Imagining the
Superhighway from
Bel Geddes to Ballard
Helen J Burgess
Washington State
University Vancouver
nine : talking to the ghosts of tomorrow

[24] In a more optimistic era in which technology seemed poised to solve all the problems an industrial society posed, Bel Geddes' imagination of the perfect highway seemed to suggest a switching network built for endless speed and minimal delay. Thus the Interstate Highway System, in our imagination, became not a network of routes which enable drivers to get places, but rather a system which, except for fueling (of the car and its driver), the driver could circulate endlessly. The Interstate, in effect, became its own "place," reminiscent of William Gibson's "distanceless home."

[25] And yet, like all idealized networks, the Interstate does not correspond to itself. This system contains both attempts to homogenize the driving experience -- gas stations, fast food joints, green signage -- and unexpected differences -- different colored stone used in construction, orange cones, inconsistent numbering schemes for exits. Blown-out tires litter the shoulder of main-line trucking routes; carcasses of deer and other smaller animals are a grim reminder of another kind of "road toll" from the one we are accustomed to hearing. Sections of the Interstate decay; the clicking, changing sound of the Interstate rolling under wheel tells us of the cycles of construction and repair that are required to maintain it in working order. The typical long-distance road trip today is tempered with three key considerations: the weather, traffic congestion, and the presence or absence of construction.

[26] Bel Geddes could not imagine the explosion of private car ownership in his future "autopia"; similarly, estimates that the Interstate highway system would be completed by 1970 were, at best, optimistic: not only is it still not complete in the form it was originally planned, but it must be constantly upgraded to deal with weather damage, earthquake damage, and general wear-and-tear. The Interstate, then, is not a perfect network overlaid on America, but a constantly renegotiated layering of dynamic variables -- traffic patterns, construction, weather. The magic date at which "the future" would be realized -- 1960 -- in effect never happened. construction, weather.

[27] But at the same time, the American highways systems are haunted by Bel Geddes' idealized aesthetics. The grand, curving sweep of the highways and overpasses, the perfect symmetry of cloverleaf interchanges, and the deco-inspired architecture of arterial city highways bear the stamp of Walter Teague and Bel Geddes, fellow designers for Ford and General Motors in the World's Fair pavilions of the thirties and forties. Bel Geddes' book Magic Motorways (1940) would be influential in the process of Interstate highway design in the 1940s and 1950s, when the complex engineering project was planned and designed. Bel Geddes' voice, thus, speaks to us every time we head out, onto the open road.

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