Aug. 20, 2008
I find it difficult to describe how boneheaded Mike Bloomberg’s newest idea is. CBS News calls the plan, to put windmills on New York City bridges “bold.” It’s not bold. It’s ugly.
New York’s suspension bridges are part of the artistic patrimony of the United States. They were made for one specific purpose: allowing people to travel from one point to another without getting wet. With this goal in mind, engineers designed the bridges to do so safely, while also taking into consideration construction economy, design efficiency and overall aesthetic elegance. The consideration of these factors, coupled with and driven by economic growth in New York at the turn of the last century, impressive developments in industrial steel production, and sophisticated engineering load-calculation resulted in a wonderful flurry of suspension bridge construction uniting New York City unto itself and its neighbors.
The relationship between form and function in New York bridge engineering can be seen in the difference between the bridges. Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, designed in the days of carts, pedestrians, and trolleys, brings people from the industrial heart of Brooklyn to the financial heart of Manhattan with a stony classical grace. On the other hand, Ammann’s George Washington Bridge-along with the Chrysler Building, one of the great paeans to the automobile-accommodates 14 lanes of private and commercial motorcar traffic (opposed to the Brooklyn Bridge’s six non-commercial lanes) using the superior mobility granted by automobile travel to span a narrower area of the Hudson with an ingress point at the less bustling Upper Manhattan. These bridges were designed to facilitate different sorts of movement, and they do so spectacularly and uniquely, while providing beautiful aesthetic experiences in the process.
Now, in Mayor Mike’s preening greening scheme simply allowing people to access his city isn’t good enough for these marvels of engineering. The spans that linked a series of unruly islands into the greatest city on earth no longer have sufficient economic or cultural value to continue their stolid duties unmolested. No, they need to be retrofitted with windmills to look like steal islands planted tight with pinwheels. Their forms, their functions, and their histories have to go by the wayside because Bloomberg wants his city to be the greenest city.
Therein lies the problem with much of the environmentalist movement. People should conserve; clean energy is a good thing. But is it such a good thing that it warrants the mutilation of majestic structural art, embedded in the public consciousness and of great historical significance? Mayor Bloomberg and his cohorts seem to think so. The posturing moralism of the few leads to banal ugliness for the many. Wagner had it almost right with his planned book (The Unbeauty of Civilization): What we’re dealing with is the unbeauty of liberal civilization.