CONNECT
PARTICIPATE
 
 
 
 
 
 

The goal of transforming the environment may be ancient, but our ability to realize that goal is unprecedented. In the late 20th century, our technologies less and less resemble tools – discrete objects that can be considered separately from their surroundings – and more and more resemble systems that are intertwined with natural systems, sometimes on a global scale. In 1947 a WPA worker named Harry Granick published Underneath New York, the first book to describe the anatomy of a modern city. Working in cooperation with representatives from nineteen different public utilities and municipal agencies, Granick conveyed the wonder of the hidden structure which converts natural resources into the energy that allows urban culture to be possible. Just as your brain, nerves, heart, lungs, and stomach are hidden from view, so it is with the city.

Its nervous system, the vital organs which provide it with heat, water, light, and air; its intestines, which, like yours, eliminate its wastes; its great arteries of rapid transit, which carry its stream of life to all ends of its body; all these and more are out of sight under the pavements and waterways. The purpose of this paper is to focus attention on the vast network of hidden and silent technology that pervades our surroundings. This great machine has grown into an organizational complex beyond any individual’s understanding or direct influence. The traditional concept of sustainable land stewardship, which requires the participation of the individual, has been replaced with a centrally controlled delivery system, which transports resources hundreds of miles to urban centers. The contemporary city can be seen as an elaborate plumbing system, transporting resources with a regularity and dependability that obscure the variability of nature. I will argue for a teaching and design ethic that accepts this hidden and silent infrastructure as an artifact worthy of serious consideration.

Infrastructure requires realistic and understandable expression in the landscape, as opposed to its denial through landscape beautification. The purpose of this approach is to redefine a basis for understanding what the contemporary landscape has become; to reestablish a connection between individuals and the workings of nature; and to acknowledge the potential for creating new myths and meaningful spaces by using this given infrastructure as one of the basic raw materials of landscape design. I will make a case for employing the physical presence of infrastructure to define space to meet needs and desires, while simultaneously exposing environmental problems.

If it were possible to generate meaning through the expression of technology, working in concert with nature, then we would have a virtually unlimited supply of raw material with which to work. Granick’s New York, for example, rests on a foundation of tangled plumbing as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. On the top lies a three-inch mat of asphalt, underlain by ten inches of concrete. Below that, a few inches of soil soak up chemicals from the street. In the next three inches are the wires – telephone, electric, streetlight, fire alarm, and television cable. Gas lines puff away another foot below, water mains are at four feet, steam pipes are six feet under. Sewer pipes are above the vaults of the subway, which vary from a few feet to eighteen stories below. Water tunnels, running between two hundred and eight hundred feet down, occupy the farthest man-built depths. For anyone who has ever peered into a New York City street during “surgery,” there is no need to explain the difficulty of finding an uninterrupted volume of soil large enough to support a tree for the twenty to thirty years that constitute its average life span (Granick 1991).

If New York offers more opportunities for cultural exchange than any other American city, then the existence of its complex infrastructure gives meaning to architect Adolph Loos’s observation that the plumber, brings civilization (Loos 1898). His enthusiasm for plumbers as the pioneers of cleanliness is the result of Loos feeling the weight of the preindustrial age when the earth was swept by vast waves of plagues which traveled thousands of miles before their forces were silent. At times, a third of the population of the known world was lost to disease. The project of civilization, as it is currently experienced depends on a landscape technology that is little exposed and understood by those who benefit from control of the random catastrophe of nature.

The attempt to make nature more predictable – to protect ourselves from innumerable natural occurrences such as disease fire, flooding, drought, and even the darkness of nightfall – has created a technology that must mediate between ourselves and the infinite variability of nature. The resulting urban machine has begun to take on some qualities of nature itself. It has the capacity to grow and to catalyze growth, and to conduct resources, water, and energy, as rivers and trees conduct fluids and nutrients. But most important, perhaps, is the ironic fact that the resulting infrastructure is so complex that it presents the same threat of random catastrophe as does nature. According to Williams, “The paradox is that the built environment can itself become a prime source of risk” (1900, 190). “Technology has not so much replaced nature as it has become a second nature with its own attendant pleasure and hazards.”

