Book Review: The Infrastructural City

The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles edited by Kazys Varnelis
Actar, 2008
Hardcover, 240 pages

The outcome of four years research on the changing conditions of infrastructure in Los Angeles, this book is a fascinating excavation of the unique workings of the largest city on the West Coast, but one that illuminates conditions found elsewhere, regardless of the title's specificity. A product of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University (where editor Kazys Varnelis was president from 2004-2006 and what he now directs, respectively), the collection of essays comes at a time when the term infrastructure is making headlines from coast to coast, with President Obama's efforts at fixing and updating the nation's infrastructure. This book will not only help clarify what his initiatives may be geared towards, it will make one question such efforts.

Varnelis and the contributing authors contend that LA's infrastructure is in a constant state of crisis, that its infrastructure is being pushed to its limits without any possible easy fix. Even pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the area, should the opportunity present itself, would affect less than people imagine. For example, could any measure of money, jobs and construction replenish the aquifers and groundwater the metropolis drained? Could improved oil drilling techniques come close to satiating the increasing demand of a, well, demanding public, on the West Coast and beyond? These aren't questions that the authors tackle, but their deep and highly specific research describes the conditions that exist and how those conditions arose, questioning the direction of future infrastructural interventions. The outlook isn't gloomy per se, but the effect is close to being hit across the face with a brick, or two. Nevertheless, from cover to cover it's an engaging read and one that people interested and concerned with the future of cities shouldn't miss.

The essays are grouped into three sections (Landscape, Fabric, Objects), with three of the 14 by photographer Lane Barden, who contributes aerial photography and text on three linear systems: the Los Angeles River, Wilshire Boulevard and the Alameda Corridor. These present what most people think of when they hear the word infrastructure: water (supply and/or sewer), roads and railroads; all that's missing is power. Even though the rest of the book has abundant imagery, Barden's pieces and their points-of-view paint the clearest picture of the impact of infrastructure on LA's fabric, especially since the first and last are many times non-exist on the ground, testament to the city's attempts at burying what enables it.

Other essays delve into the equally hidden oil drilling operations in the city and on the coast, LA's water connection to Owens Lake, aggregate extraction pits in Irwindale, electronic traffic and telecommunication systems, distribution centers, Hollywood prop houses, and even the conjoining of neighbors' properties towards the construction of a regulation wiffle ball court. It's easy to imagine what applies to other contexts more directly than others, but considerations of property and means of consumption alongside traditional definitions of infrastructure are important for painting a thorough portrait of infrastructure in Los Angeles as a mircocosm of the greater (American) urban condition.