Stimulus Dreams

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 2:17 PM EST

STIMULUS DREAMS....Clay Risen recommends a piece in New York magazine about the virtues of using a trillion-dollar infrastructure program as economic stimulus. It's by architecture critic Justin Davidson, and it argues that a building plan would do more than just stimulate the economy:

A new New Deal, equipped with an Obama-era version of the Works Progress Administration, could put millions back to work, modernize the country, nudge the economy towards recovery, and produce a barrage of working monuments. It would be a stimulus package that keeps on stimulating long into the future.

This late-model WPA would take advantage of a moment when great architecture, buoyed by a long construction boom and debilitated by the bubble's pop, is looking for a purpose. The international corps of architectural auteurs, who have spent a decade or two dreaming up fantastical museums and ever more luxurious condos, could be challenged to build in American cities — particularly ours — on the grandest possible scale. They should be given the chance to tackle society's most massive, crucial, and abiding projects: viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges.

I have my doubts about this. In the first half of the 20th century, huge engineering projects were viewed as symbols of economic power and national greatness. Each skyscraper was taller than the one before, each bridge longer, each highway more miraculous. But here in the industrialized West anyway, that's just not true anymore. We've done too much of it, and it's become too routine. Individual pieces of architecture still have the power to inspire, but building programs qua building programs just don't kindle the same passions they used to.

This is especially true given the nature of the stuff we'd be building (or repairing): "viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges." There would probably be a few chances to build beautiful new bridges — Davidson mentions the new Tappan Zee bridge as an example — but they're going to be few and far between. For the most part, we've already built all the big bridges we need, and the vast bulk of any federal building program will instead be on inherently prosaic projects. Even on the bridge front, most of the projects will be straightforward roads, like the infamous I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, not gossamer creations spanning rivers and mountain gorges.

Which is too bad. I love beautiful bridges, and if we do allocate money for infrastructure, I hope we allow it to be used to create works of art when and where it's possible. For the most part, though, we don't need grand new projects so much as we need to repair old ones — and the new ones we do need are going to be things like windmill farms, electricals grids, and rail systems. It'll stimulate the economy, and be an excellent investment in the future, but it's asking too much to think it will be much more than that.

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