in its scale and mood, reminded me of my hometown, Ballymahon, in county Longford. I read a walking-tour leaflet I’d picket up earlier. Beside the map, a list of bullet-points relayed a brief history of the old town, from its founding in 1230 to the restoration works of the large Ritter Chapel in 2006, first built between 1431 and 1465. I was interested to see what this historic overview would say about the war years. The day before, I’d encountered a stone relief built into the side of the Obere Brücke in Bamberg; a memorial offering ‘inextinguishable gratitude’ to those from Bamberg who were lost in battle during World War Two. I initially found it distasteful and inappropriate to offer such thanks for such a cause in such a public place. It pricked my default liberal sensibilities. Berlin has a number of large Jewish memorials, and, it seems to me that the war there is treated generally and officially as an unspeakable horror. I was curious to see if there was a pattern in this southern part of the country as to how those who died for Germany during the war were memorialised. I was also curious to see what I thought of it. But, as I read through the pamphlet, there was only a single line given over to the war era, and, as I was reading it in German then, I’ll rewrite it here: 1942: – die letzten jüdischen Einwohner werden in die Vernichtungslager deportiert. (1942: – the last Jewish inhabitants were deported to extermination camps.) When I read this, I was struck by two words: Einwohner and Vernichtungslager. Einwohner, though it translates here to ‘inhabitants’, to me, as I read it, the word separated out into Ein – ‘one’, and wohner – ‘dwellers’ or ‘habit-makers’. This seemed less impersonal to me than ‘inhabitants’, it read more like ‘fellow-habit-makers-at-one’. When I broke out the word Vernichtungslager I began with nicht, which means ‘not’, and ver generally means to further activate a verb, whereas ung is usually the part of word that indicates that a verb has been nouned – ung somehow makes the act a thing. Das Lager means a camp, from die Lage, which means situation or location. Though the translation of this word is ‘extermination camp’, to me, sitting there, when I reconstituted the word Vernichtungslager back up from its simpler parts it meant: ‘place to enact a not-ment’, or a ‘place for en-not-ment’, or, more simply, a ‘place for undo-ment’. These small words and the almost familiar smallness of Haßfurt town for a moment weakened the monolithic sense of horror I’d attributed to this time in Germany – it cracked open a little and into it something smaller and more complexly sad was permitted to enter.
Next morning, my last day in Bamberg, I went to the café Rondo once more and had a coffee and a small doughy croissant. The air was chilly, but the sun was out, and the café was busy and pleasant. I called over to the city archive to thank Herr Gehringer and to swap emails, but he was in a meeting so I left a note with his PA who I asked if there was an engineering school in Bamberg, and she told me that there was a history-of-construction department in an old building on Am Kranen, once a small dock serving the left arm of the Regnitz, just north of the street markets and the tourist district of the town.
While ambling along the deserted corridors of the university building, I came upon two vitrines filled with beautiful wooden models of timber trusses, illustrating the sorts of construction methods that would once have been used for pitched roofs on houses all over Bamberg and Bavaria. I then bumped into a young academic to whom I put a few questions about Gerber. He invited me into his office, where he furnished me with a number of contacts for professors in engineering who he knew to also have an interest in the history of the field. When I studied engineering, during the late-’90s in Aberdeen, almost nothing of the history of engineering was taught; the emphasis was wholly on preparing students for contemporary industry. I think this is the case in most universities in the UK and Ireland. It wasn’t until I left my career as an engineer in 2008, began writing, and returned to university to study fine art, that my curiosity opened. It was only then I learned about Peter Rice and became drawn into his strangely encouraging view of what engineering could be. It seems clear to me that in mainland Europe the history of engineering is a large part of an engineer’s education and this in turn contributes to how these engineers behave in the industry. I think Rice must have admired this feature and sought to emulate it in his work.
After lunch, I went for a walk past the churches and chapels in the old part of the city, and on up through the steep, slim and winding streets towards the summit of the hill that overlooks Bamberg. Near the top stood an old observatory, a redbrick building with twin copper domes protruding from the rear and a walkway strung between them. At the front gate a sign indicated a half-mile walking route down the hill from the observatory. The route was designed in a way that scaled itself off the linear distances of the known Universe. By then it was sunny and warm so I walked down the road and was directed onto a sandy footpath leading through a forest where men were cutting down trees. The muffled hum and clatter of the chainsaws broke in a strangely pleasant way through the place. I passed many aluminium signposts telling me when I was passing ‘the Orion Nebula’, then ‘Kepler’s Supernova’, and so on, until I came upon the last sign where I was informed that the Universe at these sorts of outer reaches becomes mere light. Through a clearing in the trees the craggy sandstone hills that surround this area became visible. I pictured these slopes being cut open, broken out, and transferred into the ordered shapes that made up the town below. I thought how tiny the tactile world is within the spectrum of phenomena. When I turned back from this last sign I saw a dark-haired young man walking up the path towards me. He was somewhat overweight, perspiring, and out of breath. He looked confused. As we got closer I gestured over my shoulder at the sign and joked that he was nearing the end of the Universe. He frowned and I realised I must have phrased my comment incorrectly. He asked me if the path went all of the way through the forest, and I told him that I didn’t know, to which he shrugged, continued on past anyway, and wished me a good day.