“Lean and elegant”: The poetics of freeway building

Graphic from Proposal B

Graphic from Proposal C

“Our proposal starts”, said one of the Foreshore bids “by re-arranging and completing the elevated freeways in a lean and elegant way, thereby resolving the key traffic bottlenecks and improving traffic flows all across the surrounding road network.”

‘Lean’, ‘elegant’ and the resolution of traffic bottlenecks is not text-book civil engineering, but these words do evoke a long poetic tradition in traffic engineering texts.

When the first high speed roads for the foreshore were proposed by City Engineer Solomon Morris in 1951 they included a plan to depress part of a ring road across Government Avenue.

Morris wrote: “The bridges will be sympathetically designed in keeping with their sylvan setting, whilst the terraces and rockeries forming the banks will be planted with shrubs and other flowering plants so that no interruption or disturbance of the garden effect takes place…Indeed there is no reason why these proposals, if effectively carried out, should not enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the gardens and the Avenue promenade. The new vistas and the additional interest created by the difference of level, as well as the movement of traffic below the level of the gardens, will all help to enliven the scene, adding a touch of activity to the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. One may well imagine the pleasurable contemplation with which the passer-by through the Avenue will, from the quest seclusion of his elevation, gaze undisturbedly on the swift-moving traffic below.”

1951 Government Avenue

From: Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1951

Sylvan settings, lean and elegant roads, pleasurable contemplations, new vistas and gazes….Despite the use of scientific rationality and logical connections traffic engineering is, ultimately, about planning for the future. Planning, as Throgmorton has so memorably argued, is the art of persuasive story-telling. And as we can see from the texts it produces, engineering will try to persuade using whatever means have most power: numbers, graphics, models, presentations and even, if required, poetry.

Freeways and “as-built” bias: elevated, depressed or something else?

 

Citylift proposition

Citylift’s proposition for the Foreshore – a built earthwork ‘berm’ to replace the existing foreshore freeways, with buildings elevated, and cars hidden – looks radical at first glance. We must be careful, though, not to suppose that just because something (elevated freeway structures) are familiar, they are necessarily best. A rummage through the engineering reports of the 1960s, when the built schemes were under design scrutiny, tells interesting stories of early design decisions and the rationales behind them.

The much mooted underground tunneling of the freeway scheme was actually considered in the 1960s, but rejected on cost grounds. Professor Holford, one of the assessors on the Shand Committee which deliberated on the scheme at the time estimated R3,500,00 for a depressed (underground level but open) scheme and R1,600,000 for an elevated Table Bay Boulevard scheme. Quite how this elevation should take place, though, was undecided until the late 1960s. The 1968 engineer’s design report estimated that elevated structures (as we see them today) would be 8% more expensive than an earth retaining wall…but the engineers argued they would be justified on aesthetic grounds, and on the ability to retain parking underneath. The costs subsequently escalated well beyond these early estimates.

We need to beware of bias towards what is familiar and judge each scheme on its merits today.

Freeways: who decides what’s re-presented?

Foreshore dragon

Source: Cape Times. April 7, 1973 and Louis De Waal clippings collection

The Foreshore Freeways have been controversial from the outset. As the Long Street extension to Culemborg section was being built in the early 1970s the National Monuments Council unleashed an attack on the City of Cape Town for ‘indiscriminate development’. Fury focused on the potential impact of the planned Buitengracht Freeway section of the scheme.

Consultants warned that public opposition could stop the Buitengracht Freeway section and advised that the road be depressed, in order to alleviate the visual intrusion from the scheme. The costs, though, did not impress the Council Executive Committee, nor did the prospect of a ‘canyon’ through this part of Cape Town. Three years later the Buitengracht Freeway issue was still unresolved, and was deliberated by a new inter-disciplinary Environmental Advisory Board, who rejected both the elevated and depressed schemes and instead proposed a ground level alternative. A year later the matter was still unresolved, and residents in De Waterkant also weighed in with opposition, claiming that ‘a huge elevated freeway’ would be a tragedy for the townscape of old Cape Town. A new Committee of the Institute of Architects was formed, called ‘Urban Vigilance’, who countered the engineering consultants’ sketches in circulation with their own.

Buitengracht freeway

Engineering sketches of Buitengracht freeway

Urban vigilance Buitengracht

Architect sketches of Buitengracht freeway

So I am wondering, will we get to see any street level views of the proposed schemes? And if so, who decides what gets re-presented?

God-tricks and the Foreshore

Dec 2010 093 edited (762x1024)

It has been seventy years – a lifetime – since the first models for the Foreshore were presented to the Cape Town public. The 1947 model proved to be surprisingly resilient, even if the sweeping boulevards and monumental parades that it presented fell out of fashion. The three-dimensional 1947 model lived for many years in a civic centre lift foyer, beguiling passers-by.

2017 Foreshore proposal (576x1024)

The models and visuals of the latest exhibition of the Foreshore are equally entrancing. They allow the visitor to get a full sense of the scale and grandeur of the current proposals. Visitors can move, as if in an airplane, through the air above the city and see the future visions below.

Donna Haraway calls this way of seeing the “god trick”. Being above such models distances the observer and creates an illusion of all-knowingness. The observer is omnipresent, the Foreshore is under control. The view from above is cleansed of complexity. Looking at models like these of the Foreshore creates a fantasy view. No human will live this version of the Foreshore.

Donna Haraway suggests that instead of god-tricks we could we pay more attention to “diffracted views”. These deny the idea of a single Foreshore story, whether based on roads, or elevated urban parks, luxury apartments or low cost housing. She challenges us to become more open to knowing from a location, and from a particular body.

In practice, what would that mean?

It would mean moving beyond god-tricks, and getting into human bodies, from the proposal stage. It would mean representing experiences of humans in and through the Foreshore proposals, in all their complexity. The woman driver on freeways, on streets, in parking. The man on foot. The child in pram. The householder in high-rise, under freeway, next to port. The business woman in the waterfront, in the City, in the Bo-Kaap. The refugee.

This is not common practice. It feels too complex for planning purposes and for certain it would require Cape Town’s built environment professionals to stretch even deeper into their creativity. But the history of planning in the Foreshore area shows that the many voices of Cape Town will have their voices heard and their experiences validated, despite the god-trick arguments of the engineers and planners. History shows that people can and will call loudly and powerfully for attention. Which is partly why the Foreshore is “unfinished” to this day, despite the impressive models of the decades before.

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