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Building a New WPA

Great architects need a great canvas. New York needs infrastructure. And a lot of people need jobs. A proposal.


Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

Over the past eight years—the time it has taken America to absorb the body blows of 9/11 and Katrina, launch two wars, watch its savings shrivel and its debt balloon, and elect its first black president—a team of experts has been studying the question of whether to fix the rickety old Tappan Zee Bridge or throw it out and buy a new one. The panel has finally plumped for the second option: a $16 billion juggernaut, with room for express buses and commuter rail. Hallelujah! Now all we have to do is rustle up the money, assume the budget will double, and wait another decade or two. That, and demand a design worthy of a Hudson crossing. The study group’s report doesn’t touch on that topic, as if actually designing a bridge were a finishing touch, something you do after the technical issues have been taken care of. Yet the need for a new bridge is a chance to build a marvel. Which is why it’s time to call an artist—say, Santiago Calatrava.

Calatrava is the world’s preeminent magus of bridges, a wizard of white steel spans that are always performing some aerial flourish. Tapered masts point diagonally into the sky, tethered to a deck by fine white threads. Beams bend into parabolic curves and tilted arcs. Curving columns narrow as they meet the ground, recalling graceful ankles. His bridges deny their massive burdens and seem barely anchored to the earth. Calatrava is far from the only architect capable of building a Tappan Zee masterpiece, but his portfolio reminds us that we live in a time of wondrous spans.

With another depression lurking just out of sight, a Calatrava over the Hudson would recall a period that America seems halfway ready to reprise: the New Deal. In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, much of the country was making do with Victorian bridges, horse-and-buggy roads, and improvised sanitation. FDR began binding the country together with sinews of concrete and cable. We need to do for the 21st century what FDR did for the twentieth—invest in worn-out highways, our frail electrical grid, our public transit, brittle bridges, and water supplies. 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.

There are negative reasons to cultivate an interest in bridges—if you don’t, they might fall down—but for positive reasons, consider the ring of noble behemoths with which the visionary engineer Othmar Ammann linked New York to the rest of the world. Clunkier structures would have done the job, but this would be a poorer city without the suite of elegant structures wrought by the Swiss-born engineer. In one amazing eight-year run, he opened the Bayonne, George Washington, Triborough, and Bronx Whitestone bridges, and followed up with the Throgs Neck and Verrazano-Narrows. Ammann considered himself as responsible to the future as he was to his employers. For the George Washington Bridge, he drew up a gossamer colossus with steel latticework towers supporting a thin concrete deck. “Mere size and proportion are not the outstanding merit of a bridge,” he said shortly after the dedication. “A bridge should be handed down to posterity as a truly monumental structure which will cast credit on the aesthetic sense of present generations.”

Begun in plenty and completed in penury, the GWB heralded a decade of transformative public works, and we are still living off the Depression’s handsome largesse. New Yorkers buy stamps at New Deal post offices, snap a Frisbee across Central Park’s New Deal lawns, dip below the Hudson through the New Deal’s Lincoln Tunnel, and flush their toilets out to a New Deal sewage plant on Wards Island. The billions that FDR pumped into the physical environment are still reaping a return, a fact “that should be remembered in times when commitment to public life ebbs and belief rises that we simply cannot afford to invest,” writes Robert D. Leighninger Jr. in his 2007 book Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. “There was a time in our history when people found ways to combat despair by building for the future. The evidence is all around us.” Next time you meet someone old enough to have paid taxes during the thirties, say, “Thank you.”

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