ArchitectureBoston

Letters

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 30, 2010

We want to hear from you. Letters may be posted online, e-mailed or sent to ArchitectureBoston, 52 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. Letters may be edited for clarity and length, and must include your name, address, and daytime telephone number. Length should not exceed 300 words.

Download article as PDF

In “Meet the Creatives” [Fall 2009], editor Elizabeth Padjen expressed succinctly the position that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has embraced with regard to the Creative Economy: “… support of the arts is not indulgence; it is vital to fostering creative thinking and the innovation that fuels our economic system.”

Massachusetts’ revolutionary spirit has led to over 400 years of innovations across all sectors of the economy, and the driving force behind those innovations is creative thinkers. Governor Patrick has emphasized the growth of the creative industries as key to our innovation-economy efforts by appointing the first-ever Creative Economy Industry Director and signing the Creative Economy Council Bill. We have forged key collaborations with creative industries, including the launch of the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA), which connects the design community with policy-makers and leading industries.

Bridging the gap between our creative talent and business people, industrialists, technology experts, entrepreneurs, academicians, and the entire innovation ecosystem will help maintain Massachusetts’ rightful place as one of the leading “ideas” economies of the world. It also helps ensure that the design talent that comes to Massachusetts for a world-class design education stays on to work in the design professions in the Commonwealth. This is why we’re excited about DIGMA’s upcoming “Design and Innovation” events as a way to expose many of our other industries to the innovation that can come from “design thinking.” We hope these sessions will not only be the beginning of a sustained conversation about the importance of design to the growth of businesses across the spectrum, but will also eventually put more of our designers to work by growing jobs both within and outside the design industries.

The Creative Economy [Fall 2009] is a powerful catalyst for innovation in our science- and technology-based industries. This belief has guided our work at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s John Adams Innovation Institute in the context of seminal projects that have nurtured and strengthened our Creative Economy. These efforts have included a key conference organized by The Salem Partnership; assistance to the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, leading to the establishment of Berkshire Creative; and involvement in an initiative by Massachusetts College of Art and Design that led to the founding of the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA).

In addition to appreciating their intrinsic value for the human condition, the expression of the spirit, and the building of the symbolic and material worlds around us, the Creative Economy industries and professions are fundamental to the vitality of the Massachusetts innovation economy. As Beate Becker comments [in “Industrial Strength” ], David Edwards convincingly argues [in “Catalytic Converter” ], and Peter MacDonald illustrates [in “Arts & Minds” ], we know that when artistic creativity, design thinking, and science and engineering expertise come together, visions emerge of novel products with exceptional form and function. This is why opportunities and spaces for interaction among artists, designers, scientists, and engineers are so important. And this is why education in the arts, design, and the humanities starting in K-12 is as important as science, technology, engineering, and math.

Congratulations to ArchitectureBoston and to the individuals and organizations featured in the Creative Economy issue who work hard every day to transform the Creative Economy industries and professions from our best-kept secret into one of Massachusetts’ most important assets in the global economy.

Thank you for the article “The Creative Entrepreneur” [Fall 2009]. I appreciate your recognition of the often-overlooked importance of creative businesses. As a consultant to creative companies in the Boston area, I relish the validation that your article provides.

As creative professionals, we often work more nimbly, networking with other creatives to form business task teams, and then dismantling them when they are no longer needed. Our efficiency, innovativeness, and aesthetic impact are exceptionally valuable to communities. However, despite this, we still work primarily in silos and, as such, lack the social and political power that brings recognition and benefits.

I hope that this article will inspire others as it has inspired me to make a commitment to working more collectively with other creative entrepreneurs to assure that our voices are heard in unison.

The Creative Entrepreneur” by Christine Sullivan and Shelby Hypes [Fall 2009] provoked many thoughts as I reflected on my own journey as a sole proprietor.

Those who enter the Creative Economy do so for reasons beyond financial prosperity. Most have very little business knowledge or experience; with eyes firmly set on creative goals, they rarely understand the true risks involved. They have heard about “cash flow” but did not realize that it may mean long periods of time between earning and receiving their income. When new opportunities disappear with a downturn in the economy, they wonder what will happen next. In the present economic situation, many are experiencing the downside of the high risk = high reward equation.

The article illuminated common misconceptions, including the fact that sole proprietors are not counted in the state economic reports (perhaps 20 percent of the workforce). Without this data, how can we understand the true state of the economy? How can we gauge the economic recovery without this knowledge?

What should the government do? Personally, I do not want to be “bailed out.” I would prefer more creative solutions to keep struggling sole proprietors solvent, such as restructuring tax laws to use current revenues to estimate taxes, rather than past years’ (higher) figures; simplifying the process of hiring employees for small businesses; and carefully studying the impact proposed mandates would have on small business (and job) growth.

Most importantly, as creative entrepreneurs, we need to collaborate to help each other thrive as business owners. In bad economies, new businesses often flourish: the newly unemployed often find the smallest opportunity may be enough to begin a new firm, like a forest regrowing after a wildfire. We need to be there to help them grow, through mentoring and knowledge-sharing.

I was delighted to see your broad coverage of the Creative Economy in the Fall 2009 issue. As the president of Midcoast Magnet, a Creative Economy networking organization based in Camden, Maine, I am very tuned in to the relationship of people and places. Camden is a short sail down the coast from Northport, home of Swans Island Blankets featured in Deborah Weisgall’s “Arts & Minds” article.

With companies like Swans Island Blankets as an example, Maine is becoming a great place to do business. We have hardworking, creative people who can now compete on a global basis while choosing to live in one of the most picturesque environments on the planet. One of the challenges we have is in re-purposing the existing buildings that give Maine some of its character to meet the needs of a 21stcentury place of business. At the same time, architects and builders in Maine are challenged with renovating our aging housing stock to meet the demands of environmentally-conscious consumers while protecting the historical architectural palette that helps to define the Maine brand.

In November, Camden will host the Juice 2.0 Creative Economy conference [“Building Maine’s Innovation Networks,” http://www.juiceconference.org], which will weave together the arts and culture, along with technology and entrepreneurship. With over 40 breakout sessions featuring the best of Maine businesses, we’ll be developing creative networks and discussing issues related to quality of place and entrepreneurship. I invite your readers to join us!

I just received the Fall 2009 issue of ArchitectureBoston. By what stroke of good luck someone put me on your mailing list, I will never know. But your publication is always an eye-opener. As an architect in both New York and Hartford, the view you present of Boston and Boston-area design is significant. In short: the quality of the design work is generally higher by a long shot than the design work in New York, and certainly in the Hartford-New Haven area. That says something good about Harvard, MIT, and the other Boston-based design schools.

Points of View

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

09_winter_baldwin

Download article as PDF

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.

Tagged with: ,

Surface Road

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

Other Voices

Surface Road. Photo by Mary Ross

Download article as PDF

A block of Surface Road runs through downtown Boston unmarked by any plaque. No one visits. It’s a silent memorial. This is where, in the spring of 2006, the last piece of the Central Artery was finally pulled down.

We all know why the Artery had to go: it was hideous, congested, misconceived. An icon of everything wrong with mid-century urban planning.

And I miss it.

Twenty years ago, I would drive into Boston, and it was the strangest and most spectacular thing I had experienced in a car: you would rocket through downtown three stories in the air, weaving among office buildings like a 1940s vision of the future. If you walked on the street below, the Artery was a looming presence, almost geological, cupping a whole realm of the city in shadow. If you got trapped in traffic, which happened a lot, you were captive to a panoramic view.

The Artery was a rusting eyesore, but it was something else as well: the grandest and most unapologetic piece of infrastructure in the city. With the Artery above and the subways thrumming below, downtown Boston evoked the busy optimism of another time — crowds of men with hats; tubes and ribbons of people at every level flowing through the city.

To look back at newspapers from the 1950s and see the color drawings of the young Artery is a revelation: it was a clean highway in the sky, magically stitching the city’s streets into the young American interstate system. When the magnificent thing finally appeared, it wasn’t alone overhead. The Green Line straddling Causeway Street on its muscular viaduct, the elevated trolley down Washington — the city wore its transit like a brace.

Today, the sign that we value a city, or a neighborhood, is that its infrastructure is invisible: if you want to see where the rich people live, look where the power lines aren’t. If you are like me, and you like to see the joints and sinews as well as the surface, you have to visit Boston’s lingering industrial zones, or hunt underground — the inexplicably grand Courthouse Silver Line station; the strange, derelict telephone network inside the Red Line tunnels. Cities are being re-imagined as charming and walkable, as though the massive roads and tracks that feed them were secondary, not essential.

People did not always feel this way about their infrastructure. In ancient Rome, fresh water traveled from the mountains in magnificent arched aqueducts that still inspire awe; once in the city, it sprang from grandiose fountains and baths as if to announce: This is how we became Rome.

Today, we have a system that beggars even Rome’s, yet the water slips quietly through a conduit beneath Boston College, a marvel of engineering that’s not only unmarked, but also unfindable. It would be impossible to imagine an electrical transformer proudly displayed in a public park. And the greatest supply of all, the human beings who are the oxygen of the city itself, now flow invisibly beneath South Station and flash back into the sun once they’re safely out of downtown. When they’re trapped in traffic, they see not the fabric of Boston, but the walls of the buried vein that shunts them beneath it.

I’ll admit that over time, after I moved here, I came to hate the Artery, too: its gnarled spine, its seemingly permanent rust, the way it shook beneath your wheels when trucks went by. Whatever the flaws of the Greenway, it’s hard to imagine capping off its open sky with a new steel overpass.

