Visual essay by Sam Holleran
This brief visual essay traces the visual identity of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority—the idiosyncratic fiefdom of Robert Moses. The piece pulls apart the heraldry of Triborough’s crest and insignia, and examines the architectural artifacts of its rein (the bridges and tunnels themselves as well as the hidden-away headquarters building on Randall’s Island from which Robert Moses issued orders to mayors and governors). What happens when we examine innocuous logos and bland buildings in comparison to the real human costs of power and dynasty?
For much of the twentieth century quasi-independent public authorities controlled infrastructure development in New York City and state, holding vast tracts of land and commanding massive amounts of capital. The most famous of these is the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority—the idiosyncratic fiefdom of Robert Moses. © Sam Holleran.
Before the 1950s there was little cohesive branding. Companies and government agencies did not have style guides, and made use of a variety of logos, stationary, and marks. Triborough was no different; it would often employ New York State’s coat of arms and “Excelsior” motto, while occasionally dismissing it for a more modern, streamlined corporate wordmark. © Sam Holleran.
Robert Moses with model of proposed Battery Bridge in 1939. One of the few moments when Triborough Bridge Authority’s hidden powers were publicly called into question. © Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The design of the Triborough Authority’s materials spans the decades when American branding was coming into its own, commercial artists morphed into the graphic designers we know today. The innocuity of logos and the blandness of buildings created for Triborough belies the real human costs inflicted by the Authority’s goliath projects. © Sam Holleran.
The Manhattan portal to the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel (now the Hugh Carey Tunnel), built in the solid Stripped Classicism favored by Moses, this windowless ventilation tower has been used by the Men in Black film series as the headquarters of a secret organization where agents and friendly aliens can meet. © Flickr, M. Jeremy Goldman.
Nowhere is the power and dynasty of Triborough more clear than in the image of the massive bridge itself. © Sam Holleran.
The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority’s (TBTA) crest deployed on a tie bar. The TBTA, now part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), still has nearly 1000 officers in law enforcement and toll collection, who have distinct heraldry, uniforms, and insignia. © copshop.com, wikimedia commons.
Triborough’s crest features a wise owl and industrious beaver flanking the bridge’s tower. In the postwar era the relative independence of agencies like the Port Authority and the Triborough Authority was seen as a plus point—they were capable of cutting through red tape, bureaucratic dithering, and political corruption. © wikimedia commons.
The popularity of authorities was often linked to the perception that they were entirely self-paying. © Sam Holleran.
The Triborough Bridge Authority Administration Building on Randall’s Island was built in 1936; it was from this relatively undistinguished three-story office complex that Robert Moses built many of New York City’s largest public works. © Courtesy of the author.
By the late 1960s when Robert Moses had finally fallen from power, the Triborough Authority was absorbed into the MTA. A lockup from the early 1970s shows the Authority’s letterhead, flanked on one the right by the old TBTA logo, and on the left by the two-toned “M” logo, designed by the firm Peter Muller-Munk Associates and introduced in the late 1960s in conjunction with Massimo Vignelli’s systemization of MTA signage. © Flickr, AllWaysNY.
Without a clear graphic identity, Triborough was often attached to the image of Moses, his imposing figure and “swarthy” smiling face (the good looks, ancestry, and phenotype of the “oliveskinned, big-eyed” Moses are thoroughly inspected in Robert Caro’s Powerbroker) became a proxy—the visible tip of a vast and largely-submerged organization. © Flickr, Eden, Janine and Jim.
Sam Holleran is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator. He is the Participatory Design Fellow with the Design Trust for Public Space, working with the Queens Museum and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to engage communities surrounding Flushing Meadows Corona Park. He also works with the Center for Architecture and the 92Y, developing art, architecture, and urban design curriculum for public high school students.
www.samholler.com | @sam_holler