Complexity and Contradiction in Infrastructure

I gave the following talk on Banham’s Los Angeles, non-plan, and infrastructure in the Ph.D. lecture series at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in November, 2009. 

Most of us are prone to hero worship. This talk sets out to address one a major problem in the work of one of the contemporary heros of architectural and planning historiography, Reyner Banham, and his advocacy of a (mythical) laissez-faire form of planning based on his reading of Los Angeles.

Below the talk I have embedded a video. Although today its considered bad practice to read lectures, I’ve started doing it again even if my delivery seems more stale. When you give ten lectures a term outside of school and when nearly every venue insists upon something custom, the practice of keynoting ex tempore from notes becomes a bit of a drag. Eventually you realize that with a little more work—and granted, a little worse delivery—your project could convery more, have more theoretical meaning, and be generative toward other projects. At the level of production that I’ve been trying to stay at lately, the only way to produce content is to follow the advice that Slavoj Zizek gave in the movie about him: everything either needs to be a spin-off or work toward the next major project.

This talk, then, is a spin off of my work toward the Infrastructural City but also sets out to tackle Banham critically (something that I’ve also done here), something I intend to take up soon.

Complexity and Contradiction in Infrastructure

The title of my talk refers to Robert Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, generally accepted as an inaugural text in postmodern architecture. For Venturi, the modernists failed because they strove for purity of form in. Venturi wrote:

“today the wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment, and expression, even in single buildings in simple contexts, are diverse and conflicting in ways previously unimaginable. The increasing dimension and scale of architecture in urban and regional planning add to the difficulties. I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties. By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I aim for vitality as well as validity.”

In other words, Venturi suggested that architects rather than trying to sweep messes under the rug, architects embrace complexity and contradiction by introducing deliberate errors in their works.

Venturi concluded that an appropriate architectural response “must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”

Note, however, that Venturi’s argument is historically specific:
“today the wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment, and expression, even in single buildings in simple contexts, are diverse and conflicting in ways previously unimaginable. The increasing dimension and scale of architecture in urban and regional planning add to the difficulties.”

This text, then, comes about at a transition point between late modernity and postmodernity and its virtue is that Venturi not only diagnosed a condition, he also suggested an architectural approach. Both of these suggested a schism from the modern, a move into a new condition. Today I want to talk about another phase in the era of complexity, which is why I cite Venturi at the outset. 

Along with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Venturi’s next book, the 1972 Learning From Las Vegas would tackle issues of signage, semiotics, automobility and the commercialization of the American city, flipping the valence on landscapes that had been roundly derided as degraded by architecture critics. But for the purposes of this talk, its worth noting that the authors original interest was in Los Angeles and the Yale studio that resulted in Learning from Las Vegas visited that city first. It may be that the more smaller and more picturesque of the two cities (unlike Vegas, Los Angeles has no central strip) proved more easily explainable.

For architects and historians of architecture (I file myself in the latter category), Reyner Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies took on the urban conditions in a more total approach. Banham set out to dissect the city as a total landscape—both geographically and historically, both physically and psychically—as well as in terms of its infrastructural, social, and architectural systems. In this, Banham’s work has been pathbreaking and The Infrastructural City uses his book as inspiration and as a point of departure, something that my subtitle Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles alludes to.

But Banham’s foremost innovation was to flip the valence on the historical evaluation of Los Angeles, praising precisely those qualities that others listed as irredeemable failings: its posturban sprawl; its lack of an overall plan; its chaotic, untamed signscape; its comical roadside architecture; its ubiquitous boulevards, parking lots, and freeways. 

Although we could ascribe this to a characteristic British fascination with the degraded, Banham also had a theoretical impetus. By the mid-1960s, he had become fascinated with the possibilities of what he called “non-plan,” a laissez-faire attitude toward urban planning, part of a larger project that he undertook along with Paul Barker, deputy editor of the magazine the New Statesman. In 1967, Barker ran excerpts from Herbert Gans’s The Levittowners “as a corrective to the usual we-know-best snobberies about suburbia.” At roughly the same time, Barker and Peter Hall set out with a “maverick thought… could things be any worse if there was no planning at all?” The result, strongly influenced by Banham’s writings in the magazine, was a special issue publshed in 1969 and titled “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom.” Barker recalls, “We wanted to startle people by offending against the deepest taboos. This would drive our point home.” To this end Hall, Banham, and architect Cedric Price each took a section of the revered British countryside and blanketed it with a low-density sprawl driven by automobility. According to Barker the reaction was a “mixture of deep outrage and stunned silence.”