We can dismiss the old Artery, but we can’t dismiss what it meant. A moment when to be modern meant to look proudly on the achievements that got us here, to be proud of all the pipes and not just the pretty brick streetscapes they nourish — to stand in wonder at the truly wondrous thing.

Stephen Heuser is the deputy editor for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

Photo by Mary Ross.

A Bridge to Somewhere

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

09_winter_roundtable_1

The Case for a National Infrastructure Policy

Download article as PDF

Filling potholes and making trains run on time is not enough.

Elizabeth Padjen: Over the last year, infrastructure has become associated in the public mind with the federal stimulus package and, as a result, the phrase “shovel-ready” has become the measure of good infrastructure or, at least, infrastructure that we’ll support. Which means that timing is the real yardstick for determining what gets built. That is obviously not a good way to make policy, nevertheless it seems to be what’s driving the public discussion right now. Do you detect any real impetus or any real desire to develop a cohesive infrastructure policy?

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program is not just an indication of infrastructure policy — it was driven by a different goal: creating and retaining jobs. The decision to fund shovel-ready projects was a means to an entirely different end, the end being getting people back to work quickly. It was completely divorced from whether infrastructure had any inherent value or not. A lot of people say to me, “Why are you spending all this money on a bunch of paving projects?” It’s an absolutely legitimate question for everyone except for the unemployed person who now has a job paving roads. In that person’s mind, that’s a completely legitimate project. But even though this was conceived as a jobs program, each of the projects itself has value.

Hubert Murray: Just as taxes are supposed to be the price of civilization, I think infrastructure is the cement that holds our civilization together. The crisis in infrastructure — the disrepair — is a manifestation of a lack of faith in our public realm, which we had in the past, say, in the 1930s, when money went to the construction of highways and dams and electrical grids. That issue, which is both political and philosophical, has to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about the nature of the infrastructure that we need to hold us together or how to pay for it.

Elizabeth Padjen: A couple of years ago, Sarah, you wrote an essay for The New Republic that I still think is one of the smartest pieces about infrastructure that I’ve read. It appeared right after the bridge collapse in Minnesota and the Con Edison steam pipe bursting in New York. You said, “Infrastructure is one crucial point at which politics and architecture merge.” Nothing’s really happened since you wrote that piece.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: That’s not exactly true; a lot has actually happened. The tagline of my article, which I had nothing to do with, was “Making Infrastructure Sexy.” And now infrastructure is part of the public discussion. But it’s all about putting fingers in dikes — the shovel-ready projects that are connected to stimulus. The Obama administration has lots of good intentions, but I don’t see anyone articulating what steps need to be taken to realize the goals that most people agree are necessary for a humane 21st-century urbanism: denser communities, pedestrianfriendly development, and multiple, overlapping, regional transportation systems incorporating air, fast rail, and automobile.

I think Hubert is right — nobody has faith in the public realm. But a larger issue is that the infrastructure problems we now have cannot be solved by the current political system, which is balkanized into municipalities and state systems and the federal system. Infrastructural problems now are regional: they cross municipal and state lines. That means that discussions about infrastructure must include not only big visions but also concrete plans for implementation.

09_winter_roundtable_2

Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

David Luberoff: “Infrastructure” is a word that really didn’t come into play until the ’80s; before then, we had what was called “public works.” It’s very hard to get people excited about infrastructure, because it’s a conceptual word. But there are elements of infrastructure that people really like: people love trains, people love bridges. We lose something when we talk about infrastructure, although the word does capture the sense of these networks and systems that bind us together.

Sarah’s right that they’re a hodgepodge not only at different levels of government but also between public and private sectors. The telecommunications infrastructure is almost purely private, subject to public regulation, somewhat similar to electrical infrastructure. The transportation infrastructure is a mix — we provide the roads, but the cars are privately owned; we provide airports for private airlines. On the other hand, outside of the Northeast Corridor, publicly owned Amtrak trains generally use privately owned tracks.

Infrastructure is critical to regional economic development, and there’s a long history in the United States of trying to figure out whether this is a national or a regional responsibility. For the most part, we’ve regionalized most of the important forms of infrastructure, such as roads, airports, sewage treatment. But I suspect we’ll never create a cohesive regional infrastructure system, because in the American political system, we tend to solve problems one at a time. So when a crisis emerges, the response tends to be to turn it over to a regional entity, and often to govern it in such a way that is supposed to remove it from day-to-day politics by creating authorities, such as Massport, to run airports, or the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, to run water and wastewater treatment systems.

Elizabeth Padjen: One of the most enduring symbols of infrastructure implemented on the national level is the interstate highway system, which may also represent the last time there was a significant national focus on infrastructure. If we think of infrastructure as providing some kind of public good that will support economic activity and health and welfare for all of the people, are we working off old definitions and an outdated understanding of infrastructure? We now have new technologies that weren’t even imagined when the highway system was developed.

David Lazer: You just said the last big national effort was the highway system, but what about the Internet? Doesn’t that qualify as infrastructure? I’d say absolutely yes. Obviously, it’s revolutionary, but what makes it especially interesting in this discussion is its potential interplay with more traditional forms of infrastructure. For example, it allows us to collect information in a very decentralized fashion so we can use our existing infrastructure more efficiently or develop a new infrastructure that is smarter. We talk about having a smarter electricity grid. Well, one way of dealing with peak load, rather than building more electricity plants, is to program everyone’s thermostats to be sensitive to peak loads so they’ll all turn off when it’s really hot. Similarly, we can now track road use, which can lead to more efficient transportation systems. And the SENSEable City Lab at MIT has developed devices to understand trash flow. There’s a growing effort to apply data-driven processes to the use and design of infrastructure.

David Luberoff: In addition to the Internet, I would mention the parallel construction of the cellular telephone system. It has had obvious implications for traditional infrastructure, but also tremendous implications for where people are in space and time. If we are always connected, that is probably as powerfully transformative as a lot of traditional infrastructure, whether the automobile/highway system or the mass transit system. It’s less obvious because we don’t see it.

David Lazer: That’s right. With an iPhone, you have the Internet and GPS in your pocket. Suddenly people can interact with infrastructure in entirely different ways. They are more actively involved in decision-making on the personal level, such as where to drive or when to turn on the air-conditioning at home, as well as simply reporting information.

Hubert Murray: We need to think about why we are building infrastructure in the first place. The examples you’re giving of modern technology as infrastructure represent an infrastructure that supports individuation. These are centrifugal forces in society, whereas a couple of generations ago, we were talking about bridges, highways, tunnels, even airports, that brought us together as a society. Is it any coincidence that this beautiful object, the iPhone, is blossoming simultaneously with the collapse of our common infrastructure, our bridges and our tunnels and our streets?

Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. Anne Whiston Spirn FASLA

David Luberoff: I would argue that the bridges and roads were a decentralizing force in their time. There was this new technology — the automobile. The car was the iPhone of its time — the technology that everybody wanted.

Anne Whiston Spirn: It’s not just the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to bridges and highways, but the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to the public telephones that used to exist throughout our cities and towns. Have you tried to find one lately? A lot of people can’t afford a cell phone. Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. We see that especially in communication infrastructure, with access to high-speed Internet in some parts of the country and not in others, and even within some city neighborhoods but not others. Which means that certain kinds of economic activity are not going to occur in the areas that are not well-served.

Elizabeth Padjen: The Rural Electrification Project in this country was at some level a social-justice exercise, providing federal funding in support of a national goal to be implemented locally by private electrical companies. Today we largely leave the new technology networks to private enterprise, in terms of decisions about location, markets, and coverage. I have an aunt who lives just outside Madison, Wisconsin, and has dial-up service. It drives her crazy. Verizon is bringing 4G service to Boston and Seattle — logical rollout cities, from a private enterprise point of view — but when is that ever going to get to my aunt?

Jeffrey Simon: You don’t even have to go that far. Massachusetts has submitted an application under the Recovery Act to bring broadband technology to the western part of the state. Broadband is in place as far out as Route 91, but beyond that, as soon as you leave the Mass Pike, there’s nothing. There’s no G, let alone 4G. It’s shocking, especially when you think about schools and fire and police and hospitals. It’s one thing to talk about promoting medical e-records, but if you have no way to get them, it makes no sense.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The implications for national policy are enormous and the questions are tough ones. Do you subsidize new infrastructure in new areas to the same extent as funding the reconstruction of existing infrastructure that was built 100 years ago or more? Infrastructure by its very nature will structure urban development for years to come. So when we make decisions about how and where to build infrastructure, we are making decisions that are going to affect human settlement forms for centuries, as well as the lives of individuals and the well-being of communities in terms of their access to resources.

David Lazer: The issue is complicated by the simple fact that we are a large country. People like to compare infrastructure here to Europe. But it’s an unfair contest, because Europe is much smaller, with a much higher population density. Speaking very generally, you’re never going to be very far from key infrastructure in Europe, whereas we have vast tracts of rural areas. To some degree, we recognize, and even accept, that rural areas have always had inferior access to certain things. But it’s always been an interesting and important question: what should be the coverage guarantees of infrastructure? We decided, for example, that the postal system would cover everyone, regardless of the cost. And of course, if we subsidize new infrastructure, including new communication infrastructure, in the rural areas, we end up encouraging the very kind of development that many people think we should discourage.

