Skip to content

Month: January 2022

Transport and Empires

As we analyze 20th-century global empire building, we must consider distinct actors in addition to hegemonic nation-states that challenged physical systems, organizational and political infrastructures, market-driven economies, and other drivers of national and regional sovereignty.  In Large Technological Systems (LTS), such as shipping and rail infrastructure, there is a second layer of global private/public relationships apart from international agreements within national and global stations, ports, and networks.

Indecorous Concessions.  In the article, The Suez Company’s Concession in Egypt, 1854—1956: Modern Infrastructure and Local Economic Development, Caroline Piquet demonstrates the transformation of the Suez Canal from a colonial LTS infrastructure into a symbol for Egyptian national independence.

The Norwegian Star cruise ship navigating the Suez Canal in 2017.
Soeren Stache/picture alliance/Getty Image

The struggle by Egypt for control, management, and operation of the Suez Canal was part of the confrontation to re-possess one of the most extensive and expensive canals of its time.  Built-in 1869, it was one of the world’s most extensive canals, creating economic value favoring shareholders in Europe.  During the 20th century, the canal was a contested infrastructural landscape, and in 1956, Egypt took control and began to operate the canal.

Since its construction, the training in complex technical knowledge for the canal’s operation was reserved for European engineers, and local Egyptian workers were trained for low-skill operations.  However, the canal’s nationalization was a successful event, and its subsequent operation was a profitable one.  “The canal belongs to Egypt and not Egypt to the canal” (Piquet, 2004) .  The Suez became an essential asset for the economy and sovereignty of the country.

For over 100 years, the canal was an infrastructure in a country that did not benefit from its operation.  As a concession, the investment was made to favor European capital.  As Piquet writes, “Thus the concession system appears less as an instrument for the spread of global capitalism to all nations, and more as a tainted for of “colonial” capitalism” (Piquet, 2004).

Time is on my side, yes it is.  In Jules Verne’s famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days, the principal character Phileas Fogg uses countless modes of transportation to travel around the world.  Phileas Fogg is the modern subject, the universal man that navigates the globe, and in every place he visits, there is a possibility of movement.  No matter how primitive the system is, his journey becomes part of a larger global mobility culture.  Fogg is interconnected with global time and its dramas, psychologies, and stress of a soon-to-be globalized planet.  “In this sense, the novel is a technology for the imagining of people’s synchronization in time (Grossman, 2013).

The organization of something so abstract as time is the driving metric of modernity.  We no longer arrange daily life based on the sun’s path.  We reorganize schedules and tasks according to efficiency, costs, markets, and production.  Transportation linked to labor and markets is part of the time machine that modern man must always be aware of.  In Verne’s novel, time becomes the main character, even more, critical than Fogg’s journey.  Time is always ahead, apparent, and a force to be reckoned with.  Verne makes time reckoning more rapidly and is scripted.  “The novel – which significantly loses in its English titling that ‘Le tour du monde.’ also means the turning of the earth – spilled quite directly over into this historical context.  Four months after its publication, Verne addressed the French Geographic Society on the question of which meridian should be chosen for travelers to separate one calendar day from another worldwide” (Grossman, 2013).

Eleven years later, the world accorded how to measure and keep time around the globe. 

Il Duce’s Way.  The road-building projects set out by the Italian Fascist in Africa were as much propaganda as critical infrastructure.  As Roland Barthes describes, if it was crucial, it relied on the ability to be photographed as a connoted message of empire-building and infrastructures.  According to Andrew Denning, “Such audacious roadworks demonstrated an essential claim of Mussolini’s fascist movement: that Il Duce’s regime had accepted the inheritance of ancient Rome but had updated it with the Italian mastery of modern technology.  Roads were timeless forms of imperial power and manifestations of fascist modernity simultaneously” (Denning, 2020).  The aesthetic ideology found in Mussolini’s aspiration of colonial empire seems to originate via the Italian Avant-garde of the early 20th century.  This display of contemporary technology echoes the sentiment of the Italian Futurist, specifically its leader and manifesto author Filippo Marinetti.

