Sunday, June 15, 2008
I went to Hoover Dam today and it made me proud to be human. That huge structure is an elegant example of the convergence of a multitude of our arts. I know little about the science that went into it, but the power lines alone, conducting electricity toward two major cities, speak to what our species is really capable of.
I love massive public works projects. Their chief purpose is always to make the world better for others. In the case of this dam, it was built with that 1930s spirit of the collective that I find inspiring. Just as inspiring is that 1930s spirit of doing great things under ugly circumstances.
I wish we had more of it these days. The contrast between Las Vegas and Hoover Dam is undeniable. One serves the other, of course, but that one was built to serve humanity, and the other mammon. Don't get me wrong, I like mammon, and I am totally about hedonism, but Las Vegas is so bread and circuses where Hoover Dam is so focused, so true, so all about human potential.
I wonder what the people who worked on it thought when they stood back and took it all in. And I'm not just talking about the city of workers that were imported to actually put it together, but what about everybody in Washington who developed the policy that would take tangible form in the dam? What about the engineers who designed it? All of those people, when they finally saw this great project completed must have remembered when it was just an idea on a piece of paper, whether in an analysis or on a blueprint. I'm just a girl born into a different world than they, but I feel new.
And patriotic. Dammit, look what we can do! Look what we did, and first. I think about the style in which the dam was built and how it truly suits the celebration of both the United States and the worker in a time wanting money but rich with pride in its ideas and accomplishments. It's the same style that celebrates the Soviet Union, those blocky 1930s populist friezes and those huge murals celebrating the worker. "Rosie the Riveter" is done in that same style, with a little bit of the pinup thrown in.
For me, this style has always seemed both beautiful and malicious. Beautiful because there's so much hope in this style -- it looks into the future -- "We can do this, we can do anything," it says. It is also the style of the art and architecture of Stalin and of totalitarianism socialism and its propaganda. I look at architecture built in this era (the Boulder City Hall, is the example that comes to mind) and I immediately think of those black and white photographs of vast Russian wheat fields and peasants sitting on tractors. Then I think of the purges. But behold the Hoover Dam. It possesses that same aesthetic, but in a different context. Here it is the architecture of progress, not of continual revolution.