For Banham, Los Angeles stood as the greatest manifestation of Non-Plan to date. “Conventional standards of planning do not work in Los Angeles,” he wrote, “it feels more natural (I put it no stronger than that) to leave the effective planning of the area to the mechanisms that have already given the city its present character: the infrastructure to giant agencies like the Division of Highways and the Metropolitan Water District and their like; the intermediate levels of management to the subdivision and zoning ordinances; the detail decisions to local and private initiatives; with ad hoc interventions by city, State, and pressure-groups formed to agitate over matters of clear and present need.”

Now there’s some question as to how well Banham’s Los Angeles worked in the first place: it was in its worst period of air pollution in history, the freeways were wreaking devastation upon the city and the Watts Riots had just shaken any lingering mirage of Los Angeles as either a progressive metropolis or as paradise for the white middle class. Still, in his evaluation, Banham felt that the city—in his mind epitomized not by the Watts Riots but by the individualistic exuberance of Watts Towers— worked because it had no central plan. Rather, planning was left to the competing forces in the city, public and private.

If Banham set out against modernist urban planning, non-plan gave a theoretical basis for neoliberalist planning. Reducing the modernist ethical imperative to a question of fascination with the bottom-up to embrace “a messy vitality” (this is not Banham but Venturi’s term), modernism would be reduced from a question of morality and rational planning to a question of desire, both individual and institutional. The result parallels Manfredo Tafuri’s observation in Architecture and Utopia that the avant-garde’s singular accomplishment is not so much a physical change to the metropolis but rather an adjustment in how it is viewed. We can see this quite literally in Banham’s own role in his book: what remains at the end of the modern project is the experience of the city and the observer’s voyeuristic pleasure in the psychogeographic experience of drifting on the boulevards and freeways of the city.

But things have changed. For one, the 1970s were an era of limits for the city, the state, and country with the first large-scale economic recession since the war, the OPEC  energy crisis, Vietnam, and finally stagflation. If the late 1960s were a period of great social unrest, by the mid-1970s, such unrest had largely been reshaped into concerns with individual rights and self-realization, above all the right to property and to dispose of one’s wealth as one wants. Thus, the system of non-plan that Banham lauded would be institutionalized in California in 1978 with the passing of State Proposition 13, reducing property tax by 57% and mandating that future tax increases require a two-thirds majority in the state legislature. Two years later former California governor Ronald Reagan would become President and set out on a draconian program of reducing non-military governmental spending at a national level.

By the time that Reagan took office, with a decade of cutbacks caused by the combination of economic crises and funds being siphoned off for defense, due to dwindling urban tax roles caused by outmigration since the 1930s and due to the more natural phenomena of age, infrastructure was coming undone nationwide.

Thus in 1981, precisely at the instigation of the nation’s Californization (or, and I hesitate to suggest it, Californication?) economists Pat Choate and Susan Walters published a pamphlet for the Council of State Planning Agencies titled America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel. The pamphlet soon attracted a large amount of press attention, including a Newsweek cover story on August 2, 1982 entitled “The Decaying of America.” (August 2, 1982) and a US News and World Report story To Rebuild America: $2,500,000 Job, September 27, 1982. Literature searches suggest that is at this moment that infrastructure begins to gain popularity as a term. Infrastructure enters into the national consciousness during crisis.

But a Californicated America would have no room for public infrastructural spending. Instead, the exemplary infrastructures of the 1980s and 1990s—telecoms after deregulation, the mobile phones, the Internet—are privatized. Here, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron describe the legitimizing narrative for such ventures as the Californian Ideology, a union of hippie self-realization, neoliberal economics, and above all, privatization advocated by Silicon Valley pundits like Stewart Brand editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of Wired Magazine. As Barbrook and Cameron suggest, the growth of Silicon Valley and indeed, California as a whole, was made possible only due to exploitation of the immigrant poor and defense funding. Los Angeles, after all, became the country’s foremost industrial city in the postwar period, largely due to defense contracts at aerospace firms. So, government subsidies for corporations and exploitation of non-citizen poor: a model for future administrations. 
But there’s more to infrastructural crisis then neoliberal economic policy. Once again Banham and Los Angeles provide a reference point. Banham describes the ecologies of Los Angeles as dominated by an individualism that allows architecture to flourish. But such a model of the city is insufficient. In the Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles, William Fulton describes Los Angeles as an exemplar of what Harvey Molotch calls “the city as growth machine.” In this model, certain industries—primarily the finance and real estate industries—dominate urban politics with the intention of expanding their businesses. Newspapers too endorse the growth machine as a way of expanding their subscription base and selling real estate ads. Moreover,  arts organizations such as the symphony, opera, and art museums are also beholden to the model of the city as growth machine.These interests promote a naturalized view of growth in which we are simply not to question that cities will always get bigger or that they should always get bigger.

