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Book – The Infrastructural City

The city has many different faces and as we all know it cannot be described in one sentence or one equation. It also is not a computer chip, although some recent master plans might have a formal similarity, nor is it a single organism growing for one purpose. It is more of a collective consisting of individuals capable of creating, deciding and moving. It is organized, as one currently would describe it, in networks and some of the elements of the collective are private where as other are public, in the sense of providing service to a larger group of the collective. Within the network these services manifest in infrastructure serving the public. In a number of ways this infrastructure tells a large part of the story about the collective or the city as such. In the sense of ‘Show me your infrastructure and I tell you who you are.’ the book ‘Infrastructural City – Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles‘ edited by Kazys Varnelis and published by Actar tells the story of an urban area. This specific focus reveilles so much about the society that invented it, it is fascinating and sometimes shocking. From mobile phone tower camouflaged as palm trees to engineered tarmac graffiti everything is revealed and sets the context to the 21st century society.

Image by urbanTick / Book spread.

The analysis comes in three parts, Landscape, Fabric and Objects. The titles do not obvious characterize the content though. I haven’t really figured out what the organisation is. This, however doesn’t matter because you should read them all, or the reader can jump from one to another and back. It is not a necessarily linear read and this is a relief, because its content is extremely dense.
The detailed descriptions are accomplished with three elements describing the linear city. Lane Barden follows linear infrastructure elements and explores the city. This gives a very specific angle on the subject, but also helps high lighting due to the focus. The lines are documented by a map and sequential photographs as well as a little bit of background text. In a very calm and focused way the city takes shape along these lines. The elements are, the river, the street – Wilshire Boulevard and the trench – freight transport.

Image by urbanTick / Book spread.

In ‘Counting (on) Change’ Roger Sherman describes and illustrated the pace at which change takes place and how planning and design professionals fall behind the latest trends and are doomed to react rather than help shape the future. He sais: “For architects, the time has come to recognize, finally, that contemporary urbanism is better rethought around conceptions of progress and potential – via design strategies for unfolding the future – rather than by another utopian horizon.” In a series of detailed diagrams the negotiations and changes over land and ownership at a number of scales.
The book ends with a report on probably the biggest and most vital piece of infrastructure in the city of Los Angeles. ‘The Trench’ is the ten miles long transport corridor Bringing the arriving goods from the port out of the city to distribution centres that will feed the rest of North America. The specs are impressive, more than $200 billion in cargo are transported on this route, but it is largely unnoticed as a feature in the city. It used to be a dominating feature due to its rail crossings and activity of the trains, but nowadays all the trains run in a fifty feet wide and thirty-three feet deep cut on a lower city level out of sight. And still it is probably the main artery of the city. Lane Barden sais: “It would be realistic to argue that the trench is central to the everyday efficiency of global capitalism.”
In this sense, the city might as well be a machine.

This is a book on urban infrastructure that not only describes the elements, but positions them in a social and cultural city context. The approach is not about isolating elements to simplify it, rather it is about piecing it together to help shape an understanding of the whole. It really is a book about the city, the city of the everyday.

For other reviews see: archidose or we-make-money-not-art.

Varnelis, K., 2009. The Infrastructural City. Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Barcelona: Actar.