Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Freakologia- Vamos para America Latina!

Chapter 2 of the The Infrastructural City, Flood Control Freakology (David Fletcher)

Varnelis was right on the money when he noted that Ed Soja noted (take note) that "Los Angeles is both an exception and the rule, a singular instance that reveals generic conditions."  So, I thought it best to take a quick trip around a few of the other American Megacities to give (at least for myself) some perspective.

[the Riachuelo, Buenos Aires, Argentina- poor bastard scientists]

LA is an American megacity, like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires.  And each of these places has their own disgusting river.  In Buenos Aires, we have the Riachuelo, a waterway on the industrial side of town which the Blacksmith Institute described as "mounds of plastic trash, bubbling methane gas, toxic chemical residue, and the wafting smell of sewage."  They promptly added it to their "Dirty Thirty" list of the most degraded places in the world.  I have been there and it makes the Gowanus Canal seem like the banks of the Seine.

Next we have the Zacapa Canal de la Compania in Mexico City, the largest American Megacity.  It is responsible for shunting the shit out of the south end of Mexico City where it is used to irrigate the fields that grow the produce that is then trucked back into the city.  There is a certain beautiful symmetry there, but it is a disgusting and degraded waterway, and its banks are populated by the poor, informal housing communities living in fear of a canal flood bringing the feces of Mexico into their humble quarters.
[in Mexico City, the Zacapa Canal de la Compania heads out of town]
[Mexico City, that informal house has a certain charm, even beauty.  don't worry,
just behind that bank to the right runs a giant river of shit threatening a breach
with every toilet flush]

Lastly, we have the Teite River of Sao Paolo.  And this is the best one for our purposes today, because it too was once a real river serving multiple functions that has been channelized in the name of freakish flood control.  In fact, the images, though tinged with a certain Sao Paulista taint, look eerily similar to those of the LA River.

This similarity speaks to the power of infrastructure- there is no way anything having to do with water in these two cities should look the same.  Their environmental context could not be more different.  LA drains the Colorado River and Owens Lake for its water because the region is so dry; Sao Paulo sits in the middle of one of the biggest rain forests in the world (the Atlantic Rainforest).  Both rivers are now huge, disgusting channels intertwined with ribbons of expressways and lined with pitiful degraded open space, industrial zones, and residential neighborhoods.  
[the Tiete River in Sao Paulo, looking pristine-ish]

[the sludge-filled Tiete River in Sao Paulo]

[the water becomes stagnant because of the solid waste poured or dumped]

[a biting, beautiful, and damning art installation by artists
Eduardo Srur]
Sao Paulo's river is one thing, and though I have seen it, I don't know much about it.  It is currently the site of a multi-billion dollar engineering effort to increase capacity, shore up existing structures, and clear out debris/carcasses.  It used to be a part of the paulista's lives, a recreational and cultural hub for the neighborhoods along its banks.  Of course, that was before there were 20 million of them and the city rose to be the economic powerhouse of the continent with the industrialization in the 1940's (the population was 200,000 in 1930).  The river and the areas around it are now subject to periodic devastating floods despite efforts to control the waters, and much of the city's sewage is dumped untreated into the river.

The LA river is different.  It was an oasis in the arid West and up until Mulholland tapped the waters of Owens Lake it was the source of the city's water.  After that, it was only a problem to be dealt with, and so it was- just a few decades later it was channelized.  As mammoth noted, the recent masterplan suggests creating "green" social amenities- essentially bucolic, generic recreational spaces or "amenities"- which the Fletcher notes are inappropriate given both the environmental context and the current state of the river.

We here at FASLANYC have a fascination with lo-fi landscapes, bukowski-scapes, decelerated/accelerated landscapes, and subnatures.  We also think that any landscape should be understood in terms of myth.  The mythology of a place provides the best way for understanding the complex, interconnected cultural-ecological system that is the landscape.  The author ultimately weaves a lovely, twisted narrative about the river and its idiosyncratic characteristics and ends with a call for just this sort of initiative (which I will unfortunately quote at length):

"We must reassess the very definition of 'river', expanding our idea of 'nature' to include the parrot, the shopping cart, the weed, the sludge mat, and the stormdrain apartment.  We must develop new narratives and vocabularies for our vital urban freakologies for these are the ecologies of the future [throughout the Americas].  If not, the river will never be truly understood or integrated into the ongoing urban project.  Only by integrating the river's complexities into planning efforts, can we move forward realistically."

For too long, the paradigm of landscape has been the creation of beauty and leisure for the passive user.  This, despite people on the margins of society literally scratching at the walls for a chance to make their own mark.  And landscape design has largely been a tool of social elites who would create capital projects to catalyze social processes befitting our collective delusions, or their personal ones.  

