Planos urbanos

The Infrastructural City

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Photographs by Lane Barden
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“Today’s metropolis 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.”
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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.

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Design for Emergency

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“For Haitians the earthquake marks the “before” and “after” of their lives, their country. Amid decomposing bodies and mass burial sites, life continues. The Haitian people are beginning to rebuild their destroyed cities with their own hands and by their own means. Amid hunger, homelessness and despair, and despite the aftershocks and the inevitably waning attention of the world, Port-au-Prince is becoming the largest self-help re-construction site on the globe, its buildings demolished but its people persevering.

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Far from the island, design professionals are alert to the challenge. We know how it played out in past disasters: teams of architects mobilize for the redesign of a city and a country. Parachute architects gear up. Construction technologists and building industry specialists catch the whiff of opportunity. Architects and planners plot the deployment of big visions as precisely planned as military operations. Some come to the rescue with predetermined templates of renewal. Reconstruction is framed within a familiar toolkit: urban form, building structure, standard codes, construction details and housing typologies. . . .But Haiti and its people —already struggling before the earthquake — may prove to be at once the endgame of design-for-disaster as usual and the recognition that we need to retool our reconstruction approach. In the sheer scope of its catastrophe, Port-au-Prince may provide a before and after moment in architecture and urban planning. As designers we work to make built form meet human needs. Here we have a chance to move past what we already know, and to educate ourselves about what is actually needed.

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For my part Haiti makes me understand the value of an interdisciplinarity I have yet to learn — it spurs me to reconsider my professional scope in provisional terms. To be of use I’ll have to partner-up with non-designers to translate the language of design from disciplinary abstractions to on-the-ground necessities. I’ll have to shift from envisioning large physical transformations to enabling surgical deconstruction and improvisation. On the streets of Port-au-Prince the challenge today is — and will be for many months to come — to deal with demolition, debris removal and basic infrastructure, with preparing land for pre-construction and salvaging and distributing building materials. And to really make a difference I’ll have to make a commitment: for instance, to focus less on designing shelter than on building the skills and capacities of Haitian citizens to create their own shelter.

This role will require the recalibration of my ethics as a practitioner. I will have to face my position of privilege in the field and engage its complications productively, and to adapt my skills as a professional whose training assumes a high degree of stability and linearity. I will have to challenge the usual assumptions of duration — even sustainability — and flip the issues from long-term application to quick intervention.

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Outside the comfort of the drawing, the zone of the studio, lies another place for design, where immediate experience drives the agenda for action and pushes us to come up with new strategies, new ways to be of real use. This is the place where I want to be.”

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