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Forget Building a New WPA, What We Need Is Another Robert Moses

It’s twelve o’clock in the afternoon in sunny L.A., and you’ve got a plane to catch to Barcelona in four hours. The taxi arrives at your Cahuenga Boulevard split-level on the spot of half past; you lump your luggage into the trunk, toss yourself into the backseat, and settle in for the short hop downtown to Union Station. No, you’re not headed to LAX. Your flight departs at 5 p.m., Mountain Standard Time, from Skyharbor  International Airport — in Phoenix.

In a high-concept scheme for the future of air travel from architects Thom Moran and Rustam Mehta, you could make your connection in a flash by way of a magnetic levitation train, checking-in onboard and alighting directly at your terminal. The LA-Phoenix link would be complimented by a Las Vegas spur, making up a vast regional transportation network that would reduce congestion system-wide. And where the three lines meet, Mehta and Moran imagine an enormous city straddling the shared border of California, Nevada, and Arizona, a transit metropolis planned on an irregular grid running along as well as on top of the tracks.

Mehta and Moran’s student project is part of the exhibition Some True Stories, on view now through December 23rd at Storefront for Art and Architecture. In a show dedicated to exploring architectural fiction, it’s easy to dismiss “VPL”, as the designers call their rail-to-air proposal, as a bit of theoretical whimsy. But the project is symptomatic of a revived interest in infrastructure — trains, bridges, dirigible mooring posts — that has recently taken hold in architecture. The only question now is how to get more of it built.

Looking abroad, major infrastructural projects with real aesthetic punch are already underway. Zaha Hadid’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi comprises a series of sinuous ribbons that bob and weave from one bank of the Maqta Channel to the other. Hani Rashid’s Asymptote has a couple of gorgeous designs in the works for urban centers and residential towers in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia that integrate roads, parking, even helipads. And Santiago Calatrava, generalissimo of all things elegant, continues apace with striking bridges from Jerusalem to Venice, though his World Trade Center PATH station in New York faces an uncertain future due to budgetary constraints.

Too many good projects stateside face similar obstacles. Last year, SHoP Architects cooked up a wild idea very much like VPL — an air terminal in Union Square, with a similar high-speed train ferrying passengers to Newark and JFK. A touch far fetched, perhaps, but New York politicians have been trying and failing for years to grab the golden fleece of city transit fixes: a single-seat rail connection from Manhattan to JFK. Despite securing a $2 billion tax credit for its construction, it’s still a long way off.

So what’s the hold up? If America wants in on the new millennium, we’ve got to kick our public projects into middle-gear at least. With the recent change in the national political climate, there’s a lot of talk about big money for infrastructure, even a new Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help build it. Roosevelt’s WPA built the Tennessee Valley Authority along with countless roads and dams all across the country, and it kept millions employed during the darkest days of the Great Depression. But with unemployment today only a fraction of what it was in the ’30s, a giant federal works corps could prove a hard sell politically.

Believe it or not, the far-out VPL might point the way forward. In the uncannily realistic advertising posters that accompany their model, Mehta and Moran describe a patchwork of real-life state and federal agencies collaborating on the project, all of them coordinated by the “VPL Authority of California, Arizona, and Nevada”. Sound familiar? Public authorities were invented in the ’20s as a means of getting around sticky local political opposition. The Triborough Bridge Authority was the tool that allowed Robert Moses to build miles upon miles of highways and tunnels in and around New York; the Boston Redevelopment Authority did much the same for Beantown planner Ed Logue.

Quality design requires money, and farsighted construction projects require political muscle. Public authorities have both — they can issue bonds, they’re independent, a little undemocratic, and very pushy. The environmental imperative makes a mass transit solution like VPL all the more pressing, and as its designers suggest, a green Robert Moses might just be the guy to pull it off.  If you want the future, you’ve got to be willing to throw some elbows. Don’t forget, you’ve got a plane to catch.

- Ian Volner

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