The Public Works

Left: Rural Electrification Administration, poster design by Lester Beall, 1934. Right: Wind Farm, China, 2009.

Americans would like things to be better. … Everyone would like their child to have improved life chances at birth. … They would appreciate full medical coverage at lower cost, longer life expectancy, better public services, and less crime. … In the US today, we have a discredited state and inadequate public resources.
— Tony Judt, December 17, 2009

Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, July 8, 1938

Yes indeed, today in America we know that something is wrong, and we would like things to be better. Certainly the design disciplines have been energetic in engaging the converging crises of energy, housing, infrastructure, environment, climate change. In his recent essay on Urban Omnibus, Columbia professor Vishaan Chakrabarti argues passionately for legislation that would produce “a country of cities.” Chakrabarti expresses his frustration — shared by many in the design community — that Obama and his advisors have failed to grapple with the root cause of the crises, which is the American way of life, “our profligate consumption,” the big house and the wide highway and the exurban spread. And he imagines what might have been a “very different first year for the administration,” with the creation of a big new program, the “American Smart Infrastructure Act,” or ASIA. “After the $700-billion TARP bailout, in which banks were said to be too big to fail,” he writes, “we could have been told that the nation and world were, in fact, too big to fail.” Chakrabarti describes his ASIA:

We will build and rebuild infrastructure that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages urban density, emphasizing high-speed rail, transmission grids from alternative energy sources, national internet broadband, and critical roadway maintenance. We will deemphasize all infrastructure that exacerbates emissions, particularly roadway and airport expansion projects.

Left: Hoover Dam, 1938 [Library of Congress]. Right: Horns Rev Wind Farm, Denmark, North Sea, 2007.

A similar sense of urgency and idealism has inspired cityLab, the urban design think tank at UCLA, to create WPA 2.0, a multidimensional program that Linda Samuels profiled earlier this week on this site. Samuels describes the WPA 2.0 design competition held last year and the high-powered symposium that followed in Washington, D.C., both of which promote an ambitious agenda for America’s infrastructure and cities. As she notes, in the finalists’ projects, “infrastructure is expanded in scope,” with each team tackling a difficult issue — drought, pollution, immigration, etc. — and generating designs that not only solve technical problems but also envision new amenities. Here is Samuels’s description of the winning project, Carbon T.A.P.//Tunnel Algae Park: “The project aims to transform zones of concentrated carbon dioxide emissions through new green infrastructure that would not only sequester carbon but also create public spaces. Sited above the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in New York, the project deploys pontoon-like, pivoting piers that combine carbon-generated algae farming and biofuel production with wildlife habitats and bicycle and pedestrian paths. The result is a dramatic reinvention of the urban waterfront.”

Chakrabarti’s ASIA, cityLab’s WPA 2.0 — each underscores the eagerness of the design disciplines to participate in a contemporary rebuilding program as bold and far-reaching as the original WPA, the Works Progress Administration, the biggest of FDR’s New Deal agencies of the 1930s, created in response to the Great Depression. This is an eagerness I share: as director of the Phoenix Urban Research Lab, at Arizona State University, I worked with architecture and landscape architecture colleagues to develop our own big-picture, wicked-problem project — Post-Petroleum Phoenix, a multiyear initiative with the goal of producing design and policy guidelines for the creative adaptation of the low-density, car-centric city over the next half century.

And yet it seems increasingly — depressingly — clear that the Great Recession is not sparking a new New Deal, a contemporary WPA. The New Deal was a big-scale, legacy-building, vision-to-burn public sector response to national crisis. But in 2010, unlike in the ’30s, we confront our crisis in a social-political climate that’s to a large degree contemptuous of public sector solutions, and more, hostile to the very idea of the public.

This dilemma is brilliantly analyzed by the historian Tony Judt in “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy,” published recently in the New York Review of Books. Here I can only suggest the scope of Judt’s long and incisive essay, which goes far toward explaining the current dissonance — the fact that we want things to be better, yet fail to support the actions that would make them better. 1

Rural Electrification Administration, silkscreen by Lester Beall, 1937. Right: Solarpark in Rodenas, North Friesland, Germany, circa 2009 [via the Guardian].