Jeffrey Simon: Where infrastructure tends to be done especially well is where there are constraints of geography or location. I really got an appreciation for this living in Bermuda for a couple of years. Bermuda is 21 square miles: one mile wide, 20 miles long, 750 miles out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In the US, if you need to build an incinerator, people typically say put it out of town, somewhere “out there,” wherever “there” is. You can’t do that in Bermuda. Everything has to go somewhere within that 21 square miles that 60,000 people live on. So the way they approach infrastructure is very different, with a different attitude toward efficiency. They were doing sustainable development out of necessity long before the term had even been created. When all of my drinking water came off my roof, the prospect of running out was not only real but actually happened a number of times. My habits changed very quickly.

Elizabeth Padjen: Your example is a reminder of a profound change in the way we think about infrastructure now, which is sustainability. It’s an overlay that wasn’t really part of the equation 100 years ago.

09_winter_roundtable_3

Ted Williams Tunnel. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Hubert Murray: I think that global warming and the possible effects of climate change are beginning to seep into the public consciousness and give us a common purpose; and on that common purpose we can build a new infrastructure. That’s an optimistic view. Only three years ago, just before Al Gore released his film, most people were clueless about the issue. Now it’s the constant subject of tabloid newspapers and radio talk shows. A general consciousness is building up, one we have to respond to with the building of an infrastructure that goes beyond the shovel-ready, because it actually needs some thought.

Jeffrey Simon: But if I had to weigh the price of gas against globalwarming consciousness for its ability to get people mobilized quickly in the way that you’re talking about, I would go with the price of gas. You certainly could argue that the best thing we could do is to establish a five-dollar-a-gallon federal tax on gas — all of a sudden you’d find all of the incentives lining up in the right direction. But that has social impacts that are unacceptable.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Our land-use patterns are the result of social engineering through infrastructure that started in the 1930s and went through to the ’50s and ’60s. Now the discussion should be, can we use infrastructure to create the right kind of new land-use patterns without too much undesirable, class-based social fallout? That is not a discussion that I hear people having. What would those land-use patterns be? How do we get there, what do we use, and how does technology fit into all that?

David Luberoff: The danger of using infrastructure to push landuse patterns is that somebody will inevitably say, “Why am I paying for a thing I don’t want?” because infrastructure investments can create tremendous winners and big losers.

Jeffrey Simon: I think you’re right. Consumers want to see a direct connection between what they pay and what they get. We’re seeing that now with the Big Dig, which has vastly improved the quality of life in the city of Boston, despite the cost. But the decision to pay for it through turnpike tolls led a group of toll-payers, mostly from western Massachusetts, to pursue a lawsuit — they don’t see that the Big Dig is of any benefit to them.

David Luberoff: I recently read the state’s new plan for the South Coast Rail, which would extend the line from Fall River to New Bedford and is being touted as an economic-development project. We know there’s a link between infrastructure settlement patterns and economic productivity. But the South Coast Rail is going to be about a $2-billion project, and the state’s numbers say it will carry about 5,000 people a day, which is 2,500 round-trip riders. For $2 billion dollars, I could probably wire all of western Massachusetts, or make Fall River and New Bedford completely wireless. The communities that the railroads bypassed 150 years ago died. The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need?

Jeffrey Simon: You’re always making a choice. It’s always a tradeoff.

Elizabeth Padjen: But how do you make that choice?

Jeffrey Simon: It’s a difficult discussion because you’re not usually presented with the total cost of A versus the total cost of B. You’re always looking at the margin. The South Coast Rail is a good example of an infrastructure investment that relates to a number of complex issues. For example, is it worthwhile to connect Fall River and New Bedford to Boston? Probably. And it certainly encourages people to get out of their cars.

The 2,500 people who will ride the train daily are the ones who have the most direct benefit, but that’s just one side of the equation. The South Coast Rail is also part of a larger discussion about rail in New England. Governor Patrick has joined with the other New England governors to work on a regional rail initiative and to pursue federal stimulus funding to make that happen.

The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the broadband/wireless grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need? David Luberoff

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: The federal stimulus program seems to be driving a lot of discussion about rail across the country. The administration’s current focus on high-speed rail seems to be the closest thing we’ve seen to an infrastructure policy or vision.

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program gets all the publicity, but it’s not the only thing driving infrastructure spending. Massachusetts has accelerated its program to repair bridges — it seems as though you can’t drive anywhere now without seeing some bridge being worked on. Crumbling infrastructure has a huge impact on the psyche of the average citizen. The world isn’t crumbling down in the way that spalling concrete and exposed rebars might suggest, but just seeing deteriorating bridges is discouraging. Conversely, seeing them being repaired not only creates the feeling that things are getting better, but also reinforces the fact that someone cares enough about the public to fix them.

Elizabeth Padjen: Fixing bridges is one thing, welcome as that is, but don’t we really need to fix the system that disinvests in maintenance, that encourages deferred maintenance? We developed the One Percent for Arts program a long while ago. It seems to me there should be One Percent for Maintenance associated with any public investment.

Hubert Murray: The New York Review of Books recently ran an essay by Everett Ehrlich and Felix Rohatyn on the $3-trillion deficit in deferred maintenance that we have across the country. They’re proposing a new way of financing infrastructure, the National Infrastructure Bank. And I think that the new administration is listening.

David Luberoff: When agencies such as Massport that are primarily funded by user fees borrow money for big capital projects, the lenders often require that the agency keep those new facilities in a state of good repair. In contrast, maintenance of highways and bridges often comes out of the general operating budget, which means it’s an easy thing to cut. No politician ever got any votes for cutting a ribbon on a maintained bridge; you only get that with a new bridge.

I recently talked to someone at the Deer Island sewage treatment facility — a huge piece of infrastructure — who said the most striking thing about the facility is not that it was built right, but that 15 years later, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, a user-funded entity that built and operates the plant, is maintaining it right. They have a total schedule of maintenance; they can tell you when things are going to be replaced. What is fascinating here is that this is an agency that has become utterly obscure to the general public, yet has maintained a professional culture that says this thing’s got to keep working.

Jeffrey Simon: You think those two things are connected? I see it as cause and effect. The challenge is to have great professionalism combined with authentic transparency, to have professional decisions made in public and to have accountability for those decisions become the accepted practice.

David Luberoff: Sometimes it’s cause and effect, but sometimes agencies become obscure and then they become ossified.

Anne Whiston Spirn: One thing that we haven’t addressed yet is the issue of amenities. Some of the great landmarks in infrastructure are green infrastructure projects like Boston’s Riverway and the Fens, which were projects that addressed important issues like sewage, storm runoff, water quality, and new transportation routes. But they were accomplished in a way that provided tremendous public amenities.

Hubert Murray: And pride.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Yes, and pride. Which goes back to your comment about the public realm and the notion of finding ways to enhance and elevate projects that need to be implemented for all kinds of pragmatic reasons. The Denver Urban Drainage and Flood Control District is a contemporary example of the Fens and Riverway. Taxes were assessed on individual property owners in proportion to the amount of stormwater they were contributing to the system. These assessments funded the district, which then promoted projects that addressed flood control and storm drainage but also provided parks, trails, and bikeways. We tend to have tunnel vision, addressing one thing at a time and not looking at ways of combining functions. It leads to missed opportunities and frequently to greater expense.

Going back to Deer Island, I would not agree that it was the right solution, even though it seems to work fine now. There were many advocates of a more decentralized approach that would have included protecting groundwater supplies and watersheds in the region. That approach would have been much less expensive, and could have provided other amenities including parks and recreation, as well as the restoration of vacant land in urban neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester.

How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? Jeffrey Simon

Hubert Murray: The outcome might be different now. There is growing interest in decentralization, especially in terms of energy infrastructure. Typically you lose 65 percent of the power just in the distribution of electricity; it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things, although it is very efficient politically, because one decision-maker can run the show. But Woking, a city just south of London, has converted over the last few years much of its power generation to a distributed energy network, through small neighborhood power stations using alternative technologies. They are small enough that you can individually power housing projects or institutions like schools and hospitals, too. If this model takes off, you can imagine that the structure and the politics of cities will need to change accordingly.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Although maintenance might be a challenge. The one advantage to Deer Island is that it’s one facility to focus on. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, all the sewage in Boston flows out.

Elizabeth Padjen: Where does the leadership come from that can change perceptions or create a value system that is going to support something like the Denver project?

Anne Whiston Spirn: When I stepped back after writing The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, which is a series of success stories about how cities have adapted to their urban natural environments and ecosystems, I started to look for the common ingredients that made these successes happen. In almost all of them, it was response to disaster. Very few were the result of an idealist with a marvelous vision of what the city could be. Rather, it was a catastrophe that galvanized public support to rebuild and do things right. The Denver project emerged from a series of devastating floods of the Platte River — lives were lost, bridges wiped out, with millions of dollars of damage. So, to answer your question, I would say that every city or region is vulnerable to certain natural disasters. Know what they are and when they are likely to occur, and have a cadre of people who are ready with visions to present to the public as soon as the disaster happens. Because there’s always a lag time. If it’s shovel-ready when the catastrophe happens, then the impetus to rebuild is so strong that it can happen immediately.

Elizabeth Padjen: We’ve talked about private investments, particularly in communication infrastructure, which seems to be largely driven by the private sector. We’ve talked about public investment. Have you seen any innovations in public/private partnerships that have worked?

David Luberoff: In one sense, everything that gets done today is a public/private partnership because, unlike the ’30s when people worked for WPA and were on the government’s payroll, we made a policy decision a long time ago to move to a system of contractors.

Hubert Murray: We’re seeing highway authorities engage in what are called DBOM contracts: design/build/operate/maintain. Firms like Bechtel do this all over the world — public facilities run by private firms for profit.

