Infrastructure and Aesthetics


In his 2005 book Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, Brian Hayes surveys the built environment with an undaunted appreciation of the vast networks of infrastructure systems in America. Hayes, a writer for American Scientist, argues that common understanding of infrastructure is just as important as an understanding of nature itself. Without the ubiquitous power lines, the oft disparaged garbage dumps, or the controversial mining industry, the United States would not have been able to achieve status as the paragon of 20th Century modernization – a pattern now emulated by the likes of China and India.

Yet it seems that ‘infrastructure’ has lost its fabled status in America. Our parents – or grandparents, depending on your age – celebrated achievements such as the building of the Hoover Dam or the California Water Project. But starting with the 1970s, as the environmental movement began to gain steam, and more recently after Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, large scale infrastructure has increasingly become something to be reviled.

The only time we are reminded of our infrastructure is when tragedy strikes, be it a mining accident, a bridge falling down or a collapsed levee. It’s as if we wish to keep the very things that support our modern lifestyles ‘out of sight out of mind’. No one really wants to know where their trash ends up or what the intricate processes for treating sewage are, nor does anyone want to be a neighbor with a coal burning power plant.

At the same time what had once been centers for productive industry have also been redeveloped into hip and trendy neighborhoods marketed to those looking for an ‘edgy’ urban experience. To be sure, part of the allure of once industrial areas such as San Francisco’s South of Market and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg lies in the gritty aesthetic and adaptability of warehouse and manufacturing buildings for reuse.

Yet even though residential development may be halted for the foreseeable future, it is critical to not lose sight of the aesthetic value of the industrial landscape. This ‘diamond in the rough’ appeal applies not only to converted lofts and art galleries but to both our current functioning and yet-to-be built infrastructure as well.

The potential for infrastructure to please the eye and to uplift the soul is not lacking in historical precedent. Some of the greatest monuments to the genius of ancient architects remain those which served as essential infrastructure, the most notable example the aqueducts constructed by the Romans.

Yet today, aside from exceptions like the bridges of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the world of high architectural design has largely ignored the possibility that infrastructure could be beautiful. Instead, design media is relentlessly focused on museums and other elitist structures with the more mundane and common buildings being "left to the engineers".

LeCorbusier, the late Swiss/French architect and one of the ‘godfathers’ of modern architecture would be rolling in his grave if he knew this was the case. In his seminal manifesto Towards a New Architecture, LeCorbusier speaks of his appreciation for the industrial aesthetic: “Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent first-fruits of the new age”.

LeCorbusier, or ‘Corb’ as he is called, went on to apply the industrial aesthetic to socialist housing schemes while proclaiming that the “house is a machine for living in”. Although the jury is still out on whether or not living in a machine has mass appeal, Corbusier’s celebration of the simple and repetitive massing of structures such as grain silos is a good reminder that beauty can be derived from infrastructure.

Early 20th Century American city builders also celebrated infrastructure. Willis Polk, a prominent San Francisco architect, was commissioned in 1910 to build a water temple in Sunol, California. Sunol, about 40 miles outside of San Francisco, was where converging water lines met before feeding into the city. Sensitive to the importance of getting fresh water to a growing population, some of San Francisco’s wealthiest citizens hired Polk to design the structure, which was inspired by the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Soon after, the area around the iconic structure became a popular spot for park goers.

Similarly, Los Angeles architect Gordon Kaufman was hired to add aesthetic merit to the Hoover Dam. Still generating power for parts of Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, the massive dam symbolizes one of the most ambitious pieces of infrastructure in American history. At the time, the dam was the world’s largest concrete structure, yet Kaufman softened the aesthetics by adding a simple and elegant Art Deco touch to the otherwise imposing structure.

The marriage of aesthetic beauty and infrastructure does not always have to take place at the grand scale of the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge. In contrast, the barn, according to Brian Hayes, remains “the unmistakable icon of American agriculture and rural life.” The barn, a prevailing theme in American literature, represents function and flexibility of the highest order: one day it could be housing livestock while the next it could serve as a dance hall. Whatever the function, there is no questioning the charm of these structures dotting the rural landscape. With a renewed interest in family and organic farming in current popular culture, these buildings – including new barns – could assume a renewed meaning.

With the Obama stimulus plan comes not only an opportunity to create jobs but to advance a cultural appreciation for the structures and systems that have made the United States a model to be emulated. Wind turbines, for instance, are gaining traction as the symbols of clean energy. When driving past large scale wind farms like the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, the movement of the out-of-proportion blades coupled with the dizzying repetition of turbines results in something similar to a pleasant hallucination. The appreciation for wind turbines is a start in the right direction, yet if we are to ensure that the systems that run the country are suited to last for generations to come, the culture needs to once again celebrate, rather than demonize, our infrastructure.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised in the town of Los Gatos, on the edge of Silicon Valley, Adam developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. He currently lives in San Francisco where he works in the architecture profession.

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