How have we gotten to this contradictory moment? Judt illuminates decades of political and economic debate between the Chicago School free marketers, on the one side, and the social-democratic adherents of John Maynard Keynes, on the other, in order to trace “the history of a prejudice, the universal contemporary resort to ‘economism,’ or the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.” He goes on:

For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss — economic questions in the narrowest sense — is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.2

What has been central to the triumph of economism, in Judt’s persuasive argument, is the galloping pace of privatization. Again in the past thirty years, he writes, “A cult of privatization has mesmerized Western (and many non-Western) governments. … What we have been watching these past decades is the steady shifting of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. … Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.”

They cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue. To Judt’s list one can readily add the kind of long-range reinvestment in infrastructure that Chakrabarti envisions, or the innovative projects inspired by WPA 2.0. Or the proposals being generated by MOMA’s Rising Currents, in which teams of designers address the likelihood of rising sea levels around New York City; or Growing Water, from UrbanLab, which proposes a network of eco-boulevards for Chicago; or Moving Cooler, a new report sponsored by the NRDC, which explores transportation strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions … this is a list that could go on and on, for we’re fortunate to live in an era of remarkable creativity across the design professions.

Left: Proposed High Speed Rail, California [via Livable Streets]. Right: Eurostar High Speed Rail, St. Pancras Station, London, 2007 [photographer: Oxyman, via Wikimedia Commons]

But the implementation of this creativity will require what seems to have gone missing in American life, which is a commitment to collective good, the conviction that not everything that’s worth paying for will pay for itself. Three decades on, the cult of privatization has blurred for us crucial distinctions between what’s optimally public and properly private, between the different strengths and capacities of each sector. 3 How might we revive these distinctions in order to tackle the profound problems we face — to move from the rhetoric of good intentions, and the sophisticated depiction of innovative design, to actual programs and policies and constructed works (which inevitably will be partial and imperfect)? Tony Judt put it this way: “We have to begin with the state: as the incarnation of collective interests, collective purposes, and collective goods. If we cannot learn to ‘think the state’ once again, we shall not get very far.”

To think the state: this is a discussion we designers need to delve into, for the most exciting and transformative work being proposed today — diversifying our transportation networks, greening the power grid, creating low-carbon neighborhoods, reducing pollution and promoting conservation — is of a scale and complexity that demands sustained public commitment and powerful legislative vision, not only to construct but to operate. Without the state, such work will not get very far. 4

So what exactly do we do? The urge is to end on the upbeat — a call to action. And yet at this point the essential dilemma is so fundamental. It’s got less to do with anything as easily identifiable as (say) partisan politics or economic interests than with what underlies our political and economic culture — what George Orwell would have called our “mental atmosphere,” in which the balance, or imbalance, between private and public has become so naturalized as to seem inevitable, and we’ve forgotten that government is ourselves. “Why is it,” Tony Judt asks, “that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?”

There’s the challenge. To imagine a different sort of society, a different set of arrangements, with a reinvigorated public, and a new era of great public works.

