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)

life in the margins

The social peripheries of urban life and the resultant connections and networks of individuals and groups through various cultural proximities suggests a complexity of spatio-temporal relationships woven through the urban fabric of cities. This notion formed the basis for the research paper ‘Living on the edge: cultural proximities, social peripheries and spatial margins’ presented by the authors at the recent Architectural Humanities Research Association Annual Conference 2011: Peripheries, held at Queen’s University, Belfast, 27-29 October.  The paper expanded on the use of films as mapping devices to provide legibility or disclosure of the contemporary urban landscape, complementary to the ‘imageability’ that Kevin Lynch sought to identify in his early research on understanding cities, by contributing to our knowledge of cultural proximities interwoven with the appropriation of residual urban space. Furthermore, films were positioned to have the capacity to render the city as a narrative in a reflexive relationship concerned with spatial sequence, editing, revelation and event. Of particular significance here was the value of films as diagnostic instruments that afford us the opportunity to describe and understand urban conditions and spatio-temporal relations through the experience of them. Indeed, the ability of the camera to move through space and place facilitates the articulation of these architectures, allowing us to perceive the lived experience of the films in a visually rich manner, compressing the complexity and density of information into an understandable sequence.

Gated communities, surveillance culture and spatial tensions, La Zona, Rodrigo Plá, 2007