When we say infrastructure, we’re talking not just about bridges, freeways, and sewer lines but the entire suite of townscape and buildings that makes up the human habitat, especially the public realm, where the spiritual condition of our culture expresses itself in feats of architecture.
Though it’s difficult to imagine in today’s world of throwaway buildings in parking wastelands, Americans once did a spectacular job of honoring their own public life by endowing public space with beauty and grace. This was especially true at the turn of the previous century, during the period known as the Beaux Arts era, when the vibrant young nation and its “strenuous” young president, Theodore Roosevelt, stepped onto center stage in the theater of geopolitics.
The recognition that we had suddenly become the world’s leading industrial power prompted a “City Beautiful” movement to make America’s urban centers worthy of our new status. In a remarkably short period, we got a burst of fantastic public architecture that captured the soaring confidence of that historical moment. Unlike the fractious political mood of our time, that period of extraordinary innovation and vitality was marked by a striking consensus across the elites of society about the need for this great endeavor of public building. Politicians, architects, business leaders, and artists overwhelmingly agreed on the agenda, and the transformation of our cities proceeded with stunning swiftness.
It was really possible a century ago to imagine a Golden Age burgeoning. American cities had been made healthful with vast sanitary networks and clean water, surpassing the achievements of ancient Rome. Electric streetcars revolutionized urban transport.
Elevators, telephones, affordable electric lighting, and central heating made daily existence a pleasure for the large, new middle class. The automobile was still a mere curiosity on the scene and had not come to tyrannize the streets. Great new steamships, as big and luxurious as the best hotels, conducted passengers from New York to London in a week or less. Collectively, it was a magic moment in American culture.
This staggering confidence in our society and its future expressed itself in neoclassical architecture. It is not hard to understand why. The building language of ancient Greece and Rome evoked the yearning spirit of democracy and the political soundness of a republic ruled by laws and principles, not personalities. Neoclassicism employed a vocabulary of decorative form that expressed powerful orders of unity, the mighty masses of columns, arches, and domes with their motifs of forms found in nature —trees, leaves, seashells, wings—which melded both strength and grace. It especially lent itself to monumental building, which suited so well a suddenly wealthy nation birthing so many new institutions: libraries, colleges, museums, courthouses, as well as train stations, theaters, and post offices.
This historic moment lasted roughly from the early 1890s to the Great Depression, after which it was replaced by a regime that is now curiously fading into history: the Modern Age. The great works of the City Beautiful movement were undertaken in a society that saw the human habitat as contiguous with nature, not necessarily inimical to it. The value of the human ecology was represented in artistry based on the fundamental mathematics of our world and all its parts. That holistic view of the human place in nature is waiting to be reclaimed by us. We can choose to surround ourselves with disposable, entropic clutter or reanimate American civic spirit with works of conscious artistry and adaptive permanence.
Learn more about the Reimagining Infrastructure series here.