Sunday, February 7, 2010

Infrastructure = Policy + Engineering

A couple of interesting posts during the past few weeks over on Free Association Design and Infranet Lab hearken back to a series of projects by Israeli landscape architect Shlomo Aaronson done in the mid-80's in the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. These projects- the sculpting of excavated fill from a phosphate mine into abstractions of the natural topography for hydrological and aesthetic purposes, and the siting of an 18km conveyor belt through protected desert terrain from the mine to the train depot, are significant in their scope and scale and were harbingers of the work of the landscape urbanists/infrastructurists (though Alan Berger would have you believe he has entirely invented the interesting work he is doing).

[an 18km conveyor belt is built on a transparent truss allowing wildlife movement]

[existing landscape largely intact, contrasts belt structure]

Much of the work being developed and talked about in the fields of landscape/architecture is currently focused on this trend, including the Rising Tides and WPA 2.0 competitions, and the forthcoming little-kid-sister, the MoMA's "Rising Currents" exhibition. Here in New York City we have Field Operations directing the cultivation of a park on top of the Fresh Kill's Landfill, an arduous but fascinating task, and P-Rex and Pierre Belanger are hard at work on models for bringing more large-scale infrastructure projects under the auspices of the landscape/architecture.

This work, together with the push to rebuild the national infrastructure, is the generator of much speculation and excitement regarding the future role landscape/architecture. Recently on mammoth their expansive "architecture of the decade" post turned into an interesting discussion about the definition of landscape/architecture and its future role in constructing the built environment. Additionally, Conditions Magazine is currently having a call for papers examining the possibilities for added value in architecture. And that got me thinking.

The term infrastructure is less than one hundred years old, originating in the US in the 1920's and quickly becoming commonplace with the WPA and post-war building boom. The term was specifically an engineering term and the dictionary definition is illuminating:

in·fra·struc·ture (ĭn'frə-strŭk'chər) n.
 1. An underlying base or foundation especially for an organization or system.
 2. The basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.

Usage Note: The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function. The term also has had specific application to the permanent military installations necessary for the defense of a country. Perhaps because of the word's technical sound, people now use infrastructure to refer to any substructure or underlying system.

Infrastructure is historically defined as follows:


Given that, a critical question to debate if landscape/architecture is going to have an integral role in the future conceptualization and construction of infrastructure: what is the added-value of landscape/architecture in this equation?
[Negev phosphate mine]

[new earthworks blend with surrounding hills]

In answering this question, it is important to remember works like the Negev Phosphate Works and the Dead Sea Conveyor Belt. The focus of landscape/architects is always shifting, but we the consitent thread has been that generalist craftsmen. We have always been generalists, competent to both influence and interpret policy-makers’ decisions (who are often removed from the building professions by at least a factor of 2) and directing, siting, and integrating engineers' decisions. At the same time, we are rarely the builders ourselves, instead working with the tradesmen and scientists to effectively intervene in realspace, not just in abstract documentation of space.

It seems that the trend in the profession is toward generalist policymaker, and this has certain beneficial effects, given that for generations we confined ourselves to a medium of “site“ as opposed to “ground“ [see “Groundwork“ by Robin Dripps for a brilliant explanation of this difference]. However, we must not forget the craftsmen aspect of our legacy. It is the ability to conceive and direct well-executed details that reinforce that larger theoretical and conceptual framework defining any given intervention that separates landscape/architects. It is there that we add value; the landscape/architect is the catalytic agent that creates a positive feedback loop between the scientists, politicians and planners that make policy, and the engineers and tradesmen that execute them.

I hope Belanger and Joe Brown and Berger continue to expand the practice of landscape, but we must not lose our ability to execute policy. Speculation is fun and ideas are cheap, but execution is necessarily a narrowing of possibilities; for that reason it carries responsibility.  And so responsible and innovative execution is the real added value.