  1. The essay was adapted from an October 2009 talk at New York University, where Judt is director of the Remarque Institute and a University Professor. You can watch a video of the event here.
  2. In the design world there is no more insidious instance of this acquired taste than the so-called Bilbao Effect, which seems to underscore the value of high architecture to urban redevelopment yet actually diminishes that value by narrowing it to “issues of profit and loss.” And of course this can boomerang if the redevelopment flops and the would-be Bilbao fails to produce the Effect.
  3. It was in his First Inaugural Address — on January 20, 1981 — that Ronald Reagan declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
  4. Judt offers as an example the railway system: “Imagine, if you will, a railway station. A real railway station, not New York’s Pennsylvania Station: a failed 1960s-era shopping mall stacked above a coal cellar. I mean something like Waterloo Station in London, the Gare de l’Est in Paris, Mumbai’s dramatic Victoria Terminus, or Berlin’s magnificent new Hauptbahnhof. In these remarkable cathedrals of modern life, the private sector functions perfectly well in its place: there is no reason, after all, why newsstands or coffee bars should be run by the state. Anyone who can recall the desiccated, plastic-wrapped sandwiches of British Railway’s cafés will concede that competition in this arena is to be encouraged. … But you cannot run trains competitively. Railways — like agriculture or the mails — are at one and the same time an economic activity and an essential public good. Moreover, you cannot render a railway system more efficient by placing two trains on a track and waiting to see which performs better: railways are a natural monopoly.”
Nancy Levinson, “The Public Works,” Places Journal, January 2010. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • faslanyc

    01.21.2010 at 13:32

    Wow. Nice synthesis.

    To “think the state” immediately conjures a visceral image that is likely highly unpalatable. Vishaan Chakrabarti in his essay mentioned the inappropriateness of comparing Copenhagen to “a polyglot metropolis like New York” (sic) and I would say that the constant harkening of the WPA and Teddy Roosevelt is also inappropriate, and perhaps detrimental. The fact is, our country is more complex (more complex technology, more immigrant groups, more population, more wealth- all of which exponentially increase complexity) than it was in the 30’s and a 1-to-1 comparison is not going to get us far. It is also more complicated than most modern European states.

    We need new models of practice and of engaging people and the environment. I firmly believe that in the last 30 years we as designers have undermined our own position in this discussion by focusing on decadence and I think our awards/publications/renderings largely bear this out (not in all cases, of course). It’s just difficult to be taken seriously as a profession when people have real concerns and the professionals/academics we lionize are talking about meat houses and putting little windmills on the top of skyscrapers. Most of what we design is just a product to be consumed, be it a park or a building.

    I think we need to be less elitist as a profession, embrace ‘brown before green’ (or have no mantras at all), and work to involve and enable people (this is what infrastructure does) as opposed to producing for them, which is paternalistic and exclusive.

    Nice article.

  • Nancy Levinson

    01.21.2010 at 14:36

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    I agree that the comparisons or parallels between today and the '30s, and FDR and the New Deal, only take us so far. Yet I wonder whether we tend to idealize or soft-focus the past — partly because we know how things turned out — and inevitably to overlook how terribly complicated it must have looked back then. Think about it: worldwide depression (more severe than today), another war brewing in Europe (and the veterans of World War I hadn't even turned 40), a new kind of state taking shape in the form of the Soviet Union, etc.

    So even despite the differences, and the greater complexities of our world today, the big question of public and private — of finding an equitable and productive balance — still seems at the heart of the challenges we face.

  • John McKean

    01.22.2010 at 08:23

    Seen from Europe, it's greatly encouraging to hear such a voice in the US, even if in Places (as similar arguments in the professional press here in UK) preach to the converted.

    By the way, as a footnote, look at China (accepting the vast differences and great unpleasantnesses) - recovering from the Great Recession more quickly than anywhere else and doing it directly through massive infrastructural and long-term centrally-funded developments.

  • rs

    01.22.2010 at 12:51

    Interesting piece and I agree with the general premise that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a blown opportunity of injecting much needed public funds into the development of a new socio-economic paradigm. It never became the new mission to the moon, the new Manhattan project, the new infrastructure impetus that it could have been for sure.

    However, the idea that the U.S. has lost its sense of the collective or that the collective is most effective when an arm of the state is way off base. What has happened over the past several decades is the implosion of the state measures that failed to live up to their ideals. The war on poverty didn't do much for poverty alleviation. The social "safety" net has morphed from safety in the sense of helping those in temporary need to a program that facilitates the perpetuation of self-helplessness. Alas, what has happened is that over the last few decades we have seen a realization that the if the state gives a man a fish, he eats for a day... if it gives a man a fish every day, he quits bothering to look for a fish at all because he expects that the state should just give it to him.

