Robert Moses's deliberate low bridges on Long Island are an example of the political use of technology and how architecture, engineering and public works may be at the service of political or economic power.
The 2014 documentary Misleading Innocence, Tracing What a Bridge Can Do, based on an idea by Francesco Garutti and directed by Shahab Mihandoust, explores the history and ideology of Long Island’s expressways by interviewing four academics who, in the 1980s and 1990s, debated different possible interpretations of the case: Bernward Joerges, Bruno Latour, Langdon Winner, and Steve Woolgar. Instead of explaining, the film alludes; it intertwines the reporting with theoretical abstraction, mixing the deafening sound of cars with the singing of birds along Long Island’s nearly 100-year-old freeways.
Architecture, engineering, and public works are often tools that carry a heavy load of ideological intentions at the service of political or economic power. The use of these disciplines as a demonstration of power or a mechanism of control is usually ostentatious or monumental, through robust and impressive built volumes. In addition to the practical functions that building walls or fortifications can offer as a tool for control, the representation of power through construction is also exercised in a symbolic way, implicitly reflected by the mere presence of a built structure.
However, there may be more subtle and imperceptible ways of exercising control over public space and even implementing policies through inert objects. There is “politics in the substance of things”, as Langdon Winner states in the documentary, citing his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”(1)
One figure who, during the 20th century, undoubtedly demonstrated how to exercise ideology through public works was Robert Moses, the omnipotent and controversial “Master Builder” responsible for various New York infrastructures over more than 50 years. Moses, who was never elected, held 12 positions of great responsibility, of which he took advantage to shape New York City, and part of New York state, according to his own particular vision of society.
One of those infrastructures was the Southern State Parkway (Southern Highway), planned in conjunction with Sidney Shapiro in 1925. This highway was meant to be used by New Yorkers to access the parks and beaches of Long Island by car. The Southern State Parkway was made to resemble the existing expressways that connected New York City with its surrounding areas. Conceived according to “landscape” criteria as recreational and leisure infrastructures(2), efforts were made to beautify these roads and to have drivers circulate along them as though they were taking a drive through the park; bridges and the infrastructure that accompanied them were decorated, and the circulation of trucks and buses was even prohibited so that private vehicles would have more peaceful surroundings. Yet, that prerogative already contained a political bias.
Despite the fact that cars began to become popular in the 1920s (replacing rail travel to a large extent), they were still not nearly as prevalent or widespread as they are today. Preventing collective transport from circulating on the highways made it much more complicated for the most disadvantaged classes of society to access the spaces they connected with. Although it was possible to reach many of those destinations via other routes, the journey became much longer and more cumbersome.
That prohibition was not within the purview of either Moses or Shapiro, since the measures were implemented in territories that were beyond their authority. However, Misleading Innocence posits how the duo devised a much more perverse strategy to consolidate this segregation of access – more perverse because of its invisibility and its potential for permanence beyond the malleability of politics. According to Robert Caro, author of the biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), Sidney Shapiro stated in an interview that, “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.”(3)
The documentary presents the thesis defended by Robert Caro that the bridges across the Southern State Parkway were built deliberately low to prevent buses and public transportation – used mainly by the less wealthy classes and racial minorities – from circulating on the road. The bridge, a tool designed for connection, was wielded as a means of segregation and division. A subtle and precise perversion, even in linguistic terms.
While Moses did have a reputation for harbouring racist views, some studies have argued that many of the bridges built during that period were very low. However, the ones devised by Moses were lower than the norm, thus contributing to the segregation of public space according to class and race.(4)
Whether visible or invisible, the desire for control from positions of power did not begin or end with Robert Moses, and there are innumerable other examples in contemporary urban planning and architecture. As Mark Wigley vehemently writes, “modern architects like Le Corbusier were demonised for developing systems of social and personal control. Standardised interiors, generic buildings, and sectored cities had moulded citizens to dominate them and exploit them. Modern architecture and urbanism were a machine for living, but the life they imposed was that of a slave.”(5)
Applying doses of a peculiar cynicism, the prestigious Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas developed his final degree project along similar lines. In The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture(6), two parallel walls define an idyllic architectural space crossing through the heart of London. Inhabitants flee the living conditions of the decadent traditional city to seek out a dystopian paradise within this privileged strip. Happily, they enter this arcadia of modern architecture and remain there as voluntary prisoners.
Setting aside the presumed cynicism and irony of Koolhaas’s project, it perhaps presaged a system of supervision and control to which we submit happily and voluntarily today. In Misleading Innocence, the different interviewees talk about the political use of technology in general, beyond Moses’s curious bridges.
For example, the kind of technology that produces electronic devices originally designed to build bridges of communication. Yet, that original mission has been subverted through perverse strategies, subjecting us to invisible means of control and observation, to which we happily submit like voluntary prisoners of the digital architecture meant to help us reach a high-definition Eden.
(2) Campanella, Thomas J. (9 July 2017). Robert Moses and his Racist Parkway Explained. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-09/robert-moses-and-his-racist-parkway-explained.
(3) Robbins, Cristopher. (17 February 2016). Robert Caro Wonders What New York is Going to Become. Gothamist.com https://gothamist.com/news/robert-caro-wonders-what-new-york-is-going-to-become.
(4)Campanella, Thomas J. (9 July 2017). Robert Moses and his Racist Parkway Explained. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-09/robert-moses-and-his-racist-parkway-explained.
(5)Wigley, Mark. (2020, July-August). El espectro de Nueva Babilonia. Constant Nieuwenhuys, 1920-2005 Arquitectura Viva, 226, pg. 47.
(6) Koolhaas, R., Vreisendorp, M., Zenghelis, E. and Zenghelis, Z. (1972). Exodus or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture.