Infrastructure + Interstice

Architecture has become increasingly marginalized and distanced from its role as an aid to humanity and society in the last twenty years by responding primarily to the demands of the market. It may therefore be useful to shift our attention to the public role of the architect by (re)defining ‘value’ in the built environment. If we are to assign ourselves to a redistribution of the design process that may build upon a platform of local needs via global networks, then the indeterminacy of interdependent economic, political and cultural systems should be embraced, rather than ignored, to enable suitably elastic design strategies to respond to the dynamic conditions of urban landscapes. The potential to develop an adaptive system to address the multi-scalar characteristics of cities may offer the urban, whether local, national or global, to emerge as a hybrid of topological and topographical relationships thereby providing a more comprehensive integration between digital networks and the physical urban landscape.

Toyota’s driving simulator (2007). Where virtual and physical collide.

The constant modelling (read: mapping) of existing systems does not necessarily make future predictions a certainty. Perhaps one of the main stumbling blocks here is the attention lavished on ‘form’ rather than ‘systems’ which has to date resulted in a preoccupation with objects rather than infrastructure. The role of infrastructure is often viewed as the primary area of investment for governing bodies in the development of cities around the globe. With the increasing urbanization of the physical landscape, infrastructural development is perhaps the key defining feature of this landscape with the attendant capacity to integrate, or negate, territories and stimulate social, economic and cultural activity.

Cactus mobile phone mast being installed.

The dissolution of space and the latent regulatory landscape, that define our urban environment, serve to demonstrate the polarization of architectural extremes and characterize the current condition in the production of architecture; the unregulated (pop up shop, temporary pavilion, favela, street food, illegal trading) and the hyper-regulated (transport interchange, school, data centre) . The transition from architecture as mediator of the ‘city’ to architecture as mediator of the ‘urban’ has already occurred. As the order of space, light and form has ceded from the production of architecture it is possible to describe a situation wherein the projects that successfully negotiate infrastructure and the urban condition can be seen to exemplify this shift. OMA’s entry into the competition for Parc de la Villette, Foreign Office Architect’s Yokohama Port Terminal and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre, function successfully within the supermodern image-sign-object schema but also transcend notions of the city by engaging with infrastructural urbanism. These building types and projects may come to represent the new dynamic of urbanism in the context of architectural production.

Yokohama Port Terminal. Foreign Office Architects (2002). Infrascraper.

Originally coined by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki in 1964, the term ‘megastructure’ was defined as a vast frame in which the many functions of a city could be incorporated [1]. Subsequently popularised by Reyner Banham through his book of the same name in 1976, the term has evolved to describe repetitive systems that enable a high degree of variation to occur, and recur, as a response to programmatic and contextual requirements. Perhaps, therefore, the transformation of the public realm is not one of erosion but of (re)distribution of its spatial and social properties. Rather than referencing the former exemplars of architectural history, this new domain may be found as being intrinsic to infrastructure IE we have moved from the piazza to the platform as a collective place. This appears to be borne out by the provision of programmes like meeting spaces, food courts and shopping arcades in train stations for people who may not even be using the transportation network. Considered in this way, the commodification of public space by privatized organizations may actually be seen to have reignited urban space rather than be the ‘Junkspace’ it is often perceived as.

Hauptbahnhof. Berlin.

Atelier Bow Wow’s Made in Tokyo alludes specifically to this condition, using a taxonomy of ‘un-designed’ hybrid buildings to reveal more about the nature of Tokyo as a city of flux, where no building is greater than fifty years old. In Tokyo, as with Los Angeles and Las Vegas before it, urbanists can locate a specific characteristic of city, which provides an amplified version of a generic condition, in this instance: temporality. The numerous examples of low-tech hybrids that combine infrastructure and public space are evidence of this transition from materially bound ‘city’ production to network bound ‘urbanism’. These buildings that negotiate their spatial limits in the pursuit of functionality do so in the manner of an intervention, their form is an explicit dialogue between programme and available spatial envelope.

Pet Architecture. Occupying the interstice.

The negative space that is the very product of our progressive society and its infrastructure finds itself as the only physical niche available for expression and this type of intervention can be seen to be reflective of and challenging to the orders of society and space. Reactionary, parasitic, mutable and networked are all characteristics of actions that inhabit the interstice and of the built manifestations of global brands and idioms that form our cities by consumption; the parallels are as evident as the paradox.