It is well known that a simple broken water main in Manhattan can trigger what is known in ecological circles as a feedback loop; an environmental alteration triggers multiple subsequent alterations. That is, the problem is compounded by being directed back into the system, resulting in additional an magnified effects. The water main break results in a stalled subway, forcing traffic to the streets, which culminates in gridlock. Commerce comes to a halt and repair efforts are frustrated, which lead to further flooding and damage. In more extreme cases, such as the recent gas explosions in the sewers of Guadalajara, which leveled twenty-five square city block, the result of technological malfunction can be a catastrophic loss of human life. If California was once a land of flash floods and drought, the entire state has, in fifty years, been transformed into a huge catchment basin, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems now function as an elaborate plumbing system. Water flow is monitored from Lake Shasta in the north to the Mexican border in the south. One of the most celebrated examples (on a scale larger than anything yet conceived by the likes of Smithson, Heizer, or Christo) is the Owens River. It flows through a pipe on a mesa above its ancient canyon to a larger aqueduct downstream that provides Los Angeles with about 25% of its water. In an attempt to deliver water south at uninterrupted levels during dry years, reservoirs have been depleted to unimaginably low levels. Salt water has intruded into the San Francisco Bay delta; the Chinook salmon is on the verge of extinction: and, ironically, drought and environmental problems will likely continue years after normal rains return.

The tentacles of the machine reach far into watersheds and geologic layers, to mine resources and transport energy hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to the city to be metabolized. In 1947, Granick tells us, the power from electricity alone (not to mention energy supplied by gas, steam and oil) provided every man, woman, and child in New York with the power of six invisible slaves working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (Granick 1991), transforming the sixteen-hour workday into a leisurely eight.

Although this infrastructure extends from the urban setting far into what was once quaintly referred to as “the hinterland,” the designer’s garden has, in modern history, denied the ubiquity of the support system – water, light, power communications, and waste removal – which makes it possible. Presumably a microcosm of our culture’s relationship with nature, a contemporary garden engages primarily in horticultural and architectural and beautification, thereby refusing any direct correspondence between the domestication of the landscape and the resulting geologic impact and depletion of natural resources.

Kenneth Frampton recognized the problematic results of this contradictory design philosophy. Citing Jean Starobinski: While technical exploitation tended to wage war on nature, houses and parks attempted a reconciliation, a local armistice, introducing the dream of an impossible peace; and to this end man has continued to retain the image of untouched natural surroundings (1991, 42).

Degenerate permutations of the picturesque landscape as a mask for technological expansion have been embraced as the favored sensibility, while the “imperatives of economic development and instrumental reason have effectively laid the world to waste” (Frampton 1991, 60). If it is possible to entertain the idea that categories of style such as the picturesque are strategies employed to exclude the difficult and the unwanted, then perhaps it is not such a great leap to see that a tasteful landscape of denial through beautification facilitates the exploitation of the landscape through its inability or unwillingness to question the role of powerful institutions (Ross 1991). Frampton’s assessment brings to mind Lewis Mumford’s, in his 1924 classic Sticks and Stones, where he criticized architects for glorifying a romantic notion of technology while ignoring vernacular elements of infrastructure like the water tower and the subway.

Consequently, he attacked the City Beautiful movement for obscuring important structural and social developments, comparing the style to “the icing on a birthday cake” which “detracts from the realism needed for the colossal task of the renovation of the city,” (LeFaivre and Tsonis 1991, 20). Were he alive today, he would find updated styles obscuring a system of infrastructure vastly and impractically expanded beyond the boundaries of the city, multiplying the task of maintenance and renovation beyond comprehension.

What Mumford recognized nearly seventy years ago as an outgrowth of his many books on the history of technology is that the systems which support cities and gardens are the tools we have employed to create our unique place in history. As such they are perhaps more complex, interesting, and potentially meaningful that the landscape forms designed to mask them. We have yet to acknowledge their contribution to the city and the landscape. The possibility is precluded, then, of generating the will and understanding necessary to bring these technologies into a more comprehensible and sustainable relationship with nature, where quality of life takes precedence over efficient living, and where the individual can acknowledge the direct environmental implications of his or her daily conveniences. The logic of these systems remains inaccessible and inarticulate.

New York rests on a foundation of tangled plumbing as deep as the Chrysler Building is high.

