Preserving the integrity of the void….

Well a little late, but here is my contribution to the Mammoth book club’s reading of the Kazys Varnelis edited ; The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles.

(First a quick editorial note)

What are the possible benefits of defining as distinct from each other, the two categories, Landscape and Fabric as Varnelis does in laying out the sections of this book? For, I think of both as horizontal in character. As fields, not singular and detached in expression.

Fabric could be restated, as suggesting a reading of city as textile, perhaps. The significance of such a reading would be twofold. A textile is man-made (specifically to be worn or at least displayed) and a landscape is ecological. The two however, need not be exclusive. Furthermore, a textile anthropologically speaking, can be read as cultural text. In this book the authors, attempt to use infrastructure in such a way. As a text or cipher with which they explore the limits of West Coast urban freakologies.

Setting out understand this city, and by extension all contemporary cities, we treat it in terms of networked ecologies, a series of codependent systems of environmental mitigation, land-use organization, communication and service delivery

Varnelis, Pg 15


In the introduction Varnelis outlines his editorial direction. What does LA mean to him? What is it’s contemporary condition and where is it heading? Its very existence and urban form the living depiction of the great myth of the American West. Varnelis’s networked ecologies could be the contemporary equivalents of wagons, trains and Indians? All rolled into one? An instance of exploitative appropriation, the terminal point? Are LA’s networked ecologies the 21st century equivalent of the 20th century’s Modernist infrastructure, or the the cowboys and trains of the 18th century…

The key then to understanding contemporary LA is to think not of it’s ecologies as discrete terrains. Rather, think networks, not the spontaneous urbanism of Banham, and this condition is simply “a local manifestation of global condition“.

Yet ultimately, the book is in his own words a guide atlas or even manual. The future audience in the last case might very well “resemble a hacker” some sort of future urban scale citizen-tinkerer.

As the antipode to sprawling Los Angeles, the artificial emptiness of Owens Lake simulates the conditions of the frontier.

Lehrman, Pg, 32

Credit john22

In “Owens Lake Reconstructing the Void”, Barry Lehrman explores the past, current but also future conditions of Owens Lake. Once a flush lake now a kind of a second nature. It is also a permanent rural antipode preserved by the very extracting processes that created it’s current condition. Many of my fellow commentators have highlighted this unique role played by LA in keeping Owens Lake’s surrounding area undeveloped and rural. However, my interest was peaked more by two related concepts. First, the idea of present day Owens Lake as a sort of new nature. Secondly, by the idea of Owens Lake as a frontier.

In the first case Lehrman’s work makes clear that today Owens Lake is a sort of new or second nature. The dust mitigation project run by LADWP to mitigate the Keeler Fog (aka dust storms) that play havoc with air quality in the surrounding communities and LA basin, has created new ecologies and natural conditions. The lake no longer matches it original condition yet the system of bubblers, shallow flooding and berms has created something new. In fact the project has been so successful in “preserving the integrity of the void” that a new condition has resulted. A brine marsh has re-created a bird friendly environment so successfully that now bird watchers flock to Owens Lake.

Frontiers as some have argued play(ed) a key role shaping the mythology of the West. Yet, frontiers are also liminal border zones. Places of opportunity or even of ambiguity. These characteristics of the Frontier historically created the very processes that emptied Owens Lake, via processes of extraction and exploitation. Yet, these characteristics also allow for flexibility. For example as the water line retreated, brine and salt extraction followed making use of the drying lake for human industry.

What are the future  possibilities for this frontier?

Since Owens Lake is neither urban, suburban or even rural (it is LA, infrastructurally if not geographically) further development (of a certain type) is out. But even still opportunities exist. Such as the recent LADWP decision discussed here, which proposes to use Owens Lake as site of a mega – megawatts solar power installation.

Finally, in terms of meeting future LA water needs, Lehrman makes a persuasive argument for the need for conservation. There will be no more Owens Lakes. This is the era of the network. Thus, the solution must be networked. Lehrman’s belief is that the future is smart meters and other forms of conservation, for example wastewater treatment. And why not, for it was Mullohand who installed the first water meters.

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6 thoughts on “Preserving the integrity of the void….

  1. Thanks, Nam.

    It might be worth noting that “second nature” is a term with a pretty long historical provenance, generally used to refer to agriculturally-altered/gardened ecologies — the hedgerow ecologies, for instance, which are common in the UK and Western Europe. There might be a good case for referring to an “infrastructural garden” (like Owens Lake) as a “third nature”, since it is such a distinctly different sort of human/natural interaction than historical “second natures”, which are more co-operative, tamed, and less freakish. Speaking of freakish, David Fletcher’s term, “freakologies”, isn’t bad either, though I suspect it’s a loaded term due to the negative connotations of “freak”.

    That’s all pedantic, though.

  2. Or, you might say that it’s a good idea to lump them all together under “second nature” because we want to erase distinctions between “cooperative” and “freakish” artifical ecologies…

    Just thinking out loud.

  3. Pedantic, semantic either way it is good to pay attention to language.

    I actually made a comment along these lines over at F.A.D.,

    Personally, i think it is useful to distinguish these sites/conditions as distinct from “nature” or at least human’s idealized concept of their original “natural” states. Yet, the other issue is that should one make a distinction between nature and these new others? I mean nature includes humanity and its effects, and as more and more scholarship is showing humans have been effecting their environment basically as long as we have lived. So i would agree that perhaps, it is better to break down the categories of “cooperative” and “freakish” artifical ecologies…

    If anything their “cooperativeness” is what makes the “freakologies”, but both conditions emphasize their “naturalness”….

  4. Yet, the other issue is that should one make a distinction between nature and these new others?

    Yes, there would definitely be those who would suggest that the entire idea of drawing any distinction between “old nature” and “new nature” is invalid. But I don’t think that’s really what Lehrman, you, I, or anyone else around here is doing — I think we’re all well aware that the earth is now, to some degree, a fully anthropogenic system, with all landscapes exhibiting some degree of anthropogenic influence (so that first, second, and third natures are all points on a spectrum, not hard categories). I think we’re also all well aware that a distinction between “human” and “natural” is a somewhat artificial construct, what with “natural” being a culturally-constructed idea and humans, of course, being the result of natural processes.

    Maybe we’ll get into all of this a bit more in the next chapter, too.

  5. Of course I think we are all of the same mind on that issue. I know I for one will be exploring this issue more in future chapters…

  6. Pingback: reading the infrastructural city: chapter one index – updated 5.5 – mammoth // building nothing out of something

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