In Defense of the Road
Finally, we know for sure: roads can be beautiful. The World Monuments Fund has designated Merritt Parkway, the lazy snake of a highway designed to take New York commuters out into the wilds of Connecticut, as one of most threatened monuments in the world. But wait: it’s not the road. It’s the bridges the Fund cites. Now, they are pretty nice, having been designed and embellished by artists working for Big Government during the Great Depression. But what about the road itself? What about this great prototype for a landscape unfurling through a staged version of a Jeffersonian landscape that was at the same time the engine for its destruction? Does that landscape not deserve notice?
The Merritt Parkway
The United States has some amazing road landscapes. In California, the Arroyo Seco Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena is a roller-coaster ride through the convoluted geology of that landscape. Further North, Lawrence Halprin designed the I-280, from San Francisco to what we today call the Silicon Valley, so that the majesty of the Coast Ranges can unfold in front of the cruising masses. In my own Cincinnati, Columbia Parkway hugs the Ohio River banks, tracing that great river’s course through what remains of the glacial moraines and the beginnings of the South’s rolling hillsides.
The Arroyo Seco Parkway
I know, I am talking about ribbons of concrete and asphalt that in their construction destroyed landscapes and whose ability to move people further erodes what we as humans have inherited. But there is a beauty in that very alteration, a romance, however false, in the movement, and a glory in human landscape these roads produce.
Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati
What is worth noticing is time- as well as space-based, as it unfolds in movement. It destroys, rather than resides in, objects. It is not the result of bridges and viaducts, but of the ensemble of spaces that open and close around one. A very good reason to preserve such a space is because we, as the Venturis said almost half a century ago, need to learn from it. We need to understand that we as humans have loosened ourselves from the world of objects and fixed coordinates, and that we navigate through an empire of signs. That floating world opened up long before the first computer turned on. It has its roots in the railroads and even in fast ships, in physics and in the very nature of modernity which continually changes all and moves people, goods, and data around without cease.
Instead of worrying so much about making better buildings, maybe we should worry more about making better roads. These roads of course need to be environmentally and socially more logical. They can be. New advances already in use in Northern Europe promise us roads that suck up oil residue and tire noise, making it possible to live next to even the busiest highways, provided we indeed go electric (or hydrogen). Landscape architects know how to restore, preserve, and transform the land. Great roads from the past are monuments from which we can learn.
Let’s not be distracted by bridges. They are attempts by engineers to show that they can bicycle with no hands. Their grandeur is as rare as that of the cathedral, museum, or other civic monument that cannot save any urban environment that is not well-designed. The true monument is the one that is only visible in movement. Let’s save the road.