By the 1960s, however, homeowner discontent about encroaching sprawl led individuals to band together to form homeowner groups. The first of these was the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, which protested the construction of a four-lane highway in place of scenic Mulholland Drive. Soon, homeowners teamed with environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club to create a regional park in the Santa Monica Mountains to prevent further development in their back yards. By the time that Proposition 13 passed, Angelenos were set against the growth machine and with it, too, the big infrastructure necessary to drive it or even the projects necessary to repair it.   

The result, then, is a long, steady process of infrastructural decay, privatized infrastructure acting as a layer or retrofit onto a decaying public infrastructure.
It’s in this context, then, that we must situate both Venturi and Banham, as transitional approaches to the material, reducing questions of complexity to form matters, which of course is not too uncommon in architecture. In Venturi’s case, complexity is produced through form, in Banham’s case formal complexity is produced by the laissez-faire city.

Now I’d like to turn to some contradictions that emerge out of this condition. First, we could sense a threat to the vaunted neoliberal individual rights from failing infrastructure.  Some of these are quite obvious: the inconvenience of traffic and long commutes but also the potholes that (in Los Angeles) cause an average of $746 of damage annually per automobile, collapsing bridges, energy crises caused by privatization such as electricity grids failing and refineries going offline indefinitely (here the city of Los Angeles, which has not privatized its power wound up ahead of the rest of the state during the crisis that brought down Gray Davis during Enron’s salad days).
Neoliberalism thus exacerbates what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “risk society.” Banham’s autopia isn’t a risk free world, but rather a condition in which risk and threat are everyday factors, creating a contradiction within capitalism. Beck:

“… everything which threatens life on this Earth also threatens the property and commercial interests of those who live from the commodification of life and its requisites. In this way a genuine and systematically intensifying contradiction arises between the profit and property interests that advance the industrialization process and its frequently threatening consequences, which endanger and expropriate possessions and profits (not to mention the possession and profit of life).” (Beck 1992: 39)

* * *
Now if environmentalism was in part, a movement created by homeowner desires to protect their rights, we would expect that infrastructural collapse (or for that matter the state of California schools) would also be of concern to homeowners and corporations, but in California, Proposition 13 and a politics of stalemate make it impossible to act. Even as voters seek mandates to restore services, the state is hamstrung by the legislature’s terror of touching Proposition 13, which is known as the “third rail” of state politics. Last month the Guardian asked “Will California become America’s first failed State?”

I want to be stress that in other respects conditions have intensified, moving postmodernism to another phase. Take risk. Environmentalism has been thoroughly capitalized as the green movement, with the Californian ideology now promising to save us from global warming through technological means. Crisis becomes profitable.
Crisis becomes profitable.

On to my last two points. Profit, as Robert Brenner tells us in the economics of global turbulence has become a problem, in part because of some of the problems that face infrastructure. Massive investment in fixed capital make it impossible to abandon when more efficient structures elsewhere threaten. The most familiar aspect of this, of course, is the rise of Chinese industry and the evacuation of American production. But infrastructure is of equal concern. Infrastructure, like other technologies, follows a classic S-curve, in which initially steep returns per dollar invested are followed by diminishing returns as the curve flattens.

The results, for the country have been devastating. California, together with Soho and Boston appeared to enjoy massive growth in high technology, particularly telecommunications and digital technology, during the last three decades. But much of this growth happened not in terms of production, but rather in finance, both in the lucrative financial instruments that accompanied public offerings and in terms of technology that made ever more complex financial operations possible.
Traditional profits, in this context, were considered devalued in comparison with the profits obtainable. Jeffrey Nealon in Foucault Beyond Foucault suggests that in this sort of operation, the classic equation that Marx observed in Capital of M-C-M’ is now rewritten as M-M’, in other words, capital leads to capital growth without any intervening commodity.

The result, then, is a bit of what we saw this spring when, after President-Elect Obama made a YouTube speech calling for a WPA 2.0 as an economic stimulus, he turned away from infrastructure in the actual stimulus bill. Blame has been laid on Obama’s chief economic advisor Larry Summers.