Jeffrey Simon: What’s happening now is that the privatization of infrastructure is being driven by investment bankers, not engineers. Look at Macquarie Bank coming in from Sydney and buying the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana toll road.

David Luberoff: But the public reaction has not been positive and several deals proposed after the Indiana and Chicago deals have been scuttled. The result is puzzling: we have no problem putting companies like Verizon in charge of the cellular system, but we seem to always want the government to run the roads. Most toll roads have a fairly predictable revenue stream — money that can be used to pay back a large loan, particularly if you assume that tolls will rise in the future. Sooner or later, somebody in government will say, “I could really use a lot of money now, rather than a little bit of money each year for the foreseeable future, particularly if the toll hikes required to support the loan occur after I leave office.” This is basically what Massachusetts did when it had the Turnpike Authority borrow money to help pay for some of the Big Dig.

Jeffrey Simon: There is another way of looking at public/private partnerships, which is to consider how incremental actions or changes in the private sector influence public policy. The focus on sustainability through LEED certification is a fascinating example. No government policy came up with or imposed LEED certification. It was developed in the private sector and then took off as tenants and buyers started to demand it until eventually it was adopted as policy by environmentally conscious cities. The market made that happen.

Hubert Murray: It’s a very good point. I think we’re about to see another example here in Boston, which has some of the highestpriced real estate in the country. It is also in one of the most vulnerable places in the country. If the sea level rises, as it is predicted to do within the lifetime of many of these buildings, they’re going to have swamped basements at the very least. We have a huge impending crisis on our hands; perhaps this relates to Anne’s observation about preparing for catastrophes. Partners Healthcare is addressing this head-on in the development of the proposed new Spaulding Hospital. We anticipate a 24-inch rise in sea level in Boston Harbor within the projected lifetime of the building. So we’ve raised the ground-floor datum and taken all the electrical equipment out of the basement as originally proposed. The term we used for looking strategically at possible disasters is “resiliency.” Every single building on the waterfront has to think in the same way. And if I may say so, the Central Artery Tunnel has to think in that way, because within an 80-year time period, the Central Artery is vulnerable.

Jeffrey Simon: That must have been an interesting meeting. You go in and you say, “We’ve raised all the utilities up to the first floor.” They ask, “Why did you do that?” And you answer, “Well, we think the harbor’s going to rise 24 inches.”

Hubert Murray: We did a considerable amount of research and wrote a protocol that we want to share with the city and the state.

Jeffrey Simon: But this touches on something I think about a lot, which is the long-term implications of what we do. How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? And along the way, how can you make fundamental changes to the way state government does business? People who talk about infrastructure now invariably get around to talking about the ’30s. There’s a whole legacy from that period of beautiful work, which we’re not getting out of the current program, because it wasn’t designed with those goals in mind.

Hubert Murray: One of the things that thrilled me about coming to this country from the UK was the opportunity to see the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The quality of design on purely utilitarian structures, and the multi-disciplinary nature of the TVA, transformed that part of the country in a remarkable way. It was something of which the country could be proud, and for which it was known all across Europe. And somehow, we’ve lost that. Coming from Madrid Airport to Logan Airport, for example, is like going from a cathedral to a hovel.

Jeffrey Simon: We have the Zakim Bridge. We haven’t totally lost it.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The fault lies on both sides. Designers have relinquished a role in infrastructure, but on the other hand, architects and landscape architects aren’t the first professions that come to a public agency’s mind when they are planning an infrastructure project. But there’s an optimistic sign: over the past few years, we’re seeing architecture and landscape architecture departments taking on large infrastructure projects as studio projects. At MIT, for example, a collaborative workshop between the department of architecture and the civil and environmental engineering department is in the works.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Landscape architects right now are doing a better job than architects are of convincing the public that the design of the built environment, whether it be a public monument, a park, a sewage-treatment plant, or the High Line, directly affects people’s quality of life, both in the present and in the future. In general, landscape architects seem to view working for an improved public realm as part of their professional obligations. And the Landscape Urbanists have done an especially impressive job of creating a public profile for themselves, one that could potentially translate into their playing a major role in the public’s views of how the built environment might best be reconfigured.

David Lazer: Maybe design has been left out of the old forms of infrastructure, but it’s certainly part of the new forms. We talked earlier about the iPhone, which is all about design, as is the whole structure — in a very real way, the whole infrastructure — that Apple has built behind it.

Jeffrey Simon: Design gets left out of the discussion because designers let that happen. I heard a designer at a conference complaining about the whole role of the owner’s rep on a construction project. Well, the owner’s rep developed because architects failed to interface with their customers in an acceptable manner. It’s the same with design — the design profession has failed to communicate perceived value in good design. There was a time when the finest design was reserved for public buildings.

David Lazer: The one thing that building infrastructure has going for it is the very fact that it leaves a lasting legacy, which provides an incentive to politicians. When you leave a TVA or even a Big Dig, you get a little touch of immortality.

Caption: Form work rebars for Big Dig/Central Artery. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Lending a Library

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

09_winter_lurker

The Lurker

Download article as PDF

The project: A collaboration between a team of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and several community groups to design and build a temporary storefront branch library in Boston’s Chinatown. The neighborhood has been without a library since 1956, when the local branch was torn down to accommodate a proposed Central Artery route that was later changed.

The idea: Give the community a taste of the services and focal point a library would provide — and begin to create the desire, support, and momentum that could lead to a permanent branch library.

The workplace: A group of four desks on the otherwise mostly deserted top floor of the GSD. Already, at 10 o’clock on a summer morning, the place is sweltering; the days of heedless air conditioning are long gone. In the middle of the desks is a large chipboard model of one of the library’s undulating shelving units. Next to it is a smaller model representing the entire space. All the design elements are modular, so they can be dismantled and reused when the installation closes.

10:05 Marrikka Trotter, the team leader, who recently earned a master’s degree in design studies from Harvard, talks with student Matt Swaidan about generating a workflow chart to track the remaining fabrication and the installation of the project elements. She mentions she’ll be away for a few days at the end of next month, returning on the 27th.

“My birthday,” Matt says.

“You’re getting old, man.”

“Yeah, I’ve doubled my gray hairs this year.”

“I’ve got some real streaks now. It was my thesis that did it.”

10:10 Jungmin Nam, another student, arrives, and Marrikka draws him into the flow-chart discussion. The schedule is tight. As fall approaches, the team will lose access to the workspace and equipment in the GSD. People have out-of-town commitments. There’s been a delay in obtaining construction materials — a promised early donation turned out to be smaller than expected, and finding another donor took time. Figuring out how to cut MDF, a kind of fiberboard, for stable shelving units has also been tricky.

10:20 Discussion of whether to try cutting Lumasite acrylic panels for display units with the drill bit they already have, or take time to order a bit specifically tested for this material. Jungmin asks Marrikka to explain the decision to use Lumasite. “I thought we were going with polypropylene.”

“There were life-safety issues. If polypropylene ignites, the fumes can close off people’s lungs in seconds. So we have to use Lumasite, which is safe.” She smiles. “And much nicer.”

10:40 Matt, who has carpentry experience, recommends they wait for the right equipment to cut the Lumasite. A slight delay is better than the risk of blowing a drill bit. He goes to order the piece, while Marrikka and Jungmin talk about lighting. She’s concerned about the brightness of the overhead fluorescents. “We’ll have to take out some bulbs.”

“I like a bright library,” he says.

“But this isn’t going to be warm and glowy, it’s going to be cold and glowy. Though it will help that everything else is in a warm palette.”

10:47 Thinking ahead to the installation schedule, involving the design team as well as other student volunteers, Marrikka and Jungmin look at a computer rendering of the sinuous curving ceiling sculpture. She points. “For this piece, we’ll need people who really know the design and what they’re doing. But this” — pointing at another piece of the design — “just needs hands. Brute labor.”

She asks him to get a sample of steel wire to suspend the sculpture from, so they can test it for strength. “Also, maybe you could make a model of the whole thing.”

String, for the model? They decide on fishing line.

11:02 “Casters,” Marrikka says. A GSD professor critiqued the design last week, and pointed out that the MDF shelving and seating units would be heavy; casters would prevent them from sinking into the carpet tile. Marrikka and Jungmin look at an online catalog, comparing mechanisms and bearing capacities of various casters.

11:17 They choose one, noting that it will raise the heights of seating units by 40 millimeters — a change that, to achieve ADA compliance, will require a comparable change in the height of the work surfaces.

11:20 Casters that lock versus casters that don’t.

12:30 Marrikka explains the schedule to Shelby Doyle, a new member of the team, who has just stopped by. Shelby is tied up right now with research and the production of a student handbook, but she can put in more time at the beginning of next month.

“It would be especially good if you could help with upholstery,” Marrikka says. She lowers her voice. “The boys are scared of fabric.”

1:15 Downstairs, in the basement wood shop, Matt has spent the past hour on the computer, using a program called Rhino to lay out a new router cutting diagram for the MDF sheets, based on last week’s prototypes. He’s made minuscule adjustments to the cutting allowances for grooved tabs that will hold the shelves together — .020" was too jiggly and compromised the stability of the units, but .018" was too tight and would have made insertion almost impossible, especially given the propensity of the material to swell. As a carpenter, Matt was happy if he could achieve tolerances of 1/64", so working with these infinitesimal thousandths is new and fascinating to him, as is working with the computer-controlled CNC router. He transfers his Rhino diagram to the MasterCam program, which interfaces with the router.

