architecture treats infrastructure as its object of desire

Kazys Varnelis via quaderns

A criticism “As practised, however, infrastructural urbanism has drifted away from such forward-looking ideals and indulged itself in an unhealthy relationship with modernism. Too frequently, contemporary infrastructural urbanism consists mainly of modern infrastructure retrofitted for the purposes of tourism.

And then an extortion “It is time for architects to understand that the structures of infrastructural modernity are just so many ruins and, in conceiving of new infrastructures for the millennium, to learn how to embrace the new modulated world of invisible fields.

Kazys Varnelis: Infrastructural Fields, Quaderns #261

Cell(s’) Structure(d) for Counting (on) Change, through sufficient looseness

As Mammoth has already noted, one distinguishing characteristic (when compared to the earlier chapters) of both Cell Structure and Counting (On) Change, is the way in which they focus on infrastructural developments which can be characterized as “development for constituencies vs development for markets”. Like faslanyc I wonder how the the growth of cellular networks (based on a model of private enterprise and experimentation) could be applied to the contemporary urban project as a prosthetic skeleton of sorts. One which would provide a framework for low-level and micro-scale interventions driven by community input and demand. Meanwhile Polis wonders if the solution to issues of scale is the “elimination of illogical borders in scaling up that we can utilise the neutral technological advances in communication and transportation networks as positive tools of community building“. Perhaps, the correct response to the power and fragmentation of market driven private enterprise solutions is to take a page from their own book and maximize community led endeavor(s) by “uniting disparate groups using new tools of connectivity and data sharing”. F.A.D. suggests that there is already an example of such cellular urbanism, aka corporate urbanism. Corporate urbanism is in fact landscape urbanism’s more actualized cousin. Corporations in their drive towards standardization and replication have become ecologies unto themselves. F.A.D. writesOnce a corporation has developed an operational process it replicates this process throughout its productive sites” yet, this corporate/cellular urbanism is contextual and not one size fits all. In fact because it is consumer/demand driven it is responsive thus, “Even though corporations standardize and replicate their operations, their precise location is strategic and site specific.” In the post for Counting (On) Change, F.A.D. further continues this line of thinking. For it is exactly the sort of processes of negotiation that Sherman explores that can lead to a “negotiated local” version of cellular/corporate urbanism.

Such insubstantial and nimble systems that can be built out in stages and paid for by their own growth have transformed the rules of urban development.

Kane and Miller, Pg 152

I am a cell phone Luddite. Although I may on occasion borrow a friend’s I do not own nor plan to own one. Yet, the lure of total media/digital saturation is high. If i was to get one, I know it would be a full options, data plan model. However, it is a defense against the last encroachment of Web Life Infinity.0, to me. Hypocritical certainly, but principled, yes.

The point is that the chapter Cell Structures by Ted Kane and Rick Miller was a wonderful read precisely because it made me feel like less of a consumer. The authors suggest that the industry is representative of a “new corporate model or urban planning“. This model I note is dependent on gaps in oversight, and takes advantage of public decline for private good. Yet if the market is consumer driven and responsive, can the argument be made, that it is in fact consumer owned? They exist not for the public, but for the consumer? Public utilities at least become dependent upon their own bureaucratic inertia’s for existence. Is this perhaps the lever point? The relationship being almost parasitic would imply a sense of shared destiny. Although, the authors caution rightly about the social justice issues related to the digital (or even quality of service/coverage) divide perhaps the conditions can be created wherein lack of service becomes denial of demand? I am trying to think of some way to hack consumption? Or is this just a form of “green-washing”. Like Stonyfield going mass organic.

This same attitude though, is similar to the discussion of camera feeds and law enforcement privacy concerns in the essay on LA’s freeways and it concerns me. It seems to excited (ed. I must note the authors seemed to share my concerns) by the possibilities of market freedoms, which in my mind is eerily similar to the tragedy of the commons. When I hear such talk I instantly desire an increase in or refinement of regulation. Where are the sheriffs?? Perhaps, that is my own failure of imagination though.

Or more provocatively if the consumption based planning leads to a hierarchy of service wherein whole neighborhoods are left neglected (in this case with poor service, coverage/speeds) like holes “in swiss cheese“, can one imagine positive intervening typologies which harness this dead zone. As zones of contemplation, informal anarchy or minimally digital quiet. With growing fears about the longevity of digital memory and privacy could such holes in the cellular network/fabric serve as an anti-body, the next Iceland or Wild West where pasts are forgotten. Perhaps, this would be one way of as Jan Chipcase writes outsmarting the network.

