19merit2.600

For readers tuning into the comments  sections of FPR (where some of our best material lies), there was an extremely interesting and instructive discussion of the cost, and more generally the problem, of roads – specifically, interstate highways – that unfolded in comments section in a post by John Medaille.

That discussion, along with the general disapproval for cars and highways that is often evinced here on FPR,  was floating about in my head as we drove home from a visit with family in Connecticut over the weekend.  We were driving along the Merritt Parkway, which I have long regarded as one of the most pleasant and enjoyable drives in the nation.   I spent that portion of the otherwise execrable drive (mainly along Interstate 95) engaged with my children in observing the different designs of all the bridges that span the Merritt Parkway.  I’ve always admired the thought and design that went into the bridges, and a bit of sniffing around once we arrived home confirmed some suspicions:  the bridges were designed by one man (George Dunkelberger – a State employee, no less!), and according to a plan in which no bridge would be the same but all would be recognizably guided by a single vision.  (Architects who read this blog – and there are not a few – will doubtless have some critical words to say about the non-classical design of the bridges.  I, for one, have always admired the neo-romantic Art Deco style, which clearly influenced not a few of the bridges.  This is not to say that I admire all of them, but I admire above all the thought, craft, and effort to please the senses that went into their design and execution.  More anon).

But there’s more:  it turns out that in building the Parkway, enormous effort and expense was expended not only in leaving trees in the median and beside the road intact (providing a lovely canopy as one drives), but in carefully digging out the trees along the eventual roadway and re-planting them once the road had been constructed.

Now, there can be no doubt that in many ways too many roads, too many cars, and too much far-flung development has been a plague upon the land.  But, the Merritt Parkway is at the very least an interesting testimony to the staying-power of a certain ethic of care, respect for human scale, and belief in the centrality of aesthetic beauty (that is, that which is not merely reducible to utility) that evidently informed its design and building.   The effort and expense that went into the design and building of the bridges (and the landscaping) reflects a pre-automobile ethic in which we expected to have to live for a long time with the things that we built, and hence invested those parts of our built environment with care and attentiveness.   It reflected the belief that we ought to strive to create things of permanence and beauty, not mere utility at the least expense.   It reflected the too-fleeting view that something like driving was meant to be a way of experiencing the world, the natural beauty of our native places (hence an attentiveness to planting native trees and plants), not merely the quickest way to get from placeless Point A to deracinated Point B.

Ironically, it was the expansion of the car empire and the transformation of our landscapes to accomodate the automobile and its effluvia that contributed mightily to the destruction of that ethic.  Yet, for a time at least, that older ethic of care, design, beauty and permanence pervaded even the building and design of our highways.   Today, in building, we aim only for the most efficient, least expensive and – by definition – ugly and disfiguring.  Our highways, suburbs and strip malls are monuments of our degraded taste and obsession with efficiency at the cost of human excellence and beauty.

HIWAY

Almost unwittingly, without extensive discussion or reflection as a people, we have surrounded ourselves with ugliness and degradation.  We have been satisfied with very low standards until we no longer are able to recognize any alternative.  We ask our young men and women to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation and its freedoms, all the while agreeing to degraded definitions of what constitutes freedom (most often in terms only recognizable to consumers who seek out everyday low prices).  Even those who today travel along the Merritt Parkway are likely to race along at speeds that make any appreciation of its beauties unrecognizable, while more than a few families we saw were content to distract their children with videos from overhead screens rather than remarking upon the uniqueness of the parkway.  We are, in short, content with so much ugliness when we are clearly, or at least once were, capable of so much better.  Even our roads and highways could be things of beauty, meant to please, to delight, and to last – meant to be driven upon slowly and with appreciation for the world.  Cars and roads are to be with us for time foreseeable, but must we needs accept the expansion of ugliness into every corner of our lives?  Why do we ask so little of ourselves and of each other?  How did we come to this pass?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Weasly Pilgrim August 18, 2009 at 10:05 am

I’ve made a couple similar statements in various comments around FPR, so I won’t repeat myself. My own personal reminiscence along these lines can be found on my own blog here and here.

