Explainer: Engineering marvels
For most people, the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge, which opened to traffic today, will provide a convenient link between Nevada and Arizona. For Blaine Leonard, it could also help close the cognitive gap in the way people think about large-scale engineering projects in general.
On the one hand, says the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “People have an inherent curiosity about how things work and how they’re built. They want to know what makes them tick.”
At the same time, he adds, people have a tendency to take infrastructure in general for granted: “Infrastructure is what makes our lives possible; it’s what makes travel possible.”
With that in mind, here are nine new or soon-to-debut engineering and infrastructure projects that are worth a visit.
Beacon Hill Station and Tunnels
From the street, Seattle’s Beacon Hill Light Rail Station is little more than a boxy brick building fronted by four elevators. Step inside, though, and you quickly descend 160 feet to the underground station and the massive tunnels of the 16-mile Link Light Rail Line between SeaTac Airport and downtown. The station is filled with public art — internally lit sculptures loom overhead like microbes made large — while the tunnels themselves offer a testament to engineering technology. “It was a massive project that is, in some places, hidden beneath our feet,” says Leonard. “That makes it intriguing.” It also made the project a 2010 ASCE Award of Merit winner.
Concordia University Wisconsin
Sometimes the best engineering work is meant to go unseen. That’s the idea behind the Lakeshore Environmental Enhancement and Education Project at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis. The campus, which sits on 130-foot-high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, was literally washing away — 20,000 tons of sediment per year — until it undertook a massive stabilization program involving 100,000 tons of rock, stone and vegetation. Today, visitors can experience a man-made, yet seemingly natural environment, visit a one-month-old environmental learning center and get a sense of why the site also received an ASCE Award of Merit this year.
Now approaching its one-year anniversary, this 66-acre complex on the Las Vegas Strip still stands as the largest privately funded development project in U.S. history. And, perhaps, its most controversial. Design-wise, it’s a stunner, its expanses of curved glass and angled metal standing in marked, modernist contrast to the ersatz palazzos and theme-park motifs of its neighbors. Financially speaking, it’s been less successful: Conceived before the recession, it cost $8.7 billion to build, but was recently written down to $2.8 billion. A bum deal for shareholders, it’s a winning hand for visitors who can get a hotel room for as little as $109 per night.
Talking Water Gardens
Wastewater treatment isn’t glamorous, but according to Mike Wolski, it can be a beautiful thing. As assistant public works director for the city of Albany, Ore., Wolski is part of a public-private partnership that’s turning a crumbling industrial site into a 50-acre wetland that will cool treated wastewater in a setting marked by waterfalls, wildflowers and hiking trails. With construction set to be finished in December, the site will remain closed for another 12–18 months to foster revegetation and the return of wildlife. “There’s already a bald eagle out there, checking it out,” says Wolski.
This elevated greenway in New York’s Meatpacking District wasn’t engineered so much as re-engineered. Originally built in the 1930s to get freight trains off city streets, it became a weed-choked eyesore after the trains stopped running in 1980. But instead of demolishing it, the city turned into it a long, skinny park, complete with native plantings, water features and open seating areas. The first half-mile section debuted in 2009 with a northern extension expected to open next year. Says Leonard, “They took a feature that had become a detraction and they’ve turned it into something that benefits the neighborhood.”
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
Part of Dallas’ AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Wyly Theatre is the art world’s answer to Transformers: It can be quickly converted into a variety of configurations, based on the nature of each performance, through the use of a mechanical “superfly” system. The 600-seat venue, which was designed by Joshua Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas, features a unique “stacked” design that positions support spaces above and below the hall, rather than around it. The result? A 12-level, glass-walled “theater machine” that’s a powerful dramatic presentation all by itself.
New River Gorge Bridge
Located outside Fayetteville, W.Va., the largest single-span steel-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere is hardly new — it was completed in 1977 — but it now offers visitors a novel way to experience its impressive engineering: BridgeWalk, a guided walking tour along an inspection catwalk 850 feet above the river below. The tours ($69 per person) entail clipping into a safety cable and traversing a 24-inch catwalk underneath the bridge deck, all while enjoying panoramic views and bridge-design insights. “We’ve had kids, we’ve had retirees, we’ve had engineers,” says managing owner Benjy Simpson. “They get a chance to appreciate what this bridge is all about.”
Golden Gate Bridge/Doyle Drive
Approaching its 75th anniversary (in 2012), the Golden Gate Bridge is truly an iconic structure; approaching the structure itself, however, can be an automotive nightmare. That should change with the projected 2014 completion of the Presidio Parkway. Replacing the seismically unstable Doyle Drive (Route 101) with a new parkway/tunnel system, the change will not only enhance traffic safety but also remove a longtime barrier between to two other San Francisco attractions: the Presidio and Crissy Field. “Making the connection between Crissy Field and the Presidio,” says David Shaw of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, “will help people visit both and better appreciate them as national parklands.”
World Trade Center
When it comes to iconic infrastructure, no project carries more significance than the 16-acre site where the new World Trade Center is now taking shape. When completed (in 2015), the complex will include four glass towers, including the nation’s tallest building (1,776 feet); a museum dedicated to 9/11, and a transit center designed by Santiago Calatrava. In the meantime, a pair of memorial pools marking the footprints of the original Twin Towers is scheduled to open by September 11, 2011. “People want to go there, not just to see the site,” says Leonard, “but also to see how you build something while retaining the historic value and the sanctity of what happened there.”
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .