Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Artifacts of Ambition

Our physical built world is a result of the efforts and egos of countless individuals. Unfortunately, these built "things" often have very little capacity to convey the meaning and intention with which they were originally conceived. When pieces of our built environment disappear the ability for us to understand them becomes even more limited. They become an ever fading entry in collective and individual memory. On a recent trip, I had the opportunity to uncover lost ambition both in two very different places.

A few weeks ago, I made my way to visit with some friends. I had just left an apartment searching adventure in Boston and was ready to relax and enjoy my time with some familiar faces. One of the highlights of my stay was my visit to the The Skyscraper Museum. Located near the battery on the tip of Manhattan, the museum chronicles the history of perhaps the most recognizable building type ever conceived. The space itself is quite modest, but the curators had cleverly mirrored the entire ceiling as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the buildings to which is is devoted to display. The current exhibits focused on the development of Wall Street and the rise of super tall buildings in southeast Asia.

My favorite exhibit detailed extensive history of the World Trade Center towers. Seeing original hand sketches, correspondences, and models brought a human scale to these buildings that I had never before felt. I didn't get the opportunity to see the original towers in person, but the stories of the people who made such a cutting edge building possible made the buildings seem very real.


Of particular interest was a 7 page typed letter written by Minoru Yamasaki in response to a nasty review by Ada Louise Huxtable in the New York times. It encompasses the courage and conviction that it took to make these buildings a reality. If you can't get to the museum, you can check out a digital version here.


It also includes a fascinating archive of the Empire State Building. Not too bad.

After New York, I made my way to southwest Wisconsin to visit some family. A trip out to dinner brought us to a very remote part of the county. I was told that all of the residents of this area had been displaced by a large flood control project during the 1970's that was never completed. Indeed, the State bought the property from hundreds of residents in the late 60's in their efforts to construct a dam outside of La Farge, Wisconsin. Flooding from the Kickapoo River had routinely devastated the small farm towns that lined its banks. The dam, designed by the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul branch, was meant to eliminated the periodic flooding and create a reservoir for recreational use. Early renderings [as the so often do] depicted a pleasant scene of sailboaters and rolling hills.

image: Kickapoo Valley Reserve

The project was canceled in 1975 amid pressure from local environmental groups and the newly formed EPA, but not before a large portion of the project was actually completed. The landscape remains eerily deserted to this day, but is embedded with the remnants of this failed project. The dam itself seems to be of the earth-filled, concreted lined type and stretches halfway across the river valley before it slumps back in to the ground. The bluff on the left side of photo seems to be stripped to bare rock and ready to receive the completed section of the dam. The spillway channel and tower are largely completed as well. The Kickapoo River doesn't really seem to mind though.

image: wikimedia commons

The intake tower stands in tall grass of the valley floor and remains in pretty good shape. This blocky outpost looks misplaced without its watery veil, and now takes on a new role as a sort of sentinel in the landscape. An excerpt from the photographer's website tells of a sort of transient transformation into a playground.
This tower represents the most amazing childhood adventures I can remember. My family owned property adjoining thousands of acres of government property that was purchased for the purpose of building a dam. Well funding fell through, and all that was built was this tower, a tunnel. One day we ventured onto the property only to find that the oval metal door at the base of the tower had been broken into. Of course, being red blooded boys...we had to explore the tower. I won't go into every detail, but I can tell you that I opened and looked out of that door you see near the top. The door with no platform. We also stood on the very top of it.
photo:, uberphot

However, not all remnants of the project exist as half-finished leftovers. The State realigned highways that passed within the area of the future reservoir up to a new home up on the bluffs that overlooked the river. The original roads remained as access roads for construction crews that would be flooded over once construction of the dam was complete. Those roads remain to this day, still with their head above the water line and meandering along the bottom of the river valley. This google map shows the location of the dam in relationship to La Farge as well as the network of original and realigned roads.


Although they have become part of the past, the artifacts of these objects still manifest themselves in images, oral traditions and physical remnants. They are still important, but why? Collective memory can be frighteningly short, and the world around us can easily be looked at with a sort of temporal permanence. The physical reality of today was that of yesterday, and will continue to be such in the future. In a way, the role of museums is to refresh the collective memory, and uncover a timeline that often gets destroyed. One artifact is displayed in a Lower Manhattan museum, the other left to lay in rural Wisconsin countryside. How will these things be kept alive so others can understand the ambition that made them a reality in the first place?

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