Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism
Pamphlet Architecture 30: Coupling
Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism
InfraNet Lab / Lateral Office
Princeton Architectural Press
Industrial music, Jon Savage wrote in the intro to the now-legendary Re/Search #6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook (1983), had little to do with industry. “Merely to think in terms of ‘industrial’ is, of course, to admit that a particular phase of activity has passed into the history books.” Industrial music had to do, instead, with the necrotic infrastructural tissue that was spreading across industrial landscapes: shut-down power plants and substations, aqueducts and reservoirs topped with stagnant green water, bridges left to rot beside their shinier replacements, warehouse parks gutted like animals, railroads that wear and weather twisted useless, malls reclaimed by mold and rodents and weeds, boarded-up public housing megastructures. This is why Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire are less background music to the assembly line than the harsh coding of the death throes of abandoned infrastructure. And this is also why Industrial Music will be the damaged bedrock of whatever screeching and drumming ends up soundtracking the reanimation of the dead networks rampant modernization left in its wake.
If I’m conjuring Twenty Jazz Funk Greats and other necro-sonic objects of this sort, it’s because I don’t quite know what should be playing to fire up the right mood against which the six projects collected in InfraNet Lab/Lateral Office’s Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism are to be considered. These projects have set themselves the task of thinking what opportunities are latent not only in post-metropolitan––even post-national––infrastructures, but in the wreckage that the last century left behind. Coupling is a new volume in the prestigious Pamphlet Architecture series from Princeton Architectural Press, which has included contributions by heavyweights like Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, and Lebbeus Woods. In its 30th number and as institutionally validated as anything in architectural publishing, it should exist light years from whatever sludges out of V. Vale’s San Francisco digs or from anything stamped with an Industrial Records label. But here we are, drawing lines to make editors and department chairs (and maybe even architects with their cartoony cosmopolitan coolness) cringe, linking brainy architectural exercises to machine music.
Coupling taps novel ways to engage infrastructure. For at least the last two decades, architecture has been taking infrastructure very seriously, cashing in the idea of producing discrete buildings for that of producing integrated urban textures, metropolitan landscapes skinned with endless interfacial ports and programmatic flexibility. In the process, it has revived certain important modernist impulses that found in infrastructural substrata the necessary starting point. Although INL/LO’s projects may rhyme with these impulses, they are marked by this very significant difference: they emerge precisely around the fact that infrastructure is already there––physically and virtually, unavoidable as both industrial carcasses and that which we will, by the necessities that global connectivity presents, continue to build at a steady clip and in swelling scales. For INL/LO in these projects, it’s a question of rehabilitating infrastructure, drawing it back from its undead state, rethinking both its physical and conceptual failures, as a way to recast architecture itself as the production of territories rather than of buildings. To test their ideas, INL/LO seeks significant infrastructural structures (either decommissioned ones like the Vatnsmyri Airport in Reykjavík or those to come like the rigs that will no doubt pop up all over the Caspian Sea in the next two decades) and pushes against them to see what potentials they cough up.
The recalibration from generating infrastructure to reanimating it subtly alters things. Picking up on the difference causes problems even for Charles Waldheim, who was tapped to introduce the book. He misunderstands the nature of the proposals, and recasts INL/LO as postulating “themselves for membership in a distinct genealogy of architects cum urbanists who see infrastructure as a means to reconciling architecture’s contemporary potential with its historical relation to the city.” (p. 4) I actually think the very opposite: INL/LO is claiming its independence from this genealogy and is entertaining projects that begin after the projects that those bound to this genealogy left behind. The infrastructural opportunism championed here entails not so much the production of the city as the recuperation of infrastructures that were erected and ceased to function in the production of the metropolis and the technological advances it required. INL/LO is not “reengaging the aspirations of the modern project.” (p. 5) It’s picking up after this project.
