Infrastructural City, New Jersey Style

Although the final nail hasn’t been hammered into the coffin, New Jersey governor Christopher Christie has unilaterally cancelled ARC (Access to the Region’s Core), new tunnel to connect New York City to New Jersey.

Now, ARC itself is a damaged project. Instead of ending in Penn Station or having any hope of exiting in a future Moynihan Station (the plan to reconstruct the Beaux-Arts post office across the street into a 21st century version of the glorious old Penn Station that used to greet travelers prior to the 1960s). But instead, due to politics and complexities of existing infrastructure, ARC was to terminate off-site and deep underground, making arrival at Moynihan station impossible and complicating connections to other rail lines. 

The Infrastructural City‘s lesson is that, if you give constituents and politicians enough power and you build a complex enough civilization in which notions of civil society are replaced by ideas of property rights, you are going to bring future growth to a crashing halt. So Los Angeles strangles on itself.    

The creative destruction of the New York City of consensus and big projects by a succession of mayors since Ed Koch certainly helped its recover. Finance has done very well and the city has become a playground for the wealthy even as manufacturing and the middle class have been eviscerated. But for now, the city is still unsustainable without the large numbers of commuters that work in the towers throughout Manhattan. This is a dirty secret that Manhattanites—including all too many architects and urbanists—don’t want to admit. I haven’t found a comprehensive source of statistics this morning, so my figures are a little cobbled together, still, at least 900,000 commuters enter into Manhattan every day via New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, the Port Authority rail lines, and the buses that go in and out of Port Authority. In contrast, only some 628,000 workers from Manhattan work on the island (what do all the rest of the 1.2 million people do?) and some 880,000 workers from the other boroughs commute in. Now again, don’t rely on these figures too much, but still they seem to be roughly on target in suggesting that the majority of community into the city comes from the suburbs.

But infrastructure in and out to the suburbs is at a breaking point. Amtrak has been starved of funds for decades and its tracks and tunnels are in a horrific state of disrepair. Since New Jersey Transit has to share the Amtrak train lines in and out of the city, it has to face congestion caused by constant technical glitches on the aged, overstressed Amtrak lines. But since Amtrak owns the lines, it gets priority when only one of two tunnels is running in and out of the city.    

Now Christie’s constituency is residents who don’t commute to New York. On paper, his motivation is the opportunity to use ARC funding for highway repairs. Still, he’s a Republican and when they’re involved its hard not to imagine conspiracy theories. In particular, its plausible that part of the economic mess the country is in is due to the "Starve the Beast" policies of a generation of conservatives. Using profligate tax cuts, stave the beast was meant to create fiscal conditions that would force massive cuts in government services. The impossible situation that we face today is arguably the result. No matter how utterly incompetent the Obama administration has been, there is little question that their hands have been tied by the massive deficit and debt incurred by the Bush administration. If one applied this sort of reasoning to Christie’s move, its plausible to imagine that it’s an anti-city project, aimed to make commuting in and out of the city so much more difficult, thus forcing workers and—more importantly—corporations to either move into the city (unlikely, given current demographic flows) or to move further out into exurban areas. These, in turn, have historically been more conservative in nature (this has a bit to do with the lack of shared infrastructure, roads aside, and the insulation that exurbanites feel from the poor). So, in other words, canceling ARC is a foresighted move that will likely make it impossible for Christie to get re-elected (given the money and votes concentrated in the commuting suburbs) but will make it possible for a shift further rightward in state politics over the next several decades and, in turn, help undermine Manhattan’s future. 

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Read the Infrastructural City

I’m delighted to announce that the good people at have organized an online reading group to read the Infrastructural City. Find out more at their site

Like Networked Publics, the Infrastructural City has become a long-term project that goes beyond the bounds of Los Angeles. I’m currently immersed in the Network Culture book, but I have some plans for a follow-up article to my introduction in Infrastructural City later this year and maybe even a book some time later. 

