Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

This morning Russia turned the taps back on resuming gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe. Millions of Europeans have been without heat since the failure to renew the old contract, which expired on 1 January, as the BBC reports.

I thought it an opportune moment to post a piece I wrote for the catalogue of the Estonian pavilion at the 08 Venice Biennale, which took the form of a big yellow pipe snaking through the Giardini from the German to the Russian pavilion. It addressed issues around the Gazprom 'Nord Stream' project for a massive gas pipeline.

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.


Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is a short, black novel by B.S. Johnson about a clerk who seeks revenge for the slights he feels life brings him. Using the double-entry bookkeeping method that he learns at work, he charts the 'debts' that he perceives are owed to him - not monies owed, but the pain, suffering, meanness, and humiliation that he suffers. In a second column, he logs his own means of balancing these debts - acts of revenge which in his perception are simply the balance due. Over the course of the novel, the scale of his 'recompense' escalates from scratching the Edwardian façade of a bank in recompense for the 'bad atmosphere' he experiences within it to greater and more ingenious acts.

Malry turns a beaurocratic system for balancing debt - something that normally remains abstract into a hyper-personalised and paranoid form of psycho-accountancy. In the same way, his revenges transform other kinds of infrastructure, distorted by his demand for recompense. In one chapter, Malry sets out to balance his peception of the 'debt' owed to him by the Inspector of Taxes for the tax deducted from his pay-packet. He plots a curiously intricate scenario in which he sends a clockwork train with five carriages, each loaded with gelignite sticks up the tax office sewer pipe.

"His little goods train ran its moderately-paced way up the clean nine-inch leadglaze pipe until it encountered a bend ... the radius of which was too small to permit it father progress. So, after a clockwork squeal, it settled down to await the morrow"

Johnsons novel identifies a range of systems that enable the smooth running of society, which Malry perverts to deliver something else. His protagonists psychosis is to see these infrastructural devices - from accountancy practices to sewers and reservoirs - as morally charged rather than benign and passive conduits though which information, commodity, waste or whatever flows.

Though he might be pathologically disturbed, in this respect he's right. Infrastructure is never neutral or a-political. For example, roads not only a convenient means of travelling made possible by low grade civil engineering. They have evolved into loaded political statements about the relationship of the individual to society. Roads display hierarchies of significance, they suggest modes of behaviour and relationships to landscape. One can read the networks of tarmac as articulations of a set of abstract concepts laid out across the surface of the planet.

To those hyper-sensitised by a particular viewpoint and wrapped up in their own language of symbolic iconographies, particular infrastructural elements become ideological devices. Infrastructure, see in this way, becomes a means of delivering or manifesting very particular ideas. Thus we see various kinds of infrastructure assuming a significance in relation to the mindset and position of particular groups, whether that be Californian-libertarian technologists, fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, rightwing or socialist governments and so on. To those of us less acutely sensitive to symbolic readings, infrastructure remains implicitly political because it enables a certain set of actions to occur, and equally, excludes another set of possible outcomes.

And it is in this way that we might think of infrastructure as architecture. Not architecture as an aesthetic act, but architecture in all of its other guises: as organisation, ecology, network, system and so on. Architecture, on the whole deals with verticality. But the serious stuff happens horizontally, in the networks stretching off over the horizon. The sky might be where we project our super-natural concerns (of death, ego or spiritual yearning), but the horizontal is what joins us in Gordian knots of interconnected-ness. However, we seem to lack the language to understand or describe infrastructure as architecture, or to synthesise architecture and infrastructure as a unified entity.

Crimson, the Rotterdam based architectural historians, divide architecture into categories of Hardware, Software and Orgware. By inventing a different means of calibrating architectural issues, they allow us to have a more developed understanding of the complexity of intersections that make up architecture - a way of breaking down the traditional distinctions between things such as form and function, architect and client, user and building. In this system, 'Hardware' is the stuff - the walls, floors, doors and so on. 'Software' is a way of describing the things that happen in or on the hardware. 'Orgware' is the groupings of people and their organisational structures which allow things to happen. To this we might add the Network, which would describe the relationship of the other categories to an extended idea of context - the way in which architecture connects to the scenarios, systems, economies, and ecologies around it.

