We're Wasting Our Infrastructure

A great many of the things that are interesting and which offer a us a real chance to express the spirit of our age are deemed to be visual clutter and consigned to the bin labeled “necessary evil.” I’m thinking specifically here of the infrastructure of our daily lives, and as a designer, I marvel at how many opportunities are missed in this realm.

For instance, when you drive down the highway today – on any average section of Route 128, 93 North, or the Mass Pike – you see examples everywhere of the infrastructure that powers our lives: High-voltage electric wires, bridges, wind turbines, and perhaps most of all, cell phone towers and their country cousins, the building-mounted cellular relay units. Without these pieces of basic infrastructure, it’s impossible to imagine living our modern lives.

And yet with few exceptions, we expend most of our effort trying to hide these structures, suppressing the vitality of our interconnected high-tech world. Who hasn’t noticed the cell phone tower disguised as a preposterously tall evergreen popping up in an otherwise typical New England roadside? The assumption here is that technology and human beings are imposing our hideous imprint on an otherwise pristine bucolic tableau and that in order to save the beauty of that scene, we must pretend that the technology isn’t there. But of course it is, and no one is fooled – at least not for long, as the brilliantly illuminated rest stop beckons just a few hundred yards up ahead.

Perhaps instead of trying to hide these things, we ought to design them and celebrate their regular presence along our roadways. When we think of old Dutch windmills, part of the everyday infrastructure of Northern Europe for several hundred years, we think of signature elements of the visual landscape. Their size alone required that they be designed to be understood both up close, and from some distance. We should take the same approach with the infrastructure of our time as well.

That said, in some case we already have. Boston and many cities have now contracted with external providers to create well designed, consistent public street furniture, such as bus shelters, trash receptacles, benches, and light fixtures – all supported by advertising revenue. And if you doubt the impact of even small measures like this, recall the effect of the simple act of painting the structural steel beams on the bridges that cross over the Mass Pike a few years ago. It suddenly transformed this overlooked repeated element into a beautiful cascade of color as one passed at 65 miles per hour. It was subtle, but I don’t know any regular driver on the Pike who didn’t notice and appreciate it.

But to take advantage of such opportunities at a larger scale, one does have to admit that it will require – and I hate to say it – planning. That’s right. We would have to behave as though the environment we share belongs, in some way, to all of us, rather than only the realm of discrete individuals or corporate interests. On the other hand, as all such infrastructure already requires extensive permitting and compromise, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to go ahead and develop prototypes for the design of public infrastructure while we’re at it.

Imagine, a series of cell towers that each looked like a designed utility tower. Maybe there should be a shared tower type whether the purpose is cell phone transmission, radio tower, electric pole, or light standard? The key is that the criteria for such prototypes must include celebrating this incredible age, and not trying to pretend – against all conceivable odds – that it doesn’t exist!