First off I thought this as an interesting video to come across, just in time for my contribution to Mammoth’s book club, discussion on Cell Structure and Counting (On) Change chapters of the Infrastructural City. Particularly interesting is Varnelis’ response to Geoffrey Thün’s initial question about the operational possibilities open to designers’ with regards to the topic of urban and regional ecologies. Varnelis (I paraphrase) notes that actually the only chapter in the Infrastructural City book that he allowed, that was in his words focused on traditional design themes (with regards to design options/operations), was Roger Sherman’s Counting (On) Change. Specifically, because of the focus on the architectural role of negotiation, it’s effects on the built project and the ability of the architect to hack through all the regulations and parties. Varnelis characterizes the rest of the book’s chapters as research project(s) distinct from any design strategies per se. Berger picks up on this and emphasizes the need for research as a key (re)framing device for architecture and the other design professionals. Research based as opposed to context-reactive. An iterative, scientific approach to design solutions

That the logic of bargaining dictates an outcome that is by definition emergent challenges not only conventional forms of architectural production…

Sherman, Pg 204

Counting (On) Change focuses on property and the relationships and negotiations generated by the result of property transactions. In it Roger Sherman defines the specific operational role of architects. One item though, I found a bit contradictory was the fact that this chapter began the Objects section of the book. Only because Sherman seems to emphasize the interaction between objects as opposed to objects as discrete, singular entities. That aside it was a wonderful essay. It responds to Geoffrey Thün’s question, and provides concrete directions of a sort. Including the wonderful diagrams. Yet, it is also true that the scale at which Sherman explores, these forces are for the most, small and local. That is why like Mammoth I look forward to reading his recent book, L.A. under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property. It also seems to view the architectural role within the modern urban condition similarly to that described by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-wow in this interview with Mason White. As Sherman makes clear, given the rapid rate of urban development the architect is now a producer of “design strategies“.

The question becomes how can we build “sufficient looseness” into infrastructural projects , with respect to futurity. Using multiple exchange diagrams, Sherman’s essay argues for an almost ecologically evolutionary conception of speculation (self-organization), which he states always pre-cedes infrastructure (planning). He even speaks of “socio-economic couplings” and other almost biological characteristics. Does the architect or urban agent then become a cultivator, more grower than builder? Given the current interest in urban agriculture and and other green urbanism(s) or ecological infrastructures, perhaps that is the appropriate metaphor. Either way it is clear that one cannot take only a granular approach. If not the region, the concern is at least on the scale of the “city-as- ecosystem.

Some of the specific entanglements he describes clarify the position. For instance the three way relationship between the Shell Oil derricks, Curleys and Jack the Shoeshine Man is one which which the latter two parties are dependent upon the derricks. It is a parasitic relationships, or “spatially entangled” condition. The solution Sherman concludes is the “hack” as in the case of Turner’s Pass.  In terms of specific architectural/programmatic elements “bait” must be strategic to attract leverage and thereby influence other scenarios. Finally, architecture can make change itself a spectacle and marketable asset resulting in a “brave new city” wherein “design can “create a supply which creates its own demand“. Thus creating a new self-sustaining urban biology.

From USA’s “underground service alerts” to “Performative trees” and Frankenpines

Well, I am a bit behind on my contributions to our last two weeks of the Mammoth book club. Therefore this post will explore both “Invisible City” by Kazys Varnelis and “Landscape: Tree Huggers” by architect Warren Techentin. The gents at Mammoth have put there’s up already; here and here respectively.

Additionally, Faslanyc’s take on Varnelis’s chapter led to an interesting discussion (in Mammoth’s comments) re: Command line v. graphic user interface as a metaphor stretched too thin. F.A.D. concluded that “Trying to tease apart the virtual and the physical chasms is impossible, which I think is a repeated theme of the book.

Before examing the chapters directly I want to say that these two chapters out of all so far were stimulating, quick reads. Yet, a few things stuck with me. In the case of the Varnelis essay the focus on the building as metaphor for a new networked condition left me a bit unsatisfied. Even his call for “engaging with the code” (somewhat akin to Mammoth’s command line architecture”) reads to me, more like a Matrix reference than a representation of the sort of dull but exciting realism of civic volunteering, and human agency as urban actor that I want to engage in. How does one engage the code? Can I see some instructions? Maybe cause he is preaching to the choir?