Italian Futurism proposed an aesthetic of speed—a movement absorbed by the machine, precisely the automobile in all its violence and terror.  Machines and war were part of the allure of violence that the Futurist needed, and the desire to participate in militarization acts as an aesthetic project.  New ways of moving and being in the world concerning time/speed became part of a new “machine” sentiment that included a no-return to tradition and histories before the industrial turn of European society.

It is this aesthetic lure with machines, speed, and war that the futurists see as the potential in the fascist project.  In Politics as Art: Italian Futurism and Fascism, Anne Bowler explains, “This nonhuman and mechanical being, constructed for an omnipresent velocity, will be naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative” (Bowler, 1991).  For Marinetti and the Futurist group, who actively campaigned and subsequently fought for Italy’s intervention in the war and the coming to power of Mussolini and the Fasci di Combattimento, the dictator represented the ultimate triumph of the Futurist-Fascist revolution that Marinetti envisioned under the direction of a new “proletariat of geniuses,” an elite cadre of Futurist artists and intellectuals.” However, For Marinetti, Art was no longer tied to its Roman history, and he denounced any past link or precedent.  Art was a transcendental endeavor to create a new nationalism and morality based on technology (Bowler, 1991).

Road-building was a way to modernize the colonial ideals and prepare society for technologies or machines that would change the time-space primitive environment.  Italians fetishized technology in a way that produced an aesthetic and political zeitgeist for most of the early 20th century.

Denning said, “Roads were timeless forms of imperial power and manifestations of fascist modernity simultaneously “ (Denning, 2019).

The Wolfsonian–Florida International University,
Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XB1990.587. Photo: David Almeida.
 

References

Bowler, A. (1991). Politics as Art: Italian Futurism and Fascism. Theory and Society, 763-794.

Denning, A. (2019). Infrastructural Propaganda: The Visual Culture of Colonial Roads and the Dosmitication of Nature in Italian East Africa. American Society for Environmental History and Forest History Society, 352-369.

Grossman, J. H. (2013). The Character of global transport infrastructure: Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. History and Technology, 247-261.

Piquet, C. (2004). The Suez Company’s Concession in Egypt, 1854-1956: Modern Infrastructure and Local Economic Development. Enterprise and Society. Vol. 5 No.1, 107-127.

Visits: 293

Manufactured Landscapes

Tijuana 2021

Manufactured landscapes. Infrastructure and nature’s relationship as an artificial sociotechnical entity is a fascinating undertaking. However, we should not fall into simple human/nature binary assumptions. Infrastructures do not separate humans from their environments. Instead, they overlap as new or different assemblages of human and non-human nature. Infrastructures allow us to understand the construction of our environment. However, they can’t be fully naturalized either; they are manufactured landscapes (Zeller, 2017). According to Neil Everden, if the concept of nature is a social construct, we might be confusing nature with threats of pollution. Ecological infrastructure (re)produces[1] the burden or stress we experience in terms of socio-ecological or political power (Everden, 1992). 

Environmental citizenship. At a planetary scale, techno-politics and ecological politics are inextricably complex. Examples vary from the Pana Canal’s water management and forest preservation tactics to interstate roads and highways in the US and many other water management projects built in India and China, including dams, canals, and hydrological distribution systems. Timothy Mitchell refers to projects at this scale as “capital infrastructures .”He proposes that infrastructure is a politics of nature produced in infrastructure (Mitchell, 2014). As Everdeen also implies, it has a social use, and finally, we experience nature via the infrastructure we build (Everdeen, 1992).

US/MX Border Rene Peralta

Nature, therefore, cannot be assumed as background. The possible interpretations of the study of nature and infrastructure set up a series of Large Technological Systems (LTS). According to Ashley Case, LTS systems can also be part of political struggle. The US/Mexico border acts as a political divide and a sociotechnical and militarized infrastructure. The wall separates two nations and two different sociocultural systems and acts against ecological preservation efforts. The border wall transgresses sensitive ecological reserves that are part of a shared watershed between San Diego and Tijuana. It impedes traffic of human (undocumented) and more-than-human[2] entities such as seeds, plants, mammals, and reptiles, that are part of the pristine ecosystems shared by the two countries. The physical metal structure of the border ends in the sandy beach of Tijuana and plunges into the ocean, demonstrating its global hegemony thru techno-environmental politics. The US national public has seen the wall as a determent infrastructure. In academic studies, including urbanism, urban geography, or infrastructural studies, the wall has been subjected to harsher criticism for its ecological and geopolitical imperialism and as an act of urbicide[3].   