  1. Can you provide a citation for your definition of infrastructure?

  2. it is the webster's dictionary definition.

    the online etymology dictionary also has an entry on the word-

  3. Totally agree about how interesting this pair of Aronson's projects are -- though unfortunately it seems to have been a direction that his work briefly turned in, rather than something he pursued consistently.

    There's another one completed in the late 70's which has also fascinated me for a long time, because from what little I've found on it (it's briefly mentioned on his website, and there was a short mention in a book I read while doing thesis research), it seems to prefigure another contemporary landscape interest, that of inducing beneficial changes in ecological communities through the subtle alteration of various parameters (elevation, moisture, micro-climate, etc.).

    I think you could make a case, though, that there's a pretty significant difference between Aronson's work, as the design of large-scale landscape infrastructures which alters the specifics of those infrastructures but accepts the basic structures and techniques of those systems (phosphate mining, for example), and Berger/Belanger, who are trying to not only "bring more large-scale infrastructure projects under the auspices of landscape/architecture", but also to introduce new forms of infrastructures and new patterns of use surrounding them (Belanger's emphasis on waste cycles and the efficiencies that can be created through re-examining them, for instance). That said, I wholly agree that Aronson is a great precedent, and am glad that you've brought him up.

  4. i agree that in a sense belanger and berger's work is significantly different, though not fundamentally (though I may be off base). I see their work as a furthering of shlomo's work (among a few interesting others), and also indicative of the contemporary expanding role of landscape as practitioners/academics, which i would attribute to both those excellent folks as well as other cultural factors (a valuing or "foregrounding" of the landscape/holistic approach to building issues, etc.)

    what most interests me about guys like aronson, however, is their ability to move on to other things, not always focusing on infrastructure. some of his other works show a real ability as a craftsman, how to fashion an excellent water runnel detail or get a lighting effect in an outdoor space just right. i admire that and hope that as a profession we don't "jump the shark" (which the best have already done to some extent).

    i think our greatest capacity is to work within a particular cultural mythology, and enrich it, add to it, be it in an infrastructure project (maybe our moment's zeitgeist) or otherwise.


  5. Really interesting the way you're considering the role of architects in infrastructure; not only designing, arranging, detailing, but also coordinating between parties and finding ways to make projects happen.

    Another bit of added value might be in longterm thinking, as in designing landscapes that thrive for many years in their contexts with viable systems of maintenance.

    I'm thinking of a tweet by Alexis Madrigal the other day: "Statement popped into my head: good design allows organization without management. True?"

    Not the only characteristic of good design, but it's an interesting thought, especially the idea of reducing the need for constant management.

    p.s. Why use the term landscape/architecture? Is it ok just to use architecture? It seems like landscape/architecture could be interpreted as a distinction between landscape and the design of landscape (rather than between landscape architecture and "building" architecture).

  6. faslanyc:

    i think our greatest capacity is to work within a particular cultural mythology, and enrich it, add to it, be it in an infrastructure project (maybe our moment's zeitgeist) or otherwise.

    1. I think maybe that asking someone to become excellent at not only ameliorating the damage caused by existing patterns of landscape infrastructure (which is mostly what Aronson was up to -- though that's quite helpful, as I think it's at least one answer to your larger question about what value landscape architects can add to the design of infrastructures), but also to understand those patterns and the networks of economic, social, and political relationship which support them well enough to redesign the infrastructures for the betterment of those networks, while also developing virtuosic site design abilities, is a really, really tall order. Maybe a few outstanding individuals are up to that task, but I suspect that if landscape architecture is ever to have the broad effect on infrastructure that we seem to be interested in, it'll require the involvement of more than a handful of outstanding individual architects.

    Post-length expansion on the differences between Aronson's work and how a contemporary landscape infrastructurist might intervene in the Dead Sea Works forthcoming and half-written, but I'm not sure when I'll get around to finishing & posting.