And we are powerless to do anything about it, unless we can come up with a way of effecting change (and making a living) other than the capital project.  This is evident in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan where, despite the presence of community advocate Mia Lehrer and the awesome author of Flood Control Freakology, the outcome is a generic, antiseptic plan for a photoshopped landscape-as-commodity.  



  1. Quite fascinating comparisons - although I'm not sure if any of those other megalopoli really fall into the category of infrastructural city with Los Angeles.

    You mentioned the shantytowns of Mexico City - self-constructed housing on marginal or polluted land. (There are close relatives of these buildings in Buenos Aires - the villas miserias - and Brazil.) My impression, having done some research in this area, is that urban slums tend to be exist due in large part to poor provision of infrastructure - transit, water and power, formal housing - and tenuous connections to formal labor markets.

    This is complicated, of course, by the fact that self-constructed housing is often connected to urban infrastructures - toxic waterways, freeway overpasses, etc - but only to the extent that those infrastructures degrade land values. What are your thoughts on this angle?

  2. i would say that, at least in several ways, sao paulo does. Mexico City has several parallels, but a totally different foundation.

    I think your take on housing is really well put. I'm working a little post on this topic in the coming weeks (actually about a project in a villa miseria in buenos aires.

    have you seen the work of Jorge Mario Juargui? Specifically this project, in Villa 31 in Buenos Aires which is a great example of exactly what you're talking about; located right downtown, hidden, and totally enveloped by the port, the bus depot, and the old train station and train tracks. A fascinating place.

    we should talk about this more! (not out of any altruistic initiative, but just because it is super interesting).

    I'm actually very interested decentralized infrastructures and the ways in which people "informally adapt inadequate infrastructure" [note- i stole that line from Kristina Hill at UVa].

  3. Two things,

    Those scientists swimming in the Riachuelo are really brave souls.

    Also, I couldn't find the video but i know I have seen before images of surfers surfing the Tiete (i think) in Sao Paolo during heavy rain storms, which created waves from flood surges.

    Also thanks for the link to Bomb magazine. Never knew about it before, its a great looking magazine...

    As for nunns question. Koolhaas pointed out a few years ago in his Lagos studies that it was the modern big infrastructures that serve almost as a backbone or armature for informal developments. He was arguing for seeing the informal not as the successor to the big and modern but rather more a symbiotic parasite.
    I always saw that concept more of one of positive opportunity, not degraded land values. Although i suppose the land is available to the informal because of the low value. Although, i like to think about it more literally.
    I guess i am saying that as a thought experiment i would to think that given the agency they don't just move there cause land is cheap but because of the benefits provided by the access/adjacency to certain critical infrastructures, for usage of them.
    I am thinking of images i have seen of Dharavi residences tapping into lareg water pipes for Mumbai (or even appropriating as walkways) or the images of power lines being spiderwebed by taps.
    I guess i just want to differentiate between a forced upon them location (due to land value) vs a active choice by them based on access to infrastructural opportunities?
    But then i am probably being too optimistic.
    Actually, my friend Quilian's MArch thesis tried to take such an approach for his project in Tijuana.

  4. well that was more than two things....

  5. @Nam: Interesting that you mention Lagos... I lived there as a child and have very vivid memories of the potholes. (When one saw a shimmer ahead on the road, it always provoked a moment of indecision: Was it a mirage or a water-filled, car-sized hole?) Also the miles of shantytowns that had sprung up along all of the roads radiating out of Lagos.

    Oil hijacking is apparently a big business in Nigeria - people who live along the pipelines make a certain amount of money by illegally siphoning off oil. Sometimes it blows up: the largest such explosions have killed thousands. (Which says as much about the human density around the pipelines as it does about the volatility of oil.)

    Also, thanks both very much for the references - both Julio and Quilian are doing some fascinating work.

  6. nam, great points about nature of informal housing and economies! I don't think they are actually often symbiotic but rather opportunistic and only occasionally is there a symbiosis there (like your and pnunn's examples).

    I totally agree that these small, lo-fi, dispersed infrastructure interventions are not going to displace or supplant old infrastructures, but rather supplement them.

    Perhaps the value-added of the designer in this work is to bring specific intention to these interventions and make the opportunistic symbiotic; so it's not just siphoning off energy or water or whatever, but somehow improving it or adding something else back in?

  7. I love America Latina!!
    In my casee, last year, because of my job, I had to live for a month in some furnished apartments in Buenos Aires, and I fell in love with the city. In Argentina you had everykind of everything that you can imagine
    I liked your post