US/Mx Border and Tijuana River watershed. Image: Rene Peralta

Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins recounts that electricity systems, landfills, and water infrastructure in the Israel and Palestine border are power devices. However, infrastructure could bring together interests and individuals across political boundaries, demonstrating a post-national environmental commitment (Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 2014). Therefore, these border infrastructural systems deployed between US/Mexico can be devices for cooperation instead of separation. 

For urgent binational cooperation, a case in point is the All American Canal that transports water from the Colorado River to the US southwest region and into Mexico. The city of Tijuana gets most of its water from the canal and seepage from the ground of the channel used to fill natural reservoirs that served the agricultural community of the Mexicali Valley. Recently, the US decided to line the canal’s floor with concrete due to the region’s sustained drought cutting off Mexican agricultural lands from the water necessary to grow their crops. Ironically, many of these agricultural products produced in Mexico are exported to the United States. Could there be an environmental citizenship claim over national ones, allowing both sides to share the resource equally? (Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 2014)

Water pipe to Tijuana

Mobile Umwelt. Mobility in many border cities along the US/MX border is dominated by the private automobile for two reasons: Many of the cities along the border developed their mobility infrastructure during the 20th century, roadbuilding became the main form of connectivity between binational urban and rural areas. Second, the export of vehicles from the US inundated the Mexican market with low-cost second-hand cars. Roads have become vehicles of modernity that ‘form us as subjects’ mobilizing ‘after and the sense of desire, pride and frustration’ (Barua, 2021) (Larkin, 2013). 

Mobility has shaped socio-economic relations of power (Monroe, 2014). This phenomenon created a social polarization where those who owned used vehicles with California plates were considered economically poor and from different social statuses. At the same time, owners of new cars with Mexican license plates were viewed as middle or upper-class citizens that could afford a car from a local auto dealership. In the same way, municipalities built roads with superior techniques in upper socio-economic areas and working-class communities did not have paved roads or were of inferior quality (concrete vs. asphalt).

Monkeys on a road in Hong Kong. http://hongwrong.com/hong-kong-monkeys/

The infrastructure of circulation, such as road networks, impacts more-than-human entities. Roads have become habitat corridors modifying an organism’s flow pattern throughout our global geography. Motorways can also enable the intermixing of habitats that were once isolated or inhibit motion in areas that were natural distinct corridors. From termites traveling for thousands of kilometers in shipping containers to macaques in southern India that gravitate towards roads to get food from passing vehicles, the architectures of circulation are the enmeshment of animals and infrastructure. The material politics of roadbuilding and etho-geography can develop a political ecology of infrastructure, one attentive to animal mobility beyond human-centered environmental impact assessments (Barua, 2021). 

Works Cited

Barua, M. (2021). Infrastructure and non-human life: A wider ontology. Progress in Human Geography, 1-23.

Everden, N. (1992). The Social Creation of Nature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Larkin, B. (2013). The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42, 327-343.

Lefebrve, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Mitchell, T. (2014). Life of Infrastructure. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34 #3, 437-548.

Monroe, K. V. (2014). Automobility and Citizenship in Interwar Lebanon. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 518-531.

Stamatopoulou-Robbins, S. (2014). Occupational Hazards. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. 34 no. 3, 476-496.

Zeller, T. (2017). Aiming for control, haunted by its failure: Towards an environtechnical understanding of infrastructure. Global Envrinoment 10 no.1, 202-228.


[1] I like to use the term produce [man] rather than create [nature] as Henri Lefebvre argues that nature does not produce. “And, yet nature does not labour: it is even on of its defining characteristics that it creates. What it creates, namely individual ‘beings’ simply surges forth, simply appears” (Lefebrve, 1991).

[2] Laura Harjo in her book Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity, mentions that the Mvskoke people refer to non-human entities as more-than-human.