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Strange Harvest on Infrastructural City

Over at Strange Harvest, Sam Jacobs has a review of the Infrastructural City. The review is great: perceptive as always, Sam gets what we set out to do with the book. Thanks, Sam! In other news, it looks like Amazon will carry the paperback edition for a shade over $20 when it becomes available, making it much more affordable than before, but for some reason the book is still not in stock. Sadly, the infrastructure of books seems to be subject to the same negative conditions we observed in Los Angeles.

The Infrastructural City in Paperback

I am delighted to announce that ACTAR’s reprint of the Infrastructural City is now in the U. S. and available in paperback for $10 less than the hardcover edition. Order yours at your favorite bookstore or at Amazon.

The first printing sold out in just four months, its great to have it back in stock.

In other news, I was sick for most of August, hence the dearth of posts, but I am feeling much better and am excited about the coming fall semester, returning to writing, and to the blog.

Lights out in London

As the summer wears on, it seems like we’ve put all the craziness of earlier this year behind us. Critics are no longer proposing OMA-designed windmills for Marina del Rey. Good thing. It’s time to look carefully at the lessons of the Infrastructural City and think about its conclusions since, well, they aren’t pretty.

Make no mistake, there is no happy ending in the Infrastructural City, no easy recipe for fixing our infrastructural ills. This has puzzled a generation of critics, who’ve seen the book as Marxist, or overly cynical* or confusing. The problem for them is that they grew up in the last decade, in an era where there was always a technological innovation around the corner. But that innovation is about to run aground in a vicious tangle of Actor-Network-Theory.

To be clear, this isn’t a golden opportunity for designers. It’s a crisis that we haven’t seen since the 1980s and its not just in the Los Angeles. The same forces of NIMBYist political stalemate and neoliberalist deregulation that are undoing the Southwest can be found worldwide. How about daily sub-Saharan-Africa-style power shortages in the UK within an decade or two? The Economist has more here.

Meanwhile, the New York Times marks the sixth anniversary of the 2003 New York City blackout with a photo essay. Maybe we’ll have a chance to see more of this in our new bad future.

*Which doesn’t make sense to me. I hold Peter Sloterdijk’s opinion of cynicism, which is knowing that what you are doing is wrong but doing it anyway. Thus, most architecture and most architecture criticism is cynical. Most green projects are cynical. Whole Foods is cynical. How is raising the alarm cynical?

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infrastructure, the lives of things, and stimulus

Obviously, technological optimism is common in network culture. It’s only natural: we experience technological improvements everyday. A decade ago I spent $1,500 on my first digital camera. Yesterday I gave my six-year-old daughter a digital camera for her birthday. It was smaller and handily outperformed that original camera for less than 1/15th of the cost. Last year the iPhone 3G came out. Now I’ve stopped plotting out the route to an unknown destination before I get on my way. During the last year I finally got rid of my last desktop machine in favor of a laptop which I set to automatically backup my hard drive over the wireless network whenever I am at home. Of course I’m a bit of a geek by inclination and profession, but if you’re reading this blog I’m sure you’re familiar with this rapid pace of change firsthand. 

So it’s normal to extend our technological optimism beyond the home, to the city for example. But there’s another aspect of network culture that balances out technological optimism: non-human systems have drives of their own. A relatively new branch of sociology, actor-network theory (ANT) tries to make sense of this. Here’s a quote from Ole Hanseth and Eric Montiero’s book Understanding Information Infrastructure that sums up the main point:

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business — driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor — there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car’s manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

We all know how frustrating technology can be when by design or by accident it prevents us from doing what we wanted to. You lose your iTunes library on your drive and you can’t copy it back off your iPod or re-download it from the store, a faulty fuel sensor puts your car in limp-home mode, your remote control can’t talk to your DVD player and so on. 

By design The Infrastructural City is intended for a general audience—it’s not unacademic, but I also didn’t want to weigh it down too much with theory—and none of my authors were sociologists so I didn’t ask anyone to address ANT. But, one of the book’s chief lessons—even the main lesson—is that infrastructures themselves are actors. The Los Angeles River is not natural anymore, it’s something else entirely. We are traffic, but because we aren’t going to change our behavior, adding more lanes to freeways isn’t going to work.

