Points of View

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


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A black line cuts smoothly across a gaping river and curves artfully around uncouth hills. It skirts the streets of Salem and Lynn and skims over the Saugus salt marsh before coming to an end at the Mystic River. This is the route of a planned railroad between Chelsea and Beverly, Massachusetts, drawn in 1836 by an engineer named Browne for the merchant and philanthropist Thomas H. Perkins. Like the many other route surveys drafted during the country’s early railroad boom, the map has an elegant single-mindedness. It cares only for geography. It explains each curve in the tracks with a knob to be dodged or a village to be served.

How we view infrastructure says a lot about how we think about infrastructure.

Nearly a century later, the now-iconic London Underground diagram appeared. The labored line of the railroad as it negotiated the countryside is gone, replaced by smooth vectors coursing at zero, 45, or 90 degrees over a blank background. There is no terrain save for the broad stroke of the Thames. The Underground’s odd alignments along medieval streets, its awkward transfers between platforms in endless winding tubes vanish. For the first time, the sprawling, incomprehensible metropolis looks like a single entity, a network of places drawn into a whole.

The two radically different maps reveal how society’s understanding of the railroad changed. In 1836, a railroad connecting point A to B was a triumph of engineering over nature. In 1933, a mass of railroads girding the world’s secondlargest city was a triumph of organization. The Underground, its map proclaimed, was not a collection of stations and platforms and trains but a frictionless system of movement, unmolested by the crowded, messy realities of the street level.

A few years ago, I found myself teaching a college course about infrastructure. In gathering images for my lectures, I began to be fascinated by the diversity of approaches to visualizing the subject. Architecture’s plans, sections, elevations, and perspectives have changed little in the past centuries, constrained by drawing-board technology and the need to communicate clearly with client and contractor. Infrastructure is drawn, photographed, mapped, and diagrammed by artists, engineers, and laypeople. These depictions necessarily crop the subject and frame a subjective view, revealing attitudes about scale, technology, and urban growth.

Among those attitudes, three broad themes emerged, to some degree based in an evolving historical context, but all continuing to influence how we think about infrastructure. Understanding these three themes — the sublime, the ingenious, and the systemic — is essential to any effort to shape a public consensus on the infrastructure needs of the 21st century.

The Sublime

The Industrial Revolution created the demand, and the necessary technology, for modern infrastructure. Not since the Roman Empire had man-made constructions spanned the length and breadth of Europe’s landscapes. Companies scrambled for capital to lay the turnpikes, canals, and railroads that carried raw materials and agricultural products to urban factories and markets. Engineers designed ever-larger bridges, cuts, locks, tunnels, and viaducts to carry these lines of transportation across the countryside. Docks and shipyards expanded to accommodate larger ships and increasing trade, and embankments carried the city right to the water’s edge. Giant mills and factories sprang up in what had been rural hamlets, while railway tracks and stations cut into the heart of old cities.

What all these changes had in common was a dramatic increase in physical scale. In England, the first country to industrialize, views of aqueducts, bridges, and industrial sites had become common subjects for artists by the early 1800s. These pictures almost always included animal and human figures to emphasize their commanding physical presence.

The first massive public-works undertaking in the US was the Erie Canal, completed in 1825. The canal opened up the country’s wild interior, popularized by romantic painters such as Thomas Cole. But the scale of its engineering also made the canal itself a source of sublime imagery. An 1826 view of the deep cut at Lockport, for example, is drawn from the perspective of a canal boat gliding beneath sheer, steep walls.

Throughout the 20th century, the view of infrastructure slowly shifted from heroically engineered megaprojects to minutely managed systems — from the miraculous to the mundane.

An etching published shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 shows the remarkable visual effect of such megaprojects on the cityscape. The bridge’s cables, deck, and distant tower dwarf a narrow street in Lower Manhattan. The modest old house in the center of the picture seems hemmed in by telegraph poles and wires, and just to its left, a façade advertises “machinery.” In the foreground is a man at work and a horsecart. The picture renders at street level the city’s transformation by the machinery that brought the bridge and the telegraph network into being, overwhelming the older city built with human and animal muscle. In the previous decade, Caillebotte, Manet, and Monet had painted the railway in Paris with a similar sense of rapid change, with an interest in the poetic, rather than nostalgic, possibilities of the new landscape.