Contemporary experience is increasingly aware of these networked relationships, and there is a growing realisation of their immense reach and depth. Issues such as climate change, geo-political conflicts and economic interdependence have problematised our relationship to decisions effecting and enabling viable, sustainable architecture: credit, energy, potable water, food production and distribution, waste and so on. The scale of these issues dwarfs that of 'normal' architecture as they operate at national, regional, continental and global scales. They seamlessly snake from our intimate, local situation into global networks of Byzantine complexity.

These superscaled networks are the practical output of a century or more of globalisation and trans-national market economies. They mean your rubbish might be buried in a landfill site in China, your gas may come from somewhere beneath Russia, your computer might have been designed in California and built in Mexico, parts of your salad might have come from Israel, the email you sent to your colleague bounced around cables all over the world and so on. Almost anything we do is connected somehow to places we've never even heard of, in ways that are beyond everyday comprehension. These arrangements remain tentative. Small tweaks in global finance can rearrange these patterns of spatial organisation almost instantaneously.

The rhizomic nature of international capitalism is challenging us to develop new ways of looking at this differently scaled world. The new and emerging tools which allow us to see the full extent of our globalised economies include climate modelling and economic mapping techniques. More popular tools, such as Google Earth seem to provide us with a new viewpoint, which we might speculate changes our understanding of the planet. Perhaps, like the invention of perspective, it is a result of a shift in how we perceive our place in the world. And perhaps, just as perspective drawing systems did, it will begin to influence the way that we design our buildings (Would, for example, the Palm Jumeirah have been built without the ready public accessibility of satellite imagery?)


Contemporary architecture is like an iceberg. That's to say most of it is hidden below a datum. Below this, there is a mass of stuff that keeps the visible peak afloat. The peak is the part that architects concentrate on, the bit that architectural photographers carefully frame, the thing that architecture critics look at when stroking their chins. The invisible part of this iceburg-architecture-metaphore - by far the largest - is a strange mixture of the practical and the conceptual. Down here is a submerged structure, a kind of armature of engineering and culture that gives architecture its shape. Like a patient on a life support machine, architecture is sustained by the wires and tubes that are plugged into it. But where one stops and the other starts is increasingly difficult to determine. Infrastructure and architecture bleed into one another.

High Tech architecture applied the aesthetic of infrastructure to architectural form. High Tech grew out of a set of ideas explored by Reyner Banham which argued for an architecture of machinic qualities - exemplified by gadgets and gismos - in 'Architecture of the Second Machine Age'. These ideas provided the chord structure that Archigram later riffed on in their visions of ultra-mechanised environmental architecture, and these in turn led to the imagery of engineering and infrastructure becoming part of architectural language. But the process of aestheticisation denudes the real significance of infrastructural networks. If we were to reassess a contemporary relationship between architecture and infrastructure, we might set out in the opposite direction. Rather than import the aesthetics of machine/infrastructure to architecture, we might export architectural thinking to infrastructure. In this way, we could imagine the Pompidou or Lloyds buildings unravelled and strung out across the ground, into trenches below the sea, across borders, and linking continents. But imagine not just their physical fabric but their culture and extended architectural heritage wrapped up in these buildings forming a linear construction that strings out a narrative of abstract ideas over topography, across borders, and through regions: Rogers, Archigram, Banham, Pevsner, the Bauhaus, Arts and Crafts and so on in mile after mile of unwound architectural ideology as infrastructure.

Perhaps we should recognise the increasingly complex fabric of networked infrastructure as a form of architecture in itself. This architecture of the global age would describe a new canon with its own set of landmarks. It would include histories of the first great era of infrastructure: the point on Valentia Island off the west coast of Ireland where the first trans-Atlantic cable hit Europe; the glee with which Brunel forced railways though hills and over water. It would draw upon the weird stretching of possibilities apparent in early infrastructural projects where the distinction between architecture and infrastructure was not yet firmly described: Pre-Futurist, pre-Modern experiments in speed, distance and networks.

Consolidating, re-contextualising and expanding the cultural understanding of infrastructure is more than appropriate in an age of mega-projects. The global market and reliance upon fossil fuels has seen a boom in the construction of massive pipelines. The Druzhba pipeline is the longest. It runs from southeast Russia for 2,500 miles to points in Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, and Germany delivering 1.2 to 1.4 million barrels of oil per day. There is a proposed extension to this pipeline adding another 1,100 miles to its length. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline runs for 1,099 miles, connecting the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. The proposed Eastern Siberia - Pacific Ocean oil pipeline would be 2,900 miles long, connecting Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The proposed Nord Stream pipeline would link Russia and the European Union via the Baltic Sea transporting natural gas from the Yuzhno-Russkoye field.

