The Infrastructural City

Los Angeles’s vast infrastructural systems are breathtakingly complex, yet vulnerable to disruption, even disaster.

All photographs by Lane Barden.

Submerged a little over a mile off the coast of Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades, an array of twenty-four silicon-iron alloy electrodes hangs suspended in concrete enclosures. Acting as a grounding device, this structure is paired with 1,067 cast iron anodes laid out in a 3,400-foot-wide ring, buried in a two-foot-deep trench of petroleum coke some 850 miles away on the Oregon-Washington border. Together, these two structures serve the Pacific Intertie, North America’s longest, highest voltage direct-current transmission line. Capable of delivering some 3,100 megawatts, the Pacific Intertie brings current from the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles, providing nearly half of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s capacity in the summer. In the winter, when cooling needs in the south decline and electricity demands in the north climb, Los Angeles returns the favor, sending electricity back up the lines.

The Pacific Intertie’s transmission towers each carry only two wires. Normally, in what is called bipolar mode, one transmits current while the other acts as a ground. When a wire needs to be taken off-line for repairs, the remaining one is dedicated to transmitting current. To provide the ground, the two electrodes are activated, giving electricity a return path through the ocean and earth itself. Conveying an invisible force between them, these two megalithic structures power an entire city.
— Kazys Varnelis, The Infrastructural City

This is Los Angeles — the consummate infrastructural metropolis, famous for its networks of freeways and its dispersed, vehicle-based urbanism. This is also the departure point for The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, an anthology of essays examining contemporary LA and contemporary urbanism. Today’s metropolis, as described by volume editor Kazys Varnelis, depends upon layers of infrastructural networks — not just freeways — that connect the metropolis globally. Yet they also render the city susceptible to catastrophic damage, or at least interruption, if these networks are violated or short-circuited: a strong storm with high winds, for instance, could knock out the transmission lines described above and paralyze the city. “Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land,” writes Varnelis. “No city should be here.”

Yet Los Angeles persists, sustained by its extensive infrastructures — “life-support systems,” as Varnelis characterizes them. Roads, freeways, rail corridors, ports; electric lines, gas lines, oil lines, communication lines; imported water for drinking, for cleaning, for treating waste, for irrigating crops: each system built according to its own independent logic, then overlaid on a landscape — and an increasingly complex urban terrain — to maximize efficiency, to maximize flows. Through time, these infrastructures have snaked over and under and across one another, with expanding regional and continental and sometimes global reach. Fantastic images like Andreas Gursky’s 1998 photograph — a night-time panorama of the city, shimmering and apparently endless — belie the contradictions of LA: the drama of its geography, poised on the edge of the continent and the world’s largest ocean; the romance of its image-based culture; and the magnitude of the systems that underlie and power its great surface expanse.

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But Los Angeles is in crisis. Its population has skyrocketed — from 3 million in 1940 to over 16 million today [metropolitan statistics, from Encarta] — and its infrastructures are over-used and crumbling. Initiatives to extend, expand and upgrade these infrastructures have failed — in part due to the fiercely independent character of the populations that have settled here and who resist comprehensive planning; in part due to the fact that actual decision-making occurs on a more localized level and at a very quick pace, as Roger Sherman’s contribution to the anthology argues. Exacerbating these challenges, public funds for such initiatives — long scarce — have dwindled dramatically in recent months, due to national recession and California’s prolonged budget crisis.

What to do?

As conceived by Kazys Varnelis — formerly on the faculty of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, now director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia — The Infrastructural City is an ambitious effort to construct an intellectual framework for answering this question. The book begins with three important assertions.

First, Varnelis argues that organized urban planning in LA has failed and will continue to fail. This is not a new argument; Varnelis cites Reyner Banham’s influential 1972 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, as one of the first serious studies of a city “driven by competitive interests, government agencies, pressure groups, and, above all, individuals.” Yet today, Varnelis continues, competition among these forces has only intensified, producing a “vicious stalemate, an urban trench warfare that effectively undoes the city’s ability to fix its problems.”

Second, Varnelis insists that LA must be engaged on its own terms, non-judgmentally, and not in irrelevant comparison to older cities with different urban origins. He places himself squarely in the lineage of German urban geographer Anton Wagner, whose 1935 analysis of Los Angeles — with its descriptions of “drilling tower forests” and “façade landscapes” — captured the essence of the city’s emerging character. To comprehend the challenge of fixing, or at least tweaking, LA, says Varnelis, we need to comprehend the very stuff of the city — its roads and bridges and pipes and wires, its endless and complex infrastructural networks, and the protocols that govern them.

