The End of The Infrastructural City

This is our final post for mammoth’s group reading of the The Infrastructural City.  For the summary and index, check in here.

[the 36 High Voltage Direct Current thyristor valves of the Celillo Converter Station in The Dalles, Oregon; part of the Pacific Intertie that was upgraded to replace the obsolete mercury arc valves in 2002.  Not entirely sure what that means, but we’re impressed.]

“Networked Ecologies”, the introduction to The Infrastructural City by Kazys Varnelis, opens by painting a picture of the Pacific Direct Current Intertie and then jumps into the different themes and theories useful for understanding Los Angeles (for an interesting report on a PDCI incident in 1998 see here).  The most provocative and fundamental of these themes is the assertion that Los Angeles is best understood in terms of infrastructure:

“With its promise to harness untamable nature and transform it into paradise for man so appealing to the inhabitants of the frontier, infrastructure is the only theology that really took hold in the American West…  Through such wonders as Death Valley, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite Valley, North America was capable of overwhelming the senses.  The European mind swiftly set out to dominate this wild nature.  By overpowering the wilderness mentally through exploration and mapping, then taming it physically, reshaping the sublime terrain for production, settlers created a justification for their own existence.”

This statement echoes the sentiments of Harold Innis and his theories of political economy, though the insertion of the idea of a “European mind” is confusing at best, and antithetical to the general point- the American continent is a wild beast.  Not to mention there is no “european mind” and if there was, by the time it made it to Los Angeles it was no longer.  Even Varnelis changes tone a few pages later, agreeing with Anton Wagner’s attempt to understand Los Angeles on its own terms as “the product of Americans confronting the forces of nature.”

Also misleading here is the coupling of the explorers and topographers with the exponents of political economy in the American West.  In fact, the one-armed John Wesley Powell led many of the first expeditions exploring the landmarks Varnelis cites, yet advocated for settling the West sparsely according to regional watersheds.  In 1893 he told an irrigation congress, “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of litigation and conflict over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”  Alas, he was heckled off the floor.  And so we have the Los Angeles that Varnelis aptly describes:  

“If the [American] West was dominated by the theology of infrastructure, Los Angeles was its Rome.  Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land.  No city [of this size] should be here.”  (italics ours.  In fact, the vicinity of the LA River was a fine place for a small city.  It’s the megacity that is problematic).

[John Wesley Powell and friends bivouacked on the banks of the Colorado River]

[mapping the west]

It seems as though Varnelis would agree with Paul Virilio’s theories of dromology and assertion of the importance of speed in the contemporary society (late-capitalist, post-[infra]structural… hold on, I have to vomit… hypermodern) which is appropriate given that “America loves hot, nasty, badass speed.”  Indeed, Varnelis’ assertion that “what makes our moment distinct is that the remedy of creating a new infrastructure or using new technologies to surmount breakdown is no longer an option” seems an implied acknowledgement of the relevance of the Accident in the evolution of technology.

But the value in “Networked Ecologies” comes at the end, when Varnelis gets to the point:  Infrastructure is no longer a solution.  What he refers to here is a specific type of infrastructure- the teleological construction enabling speed and power.  Which calls to mind a couple of interesting recent articles in the Harvard Design Magazine on the significance of slowness in the landscape.

Infrastructures of speed and extraction, landscapes of slowness and regeneration:

Rather than one or the other, it is precisely the opportunities and situations that arise as a result of the competition and coordination between landscapes of speed and slowness that offer the most appropriate solutions to contemporary issues; there is rich potential for conceiving new ways of rebuilding our cities, managing agricultural production, adapting to climactic changes, negotiating political and economic upheaval, and yes, even building new infrastructures.  It is not that infrastructures of speed and power are obsolete, but rather that infrastructure is bifurcating.  Historically, infrastructure has been a major capital project built for one purpose and destined to deteriorate from the day it is completed.  And these are necessary.  But as Varnelis hints, and subsequent chapters emphasized, we need new infrastructures layered on top of and within these constructions.

[the LA River; shopping cart-eating plants are the future infrastructures of America, photo courtesy of FOVICKS]

[Let’s just pretend these palms are providing ecosystem services; photo courtesy of TCIM]

We suggest that these new infrastructures can be similar to the mycorrhizae that colonize the roots of the vast majority of plants species on the earth, helping them intake necessary nutrients which cannot be obtained by their own roots.  Highly specific and locally adapted, built by agglomeration, hi-tech and lo-fi, sometimes intelligible to normal people, these new infrastructures will offer the promise of increased resiliency and efficiency, and their new forms will prove to be a disruptive innovation for resolving the socio-political morass that Varnelis observes has made impossible new infrastructure solutions in Los Angeles.

The constant hyperbole and occasional misinformation/poor writing aside, the assertion that infrastructures are material networked ecologies as well as engineering diagrams is a powerful argument that builds on the recent trend towards ecological and software concepts and metaphors, and urges a reexamination of the systems and networks that we conceive of to understand and intervene in our environments.  And many of the chapters make insightful examinations of the specific systems at work in LA.  The intro is one of the best.

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