[3] Urbicide is defined as “violence against the city”. The term was first coined by Michael Moorcock in 1963

Visits: 447

Early Modern Water Infrastructure

A brief review of the book; Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi.  By Chandra Mukerji (2009).

Imaginative understanding.  Conventionally architectural history is taught in chronological sequence or via individual technological or artistic achievements.  The historian E.H. Carr mentions, “The historian is necessarily selective.  The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate” (Carr, 1961).  Carr emphasizes that a historian needs an “imaginative understanding” of the mindset and era of people being studied.  Historiography should be a working model to understand conditions rather than finding an official culprit of past events.  Imaginative understanding might be evident in the discipline of the history of science, where research includes technological systems and infrastructural objects produced by various entities (humans and non-human) that span years in their production and operability.

In her book concerning the construction history of the Canal du Midi[1] (1667-1694) in Southern France, Chandra Mukerji exemplifies an essential fundamental shift, a cognitive drive, and prioritization of the “imperative problem.” A task(s) needing resolution to move forward a series of protocols that would prove to be the impetus for future technological paradigms.  The building of Canal du Midi did not have explicit technical references, a renaissance figure, or a specific group that analyzed and proposed a scheme.  Like the construction of the Duomo in Florence (1436 AD), where the only construction knowledge was guaranteed by Filippo Brunelleschi’s temperament and his careful study of the Pantheon in Rome (125 AD).  A problem left to a sole “genius” with the knowledge to uncover all the technical and aesthetic solutions to the given challenge of the time.  On the contrary, the construction of the Canal du Midi was a work of collective knowledge by an assemblage of actors with vernacular skills and identities.

Work on the Canal du Midi was initiated during the rule of Louis XIV, yet it relied on a sacred mandate rather than on a political official one.  According to the belief system of the time, shaping the earth and managing its natural (resources) was a human right given by God, not the king.  Faith in the authority over nature handed down by God made it clear that the means would be found in an unforced and collaborative method.  Therefore, the initiative to build a canal 240 kilometers towards the Mediterranean was a vernacular and sacred rite rather than a rational and scientific endeavor.  Many of the technologies required to build the canal came from various regions and existed in diverse forms, including knowledge from military or mining brigades, masons, local farmers, and other trades; however, it was still vernacular knowledge.

By David-waterways – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61223716

Community Assemblages.  Pierre-Paul Riquet (1609-1680) was a tax collector, fluent in engineering and infrastructure construction.  Riquet had a vision for the canal in Languedoc and its potential long-term and economic benefits for the region and the country.  His occupation facilitated communication with local knowledge and vernacular expertise.  Once he gathered the native know-how, the canal became a “product of collective intelligence” of people with different backgrounds who shared their knowledge to undertake such a massive task.  Riquet’s leadership and trust in local knowledge allowed the emergence of a bottom-up process assembling itself as skills were required.  In his definition of assemblage theory, Manuel DeLanda states, “Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is, therefore, an individual entity” (DeLanda, 2016).  An assemblage forms when a community comes together; however, it leaves personal identities intact.  DeLanda continues, “To properly apply the concept of assemblage to real cases we need to include, in addition to persons, the material and symbolic artifacts that compose communities and organizations: the architecture of the buildings that house them; the myriad different tools and machines used in offices, factories, and kitchens; the various sources of food, water, and electricity; the many symbols and icons with which they express their identity” (DeLanda, 2016)  Riquet was able to employ community assemblages consisting of unique human and non-human entities for his grand project.

Image copyright: https://www.canalmidi.com/historic.html

As DeLanda argues, community assemblage must also consider artifacts (non-human entities) as part of the expertise brought by a community.  Machines, tools, and other technical objects are part of the expertise that Riquet found across the region.  The canal was a social engineering experiment that brought together community desires, knowledge, and identities to produce a shared vision.  The collaboration in Languedoc included groups who spoke a different language, were of different gender, education, and social status.  common link between the different groups was a desire to embrace their classical roman history, a symbolic attitude studied and traditionally handed down through generations.  This classical past was already part of the region’s social life and community activities (farming, herding, running mills, irrigation, agriculture).  “It was this kind of knowledge: the intelligence of bandits, fishermen, washerwomen, masons, charcoal makers, and women indigenous engineers – that made it possible to build a canal in Languedoc” (Mukerji, 2009).