    If it’s the sense of state driven collective we have lost, then why is it that the U.S. rose from a backwater, technically lagging collection of third world farmers to the leading civilization on earth without the state playing a major role. The industrial revolution and the changes in the U.S. occurred primarily between the year 1800 and 1900, well before much state intervention at all. So, if the sense of the state guided collective is what we're missing, then it seems worthy to ask how we ever got this far in the first place? Right???

  • Mark Spence

    01.22.2010 at 13:59

    This is an excellent article.

    I have been browsing the comments and as a European (from Belfast / live in London / travelled extensively). I find comments such as "America is much more complicated than most modern European States" both repugnant and laughable at the same time.

    I see things very differently. I no longer see America even as a functioning Democracy. The public and civil society lost the battle. Not against those pesky liberals or Communists but the battle you never realised you were fighting, against the corporate takeover of your society.

    The result is a nation which to the travelled individual looks impoverished. The really interesting point is that given most Americans never leave America they have no idea how better things can be and are elsewhere.

    In addition America became a great economic power not because God lead the Nation by the hand and not due to your "Great" Democracy but because you had a continent (almost) all to yourselves, a massive internal market and (seemingly) endless resources which you beleived you had a God given right to exploit to exhaustion.

    What America needs is a new found sense of reality and a little balance. (a half decent education system would not go amiss either).

  • faslanyc

    01.22.2010 at 15:21

    You have some good points, Mark, ones I doubt many who read Places would disagree with and that are generally accepted as common knowledge, especially by those Americans who have travelled a bit, and especially those who have lived on other continents extensively. Or have the internet.

    I realize I made a sweeping generalization about the complexity of America as opposed to individual Eurpean nations so I'll expound just a bit- the United States is, as you mentioned, huge geographically, one of the most populous nations in the world, and one of the richest (though with huge inequalities in wealth as is more typically seen in the developing nations). Additionally, the population is extremely heterogenous compared to most European nations, despite hundreds of years of our best efforts at genocide, homogenization, and assimilation.

    At least according to most metrics, the US is more complex than, say, Ireland. And by the same broad generalizing comment, Mexico City or Sao Paolo is in many ways more complex than New York City.

    The article quoted by the author of this piece, the one by Chakrabati, does a better job than I of pointing this out when elucidating the fallacy intrisic to one-to-one comparisons of Copehagen and New York City.

    glad you had a laugh but no offense meant.

  • Ian Baldwin

    01.22.2010 at 17:56

    The state or "government" (a term that Americans understand to mean any possible combination of municipal, regional, state, and national authorities) of course has responsibility for implementing a project, but it is private firms that typically build (and sometimes maintain and operate) infrastructural facilities. The real question is, do we want to assume financial responsibility for it?

    A very thoughtful expat Canadian I was talking to the other day summed it up thus: "Americans want the goodies, but they don't want to pay for them. The abhorrence of taxes here is completely irrational."

    Too true. Yes, governments can be bloated, but so can the private sector (just consider the still-roiling investment-baking scandal). In my experience working with the public sector, a greater problem is attracting and retaining quality employees who are willing to put up with the politicized atmosphere and red-tape accountability measures (themselves a leading cause of inefficiency) and created by our fundamental distrust of government.

    Unfortunately, our political and social climate has arrived at a stage where even the most rational and respected politician would not dare suggest that we need to pay more to maintain our current way of life, to say nothing of improving it. The policy and design initiatives discussed in the essay are exciting, but I'm pessimistic about their chances of being effected in a New Deal top-down fashion. Infrastructure is an investment that pays off over decades, difficult to justify to a world feeding on 24-hour news cycles.

    Right now, I'd agree that the best hope lies in more bottom-up engagement and getting ourselves out of the "designer" corners we've painted ourselves into, but that involves shifting a lot of entrenched interests and beliefs. In the medium term I'd say we need to get more design-educated people into the public sector (like the current HPD Secretary, Shaun Donovan), where they can combine their understanding of the physical environment with the skills to effect policy. Until the climate of hostility whipped up by the populist far right (and supported by incorrect readings of American history, as in the post by "rs") toward the public sector abates, I feel that we will accomplish more that way than through earnest frontal assaults.

