These days I am experimenting with some sites that use neural networks or artificial intelligence as they call it to create images based on text. In the first image, I typed words that had to do with the informal city and Syd Mead’s graphics. This is what the neural network created after 2000 iterations.
Aquí un breve texto sobre una de las fotografías de Arreola . Here is a brief text reagarding one of Arreola’s photographs.
This photograph hides nothing. The photograph makes visible the absence of a home. Three rectangular structures of derelict or still borne houses are centered in the composition, each with two dark square openings as if staring back at the viewer. In the foreground, a landscape of dead lawn patches and a few invasive greeneries create a datum for the aborted homes. In the background, the city crouching on distant hills dissipating under a gray mist of a cold morning. There is no sign or sigh of human life. The landscape is desolate. The only fragment of urbanity is a semi-finished perimeter wall of an adjacent gated community displaying a couple of insipid graffiti tags.
The camera angle frames a one-point perspective, an architectural graphic device, and a virtual view of the world, unlike how we see with our own eyes. By looking at the image, we do not know why the photographer used that point of view. There is no accurate way to be in a place. However, I cannot seem to divert my attention from the writing on the walls, the scribble of signs or words in black outlines, and others in faint orange. Tagged with no apparent order, nevertheless widespread on the surface to produce an aesthetic mood of the objects. The photo also has cumulus clouds!
Why are cities important? Cities are growing at an accelerated rate. The global urban population is projected to grow by 2.5 billion between 2018 and 2050, with nearly 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa (UN, 2019). Cities encourage innovation, education, and economic opportunities. However, cities utilize the world’s resources unsustainably due to their constant growth. Cities consume 60-80% of energy and emit significant greenhouse gases (Albino, Berardi, & Dangelico, 2013). Today, we are witnessing two types of urban environments: the new city being built per the smart city model and retrofitting traditional consolidated cities with information and communication technologies (ICT).
Urbanists have tried to explain urban growth as an evolutionary process, even declaring death as a possible outcome. In Death and Life of the Great American City, Jane Jacobs promoted community wellbeing and economically sustainable neighborhoods. Her work epitomized the idea of vibrant self-sufficient neighborhoods with mixed-use housing blocks above small independent businesses, also known as mom and pop shops (Jacobs, 1961).
However, we are not living in the era of Jacob’s small neighborhoods or villages anymore. Our cities are densely populated and need to deal with waste generation, sustainable energy production, and vehicular traffic conditions, among other crises. In addition, most cities partake in the global economy and real-estate systems that produce a distinct neighborhood development. Therefore, the Smart City as a new ontology of the city is a domain of exchange between the evolution of digital technology, system thinking, urban sustainability, and other factors. I have been interested in this new urban scenario since I read William Mitchell’s City of Bits (1995). Mitchell wrote for an architectural audience and emphasized the digital as a medium that would eventually change how we perceive urban and architectural space. “We are all cyborgs now. Architects and urban designers of the digital era must begin by re-theorizing the body in space” (MItchell, 1995). Today, the city of bits has been redefined or re-interpreted as the smart city.
Defining the smart city has been a daunting task, primarily since the impetus originated in the technology sector rather than in urban studies. Cities designed and built under the umbrella of ICT’s have been heavy-handled by large corporative structures such as ATT, Cisco, Google, Oracle, Microsoft, among other industries that manage large volumes of consumer data. This is why critics tend to be belligerent about the smart city as ‘the future of urban development. Author Ben Greene advises that we cannot rely solely on technology to achieve a just and democratic city. He advocates for a smart city that implements technologies for specific purposes and entrusts social and political democratic processes with human methods (Greene, 2019). Therefore, a concise or holistic definition might not be possible. Moreover, a smart city that deploys ICT systems might be the current epistemological interpretation at work.
In Smart Cities: definitions, dimension, and performance, the authors produced an extensive table of possible definitions for the term. The definitions listed vary in-depth, and some include concepts outside technology (political, social, environmental), rendering a more holistic view of the smart city (Albino, Berardi, & Dangelico, 2013). However, the Smart City has a subset of topics that include but are not limited to the natural environment, creative activities, and human wellbeing in its physical and psychological manner.
The future use of information and communication technology in the administration and operation of a city is inevitable. However, a relevant question would be, what is the conceptual drive to make the city “smarter”? Can the technologies employed in the future city empower citizens and promote a more democratic and just built environment? Is the smart city a possible disruptive technology that can produce an alternative post-capitalist world? It would be essential to postulate if the smart cities can evolve into an open technological system “to render the city more informal” (Sennet, 2012). Moreover, where knowledge allows the creation of a new kind of sovereignty.
Albino, V., Berardi, U., & Dangelico, R. M. (2013). Smart Cities: Definitions, dimensions, and performance. Proceedings IFKAD, 1723-1738.
Chen, S. (2022, January 20). Smart City Concept Powepoint Presentation. Norman, Oklahoma, USA.
Greene, B. (2019). The Smart Enough City. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of the Great American City. New York: Random House.
MItchell, W. J. (1995). City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. Boston: MIT Press.
