Books and Site Work: more thoughts on infrastructure

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


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Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

By Anthony Flint—Random House, 2009

If you’re intrigued by the epic battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in 1960s Manhattan, you’ve probably read both Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert Caro’s 1974 The Power Broker. But these books address the battles only indirectly. In Wrestling with Moses, Anthony Flint supplies the missing piece: a journalistic account of how Jacobs, the improbable underdog, actually fought and won them — and eventually the war, too.

The debate wasn’t just about whether to destroy the West Village in order to save it or to blast an elevated highway across Lower Manhattan. It was about competing ideas of city-making, fought between two burning souls who each believed they had the city’s welfare at heart.

Moses the master builder, the most powerful public official never elected to office, believed in modernization at any cost. He built parks and affordable housing but not transit; he wanted to make New York safe for cars. He was deft at building momentum and garnering federal funding. He believed you had to start quickly before opposition could mobilize.

Jacobs, an unschooled housewife from Scranton, used observation and common sense to understand cities better than the professional planners and found herself in the vanguard of a movement. She thought cities should be treated the way she renovated her Hudson Street house: carefully, one self-installed bathroom fixture at a time.

Flint tells an absorbing David-and- Goliath tale, describing planning issues engagingly for a wider audience. He tries to be fair toward Moses, but he clearly favors Jacobs — just as history has. An epilogue reviews their legacies lightly and evenhandedly. Moses long ago fell from grace. He made the wrong bet on the automobile. Corrupted by power, his methods became increasingly unsavory. He is only now being cautiously re-appraised as we face more ambitious urban infrastructure needs than public officials can deliver.

In contrast, by the time Jacobs died in 2006, she was lionized in the planning schools she once attacked, the “blighted” streets of Greenwich Village had become precious, and many cities were erasing their expressways and super-blocks, which only accelerated the decline they aimed to arrest. Jacobs has now become a kind of Moses herself, Death and Life her stone tablets.

But her legacy of citizen activism unleashed furies that bedevil us today. Inspired by Jacobs, neighbors oppose any change at all, even though her walkable urbanism is now planning orthodoxy. It’s become fashionable to credit her with too much. The emerging knowledge economy has validated her insights in ways she perhaps foresaw, but didn’t cause.

One only wishes Flint wrestled with Moses — and Jacobs — a bit more. The question he leaves hanging in the air is how we can synthesize their divergent virtues to shape cities for their coming challenges.

The Works: Anatomy of a City

By Kate Ascher; research by Wendy Marech; designed by Alexander Isley Inc.—The Penguin Press, 2005

In the wake of the September 11 attack on New York City, Kate Ascher followed its effects on the city’s infrastructure, some of which came to a complete halt. This dramatic event caused her to consider the value of the mundane: how the city moves people and freight, supplies power and communications, and keeps itself clean. A former Port Authority employee and executive vice president for infrastructure at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Ascher delved deep into the guts of NYC to write The Works: Anatomy of a City.

Each day, we perform simple, mindless tasks such as flipping light switches, flushing the toilet, or taking out the trash. “Largely invisible and almost always taken for granted, these are the basic building blocks of urban life,” Ascher says of the systems that sustain our cities and proves that infrastructure isn’t a boring topic, after all. Imagine cutting a huge crosssection through a city, exposing its hidden inner workings: the subway and automobile tunnels, the sewer systems, the telecom lines. With the aid of exquisite color diagrams and illustrations, Ascher breaks down infrastructure into six easily digestible sections: Moving People, Moving Freight, Power, Communications, Keeping It Clean, and the Future.

The Works is full of interesting facts that make for great cocktail-party ice-breakers: Do you know what happens to retired subway cars? (They’re dumped on artificial reefs and become homes for sea mollusks and fish.) Have you ever wondered how the ceilings of tunnels are cleaned? (By giant electrical toothbrush trucks!) Why do radiators clang? (Water drops condensed from steam, called “traveling slugs,” slam at the turns of a pipe.) So that you can really impress your friends, it also includes keys to decode repair crews’ spray-painted street symbols, the meanings behind manhole-cover designs, and exactly what those subway signals indicate.

