Performance and Memory: The Trans-Canada Highway and the Jumping Pound Grade Separator, Alberta

Article excerpt

The building of the Trans-Canada Highway (1949-1961) was a nationalist exercise spurred by forecasts of increased road links with the United States for trade and tourism, and undertaken in the postwar climate of the Cold War. It is an object of national unity coordinated by the provinces, illustrating how a federal government policy was enacted on a series of local sites, by provincial governments often historically suspicious of federal intentions. Besides the road surface itself there are a certain number of attendant structures: bridges, overpasses, tunnels and lay-bys. These were designed and constructed locally (provincially in rural areas, municipally when the Trans-Canada Highway crossed a city) according to Trans-Canada Highway Act guidelines. The building of the Trans-Canada Highway and the engineering works along its route collectively forma piece of material culture very much a product of its time.

In any structure, technology and universality are bonded to locale. It is local soil conditions, building materials, labour, climate, economics, politics and culture that take a universal, modern idea and adjust it to fit local conditions. This is not a matter of choice or a desire to ameliorate universal culture, but a necessity. The adaptation of technological solutions to specific tasks while affirming the aesthetics of specific communities is necessary to material existence and social survival. In this case a simple universal concept, a cross-Canada highway connecting, with a single pavement, all the provinces, met a number of challenges that were inevitably local. The imposition of a single system on an uneven terrain has resonance with the impact of globalisation on an unevenly developed world: access is improved, local identities are in danger of becoming folklorical, the possibility of authoritarian control is facilitated. The role of highways as channels of development, as deliverers of tourists to the landscape and, as in Eisenhower's justification of the United States Interstate system, a means of military defence, operates with a sense of a larger whole, which is the nation, that the highways render coherent and that in turn renders the highways intelligible.

The particularities of sited modernism counter the perception of a homogenizing and universal movement. General ideas carried from metropolitan centres to a peripheral site -- Alberta for example -- can be seen to liberate a host of peripheral events rather than suppressing them. One might say that modernism consists precisely of the dialectic between the local and the universal, both necessary to the other. Here, the Trans-Canada Highway project as a postwar political idea, and one specific highway grade separator, #74596 at Jumping Pound Creek on the Bowness to Kananaskis portion of the Trans-Canada Highway, 22 kilometres west of Calgary, precipitate several interesting issues. Designed in 1963 by the Department of Alberta Highways, it epitomizes an era of sleek, minimal, modernist engineering. If, as Tzonis suggests, one of the basic tenets of modernism is the defamiliarisation of the environment in order to re-present it without the obscuring layers of cultural expectation (Tzonis 1996: 176), then this era of engineering works provided a lens with which to see the landscape defamiliarised and represented as simple, clean and sublime, not the complicated and difficult nineteenth century view of the Canadian landscape. The bridging of the highway was presented as lightweight and effortless, unlike earlier and often later bridge technology. Jumping Pound overpass was designed in the same decade that Margaret Atwood wrote Survival, the last version of the thesis that the threatening landscape had forged the Canadian character.(1)

The Trans-Canada Highway is cited as one of a handful of major national initiatives following the Second World War. The St. Lawrence Seaway, the Trans-Canada Pipeline, the Trans-Canada Highway, the National Housing Act, the introduction of government health care, the pension plan -- all envisaged Canada as a unity that national projects could traverse (Clement 1984: 40-41). …