The past 100 years have witnessed the best and worst of times for American transportation infrastructure. A relatively short evolution from dirt streets and horse-drawn carriages to bullet trains and commercial jet aircraft has forever altered the design of transportation infrastructure. These systems require design that is not only functional but also beautiful, responding to the natural features of the locale and fostering a sense of community value and identity. As architects, planners, and engineers, we have a civic obligation to reinvolve ourselves in the design of infrastructure initiatives, just as we did more than a half-century ago.
When America’s love affair with automobile travel began in earnest during the years following World War II, a new highway system was born, unrivaled anywhere else in the world. Crisscrossing the United States and incorporating massive bridges, tunnels, and other engineering feats, this new system of roads was celebrated for both its beauty and its innovation. During the mid-20th century, architects were called upon to design solutions that would make driving a more aesthetically pleasing experience. New York builder Robert Moses, for example, proposed plans for a six-lane Central Motor Expressway in 1953 that would run from Manhattan to the Eastern end of Long Island, taking advantage of existing parks and boulevards in Queens. His grand idea for a “romantic drive” through parkland was short-lived; Moses’ vision has become what we know today as the Long Island Expressway.
As the highway movement gained momentum, beautification campaigns, many led by the federal government, lobbied to remove billboards and junkyards from the nation’s highways and to replace them with wildflowers and parkland. Wayside oases sprung up along the highways, offering food, lodging, and entertainment for weary travelers. Throughout these changes, America led the charge in the design and development of infrastructure and transportation systems, and good design remained at the forefront of planning initiatives.
Today, however, political competition, exhausted government funds, and an influx of more appealing projects have left the American landscape littered with crumbling roads and bridges that are perpetually in need of repair and desperately outdated. Gridlocked traffic, overcrowded airports, and limited access to train travel has become the norm. Expansions or repairs that manage to get pushed through the system are often quick fixes and lack any architectural sensibility.
Just as we did almost a century ago, America now stands at a critical juncture as we anticipate the introduction of a new generation of railroads onto our landscape: high-speed trains. Europe and Asia have embraced high-speed rail as the future of inter-city travel, and we are poised to have the same extraordinary opportunity to transform the way American cities connect. Once again, trains are becoming viable solutions for American travelers—but these are not like any trains we have seen before. High-speed trains offer travel times comparable to some airplanes, with speeds reaching 220 miles per hour. With this new mode of rapid transit comes a responsibility to re-examine and reflect upon the way we design and implement transportation and infrastructure systems. Looking back, the past century is filled with examples of infrastructure projects from which we can learn important lessons.
Consider, for instance, the story of three New York City bridges: the Williamsburg Bridge (1903), the Manhattan Bridge (1909), and the George Washington Bridge (1931). The awkward and starkly utilitarian Williamsburg Bridge, designed by architect Henry Hornbostel and engineer Leffert L. Buck, shows us how unfortunate the results can be when a project is built solely for a functional purpose, with little consideration for design and form.
The Manhattan Bridge, on the other hand, was designed with McKim, Mead & White as consulting architects and, while undeniably beautiful with its ceremonial entrance and distinctive balconies, serves as an example of what can happen when engineering details are neglected. While visually successful, the Manhattan Bridge has shown its deterioration over the years much more visibly than its neighbors.
The Depression-era George Washington Bridge, a collaboration between engineer Othmar Ammann and architect Cass Gilbert, demonstrates that a bridge can be both structurally sound and extraordinarily beautiful. Gilbert’s influence is especially seen in the distinctive architectural features of the bridge’s approach. Le Corbusier once declared the George Washington Bridge “the most beautiful bridge in the world.” Still as graceful today, its integration of solid engineering and architectural qualities stands as a testament to careful planning and design-minded leaders.
Elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of “the bridge as art” captured the attention of builders and government officials. Joseph Strauss, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge (1937) in San Francisco, hired local architect Irving Morrow to design architectural treatments and flourishes for the bridge. The streetlamps, railings, pedestrian walkways, art deco towers—even the burnt red-orange hue—were the artistic vision of Morrow.
On a much smaller scale, architect Edward H. Bennett’s Michigan Avenue Bridge in Chicago, one of the most visible pieces of infrastructure in the city, unites historically cutting-edge engineering with art and sculpture. Completed in 1920, the bridge was built as part of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, still the preeminent example of integrating urban planning with architectural sensibility.
Depleted budgets and increased demands for speedy road and bridge expansions and repairs have, in many instances, left today’s infrastructure projects devoid of any aesthetic richness or value. Architects, planners, and engineers should embrace these projects again as highly visible ways to begin rebuilding America’s transportation infrastructure systems.
A recent and extremely successful project, one that shows the inherent potential for a fresh vision, is the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. In August 2007, while undergoing structural repairs, the bridge collapsed during the height of rush hour. Instead of simply replacing the bridge that had once been, which possessed no aesthetic qualities and offered limited river views, the Minnesota Department of Transportation hired FIGG Engineering Group to create a sleek, modern, and high-performance replacement bridge.
Not only was the new bridge completed three months ahead of schedule (with financial incentives for early completion), but careful thought and consideration were given to the visual impact of the bridge on the cityscape. This new bridge is made of white concrete instead of steel, and curved piers gracefully frame the river. Meanwhile, pedestrians and drivers on adjacent bridges are offered a view of the city uninterrupted by rusted steel trusses. Embedded sensor technology detects even the smallest of problems, meaning that the new bridge serves as both a beautiful piece of infrastructure and a model for other bridge designs.
The impacts of well-designed infrastructure projects like the I-35W bridge can be felt almost immediately. By contributing to these projects and sharing their ideas and visions, architects, planners, and engineers can become critical members of the planning and engineering teams. Looking ahead to the big picture of American infrastructure, a fully realized high-speed rail system may be years away, but planning has already begun. We have immediate opportunities to become involved in the programming of this initiative, and have the knowledge and insight to support and enable the process, rather than simply watching from the sidelines, or confining our efforts to station design.
High-speed rail seeks to use existing freight right-of-ways, meaning that grade separation will need to be designed. Raised rail lines and road underpasses will have an enormous impact on the American landscape. This is an opportunity for architects, planners, and engineers to ensure that comprehensive and thoughtful design is incorporated into this new system, establishing high standards and becoming the voice for alternative solutions that beautifully bring together form and function.
Looking ahead to high-speed rail and the future of American travel, the Midwest, California, and Florida are planning now for upgraded rail lines. European and Asian countries have submitted proposals for rail routes that connect cities across the Midwest. Besides the visual impact of nationwide high-speed rail, determining where these new trains and tracks go will significantly affect the future of our cities, their development and growth, and how communities and local economies are interlinked.
It is not too late for American architects to join the effort. We can be a voice for issues that might be overlooked in early planning stages, expanding the playing field and positioning ourselves to work with engineers and planners. By articulating the vision of high-speed rail and becoming involved in the process from the beginning, architects can usher in a new generation of train travel and make their mark on the future of American infrastructure.