Critically Commemorating The Tennessee Valley Authority

America is crumbling. And in our current political climate, solutions to this problem will be hard-fought. In a review of five recent studies of our national infrastructure, Elizabeth Drew notes, “today no great vision guides our policies for building and maintaining the arteries of transportation—ports, dams, and bridges—as well as the electrical grid, even the broadband system. Such far-seeing government measures as Roosevelt and Eisenhower championed are inconceivable now.” With pipes leaching lead into the water and bridges collapsing, there’s no denying that work needs to be done. Looking back, the New Deal provides a model that we celebrate for showing what can be achieved through commitment to social investment, civic mindedness, and collective purpose.  At the same time, we need to remember to commemorate the New Deal critically.  We have learned too much in the intervening years about the illusions of Modernity and grand Social Engineering to be naive about the costs associated with triumphal technologies like dams and the architectural hubris of men like Le Corbusier.

With this in mind, we find the book The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) to be a good case study of the two faces of large-scale modernization projects sponsored by the New Deal. Edited by architect Tim Culvahouse, this lushly illustrated book explores the implementation, promotion, and legacies of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a massive, multi-pronged New Deal program designed to “further the economic development of an impoverished, mountainous region covering most of Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.” (See our Programs Page for more details about the TVA). The Tennessee Valley Authority explores the relationship between official rhetoric and local experience in essays by architects, landscape architects, and designers of all stripes; a creative reflection on locals’ experiences with the program; a photo essay by the renowned photographer Richard Barnes; and an afterword by former Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (Rep., TN). Without ignoring the impressive achievements of the program and its aesthetic coherence, which introduced impoverished rural Americans to modern architectural forms, this book peels away a grandiloquent surface to find a brilliant promotional campaign and a sad history of erasure.

As Culvahouse notes in his introduction, for TVA administrators the goal was to craft a “new nature” (22), where infrastructure and edifices could be successfully integrated into one of America’s most isolated regions. Progress and tradition would go hand in hand. As Jane Wolff argues in her essay, “Redefining Landscape,” “as a counterpoint to noble and tragic images of the then present, the TVA offered an equally monumental image of the future: it described the Tennessee Valley of the early 1930s as a lost Eden and proposed to rebuild the region as a new Utopia” (54). Sounds good. And what’s more, a newly electrified population would also become users of electricity and appliances, adding to the consumer spending necessary to pull the country out of the Depression.

But, as Wolff notes, all this new stuff entailed “the destruction and reinvention of much of what had already existed” (52). While TVA architects built structures to echo the landscape (dams that evoked grain elevators) or created programs merging past and present (ceramics studios where local clay was fired by kilns run on newly-installed electricity), noble, now-electrified nature also destroyed a long-standing landscape. Houses, granaries, stores, cemeteries were suddenly underwater as new dams were built to prevent flooding in cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga. Communities were obliterated, remembered only by their former inhabitants or preserved in navigation routes to keep waterborne traffic from crashing into submerged buildings.

The TVA, Wolff suggests, was “so brutal in its erasures” because it “was an activist agency. It effected radical change, but to do so it had to present an unambiguous story about the benefits it brought” (63). For the Culvahouses, the family farm was flooded, leading Chet Culvahouse (the editor’s grandfather) to sue the government, contesting the amount of compensation he received. Chet presented as evidence of all that he’d lost to flooding “fields of corn twice [his] height” (16-17).  Those images are nowhere to be found in the triumphalist story spun by the TVA.

Would this have mattered to the people moving into or visiting the modernized spaces of the TVA? This book abounds with careful readings of the structures, landscapes, and promotional literature that made TVA structures accessible, exciting, and, yes, beautiful. The program promoted itself by turning its dams and electricity stations into tourist sites, with didactic exhibits and picturesque views. The “megatechnologies,” Barry Katz suggests in “Ideology and Engineering in the Tennessee Valley,” were humanized through such features, as well as the work of manning the power stations, on view to tourists. People understood the new technologies and massive buildings they were living among and which now determined the course of their lives.

It was normalized to the point that it became mundane. As “Domesticity and Power,” Richard Barnes’s photo essay, shows, the man-made landscapes and waterways are today used, enjoyed, and ignored. Irony is layered upon irony: In one image, the everyday task of cleaning a swimming pool is belied by the sublime “natural” water and verdant hills beyond, while the landscape’s grandeur is itself deflated when we realize that both aquatic spaces are manmade. In other images, people near the waters  created by TVA flooding do not marvel at the view but talk to each other, read, play guitar, barbecue. In still other photographs, the myriad structures sit desolate, overtaking any sense of the humans for whom they were constructed, even as they are, some of them, still quite impressive.

The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion ends with an appendix of “Travel Suggestions,” detailing the features and significance of four “representative TVA sites” (137). After 130-plus pages exploring propaganda and heavy-handed ideology (as well as its aesthetic innovations and totality of design), one sees these suggestions as more than sardonic. They are also invitations to scrutinize these spaces on one’s own, to account for the massive successes and improvements fostered by the TVA without forgetting that a faith in “progress” obscures as much as it reveals. What if the past is both model and cautionary tale?



Gabriel Milner is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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