Place  /  Comparison

Mobility and Mutability: Lessons from Two Infrastructural Icons

The Embarcadero Freeway and the Berlin Wall exemplified how the politics of mobility reflected the arrangements of power in each society.

An imposing monument to ideology and power, it stood as a marker of urban division from its construction during the height of the Cold War until its fate was sealed in 1989. Featured in films from noir to arthouse, its austere aesthetics absorbed observers on the scene and around the world. With its grey, alienating appearance, it also attracted no shortage of denunciators. “Oppressive,” one urban design expert opined in retrospect, “does not begin to describe it.” It’s still remembered by history, even if most people now enjoy inhabiting or traversing the public space its absence affords with little thought to this once formidable fabrication.

I refer, of course, to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway.

But this reference also recalls that structure’s infrastructural doppelgänger; Berlin’s infamous edifice was also built to control mobility and to shore up a system of unequally distributed power.

Standing as they did across the same temporal span, the Freeway and the Wall, despite their differences, invite comparison for the lessons they hold. Two of those lessons – that mobility is power, and that nothing lasts forever – might issue from the twentieth century, but they are particularly salient for thinking about the city of the twenty-first.

In Berlin back in the early Cold War days of Conrad Adenauer and Walter Ulbricht, the East German state faced the problem of an unmanageably mobile citizenry. Farmers, artists, academics, and doctors were prominent among those departing across the open border. Between the fall of the Nazis and the rise of the Wall, three and a half million people fled the German Democratic Republic. 1 in 6, in other words, went west.

From 1961 to 1989, the GDR’s solution brought a brutal stability to the situation, with comings and goings strictly controlled. The greatest symbol of the Cold War caught the attention of the world. And as was true of the Embarcadero Freeway, the Berlin Wall also drew the eye of the camera., perhaps most memorably in the moody reverie of Wings of Desire (1987). Though difficult to see at the time, when the angels of that film looked upon the Wall, their faces were turned toward a past that would be radically altered by the political storms of the near future.

The Wall, like the Freeway, was a symbol of power but also a site of political ambiguity that offered oppression and freedom in complex combinations. In San Francisco, this quality lent itself to the noir sensibility of director Don Segal’s The Lineup (1958), with its ruthless drug runners and trigger-happy cops.