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What's the future of 'The Infrastructural City' of L.A.

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The timing could hardly be better for "The Infrastructural City," a new collection of essays on Los Angeles edited by Kazys Varnelis, director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University. A book with a title like that, unless written by Mike Davis or John McPhee, would typically have a tough time steering clear of the remainder bin. But in recent weeks, as the details of the stimulus package were being hammered out in Congress, the same few questions moved near the top of the political agenda not just in Washington but in cities around the country: In 2009, what is infrastructure, exactly? Is it just roads, bridges, train lines and tunnels -- the muscle and bone of the city -- or can we update that New Deal-era definition to include a greener, more flexible or even purely digital set of urban initiatives? If so, how best to integrate that new, "soft" infrastructure with the hard variety?

And what about the relationship between architecture and infrastructure? Does it matter if infrastructure is conspicuously designed the way a new skyscraper or concert hall is, with photogenic appeal on full display? Should there be money in the stimulus bill not just for bridges but for bridge designers?

Usually when we talk about how Los Angeles is organized we're talking about the city as an idea, or a string of ideas: about its myths, stereotypes and competing, long-running narratives of civic salesmanship and soured dreams, about utopia one minute and Paradise Lost the next. "The Infrastructural City," co-published by the L.A. Forum on Architecture and Design, offers something else: A doggedly detailed guide to Los Angeles as a physical thing.

It's not a bad angle: If we measure infrastructure broadly, as the book makes a point of doing, Los Angeles qualifies as a place not just dependent on but fully defined by it. "After all," Varnelis asks, referring to William Mulholland, "what other city would name its most romantic road after a water-services engineer?"

Thanks to Mulholland (among others), Los Angeles has drained the Owens Valley to keep our lawns green and gardens in flower. We've wrapped the L.A. River in concrete to prevent it from flooding, strung together a huge, elaborate necklace of freeways and dug a 50-foot-wide, 10-mile-long trench -- the Alameda Corridor -- running north from the port at Long Beach to smooth the transfer of consumer goods from ship to rail to highway to warehouse to retail shelf. Los Angeles is literally shaped by that last piece of infrastructure: Seen on the map, the city extends a narrow and very long arm toward the ocean to keep port traffic under its jurisdiction.

In recent years, though, Los Angeles has allowed much of that infrastructural ambition to ebb, producing a sense that the city has fallen, as the book rather starkly puts it, into "perpetual crisis." (Maybe the Paradise Lost theme is tougher to shake than we thought.) Traffic and strident debates over density are on the rise; by certain measures so is air pollution, reversing decades of improvement.

Varnelis suggests that although we built an earlier generation of infrastructural networks in this country in large part to compartmentalize and control nature, those networks have grown so unmanageable that they now make up a "second nature" as vast and unpredictable as the first. It can certainly seem that our freeways are actively managing us rather than the other way around.

Old assumptions

The contributors to "The Infrastructural City" include planners, architects and academics, and they take on a range of hyper-specific topics, including gravel (Matthew Coolidge), palm trees (Warren Techentin), shipping containers (Deborah Richmond) and the hidden presence of oil derricks throughout the city (Frank Ruchala). Mixed in is a remarkable series of aerial photographs by Lane Barden of the L.A. River and other infrastructural landmarks.

Varnelis is clearly eager to package the collection as a successor to Reyner Banham's landmark 1971 book "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies." (The subtitle Varnelis settled on, "Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles," is aggressively Banhamesque.) Like the earlier book, the new one is at its best in pointing out how many of our assumptions about the physical character of Los Angeles have grown stale. Several of the chapters make clear just how much of the city's recent infrastructural improvements -- cellphone and Wi-Fi networks, for example -- are neither publicly funded nor easy to spot with the naked eye.

For Varnelis, the shift is proof that "the visible is no longer a prime determinant of the urban. Instead, our networked society is increasingly dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the 'invisible city,' the unseen world of cables, wires, connections, codes, agreements and capital. Today more than ever, the role of this invisible city in determining the structure of urban areas is vast."