[1] Maki, Fumihiko, Investigations in Collective Form, A Special Publication Number 2, The School of Architecture (Washington University: St. Louis: June 1964)

Infra_MANC Catalogue

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The 2nd Edition of the catalogue to accompany the Infra_MANC exhibition [February/March 2012] is now available at The RIBA Hub on Portland Street Manchester and will be on sale from tomorrow via the Manchester Modernist Society online shop. The first edition of 100 copies vanished in under 4 days, this edition is also limited to 100 retail copies, so don’t sleep.

From the introduction:

One way to academically approach the city is to interrogate the infrastructures that keep it moving, operating and communicating. Engaging extensively the materiality and technicality of infrastructure is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences. It is also somewhat unusual to focus on infrastructure that never came to be and technical systems that remained on the paper plans.

Infrastructure typically exudes physical permanence, at least to superficial visual inspection, and on the overview plans and construction schematics, it can appear so believably real. Moreover, the functioning of technical space and built structures as infrastructure services for the city often equates to cultural permanence, which has generated a widespread lack of technological comprehension [or even awareness] by the general public. Essential to infrastructure is that it can be seen as invisible and ignored in everyday discourse. In established industrialised cities, like Manchester, the ‘basic’ utilities of water, power and communications are seemingly present everywhere and  always ‘on’ and working, presenting an image of infrastructural permanence and stability. In contrast to this image of permanence and stability, systems of infrastructure are in reality delicately balanced and prone to failure, which can expose the vulnerability of urban processes that depend upon them. As such,  one of the defining aspects  of utilities and structures, which achieve cultural status of infrastructure, is that they become ‘visible upon breakdown’.[1]

This limited project has sought to uncover the technical specification of, and socio-political context for, several infrastructural elements and plans in Manchester  as a means to examine the post-war decades and the dreams, ambitions and realities concomittant with societal changes between the early 1950s and the mid 1970s.

The research conducted over the last half year has delved into the engineering detail and concrete materialities of a number of iconic projects and several unrealised infrastructural dreams within post-war Manchester and the impact these have had on the shape of the contemporary city. The immediate goal for the research was to build up a narrative understanding and a visual record of the four key modes of communication – road infrastructure, railway transportation, passenger aviation and telecommunication –  and to display this to people in the city. The results are assembled as Infra_MANC an exhibition that seeks to analyse the conception, planning, construction and promotion of four key infrastructural projects: the Mancunian Way, the never realised Picc-Vic railway tunnel, the Guardian telephone exchange and fanciful dreams of a city centre heliport.

Two were built as planned at considerable financial cost, but were rather ineffectual by completion, two were to remain the unrealised dreams of city planners. They were large scale pieces of infrastructure, that it was imagined would create new spaces for communication, with two being buried underground and two being up in the air to facilitate movement above the congested city. They partially overlap and intersect across and through the central area of Manchester [see Overview Map]. One is an infrastructure icon  [the Mancunian Way] , another is a source of intrigue for some [the Guardian underground exchange], and the two unrealised infrastructures are significant in that they offer scope to imagine how the city would be different had they been built.

We have chosen to approach the materiality and imagined forms of these four infrastructures by analysing them primarily through visual artefacts of engineers and original mapping of the planners, much of which is never normally published or even meant to be exposed to the public. Undertaking primary research in archives, seeking recollections of those involved and borrowing key items held in private collections, we have striven to present the distinctive aesthetic of a Modern city as viewed from the professional eyes of the engineer, technically-minded architects and the transport planner. Many of the drawings are highly technical – apparently de-humanised and seemingly a-political – showing only what was to be manufactured and installed. Whilst harsh at first sight, infrastructure often has sculptural qualities to its insertion in the landscape, the angular geometries, specified materials and architectural styling often speaks of the age in which they were conceived. Infrastructural plans, sectional diagrams and drawings depict fluidly shaped lines of piping routing, sinuous steel reinforcing and muscular concrete forms, along with arrays of cryptic acronyms and hand-drawn annotations that truly invites visual scrutiny. The rewards from the time one must take to decode the content of such engineering schematics and planners diagramming of space, we would argue, bring a new kind of mechanistic beauty to the fore. Of course, one might counter-argue that it is not beauty one is seeing displayed, but merely infrastructure being laid bare to be easily objectified as pornographic exposure of the working of city space. We leave it to the judgement of visitors to the exhibition and readers of this catalogue to reach a verdict.