As for the Tacheutin essay, the passages toward the end wherein he suggests a future of trees as constructed artifact left me a bit cold, longing for a valuation of the real green performance of trees today, within a local ecosystem, as services/things. F.A.D. (paraphrasing Mammoth) wrote in their response to the article that “a shift from iconography to “productive machines” opens up broader questions about what future urban natures might be and by what performance criteria they might be measured“. Yet, I would suggest that this shift could (and should) occur without requiring a switch to constructing artificial/performative trees. I would argue that in fact this really requires a shift in ideology or in how we conceptualize trees/forests as they exist already. For, trees are already “performing”. F.A.D.‘s comment is actually spot on, in that it focuses the attention on the need to stop viewing the existing urban forests and vegetation as merely image or within purely decorative terms, and rather to expand our understanding of what it is that trees are for. Thereby re-evaluating a current “foundational infrastructure“…

Finally, I want to touch on a few points that I jotted down while reading the two chapters, as particularly of interest or noteworthy.

Here pavement is ripped up with such regularity that the rules of USAs are modified; instead of adding paint when a service alert is issued, companies preemptively mark asphalt ass soon as an excavation is patched over.

Varnelis, Pg, 122

Kazys Varnelis “Invisible City” opens with an image, of the street in front of, One Wilshire. What I found so striking from the photo was outlined in the passage above. The diagram is always outlined. The street and it’s markings display a near constant mapping. Moreover, that same language is moving. For, it is always being updated, and it displays direction. The usual rules are abandoned and the future “need to know” is replaced, “Preemptively“! And, color-coded, for your help.

The convergence of the unmappable hyperspace here in this location, serves as the Bonaventura Hotel did for Frederic Jameson, read as cognitive map of sorts. As an embodied, “networked society“, woven together by fiber.

But in the end complexity overcomes reality, with a new spatial regime. Or does it? I suppose I would like to know where the networked is engaged, or through what? At the source of it’s connections? If 1 Wilshire is the real parallel, a “key (s)witching point”, then is the asphalt marked pavement a patch, which could serve as a platform? Or perhaps, the networked fiber can be viewed as a woven fabric.

For me the real solution may lie in, a reprogramming not of code, but as Varnelis identifies “the union of governmental, institutional, and capitalist forces“. Intervening here in a literal way. Maybe, by re-directing already existing forces and sources, for example of funding.

Cell phone trees suggest that technology is itself natural

Techentin, Pg, 138

In “TreeHuggers” Warren Tacheutin begins by looking at the constructed image of Los Angeles via the palm tree, of which we learn only one species is native to the area. In fact he asserts that in Los Angeles a missing architectural skyline is replaced by “rows of palm trees“. Tacheutin goes on to suggest that this “formless polyglot landscaping” is a foundational infrastructure of Los Angeles. The original condition of the city and it’s surrounding landscape was fairly dry and consisted of scrub brush. The current tree cover of palms, eucalyptus and the plurality of non native species is the result of man’s cultivation and landscaping of the land. I was especially surprised to read that the even with one million trees comprising LA’s urban forest, the city canopy is only 18% compared to a national average of 27%. One wonders if local climate/conditions has shaped the limits of the canopy cover or if the disparity is shaped by Los Angeles post-modern/future-modern urban form or density?

Tacheutin makes clear a great opportunity lies in the city’s future. With the (over the next decade or so) impending demise of the Los Angeles palm, the city will need to replant it’s canopy on a large scale. For him this is an opportunity to picture a future wherein the fall of the palm leads to “rise of the performative tree” “living infrastructure” or “organic machines“. The model here is the synthetic “Frankenpines”, trees as camouflaged cell phone tower. I contend we should focus our efforts on reconceptualizing what we mean by “tree”, not by making a new “tree” but by questioning our valuation of “tree”. In fact a passage in Tacheutin’s essay makes clear that such a valuation regime can be  developed. Towards the end he discusses how local/regional laws have codified a “pro-tree agenda“. For example those protecting, local oaks or requiring planting X amount of trees per new development. Such an approach which increases the literal, value could serve as a first step. It would need to be applied more broadly though. Not just to legacy oaks, or other top-rated species. Definition does matter.  If we can learn to apply such valuations in larger terms, ones which include emergent, non native or urban conditions, then we can perhaps, begin to move towards a future wherein, rather than seeing cell phone towers as natural, we more fully embrace all that is nature. Thus, embracing the full expanse of the natural.

The Fallen Fruit project he discusses in his essay is a perfect illustration of such an expanded application. What they are doing is re-naturalizing fruit. As opposed to the tree and it’s fruit being a private, unknown, unused or unnatural thing, the project is re-claiming the natural. Through expanding knowledge and re-claiming common ownership. To me this is the essence of a urban hack… Urbanism Future.0, a making visible through diagramming, available public data/goods or goods. As Tacheutin writes “a new form of neighborhood ethics and generosity“.

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.