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The Transcendence of Infrastructure

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Several decades ago, on the #1 train during the morning rush hour, there was an exchange between two strangers. A man and woman started talking about the delays at each station as more people packed themselves into the graffiti-covered car—the interior temperature inching upwards despite the open windows. Through several stops, they kept chatting. Finally, she had to get off. There was an awkward pause until he asked her if she would like to grab a cup of coffee. She said yes, there was hasty scribbling of a phone number on a piece of paper, and off she went.

I would love to share that these two people had the cup of coffee, fell in love, got married, raised a family, and are now working hard at solving the climate crisis. But what I really remember is that I witnessed the flickering of a romantic connection start on a crowded, hot subway car.

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While I don’t expect Shakespearean moments to be part of my everyday commute, the complete failure of our subway system borders on a civic tragedy. In recent months we have read and heard quite a bit about our country’s deteriorating infrastructure and New York City’s ridiculously under-resourced transit system. The media focuses on stupendous costs, shutdowns, accidents, and overcrowding. While the mayor and governor argued last summer about who was responsible for our daily dose of despair, an executive order was issued from Albany declaring “a state of emergency.” At a national level, where vision and governance has been warped by bigotry and insularity, bright minds keep throwing around a $1 trillion investment that sounds impressive except no one is clear on what it will pay for. When a project is completed, such as the Second Avenue Subway or the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, our elected leaders herald it as a remarkable accomplishment while critics emphasize the cost overruns and delays. Not much focus is given to how it defines our civic identity and if it actually strengthens our community.

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Second Avenue Subway

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World Trade Center Transportation Hub

What is infrastructure? Our language is imperfect when we describe it, emphasizing the negative so much that we forget it is the underlying framework that supports our democratic ideals. Its roads, tunnels, bridges, cables, wires are part of our culture’s common experience, one that connects us across our fractured national identity. It is not uncommon for young students to take two hour trips across a city on a patchy network of subways, buses, and ferries so they can attend better schools. Whether out of need or choice and with the daily risk of arriving late for classes due to an “earlier incident,” many college students live at home and rely on mass transit. Commuters strike up friendships on long bus and regional train rides, waiting in the same lines and sitting in the same seats every day so they can chat with their fellow travelers.

Primo Levi wrote, “…We can see it today, and yesterday we could see it less well…” Conceptually, this is the core challenge: how do we sell an idea that designing better infrastructure is just as important as averting a cascade of crises and keeping up a state of good repair? We know a project is successful when, in a relatively short period of time after its completion, we start admiring the herculean effort undertaken to bring it to life. Noble efforts, vision, sacrifice and risk are necessary parts of the process, when something truly good is achieved. Each of us, no matter how far removed from the actual undertaking, is a little better off.

With infrastructure, we discover life’s transcendent experiences. It is used to explain remarkably complex topics, such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and our brain’s neural network. Sublime moments arise out of its many random connections and like Einstein’s trains, these connections are perceived from unique frames of reference. Before you read this article, I will have written and edited several drafts with my wife, Mary, over many weeks and then pass it on to my editor, Nalina, who will patiently coax it towards a final version. This is a manipulation of my timeline to fit yours, compressing something into a snapshot sent over a network that connects us.

Each of us draws from memory to create a mythology about who we are and our desired existence. Fragments of the past are expanded and contracted, suiting our narrative and defining our purpose. Collectively, these become our web of shared experiences, converging and diverging strands of time, forming the connective tissue that defines our culture. As I am often reminded, my memories are imperfect recollections that have no doubt been distorted over the years for the sake of better storytelling and self-analysis. But many of them are grounded in something familiar and deceptively ordinary: they require infrastructure. My friend John and I drove across our country in 1988, through many states that now seem identified more by their political colors rather than by the kindness of their citizens. I walked up a suspension cable to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge with my father a few months before his retirement after 40 years as a civil engineer for the Federal Highway Administration. In our early days of dating when we talked to each other over a landline phone, Mary read Rilke’s prose to me as I struggled with a difficult situation. And as they were growing up my young sons and I took subway rides just for the simple pleasure of watching the stations and neighborhoods go by.

The triumph of infrastructure lies in its ability to bear witness to society’s monumental achievements and vision for the future. For a brief moment, they connect us and push back against our cultural divisiveness. Whether passing time at an airport, as evoked in UN Studio’s recent design proposal for the Kutaisi International Airport Extension in Georgia, or riding across Dissing + Weitling’s “Bicycle Snake” in Copenhagen, these experiences should be moments of contemplation and anticipation for what is to come next.

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Kutaisi International Airport Extension, Kutaisi, Georgia, 2017 | ©VA-render, courtesy of UNStudio

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The Bicycle Snake | courtesy of DISSING+WEITLING architecture

We can design inclusive and more connected communities only if we remember that the complex social interactions that define us start with understanding how and why these take place in a public forum. Infrastructure, like us, is imperfect, and its current crisis is a sign of our times, failing at its larger purpose and highlighting the lack of leadership to steer the course as we stumble along trying to find stable ground. We deserve and must demand a creative vision that sparks our curiosity for new experiences that will enrich our lives.

posted by David Briggs