Ascher contrasts old systems with their modern equivalents. For example, between 1897 and 1953, mail in NYC was transported by the Pneumatic Tube Mail Network, a system of underground pipes featuring steel cylinders that were greased and blown from Herald Square to Grand Central in four minutes. Modern mail is electronically scanned and bar-coded before being delivered, a process that takes much longer than four minutes. Despite all the obscure and interesting facts Ascher uncovered in her research, the most surprising topic to her was simple electricity: “Considering all that is involved in its production and delivery, it’s amazing that it works 99.9% of the time.”

A coffee-table book as well as a detailed reference guide, The Works is a fascinating read for young adults and professionals alike. Although The Works is NYC-centric, most of the topics explored apply to any large city and will surely appeal to the geek within each of us.

Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig

By J. Meejin Yoon with Meredith Miller—MAP Book Publishers, 2008; distributed by DAP

The response from the architectural community to the Big Dig since its completion has been minimal. In part, this is due to the marginal contribution that architecture plays in the overall Big Dig schema. The tunnel is a transportation success but is not inherently an architectural proposition: it is an infrastructural space of speed and utility. Above ground, the desires of the architectural community to stitch the interrupted urban fabric back together with buildings were quashed by both the open-space advocates and the economic realities of building over the tunnel. Relative to the scale of the Big Dig, the architecture is tangential.

Into this gap comes Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig by J. Meejin Yoon, Meredith Miller, and MY Studio: a welcome provocation regarding the design of the new openspace territory created by submerging the Central Artery. Not quite a “book,” this work is more an annotated exhibition of Big Dig data, analyses, and hypothetical design proposals in bound form. There are six interrelated themes explored that range from park space and infrastructure to service buildings and urban furniture. Public Works succeeds at collecting data about the Big Dig and illustrating the information in clear analytic diagrams. This information alone makes this work a valuable reference both for facts regarding the Big Dig and for graphic strategies for “visualizing information” in the spirit of Edward Tufte.

In Public Works, the data-cum-analyses form the basis and rationale for a series of design proposals meant to augment and intensify the experience of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Embodied in this collection of speculative interventions is an overly polite critique of the Greenway and its superficial relationship to both the surrounding city and the infrastructure below. What emerges from Yoon and Miller’s series of interventions is a dynamic, digitally controlled environment that can adapt to the user, the program, and the urban context. These slightly subversive interventions, however, rarely transcend their diagrammatic state. They do not possess the rigorous specificity of MY Studio’s previous successful projects that combine sophisticated sensors with public interaction in urban environments. Instead, these projects for the Greenway remain mere impressions of a future techno-landscape.

More importantly, however, Public Works is an invitation to the architectural community to think critically about the resultant architecture and urbanism of the Greenway now that the city has started to recuperate from the construction failures, budget overruns, and political wrangling that has dominated the public discourse about the Big Dig. As a confluence of data, analysis, and design, Public Works suggests that the public spaces of the Big Dig have only just begun to emerge, that they have significant unrealized potential, and that architects need to engage them with innovation and imagination.

Site Work: websites of note

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Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point

Perhaps the best summary of the state of US infrastructure today, and a cogent call for “a total revamping of how the country plans, funds, and implements infrastructure programs.” An excellent resource from the Urban Land Institute.

The Transport Politic

Wondering what other cities have in the works for mass transit? Or what projects are getting financed — or not — and why? Here’s a blog for the transit-obsessives among you.

Visualizing the U.S. Electric Grid

This fascinating map-based website, originally developed for an NPR story, delivers what it promises, as it links the local and familiar with a view of national networks, including alternative energy efforts.

The Mannahatta Project

“Ever wondered what New York was like before it was a city?” A digital reconstruction of Manhattan’s forests, streams, and meadows — the ecological infrastructure that came before the built variety.

Tunnel Networks

The Paris catacombs, the Disney Magic Kingdom tunnels… who is not intrigued by the under-world? Check them out, and then go play on the rest of the Oobject site. This list of lists includes such treasures as 15 high-speed trains, 10 obsolete web browsers, 12 inhabited bridges, 12 stunning rooftop gardens…

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Want to know what the House of Representatives is doing about the nation’s infrastructure? News, reports, webcasts of hearings — it’s all here.

The Infrastructurist

“America Under Construction.” A smart, irreverent blog for those who are weirdly fascinated by all things infrastructure, as well as resources including train talk with Michael Dukakis, a field guide to highway intersections (spooeys, anyone?), and the incomparable gallery of cell towers pretending to be trees.

We’re always looking for intriguing websites — however rusty the connection to architecture. Send your candidates to:

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