Understanding human and non-human systems puts The Infrastructural City in a lineage starting with Anton Wagner’s 1935 Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien and extending through Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 36 years elapsed between the first two books and another 37 years passed before our book came out. For both Wagner and Banham, cities were ecologies. Wagner, sponsored by the Nazi government, saw these quite literally: the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Southern California were shaped by the landscape. If Wagner’s sponsorship and eugenic thesis are repulsive, his idea of understanding both the setting and the settlers together was ground-breaking. Building on Wagner, Banham saw the city as composed of discrete landscapes—ecologies—populated by specific clusters of individuals who gave rise to specific kinds of buildings. 

Inexorably, the man-made has become more important. But acts of human volition—building a work of quality architecture, say, or even spearheading an infrastructural initiative—are fading in favor of complex systems, actors that we have shaped but that have evolved "lives" of their own.     

These resulting "actors" have wills that can get in our way at the least opportune time. As a general rule, the more complex the system, the stronger its will. I’ll give away a further clue that I hid in our book: where possible I tried to show the traces of other infrastructural ecologies in the photographs I illustrated the essays with. Can you find the frankenpine in the opening spread of the essay on the L. A. River? As these "ecologies" or as David Fletcher calls them in his essay on the River, "freakologies" interact and network together, they become much harder to control.     

Another thesis of the book is that many of these systems are invisible and an actor doesn’t have to be visible or formed to have a will of its own. Social structures can also be actors. This is most evident today in the glaring absence of infrastructure from the economic stimulus plan. 

There are a lot of false hopes out there about the plan and I’ve been doing what I can to get the truth out, especially since the LA Times review of our book that got the story about the plan so sadly, painfully wrong. For the real story, take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe: Only 5 percent of $819b plan would go toward infrastructure.

A graphic displays the stark reality.

I quote the Globe: 

The chairman of the transportation panel’s subcommittee on highways and transit, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, became so angry about the reduction in transportation spending that he recently accused Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, of arguing against such funds because he "hates infrastructure."

The Globe piece observes that the Obama administration hints at future funding for infrastructure, but thus far there it has given fans of infrastructure precious little reason to believe in it.

Instead of agreeing with Peter DeFazio and pinning the blame on one nefarious individual, I’d like to suggest an actor-network-theory reason for the failure.

Political systems have a life of their own. Obama’s administration has to fulfill immediate goals like passing the bill and making it seem like the average American is getting relief. Complex infrastructure projects take decades to build, unless you are in China and after last week we know very well what cutting corners will do. For political reasons Obama doesn’t have decades to wait, so even though he gives the impression of being a strong-willed, inspirational individual who wants to up-end the political machine, he is going for the quick fix.

In other words, we’ve created political ecologies that are going to stand in the way of moves to fund infrastructure.

What to do, then? This is the subject for future posts, but I’ll suggest two things. We need to face up to address the underlying political structures that prevent infrastructural spending, no matter that it is impossible to condense these into a sound bite and we need to use advanced technologies to invent new kinds of infrastructures, augmenting existing conditions. Ubiquitous computing is already here, Mike Kuniavsky suggests. How can we use it to overcome the rising problems of life in the city? 

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Back to Infrastructure

Christopher Hawthorne has a largely favorable review of The Infrastructural City in the Los Angeles Times today. I was delighted by the attention although disappointed by how he got tripped up in some naïve assumptions. Unfortunately even though ACTAR had sent him my contact info, Hawthorne rushed his article to press, missing his opportunity to think through the book’s main points.   

I laughed out loud at Hawthorne’s opening lines, in which he suggests that the book would have "a tough time steering clear of the remainder bin" if it weren’t for the stimulus package or that I didn’t expect that infrastructure would be trotted out as part of the stimulus plan, that I was taken by surprise.  

It’s true that infrastructure was once the least sexy of topics, a term barely used in English as late as the 1960s, but as Ian Baldwin, my former student at Penn, observed, it spread widely after the publication of America in Ruins, co-authored by economist Pat Choate and Susan Walters. The authors of that report suggested that some $2.5 trillion would be needed just to keep the country’s infrastructure functioning at a constant level into the mid-1990s. Infrastructure, as a concept referring to a bundle of physical service networks, became visible in its collapse. That money was, of course, never allocated.  