1:20 Matt turns on the router, programmed to channel out shelf grooves to accommodate the Lumasite panels. Behind the glass wall, the router begins to roar and wave its tentacles over the MDF sheet lying on the table.

1:27 The grooves are done. Matt changes the drill bit for a thicker one, and the router begins cutting the curved outlines of the shelving units.

1:49 Back upstairs, team member Trevor Patt is showing Marrikka a computer diagram for Inspectional Services, depicting the spatial relationships between the curved ceiling sculpture and the lighting fixtures. “I think that’s just the right level of detail,” she tells him.

2:18 A rep from the carpet company stops by. The students love a pearl-gray carpet tile with a subtly ridged texture; they’d lay it in a basket-weave pattern inspired by the pebble paving at the Chinese house at the Peabody Essex Museum. The carpet company is willing to give them a great deal, but the students still need to find a donor to cover the cost. The other option is to accept a carpet installer’s offer to donate miscellaneous leftover tiles in assorted colors: free but ugly. Marrikka asks the rep about lead time for ordering. The answer: Five days. Marrikka: “So we don’t have to decide this week. We can let it play out.”

2:25 Shelby stops by again. She has 15 minutes — is there anything she can do? Yes: a handwritten thank-you note. Marrikka hands her an envelope and the address of a plastering company that has donated to the project.

2:39 Jungmin has talked to a wire company in Brockton. He’s thinking of going there now to look at samples.

Marrikka explains that Brockton is pretty far away. “We’ll figure out how to get you there another day. For now, I’d just start the mockup.”

Jungmin says there is a certain wire he thinks would be best, but there’s another one that might work too —

“We’ll get all those samples when we get you to Brockton. But for now, let’s do the mockup.”

2:50 A student named Damon who has not been involved with the project is standing by Trevor’s desk, intrigued by the diagram of the ceiling sculpture, which will be made of curved Lumasite panels suspended from wire. “Why wire?” Damon asks. “What if there was something more like a sheet-metal clip?”

“What what?” Marrikka asks, overhearing.

He sketches on a piece of paper.

“What about the weight of the clips?” she asks. “And how do you maintain the curve?”

3:12 After a discussion — Marrikka advocating for wire, and Trevor and Damon paring down and refining the clip idea — Trevor picks up an X-acto knife and cuts a quick paper model of the clip.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” they all say.

Marrikka: “But why can’t we do the same thing with wire?”

Trevor: “I just don’t like wire.”

Marrikka: “This is irrational. What has wire ever done to you?”

3:28 Discussion of how sharp the edges of the clips will be after they are waterjetted. Marrikka is concerned about the safety of the installers. “And we should figure out how much sheet metal we’ll need. Is there a piece of metal downstairs we could use for testing?”

3:30 Marrikka asks Trevor if he’s had lunch. He hasn’t. She has to suggest several times that he go; he’s still thinking about the clip.

3:50 Matt comes back upstairs. The MDF prototype broke; several design details are clashing and weakening the piece. He’ll rework the tongue-and-groove joint and will run a new test piece tomorrow. They pore over the schedule again.

4:29 Marrikka reminds Trevor, who is sitting at his desk finishing a sandwich, that they need to finish the Inspectional Services diagram by the end of the day.

“But it’s lunchtime,” he says.

4:35 Trevor asks Marrikka if she’s checked her e-mail in the last two minutes.

“No.”

“It’s Damon. He says he can’t get our Lumasite things out of his head and he’s drawn up a new detail and put it on CAD.”

4:41 “It’s 4:41,” Marrikka murmurs to herself. She turns to Matt, who has just come back to his desk. “What can you do for 20 minutes?”

“I’ll figure something out.”

Caption: Photo by Joan Wickersham

From the Editor

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

Wasted

Download article as PDF

It has to rank up there with one of the great political aphorisms of all time. So good, in fact, that you wonder if it was lifted from The Art of War or The Prince: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” (In fact, it was lifted from Stanford economist Paul Romer.)

The prospect of economic collapse focuses the collective mind wonderfully. But by now, it is abundantly clear to many Americans that a great opportunity has in fact been wasted. If the Washington mandarins are correct and we have turned the corner on this recession, then the country’s willingness to align behind a coherent vision is probably already dissipating. And if the mandarins are wrong — if unemployment figures are trapped by their own inertia, if we see the dreaded “double-dip” recovery — then the government’s earlier failure to exert leadership will yield only greater, more corrosive skepticism. Leadership is not something you get around to.

And what is this missed opportunity? By now, we could have had a national infrastructure policy.

Maybe infrastructure doesn’t sound terribly compelling compared to other national policies we could have had by now. But the healthcare thing hasn’t turned out so well, and education is a famous morass. Infrastructure, however, evokes images of a nation pulling together, a nation on the brink of greatness, a nation at work. The Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Saarinen TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, even the interstate highway system — fashionable as it is to malign it today — were all symbols of pride and all contributed to the greater prosperit as well as to a greater optimism. Another Chicagoan said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Daniel Burnham would know that paving projects don’t count.

But the romance of infrastructure is merely political lubrication. The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare. We are a country that has been ranked 15th in the world in broadband penetration. We are a region that imports almost all of its energy. We are a state in which six municipalities recently invoked boil orders due to contaminated water supplies. Our welfare is in jeopardy, our entrepreneurs constrained by systems that make them less competitive in the global market.

The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare.

A coherent national infrastructure policy would create immediate work for many, and ripple-effect opportunity for all. It would embrace sustainability, promote new communications technologies (increasing both access and adoption), mandate regional cooperation, and solve the maintenance conundrum so that new investment in infrastructure is truly an investment, and not a spending spree. A national infrastructure policy would give context and direction to the FCC’s call for a national broadband plan. It would coordinate regional alternative-energy efforts, avoiding the recent scenario in which the New England governors were surprised to learn that their Midwestern peers were planning to sell wind-generated power to Eastern states. It would sidestep the competitive “me, too” scramble for high-speed rail funds (278 applications from 40 states) in the interest of an actual high-speed plan. It would state that “shovel-ready” is a flawed criterion for assessing which projects get funding.

The administration has indicated that at some level it knows this is what is needed; President Obama himself invoked the Burnham adage. Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, referred to Obama as the “shuffle president,” referring to the iPod shuffle feature to suggest leaping from crisis to crisis. This was unfair. We, all of us, live in a shuffle culture. It’s time to settle down and focus.

She was one of the city’s most fearless defenders. Joan Goody FAIA, principal of Goody Clancy and longtime chair of the Boston Civic Design Commission, passed away in September. Smart and savvy (not always the same thing), Joan cared deeply about the civic life of the city, and she also understood the role of Boston’s architects in shaping a rich public realm. At the time of her death, she was a member of ArchitectureBoston’s editorial board. I shall miss her wisdom, insight, humor, and support.

Transportation @ MIT Rethinks Everything

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

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Download article as PDF

“We’re literally reinventing the wheel,” says William Mitchell, director of the Media Lab Smart Cities Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mitchell points to the revolutionary in-wheel traction and steering system of the CityCar, a stackable, all-electric, two-passenger vehicle that could radically alter personal urban transportation. Mitchell is right — with no steering wheel, no central motor or drive train, and the ability to be picked up and dropped off at multiple charging stations in virtually any city in the world, CityCar owes little if anything to conventional automotive thinking. And that’s a good thing.

A new program applies MIT’s collective smarts to the problem of moving around.

Transportation @ MIT is a vast undertaking that brings together multiple disciplines and schools within an institute that is, by myth and reality, the geek capital of the world. What better place to take on a problem so inextricably linked to data and technology? Where else to analyze the world’s urban infrastructure and how it can best facilitate the efficient and ecologically sound movement of people and goods?

Because of the size and complexity of both the issue and the institute, it’s not surprising that the initiative is made up of a sometimes confusing alphabet soup of acronyms and project names: ITEAM (Integrated Transport, Energy and Activitybased Model), CityMotion, Smart City, SENSEable City Lab, and Mobility-On-Demand, among many others. But leaders of Transportation @ MIT believe that, collectively, all of these efforts can galvanize public awareness of transportation as an urgent national issue, attract research funding, and encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration.

09_winter_transportation

“As a starting point, we did a survey of 1,200 MIT faculty members and asked them if the research they were doing could be applied to transportation,” said Cynthia Barnhart, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Engineering and director of the initiative. “We were amazed when 338 — more than a quarter of them — said yes. So we decided to start a program that would leverage all of this expertise.” While officially under the auspices of the School of Engineering, Transportation @ MIT bridges that sector with the School of Architecture + Planning and the Sloan School of Management.

For more than a century, architects and urban planners have recognized the interdependence of transportation and the design of buildings and cities. But it’s historically been a top-down process — planners and designers foisting their grand visions on an often-reluctant public. Witness Le Corbusier, who in his epochal treatise Radiant City, felt it was well within his purview to dictate the exact route that residents of a high-rise would take to their cars. Now, technology is allowing researchers to mine a rich store of information from the bottom up — gauging how people actually live and making transportation planning decisions accordingly.

“There’s a wealth of data already there, with iPhones and GPS systems,” said Christopher Zegras, an urban planner and one of the researchers behind ITEAM, the transport and energy component of the initiative. “The problem with urban-planning data in the past was that you’d do surveys and traffic counts, but people tended to tell you what you wanted to hear, so it was very unreliable.” But now, in a program called CityMotion that has been applied in places like Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, volunteers agree to have their exact modes of transportation (rail, car, bus), time of day, walking routes, origins, and destinations all tracked in real time, which in turn informs decisions about transit subsidies and urban-planning interventions. Paired with this, transit agencies around the world are increasingly making available to the public real-time, GPS-generated information about the exact location of trains and buses.

