Allison Arieff in the New York Times thinks the problem with our infrastructure planning is lack of “awe”:
[Dave] Eggers’s proclamation that the Golden Gate [Bridge] is beloved because it’s outrageous and weird may fly in the face of just about everyone’s attitude about infrastructure, but it also gets at exactly what we should be feeling about bridges and tunnels.
American infrastructure is deferred home maintenance on a massive scale. We just keep putting it off until something major — and often catastrophic — happens, and then it ends up costing twice as much as it would have had we taken care of it proactively. This is a bad strategy — yet it’s the strategy that seems to define United States infrastructure.
There is no awe. There are issues of structural integrity. There are mind-blowing cost overruns. Accidents. Sinkholes. Problems with bolts.
The first design proposed for the Golden Gate was, writes Eggers, “the strangest, most awkward and plain old ugly bridge anyone had every seen … people compared it to an upside-down rat trap.” (Here is what it looked like.) The public demanded something better — and they got it.
A century later, we’ve lost our collective faith in the power of great projects like the Golden Gate, not to mention our trust in the government to fix a pothole on time and on budget, let alone create an inspiring bridge. How can we restore that faith in possibility?
I’ve lived in cities with awe-inspiring infrastructure (San Francisco, Sydney, Vancouver, Paris) but now I’m based back in my original hometown, Portland. And Portland is the perfect riposte to Arieff’s obsession with awe.
Portland is “awesome” but not the least bit awe-inspiring. If you want to gape at the spiritual grandeur of human works, strike us off your list. Our monuments, bridges, and major buildings are all modest and even gentle. Many are beautiful but none are magnificent. Our city is so human-scale that we just don’t need to build very big things. For some related reason, we also have no need for a dramatic, soaring tower with a rotating restaurant and observation deck.
We don’t need the tower, because we have hills and mountains. Portland manifests a particular reaction to a natural setting: not the desire to compete with it by creating infrastructure of comparable grandeur, but a humility toward it, a happiness that comes from dwelling in its shadow, and letting it give us all the awe we may need.
Nature now awes us in another respect: We’ve been warned to expect an appalling earthquake in which thousands of us would probably die, because our infrastructure isn’t designed to survive it. Of our 12 river bridges, for example, only the newest one is pretty assured of not collapsing (a second is now under construction.) Countless brick and concrete buildings and highway ramps are likely to go. Arieff dismisses the small mindedness of “problems with bolts,” but bolts are exactly what’s going to kill us. Telling Portland to spend money on awe instead of bolts could be a pretty direct threat to our lives.
The bigger lesson of Portland is you can build a great city by learning to take pleasure in the actual functioning of things, and the resulting liberty and happiness of people. Pioneer Courthouse Square, for example, is pleasant but not awe-inspiring, and the real reason to love it is that it’s so massively useful for all kinds of happy and liberating purposes. In our better moments, we feel that way about our transit system. Function, especially when it engenders liberty and opportunity as functional transit does, can be a higher delight than awe, and a more durable one.
The other problem with awe is that it’s so often about the power of some people over others. Versailles and Imperial Vienna are awe-inspiring, but the awe has a purpose: to make you accept your place in a hierarchy of power and privilege. The medieval cathedral was a gathering place (like our civic squares) and an honest monument to human spirituality, but the awe you feel there is also meant to make you defer to the authority of your local priest and the Pope. Awe and intimidation are the same thing in slightly different light.
So perhaps we should be suspicious of awe, with its reverberations of power and grandiosity. Delight and pleasure are are better aesthetic selling points, but at our best, as in Portland in its better moments, even these things arise from functionality, safety, usefulness to vast spectra of people. And the infrastructure that best does all those things may not be awe-inspiring, in the same way that Portland isn’t.
Let us create affordable and inclusive delight wherever we can find it, but let’s be sure that advocates of function are in the room, reminding us of the urgent human rights and ambitions that only functional infrastructure can support. Appeals to awe, in particular, are not how we build that room. Historically, awe’s purpose has mostly been the opposite: to keep people outside, mouths agape at the magnificence, while their betters plan their destiny.