  • Nancy Levinson

    01.22.2010 at 18:48

    I think we've got to keep in mind the crucial issue of scale. What Ian Baldwin says is true: it's private companies who typically build infrastructure. But for the largest and most transformative projects, it's the public sector that provides the impetus and the political and legislative context, whether in the form of enabling legislation or bond issues or authorities empowered to oversee large and lengthy projects.

    So for instance — thinking about what RS says, about what made the US prosper in the 19th century — one of the great projects of that era was the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The western half from Nebraska to California was built by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, but it was enabled by acts of Congress, which provided land grants and authorized the issuance of government bonds.

    Or — moving into the 20th century — it took six companies, teams of private contractors, to build Hoover Dam, but what made possible the big project was Congressional legislation and funding. And then there's the Interstate system — the biggest public works project in history! Again, thousands of private contractors and builders were put to work, but only as a result of a big-picture public vision about the future of the country.

    There's a lot the private sector can do, but there's a limit. (And sure, the public sector can be wasteful, ineffective, etc — but so can the private sector, as the recent dismal performance of the banking industry shows.) The piece by Tony Judt that I reference extensively notes this — there are kinds of projects that are inevitably public, and natural monopolies, because they cannot be operated at a profit, or competitively. (No need to build another Hoover Dam, and see which generates more hydroelectricity.) Ultimately we build these kinds of projects because they're the price of civilization.

  • Peter J. Wolf

    01.25.2010 at 02:21

    Thank you, Nancy, for bringing this important discussion to this forum.

    While I encourage my students (some of whom you may know) to use their creativity, ambition, and skills to tackle large-scale, intractable problems, I am frustrated by the lack of case studies demonstrating successful (however we might measure it) outcomes. Indeed, it sometimes seems like what's truly intractable is not the "problem" itself, but the process of changing peoples' minds about it. Though that, too, can be framed as a design problem, of course.

  • Jason Laughlin

    01.25.2010 at 09:34

    Hear hear, Peter. There is an epic problem in the "mental atmosphere" surrounding us in the U.S.. The polarization of our ideas aren't simply in terms of liberal or conservative. We have a comically revised and idealized version of American history that cements our actions as a citizenry. And in turn we have an irrational fear of some sort of European dystopia. Combine this with government institutions that fail to actually pass legislation while hiding the fact that there is no free lunch we have quite a cocktail for apathy.

    To start tackling these problems I keep coming back to the idea of trying to figure out how to give us all a common purpose again. How do we get people to realize that what's good for Nebraska can be good for New York and vice versa? That high-speed rail around Chicago has benefits down the road to California. And on more local levels that levies in New Orleans matter to people in Shreveport. To focus more on Nancy's comment, how do we get people to realize that the American way has a price and it's worth paying.

  • Rob Henning

    01.25.2010 at 12:13

    The statistic that 2/3 of the housing in Phoenix is in foreclosure is staggering. Can this really be true? It's so staggering I thought I'd do some research.

    The first place to look was in Mr. Chakrabarti's original work, but he does not cite a source in that opinion piece.

    So, a quick Google search tells me there are about 425,000 households in Phoenix. And, in 2009, there were about 41,000 foreclosures. The seems to be nowhere near 2/3.

    I'd be grateful to understand how Mr. Chakrabarti arrived at his statistic. If it is correct and factual, I'd like to understand how.

    Absent that, it looks like either a mistake (at best) or a deliberate distortion (at worst). And if either of those are true, I'm disappointed in DO for failing to fact check and perpetuating the error!