John Attanucci, an MIT civil engineering lecturer, is frustrated that more American transit agencies don’t leverage this valuable information. “Most of the agencies already have this data and are not using it to best advantage,” he said. “Every semester, I get computer-science students asking me why the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] won’t release their automatic data location system, which the students want to load onto their iPhones.” He added that a pilot program at MIT has a microchip embedded into volunteer student and faculty ID cards, tracking their to-and-fro much as an iPhone can. The institute then plans to review the data as part of its parking and mass-transit subsidy program — with the goal of promoting greater use of public transportation.

Indeed, understanding where people want to go proves to be just as important as considering how they get there. “Subways and high-speed rail lines are fixed infrastructure, and that’s where our little cars come in. The train station is never your point of origin or final destination,” said the Media Lab’s Mitchell, former dean of the MIT School of Architecture + Planning. The CityCar resembles, and is about the same size as, the increasingly ubiquitous Smart Car. And yet it is fundamentally different. Motors embedded in each of the four wheels propel it forward, and a “drive by wire” system controls the steering instead of the usual mechanical arms and gears. This leaves a surprising amount of passenger room — about as much interior space as a 3-Series BMW, according to Ryan Chin, a research assistant at the Media Lab.

“It can fit two people very comfortably,” Chin said, adding that the entire outer shell is hinged at the center, allowing it to “fold” into the most minuscule parking space and be “stacked” at a train or bus station, where it will recharge until a customer simply swipes a credit card, as with Zipcar, to gain access. Furthermore, the hinge serves as a safety device — absorbing impact in a crash. The car can also turn on its own axis. The Media Lab is at present vying for a grant from the US Department of Energy for a pilot program to place 100 CityCars on the streets of Boston.

A metaphor equating a city to a biological organism runs through the entire enterprise. Professor John Fernandez uses the term “urban metabolism” to describe not just the movement of people but also of material.

The RoboScooter and GreenWheel bicycle round out the “personal transportation” triumvirate currently being developed at the Media Lab. The scooter is also a stackable electric vehicle, with a center hinge that allows it to be folded up to the size of a large suitcase and carried. The GreenWheel bicycle is a standard-issue bike that has an electric motor, battery, and generator all embedded into an aluminum-pancake rear hub. The Media Lab envisions developing kits whereby bike owners can do the simple retrofit themselves. According to Mitchell, the GreenWheel can give a 25-mile-plus range, and more if you choose to pedal. The focus now is on making bike stands and charging stations work as places for casual and spontaneous human interaction.

“Paris has demonstrated the success of bike sharing,” Mitchell said, referring to a program called Vélib’, a Gallic melding of the words velo (bike) and liberté. “But what you want when designing a system is what I call the ‘village well’ effect. I understand that in Paris the place to pick up bikes is also the place to pick up girls.”

For all of the importance of ground transportation, civil aviation remains a crucial transportation infrastructure around the world. MIT aeronautics gurus are working on a program called NASA N+3, funded by the space agency, that envisions what a commercial airliner three generations hence will look like. In addition to trying to develop a more fuel-efficient plane, the teams are working to reduce noise and pollution — both of which make building new airports and runways in the US virtually impossible.

“It took 28 years just to get the most recent runway at Logan Airport open,” said John Hansman, Jr., director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. “People would rather have a nuclear power plant next to them than an airport.”

Researchers in the N+3 program are doing work that seems equal parts Jetsons and Flintstones — exploring futuristic looking, silent “flying wing” aircraft, as well as alternative fuels that can be grown or extracted from the earth. “Jet fuel has to be liquid,” said Jim Hileman, an MIT engineer on the N+3 team. “But the technology exists to develop jet fuel from natural and biological sources.” Hileman and a team of engineers are already studying the viability of synthetic liquids from coal and the organic matter known as “biomass.”

A metaphor equating a city to a biological organism is one that runs through the entire Transportation @ MIT enterprise. John Fernandez, associate professor of building technology, uses the relatively new term “urban metabolism” to describe not just the movement of people but also of material — an increasingly urgent concern for architects and planners. “We have to be concerned with what materials are needed, where they come from, and how much waste they produce,” Fernandez said. “So someone doing a material flow analysis of Phoenix can use the same standards as someone doing an analysis of Boston.”

Just as the earth’s natural systems underpin the work at Transportation @ MIT, so does economics. John Sterman, a professor of management at the MIT Sloan School, is doing in-depth studies of how, when, and why consumers will adopt private transportation modes using alternative energy. In turn-of-the-19th-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, he notes, electric vehicles, both private and public, were thought to be the future. But the petroleum-powered internal-combustion engine quickly triumphed and remains dominant today due to the rapid construction of the required infrastructure, such as gas stations and highways.

“What would happen today if an alternative fuel source were available with all of the features of a gasoline-powered, standard internal combustion engine? The answer is, not much,” Sterman said. “There’s no alternative-fuel infrastructure. Low gasoline taxes, the dominance of the petroleum industry, settlement patterns, and transportation networks have all favored the gasoline-powered engine.” Now, he said, policy-makers must enable the “diffusion” of alternative fuel sources until their infrastructure reaches a critical mass. In much the same way, he added, they must also use the “lever” of pricing as a means of decreasing reliance on the automobile.

“We’ve long privileged automotive travel at the expense of other modes,” Sterman said. “Pricing of what we call common-good resources — roads, rail, airports, and other infrastructure — is an important tool. People think roads are free, but they’re not.”

Caption: The Jetsons. Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Tagged with:

Covering the Issues

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

Periodical Roundup

Download article as PDF

Commonwealth

A patchwork landscape… Designers and developers must navigate 351 different versions of planning and zoning laws in Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. That’s about 350 too many, according to Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development. In “Getting to Yes” (CommonWealth, Summer 2009), Gabrielle Gurley covers Bialecki’s current quest to “modernize the Bay State’s notoriously obtuse, decades-old planning and zoning statues.” Stay tuned.

Change a bulb, save a bird… Approximately one billion birds die in the United States every year by crashing into buildings, according to a 2008 Boston Globe article. Building trends favoring natural light (clearer glass, and more of it) and green roofs only increase the trouble, even though killing wildlife by “sustainable” architecture has obvious contradictions. Rebecca Kessler describes a similar problem of migrating birds disoriented by the bright lights of North Sea oil rigs, along with a simple fix: change the bulbs. In “Red Light, Green Light” in Conservation Magazine (Summer 2009), Kessler reports that at test locations, a mix of red and green lights has decreased bird collisions by up to 90 percent, concluding that this strategy might be adopted for other structures, too.

New Yorker

Prime people-watching… There’s been a lively discussion of New York City’s newest public spaces — the High Line and Times Square — providing fodder for Bostonians still coming to grips with our own Greenway. In “Up in the Park” (The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009), Martin Filler offers a brief history of the reuse of obsolete civil engineering works for park-like purposes, warning that our nation has lots of aging infrastructure to reckon with. The acclaimed High Line and the newly closed streets of Times Square haven’t been equally well received. As Lauren Collins quips in “Zoo York” (The New Yorker, September 14, 2009), “Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ has become a still-life.” In “The Art of Public Space” (The Nation, August 12, 2009), Benjamin Barber makes a plea for artists to help shape this new Times Square. On Broadway, as on the Greenway, eliminating car traffic is only the beginning.

The hangover… As it turns out, the fake islands, indoor ski slope, and rising skyscraper forest of Dubai were indeed not sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. In “Exodus,” Fast Company (September 2009) offers a look at this former hotbed of construction activity after the world’s financial meltdown. Lauren Greenfield’s photographs offer a sobering view of abandoned project sites, withering landscapes, and the possessions and people left behind.

The Atlantic

Undeterred… This isn’t the first time that the White House has taken an interest in all things green and eco-friendly. In “Better Luck Next Time” (The Atlantic, July/ August 2009), senior editor Joshua Green looks carefully at President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated 1977 White House solar panels, explaining what went wrong with environmentalism then, and tracing the intersection of funding, innovation, and policy to the current day. For anyone interested in or affected by the environmental legislation being debated in Congress or Copenhagen, this thoughtful, accessible, substantive piece is a must-read.

And now for something completely different… Orson Squire Fowler was the nation’s leading phrenologist when he began to advocate for octagonal houses, leading by example. Huh? Phrenology — studying the contours of the head to deduce a person’s personality — was wildly popular in 19th-century America. Like an Oprah before her time, Fowler also traveled, lectured, and wrote, commenting on a vast array of topics — memory, women’s fitness, overpopulation, sex, compost — all in the name of reform. In “The Joys of the Octagonal Home” (Believer, May 2009), author John Adamian suggests that Fowler’s interest in lifestyle and his study of shapes coalesced in architectural propositions. Fowler believed that octagonal houses promoted circulation of air and people, while maximizing area within an efficient envelope. Though Fowler’s been forgotten (along with phrenology), the octagonal structures that still scatter the Northeast countryside bear witness to his influence.

Civil Service

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

Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

An engineer extols the virtues of efficiency, economy, and, yes, elegance.

Download article as PDF

Jeff Stein: A decade ago, Engineering News Record named you one of the top five educators in civil engineering since 1874.

David Billington: I don’t know how they measured that but it was nice to hear it. I hold the world’s record for having taught architecture students more years than any other civil engineering professor. Most civil engineering professors don’t like to do that.

