Infrastructure Unplugged: Recharging Architecture’s Urban Effects

Infrastructure Unplugged imageThose who have at any point over the past thirty or so years followed the discourse on the design of the contemporary city cannot help but be led to the conclusion that the architect’s best means of shaping an increasingly unruly metropolis is through its networks of infrastructure. A preponderance of empirical evidence, however, gives precisely the opposite impression: that if anything, infrastructure has been and continues to be the prime culprit at the root of a now century-long marginalization of architecture’s role in shaping urban space.

Conceived and managed by technocrats, our public right-of-ways and open spaces are largely indifferent to the buildings alongside them. Recent sea changes in the politics and economics of cities, though, suggest that a reconfiguration of the manner in which public services are delivered is underway, offering an unprecedented opportunity for architects to challenge the traditional exclusivity of infrastructural design and its primacy upon performance/optimization/maintenance/safety at the expense of a more integral visual and spatial relationship to the building fabric that it supports.

Even as it has never been more dependable and efficient in collecting and distributing resources, waste and people, infrastructure has progressively become spatially disconnected from the building fabric of the city it serves. It is difficult to fathom that just a century ago, long before the advent of best management practices and so-called smart cities, the experience of urban space was shaped by buildings. Spaces of movement directly and visibly engaged the private properties that fronted upon them. Architecture possessed a dual agency corresponding to, on the one hand, the agenda of its sponsors, and on the other an instrumental role in the life of the city, in which it served as a prop. Colin Rowe used the term “set piece” as a means of arguing for the public status of architecture on the basis not of its objecthood, a critique of the modernist legacy, but as a setting or backdrop capable of attracting, supporting and even inciting unplanned public events and actions.

In the early twentieth century, planning emerged as a discipline distinct from architecture, due in part to the need for the development of skillsets in management and logistics to handle the efficient delivery of water, power and transportation—often preferencing these over their effect upon the image of the city. While the earliest forms of this new age of infrastructure saw it thoroughly integrated with the architecture of the city, such as Grand Central Station, today the design of the flows of water, waste, power, vehicles etc. has grown in primacy to the point that these territories and their concomitant apparatus and performance specifications in many cases dominate our experience of the city interceding in the formerly direct relationship of buildings and the public spaces adjacent to them. Neutralizing and even negating architecture’s affects and effects beyond its immediate situation, the role of architecture in the city has consequently been reduced to an unsatisfactory choice between demure infill and freestanding object, prone to a solipsistic rhetorical agenda more interested in autonomous expression than collective engagement.

Since the Reagan era however, the now century-old extensive, systems model of infrastructure has proven increasingly difficult to implement. Onerous processes of appropriations, approvals, public bid, oversight and jurisdictional conflicts have made the public sector incapable of delivering projects as timely and cost-effectively as its private counterparts. In response, its government overseers have resorted to incremental, piecemeal or pay-as-you-go methods of execution, resulting in a brand of infrastructure that resembles deferred maintenance rather than heralding the larger-scale public initiatives that characterized its WPA-era heyday. Not simply attributable to the 2008 recession and mounting government deficits, such a development is both a cause and symptom of an increasingly distrustful and partisan public, with a steadily growing reluctance to fund projects of larger collective benefit.

Whereas infrastructure was at its turn-of-the-century inception accompanied by a public enthusiasm for and even marveling at the effort behind the delivery of the services it provided, that wonderment is today accorded to the effortless instantaneousness of digital connectivity. Whether in surrender to or in ignorance of this fact, planners have adopted a decidedly low brow approach to infrastructure’s appearance, preferring to keep it as perfunctory and efficient in extremis, lest it become a symbol of government waste.

Silver Lining

Despite its many adherents in the design and planning communities, the lack of public appetite for capital investment in infrastructure has resulted in the devolution if not outright failure in both quality and scale of the network model. This has coincided with a fundamental, game-changing shift away from the primacy of infrastructure as an a priori, extensive and world-building instrument, to one that is opportunistic.

More localized in its scale and reach, this new “battery-powered” approach is premised on self-sufficiency: financed and delivered in tandem with or even exclusively by the private interests whose own properties it serves. In a political environment that is increasingly risk-averse, public officials have moved beyond the mitigation measure in exploring how taxpayer risk can be better managed by delegating to the more disciplined private sector the responsibility of developing, designing and constructing public facilities in conjunction with the latter’s own projects, limiting government involvement to matters of compliance with public policy and technical oversight.