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[1] Star, S. and Bowker, G. [2006] ‘How to infrastructure’, Lievrouw, L.A. and Livingstone, S. [eds] Handbook of New Media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs [London: SAGE], p.231.

Networks + wires

Thumbing Royston Landau’s New Directions in British Architecture (1968), part of the Studio Vista series, brought two interesting items to our attention. We’ve been looking at the birth of computing in Manchester and Cambridge and have come to learn that Lyons & Co. catering company ordered one of the first business computing machines in the UK. The firm was also responsible for the commissioning of Cedric Price to conduct a feasibility study into a ‘walk through’[1] centre to act as an ‘information machine’[2]for the public. The scheme was proposed for an existing building on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in London and known by the acronym OCH (Oxford Street Corner House) and designed to handle up to 5,000 visitors and staff in a flexible and dynamic arrangement designed to offer skills training, ‘teleconnections’ for the press, information storage and inter-city conference exchanges. Price conceived these interfaces using diagrams that made allusion to scientific structures and interconnectivity. This particular project preempts a plethora of technologies and services that have become embedded in modern cultural life, as far as Price was concerned the site and the city ‘must indeed allow for continuous delight in the unknown in social terms’ [3].

‘OCH can be used as a citizens’ inquiry service where teleconnections can be made to press news rooms, travel agencies, government ministries, to Parliament, industry, commerce etc, thus making information accessible which is at present underused or ignored because of access difficulties. [diagram A].

Or OCH can offer a skill-learning or research facility service through programmed machines [a Link drive-a-car trainer or a language teaching machine] or through teleconnections to other study centres. [diagram B]

Or OCH can be used as a centre equipped to provide facilities for information exchange, at a meeting level, at a conference level, or at an inter-city [concurrent exchange] conference level. [diagram C]

The basic user component in the centre would be the two-seater information carrel, but open floor space for observation, wandering, wondering, rest and refreshment by mobile preparation units is fundamental to the full use of the centre.’

Price did not consult a UK computer manufacturer during his period of research and development, instead he corresponded with US firm IBM over the use of their 360-30 computer in the development of a ‘cyber-teashop’.[4] The variety of high street typologies and interconnectivity of media that this proposal preempts are vast – the shop as no longer a place for exchange of finance and product, but as a showroom in the manner of the pioneering Nike Town projects of the 1990s, virtual learning environments, video conferencing and media hubs are but a few of the later established settings that can be perceived as embedded within Price’s notion.

Matthews (2007) writing of the project proposes that OCH ‘was a deliberate attempt to explore new architectural and educational territories’[5] and quotes Price as wishing to examine these contexts ‘unfettered by tradition – scholastic, economic, academic or class structure’[6]Matthews continues to suggest that the scheme developed as biased towards the technological concerns of the framework and that the social agency and interactivity became less prominent as Margaret Littlewood was not involved in the project. Of course a technologically driven series of environments had already emerged during the 1950s in the form of new manufacturing facilities which, in some senses, whilst acknowledging of the ergonomic demands of an environment were largely technocratic in nature.

Which leads us to the second and ultimately technocratic incidence of architecture, the Central Electricity Generating Board’s (CEGB) National Tower Testing Station (NTTS) at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. The site was designed by a team under the direction of W.R. Box and operated as a commercial testing laboratory for the full scale testing of pylons and other structures from 1966. Landau, writing in 1969, is fascinated by its hugely flexible demands and expandable setting as architecture without buildings and whilst not emerging from a critical territory nonetheless embodied the spirit of Price and his contemporaries. The dramatic night time photo is from Landau’s book, as is the schematic.[7]

A 100 sqft mounting pad was secured to the floor of the disused quarry and the quarry sides used as fixing points to test the strength of the towers. Without the use of this particular site a 200ft high stand alone structure would have been required to serve the same function as the post-industrial manufactured landscape. The unique laboratory allowed specific loads to be applied to sections of the towers to test one area of the structure at a time and not to test the entirety to destruction.[8]

