And so it ends…

The trench is a secret only on the surface. Beneath the surface, everyone intuitively knows what is sustainable and what is not. In the end, it is not the efficiency of the trench and its successes that are astonishing, but the profound ironies of its invisibility.

Barden, Pg 241

I thought this quote a fitting closing to our discussion of The Infrastructural City. It comes from the final photo essay of the book. “The Trench; The Alameda Corridor Picturing Los Angeles: Conduits, Corridors, and the Linear City Part 3“. All along these photo-spreads of the hard physical networks of LA, have perfectly represented the Infrastructural City to my mind and eye. Although, I do not live in LA I visited once many years ago, and these images transport me into the immensity of the infrastructural city that is Los Angeles. The scales, linearity and haze of both heat and definition, unfold, page by page. Barden’s last contribution in particular suggests a summation of the logistics of consumption which are discussed in the closing chapters. The demands of consumption and the resulting tonnage created the need for the Alameda. Completed, it serves as a “main artery in flow of imports” and is central to global capitalism’s efficiency. Yet the Trench which goes from the Port to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Rail Yard and Intermodal Terminal ends in a “massive web of irreducible pathways“. The complexity is immense but so too is the opportunity.

So too our blog based discussion of The Infrastructural City. Faslanyc, in their concluding post summarized the book’s strength and weaknesses as follows, “The constant hyperbole and occasional misinformation/poor writing aside, the assertion that infrastructures are material networked ecologies as well as engineering diagrams is a powerful argument“. As part of their concluding post(s) Mammoth conducted an interview with Lateral Office recent winners of Canada’s Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture, wherein Mason White and Lola Sheppard contend that “infrastructure should be entrepreneurial”. I would agree, with their position that public private partnerships and integration across scales and operational agendas is the key to formulating new infrastructural responses. Such formulations I think allow for a more nimble, scalable and most importantly economic (as in low-cost) alternative. More contemporized than the old WPA 1.0 or Big Dig style, approach to infrastructure(s).

For myself, if anything this book reinforced in me two beliefs. One is that the really potent scale of future urban interventions/invention is going to be small-scale(d). Not local, but communal (or community based). And the other, leading off that, is a key tool is civic based hacktivism. It isn’t about the return to an earlier decade of community design, but one of community building, using design as a key architecture. For a great example of this sort of approach see Faslanyc’s recent series of posts on the Canal Nest Colony project in Brooklyn.

Network systems are the infrastructure on which these programs run and interact. No network is essential, just as no single node is vital-all that matters is movement within the network.

Sumrell, Pg 234

The final chapter on the prop-house industry I thought followed a similar tone to the 1-2 preceding chapters. The focus of these final chapters of The Infrastructural City on consumption gave them a perhaps understandably critical tone, in my reading. I think Mammoth would agree with me for in their own post they note; that Sumrell’s topic is interesting more “for what a peculiar piece of that fabric tells us about ourselves” than what it says about the production of urban fabric in an infrastructural, physical sense. The emphasis on logistics, consumer marketing and consumption I know made me uncomfortable and look closer at my own relationships to them. As a shopper, user, human.

I thought it interesting that both F.A.D., and I selected the same quote from Sumrell’s chapter. I did it before reading F.A.D.’s post, but decided to stick with my selection. The above quote is the crux of Sumrell’s essay. Prop houses are the start but really Sumrell’s essay is an examination of consumption and our relationship to objects.Whether the latest consumer good(s) or the cities we live in, these relationships of interaction are facilitated by a variety of networked infrastructural systems. It is this larger conceptual model which can be applied to exploring regions beyond those in this book.

A couple of concluding remarks on Sumrell’s essay. The fact that the essay opens with a discussion of Omega Cinema Props was I thought symbolic on multiple levels. Particularly since Omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet) is often used to denote the last, the end, or the ultimate limit of a set.

Prop houses Sumrell states are niche markets, highly specialized fragmentary, utopias and as logistics centers they are essential for “survival of Hollywood“. The shift from prop house to personal consumption is enabled by a reading of Roland Barthes (whose work I first encountered in a Theories of Ethnicity course I took in graduate school with Dr. Curta) and Alison and Peter Smithson.

This chapter contained one of the weirdest factoids of the book. I had never before heard of the post WW II cargo cults found in Melanesia and other Pacific Islands, wherein civilized artifacts and consumer goods left by armies were considered gifts of gods.

For Sumrell the business model evolutions of the prop industry are a perfect mirror of our own society’s transition from a Fordist to post-Fordist, to finally digitized, dispersed; networked condition. As many prop houses began as personal collections of pop-art and cult ephemera they can in their physicality serve as a sort of recording of material culture(s)a historical/layering or strata of props and therefore our own consumer(isms).