Public participation is not eliminated, but instead strategically leveraged—in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and entitlements—as a carrot aimed at rewarding/incentivizing private development initiatives willing to assume the risk, such as cost and liability, of building public amenities into their pro formas and designs. Rather than being provided, as before, as part of a larger connective network, they are piggybacked upon and within each project/property, on a circumstantial/individual basis.

The Gambit

Freed to assume a more entrepreneurial, leveraged approach to providing public amenities absent the fixed-sum metrics of efficiency and optimization, the privatization of infrastructure signals a shift from its limited role of service-providing to a more entrepreneurial one of destination-making. For both developer and architect, it offers the opportunity to enhance their economic and political agency, using programming and design as a double-jointed proposition acting as both bait and hook: first, by eschewing the fixed-sum dynamic of NIMBY-ism and the defensively-minded mitigation measure in favor of a calculated strategy of trade-offs, whereby the built-in public benefits it promises are used to sweeten the various stakeholders’ collective pot as a means of eliciting support. And second, by capitalizing upon those same surplus amenities to widen the project’s catchment/audience beyond the bounds of the property itself. Versus conventional infrastructural planning, which increasingly finds itself in a perpetual game of catch-up in simply meeting current needs, this new privatized model is directed toward supplying and evoking desire: what is not there, yet. It looks for opportunities hidden in plain sight, replete with the potential for disruptive innovation. From new forms of recreation to expanded “last mile” hubs, it explores and exploits modes and mixes of access and excess, opening private property to (qualified) public use while building in excess capacity for wider community participation/enjoyment. The success of recent such efforts, undertaken absent of public subsidy or incentives, is proof that leveraging private development, at least in part, as gizmos by which to seed and catalyze the social and economic desires of their local surrounds, yields reciprocal benefits to the project itself.

Just as this newfound legal and financial interdependency between government and private development blurs the line between public and private domains, it also provides a format in which to remarry the disciplines of architecture and planning. For the former this translates to an unparalleled, if circumstantial opportunity to reclaim its agency and instrumentality in city making. The shift away from the network model of infrastructure to a battery-powered, local one relocates the provision and design of collective amenities to the scale and format of the individual building and the orchestration of the way in which it engages the space(s) to which it is adjacent. For design practice itself meanwhile, profound ramifications lie in the shift from infrastructure as born of necessity to one that arises to elicit desire/wants—invented to attract new markets. As the revolution in television programming powerfully attests—from a few similar networks to an ever-expanding selection of niche-oriented cable channels—these audiences lie hidden in plain sight, while yet others are in the making.

Excess to Access

By contrast to public infrastructure’s planning logic of optimization for how best something can perform, the battery-powered model is charged by the uncanny possibilities of reorchestration: of exploring how else things might work. In an era of unprecedented digital connectivity, and a sharing economy that prizes access over ownership, the explosion of subcultures holds unprecedented potential for the design of new formats of propinquity—ones more unique and exotic than the ubiquitous “work, live and play” nomenclature pitched by so much current development.

In so doing, architecture is offered an opportunity to incubate the next generation of infrastructural spaces as unlikely attractors for urban life. In this brave new world, the status of land use is more plastic than the single-purpose infrastructural products of yore–parking and/or open space and/or farmer’s market and/or party venue, etc. Such functionally variable arrangements challenge the internally-oriented logic and conventions of typology, demanding new formats—and forms—of urban life in the making. Taken together with an opportunistic approach that seeks to build in an excess capacity and wider spectrum of services and enhance public access to them, the combined impact of this new model (whether retrofitted or ground up) will be to broaden public interest and participation in the physical space of the city—competing with the lure of online environments and even coopting and “daylighting” the same digital platforms and audiences. As for architecture? The death of infrastructure and its re-boot according to a new operating system offers a long-awaited opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of our own disciplinary orthodoxy.

Roger Sherman, AIA, is a Senior Project Director of Urban Strategy at Gensler. In addition to overseeing design of architecture and urban projects, Roger holds the position of Adjunct Professor at UCLA.


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