“In this empire, the art of cartography was taken to such a peak of perfection that the map of a single province took up an entire city and the map of the empire, an entire province.” Jorge Luis Borges in  A Universal History of Infamy, 1946

World-building. Cartographies possess power.  For centuries maps have represented colonial power, illustrated economic trade routes, land acquisition, and the places of future struggles.  Maps are a proxy of the real, yet they also suggest new relationships, possible outcomes, and even new possible worlds.  Before and during the construction of the Canal du Midi, cartographers documented chart locations, building techniques, topographical modifications, and other manipulations of groundworks and infrastructure in the European landscape.  For the building of the canal, two types of maps were of interest; maps from military surveyors with academic training where measurement was of utmost importance and local civil maps of “humble” origins.  Local maps represented current natural phenomena, artificial landscapes, and everyday life activities, depicting the relationship (legal, physical, or jurisdictional) areas of community activity such as farming, living, crops, and other activities linked to local biomes.  As different cartographies and map-making methods were deployed, Riquet cultivated the combined intelligence of each group.  There was no central or holistic approach (complete method) for mapping or surveying the various conditions that needed to be described, measured, and documented (Mukerji, 2009).  The fieldwork for the design and construction of the canal was a palimpsest of local experiences and vernacular knowledge.

It is intriguing how collective knowledge, especially cartographic and mapping techniques during the design and construction of the Canal du Midi, were part of an open-source system combined and assembled in ways beneficial to the intricacies of the project.  Eventually, the finished canal became a 17th-century world-building project that modified natural terrain at a regional and planetary scale.

Contemporary world-building techniques use maps, cartographies, narratives, character development, cinematic storylines as a medium for creating scenarios of possible futures.  Many of these worlds tend to locate themselves in a future that might include non-human entities, worlds that have mapped a different trajectory away from neo-capitalist agendas and, in turn, depict a space of only potential.  Many of the ideas behind these new worlds have their origin in science fiction, game theory, chaos theory, and other non-hierarchical systems.  There is no central depository of systems or elements for world-building.  Each author or group uses open-source data, digital mapping techniques, everyday user information from personal devices, internet activity, and a combined digital intelligence that measures and describes our world in real-time.

Waldseemüller, M. (1507) Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrationes
. [Strasbourg, France?: s.n] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003626426/.

Our desire to change and build the physical and virtual world through technology has been part of a human – imaginative understanding of an ideal.  World-building was a phenomenon of Christianization, and similarly, religious rituals and contemporary video games share the structure of interactivity, performance and are defined by rules (Wagner, 2012).  However, the relationship between ritual and video games is a theme for another time.  As Chandra Mukerji describes, for 17-century engineers, the construction of the Canal du Midi was a sacred mandate and part of Christian ethics to claim dominion over the earth.

(1890) The Geographical Area and the Population of the Kingdom of Light the Baptized and the Kingdom of Darkness the Unbaptized
. [189-?] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/85697105/.

Works Cited

Carr, E. H. (1961).  What is History?  New York: Random House.

DeLanda, M. (2016).  Assemblage Theory. Edinburg: Edingburg Universty Press.

Mukerji, C. (2009).  Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wagner, R. (2012).  Godwire: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.  New York: Routledge.


[1] A UNESCO World Heritage Site. For technical information see https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/770/

Visits: 366

Pre-modern Water Infrastructure

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.  Loren Eiseley

Fluvial Cities.  The history of fluvial structures in pre-modern times is a fascinating story of ancient technology and its sacred imaginaries.  Water Infrastructure and the vicissitudes of its composition as flow, philosophical subject, memory, the discrete, the self-assembled, and exploitation of belief systems produced oral histories and folklore—water infrastructure is a technological driver of myth, logic, and environmental history. 