Third, and most critically, Varnelis argues that what results from this seeming mishmash of autonomous infrastructures is a city, an urbanism, with its own (hybridized) social, environmental and political dynamics — its own intertwined “ecologies” worthy of study themselves. Again, Varnelis is worth quoting at length:

Setting out to understand this city, and by extension all contemporary cities, we treat it in terms of networked ecologies, a series of codependent systems of environmental mitigation, land-use organization, communication and service delivery. In our analysis, these infrastructures form the basis of the contemporary city, but they are vastly different from the infrastructures of old. Rather than being executed in conformance with the outline of a plan, they are networked, hypercomplex systems produced by technology, laws, political pressures, disciplinary desires, environmental constraints and myriad other pressures, tied together with feedback mechanisms. Networked ecologies embody the dominant form of organization today, the network, but these networks can be telematic, physical, or even social. What matters is that we do not think of these ecologies as discrete terrains as Banham did, but rather as the sort of networks that artist Mark Lombardi drew — inextricable and impossible, like balls of yarn after visitation by a litter of kittens.

Varnelis organizes his interrogation of Angeleno metropolitanism into three parts, or what he calls “scales of networks”: landscape, urban fabric, and object. Each of the eleven essays falls within one of these scales, and each takes on one of the city’s constituent systems, or tendencies. Collectively they establish a provisional framework for understanding how this complex metropolis works. The essays range widely in topic, from water supply, flood control, oil resources and gravel mining, in the landscape section; through traffic, telecommunications, palm trees and cell phone structures, in urban fabric; to property, distribution networks; and prop houses (which supply props for movies and television shows), in object. Interspersed throughout are photo essays, by Lane Barden, depicting three physical networks: the river (the Los Angeles River), the street (Wilshire Boulevard), and the trench (the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority’s rail and truckway). The photographs are striking for their portrayal of these urban corridors as at once mundane and unique, generic yet defining. (At first glance, it’s even difficult to distinguish one from the other, since all are laced with power lines, bridges, channels, roadways and rail corridors, and surrounded by subdivisions, warehouses, distribution hubs, glass-skinned buildings, parking lots and automobiles.)

Implicitly the essays underscore the problematics of these territories and infrastructures as much as they construct a footing for new interventionist practices. The book’s broader categories, for instance, are not necessarily singular, or restrictive: while Varnelis organizes the topics according to scale, the terms he chooses for these scales — again, landscape, fabric and object—are generic enough to have wider implications. Nor do the individual essays fit comfortably (or exclusively) within their sections: the essay on trees, for instance, is placed in “urban fabric,” yet it could work as easily in “landscape,” or even “objects.” Varnelis’s categorizations are both useful reference points and yet usefully contestable — very much in tune with the nature of this complicated, contested city.

David Fletcher’s contribution — “Flood Control Freakology”— paints an especially full picture of the complexities that both impinge upon and grow from a single infrastructural system, in this case the Los Angeles River. Once a meandering river whose flow fluctuated seasonally and whose banks were lined with verdant marshes and sand bars, the river has long been channelized and lined by concrete—very much the edgy, barren culvert familiar from the ‘70s television show CHiPs and the Terminator movies (my own media touchstones, not the editor’s). Yet, Fletcher argues, the river corridor cannot be understood as a singular entity — its 51-mile course is marked by multiple owners and regulatory complexities, by diverse maintenance and operational protocols, and by fragmented (and often emergent) ecosystems that are born from this engineered channel and its infrastructural fabric of rail, road, telecommunications and port systems. “Standing under a bridge, in the river, you might be on private property, in city-owned water, in a channel built and maintained by the federal government within a county easement, and in the air rights of the California Department of Transportation,” writes Fletcher. “Railway and utility easements will flow on either side of you, conducting goods from the port and power to adjacent municipalities.”

Fletcher’s “freakologies” are compelling examples of the general phenomena and arguments of the book. Freakologies — Fletcher’s term — are the offspring of dynamic environmental flows (of water, minerals, plant communities and animals) and the manifestations of artificial infrastructural systems (concrete channels, steel bridges, vertical walls and stormwater and sewage discharge pipes) that sustain LA’s economy. These “freak ecologies” include: emergent vegetation nurtured by the scarce organic nutrients and silts caught up in the inorganic debris dumped into the channel (junk cars, shopping carts, old clothing, plastic bags); squatter camps under bridges and in storm drains, their occupants cashing in cans and bottles carried by floodwaters at recycling centers, washing clothes and bodies in the low-flow channels, lighting combustible waste and logs at night to make communal bonfires; new stands of mixed native and exotic, ornamental and agricultural plants swept downstream from yards and nurseries and nature reserves, feeding off effluent from treatment plants and car washes; bat colonies and swallow nests, tucked beneath overpasses, that help control disease outbreaks by consuming vast quantities of the mosquitoes that breed in the river’s standing water; and the largest concentration of black-necked stilts in the United States, which feed off the invertebrates that thrive in the river’s algae fields — fields that themselves result (accidentally) from the channel’s shallow configuration and the high volume of nutrient-rich sewage discharged into it. This is the stuff of the networked, infrastructural city — not an idealized, romanticized, riparian past that could no longer thrive here — and this, according to Fletcher, forms the basis for a rich discussion of its future.

