Out On A Limb

October 26, 2010

The mind-boggling decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to cancel the largest infrastructure project in America has brought much-needed attention to a problem that is worsening by the day–infrastructure collapse. One commentator suggested that state and federal transportation agencies were facing a Solomonic choice: cut spending for pension programs, or neglect the needed repairs to roads, bridges, rail systems, and other vital pieces of the infrastructure that are wearing out. Talk about a “lose lose” situation.

The impressive infrastructure that everyone is talking about was constructed largely between the heyday of the Progressive Era after 1900, and the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Even during the darkest years of the Depression and the height of the war effort in Europe and the Pacific, America’s large infrastructure projects were maintained with wide public support.

That is not true today, and hasn’t been for decades. Not only has the country shrunk from building new systems such as the light rail and high-speed trains that are now common in Europe and Asia; it has also neglected needed repairs and upgrades in the fine but aging systems that our forefathers provided. As a new book by Barry LePatner, a New York attorney, points out, public officials are putting this country on a track to  disaster that is unprecedented.

A recent piece on the NTSB findings about the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is startlingly clear about the political and social malaise that has prevented needed action on these issues. Rather than analyzing the myriad causes of the disaster, and identifying all of the pertinent agencies and actors who contributed to it, the “official” report blames the collapse on a single flaw: the thickness of a few gusset plates. Le Patner even points out that the engineering profession, already in the doldrums, will be hurt by the report’s conclusions, just when we need competent professionals the most. The same has been true of the status of architects, planners, construction companies, and all of the important players in a potential infrastructure renewal initiative.

The shocking thing about the NTSB report, and the boneheaded Christie decision, is that our politicians are bent on blaming others for their own failures to act in the interest of citizens. Our environment is in peril, and not just the natural one. We are out on a limb that is severely bent and ready to break. Rather than helping to support or repair it, our leaders are busy sawing it off.

Back in the 1960s, when humans thought it would be possible to colonize the moon by the year 2000, architects began designing cities that might be built as if they were huge buildings, using advanced technologies that were “just around the corner.” The Metabolists in Japan, Archigram in London and Paolo Soleri in the Arizona desert created wonderful visions of this Buck Rogers future, many looking as if they had leaped from the pages of a science fiction novel. By the 1980s, following the first great energy crisis, nobody expected these utopian colonies to see the light of day. They were too big, too expensive, and wildly wasteful of energy.

Curiously, as the earth faces a second energy crisis much scarier than the first, one of these “megastructure” cities has in fact been realized on a scale even larger than futurists dreamed would be possible. Its designer, Sir Norman Foster, still believes that technology will lead to happiness and man will conquer the natural environment with machines. He ought to be driving one of those mechanized creatures that attacked the natives in “Avatar.”

The elevated streets of Masdar, a new city in Abu Dhabi, U.A.R. will make one feel as if transported into a Star Trek movie, albeit in the desert regions frequented only by the likes of Jabba the Hutt. Touring the new city prior to its “opening,” Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times was skeptical for a change. He compared the place to a giant “gated community” in southern California. Will Foster’s natural cooling towers really create a temperate microclimate in a desert that can reach 120 degree F. on an average day? Will a city built like a shopping mall on top of a parking garage really prove sustainable when oil reaches $400 a barrel? Can a few brown stucco walls with picturesque balconies convince Arabs that they are living in a traditional village when they are surrounded by alienating technological gimmicks? How will residents take to riding in tiny cars that are based on Bucky Fuller designs of the 1950s when they are used to luxurious Mercedes limos?

Like most of the obscenely expensive mega-projects that starchitects designed during the real estate bubble, this one is already a white elephant. Only a small fraction of the infrastructure is complete, and it looks as if the one residential building in town will not attract a big crowd. As of March, 2010, only one tenant had leased commercial space in town. The solar energy plant was producing a fraction of its projected power(too many dust storms), forcing the developers to buy electricity from other sources. Foster has laid off 2/3 of his staff during the downturn, so it appears he will not be designing the rest of Masdar anytime soon. The oil rich U.A.R. has run out of cash, and building a Foster megastructure takes a lot of dough, as the Hong Kong Bank found out in the 1980s.

In short, there is nothing “sustainable” about this colossal folly 20 miles from the Emerald City of Abu Dhabi. The money for its construction was waste of resources. As economies shrink and architects confront a new ecological imperative, small projects will proliferate while megastructures languish, eventually becoming ruins. To find our way to a balance with nature during the next century, humans will need to “design with nature,” as Ian McHarg put it. This tragic enterprise, based upon wildly conjectural concepts and bogus science, may well convince the architectural community that Masdar’s 20th-century concepts of the future were as unrealistic as the fictional inventions of Tom Swift, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. The only things  “mega” about Masdar will be its price tag, and its eventual downfall.  Paradoxically, during the next century, to think big we will have to build small.