Moreover, the makers of gardens are frequently charged with hiding and cosmetically mitigating the intrusive effects of this infrastructure on which we depend. Apart from the need to leave room for it, landscape architects and architects are supposed to concentrate on other things. But what other things are there? Without a coherent strategy for designing with infrastructure, our towns and landscapes bear witness to the manifestations of an unbalanced environment: traditional towns and landscapes are disfigured by double yellow lines, meters, transformers, junction boxes, traffic lights, and overhead wires. New construction ignores the technology by neatly concealing it, along with any traces of nature, in formulaic homogenized settings. The built environment cannot continue indefinitely to make only superficial adjustments to the imperatives of this landscape technology. Whether above or beneath the surface, a Brazil-like resolution of abandoned and newly installed systems is working itself out, where the infrastructure tends to overwhelm the amenity it was intended to provide. The complexity of this issue is rarely noticed within the discipline. Infrastructure is rendered invisible by a conspiracy of indifference which seems to filter its undeniable presence out of critical discourse (Pawley 1988). While architects and landscape architects sidestep the problem of designing with infrastructure, they are also excusing themselves from being relevant. It is no wonder that designers putting forth their best efforts to mitigate technological intrusions sometimes find themselves perceived by the public to be accomplices to capital ventures, putting a happy face on environmental degradation and the evaporation of meaning from the landscape.

Developing an architecture of landscape technology could be central to reinvigorating landscape design with meaning. An examination of preindustrial strategies implies that some of the most profoundly moving landscape spaces were nothing more than the irrigation, domestic water supply, sanitary sewer, and flood control systems of their time, elevated to a position of meaning by allowing the works of nature and humanity to be revealed in an eloquent way. A preindustrial urban fountain illustrates this connection. In the tiny Inca village of Winay Wina in Peru, a manmade fountain was the ordering system for the town. Its diagram is similar to Machu Picchu and many of the high Andean villages. An amphitheater of agricultural terraces takes its form from a bowl in the topography while an elaborate stair and fountain connects a temple at the top with a compact cluster of houses and storage buildings below. The fountain intercepts the flow of a nearby drainageway with a series of stepping water basins whose volume can be held or released depending on the seasonal flow (Strang 1985). The logic of the watershed was then evident within the urban context, whereas a contemporary fountain, with a loop of recirculating water, functions irrespective of rainfall and gravity, and is wholly independent of the organization of the town. If the flow of a fountain is not diminished in the absence of rain and has no bearing on urban form, then the spiritual as well as the practical connection between the city and nature has been lost on the user. I am not proposing that we live like Incas, or even that we reinvent the way cities are made, but that we begin to reveal something of the process by which we receive our water and other resources.

In January of 1991, an exhibition was mounted at University of California at Berkeley to address the problem of the infrastructure which is buried in the earth and emerges spontaneously to confound efforts to create serene and meaningful spaces in the landscape. Starting with the utilities in the Environmental Design building that are exposed for educational purposes, our group attempted to redefine the space of the room with scaffolding, by engaging the utilities and following them out beyond the building with photographs of industrial landscapes. The goal was to draw a relation between the comforts of the building and its corresponding impacts on the environment. In April of 1992, a second installation was mounted at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Surrounded by other exhibitions of native plants, rhododendrons, and so on, we located the building’s water main, which sustained all the other gardens, and built a sort of contemporary urban water system following the traditional logic of exposing some key components. Our premise was that the conception of nature as an entity independent from man is now in the process of being erased, and new legible models need to be provided to illustrate how nature currently works and doesn’t work, intertwined, as it is, with technology.

There are no perfect examples of strategies for designing with infrastructure. But perhaps there is some direction implied by farmers and other pragmatic realists who, as a matter of course, employ a certain smartness in design, by using materials at hand to resolve complex technological and horticultural problems in an efficient an beautiful manner. Another possibility is to look for relevance in the work of those designers who incorporate references to the tattered urban environment as a way of talking about the world and confronting our position within it. Hugh Ferris, working in New York in the 1920s, published The Metropolis of Tomorrow, which included a number of proposals for incorporating freeways into his classical vision of the contemporary city. Jacob Tchernikov, the Russian constructivist who was a contemporary of Ferris, saw fit to toss out the classical language completely in favor of a language based on the new spatial possibilities of the technological expansion. In southern California, where the base realities of ‘cheap and timely’ govern the building industry most intensely, Frank Gehry has developed an architectural language which fundamentally reveals and reinterprets those difficult building conditions. Zaha Hadid, in her competition entry to the Parc de la Villette, used the “peripherique” (the freeway skirting the park) to generate forms and spaces to unify what could not be masked.