Storytelling is one of the most compelling and deep-rooted methods of passing knowledge between cultures.  “Narrative enables connectivity in the present, sharing knowledge in an accessible form, which can change the ways we approach an uncertain future” (Morgan & Smith, 2013).  Anthropologist Esha Shah interprets the intermixing of folklore narratives and techniques in India’s tank irrigation technology as “talking literature,” unlike post-colonial historiography and European technological discourse based on rationality.  Shah describes the pre-modern tanks of South Karnataka made by builders called Voddas (AD 1300-1750) as “social storage.” Tank construction was performed under the mandate of village chieftains for rice field irrigation and in exchange for successful operation conditions, they offered their daughters to deities   The fluvial infrastructures of Karnataka are embedded with folk tales, songs, and oral history of the region, cultural evocations rooted in the tanks that resonate as sediment on the present (Shah, 2008).

Digital Photo: Vishwanath S. 2021.  As part of Damasha, farmers decide how much land can be irrigated from the tank with the help of the traditional distributor of water. 

Karnataka’s irrigation infrastructure reveals how traditional (oral, written, and technical) systems form a different water ontology, beyond performance (what it does) or representation (what it is).  However, a third formal manifestation of indigenous knowledge is temporal and aesthetic, producing a deliberate foundation or “entrance” (Kubler), a space-time aura of the work itself.  As Shah states,” folk literature, not as an inviolate historical record, but a work embedded in memory” (Shah, 2008).

In architectural and urban post-colonial critiques, the reexamination of native techniques from Mesoamerica is influencing academic research.  For example, raised bed wetland agriculture known as chinampas built by the Aztecs in the Chalco-Xochimilco drainage basin of the Valley of Mexico (AD 1428-1519) functioned as a source of food for the lacustrine city of Tenochtitlan.  These food islands system took 40 years to conclude, and their construction was part of a forced work regime of 25 million person-days in lands under Aztec control (Arco & Abrams, 2006).

An unidentified author’s representation of a Chinampa [Colour figure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]

According to James Maffie, Aztec metaphysics is based on the concept of teotl.  An ontological monism, a reality characterized by becoming instead of being.  Within this philosophical belief, along with olin and malinalli, the principle of nepantla binds together creative and deconstructive agonistic tension of transformation.  Therefore, all processes of becoming occur through weaving and the woven (a smooth Deleuzian space, if I may).  Aztecs lived in woven houses and fabricated woven clothing, and their agricultural fields (chinampas) were correspondingly woven (Maffie, 2014).  The chinampas were part of the extensive hydrological infrastructure, which played a significant role in the population’s subsistence and linked the empire and their gods (Coe, 1964).

The collective memory embedded in these structures aggregated through hybridization of knowledge, beliefs, and indigenous know-how solved particular infrastructural demands of Meso-American civilizations.  However, during Spanish rule and centuries of hydrological dredging, the clay subsoil of the lakebed began to dry and erode.  Five centuries later, the ground in Mexico City has subsided approximately ten meters, causing the collapse of sewer and storm drain infrastructure. Hydrological systems can fail through discrete perturbations when natural and human processes respond to climatic or systemic variability.

Like Tenochtitlan, the ancient city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, Southeast Asia, suffered from infrastructural deterioration from seasonal rainfall, erosion, and sedimentation, creating unpredictable network topological failure (Penny, et al., 2018)  During its 600-year history (AD 800-1400) and similar to its Mesoamerican counterpart, Angkor established a system of canals and reservoirs to capture and distribute water for a city with an area of 1000 km2.  The sophistication of the spatially extensive system, with its thousands of components, made it challenging to maintain and coincided with climate variability.  Angkor’s palimpsest water network produced a cascading set of failures that made its inhabitants abandon the city.  Angkor’s demise research demonstrates that pre-modern urban settlements suffered an infrastructural failure, a critical phenomenon of a self-organizing system when transformed by human or climatic perturbations (Penny, et al., 2018).

