The first time Martin Chandrawinata saw the Golden Gate Bridge in 1996, he was dumbstruck. To be fair, most people are; the stretching pillars of burnt red nestled between pillowy sheets of fog and the endless blue of the Pacific is an image that resonates far beyond its practical appeal. But to Chandrawinata, an international student from Indonesia beginning his studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the bridge's beauty resided precisely in its elegant functionality. "The first time I saw it I thought, 'I want to build a bridge like this someday," Chandrawinata said, in slow, earnest, heavily accented English. "And now I am."
Chandrawinata, today a civil engineer working on the Bay Bridge East Span, hasn't lost that sense of awe about his chosen line of work. Largely that's come as a result of his second occupation, documenting the construction process with photographs from an engineer's perspective.
While commuters crossing the Bay Bridge can gape incredulously at the men in orange vests and hard hats strung up on the new span, which will eventually stretch 2.2 miles long, with a single 525-foot-tall steel beam towering above it, Chandrawinata has enjoyed the insider's advantage of watching every step of the process while standing perfectly still. "I can see the fog and say, 'I wonder what the bridge would look like from the top right now, under all this fog.' I can see the cables underneath the lights at night, and take a picture to remember," he said. "To me, construction and photography go hand in hand. From the vests and hard hats to all the dust and the welding, there's so many interesting things I get to see that most other people don't."
That's how Chandrawinata, whose first job at the University of Alabama was as a staff photographer developing photos for the campus paper, set about documenting the incremental construction of the bridge beginning in 2009. To date, he has amassed an astonishing 20,000 photos of the bridge in various stages of completion. And through May 31, the public will be able to join him behind the curtain by viewing a selection of his best photos on display as part of an exhibit titled Through an Engineer's Lens at the Joseph P. Bort MetroCenter (101 8th St., Oakland).
If there's anything Chandrawinata hopes to achieve through the exhibit, it's to give people a real glimpse at the meticulous labor that goes into building our most spectacular man-made structures. "I used to live on Treasure Island, so I'd sometimes joke that I'm building a bridge to my house," he said. "It's really been my dream come true, working on this project. And now I get to show everyone what I've been able to see." Through May 31. 510-817-5700 or MTC.Ca.gov/about_mtc/art_gallery