Thursday, August 03, 2006

By design -- Part 2

It sometimes seems we are in full retreat from visually harmonious surroundings. For example, the regional materials and housebuilding styles that served us well in the past -- timber in New England, limestone in Indiana, adobe in Santa Fe -- are replaced everywhere by ubiquitous cookie-cutter Tyvec-wrapped McMansions. Cheapness and convenience rule the day, with ugliness as their corollary.

But the industrial age has also produced visually satisfying environments.

I grew up in the valley of the Tennessee River when the TVA was in full flower. I was dazzled by the beauty of the great dams and Art Deco powerhouses that TVA engineers threw across flatland rivers and mountain streams

The landscapes flooded by the dams seemed then no great visual loss: dirt roads, tin-roofed shacks, ramshackle barns with "Mail Pouch Tobacco" signs painted on their sides. In retrospect, I can better appreciate the visual integrity of that vanished landscape, but the dams remain for me monuments of pleasing design, and they lifted the region out of poverty.

The automobile parkways established early in the last century were another pleasing contribution to the landscape. My first trip north by car from Tennessee was along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive of North Carolina and Virginia. It was a slow journey, but as visually satisfying as anything Samuel Johnson might have seen on his way to Oxford.

I remember being made breathless by my first drive along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. Every bridge over the parkway was a jewel of unique design. That such a thing came to be built seemed a miracle. Of course, it is slowly being obliterated today by generic concrete overpasses.

Artifacts of industrialization need not be ugly. Consider the beauty of Rockefeller Center, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Texaco and Gulf gas stations of the 1930's, and the Art Deco federal post offices of that same economically depressed but design-conscious era! The visual blight that presently afflicts so many of our public spaces -- especially the strip-malling of America -- represents a lapse of judgment and resolve.