Ultimately, though this sort of consumption is not consumer friendly. It does however, render a strange condition wherein first consumer goods, then buildings and finally city/and regions become rentable or deployable. Everything a consumer good, a prop. One even more contemporary approach is to virtualize this condition. Starting from personal collections and prop-houses (in their current format/venue) and transformed into digital websites/databases, online auctions and eventually green screens, CGI and Second Life economies… Or as Sumrell concludes, the final solution is one of, “goods as concepts” enabled by Chris Anderson’s democratized, Long Tail. But really, this is no more sustainable or certainly holistic than the preceding condition. What is needed is something more original and transformative. Going beyond metaphor, objects/goods could be facilitated by soft infrastructures of networked systems. The goal would be not replication of natural form but of process. Sumrell suggests such a system of constant circulation, would not be a “living ecosystem” but perhaps, something close.

The conclusion seems to be something like a closed system, wherein as in nature waste streams are also nutrient streams. Perhaps, not a true close(d) loop but a something more linked. A first step in this direction seems to be the growing interest in LCA (Life cycle analysis) or Cradle to Cradle type of approaches. The key in all this, being the amount of attention placed on “designing” the post-sale, and post-usage phase of a thing, whether the thing be a toothbrush, a building, city or infrastructural system.

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.

Drought-proofing a region. Through, infrastructure?

Perhaps as one of the citizens quoted in the article says, the continent of Australia has only enough water resources to host 22 million people. Or perhaps it can just build/design it’s way out of a crisis? This quote describing some of the recent, but also initial attempts by Australian states to combat the mega-drought conditions they have been facing, I found quite evocative. Are they discussing just another series of mega-projects and master-plan(s) that will fail, as so many others’ have due to unforseen consequences of effects? You, decide.

Besides restricting water use and subsidizing the purchase of home water tanks to capture rainwater, the state spent nearly $8 billion to create the country’s most sophisticated water supply network. It fashioned dams and a web of pipelines to connect 18 independent water utilities in a single grid. To “drought proof” the region, it built facilities for manufacturing water, by recycling wastewater, to use for industrial purposes, and by desalinating seawater. Production of desalinated water can be adjusted according to rain levels.

Via NYT (here)

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“.

Embodied and cybernetic…

jam-hack is Mammoth’s post on “Blocking all Lanes-Traffic” the first chapter in the second section, Fabric, of the Kazys Varnelis edited The Infrastructural City. This essay by Sean Dockray, Fiona Whitten and Steve Rowell examines, the nature of traffic, the history of traffic control and also diagrams the effect of the 2004 funeral/procession of Ronald Reagan, on the Los Angeles traffic system. All of these examinations touch on two concepts. First embodiment, questioning or exploring the symbiotic relationship between man and traffic as “experienced” infrastructural system. The second, is the lense/action of the hack. The operational, or active. End user as agent

As others wrote,

In both cases — whether the hack is understood as a way of implementing a new infrastructure or as a new kind of architectural act — the key realization is that successful shifts in urban form will only happen when they are paired with successful alterations of the infrastructures, systems, and flows that generate those forms. Attempts to construct a new vision for the city that fail to grapple with the underlying systems that, like traffic, constitute and produce the city will ultimately either be ineffective or collapse catastrophically.

There were two pieces of the essay that really jumped out at me. In the first, I may be misreading the “tone” , but I found myself troubled when the authors; Sean Dockray, Fiona Whitten and Steve Rowell write

but neither… is allowed to archive footage or to feed even a single frame of video to Los Angeles Police Department or other law enforcement agencies.” and further “Apparently, privacy concerns outweigh the value of traffic surveillance at this scale.

This within a discussion of 700+ camera system ATSAC and CALTRANS have for surveillance of their sections of the Los Angeles traffic networks. Now, while I am all for the democratizing/opening up of data, I found myself relieved to read that law enforcement was not able to lay theirs hands (easily) on the data from that surveillance network. Is the only concern the most efficient engineering, after all? Or, perhaps I have too criminal of a history..

One result of the essay’s exploration of the semantics of traffic congestion-jam-etc (as a body/anatomical/medical term) is a parallel understanding applied to the evolution/history of traffic control. Policemen were even in the beginning a “control” (perhaps the first to “hack” such systems???) mechanism of sorts. Over time becoming more mechanized, computational and symbolic. Gloves, whistles, flags, towers, all signals of a sort. Man as machine. This evolution even more apparent with the development (in the 1930s) of a “master-controller” both man and device.