Over the next two decades, infrastructure continued to rise in the public eye, in large part because, as our book points out, it is in a state of constant failure. This is something that virtually all of us experience. Angelenos, navigating over-crowded streets and freeways at a snail’s pace, understand it viscerally. We’ve also come to understand that there are going to be no great new projects: only architects and reporters seem to believe otherwise. The immense expense of construction, empty government coffers, and NIMBYism will take care of that. But the New-Bad-Future-right-now of infrastructure defines our cities today, much as the lifestyles of Banham’s ecologies defined the urbanism of his day. As humans and objects interact ever more directly (look at the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, for example), the lives of these systems become more and more important.     

Architects have long been interested in infrastructure. Starting in the Renaissance, copies of Vitrivius’s Ten Books on Architecture typically had Frontinus’s essay on aqueducts as an appendix. Later on, Piranesi likely drew inspiration from the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer, for his Carceri. Infrastructure is a lost fantasy object, taunting us with the suggestion that those aspects of the city that escaped from architecture could once more be under our purview. In Los Angeles, the avant-garde scene came together at the West Coast Gateway competition of 1989. If the West Coast Gateway project never got built, Gary Paige’s reconstruction of an abandoned railway depot into the downtown SCI_Arc building a decade later is the most inspired large project in the city in decades. In designing the building Paige drew on the theories of Stan Allen, now Dean at Princeton, and an advocate of thinking about architecture and urbanism in infrastructural terms. Infrastructure is hardly a topic for the remainder bins, at least not for architects.    

As for the stimulus plan: there was certainly some rhetoric last fall suggesting that a new era of WPA projects was upon us, but as I’ve pointed out, this is hardly the case if one actually looks at what’s in the plan, as I did here. Hawthorne isn’t a political reporter, so he missed this, but it’s crucial and there’s on excuse for not doing your homework. 

The Obama administration is not spending a significant amount of money on infrastructure. My definition of infrastructure is broad—certainly broader than Hawthorne’s—but this plan does not initate much new funding for infrastructure, not unless you count the construction of hospitals (note to unemployed architects: there will be a bit of work building hospitals) or digitizing health care records. The plan is an amalgam of tax cuts bundled with triage for various government programs that were underfunded during the Bush administration. Those are the facts. Whether Obama changed his mind or infrastructure was an easy-to-understand term he deployed as bait, this is by no means the return of the WPA.  

Perversely, this may not be a bad thing. Take a look at Eric Janszen’s article "The Next Bubble" at Harper’s. Back in February of last year, months before the crisis had revealed its full dimensions to the unwary, long before the rhetoric about the stimulus plan, when Hawthorne was still hunting remainder bins looking for books on infrastructure, Janszen cautioned that infrastructure might be the cause of the next bubble.  


But the money spent on last fall’s bailout, together with the funds allocated for the stimulus plan, pretty much ensures that the government is going to have its fiscal hands tied for some time to come. In other words, the stimulus plan will not only fail to fund further large infrastructural initiatives, it will prevent them from being built in the first place. An infrastructural bubble isn’t coming. 


Now I do anticipate that in the coming years industry will have some success with getting funds allocated to subsidize construction of supposedly sustainable energy sources. Most of these aren’t sustainable either environmentally or financially, and once the economy shifts again, the results may look something like this abandoned solar energy plant built in the early 1980s, then dismantled and left to rot like a field of dying date palm trees when the financial models failed.

abandoned solar power plant from clui archives

 [Image via CLUI’s Land Use Database]          


The real infrastructure to watch will be the network. It’ll continue its growth, the invisible layer of soft infrastructure exerting more and more influence over our lives even as it becomes more distributed and more privatized. As Rick Miller and Ted Kane point out in their chapter on mobile phones, it is by no means positive that the public interest has been placed in the hands of private interests. This is a challenge that the country needs to confront and I see little political will to do so. Hawthorne’s failure to mention it suggests that it’s still beyond the scope of a story in a Sunday paper. That’s a shame.   


