TCS Daily

The Need for Speed

By Austin Williams - August 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Anniversaries are always good times to stand back and reassess a particular field of endeavor. This year, for example, is the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, the iconic Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company and the Wright Brothers' first powered flight. This is an impressive list, and so it is as good a time as any to appraise what has changed in the world of transport and mobility.

Quite clearly, Henry Ford's desire to overcome the narrow parochialism of life on a Michigan farmstead was the driving force that pushed him to further the production of the car; ultimately his actions meant that everyone who wanted it had the potential to escape the chains of localism. From the same era, Harley-Davidson became as much the symbol of the American Dream as it was a sexy mode of transport. With the classic "Easy Rider" Chopper, for example, the brand culminated the 60s as the symbol of freedom of movement, liberty and rebelliousness.

Such societal aspirations -- which sprung organically from a belief that increased mobility, convenience and speed were unquestionably advantageous -- were almost unconsciously promulgated by such pioneers. Nowadays, the problem is that few of these aspirations are seen as positive.

Howard Hughes completed his record-breaking flight around the world 75 years ago in just under four days. His dangerous adventure wasn't a whim, but was yet another benchmark in the drive towards improved technical advances, faster travel and even more challenging goals. As such, in the bygone age of the pioneering spirit, exploration was the key to providing a better world for the future. Today, however, "sustainable development" advocates that we predetermine the outcome of any aspiration and rein it in when we consider that the beneficial outcomes are too vague or too risky. Such contemporary concerns about sustainability mean that practical benefits often have to be shown to accrue before experimentation will be allowed to take place.

In this climate, risk-aversion understandably gives rise to the frivolous, rather than the groundbreaking. Nowadays, we have to look to the pranksterism of Felix Baumgartner -- the man who glided across the English Channel -- for a record-breaking transport story. Unfortunately, skydiving on a carbon-fiber wing amounts to little more than personal gratification. We seem to have lost the ability to demand that risk-taking should serve society as a whole.

The memorable exploits of these early pioneers did not represent objectives in themselves -- and for themselves -- but were stepping stones to yet more challenges. Hughes' feat would not have been possible without the Wright Brothers' relentless pursuit of transgressing natural limits -- and they, in turn, needed the visionary recklessness of Sir George Cayley, who first developed manned flight 150 years ago. And remember, all of these events were carried out without a Health & Safety officer in sight.

Admittedly, there are practical benefits. Early experimental flight led almost inexorably to jet aircraft, space travel and multi-million-dollar business success stories. But, as it happens, most of the pioneering record-breaking attempts begat unforeseen social improvements -- above and beyond the scientific scope simply of aerodynamics. The potential that was released by the capacity for human flight/the automobile/the motorbike, encouraged a greater demand for speed and social interaction, and aspiration for better technology to improve our lives and take us out of the confines of the "everyday."

The unfortunate fact for today is that we cannot simply wish dynamism back into transport. Inventiveness is -- in a dialectical relationship -- part of an inventive society. And unfortunately, today we live in a society that sees progress as a dubious objective -- either redefined to mean a harmonious balance with natural barriers, or simply rejected out of hand as presumptuous folly.

One hundred years on and it seems that the transport "field of endeavor" has lost its self-belief in the merits of mobility. This self-doubt reflects a shift from the social dynamics of the past that were driven by the unequivocal merits of scientific advance, exploration, economic development, and political clarity -- to a modern period of caution, restraint, risk-aversion and lack of authoritative vision. It is no wonder that people look back to the past for a sense of certainty, but situated in the prevalent climate of precaution, don't really know what to make of it.

In a period when speed is derided, it is becoming clear that unless we can reclaim the pioneering spirit and the aspirational gains of Ford, Harley, Davidson, the Wrights and others, we might as well recognize that the future -- not the past -- is bunk.

Austin Williams is the Technical Editor of the Architects' Journal.


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