Who Will Fight For Thee? An Ode to Sewer Grates

This country is falling apart – really. At least, that’s what Margaret Wente claimed last month in an article about Canada’s ancient infrastructure, the physical underlay that allows us to live in a modern city, such as water mains, and bridges, and roads.

The trouble is, nobody wants to stand up and fight for the sewer systems and corroded pipes by shelling out the estimated $33-billion needed to upgrade them in the next two decades. Why not? Wente claims that it is a symptom of our country’s progressive “demosclerosis,” that is, a government’s propensity to, in a democracy, hand out cash to those special interest groups that agitate for money the loudest instead of the more silent but necessary projects like infrastructure that represent no gains in political capital.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it has more to do with our overall lack of emphasis today on the physical aspects of nation-building, in favour of the intangible ones. When Canadians are asked about what makes their country great, and modern, and progressive, most talk about health care, or civil liberties, or multiculturalism. Few comment on our excellent bridges or highways, or public buildings.

Improving the solidity of the built environment used to be a key element of national and imperial pride, two hundred years ago. Improvements in infrastructure are one of the few positive things that are generally associated with imperialism (though, of course, there are ways that one could quibble with the claim that they were beneficial in the long run). Good planning and solid civil engineering were considered the hallmarks of modernity and progress – and were appropriately celebrated.

Consider the London Sewage System. When it was built in the 1860s and 1870s, under the far-sighted direction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, it was (rightly) lauded as a triumph of engineering and public health. It was an extensive project, constructed for the then-largest metropolitan area in the world, and it led to a reduction in cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks that had plagued the city for years. Bazalgette himself was knighted and there stands to this day a memorial to his genius on the Victoria Embankment.

There are Canadian examples also: the Prince Edward Viaduct was a celebrated work of art when it opened in 1918, and of course, one needs look no further than the stunning architecture of the Ontario Provincial Legislature, opened in 1860, or Union Station, built 1914-1920, to see the kind of pride that was placed in public buildings in this country as well.

I can’t think of any sewer engineers who’ve been knighted recently. (If you can, by all means, send them over.) And most public buildings constructed today lack the opulence and grandeur of their predecessors. Today, functional utilitarianism and beauty don’t seem to be compatible, and the emphasis rests on the former. Consider the Victorian Abbey Mills pumping (sewer) station near London:

Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And its modern equivalent:

New sewer station

Also consider another celebrated imperial building, the Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus in Mumbai. It was built during the British Raj, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and still stands as a glorious example of functional beauty:

Victoria Terminus

Now consider Shanghai’s main railway station, built in 1987:

Shanghi Railway Station

It is all evidence that physical infrastructure today is little more than that – it does not represent national prowess so much as an uninteresting feature of daily life. In fact, as Wente points out, things like water mains or electrical grids are really only ever noticed when they cease to function as they should. And no wonder: they are ugly, or uninteresting, and certainly not celebrated. Quite the opposite: I’ll admit that I too find the endless reconstruction of Bloor Street a pain – and I don’t even have to drive through it.

The root cause, I believe, is a change in how we speak of ourselves as a nation, and what we consider to be important. These days nation-building in the developed world is associated with ideals: democracy, equality of opportunity, or winning many Olympic gold medals, for example. It isn’t really building at all.

Is it that these things are no longer new and shiny (literally) and revolutionary enough to be worth our notice? Are we “beyond” physical infrastructure and public buildings as markers of progress? Is there some national hierarchy of needs (similar to Maslow’s personal one) that puts basic infrastructure at the bottom and higher-level ideas at the top of the pyramid? Or is it that we consider freedom and democracy and health care so basic, so integral to our idea of ourselves as a nation, that these examples are what populate our speeches?

I wonder. For now I’m going to be thankful that my internet connection is fast enough that I can upload this post before heading out onto our barely functional, disastrously ugly subway to go for dinner. And along the way I’m going to make a point of noticing the sewer grates, and feel proud to be Canadian.

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7 Responses to Who Will Fight For Thee? An Ode to Sewer Grates

  1. Two thumbs up for your article two thumbs down for functional utilitarianism.

  2. dme says:

    Nice pictures! Such a shame that cost and utility seem to be the only criteria these days.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I think this is a great post. I agree with you that it’s a real shame that aesthetic beauty has taken a big backseat to functionalism when it comes to public architecture. Sadly, now, we have left aesthetics to the world of private enterprise, resulting in questionable decisions in a lot of instances. Although, on the other hand, the if the ROM expansion is the hallmark of public architecture these days, maybe that’s for the best.

    But with that in mind, I really love the idea of expanding the infrastructure, making society better and beautifying the environment simultaneously. That’s probably why I loved SimCity so much back in the old days. I love driving by a new school, or a nice park because I think they are great signs that society is functioning well and that the government is doing its job. I just wish they would just put more effort into it like the old days with buildings like the Victoria station. There’s no reason we can’t.

  4. Duncan says:

    It looks like China is going to be building the next generation of infrastructure (pretty or not):
    http://cleantechnica.com/2010/03/13/china-wants-to-connect-its-high-speed-rail-to-europe-largest-infrastructure-project-in-history/

  5. Kathryn Exon says:

    Interesting that buildings being ugly and utilitarian is what is bothering everyone in this comments section (and I agree, for the most part). Duncan and I were discussing last night how, if everything were purely utilitarian, nobody would have front gardens anymore (what is the point of them? nobody sits there! nobody even sees it except your neighbours and passers by!).

    Though some might argue that utilitarian architecture has its own beauty…look at the fellows who designed Robarts, for example…brutalist architecture at its finest.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robarts_Library

  6. […] Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing […]

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