Book Review: The Infrastructural City

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“I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original’ quipped Reyner Banham with deadly seriousness. For Banham, LA was a culmination of his own reading of Modernism – a trajectory of machines, of gadgets and gizmos that stretched from early 20th century Futurism to the Freeways of Southern California. In his reading – developed ‘Architecture of the Four Ecologies’ – LA was a non-plan kind of place, liberated from historical forms of urbanism by movement. Banhams techno-optimism seems quaint now, his faith in technology exposed by our own experience. 40 years later, with Americas car industry in free fall, its infrastructure collapsing and the fall out of a fossil fueled economy looming, our perspective is markedly different.

But its not just what Banhams book said, it’s how he said it. His continuing significance is the way that he ‘read’ the city through an expanded view of what might think of as urbanism. Kazys Varnelis’ book “The Infrastructural City’ is – explicitly – a 21st century offspring of Banhams ‘Architecture of the Four Ecologies’. What this collection tells us is that to ‘read’ Los Angeles now you’ll need a whole lot more tricks than a clean license.

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The Infrastructural City explores the landscape of Los Angeles, tracing infrastructural lines across the city with the interpretive gaze of a palm reader. These marks in the surface become a language through which we can read the past, present and future of the city.

Through a series of essays from the book describes LA as a landscape formed in the relationships between infrastructures, between urban hardware and software. Catagorised as Landscape, Fabric and Objects, we are taken though a variety of LA infrastructural scenarios. Barry Lehrman explores the unfolding and unexpected story of Owens Lake. In ‘Flood Control Freakology’, David Fletcher parses the complex relationship between the natural flow of the LA River and its hybridization with drainage infrastructure, fusing into a new kind of ecological condition. Matt Coolidge from the Center for Land Use Interpretation explains the relationship between geological deposits which become mined for construction aggregate and the strange possibilities of the holes in Irwindale (neatly precied by its last line: “for every pile there is a pit, for every pit there is a pile”). Varnelis contributes with an essay detailing the complexity of data flows through the city and the intersect between the technology of network communications and hard physical urban fact. Other contributions looks at the microrelationships in land ownership, the impact of distribution logistics, and movie industry prop houses as a way of reading the objects that populate the city. Equally fascinating are a set of aerial photographs that take us over the cities landscape like a low flying Ed Ruscha. Each essay reveals stories of social and political content of what would normally appear to be blank pragmatisms. In the interface between the global and highly local, a new kind of urbanism emerges.

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Just as Denise Scott Brown took Robert Venturi to the extreme of Vegas in order to understand the generic issues of cars and the landscape, Varnelis take us to LA in order to understand the issues of the Networked urbanism as it applies everywhere. In extremis, we see infrastructure not simply as the servicing of urban fabric, but an active element in the making of contemporary urban-ness. Here, the gas pipe is as important as the piazza, drainage channels become a new kind of agora.

Ultimately, it argues that infrastructure, far from being an innocently engineered pragmatic solution is a form of complex social and political agency. ‘Network Cities’ tells LA as a kind of urbanism noir – as though that a slice through the surface of the city bleeds narratives of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy. Where nothing is innocent and everything is involved in complex tradeoffs, labyrinthine procedures, betrayals and double-crosses, all wrapped up in hard-boiled pragmatism.

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These investigations begin to reveal the unconscious hopes, fears, and primal desires of the city – the urban id repressed by urban planning ego.

Network Cities describes a post-Banham, post-Non Plan city where the fall out of infrastructure is a strange combination of urban disaster and optimism. An urbanism precipitated from dysfunctional relationships pursued to the point where symbiotic ecology emerges.

The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles

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