Perhaps, the cybernetic characteristic encourages but also necessitates the hack as opposed to the plan?

Finally, I was intrigued by their choice of Ronald Reagan’s funeral/procession as an event through which traffic patterns could be explored. It was ironic on some level if only because in mind there is a close connection between the America of Ronald Reagan and my conception of a traffic jammed Los Angeles. If only in era, alone. Along with their diagrams they include examples from incident reports, direct feed of a sort from the traffic streams. There is a symmetry it seems to me between the hack and the “incident”. Both can be sudden, unplanned, asymmetrical and deadly. The incidents read almost like text messages, a chat room transcript, or even a stock ticker…..

The essay closes with the phrase “no grid…no gridlock“. Perhaps, the solution is the introduction of the idea of the Z axis?

Pits, aggregate and extremeophiles…

After a little break and a delay on my part mammoth book club is back.

This week we discuss “Margins in our Midst Gravel” by Matthew Coolidge of The Center for Land Use Interpretation. Some of us focused on the possibilities of re-purposing the pits as sites of new program and function. Others were interested in issues of scale. How much aggregate is used, where and what these large systems can tell us about our priorities in terms of land use. I was particularly struck by Coolidge’s description of how the aggregate industry mines the alluvial fans coming down from the mountains. Although, the dams are primarily designed to serve as dams, in order for them to function in this capacity the industry dredges and as “a sort of slow, passive mining system” relies on the dam basins as a source of aggregate material. The now primary designed-use being a by-product or secondary result.

To put this in a national perspective, the aggregate industry overall has around 120,000 employees, and 10,000 quarries, making it easily the largest mining industry in the country.

Matthew Coolidge, Pg 70

The industrial processes described by Coolidge are thus ultimately the premier example of the sorts of mining operations (and subsequent reclamation operations) discussed by Alan Berger in Reclaiming the American West, of which there is one particular example that I would like to discuss.

The Berkeley Pit is also result of mining operations. Yet, unlike in Irwindale (where the powers that be would like to fill, or otherwise reclaim the pits) the city of Butte Montana has no such choice. The accidental lake which has since filled the pit is in fact highly acidic and the water is also laced with heavy metals and toxic compounds. As a SuperFund site there are plans for trying to address these challenges, yet the site has self-produced it’s own beneficial reclamation of sorts. Although the water are highly toxic the waters are not sterile. Life exists and even thrives thanks to natural selection. These extremophiles, researchers at Montana Tech have identified as sources for tumor fighting compounds that may hold the cure for certain types of cancers

Perhaps, what Irwindale needs is to replicate the conditions of the Berkeley Pit and with their own batches of extremophiles jump-start a new generation of bio-technologists. Is this the future of the city’s economic growth? Geologic scaled vats of bio-goop??

Either way, it seems clear that nature and natural selection along with geologic time make their own uses of such sites of extraction and temporary scarrification.

There’s oil below the Beverly Hills….

In the area in which oil production would be the most conspicuous, the dense urban district heading west from downtown toward, Santa Monica, measures have been taken to camoflauge the oil infrastructure to allow it to blend into its urban surroundings.

Ruchala, Pg 62

In “Crude City, Oil” Frank Ruchala explores the often unpublicized and literally camoflauged relationship between Los Angles and oil.

Visibility for Ruchala then is key, but does the visible have to be historic? Or does it need to be continuous and permanent? Perhaps, remembrance, via appropriation, (as myth even) is a softer (or even more durable) approach. Over at Mammoth they suggest that maybe the real lesson of Ruchala’s essay is that instead of tending towards stasis we need to embrace flux.

Do we need to see/feel a thing to remember it, is perhaps another question?


Beverly Hills Oil Field detail, showing drilling islands. Oil field boundaries from California Department of Conservation. Map projection California State Plane Zone V NAD 83. via Antandrus


I found it interesting that the densest fields in terms of amount of oil production are located in the densest parts of LA’s urban form (including Beverly Hills and downtown) At least that is what it seems based on a simple extrapolation/calculation. If total production of all LA fields is approx 2 million barrels and the Beverly Hills Oil Field produces 850,000 barrels per year, from just three well sites, than this suggests a relationship between density of extraction/production and density of urban form.