But how the Democrats (or in California, Schwarzenegger) are going to get out of this mess is entirely unclear. Economic indicators suggest that the country will endure a long term period of stagnation, different from, but reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. This month, the New York Times reported that unemployment and underemployment now stands at 17.5%, the highest level since the Great Depression. Official unemployment in California now stands at 12%. These are staggering numbers. The state is making cutbacks while raising tuitions at the University of California system, leading to mass student protests and the regents macing students. California leads the nation again, it seems.

If the restructuring of the 1980s destroyed manufacturing, this decade’s recession has mowed down the creative class and the financial sectors. In the latest New Left Review, Gopal Balakrishnan suggests that we have entered into a stationary state, a long period of systemic stagnation. As he points out, Adam Smith never expected the wealth of nations to improve perpetually but rather expected it would come to an end in the nineteenth century as resources were exhausted. Capital’s perpetual growth would have been a mystery to him.
To conclude then, I want to return to where I started, the theme of complexity. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, re-reading archealogist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter’s thesis differs from Jared Diamond’s (and also precedes it by a decade). Instead of turning to the external forces of ecological catastrophe (as Diamond does) or to foreign invasion (as other commentators do), Tainter sees complexity as the downfall of societies.

As societies mature, Tainter observes, they become more complex, especially in terms of communication. A highly advanced society is highly differentiated and highly linked. That means that just to manage my affairs, I have to wrangle a trillion bureaucratic agents such as university finance personnel, bank managers, insurance auditors, credit card representatives, accountants, real estate agents, Apple store “geniuses,” airline agents, delivery services, outsourced script-reading hardware support personnel, and lawyers in combination with non-human actors like my iPhone, Mac OS 10.6, my car, the train, and so on.

This is the contemporary system at work, and it’s characteristic of the bureaucratized nature of complex societies. On the one hand, in a charitable reading, we produce such bureaucratic entities in hopes of making the world a better place, keeping each other honest and making things work smoothly. But in reality, not only is this dysfunction necessary for the operation of the service economy, these kinds of entities rub up against each other, exhibiting cascading failure effects that produce untenable conditions.

In Tainter’s reading, complex societies require greater and greater amounts of energy until, at a certain point, the advantages of the structures they create are outweighed by diminishing marginal returns on energy invested. The result is not just catastrophe but collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity.

Just as rigidity was the failure point for Fordism, complexity is the failure point for post-Fordism. In this light, the culture of congestion valorized by Koolhaas is undone by the energy costs of that complexity.

Now I agree with Tainter when he concludes that the only hope to forestall the collapse of a complex society is technological advance. I’d argue that this is what’s driving the field of networked urbanism at the moment. But, I’m not so sure we can do it. This is where my optimism rubs up against my nagging feeling that urban informatics, locative media, smart grids, and all the things that the cool kids at LIFT and SXSW are dreaming up are too little, too late.

Technology itself is already all but unmanageable in everyday life and adding greater layers of complexity can’t be the solution. It’s in this sense that the Infrastructural City was more Mike Davis than Reyner Banham, something few have caught on to yet.

We should have taken our lumps when the boom collapsed and retrenched for five or six years. Instead we added that much more complexity—take the debt and what is required to maintain it or the impossible war or the climate—and now our options are greatly limited.

So we need to develop a new set of tools to deal with the failures of the neoliberal city and the impossible conditions of complexity today. This is hardly an overnight task, if it can be done at all.

Now Tainter holds one other card, suggesting that most of the people who experience collapse don’t mind it too much. Many of them seem happy enough to just walk away from the failing world around them, much like owners of foreclosed homes do today. Eventually a new civilization springs up and with it, perhaps we can imagine a better future.  

I want to conclude by talking about whether I’m a pessimistic or an optimist since I’m apparently being accused of being a pessimist at all my talks recently (parenthetically, I’ll add, I suppose that’s better than being accused of being an optimist). Back to Los Angeles: anyone visiting Hollywood Boulevard is accosted by attractive young men and women asking if one is an optimist or a pessimist. The next step is being lured into the Scientology Center to take a test. Maybe we’re better off not taking that test, but rather looking at reality, not a future scripted by a science fiction writer.

Second, I’m afraid that academe is a bit infected by Prozac culture these days. Hope would be fine if we had a President who seemed to have an ability to deal with the issues or if the alternative to this one wasn’t so deeply frightening.


Complexity and Contradiction of Infrastructure from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.