  • Susan Piedmont-Palladino

    01.25.2010 at 15:24

    Excellent piece, Nancy. I often ask my students, as we study the architecture and landscape of Washington DC, if they thought the city would look this way if it were being designed today. If only the values of efficiency, profitability, and privatization prevailed it is unlikely that we would have such a capital city. In fact, one wonders if the Metro system would have been built at all, as it depends on a sense of shared responsibility and shared benefit (both of which are in tatters at the moment)

    I'm reminded of Jane Jacob's book Systems of Survival where, through a conversation among several people, she sorted out the Guardians and the Merchants and the roles and responsibilities appropriate to each. It's an extremely useful frame through which to look at the issues everyone is talking about here.

  • Nancy Levinson

    01.25.2010 at 17:02

    In response to Rob Henning:

    Thanks for raising the issue about the Phoenix foreclosure statistic, which I'll share with Vishaan Chakrabarti. I hope we'll be able to provide more clarification.

    It does seem a hard statistic to pin down, without some qualifications. In a fairly quick search, I found a Phoenix Business Journal story estimating that last year "more than" 163,000 properties were foreclosed on. (The 41,000 figure refers, I think to single-family homes, and doesn't include condos.) Also, there's a study by Jay Butler of ASU, indicating that foreclosures made up 66 percent of the housing sold in one month last fall.

    What is striking, in any case, is the dramatic weakness of Phoenix real estate. A windshield survey of central Phoenix would show block after block with multiple "for sale" signs — and many have been there for one or two years, or even longer. The larger issue, of course, is the inherent vulnerability of an economy so deeply dependent on growth.

  • George Siekkinen

    01.25.2010 at 17:36

    Nancy Levinson has written a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. In some of the subsequent commentary, there seems at times to be some lack of clarity or less than complete understanding of American history regarding the respective roles of the individual (person or corporation) and the larger entities representing the community - i.e. New England town, or one of the States, and/the Federal government. As I recall from readings past, there were often community expectations for any individual who obtained a parcel of land in what was to become a new community - the size of the building, the type of construction, and/or the time for the construction to take place. Also, for many of the early major infrastructure projects - the National Road (aka US Route 40), many of the canal projects - the government did play a major role. For the development of the railroads, there was delegation to the railroad corporations of more or less the powers of eminent domain in some instances as I recall in some readings regarding the State of Ohio. Also, witness the Federal government's granting of vast quantities of the Western lands in alternating sections to the private railroad corporations to encourage and support their extension of new railroad lines to the West Coast. There have often been "partnerships" between the private and public sectors and these types of partnerships are one model to consider for advancing the new infrastruction we need to create a sustainable model for civilization that relies less on fossil-fuels and more on alternative energy sources. A transparent and inclusive public process should be the ultimate guiding hand, though, in harnessing private initiative for what will generate private gain and also provide public benefit.

  • Tim Grrr...

    01.26.2010 at 08:12

    One hates to be so crass or simplistic as to reduce the problems of the "public's" perception of itself, but in the spirit of "profit and loss," one of the reasons U.S. citizens may have little faith in public agencies beyond the days of WPA v1 is a case of mediocre marketing. FDR was a brilliant salesman, and if I recall my elementary lessons correctly, the propaganda films, paintings, and "fireside chats" were strokes of genius. As a result, almost every town and metropolis in this country can boast of some kind of artful gem in its possession. JFK, in his short time, called us to space and a better society where we all owned responsibility. Politics and fashion, whether it was art deco or sputnik, once stirred our sensibilities towards imaginable futures. Obviously, Obama, with Gotham type and Shepard Ferrys in hand, learned enough of those lessons to get his team elected. Some of us thought government might be sexy again.

