Sunday, 21 February 2010

From Sea to Shining Sea, By Sea

Florida's Overseas Highway. Image taken from the Flickr stream of jbaccile and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Reading N_O_R_T_O_N's superb post about the freaky roadside architecture of Branson, Missouri ("What Vegas would be like if it was run by Ned Flanders," according The Simpsons), I was struck by a strange Sunday-afternoon fantasy. Specifically, I was marvelling at the willingness of Americans to drive distances that would make Europeans weep. It occurred to me that this nonchalence could be an essential part of the American psyche, a denial spawned in response to the enormous size of the 48 contiguous American states. The vast expanses of land that America was fortunate enough to find itself in possession of at the end of the 19th century are as much internal as external - they have manifested themselves in the American mind. There's that expansiveness, that ambition, that generosity, that optimism that comes with the frontier ...

Anyway, this caused me to wonder: What if, instead of purple mountains and fruited plains, European explorers had instead come across a vast archipelago of islands, an Atlantic Indonesia between Canada and Mexico? This is a wholly pointless bit of counterfactual speculation ("How would the Second World War have worked out if Stalin could fly?!") but it made for a pleasant weekend reverie, so I'll share it anyway.

My thoughts started in New York, essentially an offshore archipelago-city in itself - of the five boroughs, only one, The Bronx, is on the American mainland. It is a place geographically and socially defined by its bridges and tunnels - down to the expression "bridge and tunnel" used by Manhattanites as shorthand to describe (unsophisticated) non-Manhattanites. The view of New York from an approaching ship is already an iconic American image; one can imagine it applied to all American cities. New York is matched, on the West Coast, by San Francisco and its surrounding cities - not an island-chain, but still a place defined by waterfronts, bridges and tunnels. Boston, similarly, is a peninsula. These are beautiful places; the American mode of city-building could have thrived in Columbonesia. Consider the Florida Keys, an island chain transformed linked by the 127-mile Overseas Highway - a bridge-causeway that could be read as transforming the islands into a single megastructure or the world's largest inhabited bridge.

The way that America's rivers served as conduits for the settlement of the West shows how the straits in Amernonesia could have carried pioneers west - paddle steamers completely supplanting railroads as the engines of expansion.

More from the Keys. Image taken from the Flickr stream of jbaccile and used under a Creative Commons licence.

But what of the roadside architecture that America's wide-open (contiguous) spaces have inspired? Among teeming thousands of islands, it's pleasing to imagine a vibrant wharf-front architecture springing up - eye-catching decorated sheds and Long Island Ducks designed to draw in visitors from the traffic streaming long the Interstate sealanes. Wharf-front architecture and decoration is the ancestor of the gaudy Great Sign and googie structures we know today. PLaces like Nyhavn and Bryggen can be read as the Las Vegas Strip of the ocean-going age, best understood from a boat as the Strip is best understood from a car. Hanseatic gabled architecture is the grandaddy of the decorated shed. One can easily and happily imagine it propelled into the 20th and 21st century - Wan Chai with Venturian characteristics.

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