The scale of engineering around the turn of the century was a perfect match for the emerging medium of photography. The camera’s ability to depict large-scale scenes in great detail was put to use on projects from sewers to subways. Photos of the construction of the Wachusett Dam in Clinton, Massachusetts, then the largest in the world, appeared on postcards and in an issue of Scientific American. Pictures from extreme environments most people will never see firsthand — giant valve chambers, unfinished tunnel shafts, remote oil platforms, vast solar and wind arrays — are now common, but the ever-increasing scale of these works continues to provide sublimely compelling visuals.

The Ingenious

Infrastructure is, among other things, the large-scale deployment of a technology. In the Victorian era, infrastructure itself was high technology, and depictions commonly celebrated the complexity and technical sophistication of its construction. Engineered environments were the new wonders of the world; when the Parisian sewer network built under Baron Haussmann opened in the 1850s, upper-class tourists flocked to tour it in special boating parties.

The emergence of engineering as a distinct profession paralleled a proliferation of technical graphics. In the design drawings of the period, one can see a shift from the richly textured etchings of the Victorians to a more sober, diagrammatic style, perhaps expressing the engineer’s new role as a quantitative designer and technocrat.

But it was the growth of mass-circulation magazines and newspapers later in the century, driven by increased literacy, railroad distribution, and machine printing and papermaking that created a demand for popular imagery, including the latest advances in technology. Even though destined for quick consumption by a lay public, the draftsmanship of many of these images is exquisite. By the early 20th century, elaborate perspective sections and cutaway views had become a common device for showing city-building networks of subways, pneumatic tubes, and electric cables in all their wondrous complexity. David Macaulay’s Underground, first published in 1976 and still in print, and Kate Ascher’s The Works (2005) continue this tradition of detailed graphic explanation for a wide audience.

The Systemic

Throughout the 20th century, the view of infrastructure slowly shifted from heroically engineered megaprojects to minutely managed systems. The provision of water, sanitation, and safe power at little cost to the citizen went from miraculous to mundane, and governments focused on expanding and centralizing their existing systems rather than building new ones. Regional agencies were created to deliver clean water and protect its sources, while giant interceptor sewers delivered an entire city’s wastewater to a few large treatment plants. Power plants were joined into grids that eventually crossed national borders. New communication technologies — the telegraph followed by telephony and broadcasting — were not municipal enterprises but national and global networks whose very utility was based on linkage to faraway places. Giant ships and airplanes plied global routes on fixed, frequent schedules. The federal government oversaw the building of a coast-to-coast network of highways engineered to exacting standards, making transport a matter of time, not possibility.

The network view, embodied so presciently in the London Tube map, still dominates today, to the degree that the terms “infrastructure” and “network” are almost inseparable. We rarely see the many processes and personnel needed to keep infrastructural systems functioning smoothly. We rely more than ever on operations we know less about: who, before the blackout of 2003, would have thought trees falling on power lines in Ohio could plunge all of New York City, Toronto, and a half-dozen other major cities into darkness, interrupt their water supplies and communication networks, and shut down their roads and rails?

As the complex and conditional nature of such systems becomes clear, another, more organic view of infrastructure is emerging. The Internet has demonstrated that we can co-opt networks with open-source and user-authored content. GPS trace data can show the tracks of individual users, equipment, and vehicles. Animations reveal the dynamic nature of systems. Even the venerable Tube map has been reconstituted and remixed in recent years in online animations showing its morph from system map to true geography and back again, as well as rearranging the whole system based on travel time from a specific station. This sort of dynamic mapping is the future of network representation. With it will come new insights into the systems and structures that support our well-being and our economy, and perhaps even a desire to reconfigure a century-old legacy of infrastructure around the needs of a fast-moving, information-based society.

Who could picture that?

Top image: Rail-road route from Old Ferry Wharf, Chelsea to Beverly, 1836. Courtesy Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

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