This is another way to say that INL/LO begins by acknowledging a historical moment––ours––in which infrastructures––pipelines and runways and highway systems and garbage dumps and shut-down factories––are literally strewn and abandoned all over the planet, often in locations that are peripheral to or simply faraway from cities. A fact accompanied by another equally undeniable one: that infrastructure is increasingly designed at the level of the planet. Just think of the millions of miles of fiber optic cables that currently criss-cross the ocean floor. From the get-go, INL/LO refuses to privilege the city as the only site of important architectural production. It is more interested in considering what can be done with bridges abandoned over the Bering Strait, decommissioned airports, lakes with spiked levels of salinity, oil rigs and landfills. After doing a little bit of rhetorical summersaulting which goes as far as rewriting Rosalind Krauss’ famous 1970s Klein group diagram that explained sculpture in an expanded field, INL/LO breaks it down at the tail end of its own introductory essay: “The twentieth century was witness to both an infrastructure boom and bust. It is the twenty first century that will need to determine not only how to address crumbling and ineffective infrastructure, but also how to position new infrastructures that confront urgent issues of climate change, sustenance inequality, and environment degradation.” And the way to go about this is by merging “landscape, urbanism, and architecture into mutant assemblages of surfaces, containers, and conduits. Existing landscapes meld with emergent systems to catalyze a multivalent network for a new public realm. Seeking opportunistic associations between economy, ecology, politics, and information, coupling is not simply a combinatory exercise so much as a typological investigation into new spatial formats for the twenty-first century.” (p. 9)
As INL/LO shows how “new spatial formats” translate into physical structures, Coupling suggests three important changes in the ways in which we think about infrastructure. First, we can start to consider nature as infrastructure. Geothermal energy production is not different at a certain level from waste storage or market regulations, and so new systems can be integrated that treat the entire site they sit on––from its climate to its fauna––as available material to convert into resources. And this probably requires we update the very notion of site to something closer to multi-strata terrain or territory or even geography, as David Geissen suggests in the excellent essay he contributes to the book. INL/LO, for instance, proposes that under an unused airport in Iceland, enough geothermal energy is produced to maintain a massive underground server farm that doubles as a global data node without affecting the civic and recreational activities happening on the surface. It becomes a question of how to manage natural, social and human flows more than one of plopping a structure in a particular place. And it also becomes a question of weaving a complex lattice of connected operations that often happen between the elements of the structure without involving human users directly.
The second thing that is opened up by this expansive view of infrastructure is the mandate, in light of all these carcasses that need to be revived, to load new infrastructure with potential for future programs. The decommissioned power plant should become a dance club not because kids are incorrigible re-purposers of the city, but because such a program was coded in the DNA of the building while it was still in its embryonic stage on some laptop screen. A demand is awakened or reenergized for architects to think in terms of nested potentials and not just obvious uses, to generate a kind of built-in making-relevant-again-and-again mechanism that is activated at different stages in the building’s life, in response as much to the use of the building as to the changing social forces and technologies around it. In Re-Rigging, INL/LO proposes, through a series of drawings of habitable towers and scuba diving docks and migrating bird sanctuaries, a kind of preemptive plan (“projected reoccupations” to start in 2070) that will keep the rigs about to go up in the Caspian Sea from becoming off-shore concrete carcasses after the oil runs out.
And the final thing that is activated is a need for the infrastructure to be maintained through self-sustaining loops. This means not only that it would need to power itself in the most obvious ways, but that it would need to integrate new programs that make it important to adjacent economies and political constituencies. The coupling explored in this book should happen through multiple jacks; the more ports and vectors the better. Particular infrastructures have to become important as more than just a resource-producers in such a way that they can’t be replaced by better versions of themselves a few miles away. While this may be a lesson that has been in the air since we began to take airports seriously and architects began to enlarge them into tiny cities and fill them with all kinds of programs––office towers, hotels, shopping areas, meeting rooms, etc.––INL/LO want to exacerbate the range of possibilities, deepen the connections to various disciplines and populations, and multiply the axes of connectivity.
INL/LO’s project Icelink treats the possibility of turning a bridge over the Bering Strait into a combination high-speed railway, ice harvesting station (as a way to produce exportable freshwater), environmental monitoring center, while erecting around it a Museum of the Arctic, a hotel and residential tower, a UN library and conference center, and an international coast guard station. This is all infused with the symbolic charge of the location existing on the International Date Line and at the border between Russia and the US. The plan seems to be to load up the place with enough activity and texture to keep any one element from determining the fate of the structure. One starts to think of these enlarged infrastructural/mixed-operations spreads as space stations permanently docked somewhere out there, far from our cities, insinuating ways of life that begin to tax the magnetic appeal of the metropolis and its crystallized forms and sanctioned behaviors. If post-Industrial––whatever that is––is the music of these sites, Tarkovsky may come up as point of reference for their potential spooky undertones.
INL/LO trades in the task of registering the symbolic and psychological charge of buildings as embodied in their spatial articulation for the administration of flows and connections within particular territories. Infrastructural opportunism is a way to think architecture as the production of geographies (Geissen). We’re talking about scales that leave behind the option of the discreet building. While all this is still happening at the level of speculation, and it’s all infected by a pernicious anxiety of improbability that translates into a “thick” rhetoric aching to signal “science” and not “science fiction,” it bodes well for architecture. In the future, it suggests, we may be spared more buildings that hide their lack of sense behind a morphological strangeness that often fizzles after the first wave of magazine articles and over-mediated glossy photos.
Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism is available from Princeton Architectural Press.