Slow Infrastructure

The Federal-Aid Highway Act was enacted exactly fifty years ago, when Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law in 1956 from his hospital bed. Rumor has it that Eisenhower drew a three by three grid onto a piece of paper, handed it over to his staff, and told them to base the new highway system on it. The diagram was clearly more symbolic than literal. Even so, the Federal Highway system organized economics, politics, and defense with much the same impact as Thomas Jefferson’s orthogonal delineation of townships and states in 1787.

America’s infrastructure has always hurtled toward the future at breakneck speed: ribbons of concrete shoot across the continent in endless, perfectly straight lines, coming together in metropolitan areas in gravity-defying twists and turns. After Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the closing of the frontier and before the launching of the space program, these ribbons and loops offered a horizon of possibility.

Fifty years later, the term infrastructure still invokes possibility. Given that the 42,500 mile federal highway system is already deteriorating, requiring reconstruction of 2,000 miles of road per year, the term’s potential lays not so much in highways as in other infrastructures. If networked infrastructures tend to dominate the urban imagination and certainly play an ever significant role in this era of increasing surveillance, the Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure would like to focus attention on another urban paradox: slow infrastructure. Facets of this topic would include slow infrastructural arteries (parkways, cul-de-sacs), slow infrastructural sites (bodies of water, such as the slow but significant transformation due to global warming of the Upper Hudson Bay, south of the lowest tip of Manhattan), and slow infrastructural bureaucracies (urban innovations at the municipal level are often slowed by state legislation).