“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.