Posted originally as a comment to Patrick Deneen’s “Road Rage” (and re-posted here at his insistence):
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.