Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Agencies, Part III- Time

Time is a central part of the discourse surrounding infrastructure. The scale of traditional infrastructural works- bridges, dams, roads, sewers- has always commanded a heavy price in terms of time and capital. But today's infrastructure is different animal, a nasty beast. Kazys Varnelis states,

"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."
[a landscape architect, after the singularity]

Into this scene, landscape architecture has thrust its nose, proposing that the "landscape" approach is the most appropriate methodology for conceptualizing "infrastructure" and "urbanism". Folks like Chris Reed and Alan Berger and Waldheim have developed some heady rhetoric to convince you of this idea (and I must admit- I'm all in. It's worked on me as much as anything can work on my dark and withered mind). We now have plans for new projects; decentralized, phased, adaptable, dispersed. And we have voluntarily expanded the temporal scale of infrastructure interventions by an order of magnitude. Pierre Belanger notes in his essay Landscape as Infrastructure:

“In stark contrast to the 20th century paradigm of speed, the effects of future transformation will be slow and subtle, requiring the active and sustained engagement of long-term, opportunistic partnerships that bridge the private and public sectors”

So now, there are real commissions coming out of these legwork done in the 90's and 00's by the above mentioned, among others. James Corner Field Operations (great name, by the way, way cooler than simply Field Operations) is now working on a 30-year project to remake the Fresh Kills landfill into a public park and has just signed up for a 25-year project on the Atlanta Beltway. If one assumes that those projects will run into a proportional amount of funding, political, and environmental delays that such large, contested projects typically confront, they are more likely to take 35-50 years to complete. Unless the singularity takes place by then, James Corner is unlikely to see their completion.

In other news, noted urbanist/architect Ken Greenberg just resigned from the much publicized Toronto Don Lands project, according to the Toronto Star. He tendered a letter of resignation stating, among other things, that:

"In light of the decision that has been made to proceed with a version of the Sports Complex that fails to integrate with the Plan for the Lower Don Lands I feel I have no choice but to regretfully resign from my involvement with this project. "

Good for him. He is a good designer and is likely trying to keep the project from being utterly controlled by developer or agency interests. It may be a way of advocating for some altruistic vision for the Don Lands, or a way of protecting his brand (likely a combination, since there is a symbiosis there). Nonetheless, these two examples of major landscape/urban projects featuring prominent practitioners throws in to relief a very important issue regarding agencies, and that is the issue of time.

In the case of Greenberg and the Don Lands, his resignation is likely to cause some measure of public outcry and debate, and in that specific example it may lead to a concession from the city to build athletic facilities that "integrate with the Plan for the Lower Don Lands ". In this case, the designer holds some sway by his ability to control or guide the public perception of the project and its politics thanks to his reputation and rhetoric (and that seems a good thing in this case). But he is still gone from the project.

With James Corner Field Operations, the logistics of committing a single private studio to a 30 or 40-year project are overwhelming.  What if that project is not moving for five years because of a recession or lack of political will?  What if James just doesn't feel like pursuing it any more 20 years in because he likes the thrill of flying all over the world lecturing and the adrenaline rush of winning big competitions, not the disciplined tedium of navigating an utterly frustrating morass of city, state, and federal agencies along with community groups and stakeholders?  Seriously, the list of stakeholders for Fresh Kills is something like 40 long, with everyone from the EPA to the local Boy Scouts on there. They are doing a good job now, but 20 years in? I know I'm not up to that. Screw that; there's fishing to be done, world cup's to watch, bike rides to take.

Public agencies, on the other hand, are staffed and funded for as long as they maintain a mandate. They have serious limitations, but the whims or beliefs (or life span) of a sole proprietor is not one of them. Their bureaucratic hierarchy also enables the key mechanism for negotiating the issue of time- institutional memory.

Institutional memory is (according to, uhh, wikipedia): a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.

Of course, private practice design firms have some degree of institutional memory as well- a set of details, a particular approach derived from a historical portfolio of work- but they traditionally rely disproportionately on one or a few individuals who found the practice. This personality, this variability and individualism is one of the wonderful things about private design practices. It is one of the biproduct-benefits of being in a "good" design firm versus a corporation or large engineering firm. However, if we want to get into infrastructural design, we must develop mechanisms for institutional memory in this setting. Agencies are essentially tailored to emphasize just that (among a few other things) and for that reason they have historically been trusted with the long-term, large-scale implementation of our public works.

