Is Infrastructure Still about “Awe”?

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.

13 Responses to Is Infrastructure Still about “Awe”?

  1. Brendan February 15, 2016 at 3:07 am #

    I agree, there is a problem with awe, but Portland is not without it. Are Americans not awe-struck just by the city’s basic infrastructure and amenities? In north Seattle, there are huge areas with no sidewalks. There are towns without clean drinking water. Speaking of power and grandiosity, it feels like having basic amenities is a luxury when you are poor, and there are a lot of poor. If you live in a neighborhood where you can walk to the store from your house, you are a king.

    • Mike P. February 15, 2016 at 7:27 am #

      Well written Brendan.

  2. Rob February 15, 2016 at 9:14 am #

    The article mixes two issues – awe might be part of selling a new project, but it’s not relevant to our problem finding the money and will to maintain things. For that we need discipline of some sort. It should be structured into funding plans and constitutionally required before building new things.

    But even for new projects, there’s truth to the old saw that form follows function. Most of the most awe-inspiring subjects in nature and engineering are simply the result of adapting beautifully to functional needs and constraints.

    • EJ February 15, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

      @Rob – came down here to basically say that. The Golden Gate is wide and deep, and the bridge needed to clear shipping – whatever they built needed to be large and impressive. They didn’t start with a desire to build something grandiose and design the bridge with that in mind.

      Arieff’s using the example of the Atlanta Belt Line is a bit weird, since it’s basically just some streetcar lines, parkland, and trails. It seems like a good project, but hardly awe-inspiring – really much more like the wonky, statistics-driven, quality of life projects she’s decrying.

      I’d also not overestimate the “awe-inspiring” infrastructure in famously scenic European cities. Imperial Vienna has a lot of grandiose rococco gingerbread, but do a bunch of palaces-cum-museums really constitute infrastructure? The infrastructure that people use to get around the city, like the U-Bahn, is for the most part pleasantly designed but fairly utilitarian. Even the old Otto Wagner-designed jugendstihl sections are more charming than spectacular. Ditto the roads, the trams, the bridges over the Danube…

  3. RossB February 15, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    I disagree with the original author’s point about cities not building awe inspiring structures. Just look at Seattle.

    Seattle tore down a perfectly functional sports building, used, at times, by all three major franchises, so that it could build two separate buildings. The old Kingdome was ugly and exactly the type of building that Egger complained about. The new buildings are both magnificent in comparison. But the end result is that the folks in Seattle spent a fortune building one building for a football team, and one for a baseball team. Oh, and when the university five miles away needed to fix their stadium, they didn’t try to share Seahawk Stadium, they simply built another one (why expand your world class hospital when you can build a redundant football stadium).

    By the time the Sonics — the oldest of our sports franchises — said they wanted a new or refurbished place — the city said enough is enough. We didn’t chip in a dime. So they moved to Oklahoma City. So, yes, our buildings sure are pretty, but I would swap places with Portland in a heartbeat. The Blazers may be playing in a less than awe-inspiring place, but what happens inside is awesome, to be sure (as Sherman Alexis has so eloquently wrote).

    • Rob February 15, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

      @RossB, agreed — but — the fact that the stadiums were more iconic had nothing to do with rebuilding them. That was required by owners who knew they could make a lot more money allowing the super rich to separate themselves from the masses, and that they could bargain hard with the threat of relocation in their back pocket.

      • RossB February 16, 2016 at 7:20 am #

        Yeah, that was it essentially it. But I think it actually would have been harder to sell the stadiums if they were as ugly as the Kingdome.

  4. Fbfree February 15, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    “Historically, awe’s purpose has mostly been the opposite: to keep people outside, mouths agape at the magnificence, while their betters plan their destiny.”

    In recent history, awe has been used for inspiration more than it has for oppression, especially in North America. Public facilities as the Statue of Liberty or more common examples of the many grand public libraries and parks, legislatures, courthouses, etc… have been built to reflect the needs of people while inspiring citizens to what a unified community can do. Depression era public works projects seem to be the best as this type of awe. The murals of the old Toronto Stock Exchange are my favourite example, reminding the traders each day of who brings in their harvest!

    There is a place for awe in public infrastructure, but only where it complements rather than competes with functionality.

    • ararar February 16, 2016 at 5:35 am #

      also in medieval history, the merchant corporations raced to have the most awe-inspiring church in their city, that wasn’t necessarily an oppressive intent.

      In the end, awe-inspiring structures are just the civilized version of stone age dickwaving.

      • Dave February 17, 2016 at 6:10 am #

        Yeah, but as part of the local growth machine lots of people want awe-inspiring things. But that’s what it’s a part of – the local growth machine. There’s nothing benevolent in the local growth machine’s intentions. It specifically seeks out growth so that the fortunes of its members will be increased. In order to do that they need to impress people from other places. The awe is to be inspired in outsiders for the impression, insiders for the oppression.

  5. Eric February 16, 2016 at 3:13 am #

    The WTC stegosaurus, and the Boston City Hall, are examples of “impressive” infrastructure that ends up being hated and/or a giant waste of money. Better to keep things modest and functional than to stroke the ego of a starchitect.

  6. Mikko February 17, 2016 at 5:38 am #

    There’s a dose of this in the current Hyperloop hype. The idea of going at the speed of sound is awe-inspriring, unlike the tedious work of building high-speed rail, which was not invented in America and is run by socialists with subsidies in Europe and Japan.

  7. Dave February 17, 2016 at 6:12 am #

    Chicken-and-egg question: It’s been so long since I read “The Power Broker” that I can’t remember if Robert Moses knew that his projects needed to be awe-inspiring in order to get built, or if he first used the power of the purse to get his projects built and then fashioned on top some awe-inspiring design in order to sell it to the holdouts.