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Critic's Notebook

Reworking the guts of a future L.A.

With infrastructure funding in sight, a new book calls to mind the


The timing could hardly be better for "The Infrastructural City," a new collection of essays on Los Angeles edited by Kazys Varnelis, director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University. A book with a title like that, unless written by Mike Davis or John McPhee, would typically have a tough time steering clear of the remainder bin. But in recent weeks, as the details of the stimulus package were being hammered out in Congress, the same few questions moved near the top of the political agenda not just in Washington but in cities around the country: In 2009, what is infrastructure, exactly? Is it just roads, bridges, train lines and tunnels -- the muscle and bone of the city -- or can we update that New Deal-era definition to include a greener, more flexible or even purely digital set of urban initiatives? If so, how best to integrate that new, "soft" infrastructure with the hard variety?

And what about the relationship between architecture and infrastructure? Does it matter if infrastructure is conspicuously designed the way a new skyscraper or concert hall is, with photogenic appeal on full display? Should there be money in the stimulus bill not just for bridges but for bridge designers?

Usually when we talk about how Los Angeles is organized we're talking about the city as an idea, or a string of ideas: about its myths, stereotypes and competing, long-running narratives of civic salesmanship and soured dreams, about utopia one minute and Paradise Lost the next. "The Infrastructural City," co-published by the L.A. Forum on Architecture and Design, offers something else: A doggedly detailed guide to Los Angeles as a physical thing.

It's not a bad angle: If we measure infrastructure broadly, as the book makes a point of doing, Los Angeles qualifies as a place not just dependent on but fully defined by it. "After all," Varnelis asks, referring to William Mulholland, "what other city would name its most romantic road after a water-services engineer?"

Thanks to Mulholland (among others), Los Angeles has drained the Owens Valley to keep our lawns green and gardens in flower. We've wrapped the L.A. River in concrete to prevent it from flooding, strung together a huge, elaborate necklace of freeways and dug a 50-foot-wide, 10-mile-long trench -- the Alameda Corridor -- running north from the port at Long Beach to smooth the transfer of consumer goods from ship to rail to highway to warehouse to retail shelf. Los Angeles is literally shaped by that last piece of infrastructure: Seen on the map, the city extends a narrow and very long arm toward the ocean to keep port traffic under its jurisdiction.

In recent years, though, Los Angeles has allowed much of that infrastructural ambition to ebb, producing a sense that the city has fallen, as the book rather starkly puts it, into "perpetual crisis." (Maybe the Paradise Lost theme is tougher to shake than we thought.) Traffic and strident debates over density are on the rise; by certain measures so is air pollution, reversing decades of improvement.

Varnelis suggests that although we built an earlier generation of infrastructural networks in this country in large part to compartmentalize and control nature, those networks have grown so unmanageable that they now make up a "second nature" as vast and unpredictable as the first. It can certainly seem that our freeways are actively managing us rather than the other way around.


Old assumptions

The contributors to "The Infrastructural City" include planners, architects and academics, and they take on a range of hyper-specific topics, including gravel (Matthew Coolidge), palm trees (Warren Techentin), shipping containers (Deborah Richmond) and the hidden presence of oil derricks throughout the city (Frank Ruchala). Mixed in is a remarkable series of aerial photographs by Lane Barden of the L.A. River and other infrastructural landmarks.

Varnelis is clearly eager to package the collection as a successor to Reyner Banham's landmark 1971 book "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies." (The subtitle Varnelis settled on, "Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles," is aggressively Banhamesque.) Like the earlier book, the new one is at its best in pointing out how many of our assumptions about the physical character of Los Angeles have grown stale. Several of the chapters make clear just how much of the city's recent infrastructural improvements -- cellphone and Wi-Fi networks, for example -- are neither publicly funded nor easy to spot with the naked eye.

For Varnelis, the shift is proof that "the visible is no longer a prime determinant of the urban. Instead, our networked society is increasingly dominated by what Lewis Mumford called the 'invisible city,' the unseen world of cables, wires, connections, codes, agreements and capital. Today more than ever, the role of this invisible city in determining the structure of urban areas is vast."

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