The routes of these pipelines are defined by a combination of market economics, geo-politics, and environmental concerns, issues which are highly sensitive and controversial. But these discussions suggest that these fuel lines themselves are no more than practical engineered solutions and a means of exploiting opportunity. They are arguments over the particularities of route rather than discussions which explore the significance of their conception. And it is this which is most mind-blowingly significant. Their vast-ness reflects the scale of the corporations that construct them, which themselves have ballooned to eclipse the size of many governments. They are constructions of planetary scale, stretching between continents which re-engineer geology.

That these projects are regarded simply as engineering is indicative of the way in which infrastructure is perceived as inert structure which exists outside of cultural significance. It is what we might describe as a blindness of the practical. But as Christie Malry might remind us, they represent a crystallisation of economic, political and cultural ambition.

Marshal McLuhan suggested that we might understand media infrastructure as an extension of our bodily selves. He suggested, for example, that communication technologies are extensions of our own nervous systems - that radio is an extension of our hearing, TV an extension of our vision. If McLuhan is right, perhaps all infrastructure might be thought of as an extension of our bodily make up. Perhaps these networks of pipes and cables are a mapping of our own biology onto geology - a globally scaled anthropomorphic projection.

This bodily reading of infrastructure might also suggest that it could be possible to develop psychological conditions in relation to infrastructure. Indeed, perhaps we might diagnose Christie Malry as suffering from such a psychological -infrastructural condition. Certainly, there are examples of how infrastructure can represent psychological conditions. Think of Orson Wells in the sewers of post-war Vienna in 'The Third Man'. His character, Harry Lime uses the sewer tunnels to move about the city - which above ground is divided into four zones controlled by the Allied powers - undetected. Limes morally uninhibited character is thus linked with the sewers which are used to represent an amoral underworld. Sewer systems are also used in the 1980 horror film "Alligator', whose tagline is "Beneath Those Manholes, A Man Eater Is Waiting". The plot sees a baby alligator flushed down a toilet which grows into a gargantuan monster by feeding on the corpses of laboratory animals who have undergone dubious hormone experiments. The monstrous creature represents the possibilities and fears of the unknown that lurk within the hidden realm of infrastructure - the stuff below the datum of visibility. Of course, sewers are perhaps more suggestive than other infrastructural forms. But the idea that infrastructure can become a repository of fears or a site of morally uninhibited behaviour is significant.

Outside of the narratives of thrillers and horror genres, infrastructure might well act as the built equivalent of the unconscious. Like the psychological unconscious, it remains invisible to the self-aware, public, civilised, architectural consciousness. Infrastructure is absent from architectural representations and architectural media. In its planning it tends to be hidden below ground, behind earthworks, walls and fences. It is discreetly routed to minimise its visual presence in the landscape. However, like the psychological unconscious, it manifests the instinctual desires and needs of globalised markets, multinational corporations, and states. Infrastructure acts as a kind of uninhibited version of architecture - uncivilised, unsocialised, inarticulate, yet driven with a primal urge to create structures of unprecedented scale and ambition. It realises the most extreme architectural fantasies that our conscious thinking would not permit.

Infrastructure crystallises an essence of abstract ideas and drives them through landscape with a singular determination. It makes physical the invisible networks, the desires and dreams of the systems we inhabit. Its significance is in direct dis-proportion to its visibility as a cultural act: We engineer our infrastructure and afterwards our infrastructure engineers us.


Posted by anothersam at January 20, 2009 11:36 AM.


Adrian said:

The image of a large, interconnected and hidden network of technology immediately made me think of Ted Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber, and his belief that technology wasn't simply something that served humans, but something more like a self-perpetuating organism which demands more and more sacrifices of people. Unlike Malry he doesn't use it to revenge himself, but takes revenge on the infrastructure itself. Kevin Kelly wrote an interesting post which, deliberately provocative title ("The Unabomber Was Right") and rather syrupy ending aside, was an interesting re-examination of his claims: (I remain amazed at people's ability to write a title like that and then ingenuously wonder why there's been a fuss).

I wonder what Kaczynski makes of the current crisis - whether he wishes he was free at a point where the infrastructure seems to be at its weakest so he can, in Kelly's phrase, "pounce on it when it is down and kill it before it rises again"...

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