Sunday, December 9, 2012

infrastructure and inspiration

I passed through Madrid to change planes on the way to Milan, and found it striking that a number of passengers stopped to take photographs of the airport. I don’t blame them – it’s a beautiful airport, after all – but it occurred to me that I had never seen travelers take photos of any of my “home” airports in Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, or Newark. Why not?

The easy answer is that American airports are banal, at best. This was not always the case – Miami’s old seaplane terminal at Dinner Key used to be a tourist destination in its own right, and Eero Saarinen’s terminals at JFK and Dulles are still pretty inspiring. But for the most part we’ve abandoned any sense that these gateways to our cities are supposed to be inspiring civic monuments. They’ve been reduced to shopping malls with electronic body scanners.

American infrastructure in general suffers from a lack of concern for civic identity and ignorance of the notion that every intervention in the built environment is an opportunity to make our cities and landscapes even more beautiful. Again, this was not always the case – it’s hard to imagine the Golden Gate and the Verazzano Narrows without their eponymous bridges. From the Erie Canal and Brooklyn Bridge to the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System, every generation built monuments that did far more than simply solve problems; they changed the way we saw ourselves.

How can infrastructure inspire us again? One promising medium is renewable energy. A field of wind turbines cresting a tree-less ridge and banks of photovoltaic panels set between rows of crops are the visual expression of a society embracing the difficult transition to more sustainable sources of energy. Expanded public transit systems could serve not only as ways to relieve congestion and reduce energy use, but as means to bring greater beauty and cohesion to our streetscapes. Eliminating the tangle of power and communications wires above our streets would make our systems less fragile and our cities less chaotic.

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