Our big red bridge turns 75

Oops, I mean, Big Orange...
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I think the majority of people (including me) think of the Golden Gate Bridge as red, but it's actually painted "International Orange", an orange vermillion. Alas, the Golden Gate Bridge color paint is not available in paint stores; it's a special mixture formulated just for the Golden Gate. But you can find the exact paint mixture on the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District's website.

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To protect the bridge from the salt water corrosion and keep the color fresh, more than 10 million square feet of steel are constantly touched up. It's a big myth that the bridge is painted from one end to the other rather than continual touch ups. "There's some places it's so windy you have to hold the spray gun next to the steel — otherwise the paint will blow off at a 90-degree angle. That's why, to be a structural steel painter — bridge painter — you've got to be a little off-center," paint superintendent Rocky jokes. (source)

Our beloved Golden Gate Bridge here in San Francisco is celebrating it's 75th anniversary this Memorial Day weekend. Pretty cool. I love driving through town and catching glimpses of it from across the bay. Such an amazing symbol of inspired color design.
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In the 1930's when construction began on the bridge, most bridges were painted gray, black or silver.  The U.S. Navy urged painting the 746-foot towers like giant bumblebees—in black and yellow stripes—for safety reasons. “The navy thought the stripes would be more visible to ships in a heavy fog, and we get a lot of fog,” says paint superintendent Dennis “Rocky” Dellarocca. (source) Irving Morrow, the Golden Gate's consulting architect, had other ideas, making the bold leap to go bright.

"The Golden Gate Bridge," Morrow wrote, "is one of the greatest monuments of all time. Its unprecedented size and scale, along with its grace of form and independence of conception, all call for unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view. What has been thus played up in form should not be let down in color."(source)
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The paint primer covering the bridge's steel, already an orange red color, would need some added tones. Morrow felt it was an ideal complement to the gray fog, the golden and green hills, the blue water and sky.

Locals were so pleased by the temporary color of the bridge's primer, that they wrote to Morrow, urging him to make it permanent.
"He had to convince the Department of War, the permitting agency at the time, that the largest suspension span ever built at the time [should] have this wild crazy color," says Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie.(source) Morrow presented a 29 page report to convince the board of directors on his color choice. Thanks to an NPR report, we can read it ourselves!

Report on Color and Lighting
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Some of my favorite excerpts/argumentation from the report:

Importance of Color
It is well recognized that the color of a structure has important influence on its appearance and on its relation to its surroundings...The design of the Golden Gate Bridge is generally recognized as being exceptionally expressive and imposing. Color will be an integral factor in the final effect. Poorly chosen color may (a) fail to enforce important aspects of form; (b) actually nullify important aspects of form; (c) materially reduce the apparent size of the structure.

(So true! We color consultants are constantly championing how important color is to inform form)
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The Problem: which color to choose?
Local atmospheric effects- during a considerable portion of the year, particularly during summer, the San Francisco Bay area is covered by high fogs and is relatively sunless. At these times the atmosphere is gray. In sunny weather the predominant color of bay and ocean is blue. In other words, the prevalent atmospheric colors are cool. A structure which is to be emphasized must appear in contrasting or warm colors.
(then he takes a dig at current architects building in San Francisco...)

The color- architects in San Francisco have consistently ignored the above facts and their implications. Except during the transitory Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, local architecture has remained on the whole timidly colorless, hence without the accent and warmth which conditions call for.

The colors which meet the above requirements range through yellow, orange, and red. Not all, however, are equally appropriate from the other points of view. Yellow shades would lack substance; deep reds would be heavy and without luminosity.
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I like this quote a lot:

"No color will so enhance and enforce its majesty and exhilarating scale as orange vermillion. There will always be legitimate opportunities to paint bridges any of the alternative colors which can be suggested. An opportunity such as is offered here does not occur once in a generation."

SO true! Can you imagine the majestic Golden Gate Bridge as anything other than orangy red?

 * About the artwork: Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory brought on the ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners to create commemorative posters for this celebration. The goal of the images is to shine a light on hidden parts of the bridge – one of the most photographed in the world – that many have never seen before. The photos have been specially treated to stay in-theme with the iconic bold color of the bridge.