In the Spotlight This Month
The Art of Hoover Dam
by Roseanne Shoaff
I often wonder if the Hoover Dam would be the tourist attraction that it is still today were it not for its architectural beauty. Certainly, some would come to study the engineering and some would come because of the project’s social and cultural impact. But the experience of first encountering the massive structure would be diminished were it not for the graceful design that both captured what we now view as the “look” of the era and placed the Dam so suitably into its environment. Doesn’t it seem to fit perfectly into the canyon as though it belongs there?
This was no accident. Planners recognized early that Hoover Dam would come to represent one of humankind’s triumphs over nature and also our capacity to shape the landscape. As Hoover Dam stood to symbolize our ability to get control at a time in history when so much seemed out of control, the Bureau of Reclamation wisely hired architect Gordon B. Kaufman to create a compelling look for the Dam.
To Kaufman, “power” was the concept to drive his art: The power of the river that forged the Grand Canyon, the electrical power that would be generated by the Dam, and the power of man to mold the landscape without diminishing it. So, “form follows function” became the mantra and “power” became Kaufman’s theme. To this end, Kaufman stripped the original designs of their gaudiness and opted for the simple curvatures and streamlined features prevalent in Art Deco design.
In retrospect, it seems the only design that would work for Hoover Dam. It continues to attract people today because, like all great works of art, it speaks to us at the most basic level. The form of Hoover Dam appeals to our aesthetic sensibilities, it recalls another time, it expresses the purpose of the project, and it captures the full extent of the accomplishment.