As ever those ‘pesky kids’, the urban explorers, have been scratching about the modern day ruins of this not so distant remnant of the future. The photograph above is from the UK site 28dayslater and was taken by user ‘rigsby‘ in December 2007, even less now remains on site as testified by later visits. As an edifice this scheme is loaded with associations to things that interest us: the infrastructure and architecture of the post-war period, the design work of the nationalised industries, the hardware of infrastructure, planning and infrastructure as networks and the use of scientific language in design, modern ruins and a host of other loosely floating notions yet to be tied down. In many senses we are yet to arrive at the type of mobile and ultimately flexible architecture presupposed by a generation of future thinkers, in others the ‘new’ forms of socio-cultural space have been erased from the memory as reality fast outstrips imagination – who remembers internet cafes with names like ‘Cyberia’? One installation here reminds us of the hardware demands of the other – the apparently ethereal, networked space, ‘free’ at the point of connection, tied by its attendant transmission devices. Infrastructure can be volume or void, solid or lattice in its manifestation, but its steady accretion in service of our continuing urbanisation in virtual and real contexts can be seen as the surreptitious age of networks + wires.

[1] Landau, R. (1968) New Directions in British Architecture (London: Studio Vista) p.108.

[2] Landau, R. (1968) p.108.

[3] Price, C. (1984) The Square Book (London: Wiley Academy) 2003 Edition, p.54.

[4] Matthews, S. (2007) From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price (London: Black Dog Publishing) p.177.

[5] Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[6] Price, C. (1984) ‘Oxford Corner House’ in Cedric Price: Works II (London: Architectural Association) p.65 as quoted by Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[7] Landau, R. (1968) pp.88-89.

[8] Lightfoot, E. & Duggan, D.M. ‘Rig for failure tests on scaffold towers’ in Materials and Structures, Volume 8, Number 6 (1975) pp.473-479.

projection mapping / light space

Pablo Valbuena - Medialab Prado, Madrid

First brought to our attention via the digital archive slowly building on the excellent ICASEA blog attached to the UK/JP electronic art label, the work of artist/architect Pablo Valbuena challenges the perception of space by the direct manipulation of light to create complex geometric illusions. The use of form, space and light, highly conventional architectural terms, as layers of intervention and re_presentation through sculpture and projection mapping in his work is well removed from the prevalent employment of such.

Perhaps of most interest here are the interventions in urban space, rather than those in interior environments. The animation of the hard rectilinear landscape outside of the Medialab Prado in Madrid (2007) is a post-Tron digital dissection of space. It is remarkable how the aesthetic of cybernetic art has returned to a minimal and binary position. The works of Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda have consistently relied upon a retreat to minimal linear and geometric form that can be easily perceived as not too distant from the pioneering work of Lloyd Sumner and Roman Verostko.

Ryoji Ikeda - Datamatics

What is heritage? Was ist Denkmal?

This year students from Re_Map and Emergent Urbanism units participated in an international workshop in Hannover with European counterparts from TU Braunschweig, lauded by Peter Cook as producing some of the freshest new architectural talent. 10 years after Expo 2000, the students were asked to examine the state of the former Expo site and suggest possibilities for its regeneration, re-use or redistribution and examining the current state or location of the array of buildings. The site currently is vastly under occupied and many of the pavilions lie empty or derelict, though some of the more generic building types have become offices and education institutes. Many of the built objects were relocated almost immediately as the Expo concluded, though some were too permanent in their structural make-up to consider removal and too specific in their programme to provide obvious re-use scenarios. Perhaps the most renowned building of the event was the Dutch Pavilion, a vertical park, designed by MVRDV at the height of their post-FARMAX fame; it is exemplar of both permanence and specificity as the precursors to ruin.

The Dutch Pavilion was the architectural draw of the festival and the figure 2,800,000, applied at the end of the Expo, signals the number of visitors that encountered the weirdly stacked world. Perversely, the conceptual thinking behind the scheme was one concerning ‘man, nature, technology’ (the themes of the Expo and the vocal hook of Kraftwerk’s Expo2000 audio track) and symbiotic and cyclical systems; an ecology using vapour cooling, passive heating, biomass and wind generated power. The environmental contingency did not stretch to consider the post-expo landscape and the pavilion, devoid of windmills has been left to rot and vandalism since passing into private hands some years ago. The actual ownership of the site is now uncertain. The Dutch government are reported to mildly embarrassed at the scar they have inadvertently deposited on the outskirts of the city and are entering into negotiations to find a satisfactory reconfiguration of the existing condition. The rooftop restaurant shows signs of recent inhabitation by person or persons unknown – quite some address!