Jeff Stein: And in fact you teach one of the most popular courses at Princeton.

David Billington: It wasn’t always that way. I was teaching architecture students in the early 1960s. After three years, they came to me and said, “Mr. Billington, you’re a nice guy and you’re a good teacher. But we hate what you’re teaching us. You’re just teaching us stick diagrams and formulas; we would like you to teach structures through something beautiful.” They showed me pictures of bridges designed by Robert Maillart. I’d never heard of Maillart. And I had never heard of teaching structures that way.

Jeff Stein: Because you had been trained as an engineer.

David Billington: Yes. I had designed a lot of things that were built, but I must say, I’m not very proud of them aesthetically. They weren’t bad, but they really weren’t great. I had never designed with the thought of making something elegant. I decided to look into Maillart and found that not only were his works beautiful, but they were also the best engineering I’d ever come in contact with. That sent me on a whole new track, and I began to teach a structures course to architects through beautiful works, slipping in the technical part. I finally decided that the course should be given to the whole university, not just to the architecture students. So I began in 1974 the course called “Structures in the Urban Environment,”and it became popular. After that, the associate dean came to me in 1984 and said, “We need a freshman engineering course.” People are always trying to design freshman courses for engineers, and they all fail because they tend to lack an intellectual basis. Princeton had been offering a course that had just failed miserably — it had reached the list of the five worst courses in the university. It took me about five years to develop a course we called “Engineering in the Modern World.” Between the two of them, we now teach something like a third of all students who go to Princeton.

Jeff Stein: In your courses, you don’t just present the history of beautiful things and the lives of the great engineers, but you also talk about what they built and how — the notion of infrastructure and engineering generally, as well as the formulas that they use.

David Billington: If we didn’t include the technical engineering aspects, I wouldn’t teach it, even though the liberal-arts students groan sometimes. One thing that is interesting about “Engineering in the Modern World” is that it satisfies either the university’s lab-science requirement or the history requirement. In my mind, that is only possible in engineering.

Jeff Stein: You recently wrote a wonderful book with your son, the historian David Billington, Jr. — Power, Speed, and Form — in which you talk about Othmar Ammann, the engineer of the George Washington Bridge. Ammann used a formula that you describe: H=qL2/8d. Take that simple relationship, which refers to weight and size, and you can design a suspension bridge.

David Billington: Of course, many of the formulas he eventually used were quite complicated. But that’s the one he used for conceptual design. And there’s a similarly simple formula in every branch of engineering.

Jeff Stein: In fact, you say that the people who have made the great leaps in engineering all used very simple math.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David P. Billington. Photo courtesy Princeton University, Office of Communication, Denise Applewhite.

David Billington: That’s right. I’ve found in my research that it’s a characteristic of all the great innovators, because they had to think deeply and they couldn’t get confused with complex mathematics. The people who followed them tended to focus on more refined details, and therefore used more refined mathematics. But the initial breakthroughs were not done that way. It was a surprise to me.

Jeff Stein: In effect, you found that there are two kinds of engineering thinking: normal thinking and radical thinking.

David Billington: Yes. In the courses that we mentioned, I’m interested in the radical thinking. Teaching upper-level or graduate courses in engineering is of course quite different — then I focus on more refined calculations. But first-rate conceptual design work happens on a much simpler level.

Jeff Stein: In the engineer’s imagination.

David Billington: That’s correct, the engineer’s imagination. It’s an interesting subject. Do you know who Jack Kilby was?

Jeff Stein: No, I do not.

David Billington: That’s a little test. Almost nobody knows him. But he was comparable in the late 20th century to Thomas Edison in the late 19th century. He was the inventor of the microchip and the handheld calculator and eventually won the Nobel Prize. He once gave a lecture in which he talked about his early days. He had just been hired at Texas Instruments, and everybody had gone off on vacation. And so, as he said, he was alone with his “thoughts and his imagination.” For a few weeks he worked on his own, and out came the microchip. No teamwork, nothing like that. It was entirely out of his imagination. But he was very well trained, of course. He knew the field. It wasn’t blue-sky. Another great engineer, Robert Noyce, came to the same idea alone a few months later and the two men are recognized as co-inventors.

Jeff Stein: You have said that a number of engineers are like solo musicians who perform a complex work on their own without other instruments or accompaniment or even without a conductor.

David Billington: Teamwork has a value, of course, when you’re doing incremental development of an idea, when you’re trying to be competitive, or when you’re refining a concept. And you certainly need teamwork to build things. But what’s really interesting is what the engineer does best: imagine.

Jeff Stein: You have pointed out that modern engineering falls into four basic kinds of work: structures, machines, networks, processes. I am intrigued by the ways in which one engineering discipline can influence another. For example, you mention that the processing of iron ore brought about a broad rethinking of the whole tradition of building, which eventually led to a whole new aesthetic. Engineers in the 19th century started to talk about the new thinness of structural members in terms of elegance or beauty. The lightness of the material allowed structures to stand in contrast to the rest of the natural world. Did that appreciation of elegance have an enduring effect?

David Billington: In general terms, the ethos of modern engineering is efficiency. Efficiency is a loosely-used word, but I try to make it precise. Efficiency in engineering terms means minimum use of materials consistent with good performance and assured safety. That’s the ethos of the engineer, and all engineers work under that in the modern world. That’s different from the ethic of the engineer, which is essentially “Don’t waste money” — consistent, of course, with good utility and minimum maintenance. Elegance is a personal expression of the designer, in structures anyway. But because something is efficient does not mean it will be elegant. And elegance does not depend upon efficiency.

Jeff Stein: That’s a really important point, because people who aren’t engineers imagine that that would be the case. In fact, architects tend to imagine that the elegance of engineering comes from its efficiency.

The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. David P. Billington

David Billington: That’s wrong. For instance, the typical steel truss is probably the most efficient structure you can imagine for a lot of uses, and it’s almost always ugly. The two disciplines of structural engineering are efficiency and economy; the key to successful design is to find beauty within them. Or as Félix Candela, one of our heroes, said, to avoid the ugliness without wasting materials and money.

Jeff Stein: You wrote, “Some bridge forms have been imagined by architects, but the best are purely the work of engineers.” I’m sure that will make some architects unhappy.

David Billington: The engineer makes forms that control forces, whereas the architect makes forms that control spaces. The architect is essentially lost when trying to design a great bridge. So the architect tries to make up for it, and in the process, loses the disciplines of efficiency and economy. Santiago Calatrava is a good example. He has caused the quality of bridges to drop precipitously in this country, because what he does is immensely expensive. I talk to DOTs [Departments of Transportation] all the time, and they all have the same opinion: “If we want a beautiful bridge, we have to go to Calatrava, and it will cost three times what the others cost. We can’t afford that, so we’re just going to pull out of the drawer the standard bridge.” What they’re saying in effect is that the engineer has no aesthetic at all — or that the aesthetic is the purview of architects and something they can’t afford. And so the DOTs are defaulting to ugly, standard bridges.

Jeff Stein: What about Christian Menn? David Billington: Christian Menn is probably the greatest living bridge designer. He’s a pure engineer.

Jeff Stein: We adore his work here in Boston, where we have the Zakim Bridge [Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge]. It’s meant to signify the new Boston.

David Billington: You’re lucky to have it. Princeton is building a Menn bridge on the campus now that will be the second one in this country. It’s too bad we don’t have 25 bridges of his.

Jeff Stein: Menn is from Switzerland; you’ve written about him as well as several other engineers in The Art of Structural Design: The Swiss Legacy — Wilhelm Ritter, Robert Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Pierre Lardy, Heinz Isler. What in the Swiss culture has led to so many talented engineers producing so many beautiful bridges? Is it the country’s dependence on tourism?

David Billington: No, I would argue with that. It all comes from the Federal Institute of Technology and their first professor of engineering, Karl Culmann. I don’t remember that he ever talked about tourism. His greatest student, Wilhelm Ritter, became a professor in Zurich and wanted his students to design beautiful, elegant, efficient, economical bridges, and that’s what he taught. Maillart and Ammann studied under him. Unfortunately for potential tourists, Maillart’s bridges are very hard to find, because the higher art world wouldn’t allow him to build anything in a city, with the exception of the Vessy Bridge in Geneva. Everything else he did is way out in the wilderness, where they needed somebody who could build on difficult sites and still do it economically. But some of Menn’s bridges are in prominent locations and could be tourist attractions.

Jeff Stein: In fact, two of Menn’s bridges in Switzerland are understood to be among the 10 most beautiful in the world. He says he hopes to create “motionless objects of stunning elegance.”

David Billington: That’s exactly what he does.

Jeff Stein: One of the challenges for great works of civil engineering is that they are expected to last for a very long time, but are exposed to all kinds of weather and conditions. Design and construction is one thing; maintenance is another. Here in Massachusetts, there are 1,100 bridges that have been inspected but not maintained and are in what the inspectors describe as a state of mild failure.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

Sunniberg Bridge by Christian Menn, near Klosters, Switzerland. Photo by Christof Sonderegger, CH-9424 Rheineck.

David Billington: They perhaps exaggerated a little bit to get attention, but at the same time it is perfectly true that our infrastructure — and bridges are a most visible part of the infrastructure — is in bad shape. Every once in a while, one falls down and kills people, and then everyone gets excited. And then they forget about it. It’s a very difficult issue to keep on the front page. The problem of maintaining bridges and avoiding those catastrophes is a live problem.