Did the former result in the later? In fact Ruchala notes there is a close link between whether an oil field is actively exploited and property values, but it is one where production retreats as values rise. So, perhaps the density of production within the Beverly Hills Oil Field allows for the production to continue in an area of seemingly quite high property values? It probably helps that the wells are located near or on school grounds. Additionally, I suppose the fact that Beverly Hills land values are high probably has less to do with demands of urban density and more to do with exclusivity and segregation…

Note: Data for calculation from the spring 2010 CLUI newsletter, The Lay of the Land, (here)

Early on Ruchala makes clear there is some analog between the fields and urban form, for he notes that although only 30% of the area of LA is atop oil, it is a small but hyper-dense field, (Pg 54) perhaps, in contrast to at least the pop culture image of LA’s uber-sprawled urban form/condition.

Additionally, Ruchala’s essay also highlights the importance of myth and image making. He notes that unlike it’s relationship to water or Hollywood LA has never used oil as a basis for crafting it’s self narrative. There Will Be Blood is perhaps the closest Hollywood has come in recent years to even exploring this relationship between the history of southern California and oil and even therein LA unique role is not specifically addressed.

Finally, the Ruchala piece also makes clear that as much as oil has played an integral if unknown role in the history of LA’s development, there will be opportunities for even greater shaping of LA urban form and development in the future. Specifically, because even though production has decreased in recent years, the land dedicated to production in the greater LA area is extensive.  If by 2040 oil and it’s extraction will be completely erased from the LA basin, the land currently dedicated to it’s extraction/production will become available for other uses.

This then get’s to the very heart of Mammoth’s question. In this case the issue will go beyond simply camouflaging the current oil related structures and processes, but rather perhaps, making visible what will no longer be even partially visible. What will all that land be used for? Extending the urban sprawl of LA? Or perhaps, following examples like that of Duisburg Nord Landschaft these once productive lands can become new spaces for remembrance, creativity and recreation? Although, in this case, instead of one large park one could envision many distributed sites, each former well/pump station a min/pocket park. To borrow a phrase, perhaps the trajectory will be from machine in the garden to machine as the garden?

A zone comprised of an invisible pattern of ownership and maintenance jurisdictions, railroadlands and easements

Though there is strong advocacy for the river’s renewal and restoration, there is as yet little constituency for understanding the river as it is and as it will be in the future, for the infrastructural sublime, for the freakological, for the river as artifact

David Fletcher, Pg 50

In “Flood Control Freakology, Los Angeles River Watershed” David Fletcher explores the possibilities of a narrative of freakology for conceptualizing the current and future conditions of the LA River. To be precise Fletcher’s piece is less about pontificating or suggesting a vision of the future freakological, at least not in the design or project(ive) sense. The boys at Mammoth in their entry for this week do though, and they examine the design approaches which could be applied. Or more precisely they explore the implications of freakology for design. How does one curate these ecologies, what role could a lo-fi (see Faslanyc) or experimental land or aqua-scape open for architects and scrapers of all sorts? One things for sure, I agree it would require a disciplinary, bi-polarity of a sort (for some further thoughts on disciplinarity read me and Carl Douglas here and here).

As for Fletcher, for me there were a couple of key takeaways from his piece. The first was his point on narrative, just the emphasizing of it’s importance. But is his writing a narrative? Certainly, the following images of the river are. Perhaps, more figurative than speculative though. Figure as in “a phantasm or illusion“, even.

In Fletcher’s narrative though the Los Angeles River is no longer a single physical entity but rather a “zone comprised of an invisible pattern of ownership and maintenance jurisdictions, railroadlands and easements.

One key point which highlights the paradox of the River’s future perfectly is the result of the same water and conservation pressure facing Owens Lake and southern California at large. No longer does the river see much seasonal flow adjustment in fact most of the River’s average flow is made up of the discharged treated and untreated wastewater from city and LA basin. Thus, hopes for the re-clamation and re-greening of the LA River corridor will inevitable run into the constraints caused by growing demands for water in the LA Basin. As more water is reclaimed for human usage the available water for these idyllic re-inventions of the River will Fletcher warns, face a harsh reality. Problematically, these same factors will also the raise the concentration of pollutants (and salts, remember the estuary) etc if as flow levels diminish and thereby bring with them there own new ecological problems and likely niche freakologies.

Within the context of a discussion of lo-fi and experimental interventions I was struck by the role played by physical trash in creating/capturing organic sediment. As Fletcher noted on Pg 42, such freakologies actually help to create an organic structural substrate for new vegetative communities and island ecologies.

Finally, one topic, which after this reading I am interested in learning more about, is the role and existence of the estuary/Bay and the LA Port (the busiest as far as I know in the nation, by volume at least). I imagine there must be a good thesis or two which explore new models of interfacing with the LA River’s estuary and Port confluence. Have any authors explored this estuary/bay as a -scape?

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

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.