    2. I'm not certain about the idea that our peculiar usefulness is related to "cultural mythologies". I know you've brought it up before, but it's not really something I've thought much about. I tend to bracket questions about meaning in landscape, because they're not usually particularly interesting to me. The answer to the question from that essay, "Must Landscapes Mean?", always seemed obvious to me: of course not; though I realize that is a somewhat different topic, as I seem to recall you posting about the difference between meaning and mythology before. I guess I'd probably say that I don't think any totalizing view of the "usefulness" of landscape architects will be completely satisfactory, because the set of things we do is so varied and broad (and, if anything, I'm interested in seeing that set grow more varied and broader). But I'm not trying to say that I think you're wrong, just that I haven't thought about it.


    Since I've got the same habit of referring to landscape/architects, I'll say (speaking only for myself and in respective order) (a) "insecurity" and (b) "No!". When the architects let us into their club, we'll stop trying to force our way in.

  7. Though the whole exhibit of entries is not up yet, have you guys seen the WPA 2.0 finalists? When you say landscape/architecture (and I'm one of the latter, and in the process of a Planning PhD) I assume you are saying either/or. Perhaps the Landscape Urbanism discipline/discourse seems to be more aligned with the project types you are referring to. This might also be of interest: And my apologies if this is all old news to you....

  8. Peter: Very good point of emphasis about long-term thinking, or even process-thinking you might say. I would say it is inherent in landscape, and was actually my reason from switching from architecture to landscape way back when. However, emphasizing it is always a good thing, as even landscape architects are tended to design for that single photo during the last 50 years. Alexis’ tweet about management is also a great point and I think ties in to my earlier post about designing with labor, not capital (although it seems at first glance to be stating the opposite, I would argue that at least in some cases it is the same idea).

    About landscape/architecture: I agree with Rob here on both his points and would add that it is also just a combining of architecture and landscape architecture along with the landscape urbanists and landscape infrastructurists (which I hate writing because it sounds labored, always shows up as misspelled in my word processor, and is a mantle claimed most loudly by brilliant pretentious academics) in a name I think will be palatable to most of the above because a) landscape architects are still called the same thing, except there’s a slash, b) landscape urbanists and infrastructurists are not called landscape architects who they think they are better than and feel closer aligned to architectural legacy which they feel better about, c) architects don’t mind it because some are trying to get in on the urbanist/infrastructurist wave. Alas.

    Rob: 1. Maybe it’s a tall order but what the hell? Why not? It’s also a tall order to be just the first part of that. Also, just to be clear, I’m advocating for a continued generalism, so we speak the language of the metalworker/lighting designer as well as the engineer/scientist/policymaker but aren’t experts at either of those things but rather in the catalyzing and directing of the relationship between them.

    I would love to read your eventual thoughts speculating on how an LI might take on the Dead Sea Works. I would argue that Aronson was not just ameliorating, but rather in understanding the possibilities of an incredible conveyor belt as opposed to new roads/rail tracks and stations (ie lower environmental impact) was not post-facto and was a move Belanger might advocate, along with the “new mining methods” that allowed the Phosphate works fill to be shaped so there were no pits left (in addition to whatever aesthetic beauty they provided- which I personally love). I do think the new guys are more sophisticated and bold about it, though, and it is generally more accepted that they will be more involved at the beginning, even creating the project themselves (such as Pontine).

    2. Yes, I would absolutely state that meaning and mythology are not the same at all. It is akin to the difference in “ground” and “site”. That said, I agree with you that a totalizing view will not be satisfactory. However, I do think there is value in seeing our current work in light of a continued legacy, in addition to a larger cultural context (which I know you agree with- not sure why I’m stating it). To be honest, the idea of “cultural mythology” and the act of landscape design in relation to it is not something I can express clearly or even fully understand, though I’m working on it. It is vaguely similar to the largely accepted statement that “intervening in the landscape is a cultural act”- whatever that means- and at the same time it seems much bigger, more significant, more vague. Like dark matter. That is, there is always some important theme of the day, and we should take our current cause with a grain of salt, even though the environmental cataclysm certainly is upon us. That being said, I don’t have an answer, but really appreciate others’ thoughts.

