Back to Infrastructure
Christopher Hawthorne has a largely favorable review of The Infrastructural City in the Los Angeles Times today. I was delighted by the attention although disappointed by how he got tripped up in some naïve assumptions. Unfortunately even though ACTAR had sent him my contact info, Hawthorne rushed his article to press, missing his opportunity to think through the book's main points.
I laughed out loud at Hawthorne's opening lines, in which he suggests that the book would have "a tough time steering clear of the remainder bin" if it weren't for the stimulus package or that I didn't expect that infrastructure would be trotted out as part of the stimulus plan, that I was taken by surprise.
It's true that infrastructure was once the least sexy of topics, a term barely used in English as late as the 1960s, but as Ian Baldwin, my former student at Penn, observed, it spread widely after the publication of America in Ruins, co-authored by economist Pat Choate and Susan Walters. The authors of that report suggested that some $2.5 trillion would be needed just to keep the country's infrastructure functioning at a constant level into the mid-1990s. Infrastructure, as a concept referring to a bundle of physical service networks, became visible in its collapse. That money was, of course, never allocated.
Over the next two decades, infrastructure continued to rise in the public eye, in large part because, as our book points out, it is in a state of constant failure. This is something that virtually all of us experience. Angelenos, navigating over-crowded streets and freeways at a snail's pace, understand it viscerally. We've also come to understand that there are going to be no great new projects: only architects and reporters seem to believe otherwise. The immense expense of construction, empty government coffers, and NIMBYism will take care of that. But the New-Bad-Future-right-now of infrastructure defines our cities today, much as the lifestyles of Banham's ecologies defined the urbanism of his day. As humans and objects interact ever more directly (look at the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, for example), the lives of these systems become more and more important.
Architects have long been interested in infrastructure. Starting in the Renaissance, copies of Vitrivius's Ten Books on Architecture typically had Frontinus's essay on aqueducts as an appendix. Later on, Piranesi likely drew inspiration from the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer, for his Carceri. Infrastructure is a lost fantasy object, taunting us with the suggestion that those aspects of the city that escaped from architecture could once more be under our purview. In Los Angeles, the avant-garde scene came together at the West Coast Gateway competition of 1989. If the West Coast Gateway project never got built, Gary Paige's reconstruction of an abandoned railway depot into the downtown SCI_Arc building a decade later is the most inspired large project in the city in decades. In designing the building Paige drew on the theories of Stan Allen, now Dean at Princeton, and an advocate of thinking about architecture and urbanism in infrastructural terms. Infrastructure is hardly a topic for the remainder bins, at least not for architects.
As for the stimulus plan: there was certainly some rhetoric last fall suggesting that a new era of WPA projects was upon us, but as I've pointed out, this is hardly the case if one actually looks at what's in the plan, as I did here. Hawthorne isn't a political reporter, so he missed this, but it's crucial and there's on excuse for not doing your homework.
The Obama administration is not spending a significant amount of money on infrastructure. My definition of infrastructure is broad—certainly broader than Hawthorne's—but this plan does not initate much new funding for infrastructure, not unless you count the construction of hospitals (note to unemployed architects: there will be a bit of work building hospitals) or digitizing health care records. The plan is an amalgam of tax cuts bundled with triage for various government programs that were underfunded during the Bush administration. Those are the facts. Whether Obama changed his mind or infrastructure was an easy-to-understand term he deployed as bait, this is by no means the return of the WPA.
Perversely, this may not be a bad thing. Take a look at Eric Janszen's article "The Next Bubble" at Harper's. Back in February of last year, months before the crisis had revealed its full dimensions to the unwary, long before the rhetoric about the stimulus plan, when Hawthorne was still hunting remainder bins looking for books on infrastructure, Janszen cautioned that infrastructure might be the cause of the next bubble.
But the money spent on last fall's bailout, together with the funds allocated for the stimulus plan, pretty much ensures that the government is going to have its fiscal hands tied for some time to come. In other words, the stimulus plan will not only fail to fund further large infrastructural initiatives, it will prevent them from being built in the first place. An infrastructural bubble isn't coming.
Now I do anticipate that in the coming years industry will have some success with getting funds allocated to subsidize construction of supposedly sustainable energy sources. Most of these aren't sustainable either environmentally or financially, and once the economy shifts again, the results may look something like this abandoned solar energy plant built in the early 1980s, then dismantled and left to rot like a field of dying date palm trees when the financial models failed.
[Image via CLUI's Land Use Database]
The real infrastructure to watch will be the network. It'll continue its growth, the invisible layer of soft infrastructure exerting more and more influence over our lives even as it becomes more distributed and more privatized. As Rick Miller and Ted Kane point out in their chapter on mobile phones, it is by no means positive that the public interest has been placed in the hands of private interests. This is a challenge that the country needs to confront and I see little political will to do so. Hawthorne's failure to mention it suggests that it's still beyond the scope of a story in a Sunday paper. That's a shame.
The end of Hawthorne's piece is flat-footed. Instead of confronting the consequences of our conclusions, he appeals to the fantasy of infrastructure as the next architectural object, trotting out the idea that architects need to be involved in the design of the new infrastructural America.
In the unlikely event that somehow a burst of hard infrastructure takes place, I hardly think that this will save architecture. Why would a cash-strapped government pay for design now when it has never done so before? You could say that the great turning point in infrastructure is took place at the George Washington bridge when the engineers decided it looked fine as it was and decided not to give it a stone cladding. But we're not even brave enough for that today. The palm tree on our cover says it all: a cell phone tower is not designed by Frank Gehry, it is designed to look like a palm tree. Now we're probably the better for it: the host of architect-designed subway stations in Los Angeles were largely an embarrassment. If by some miracle architects get on board with infrastructure, NIMBYism will make sure that new infrastructure would look even more contextual. Imagine the rise of cell phone trees disguised as mission bells throughout Los Angeles, hardly what any of us want.
I was happy to see Hawthorne finish his article with a pot-shot at the architect-as-icon. It's nice that is trickling down. But Hawthorne doesn't go far enough with his recommendations for the profession. Please save us from OMA-designed off-shore wind farms. Architecture needs to re-invent itself in the face of the challenges of contemporary life. As Hawthorne suggests, architects need to take a page from engineers and embrace anonymity. More than that, they need to apply their tremendous imaginations and skill to reprogramming the world of network culture into something new and fantastic. Go read bldgblog, look back at what Andrea Branzi and Bernard Tschumi wrote decades ago: these guys had it right. Now more than ever commonplace thinking about architecture's role will be fatal.
In the coming week, I'll follow up with a post containing my piece from Volume Magazine's "bootleg" issue of Urban China in which I draw together the links between the book and the economic stimulus plan and suggest some more directions.