Urban Infrastructures

June, 2004

Architecture and photography exploring systems that enable divergent occupation of the built environment

Urban infrastructures are flexible systems, allowing for a multiplicity of programs, spatial configurations, architectural typologies, and social structures—live-work relationships, commerce, public gatherings, recreation, and political activity.  Urban infrastructures mitigate disparate conditions while maintaining a restricted and efficient set of parts and pieces.  Flexibility is a production of the possibilities created through the repetitious use of a variety of interchangeable parts and pieces, defining limits, narrow or broad to the extents of the system.  Transportation networks, utility lines, demographic dispersions, or social configurations may all be forms of urban infrastructures.  This exhibit is interested in pushing the limits of urban infrastructures, occupying the systems in ways that were not originally planned and creating architecture that explores new possibilities that build upon and stretch a given system, locating itself in its boundaries.

As the physical and cultural context of existing infrastructural systems shift and change, divergent forms of occupation become possible through alternate programmatic mixes, social organization, and new technology.   The established system provides an opportunistic substructure to a new organization, manifesting itself in a palimpsest of new and old systems, a reinterpretation of an existing system, or an addition within a system.  These combinations create diverse environments for architectural and urban exploration.

The superimposition of additional infrastructural systems on existing systems allows for additional layers of readings of potential spatial configurations.  As the organization of systems overlap, integrate and subvert one-another, additional organizational possibilities reveal themselves to be exploited or claimed as tools for design.  A revelation may occur as systems and their contextual experience are mapped, analyzed and re-represented—exhibiting their realities that are not obvious in situ.  Photography, drawings, diagrams, and models filter and call attention to areas of interest within urban infrastructural systems.  Mappings expose latent possibilities within a system or between systems, divulging scores of contextual readings.

The reuse of infrastructural systems for different purposes reflects changing technology, economic shifts, and varying social and political agendas.  While many forms of infrastructure may be replaced, flexible systems maintain their identity even as they become transformed.  The parts and pieces of a system may be altered in position or function to satisfy an alternate requirement.  A system may completely transform through a slow process of rejuvenation that is continually meeting new needs—all without losing its integral identity.

The modification and adaptation of infrastructural systems in defined locals within a larger structure allows systems to resolve specific needs.  The variation permitted by successful infrastructural systems creates a fluid structure that responds to contextual forces and new insertions.  Each variation becomes a result of a specific force—site requirements, programmatic needs, formal arrangements, or social organizations—impressing the character of the catalyst into the infrastructural system.  These variations have the potential to blur the line between the infrastructural system and that which it supports.

The thickness created through the overlaying and intermeshing of infrastructural systems creates what Stan Allen has referred to as field conditions:

A field condition could be any formal or spatial matrix capable of unifying diverse elements while respecting the identity of each.  Field configurations are loosely bound aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity.  Overall shape and extent are highly fluid and less important than the internal relationships of parts, which determine the behavior of the field.  Field conditions are bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.  Interval, repetition, and seriality are key concepts.  Form matters, but not so much the forms of things as the forms between things.1

Field conditions, as infrastructural systems, are typically horizontal in nature—a thick mesh.  The spaces between connections within the horizontal mesh provide opportunities to insert points that may form again, another layer to the ever-fluctuating field condition.  The variances between existing conditions and additional systems exhibit the possibility of divergence, the added systems not always remaining within the given constraints of the existing conditions—thickening the mesh.

Our typically mundane experiences of these structures belie the complexities of urban infrastructures.  Urban infrastructures shape our lives while we rarely recognize them.  The most commonplace and minimal structures are often part of a larger system with purposes that we seldom stop to identify.  Urban infrastructures form the backdrop to productive systems.  They are ripe for exploration.

1Stan Allen.  Field Conditions. Points + Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City.  New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.  1999. 94.