In a project for an open chapel and cemetery in Houston, which I am currently designing with architect Daniel Solomon, the fifty to one hundred inches of rain which falls on the roof each year will eventually be captured in a huge elevated gutter which doubles as a portico. The rainfall will be released seasonally into a pool that overflows to a combined arbor walk/drainage structure. The problem of drainage and flooding in Houston is seen as an opportunity to organize the site and to confront the cycles of nature.

Given the magnitude of changes occurring within natural systems worldwide, a position that links human survival to the preservation of pristine nature is increasingly difficult to visualize. Nature is a dynamic process which is now rarely independent of human interaction. Recognizing this principle may be necessary in order to maintain our species. Little is to be gained from holding on to the idea that it is possible to protect oneself from the invasive reach of modern science and technology. We have passed that Rubicon.

Acknowledging the potential for incorporating technology with new landscape design offers pragmatic and immediate advantages. Funding for the renovation of public infrastructure far exceeds the amount that will likely come available for parks and open space. The state of Texas, for example, plans to spend five billion dollars in the next ten years on infrastructure improvements in the Houston area alone. Future urban amenities will likely be provided following on the heels of utilitarian projects, where one’s ability to accommodate the demands of technology will be central to the success of the design.

“The historian of religion Mircea Eliade has reminded us that the Neolithic shift from nomadic, agricultural civilization provoked upheavals and spiritual breakdowns whose magnitude the modern mind finds it impossible to conceive,” notes Williams. “It is not only imaginable but probable that the current shift to a predominantly technological environment has provoked a similarly, profound spiritual crisis …. We are now embarked upon another period of cultural upheaval, as we look back to a way of life that is ebbing away” (1990).

However, a landscape ethic based on the marriage of nature and technology is not so much a compromise of our traditional strategies and sensibilities. Rather, out of this “impossible peace” emerge new spatial possibilities based on using infrastructure as one of the fundamental materials of landscape architecture, with the unique myths and rituals associated with the healing aesthetic of celebrating the hidden. I conclude with a 1916 quote from Le Corbusier’s magazine L’Esprit Nouveau, which is of equal relevance to landscape architects and architects: “The artist cannot content himself with being the rectifier of the engineer. The artist and the man of science ought to labor in a single moment, and herein lies the immense difficulty of architecture.” (Caron 1916).

Gary Leonard Strang & Michael Roche In collaboration with Robert Hewitt

Steam Temple Proposal for Allen Street Malls, Lower East Side, Manhattan

San Francisco-based architects Gary Leonard Strang and Michael Roche propose a synthesis of the urban and natural worlds. Through their architectural practice, Strang and Roche pay particular attention to the systems of infrastructure in our city landscapes. The revealing of this infrastructure, and in particular New York’s steam heating system, is celebrated through their proposal for Allen Street Malls in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Traditionally, the tools that insured human survival and comfort were objects of great reverence. The chaos of the contemporary city, may in part be due to the fact that our tools, now great support systems of infrastructure that are intertwined with natural systems, have no formal realization which expresses their importance to society.

The intent of the Steam Temple proposal is to express the wonder of New York’s vast infrastructure and its relationship to nature. A landscape is proposed which uses infrastructure as one of the basic raw materials of the urban garden. The garden varies with the seasons; in winter, warm steam rises from the earth while in summer, irrigation equipment doubles as a cooling device. In each case the microclimate is modified with products from the underground: the mystery of the contemporary garden is partially revealed. The chosen site is a degraded median strip on Allen Street below Houston Street with a double row of sycamore trees. This long thin site clearly expresses the linear movements along the avenues that have come to characterize New York. Beneath these avenues, the tentacles of New York’s vast infrastructure reach far into watersheds and geologic layers, to mine resources and transport energy hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to the city to be metabolized. Nature and technology work in concert to provide the buildings and gardens of the city with water, natural gas, steam, and electricity, while removing the waste products of the metabolism.

Back to December 1995 Newsletter