The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a remarkable structure. I can never see it without feeling a little awe-struck. Les Murray once remarked upon the way it continually sneaks up on you in the city, it peeks in between buildings so that you see it in places that you would never expect.
It’s size makes it a sublime object, something that mixes beauty and terror. It is easily the largest man-made structure I have ever seen, the awareness of which is heightened by an ability to see all of it at once from many points around the Harbour. It so surpasses the scale of any individual human being that it becomes difficult to comprehend it as a human object, that is, as our creation.
The viewer almost wants perceive the Bridge as a natural phenomenon, a force of nature. Yet, it is so obviously a human construction. The steel, the riveting, the angular lines, all make any retreat from its human origin impossible.
I find that a part of me is always left thinking, “What have we done?” And I feel winded, like I’ve been punched with a double-combination-fist-full of Amazement and Terror.
I’m amazed at human creativity and power, I’m terrified because, even in our comfortable and protected lives, we know more than enough about the human capacity for evil. These two things don’t make for a happy prospect, as the history of the 20th Century eloquently gives testimony.
The Harbour Bridge was built during the Great Depression by men who had been through the horror of World War One, and then the shame of being unable to provide for their families as the economy crumbled. It stood then as a potent symbol of human achievement in the face of adversity and played its role in the optimistic ‘Modern’ story about Scientific Progress, with humanity as the central character.
Now we live in an age of undreamt prosperity…
… and pessimism.
The optimistic story of ‘onward and upward’ proved to be a rationalist fairytale.
The greater our technological achievements became, the greater our capacity to destroy, and in our depravity, to enjoy the spectacle of destruction.
The Bridge is a Steel Rainbow hung in the sky as a reminder of our inherent power, given from the Creator. But unlike the Creator’s Rainbow that reminds us that he will be faithful to his creation, our Steel Rainbow gives no such assurance. As humanity we are always a moment away from another betrayal of the creation, of our own role in that creation, and ultimately of our God who created us.
And the greater we develop our power and creativity the more terrifying the scope and potential of that betrayal becomes.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported a little bit of Governor Marie Bashir’s speech at the ribbon cutting ceremony. She described the bridge as a “sermon in steel” which showed what Australia could do.
“It will never date, never grow old,”
“It has become a structure for all time.”
It is a Sermon in Steel, the kind of sermon that rightly leaves the hearer deeply troubled.
But the Good News is that it is emphatically not a structure for all time. There will come a time when the Sermon in Steel, the word of our glory and disgrace, will be silent.
The New Creation may well have Bridges, but they will be testimonies to the Creator’s Spirit, not to any ‘human spirit’.
And so, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is 75 Years Old, but it is not a structure for all time.
It is a structure for our time.