On the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, I listened to Jacques Brel on my iPod, and watched the low country scenery pass my window. The sights included both old, traditional Dutch windmills, and new wind turbine generators.
Seeing them both at the same time in the window frame, I wondered why antique infrastructure is prized as scenic, while contemporary designs of equivalent functionality often are vilified as ugly, unwanted impositions on neighborhoods and sightlines. Both the old and the new windmills, it seemed to me, had their own distinctive beauty.
It’s not just windmills, of course. Roman aqueducts, ancient canals, covered bridges, cobbled streets, even the Great Wall of China — all are prized for their aesthetic as well as their historic appeal. Who wouldn’t want a Victorian gas light on the corner of their block?
The hippest members of the creative class (and those who emulate them) prize loft-living in old warehouses. The more exposed bricks and beams, the better.
So why do we love the industrial and infrastructure artifacts of our ancestors and loathe the modern structures that make our lifestyle the richest in human history?
It might owe, in part, to a growing estrangement of functionality and aesthetics in infrastructure design. The custodians of our fundamental infrastructure, squeezed between rapidly growing need for and cost of new facilities, have surrendered the aesthetic dimension without a fight.
Curiously, the typical opponents of infrastructure projects aren’t especially eager to march under the aesthetic banner.
Increasingly, issues of taste and beauty are characterized as environmental concerns. Since scientific studies have undermined the credibility of the argument that electromagnetic fields are hazardous, opponents of transmission lines now talk about the environmental harms of “view-shed infringement.”
Infrastructure designers now have an opportunity to reframe the aesthetic issue. They can do this in two ways: First, they can start challenging some of the largely unconscious aesthetic assumptions about modern structures. Second, they can pay a little more attention to integrating aesthetic considerations into their own designs.
Integrating form, function and aesthetics is an imperative that is as old as design itself, after all. The makers and designers of our infrastructure would do well to shine more light on the inherent beauty of the engineering marvels that make our commercial and social cultures possible—to combat the irrational notion that newness or functionality must equal lack of visual appeal.
The kinetic grace of a wind turbine is indeed beautiful. A string of geometric transmission towers marching across the countryside could be said to have a certain grandeur, not unlike that of the Great Wall.
When viewed through eyes unconditioned by habitual preconceptions, even the sweep of an interstate highway ramp can be breathtaking.
Why aren’t the makers of our infrastructure doing more to support artists whose subject matter includes the functional forms that amount to the backdrop—quite literally—of modern life?
Where are the grants for would-be scholars of the history of infrastructure design? Or the programs to foster enthusiasm about these subjects in the very young?
In part because American industry has failed to highlight the inherent beauty of these forms, we are less interested in our infrastructure than at any time in our history.
Indeed, our infrastructure is crumbling. Should the nascent movement to do something about this problem gather momentum, however, it will translate into a great opportunity to inject more purposeful aesthetics into future designs.
In the late 1990s, planned renovations to the Washington Monument required that the monument be covered in scaffolding for many months. Rather than surrender the monument for the duration of the renovations, project planners engaged designer Michael Graves to create scaffolding that itself became a tourist attraction. That was quite a departure from the usual approach—one based on camouflage.
Indeed, the instinct to hide, rather than celebrate, functional forms has led to transmission towers being treated with advanced coatings to help them recede into the visual landscape, and cell towers being laughably disguised as church steeples or pine trees.
What if, instead of reluctantly tolerated necessities, electric poles were a source of municipal pride and identity? Charlottesville, Virginia, could have poles reminiscent of the neo-classical columns at Monticello and the University of Virginia. Annapolis could have poles that suggested the masts of sailing ships. Charleston, South Carolina, could mount poles that resembled the cannons of Fort Sumter.
Fanciful, yes. But the larger point is that we could be taking a far more creative approach to infrastructure design. What if communities were to bid for infrastructure projects the way they now bid for stadiums and halls of fame, because they were built as attractions that drew positive, rather than hostile, attention? (Hoover Dam, anyone?)
Of course, there would be a cost. Incorporation of aesthetic elements into the design and deployment of infrastructure facilities would add to the expense. On the other hand, if even a fraction of the time and resources expended on defending necessary projects against aesthetic objections could be saved, these more ambitious projects might make economic sense, too.
“Steampunk” is a loose affiliation of current design concepts that emphasizes the integration of technology and beauty. Devotees of this aesthetic might retrofit, say, a laptop computer with vintage or reproduction wood, brass and other decorative elements to create a hybrid object that functions at the bleeding technological edge, but has the panache of an old-world artifact. This aesthetic is beginning to creep into art and entertainment, fashion and avant garde home dàƒ©cor.
Maybe our infrastructure, too, could use a little steampunk. I like windmills just fine the way they are. But I’ll concede they might be an interesting place to start.
Author: James Patrick Guy is the Energy Industry Team Leader at LeClairRyan. He focuses his practice on representing infrastructure companies, including electric, natural gas and telecommunications interests in regulatory, transactional, corporate and legislative matters. He has participated in the development and construction of more than 3,000 MW of electric power generation and does substantial work in wholesale power transactions.
James Guy also heads the law firm’s Utility Practice Area Team. He works out of LeClairRyan’s offices in Washington DC, and Glen Allen VA. An Echols Scholar graduate of University of Virginia, James Guy holds a B.A. in Modern Studies, and a J.D. degree from University of Virginia School of Law.