14 September 2008

the infrastructure gap

From the New York Times today, a good effort by Nicolai Ourossoff to once again draw attention to the plight of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Using the opulent backdrop of the Beijing Olympics to contrast the shameful lack of progress in New Orleans over the past three years, Ourossoff smartly links the New Orleans inaction to a larger national neglect of large-scale infrastructural projects. It's becoming apparent that this aversion to build (or rebuild) on a grand scale is one of the lasting victories of the anti-government conservative revolution that began in the late 60's and came to horrifying fruition with the W. presidency. Ourossoff is right to lament the fact that the best and the brightest of the architectural profession are fleeing to distant shores, to countries that are "not afraid to invest in the future of [their] cities." And while such architects are often criticized for their fleeting loyalties and willingness to overlook certain political realities in the process of getting a commission, even this Progressive Reactionary must admit that it is unrealistic to expect them to stick around and work for free for a grossly underfunded reconstruction effort for which there is no political support from the state or federal levels. Indeed, the $400 million of public funding for New Orleans reconstuction mentioned by Ourossoff pales in comparison to the roughly $12 billion currently being spent each month for the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.

What really shocks me is that, especially our moment of economic turbulence, there hasn't been a more widespread acceptance that infrastructural projects (like rebuilding New Orleans) are a decent way to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and maybe do some good for society while you're at it. People like Robert Reich have been quite vocal on this, and Obama has a "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank" as a central component of his economic recovery plan which would disburse $60 billion over ten years. Call me crazy, but doesn't this seem kind of a no-brainer? Or, at the very least, a worthy alternative to the current misguided approach?

But back to Nicolai, and his crusade for New Orleans. It's worth noting that over the past few years since Nicolai took over the helm of architecture criticism at the Times, New Orleans has become kind of a pet issue for Ourossoff. In fact, one could say that a good deal of his writing, beyond the frequent, frivolous paeans to starchitects and their condo buildings, has been in defense of large-scale, classically Modernist initiatives, particularly of the infrastructural and mega-public kind. This is commendable journalism, and it is good to see the Times partaking in such an enterprise every now and then.

It is also worth noting that Ourossoff includes an equally commendable shout-out to local efforts in New Orleans to preserve several modernist landmarks from the 1950s and 60s. He should have extended the shout-out, however, to bloggers like Life Without Buildings (whose post from a few weeks back has helped lead the charge in saving these buildings) and Regional Modernism, but I suppose that would be asking for too much.

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