Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading List: The Infrastructural City

The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles
edited by Kazys Varnelis (Actar - 2008)

:: image via NetLab

If not for the impeccable timing of the release of this book, and the fact that the content within has inevitably been in progress for some time - I would say that 'The Infrastructural City' was a direct and specific response to the predominance of recent discussion around infrastructure in our urban areas. Instead, I would chalk it up to the vision that Varnelis and his contributors have in previously discussing what is only now becoming a mainstream conversation, leading to the growing piles of money funneled towards stimulating job creation and rebuilding of said infrastructure. Much like the crowd of 'sustainability' writers who led the wave of discussion - this will go down as one of those books that addressed infrastructure before infrastructure was cool.

:: image via The Infrastructural City

That is not to say there hasn't been similar endeavors in the past, but this is a book with a singular topic (Los Angeles) and a broad scope (Infrastructure) maybe more appropriately is going to be the one text that actually lauches infrastructure from the mundane to the 'cool'. With a simple enough premise of explorations of infrastructural systems and the new configurations: "...networked, codependent ecosystems of environmental mitigation, land-use organization, and service delivery..." Much like the 2007 publication 'Blue Monday' by Varnelis and fellow AUDC collaborator Robert Sumrell, this book is imminently readable, tangential in a good way, and totally engaging. The short(ish) essays lead the reader to absorb - then continue on with the next chapter and essay - staying up way too late for what is practical in getting to work the next morning.

:: image via The Infrastructural City

Encompassing, in no particular order: water, rivers, oil, gravel, traffic, telecommunications, landscape, cell towers, land use, distribution, and the film industry - along with aerial photo essays from Lane Barden illuminating the nature/artifice that is Los Angeles, the book offers contributions from a wide range of thinkers that gives it a variability of tone and topic that makes for fascinating reading. It is all tied together with common mapping conventions and the main character of the play, the unique City of Los Angeles - a city like no other, but also with elements of commonality to everywhere and everyone.

Varnelis, formerly with Sci-Arc, and the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick, is currently at Columbia University with the Network Architecture Lab - which is continuing the explorations of the non-profit architecture collective AUDC to address the infrastructural and social in our cities: NetLab: "...embraces the studio and the seminar as venues for architectural analysis and speculation, exploring new forms of research through architecture, text, new media design, film production and environment design. Specifically, the Network Architecture Lab investigates the impact of telecommunications, digital technology, and changing social demographics on architecture and urbanism."

As typical in a compilation of essays, I am able to pick out a couple of stand outs for me personally - mostly due to their relevance to landscape and urbanism - but there is not one dud in the bunch and they all hold together and complement one another. The broad reach of Los Angeles in it's search for water and electricity (well documented) is balanced by the use of the available local resources of climate, oil, and geography that make the city of Los Angeles a technological and cultural city. This triality of local/regional/global is unique to LA, but also a product of our recently flattened world.

A few standouts in the concept of landscape and ecological systems include an essay by Barry Lehrman on the 'accidental preservation' of the Owens Lake basin due to the depletion of water resources as they were diverted to LA. This diversion leads to a fascinating exploration of the LA River Watershed by David Fletcher - the channelized monster snaking through the city and our imagination in movies such as Grease and The Terminator 2. Fletcher, as lead planner on the 'Los Angleles River Revitalization Master Plan' has unique knowledge and insight into this The essay, entitled 'Flood Control Freakology', alludes to the unnatural ecology that exists within the LA River Watershed's (mostly) concrete lined channels - and the additional challenges that come to restore this ecosystem back to some semblance of ecological and cultural function. The term of 'freakology' sums up many mutated ecologies in urban areas that have evolved despite our efforts - redefining what is the appropriate, what we consider weeds, and how this 'river' can be appropriately integrated into the fabric of the City of Los Angleles.

:: Another Urban Freakology - Frankenpine Cell Towers - images via The Infrastructural City

The connection to oil exploration (and the realization that there are working oil derricks hidden within structures in the middle of the city) offers a take on the historical colonization and ability of LA to become a self-sufficient (at least in terms of energy) hub - meanwhile depleting and extracting this black gold, gravel, and in alternatively scenery, place, and people through a variety of subsequent industries.

:: images via The Infrastructural City

A subsequent essay by Warren Technetin investigates the artificial landscape of palm-lined streets that define the landscape of LA - and subsequent efforts to re-establish a more expansive (and shading) urban canopy - as well as how we maintain, live with, and use these trees within urban areas.

:: image via The Infrastructural City

And the aerial tours of the rivers, streets, and other transportation networks by Lane Barden (much popularized in planning and urban literature by Alex Maclean) follow a linear pathway from the air, giving a more expansive overview of context than ground-level photography or total above ground aerials.

:: images via The Infrastructural City

This book is one to be read, then subsequently mined for new methodologies for site and urban analysis that is sorely lacking in our typical processes. I'm intrigued by the approach, and envision a series of companion volumes with similar rigor for a number of urban areas throughout the US and the world - realization of the unique qualities of each city, but also allowing for the ability to compare and contrast each in a more unified way. I'm itching to apply this approach to Portland - as it is sure to yield some of the known, but more importantly, a lot of the unknown infrastructure at work in my community. I only hope that endeavor is half as successful as 'The Infrastructural City'.


  1. Thanks for showing my photo of Owens Lake. Glad you liked the book. We started working on it back in 2005, so yes, we were talking about infrastructure before it was cool.

  2. Thanks Barry and I appreciate the sneak peek of your article from the fall - definitely piqued my interest - and I was not disappointed. Your essay on Owen's Lake and David Fletcher's essay on the LA River Watershed were highlights for me. JK


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