Jeff Stein: You have said that we live in an engineering culture, which has dominated our history at least since the Industrial Revolution, and that it is therefore very important for the general public to know about engineering. Would greater engineering literacy help us solve this issue?

David Billington: The tendency in America is to be fixated on what’s new, and that leads to a misunderstanding of how things were built to begin with. People tend to think that brand-new ideas drive change, but that’s not the way things develop. We don’t make radical changes until there is a real crisis. Infrastructure gets lost in this kind of environment. People might talk about new materials, for example, but having a new material isn’t going to help the bridges much: you can’t tear them all down and rebuild them out of some kind of plastic.

Jeff Stein: It’s part of our culture, as you’ve noted — we learned to see engineering as a way to solve many of the problems that arose in this big, uncoordinated, disconnected continent. Your work puts engineering and infrastructure in a context that we don’t often think about by humanizing engineers, describing their connections to particular places, and exploring the sources of their ideas.

David Billington: The way we view engineering has changed, and needs to change more. The average engineer in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century was a farm boy, the result of the Morrill Act that created the great engineering schools of the Midwest. Most of the schools in the East gave up engineering; fortunately, Princeton didn’t. It wasn’t considered an elite or intellectually interesting subject; it was for farm boys. That was great for a while, but it’s not great now. Engineering needs to be shown as a very stern and deep intellectual subject.

Jeff Stein: That’s how it’s always been perceived in Germany and Switzerland.

David Billington: Perhaps more so in Switzerland than Germany. And they have benefitted from it. We can learn a lot about infrastructure from small countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, because those countries have confronted and solved some very difficult infrastructure problems. A good example is the Lower Mississippi, which is the most crucial problem for us right now. There is a solution, and it comes from the Netherlands, because they have faced the same problem — a big delta. One of my missions in life is to try to make that connection, because I’ve lived in the Netherlands and can read Dutch, and so I know in some detail what they were able to accomplish. You have probably never heard of Johan van Veen or Cornelius Lely. But they are the heroes of the 20th century, because these two people literally saved a whole country. They had help along the way, of course, but they were the radical innovators that made all the difference. They both combined engineering and political talent with a depth of knowledge that puts them in the same category as any philosopher, historian, or intellectual. Our vast country is made up of regions that are quite different from one another, and we need to understand those differences and find appropriate designs, the best of which are sometimes found abroad and can stimulate us to better designs here.

Jeff Stein: Right. The Lower Mississippi has a very different set of conditions from the West Coast, which in turn has seismic conditions that we don’t have in the Northeast.

David Billington: Now I want to say something about Boston, which you won’t want to hear. I think that the Big Dig was a huge mistake. First of all, it was supposed to cost $3 billion and is now about $22 billion. And that is wasted money. The reason it’s wasted money is that Boston, as you well know, is a landfill city built on muck. And you don’t easily build tunnels in muck.

Jeff Stein: Well, we’ve learned that by building tunnels in muck.

David Billington: It’s the wrong form. I can understand why they wanted to tear down the Central Artery. But they should have built a truly elegant set of overpasses, and they would have had a dramatically beautiful solution that would have cost $3 billion, not $22 billion. Seattle is about to make the same mistake, building a tunnel in landfill so they can have a park on top.

Jeff Stein: They had the same problem — an aging overpass running through the city.

David Billington: The key is to ask the right questions or raise the right objections in the beginning. Going back to the Lower Mississippi, Katrina is, of course, a real national tragedy, and still there’s nothing being done about it. We criticized the previous administration for their handling of it, justifiable criticism for sure. But the real criticism has to go way back to the 1970s, when officials were preparing a plan after Hurricane Betsy. It was torn apart by environmentalists who were worried about the shrimp in Lake Pontchartraine. The environmentalists beat back the Corps of Engineers, and the Corps of Engineers was too flaccid. It gave up. So the city did not receive the protection it needed. It’s not just the environmentalists’ fault — the point is that there was no strong engineering presence such as a Lely or van Veen to argue for the bigger picture and common sense that might have protected the city.

Jeff Stein: And now, of course, there are arguments about whether to go ahead with anything much in New Orleans. Given the warming of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s certain that Hurricane Katrina will not be the last devastating storm — the next ones will be even worse. And so how many times can we afford to rebuild that city?

David Billington: Just once more, I think. If we don’t do it right this time, then we’ll give it up. But I think it would be a terrible mistake to give up now, a terrible thing to do to that city. And Baton Rouge, too, as well as the whole lower Mississippi River corridor.

Jeff Stein: You are in an unusual position as both an engineer and an historian — it allows you to look backward and forward at the same time. The kinds of things we’re talking about present enormous challenges. Can you predict how or where we will find solutions?

David Billington: I do not use history to make predictions. Since the Industrial Revolution, certain patterns have emerged and been constant through the late 20th century. That says, I believe, something very fundamental about our political system and about people in general — which is somewhat different from a prediction.

Jeff Stein: So what do those patterns tell you?

David Billington: What they say, to me anyway, is that real advances take place through the work of people acting individually, not committees and teams. When we have a problem in this country, we create a commission. And the commission creates a report, which is usually anonymously written. There’s no author. But there are always large numbers of people involved. And the results are often not as compelling as they could be. In an engineering society, such as the society we’ve lived in for 200 years, individual people make a huge difference. Once they make a huge difference, you need teams to implement their work. But if you’re going to have real change, it has to be done by individual engineers and they need to be recognized along with presidents and generals.

Caption: Salginatobel Bridge by Robert Maillart, Schiers, Switzerland. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr.

Things Visible and Invisible

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

Download article as PDF

Postmodern theorists writing in the late 20th-century once surmised that, during an era of airplanes, cell phones, and the Internet, the importance of geographical space was quickly diminishing. The French anthropologist Marc Augé, for example, famously claimed that modern technological developments such as these had led to a homogenization of culture that was reflected in the proliferation of “non-places” (non-lieux) that were devoid of any particular cultural identity. For him, a perfect example was the airport: surrounded by impersonal signs and identified by government-issued documents that cloaked individuality, travelers waiting for a plane epitomized the late 20th-century transitory experience and its lack of concern for place, cultural particularity, and personal identity.

The graphic presentation of infrastructural data yields more than a map.

The following images demonstrate that, whether or not the importance of geographical space has diminished, the representation of topographical space certainly has not. The fusillade of modern technological advances over the last several decades has only precipitated an explosion in cartographic curiosity and related explorations into data visualization. The very existence of multiple websites and conferences devoted to exploring innovative ways of depicting infrastructure cartographically begs two key questions: What lies behind this surge in the production of maps of all kinds, from simple delineations of proposed high-speed rail projects in the United States to more creative ventures in “experimental geography”? What does the practice of cartography allow us to see that we would not otherwise have seen?

Most fundamentally, mapping illustrates where elements of what we choose to include under the umbrella term “infrastructure” are currently located or planned. In turn, this information can be used to illuminate a whole range of other trends. For example, some major newspapers have recently shown how Obama’s planned infrastructure projects tend to overlap areas that supported him on the campaign trail. Yet, going further, the abstraction involved in this process also serves a more philosophical function: It moves us to reflect upon the spaces in which we live and work. Removed from the chaos of everyday life at the street-level, the geometrical forms of transportation networks, roadways, and even healthcare policies become visible, and therefore more comprehensible. Like a child staring into an Etch-a-Sketch, we are tempted to imagine alternative transit systems and links between disparate places, not to mention the political and economic structures that produced them. The widespread practice of visualizing infrastructure, therefore, is not solely about concrete projects. It is a medium for self-reflection. In the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, one might say that infrastructure is “good to think with.”

One of a series of visualizations depicting airline traffic across the United States.

FLIGHT PATTERNS: One of a series of visualizations depicting airline traffic across the United States created by Aaron Koblin, this image is based on data from the US Federal Aviation Administration for August 12, 2008. Free of traditional territorial lines and city icons, the geography of North America can be seen in terms of connections, providing a fresh understanding of land-use and economic activity.

This map shows positions and names (or identification codes) for commercial vessels around the world.

SHIP LOCATIONS: This map shows positions and names (or identification codes) for commercial vessels around the world at 2 pm EDT on August 26, 2009. Commercial ship activity provides a largely unseen but vital transportation infrastructure. Created by Hal Mueller from a real-time tracker, the map is based on weather observations sent from ships every six hours and collated by the World Meteorological Organization; some additional positions were derived from automated position reporting (AIS). Ships represented include supertankers, freighters, cruise ships, research vessels, and workboats.

A depiction of ring roads from 27 cities, all layered at the same scale.

RING ROADS OF THE WORLD: A depiction of ring roads from 27 cities, all layered at the same scale. The largest, shown in black, is from Houston, Texas, home of Rice University School of Architecture, which commissioned the image in 2009 from Thumb as a poster. The second largest, shown in red, is Beijing.

Mass-transit systems of North America drawn to the same scale.

NORTH AMERICAN MASS TRANSIT: In this image, the mass-transit systems of North America are all drawn to the same scale, and placed in relative locations. Current as of 2005, it includes regional or commuter systems that connect two downtown areas of comparable size. Revealing differences in both density and growth patterns, the map was created by Bill Rankin, now a PhD candidate in both architecture and the history of science at Harvard.

These two images are part of a series representing text messages sent in the city of Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, 2007.

CELL PHONE USAGE: These two images are part of a series representing text messages sent in the city of Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, 2007. Left: activity at 9 am. Right: activity at midnight. SMS visualization tool developed by Aaron Koblin, with MIT SENSEable City Lab and CurrentCity, based on data from KPN Telcom.