Review: The Tennessee Valley Authority (Guest Post by Chris Timmerman)

As a child, architect Tim Culvahouse looked forward to the weekly drive to his grandparents' house, particularly the part where the landscape began to change ever so slightly:

Around one bend -- the one I looked for, my signal -- the ragged cuts gave way to gentle, carefully tended grass slopes, slipping smoothly into the dark pine woods. The road rose to the left, cruved back to the right, over and down the hill, then up and down again in long sweeps through the tidy forest. Rounding the final hill, we dropped down between concrete retaining walls, through the face of a bluff, and out into the open…We were in The Country.

Riding in the back of that 1959 Ford...I enjoyed the gentle roll and curve of the road into Watts Bar Dam. It did not occur to me then, and not for thirty years after, that the curves and the ups and downs of that road were

Culvahouse grew up in and around the landscape of the Tennessee Valley as it was progressively altered by the plans of the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority, and it is his family’s story that forms the starting point for the book The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion, for which Culvahouse served as editor. The book’s essays offer a fascinating look at the development of America’s largest modern-day electricity provider through the lens of regional planning and architecture.

Spanning seven states and 24 dams, the development of the TVA was a massive project affecting millions of people. Not just a feat of engineering or America’s grandest planning effort, the TVA sought to bring economic development to one of the country’s poorest regions, through flood control and the generation of electricity.

The aims of TVA administrators and designers were equal parts heroic and problematic, globally aware and regionally sensitive, and these impulses bear themselves out architecturally -- in the unrepentant Modernism of dams themselves; the eclectic architecture of the thousands of homes required to house those displaced by the flooding of the Tennessee River’s bottomlands; and the graphic standards developed for all TVA materials. Steven Heller’s chapter on TVA graphics and Todd Smith’s chapter on the TVA’s visual art campaign are particularly compelling in their descriptions of the complex charge behind the aesthetics of such a massive undertaking. A look inside the TVA’s architects offices in Knoxville by Christine Macy illuminates a productive tension between local and global design considerations, while Jane Wolff’s discussion of the TVA’s transformation of the Tennessee Valley landscape underlines the fact that the land itself was intended to become, through clever manipulation, what would transform the region, physically and culturally:

[The TVA] reinvented the Tennessee Valley as a collection of idealized scenes—rustic, pastoral, and monumental. The places that the TVA created argued for its agenda. Meant to look as though they had always existed, they declared that progress was not at odds with tradition, that old images and new technologies could be integrated, and that history and geography were continuous and coherent. The agency’s terms for the landscape were so internally consistent and so convincing that its rhetoric was barely questioned.

Culvahouse points out that this wholescale approach to regional development was not without its flaws:

Of course, not everyone was convinced. The intricate weave of people’s lives in the landscape does not readily admit comprehensive visions or earthly utopias….Resentment of the TVA’s reengineering of the region lingers there. But just as certain are the benefits to the region, rich in new ways of intertwining our lives with the land.

The book is valuable reading for any design professional who thinks they can foresee the ramifications of any grand transformation, and is particularly apt in an age of new regional transformations from Dubai to Shanghai; grand civic schemes like the 2008 or 2012 Olympics; new parks from New York to Toronto to LA; and of course, the fervent, ongoing, perpetual search for more energy.


Big thanks to Chris Timmerman, the blogger behind Brand Avenue, for writing this guest post! Check out Chris' blog for more great insights on "place, space, and identity."

(Photo from Flickr user Robby Edwards. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Jimmy Stamp said...

hey, great review! The book really is fantastic. Tim is a friend and colleague, and its great to see that the Tennessee Valley Authority is getting such a warm reception!

George Jackson said...

nice review. Learned a lot about the history I didn't know. I might pick up the book.