Without harping too much on that inconvenient thing happening on a big road somewhere in West L.A. this weekend, let us begin this modest post by agreeing that transit in L.A., in California, and in the vast majority of the US, could stand a few more efficient alternatives. As dear in our hearts as we hold the Great American Roadtrip, the idea of the Great American Drunk Train Trip sounds pretty good too. Enter the Van Alen Institute, a New York-based architectural library and think tank that apparently exists in large part to sponsor design competitions that don't necessarily wind up in realized contracts, but to help us imagine what could be.

And what could be? According to the winners and runners-up of the Van Alen's latest competition, Life at the Speed of Rail, high-speed rail as a reality in the U.S. could mean trains with disco cars and gyms, farm machinery shaped like giant animal robots and collapsed mega-regions with playfully smashed-together names like Deledo, Philiyork, Louistonati and Indibend.

The projects were presented with a panel discussion on Tuesday at Caltrans Headquarters, the fourth such presentation after D.C., Houston and St. Louis — cities, by the way, that the panelists agreed were more serious and therefore scandalized by the FUN nature of many of the entries. Something in their boring water, I guess.

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

The Van Alen's goal with the competition — a mandate funded by one of those endangered NEA grants, if anyone's keeping score — was to broaden the High Speed Rail discussion past issues of transportation, politics, economics, NIMBYs and contractors (yawn, yawn, triple yawn), and bring it into the sunshiney design-speak world of possibilities, affinities and efficiencies. Yum, efficiencies!

As one of the panelists, John Rahaim, the planning director for the city of San Francisco, noted, the investments that the U.S. and regions are about to make in high-speed rail are enormous public works of a type we haven't seen much of since the interstate highway system was built. Think about how those roads touch your life — ahem, ahem, Freeway That Must Not Be Named — and realize how crucial it is that something better be built this time around. Metro alone is working with a budget of $40 billion dollars in the coming years, recently purchased Union Station and will soon release a Master Plan for their proposed transformations of the neighborhood around that hub. So, now do you want five cool ideas for something new? Take it away, Van Alen winners and honorable mentions!

5. What Will You Do?, Rael San Fratello Architects, Oakland

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

This proposal for the L.A.-SF Bullet Train was an audience and panel favorite, met with a haze of giggles and name-checked throughout the rest of the talk. Meant to “combat the detrimental effects of sitting with a trip from L.A. to San Francisco,” the design shows tiny Californians Of The Future doing laundry, grocery shopping, getting massages, taking art classes, and being waited on in a velvet red dining car by imported French waiters (you can tell by the exact angle of their noses in the air).

4. Dazzle Trains, Abby Richardson, Henry Grosman, Long Island City NY

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

Credit: Courtesy Van Alen Institute

Just when you want to get all lispy and make a bunch of RuPaul references, you find out the FAB-ulous Dazzle Train idea was borrowed from World War I battleships. Dazzling breaks down the shape of a bulky object, and helps it take on characteristics of its surroundings — trains in leafy suburbs get delicate swirls, rail lines making tracks through the rocky desert get fast, hard horizontal lines, and geographic regions become visually distinct right down to their trains' snappy outfits. And as all queens know, the devil is in the details: the proposal closes by promising that, “even the cocktail napkins in the bar car would be dazzled.”

3. Animal Farmatures, Stewart Hicks, Allison Newmeyer (Design with Company), Urbana IL

Billed as “a flock of agro-entertainment animatronic farm implements,” Animal Farmatures solve the issue of just what those bullet train riders are going to look at out the window during those great expanses of America that are just great big expanses. Sure, a three-story tall manure spreader in the shape of a horse isn't the most practical proposal, but it does put a fine point on the idea that there's as much opportunity for what's going on outside the train as inside it. Somebody call Christo, there's a land art commission afoot! Or think — as is already happening, rest assured — what Disney could do with 100 miles of high speed track and a captive audience.

2. VPL, Rustam Mehta, Thom Moran, New Haven CT / Ann Arbor, MI

Don't worry, mama, we weren't gonna let you out of a design-centered post without a little bit of infographic. Go ahead and click on the azure blue beauty of the above to see how VPL proposes to make a high-speed rail ally out of the airline industry while addressing the sprawl that promises to otherwise make the area between L.A., Phoenix and Vegas into one vast cement Borg colony.

1. The Beacon, Manifesto Architecture P.C., New York

Speaking of the Borg, a glowing, luminous box hovering over Chicago's Union Station is meant to highlight how high-speed rail will create an “expansion of the realm of daily life, or rather, a shrinkage of the perceived scale of the entire Midwest region.” The Beacon would house a hotel, offices and a conference center, with its complex innards exposed in the space between the historic stone station and the new effervescent one.

That display of what it takes to move millions around the country calls to mind the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote that Jane Jacobs used at the beginning of The Life and Death of Great American Cities, her masterpiece on urbanism:

When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.

Or at least you'd hope that's how the folks with penthouses directly across from a giant ball of light see things.

All winners and honorable mentions can be viewed and downloaded in gloriously high resolution at vanalen.org/lifeatthespeedofrail.

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