    But I confess I have always had a fetish for socialism and its artifacts, even though I was unaware of it as a child. But whenever I would travel here or abroad, I subconsciously, then purposely sought out government buildings to tell me something of where I was and what people valued as a state. Terms like "national stadium" or "parliament building" seemed exotic, even seductive when all I knew were "rec. centers." Eventually, I came to understand that the institutions inside those buildings were as meaningful as their shells were beautiful. Our parks departments can, in their work, be as "sexy" as any "ministry for sport." Have we ever asked ourselves what we would do if we lost our public institutions? Think how difficult it is to get answers to basic credit card questions. Imagine if a corporation ran our schools? Given the regrets over the old Penn Station, think how Los Angelenos would feel if Union Station were bulldozed for another mall? With all their flaws, these institutions mean something to our collective self-worth. Many people who work in government buildings, be they doctors or postal workers, make less money. But government jobs in some societies still provide prestige as well as security. What I recall people showing me was often a sense of pride in being part of something bigger and grander. The WPA worked because it called upon the best in ourselves to show us what we were capable of. The results were monuments to our potential, sold to us with confidence.

    We might as well make use of that "profit and loss" mechanism we've "acquired," and do something ambitious with it. Historically, both private banks and public libraries tapped into our senses of awe and divine inspiration, creating cathedrals of civic pride -- tricks as old as castles and heraldry. Like it or not, we are idol worshippers. When we separated Church and State, we surely meant them to be equal in our estimation. But the only things we have to compete with "mega" churches these days are prisons. Our national messages are so boring now. Why should Apple be the only one marketing products we believe we can believe in? Enough with the indecisive, feeble committees motivated by childish fears of liability. Being a confident, risk-taking adult is sexy. The public sector needs to grow up and demonstrate its work is valid and valuable. It needs to dress itself accordingly. Don't show the world strip mall DMV's with dull-eyed civil servants at the wheel! Like Amish barn raisers and Red Sox fans, people need edifices, material or imagined, that they can believe into being. Rem Koolhaas alone did not build the Seattle Public Library. The "public" was inspired and took part in something special happening on their behalf and with their help. At the same time, they were respectfully challenged to evolve beyond some delusional Disneyland vision of themselves. Most designers are probably idealists, which is why we keep trying. But we have to stop performing for each other. How can you inspire pride in an audience when it seems like your ego exists in a vacuum? I could hardly believe that the government took a chance on Morphosis to conjure the Federal Building in San Francisco and CalTrans in L.A., because outside of design circles, I never knew about them. These feats should be celebrated and triumphed like arches to our civic possibilities. Instead, we are left feeling like our government limps and lurks in shadows ready to rob us of our securities. It's time for a new message: "The Republic Is Strong, and You Make It Happen!" (Or something sexier than that...)

  • faslanyc

    01.27.2010 at 21:59

    we have to be careful in subjects as expansive as infrastructure in a country as big as the US throughout its history.

    There is a large mythological aspect to the telling and retelling of the stories of the railroads and the interstates and the dams and eerie canal and their significance in the making of our country. they become symbols for achievements and markers in our common story. however, they exist in a context, which we only know in part now. and they also always had an ugly side. they didn't necessarily benefit 'americans', but always a certain segment of some influence.

    As a design community we only want to sell people on the good things. I assume this is because we want to do what we do (just like every one else), we want to build things, design things. So we try to convince them of the validity of our plans. We are salesman, but we pose as judeo-christian servants. I think Ian Baldwin alluded to the attitude we exploit with his anecdote from his Canadian acquaintence. It seems to me that as a design community we are not effective when we are so pedantic, and try to sell people only on the good things such as "we should all live in compact cities" or "clean, non-nuclear energy is what we should have. now."

    embrace the nasty. the american dream has always had a seedy underbelly.

  • Placemaking Institute

    01.28.2010 at 15:53

    According to Karl Marx, many of what a group calls “truths” may have very little or no basis in fact. Instead, the group’s “truths” are often fabricated to favor that group’s economic interests and further its economic aims. So while capitalists construct an ideology that serves capitalists, those with progressive tendencies construct ideologies that serve the greater good. In other words, ideological debate is less an inquiry into facts than a battle for Power via what amounts to propaganda campaigns at the expense of Democracy and The Public Good.

    But for those of you who are still sniffling at my reference to Marx? Here’s a little something from Adam Smith himself for you to try on for size:

    The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order [the capitalist class], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.