As for examples of good things built to last (by government mandate, no less), I offer up the many structures and the extensive development work performed by the CCC in the 1930s in Pennsylvania state parks. They used local materials (stone and timber), generally gathered on-site. They built for permanence. And it is easy on the eyes. Granted that the style is log cabin rustic and dirt simple, it nonetheless fits perfectly in the environment in which it was built.

avatar Empedocles August 18, 2009 at 1:34 pm

The ugliness of our built environment is a national shame. Say what you will about the Gilded Age, but the masters of industry were all educated in art history and so built beautiful structures. They also has a sense of their legacy and wanted to be remembered fondly. Turning power over to soulless corporations with only the bottom line as a priority headed by faceless CEOs has contributed to the nightmare. The fact that American citizens have no comprehension of art history or history at all certainly compounds the problem.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 18, 2009 at 2:56 pm

The State of Oregon Highway Comm. had a wonderful engineer named Conde McCullough who designed some superb bridges along their coastline during the 20′s to 40′s. Interestingly, this era seems to be the highpoint of National Park Design as well as Parkway construction. Historicism was a frequent contributor, as was arcadian naturalism and often, no small amount of art deco. At Zion in Utah and Acadia in Maine, the road mix bituminous concrete included aggregate from the area’s rock which allowed the pavement to beautifully blend with the terrain as the roadways took advantage of both drama and views to produce an almost musical sensation as one drives. There was a craft tradition to the work and nature was brought BACK IN, ironically… as a civilizing element. We can see it along the Taconic Parkway, the Saw Mill, the Shenandoah Parkway and any number of period boulevards now crumbling.

The Merritt is a limited access highway that does not allow trucks and this is a significant contributor to the overall atmosphere and allowed the builders to retain a human scale. Much of this design was informed by the City Beautiful Movement and its forebear, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago during the late 1800′s . Unfortunately, trains were abandoned in favor of trucks and with the Interstate Highway System inaugurated as much for a defense deployment system as public highway, aesthetics were thrown out the window.

But, during the first half of the last century, Classicism was merged with an appreciation of nature informed by early writers like Thoreau , Whitman and Burroughs and a bright future was visualized that married industrial technology with a firm grounding in traditional concepts of beauty. Speed, industry and productivity were not seen as a victory over nature nor triumph over time but as portals to a new age of reflective leisure that could find much pleasure in the built landscape. World War II changed all this.

After the War and with the great explosion of American productive capacity on the domestic scene, we seemed to devalue the role of reflection and nature in our lives…..though never fully forgetting them….and set to work creating a system where time is money. In as much as this money was fiat, perhaps even time became fiat as well…meaningless and of no intrinsic value. Modern technology, in this context, became an almost malevolent beast, insatiable and while the bringer of many good things and certainly softer lives, the dawn of a school of thought that characterizes Man As Cancer was inaugurated and Man does his level best to confirm this faulty notion. Efficiency and Economy are now the Great Resort of Mankind and this has evolved in concert with an even more loutish and destructive mental state: Fear.

With the Cold War, mankind could be gone in an instant of Mutual Assured Destruction. The Age of Terrorism has grabbed this baton and now we have an emerging industry of “Security Design” for both communications and finance as well as in public buildings. Civilization seems precarious still and so we revert to old norms of behavior and nature is exiled once again , banished so that we might defend ourselves against her again. Our solution to natures perceived “revolt” is not through a reconciliation so much as through an increased technological ability…we shall invent our way out of the problem. Always and forever….we must triumph.

Interestingly enough, at long last, the people smell a rat. They harbor suspicions about unbridled technological abundance and suspect that modernity for modernity’s sake is not an open embrace. There is much of interest that is developing in the design professions from green roofs and storm water management to New Urbanist craftsmanship and a wider appreciation for the Public Realm. Some magnificent new parks are opening all around the country…..some renovations, some brand new. Waterfronts are no longer back alleys of open sewage. Walking is no longer drudgery. Urban areas are not being fled, they are being re-imagined and once again, Nature is being brought BACK IN as a civilizing element. Concurrent with this is a widening concern for the excesses of our centralized and industrialized food production and distribution system and this can end the absence of cause and effect between urban areas and their rural suppliers which quickened with the replacement of railroads with widely dispersed trucking.