    Except yours.

    Ha! Kidding. Very good points/thoughts.

  9. @icsamuels
    Yes. I am never referring just to a building, though architecture is obviously more than that, with many architects practicing landscape architecture, landscape urbanism, landscape infrastructure, and landscape superduperstructure (err…)

    Yes, the wpa 2.0 finalists were published though I assume they are developing their schemes further now. I thought it was to be exhibited in DC, though I haven’t followed it as closely. Thanks for the comments, though. I do discuss that WPA 2.0 work on places just a few posts ago (see the “WPA 0.0- Design with Labor” from January, sorry for the lack of html). Thanks for passing them along though.

  10. Just a quick read through that WPA 0.0 post. As a member of the cityLAB team and someone who worked on WPA 2.0 from LA to the DC event, the projects were actually very well-received by the government officials who attended the symposium. Carrion and Sims, the keynotes, were ebullient about the projects, a far cry from undermining our credibility. And though the renderings do speak a kind of architectural language, much work went into dealing with the details.

    In terms of your refutation of an infrastructure crisis, the ACSE ratings are pretty clear on the fact that maintenance and repair are abysmal. Sure, compared to other countries, we've got it far better -- of course -- but that's not really how we judge ourselves. With that said, I agree it's a product not only of investment, but of narrow thinking. I'm working on it. Believe me.

  11. faslanyc:

    Afraid I don't have time to address everything at the moment, but I think (this is based on recollections & notes recorded a few years ago) that Aronson was only called in after the Dead Sea Works had already decided on the concept of the conveyor belt, but the authorities objected because they believed it would disturb the desert ecology too much, which resulted in bringing in Aronson to reduce the ecological damage produced by the conveyor construction -- if I'm wrong about that, then the difference between Aronson & the contemporary landscape infrastructurists is even less than I'd thought, for exactly the reason you note.

    Also, props for the Dripps reference, that's a great essay (and pretty good book).

  12. ROB: I was able to go back and review what I could find on the project and you were correct that it was the company that pushed for the conveyor built and Aronson was brought in to mitigate environmental effects (this was mandated by a conservancy). You definitely have a point and in this case there is a significant or fundamental difference in how and landscape infrastructurist would have approached it (even though the outcome may have been similar). In the Negev Mine he was able to influence more the infrastructure pattern and methodology from the beginning.

    Yes, I like Robin Dripps, what little of hers I have read, and especially appreciate that essay.

    ICSAMUELS: I know the ACSE ratings are abominable, though they are inherently biased, and I am not surprised to hear the projects were well received at the symposium as the drawings are beautiful. That isn’t the same as affecting real policy and devising innovative solutions but I do appreciate the work you’re up to and would love to hear of any developments (though it seems the blogs/online journals are covering the topic well).

  13. I'm interested to know why you think they are inherently biased. You believe the conditions are much better than they say, or that, as you said before, our infrastructure is simply better than typical conditions globally? And on WPA 2.0 -- we spent the day after the symposium meeting with senators, congressmen, EPA, DOT, etc on capitol hill, so there's more there than nice drawings -- at least we hope so.

  14. Wow, a lot of great conversation threads. I don't know anywhere near as much about these topics as I'd like, so thank you all for the introductions, and for explaining landscape/architecture.

    I think of the built environment as a kind of landscape, which makes the combination of landscape and architecture only useful in distinguishing it/them from something like information architecture.

    Landscape architects and architects (hmmm ... landscape/architects is definitely quicker to type :) are both designers, just with different areas of focus. And those seem to be blurring somewhat.

    The landscape architect's understanding of "the elements" (eg, plants, wildlife, soil, water, materials, weather) would be really useful for architects of buildings, it seems. And I like the thought of shaping external landscapes into intimate spaces, almost like buildings, but without full enclosure by walls and ceilings.

    Anyway, I'm so far from really understanding these subjects that I shouldn't keep trying to expound upon them. :) Guess I just get caught up in the conversation. I'll look forward to learning more.