Book Review: The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure

The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure by Kelly Shannon and Marcel Smets, published by NAi Publishers, 2010. Hardcover, 272 pages. (Amazon)

As I type this review, up to 100,000 barrels per day is being discharged into the Gulf of Mexico after a deepwater oil well blowout about a month ago. The disastrous incident brings to the fore a number of concerns, including how infrastructure -- the industrial backbone that enables a country or region to function -- is maintained and improved. The term infrastructure, popularized by now President Obama in his election campaign (PDF link) and subsequent stimulus spending, encompasses a number of types, from oil wells and other federally subsidized utilities to systems for the movement of people and goods. They all have in common a reliance upon the construction of past generations, over 100 years ago in cases like railroads. New construction, in addition to increased maintenance of existing infrastructure, is needed to address aging structures and today's environmental concerns.

Ideally infrastructure is seen as more than just the functioning of different systems, as the US and other countries move forward with improvements and new construction; it should be embraced as an important expression of a culture. In other words infrastructure should be beautiful as well as functional, it should improve the natural and human landscape of all, not just a few. The cover of this book, which focuses on one aspect of infrastructure -- transportion -- expresses the antithesis of such an approach: acres of asphalt alongside railways may efficiently move goods from point A to B, but these areas take up a huge amount of land, are disconnected from their natural surroundings, and are the equivalent of monoculture crops, destined for long-term failure from a lack of diversity and disrespect for the land they use. This book "investigates how the design of infrastructure actively influences the organization of the inhabited landscape...and suggest a typology of design attitudes as revealed in recent practices around the world." It proposes ways of moving forward by presenting the best of what is being done today.
The authors approach case studies of transportation infrastructure by placing them in one of four categories: Imprints of Mobility on the Landscape, Physical Presence in the Landscape, Perception of Landscape through Movement, and Infrastructure as Public Space. These chapters clearly shy away from typological categorizations (railroads, highways, etc.) in favor of the different ways infrastructure and landscape interact. Within each chapter further distinctions are created, so usually a handful of case studies are presented together. But separations among these groupings are vague (is there really a strong difference between the third chapter's "Montage of Distinctive Sequences" and "Constructing a Cinematographic Itinerary"?), with projects able to fit into more than one. Regardless the categories and subcategories allow the authors to explore a variety of issues and stances of how infrastructure and landscape relate. Perhaps the most important is the final chapter, where landscape becomes public space. As infrastructure infiltrates cities and vice-versa, and as aging infrastructure gives way to new uses, it is important to envision how spaces can be given over for the larger public. Projects like the Yokohama Ferry Terminal might become templates for a future where infrastructure and public space meld, where one cannot exist without the other. This and other designs collected in these pages highlight the best approaches to contemporary infrastructure design, creating an infectious optimism rooted in the combination of beauty and practicality.