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)

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polarities

As visitors here will be aware, here at [Re_Map] we research and explore instruments of spatial control. We are interested in the discrepancy between the apparently infinite, seamless topology of digital space and networks, and their contrast with the typically fragmented, incoherent topography of contemporary urban landscapes. The question of what constitutes territorial, community, networked and residual space is paramount to our research. Indeed, our daily interactions with one another quickly make us aware that network structures have rapidly evolved to form the organisational model of socio-cultural exchange and technological development in the digital age.[i] Therefore we were pleased to recognise that even the smooth space of the Internet needs a little help sometimes. The photograph below is by Alissa Walker, and illustrates a telephone pole farm in Los Angeles, used for repair personnel to practise their skills in a hyper-regulated copse before entering the unregulated urban jungle.


[i] For an overview see: Guido Caldarelli, G. (2007) Scale-Free Networks: Complex Webs in Nature and Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

Infrastructural Urbanism

The question of the future of urban landscapes with regard to their transformation as the physical basis of sociability is currently frequently illustrated as declining in favour of dematerialized, delocalised, ever-present digital systems and networks is timely. However, this may not actually be as recent a phenomenon as it may first seem, as Melvin Webber described in his highly influential article. ‘The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm’ of 1964, urban life and urban experience were always synonymous with a partial dissociation from the constraints of reality. This forms the basis for the recent research paper the authors presented at Spaces and Flows: An International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, held  at the University of California, Los Angeles, 4-5 December. The paper, ‘Infrastructural Urbanism: Ecologies and Technologies of Multi-layered Landscapes’ proposed the development of ‘digital ecologies’ through their use of digital infrastructures to afford meaningful relationships with respect to urban transformation. A key aspect of the position presented was in the use of such technology to develop instrumentality with which to facilitate ‘thick’ descriptions of digital networks and communities and contribute to our understanding of their spatiality. This research therefore sought to describe and explain this transformation and propose theoretical material to address some of the attendant issues.