Still, the habits of the War Mindset are hard to kill off and technocratic zero-sum reductionism remains seriously entrenched. What depresses me is that the current Economic and Environmental farrago represent a superb learning vehicle. Like at no other recent time, we are intellectually open to a re-set of our life paradigm…how we live on the land, travel, converse economically, grow and deliver our food…..all of these very human preoccupations are primed with a national zeitgeist aborning for a major transformation that could be a huge economic boon with far better environmental consequences than we have ever experienced in past booms. The current travails possess within them a brilliant opportunity for us to take what we have learned and reorganize ourselves into a more organic form of life that shows the Man as Cancer brigades the limitations of their creed. The Technocratic Warcentric era that culminated in the Sub-Prime fiasco has reminded us that a home is no mere commodity and that community is the most meaningful aspect of our lives. The last half of the twentieth Century…a victory over State Socialism at great cost all around, can be seen for the aberration it was. Mankind, nature’s great cognitive actor is equipped now with a skepticism of utopian ideals and a longing for a more productive relationship with our environment. The citizenry is way out ahead of the leadership in this regard but the leadership is doing everything in its power to hold onto the armored and sanguinary mindset of those five blood-drenched decades that eclipsed the period when driving was a musical experience and time was spent worthily.

avatar John Médaille August 18, 2009 at 5:13 pm

In my mis-spent youth, I was a politician and had many an argument with our city manager about how a road out to look.

Ugliness is coded into the finance system. A road can be landscapped because the financing is less of an issue while the road way is regarded as a permanent improvement. With most commercial properties, the useful life is often deemed to be no more than 20 or 30 years, and the financing often on short-term notes that have to be constantly rolled over. The ROI must cover a lot of interest and refinancing costs. Hence it is necessary for the investor (who often only has a short-term interest) to get an ROI high enough to cover these costs, which provides an incentive to build as cheaply as possible.

avatar Aaron Schroeder August 18, 2009 at 8:38 pm

I have to disagree to a degree with the commenters thus far. The Merritt Parkway strikes me as yet another in a line of exceptions that some FPR writers have tried to make for features of our lives that we might call “Modernity Done Right.” Susan McWilliams earlier essay on television strikes a similar note. The underlying form of these exceptions is something like this: “Insofar as our lives require X, X should (1) be as beautiful as X can be, (2) be built and used to ‘the human scale’ (3) etc.” The problem here is the qualifier: “Insofar as our lives require X.” So, “Insofar as the classes we teach require us to watch television…” or “Insofar as my family needs to take a 15-hour round-trip vacation this summer…” Well, ok, yeah. Insofar as a port-o-john can be beautiful and built to the human scale (that’s a strange image) it ought to be, right?

The point is that there oughtn’t be port-o-johns in the first place, and the problem is that this sort of reasoning can be used to justify a host things that the FPR has conventionally considered unjustifiable. “Insofar as our universities have women’s studies programs…”, “Insofar as millions rely upon the trucking industry for their daily bread…”, or Insofar as our lives require coal power…”

I’ve never been on the Merritt Parkway, but prima facie, I have a hard time believing that it’s more beautiful and built more to the human scale than a series of two-lane roads connecting the tiny hamlets that have been destroyed by the twin legacies of Earl Butz and suburban sprawl. Crap done well is crap nonetheless, and no matter how well-built a four-lane highway is, it’s still a four-lane highway.

avatar Matthew Gerken August 19, 2009 at 7:46 am

Aaron, you are right to a certain extent, but I doubt the good professor here meant to defend the 15 hour road trip or the 4 lane highway. But insofar as we need to see some good in the world in which we actually inhabit (and the Porcher mentality seems to very much about that world, as opposed to utopian visions be they progressive or reactionary), I think it’s not such a bad thing to talk about crap done well. As an occasional user of the monstrosity known as I-95 who only recently discovered the Merritt Parkway, I certainly appreciate it.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 19, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Aaron,
Your admission of never having been on the Merritt even as you refer to it as “crap” is telling as is your assertion that the only viable roadways of worth are “a series of two lane roads connecting the tiny hamlets destroyed by…” Perhaps you might more enjoy the tiny hamlets of the Russian Steppes and their dusty two lane roads striking out into nowhere. There is a lot of this just north of Novosibirsk if you’re interested. I think the train ride from Moscow takes a little over 3 days. Domestic Aeroflot tends to put me on edge. The Siberian plains are interesting at first but after 4 hours or so, well……the allure of birch and potato fields wanes. Once in one of the small hamlets, you might enjoy the kind of scene that might just be in our future…a Mule pulling a Soviet era sedan.

