Grand Dams

Grand Dams

The Tennessee Valley Authority was born of crisis, its architecture a monument to an enlightened response.

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the source: “Power for the People” by Tom Vanderbilt, in The Oxford American, Fall 2005.

The aspirations of the Tennessee Valley Authority, created by an act of Congress in 1933, were as enormous as the dams it built. Constructed to make the Tennessee River more navigable and less flood prone, as well as to reclaim the “marginal lands” of the Tennessee Valley, the TVA’s several dozen dams were also meant to bring electricity to the region and, thereby, “social uplift” to people living in a “seemingly antediluvian world of sorghum mills, wood-fired stoves, and one-room schoolhouses,” writes Tom Vanderbilt, a Brooklyn-based writer.

The problem was, the hardscrabble people of the river basin weren’t keen on changing their way of life, and Americans were of two minds about whether public utilities should be government owned. To court a skeptical public, Hungarian-born, Bau­haus-affiliated architect Roland Wank—now unjustly sunk into relative obscurity—was commis­sioned to head the TVA design team, and he set about to woo people with an avant-garde vision of unorn­amented efficiency reflected in “brute, geometric architecture.”

Wank “imbued a technological imperative with beauty and humanity,” writes Vanderbilt, “and created structures that, as modern as they must have seemed at the time, still resonate today.” The dams, ap­proached on winding roads through the Appalachian foothills, featured panoramic visitor centers and marble-and-aluminum powerhouse lobbies, and were “veritable theme parks of progress and utopian ideals.” They attracted national acclaim and eventually became sites of pilgrimage for tourists and foreign dignitaries alike. Architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier visited, as did Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the TVA power­houses and many of the old visitor centers were closed to the public, but this act was merely a coda to the erosion of the TVA dams’ national eminence. Automation, budgetary belt-tightening, and changing political winds have rendered the dams little more than historical relics, and the TVA has become a “watered-down utility company” that derives most of its power from coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

But in the challenge to which the TVA’s soaring dams rose in the Depres­sion era, Vanderbilt sees a call to arms for the future, particularly as the United States grapples with catastrophes on the scale of Hurricane Katrina: “We inhabit a diminished age in which grand public works are supposed to be replaced by small private acts of faith and profit. The TVA was born of crisis, and its architecture is a monument to an enlight-ened re­sponse.”

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