He and the other writers couldn't have known as they were working on the book that it would arrive on shelves brimming with so much political and cultural currency, and it seems unprepared for its moment in the spotlight. On a rhetorical as well as grammatical level, the execution is bumpily uneven. Put it this way: Much of the book's own infrastructure -- its supporting structure of punctuation and sentence construction -- is in rough shape.

And for all its enthusiasm for the flexibility and adaptability of so-called network culture -- for the idea that what defines contemporary urban life is not objects, people or institutions but the shifting web of communication links spun among them -- the book's theoretical framework looks brittle in the unforgiving light of recent events.

At one point, Varnelis observes: "What makes our moment distinct is that the remedy of creating a new infrastructure or using new technologies to surmount breakdowns is no longer an option." That was the rather cynical conventional wisdom among both architects and planners until about, well, five or six months ago. But how to reconcile that jaded attitude with the windfall of electoral funding, tens of billions of dollars in total, that we can expect to receive from Measure R, the L.A. County subway measure, and Proposition 1A, for statewide high-speed rail?

Admittedly, the money earmarked for infrastructure spending in the stimulus bill, at least as it stood as this piece went to press, is far smaller than many of us were hoping for: roughly $100 billion, including about $10 billion for public transit. And it remains unclear how much of the new funding will manage to improve the way cities actually operate and how much will be pure caffeine, a temporary boost to employment and public confidence.

Yet if the goal of new infrastructural spending is not only to create jobs but also to curb economic panic, the emphasis on visibility Varnelis dismisses as out of date may come roaring back too. Particularly from a psychological point of view, we will not only want but need to see the results of this fresh labor.

An important question -- not just for architecture firms, which are laying off employees at a startling rate, but also for the public at large -- is the role design will play as new infrastructure of all types is planned and built. One legacy of New Deal construction, after all, was to help seed a broad appreciation in this country for forward-looking architecture. "Infrastructure captured the public imagination" in the 1930s and '40s, Varnelis writes. "Americans came to accept modernism through bridges and dams before they accepted it in buildings."

Architects' place

It's tempting to imagine the same process unfolding again. (Don't overlook the fact that a second round of stimulus spending may be necessary later this year.) What if we asked our most innovative architects to collaborate on plans to build bus stops, subway stations, neo-Victory Gardens and elementary schools? What if we enlisted an artist comfortable operating at the scale of earthworks to help design a new collection of thousands of wind turbines?

That last idea is less fanciful than it might sound. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas -- as usual sniffing out a cultural trend in rather mercenary fashion, and well in advance of his fellow architects -- unveiled a proposal last month for an enormous wind farm in the North Sea, off the coast of the Netherlands. And Norman Foster has steered his gigantic London firm in the direction of infrastructure design for much of the last decade, producing, among other projects, a new terminal for the Beijing airport and the much-photographed Millau Viaduct in southern France.

There are, however, a couple of significant problems with that approach. Giving infrastructure the same building-as-icon treatment that museums and condo towers have received in the last 10 years risks blunting their effect on a purely practical level. You could even make the case that authorship -- the idea, which soared to extreme heights in recent years, that every design needs an instantly recognizable look -- is fundamentally at odds with the character of infrastructure. How we navigate the transition from the Bilbao Decade to a period in which government is the leading patron of new construction is among the most pressing and fascinating questions facing American cities.

There is also the fact that President Obama has so far shown few signs that he cares how things look: Pragmatism, efficiency and human relationships seem to be far higher on his list of priorities than any corner of the aesthetic realm. His campaign team's neoclassical set at the convention in Denver was brilliant as symbolic stagecraft but fairly dismal as a piece of design. (Same for his campaign logos.) The administration could surprise us, but at this point a push from Obama for high-design public projects seems unlikely.

But maybe there's room in this new political climate for a productive hybrid from teams of talented architects and engineers: The conspicuously and efficiently designed but anonymous piece of the city, the infrastructural masterpiece that carries no signature. In Los Angeles, the potential products of such teamwork seem practically unlimited -- smartly designed subway stations paid for with Measure R funds, say, or pedestrian bridges funded by some future (and more enlightened) stimulus effort.

So here's a question for architects: Are you willing to trade notoriety, present or future, for work?

christopher.hawthorne @latimes.com

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