Angkor Wat in Cambodia Mike Fuchslocher / Alamy
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/angkor-wat-reservoir-engineering-catastrophe-180974227/

 Sacred water.  Intimate and autonomous forms of monastic living were made bearable by water infrastructure during the Middle Ages.  Ritual and seclusion have correlated well with water’s presence, flows, and containment throughout human history.  Water casts a spiritual and mystical aura in addition to its health and sanitary properties.  In the medieval Carthusian Charterhouse of Bourgfontaine (ca.1323), water was provided for personal use.   According to historians Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines, “Compared to the monasteries of other orders, charterhouses were relatively few in number, and very few of their water-management systems have been studied.  Bourgfontaine offers good information about a relatively well-preserved Carthusian site and provides new information about medieval methods of locating underground springs, channeling water, and transporting it by means of a siphon across a topographically irregular site” (Bonde & Maines, 2012) In the design of the charterhouse, we see hydraulic infrastructure combined competently with knowledge of topographical grading and site modification.  “Medieval hydrologists harnessed a variety of technologies and exploited the natural potential of their sites” (Bonde & Maines, 2012).  In Bourgfontaine, the drive to build an allocated hydrological system contained a set of requirements that produced adequate living conditions enabling its occupants to have water in their monastic cells.  Water systems were managed, scaled, and detailed during the Middle Age for diversified needs.  Bond and Maines suggest that monasteries were repositories of technological knowledge, and Christianity viewed the domination of water as a statement and powerful form of spiritual intent (Morgan & Smith, 2013).  

Plan of the Bourgfontaine charterhouse, including the extramural parts of the water-management system. The structures in solid black are extant; the contour lines are from IGN Carte topographique 2512 Est–Villers-Cotterêts (1:25.000), confirmed by onsite GPS measurements and Google Earth. (Sources: After the frontispiece in Lucien Marchand, Essai historique sur Bourgfontaine ou la Fontaine Notre-Dame: Ancienne Chartreuse du diocèse de Soissons, 1323–1792 [Château-Thierry, 1953], after a drawing by Dom Sochay. The extramural parts of the water-management system are by the authors.) (Bonde & Maines, 2012)

Water as Muse.  In the last 200 years’ water has gone through a process of secularization.  As our theories of nature and the cosmos scientifically evolved, they transformed the relationship of water with society.  Today water is part of the instruments of political and resource structures.  However, a constant narrative permeates the landscape of water systems, from infrastructures of power like dams and reservoirs to the most intimate water features designed for contemplation, an ongoing dialogue between the metaphysical and the rational.  According to Morgan and Smith, “historically, water management has been predicated upon belief; belief in divinity, belief in human agency, and belief in scientific progress” (Morgan & Smith, 2013).

A contemporary example that comes to mind is the central courtyard of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1962-1965).  Renowned architect Louis Khan designed a building for Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine and imagined the complex as a scientific monastery.  From the onset of the building design, Khan had proposed an “architecture of water” as part of the concept (Brownlee & Long, 1992).  The concrete brutalist forms of the building are reminiscent of contemporary Bourgfontaine, a monastery of knowledge, laboratories, and offices cloistering around a central open courtyard.  A water trough cuts through the middle of the courtyard and disappears into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, expressive of the essence of wellbeing, reflection, and scientific discovery.

Image: https://www.salk.edu/about/

Bibliography

Arco, L. J., & Abrams, E. M. (2006).  An Essay on energetics: The Construction of the Aztec chinampa system.  Antiquity 80, 906-918.

Bonde, S., & Maines, C. (2012).  The Technology of Medieval Water Management at the Charterhouse of Bourgfontaine. Technology and Culture, 625-670.

Brownlee, D. B., & Long, D. G. (1992). Louis Khan: In the Realm of Architecture.  New York: Rizzoli.

Coe, M. D. (1964).  The Chinampas of Mexico.  Scientific American, 90-99.

Maffie, J. (2014).  Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a world in motion.  Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Morgan, R. A., & Smith, J. L. (2013).  Pre-modern Streams of Thought in Twenty-First-Century Water Management.  Radical History Review, 105-129.

Penny, D., Zachreson, C., Fletcher, R., Lau, D., Lizier, J. T., & Nicholas Fisher, D. E. (2018). The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations.  Science Advances.

Shah, E. (2008).  Telling Otherwise: A Historical Anthropology of Tank Irrigation Technology in South India.  Technology and Culture Vol. 49, 652-674.

Visits: 241