Roger Sherman’s essay, “Counting (on) Change,” describes the fragmented and often informal decision-making that affects individual properties and, by extension and in aggregate, the larger urban fabric. “Cities today develop at a rate that outpaces architects’ and planners’ efforts to shape them,” says Sherman. “Political and economic circumstances change so rapidly that by the time a plan is realized, it is often already obsolete; a mere election or economic downturn can radically alter the assumptions and objectives of a project or master plan.” In Sherman’s view, progress and development occur in “realizable chunks or increments, placing an emphasis more on augmentation than organization.”

To illustrate this, he documents the localized and negotiated manner in which moments of the city fabric are shaped, and the often unexpected (and cross-bred) results. He offers provocative examples: the “socioeconomic coupling” of car wash and juice bar that exploits shared physical space, customers, and operational efficiencies (e.g., the bar’s dishes are rinsed in the car wash’s rag machines); the regulation Wiffle ball field and viewing stands that occupy an otherwise unusable gap at the end of an Encino cul-de-sac, wedged between private houses and a parcel controlled by the Department of Water and Power; a non-operational oil derrick sitting on a lot amid Century City’s commercial towers, now sheathed in fabric painted with a floral pattern and maintained by Portraits of Hope, a local non-profit serving terminally ill children; and the most recent configuration of a series of adjoining sites in Signal Hill that productively accommodate a café, three working derricks owned by Shell Oil, Jack the Shoeshine Man, a parking lot for the Pacific Century bank, and two Craftsman-style homes belonging to the Denny and Hockenbrocht families. Drawing on the more informal, fragmented way decisions are made in LA, Sherman argues for the re-conception of city-making as a set of localized, nimble and adaptive practices, or “protocols” — in Sherman’s words, “a loose set of rules flexibly dependent upon the responses of . . . bargaining partners” — as opposed to official planning or decision processes and guidelines. Sherman also argues that architects and urban designers should embrace and adopt the flexible tactics of negotiation as a more viable way to shape, if only fleetingly, moments in the infrastructural city.

Varnelis’s own essay — “Invisible City” — examines the city’s largely unseen telecommunication networks. He describes the unplanned confluences of LA’s hidden infrastructures, as signaled by the warning marks that utility contractors spray-paint on patched-up asphalt — red for electric, yellow for flammable or gaseous materials, green for sewers, blue for drinking water, and orange for communications. LA’s long-distance transmission cables — including the high-bandwidth fiber optic cables that connect Asia and North America and facilitate a major piece of the global economy — are part of a telecommunications economy that has supplanted aerospace as one of the region’s leading global industries and helped to support the rise of Hollywood’s entertainment economy. The system converges in a single-use, vertical hub centered at One Wilshire, a bland high-rise distinguished only by the extra-large cooling units on its roof and the proliferation of orange markings on surrounding paving. Varnelis wants us to pay less attention to the showy architecture that dominates post-Bilbao urban design discourse — Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, for instance — and more to One Wilshire. Drawing on Lewis Mumford’s mid-20th-century work on technology and the city, Varnelis posits: “Our networked society is increasingly dominated by what Lewis Mumford called 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 the urban area is vast. Visible form is merely an irruption of other forces, a graphic user interface for a more powerful command line below.”

One Wilshire has evolved into a hub in which individual, private telecom firms can connect into one another’s networks in the fourth-floor “Meet-Me Room”; in turn this hub has spawned the proliferation of related telecommunication infrastructures in a dozen surrounding buildings converted to this use, collectively forming a “new concentration [of resources, of emergent urbanism] at [a] command point . . . in the organization of the world economy.” Varnelis suggests that it is here, among the operating systems and protocols of LA’s unseen infrastructure, that we might begin to re-imagine and re-program the city: “[T]he task of cognitive mapping lies at the point in which media and cities, network and economy, substructure and superstructure, become inextricable. The real operating system, not the graphic user interface, is our concern. Only by engaging the code below can we remain relevant to future cities.”

No wonder, then, that he invokes the hacker as perhaps the best equipped to re-tool or re-code the city. The Infrastructural City argues convincingly that the layering of transportation, communications, hydrologic and power systems atop one another and atop a semi-arid terrain is giving rise to new hybridized or mutated social-environmental-technological dynamics that are unique and robust and deserving of serious critical reflection. Underlying this position is an unstated realization — that LA, only now, is mature enough to have developed these emergent, intrinsic and complex metropolitan ecologies — freakish though they may be. Varnelis suggests that the book might function best as a field manual for the metropolitan hacker, whose gateway may be one of a million local points on a myriad of overlaid continental and global networks of exchange that intersect at this sunny piece of land on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The collection’s various maps, diagrams and photographs — clear, precise and cross-referenced — underscore its potential for such covert operations, and perhaps for more mainstream and touristic agendas as well — itineraries for the 21st-century metropolitan flaneur.

Hack away.

Chris Reed, “The Infrastructural City,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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