One of the first ways that jumps to mind is the creation of wiki's within firms or centered around certain projects and involving all firms (as well as potentially community members or interested stakeholders). Wiki's are one way of sharing information and ideas that maintains the agility and mobility that makes private firms so valuable, in a way that establishes the institutional memory that can enable small firms to overcome the limitations of relying so heavily on one individual during a 30-year project.

An interesting example of an architectural wiki is taking shape over on To hear them describe it, architizer is "a new way for architects to interact, show their work, and find clients. It is an open community created by architects for architects. One architectural project has dozens of contributors, from the intern who made the conceptual models to the construction administrator. A project on Architizer links all members of the architectural community." Organizations supporting and guiding these projects have been creating blogs and websites for years. Perhaps there are other examples or methods out there.

But if we are going to take on large landscape projects this decade, which Monsieur Pierre thinks are going to be slow and take a long time (and we agree), then we must be innovative about devising new mechanisms for creating and maintaining institutional memory. Otherwise, it will stay the purview of agencies. 30 years is a long, hard road in real life, despite the fact that it's easy to draw as a 4-phase diagram in Illustrator.


  1. This whole series is really fascinating.

    Have you read Rybczynski's biography of Olmsted? Probably the one thing that struck me the most in it was that Olmsted's genius (in relation to Central Park) was at least as much in his ability to organize and manage a large bureaucracy and massive construction project as it was in the design of the land.

    But even as massive a task as he confronted -- and, if I recall correctly, it involved at least one false start where he thought he had funding and then the project ground to a halt, and he had to push politically to get it started again -- I think the task of getting a similar project done now, like Fresh Kills, might be even more difficult, as our contemporary regulatory layers, bureaucracy, and political pressures (NIMBYism as ably described by Varnelis, for instance, or lists of stakeholders, as you mention) are even thicker now than they were then. The Friedman-esque reaction to that is to stare longingly at authoritarian countries, but I'm certain that's absolutely the wrong reaction.

    Reliance on the advantages of the public agency -- rather than the charismatic will of a singular individual -- is, as you also say, probably the primary alternate reaction, and in a lot of ways not a bad one. One country that it might be interesting to look into the public agencies (and public-private partnerships) of is the Netherlands, which seems to me to have a really effective public works program, which is also extremely innovative.

    Though I suppose one might also argue that this is where there is a place for the private firms which are large enough to have institutional memory -- like EDAW/AECOM, that they're capable of engaging in on-going projects like this as well as a government agency, but with the advantages of a private company (however one might define those). I suspect that it's exactly those large private firms which are going to be most strictly beholden to the demands of the short-term profit motive, though.

  2. rob, once again we are of the same mind. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! A couple of things:

    1. Olmsted. I haven't read that biography, but i should. I have read a good deal about him and totally agree with your point. Another important thing about him (and this gets to something i plan on expounding upon in the wrap-up sunday)- Olmsted was a journalis. He knew how to (in the words of Kate Orff) "create a compelling narrative about the landscape". This is something we as a profession are pitiful at. Despite the fact that it is a huge part of what made Olmsted. He was not a trained designer (though of course Vaux was). He was good at the politics and the story telling (as well as design of course).

    2. It may be more complex now. This is another point I will get to next week (you beat me to again, you bastard) but Varnelis almost bemoans complexity in that Triple Canopy interview, saying it often causes the downfall of societies. And that is an interesting point. Yet, philosophers like John Raulston Saul and Manuel DeLanda (okay, he's only kind of a philosopher) see complexity in a different way. I, like you, am more inclined to think that we are undergoing a bifurcation, not a meltdown.

    And you're right about Friedman. Total cop-out, in my opinion. I once heard James Corner harken back to the middle ages and claim that "we need more kings" in a talk here in NYC. Of course, he is dealing with a mess at Fresh Kills, but Canadian John Raulston Saul has some interesting things to say about that. Listen to his "Big Ideas" talk on itunes if you get the chance. Fascinating (if pretentious).

    As far as new models, different models, different countries- great suggestions. I am hoping in mammoth's book club discussion this summer that the role of LA Power and Water, especially during the Chinatown era will come up. That's a totally different kind of agency from what I'm familiar with here post-Moses NYC. And then the Dutch agencies would be a whole different study, which I would love to dig into with some time (alas...). I remember FAD had a couple of interesting tips on those guys...

    But perhaps some readers out there can throw up some links to cool Dutch agency stuff?? Or ideas/observations?? I am hoping to learn you guys know that i don't (in order to steal your power, whoever you are).

    thanks for the thoughtful comments, Rob.