Personally, I’m always ready to throw a few molotovs at the perverse quality of modern auto-utopia but that subject aside, there are scales and quality of building that can always be commended and the Merritt is one of them. Just don’t try it the first time at Rush Hour, these suburbanites are damned crazy in their German Roadsters flying along a road design for lumbering DeSotos.

avatar Bob Cheeks August 19, 2009 at 2:03 pm

D.W.,
I wish you’d saved your choler for Bruce. But, noooooo poor old Aaron gets it!
I almost went to the Soviet Union back in the late 60′s but when they asked, “Papers, please,” at the border, I screamed like a little girl.

avatar polistra August 19, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Oklahoma did a great job of picking up where CCC left off. Starting in the mid 50s they built a series of state parks and lodges that remain beautiful and popular today.

A nice series of pics from Osage Hills State Park, which is my idea of Heaven:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/osagehillsstatepark/

Unfortunately the state is now falling into the idiocy of privatization.

Documentation of this tragedy here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/25726169@N03/3818258511/
(slide back and forth in the photostream for more)

avatar The Reticulator August 19, 2009 at 9:36 pm

A lot of beautiful structures have been built by workers laboring under the governmental lash, as have a lot of ugly ones. I try to think about the lives of the people involved and not get too caught up in the aesthetics of the materials that are left standing after the people have returned to dust.

avatar JD Salyer August 20, 2009 at 8:54 am

“How did we come to this pass?”

I missed out on the earlier debate about automobiles, so this might have been previously observed by somebody, but — I increasingly wonder if the problem is not that automobiles exist, but that they have become normative.

I.e., vis-a-vis Henry Ford’s ambition, my objection to our current social order is not so much that some people have cars but the assumption that everybody deserves one, which has led to the result that that nobody can live without one.

I mean, for most of America, if you don’t have a car, it means you are either A) Destitute or B) Amish. That’s pretty screwed up.

avatar jeff v August 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm

And then of course there’s the problem of the sheer number of miles. This just in from Minnesota Public Radio:

Minnesota’s updated 20-year plan for highways identifies $65 billion in needs and only $15 billion available to address them.

The just-finalized forecast from the Minnesota Department of Transportation says it is unrealistic to entirely close the gap. For instance, every cent added to the gas tax generates $30 million per year.

“We’re at the dawn of a very difficult discussion of how we’re going to finance our road construction in the future,” said Tim Worke, a leading official with the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “This $50 billion gap in Minnesota is just a microcosm of the huge problem nationally.”

avatar Aaron Schroeder August 24, 2009 at 10:34 pm

D.W., Your reactionary anti-Sovietism hardly seems to capture the landscape of two-lane roads that I was referring to. Maybe you’ve never been to the Midwest (as I’ve never really been out East), but there’s an extensive network of very relatively beautiful two-lane roads connecting America’s small farming towns in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (I can’t really speak for points south and west), and such networks are what I was talking about when I discussed roadways built more “to the human scale.”

And that said, you haven’t really given any reasons to think that the Merritt Parkway is “built to the human scale” or “beautiful” except to say that “it is.” Tautology, anyone?

Maybe you’re saying that it’s beautiful by comparison (say, to I-95 as Matt Gerken does) or built to the human scale by comparison, but that doesn’t really address my criticism, when I was arguing that very problem with things like the Merritt Parkway (and “good” television, and “good” frozen food, etc.) is that they’re good by comparison . So, unless you have any reason to think that the Merritt Parkway is good on its own merits–that is, that it doesn’t foster happy motoring syndrome while making Whole-Foods-Shopping-Prius-Driving-Liberal-Phonies feel good about themselves–I’m not sure what the grounds of your complaint might be.

avatar The Spokesrider August 24, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Aaron, I’ve done a lot of bicycling on those two-lane rural roads in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Those roads are good, but those in Indiana, Michigan (where I now live) and Ohio are even prettier. Those out here are built closer to the ground than those in Minnesota and Iowa. (I’ve ridden maybe as much as 40,000 miles in the past 15 years, and certainly more than 30,000. I know people who do a lot more than that, but it’s enough to give me definite opinions on the subject!)

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