As a rule, bureaucracies and genius are incompatible. A notable exception will be found in the New York State Department of Transportation and the Vermont Transportation Agency, which recently released plans to replace an 80-year-old bridge spanning Lake Champlain. Leading the team designing the new bridge is consultant Ted Zoli, a 2009 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the genius award.
Among other things, the MacArthur Foundation cited Zoli's sensitivity to the context in which his "elegant and enduring" bridges are built, and Zoli clearly appreciates the natural, historical and social context of the bridge at Crown Point.
"There's no more important structure within the built environment of that region," says Zoli. "It's a part of people's lives. So much local sentiment is attached to it."
Zoli is familiar with that sentiment in part because he monitors the residents' email messages that arrive at his firm's offices in Kansas City. He also participated in a series of December public meetings in Ticonderoga on the two states' plans to demolish and replace the bridge.
But the origins of Zoli's appreciation of the Champlain Valley lie much deeper than those relatively casual encounters with the region would suggest.
He was born in Glens Falls and raised in Queensbury, attending local schools before going away to Hotchkiss. He went to summer camp at Dudley, in Westport, a few miles north of the bridge. When he was growing up, his family kept a boat near the bridge in Vermont...
He comes from a family of engineers and roadbuilders, whose firm was selected by New York State to help build the Adirondack Northway.
Zoli says he spent the first months of his life in a trailer near Schroon Lake, when that section of the Northway was under construction.
Zoli's appreciation of the original Lake Champlain Bridge and its designer, Charles M. Spofford, is no less deep.