The end of Hawthorne’s piece is flat-footed. Instead of confronting the consequences of our conclusions, he appeals to the fantasy of infrastructure as the next architectural object, trotting out the idea that architects need to be involved in the design of the new infrastructural America. 

In the unlikely event that somehow a burst of hard infrastructure takes place, I hardly think that this will save architecture. Why would a cash-strapped government pay for design now when it has never done so before? You could say that the great turning point in infrastructure is took place at the George Washington bridge when the engineers decided it looked fine as it was and decided not to give it a stone cladding. But we’re not even brave enough for that today. The palm tree on our cover says it all: a cell phone tower is not designed by Frank Gehry, it is designed to look like a palm tree. Now we’re probably the better for it: the host of architect-designed subway stations in Los Angeles were largely an embarrassment. If by some miracle architects get on board with infrastructure, NIMBYism will make sure that new infrastructure would look even more contextual. Imagine the rise of cell phone trees disguised as mission bells throughout Los Angeles, hardly what any of us want. 

I was happy to see Hawthorne finish his article with a pot-shot at the architect-as-icon. It’s nice that is trickling down. But Hawthorne doesn’t go far enough with his recommendations for the profession. Please save us from OMA-designed off-shore wind farms. Architecture needs to re-invent itself in the face of the challenges of contemporary life. As Hawthorne suggests, architects need to take a page from engineers and embrace anonymity. More than that, they need to apply their tremendous imaginations and skill to reprogramming the world of network culture into something new and fantastic. Go read bldgblog, look back at what Andrea Branzi and Bernard Tschumi wrote decades ago: these guys had it right. Now more than ever commonplace thinking about architecture’s role will be fatal. 

In the coming week, I’ll follow up with a post containing my piece from Volume Magazine’s "bootleg" issue of Urban China in which I draw together the links between the book and the economic stimulus plan and suggest some more directions.




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Goodbye Icons; Hello Infrastructure

Blair Kamin is contributes to a growing chorus of voices about the end of the architectural icon, noting that infrastructure is the new focus under the Obama administration. But Kamin is critical: although he advocates infrastructural funding, he observes how little is being spent on it under the Obama administration. Still, he suggests, the very fact that this debate is happening today is positive. Again, Kamin is right. I’m still working on a white paper on the lessons that The Infrastructural City has for us today, but for now I’m convinced more than ever that we need to very carefully think re-envision infrastructure, not just build more of the same or, worst of all, turn it into a new architectural fetish.    

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in praise of trees


cell phone tree at hunter mountain

I went skiing at Hunter Mountain in upstate New York for two days this week. It was a long-needed break for my wife and myself. We had a great ski instructor, Peter Dunh,am, and after just a couple of hours instruction, were skiing the advanced slopes with confidence. And, just to prove that the Infrastructural City is relevant anywhere, the top of the mountain was marked by a cell phone tree.

Warren Techentin’s essay on our new relationship with trees changed my view of cell phone trees. I’ve stopped thinking of them as cop-outs or disguises. After all, they rarely hide. Inadvertently, perhaps, the cell phone tower has turned from a disguise into something else: whereas the antennas of old symbolized the specialized nature of telecommunications in our lives, cell phone trees celebrate the augmented nature of our reality. 

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infrastructural city on tropolism

Over at Tropolism, John Southern has a thoughtful review of the Infrastructural City.

John’s right on the money by putting the book in the context of the economic collapse (predict here years ago) and the proposed "infrastructure bailout." John also gets why this book is crucial for architects and urban planners (even for Mr. Obama):

As capital flows increase their plasticity and are lubricated by technology, cities choke on grass-roots democracy and localized individualism, stymieing new civic projects. As a result, the role of infrastructure as a panacea for solving the problems of the contemporary metropolis only gains friction, leaving it open to terminal failure. Only by understanding and recognizing this reality will architects be able to operate in the contemporary urban terrain.

Thanks for the great review John, and thanks to Chad Smith at Tropolism, one of my favorite blogs, for hosting it.

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