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Finding the Architecture in Infrastructure by Trevor Harrison, AIA

It’s probably not the right thing for an architect and business owner to admit but by the time the new $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill passed I was too tired of all the discussion to actually take the time to understand what was in the bill and how our region might benefit. The endless spin cycle of cable news networks and talk radio programs had finally caused me to completely tune out something that was going to benefit all of us. Sure, it was going to mean jobs and help to set up Americans to be more competitive in a global marketplace but I had to wonder what it meant for architectural design in our region.


As an architect, I tend to think of infrastructure as all the “stuff” that gets people, goods and services to the buildings we design. I will admit that airports, train and bus stations have some truly beautiful and historic buildings associated with them, but they are still parts of the systems that bring people to buildings, to architecture.

It would be naïve of me to brush past the notion that, without the delivery of people, goods and services, there would be no buildings to arrive at. The efforts of government to create the infrastructure fuels the spending by private investors and creates the buildings that surround us. I am not downplaying the significance of our infrastructure nor the monumentality of this bill. I just found myself wondering, where is the Architecture in Infrastructure?

With over $550 billion planned in new investments for the nation's roadways, bridges, airports, waterways, public transit and more, it seemed, on the surface, that my idea of infrastructure could be applied to this bill as well. To me, this is all stuff we desperately needed but I wondered how all this spending would contribute to the built environment and would anything of architectural significance come from all that money.

Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article, I was not yet able to pinpoint any specific local project or amount of money directly attributed to our region. It will still be some time before the money actually arrives in our region but I hold out great hope for what this bill can do to enhance the lives of the people we all call our neighbors.

While we wait, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of previous infrastructure projects that we pass by every day. These are structures whose significance may have become so common to us all that we forget about the vision, efforts and talents that it took to create these public infrastructure works.

As we travel through Rochester, busy with thoughts of work and family, it may be easy to tune out some of the beautiful structures and places that play a part in our lives. By taking just a moment, one can quickly identify prominent infrastructure works that shape our environment and our sense of what it means to live in this region.

To begin with, I am certain that every reader of this Journal knows the classic view of the City of Rochester taken from the Genesee River looking north towards downtown. The prominent feature of that view, since its dedication in 2007, is the Fredrick Douglass – Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge. This is indisputably a significant infrastructure project as well as an elegantly designed icon for a city whose history owes its origins to the river. The design team at Erdman Anthony and the aesthetics committee who helped guide them knew that they were addressing the need for the efficient flow of traffic into and through downtown but they never lost sight of the fact that they were creating a design element that will frame our view of Rochester for generations.

If you are like me, you are avid and proud users of our City of Rochester Parks systems. The original parks system, as undertaken by the original Board of Park Commissioners, was designed by the “Father of Landscape Architecture” Frederick Law Olmstead. We still experience his timeless vision today.

Our signature festival, The Lilac Festival, utilizes Olmstead’s Highland Park and the structures that remain from his original design. Genesee Valley Park, once thought to be too remote from the City, is an excellent example of Olmstead’s “Pastoral” style of park, while Seneca and Maplewood draw on his eventful and exploratory “Picturesque” style. Today there are ongoing efforts to conserve and reconstruct some of the most significant architectural structures within these parks. Perhaps some of those infrastructure dollars will be spent there?

History is rife with examples of infrastructure projects whose intent was genuine but changing attitudes and the lessons that only time can teach have rendered them obsolete. When this happens, our leadership works to use infrastructure spending to reconfigure the original design.

A great recent example of this process is the infill of the Inner Loop. Originally designed as a highway bypass to help move people from downtown out to the expanding suburbs, the Inner Loop ultimately became known as a moat around the City, acting as a symbolic line between Downtown Rochester and the surrounding areas.

At the time of its construction, the Inner Loop represented a significant public work and attempted to better the lives of the residents of our area. Sadly, it could be said that this infrastructure project moved people, goods and services out of the city for far too long.

Happily, more recent infrastructure spending was used to infill a portion of the Inner Loop and there are additional areas of infill being planned today. The success of this recent project can be seen in the expansion of a variety of housing types for people of all incomes and in the development of the visionary Neighborhood of Play. This time the infrastructure spending, in conjunction with private investors, is helping to move people, goods and services back to the city.

While my three examples focus on the City of Rochester, there are countless other examples of infrastructure spending throughout our region. The impact of the current Infrastructure Bill remains to be seen but it is my hope that, one day, another writer will be reminding future generations of the positive impact this money had on the design of structures and on the lives of people throughout Rochester and the Finger Lakes region.

Trevor Harrison, AIA is the founder and Managing Partner of HBT Architects. Harrison is an architect and member of AIA Rochester.

This article appears as part of the "Architecturally Speaking" column featured in the RBJ, published on December 14, 2021.


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