Working in teams in extreme weather conditions, the students spent three days analysing, recording and researching the cultural, social and political context of the site and its buildings. Fighting frostbite and visa delays the groups valiantly dedicated hours of work at the on site media-lab and developed and presented propositions based on their studies. The topic, unbeknownst to the organising parties at its inception, is a hot one in Hannover, sufficient to attract the attention of the local media and to warrant a representation of the ideas in a lecture at the Expo Plaza Festival in June 2010.

EXPO_GARDENS. A reappropriation of the international cultural flavour of the festival by the propagation and cultivation of plants indigenous to the countries that once occupied the vacant sites of the lower section of the expo site. Rather than offer a built solution, the group felt that an alternative draw to visit the relatively isolated and peripheral location would be met by the provision of botanical gardens paralleled with a commercial nursery.

GLAUBE[al]. Building on the success of The Whale as a church, this proposal assumes the global characteristics of the festival and the potential of reinstating the mothballed high speed rail link, by the development of a multi-faith park. A egalitarian landscape based on algorithmic projections of visitors, their faith, nationality would provide neutral meditation and encounter chambers for the cross pollination of faiths and ideas.

EXPO_EXPO. A gathering of all of the decaying and unloved monuments to World Expos and the kitsch replication of some that are treasured. A montage construction of assembled icons with a plethora of meaning. Are they monuments to an optimism of which we are now cynical? Are they demonstrative of a technology we now deride? Are they a spectacle or a dying dream?

DISPERSING CULTURE. After examining the array of pavilions that had been relocated either as originally intended, bought after the event or gifted, the students proposed the continued and accelerated removal and relocation of disused pavilions. The scheme was underpinned by a social agenda and the buildings were to be put to use within the city of Hannover as children’s nurseries, clinics and social centres at the expense of the authority and in the most deprived wards. The aim: to bring the world-class architecture of the expo from its desolate position on the edge of the city and give it to the people.

HYBRID CONSUMPTIVE LEISURE STRIP. Pursuing MVRDV’s formative agenda, this team examined the compression of disused pavilions and their deconstruction to provide a unique leisure landscape for a multitude of urban pastimes. Implicit in the scheme was the collision of programme and an anticipated migration between disciplines and the ‘consumption’ of leisure in an intensified experiential zone of motion and action. The area to be converted and host this amalgamation of activity was effectively the service strip of the festival site and plugs directly into the vast car parking provision that serves the adjacent, functioning, Hannover-Messe trade show centre.

CONTINENTAL TEST TRACK. Inspired by ideas floated in the WPA 2.0 competition earlier in the academic year, this team saw the reignition of an invigorated industry with specialist facilities as the key to unlocking the potential of the Expo site. Drawing on the history of Continental in Hannover and imagining the integrated growth of the German motor industry in consumer and sports arenas, a new test track with a rebranded Dutch Pavilion as its HQ would provide for all manufacturers to work with Continental in research and development at the new centre.

The full results of the workshop may be viewed online at: http://futurexpo.wordpress.com/

comparing utopias

The 49 Cities exhibithion at Storefront Gallery for Art and Architecture, New York, seeks to provide a comparitive datascape for unrealised urbanism. The proposal, born out of Work AC‘s research seminar at Princeton University concerned with ‘eco-urbanism’, began as one that considered the contemporary city, but rapidly acknowledged the role of the unbuilt utopian models on modern urban form; the work of Ebeneezer Howard, le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps most influential in this regard.

Using a standardised method of representation, the exhibition and catalogue convey with great visual acuity and clarity the characteristics of each model city. The built area, density, greenspace and infrastructure are all considered in their component parts and presented in a tabular form alongside the diagrammed plans of the respective cities. The back of the publication holds bar charts wherein the values of these parameters are overtly comparable. An incredibly simple idea, very well controlled and executed with consistency.

The book may be purchased here. There is also a 20 page PDF sample for free at the same address.

Site plan for Noahbabel. Coastal Waters, 1969 (Paolo Soleri). Image from Storefront. Copyright Work AC

Site plan for Tokyo Bay. Tokyo, 1960 (Kenzo Tange). Image from Storefront. Copyright Work AC