Though the Queensboro Bridge is a New York icon, not everyone would call its industrial aesthetic beautiful. By the time Henry Hornbostel was asked to enhance the engineering-led design of the cantilever bridge, which opened in 1909, it was too late. The famed architect was able to influence only a few decorative features. Upon seeing the finished bridge and its incredibly elaborate steelwork, Hornbostel reportedly proclaimed: “My God, it’s a blacksmith’s shop!”
Likewise, chief engineer Joseph Strauss’s original cantilever-suspension plan for the Golden Gate Bridge in California was deemed “ugly” by journalists. Engineers Leon Moisseiff and Charles Ellis were able to advance the plan to create the famously elegant suspension-bridge design on a picture-perfect site. But it was consulting architect Irving Morrow who suggested the “international orange” color and many of the art deco-inspired aesthetic features that make the bridge so beloved, including the railings, walkways, and street lamps.
Today, the value of the innovation and creativity that architects bring to infrastructure projects—from bridges and airports to the public buildings that support our communities—is well understood. As momentum builds to rapidly renew America’s infrastructure, I want to make sure we prioritize great design from the outset. To use the opportunity to our country’s greatest advantage, our best designers need a seat at the table.
The Biden-Harris Build Back Better plan calls for a trillion-dollar investment to modernize the country’s infrastructure. This includes our transit systems, highways, bridges, and ports. With this undertaking will come a rare opportunity to transform our most-trafficked places.
My firm was one of more than 250 architecture, engineering, and construction companies—an ad-hoc association calling itself the Sustainable AEC Leaders—that signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to prioritize sustainability and to “build back greener” with this massive infrastructure plan. The letter also highlighted the need to address “critical public health, water, material toxicity, and social equity challenges.”
Along with sustainability and equity, I suggest we approach these infrastructure projects—this new New Deal—through an additional lens: design excellence.
We have a civic obligation to make these new public buildings, spaces, systems, and networks both functional and beautiful. And of course beauty runs more than skin deep. Beautiful architecture is thoughtful and based on powerful ideas. It inspires. It connects a building or structure with its neighbors. It encourages healthier habits and enriches people’s lives. For these infrastructure projects, beautiful design will wrap substance and mass around our society’s hopes and values.
The last times America made such significant investments in our infrastructure were in the 1930s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the 1950s through President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s funding of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. Each program achieved the desired effect of stimulating the U.S. economy. Transformative WPA projects like the Hoover Dam or the Public Roads Administration’s design standards that guided the construction of our highways—which originally featured two gorgeous, parallel ribbons of concrete slicing through America’s landscape—also changed the face of the nation. They achieved this by incorporating the ideas of talented architects, landscape architects, designers, and artists in collaboration with the engineers.
Great design is long-lasting. From the Roman aqueducts that still run through Europe to the grand train stations and bridges built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there are many examples of societies embedding their values into their physical infrastructure.
Over the past two decades, the federal government has proven that it could recover from the often fair-to-middling buildings constructed in the 1970s and ’80s and bring much higher design standards into its building projects. Ed Feiner, chief architect of the U.S. General Services Administration from 1996 to 2005, helped create the Design Excellence Program that has elevated the design profile of and led to the creation of so many exemplary government buildings.
Your tax dollars at work
Designers inevitably will bring more expansive thinking to ensure that, in addition to functioning as planned and looking good, infrastructure catalyzes related development and checks boxes related to sustainability, resilience, equity, and economic success.
We’ve all seen the “Your tax dollars at work” signs alongside government projects. This could mean widening and resurfacing a highway to be safer and more efficient, which is part of great design. But the same tax dollars could achieve that while also creating a beautiful highway with attractive plantings, screens, views, lighting, rails, and colors—elements that enhance the experience for all while bringing value to nearby developments. We can apply that same approach to any infrastructure project. Instead of making a negative impact on its immediate environment—which has happened all too often in the recent past—well-conceived, thoughtfully designed infrastructure will catalyze positive change.
With its expansive windows and ample daylight, striking art installations and pair of 450-foot-long steel truss pedestrian skybridges spanning active aircraft taxi lanes, LaGuardia Airport’s New Terminal B is another modern example of investing in infrastructure design. The project also was financed by a public-private partnership between the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and LaGuardia Gateway Partners, a private entity that is redeveloping and operating the terminal. The $5.1 billion terminal redevelopment is a model for how the private sector can financially support significant infrastructure projects while advancing ambitious design solutions.
Visions for a beautiful future
Architects look at how things are today and think about how they could be better. We then have the privilege of translating our ideas into designs that physically create that vision. As I imagine how our next generation of infrastructure could look, I see the potential for a beautiful future.
Peter Ruggiero is the design principal in HOK’s Chicago studio.