Sennet, R. (2012, December). Urban Age. Retrieved from The Stupefying Smart City: https://urbanage.lsecities.net/essays/the-stupefying-smart-city
UN. (2019). https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/. Retrieved from World Urbanization Prospects The 2018 Revision: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/index.htm
Qué es una ciudad inteligente
¿Por qué son importantes las ciudades? Las ciudades están creciendo a un ritmo acelerado. Se prevé que la población urbana mundial crezca en 2500 millones entre 2018 – 2050, y que casi el 90% del aumento se concentre en Asia y África (ONU, 2019). Las ciudades fomentan la innovación, la educación y las oportunidades económicas. Sin embargo, las ciudades utilizan los recursos del mundo de forma insostenible debido a su constante crecimiento. Las ciudades consumen entre el 60 y el 80% de la energía y emiten importantes gases de efecto invernadero (Albino, Berardi y Dangelico, 2013). En la actualidad, existen dos tipos de entornos urbanos: la nueva ciudad que se construye según el modelo de ciudad inteligente y la readaptación de las ciudades tradicionales consolidadas con tecnologías de la información y la comunicación (TIC).
Los urbanistas han tratado de explicar el crecimiento urbano como un proceso evolutivo, incluso declarando la muerte como un posible resultado. En Muerte y Vida de las Grandes Ciudades, Jane Jacobs promovía el bienestar de la comunidad y los barrios económicamente sostenibles. Su obra describía la idea de barrios autosuficientes y vibrantes con unidades de viviendas de uso mixto sobre pequeños negocios independientes, también conocidos como tiendas mom and pop (Jacobs, 1961).
Sin embargo, ya no vivimos en la época de los pequeños barrios o villas de Jacob. Nuestras ciudades están densamente pobladas y tienen que lidiar con la generación de residuos, la producción de energía sostenible y las condiciones del tráfico de vehículos, entre otras crisis. Además, la mayoría de las ciudades participan en la economía global y en los sistemas inmobiliarios que producen un desarrollo inmobiliario distinto. Por tanto, la Smart City como nueva ontología de la ciudad es un ámbito de intercambio entre la evolución de la tecnología digital, el pensamiento sistémico, la sostenibilidad urbana y otros factores. Me ha interesado este nuevo contexto urbano desde que leí la obra de William Mitchell City of Bits (1995). Mitchell escribía para un público de arquitectura y destacaba lo digital como un medio que acabaría cambiando la forma en que percibimos el espacio urbano y arquitectónico. “Ahora todos somos ciborgs. Los arquitectos y diseñadores urbanos de la era digital deben empezar por re-teorizar el cuerpo en el espacio” (MItchell, 1995). Hoy en día, la ciudad de los bits se ha redefinido o reinterpretado como la ciudad inteligente.
Definir la ciudad inteligente ha sido una tarea de enormes proporciones, principalmente porque el ímpetu se originó en el sector tecnológico y no en los estudios urbanos. Las ciudades diseñadas y construidas bajo el modelo de las TIC han sido manipuladas por grandes estructuras corporativas como ATT, Cisco, Google, Oracle, Microsoft, entre otras industrias que administran grandes volúmenes de datos de los consumidores. Por ello, los críticos tienden a ser beligerantes con la ciudad inteligente como “el futuro del desarrollo urbano”. El autor Ben Greene aconseja que no podemos confiar únicamente en la tecnología para conseguir una ciudad justa y democrática. Aboga por una ciudad inteligente que implemente tecnologías con fines específicos y confíe los procesos democráticos sociales y políticos a métodos humanos (Greene, 2019). Por lo tanto, una definición concisa u holística podría no ser posible. Además, una ciudad inteligente que despliega sistemas de TIC podría ser la interpretación epistemológica actual en funcionamiento.
En Smart Cities: definitions, dimension, and performance (Ciudades inteligentes: definiciones, dimensión y rendimiento), los autores elaboraron una extensa tabla de posibles definiciones del término. Las definiciones enumeradas varían en profundidad, y algunas incluyen conceptos ajenos a la tecnología (políticos, sociales, medioambientales), lo que aporta una visión más holística de la ciudad inteligente (Albino, Berardi y Dangelico, 2013). Sin embargo, la ciudad inteligente cuenta con un subconjunto de temas que incluyen, entre otros, el entorno natural, las actividades creativas y el bienestar humano en su vertiente física y psicológica. Después de 30 años han surgido nuevas variaciones sobre el tema. Ciudad digital, con un enfoque tecnológico de la comunicación y los sistemas digitales (Ishida, 2002). Ciudades Inteligentes, tecnologías TIC integradas en las infraestructuras existentes (en inglés las palabras Smart y Inteligent no aluden a lo mismo) Komninos (2014). Informática Urbana, incluye las TIC dentro de las funciones administrativas y organizativas (Batty, 2013) (Foth 2011). Smart City como concepto no representa un modelo holístico de desarrollo urbano.
La utilización de la tecnología de la información y la comunicación (TIC) en la administración y el funcionamiento de una ciudad es inevitable. Sin embargo, una pregunta pertinente sería: ¿cuál es el valor conceptual para hacer la ciudad “más inteligente”? ¿Pueden las tecnologías empleadas en la ciudad futura empoderar a los ciudadanos y promover ciudades más democráticas y justas? ¿Es la ciudad inteligente una posible tecnología disruptiva que puede producir un mundo post-capitalista y alternativo? Sería esencial postular si las ciudades inteligentes pueden evolucionar hacia un sistema tecnológico abierto “para hacer la ciudad más informal” (Sennet, 2012). Al mismo tiempo, donde el conocimiento permite la creación de un nuevo tipo de soberanía.
The hybrid structure, part bridge and part building flanked by two large paraboloids made of concrete housed the immigration offices of the Mexican government. It was colloquially known as “la concha” or the seashell to all who waited in line to cross into the US via the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana. The building was abandoned, uncared-for during its last years, and finally demolished in 2015. As Alejandra Lange points out, critics sometimes have to step into the role of activist (Lange, 2012), and when I found out that the federal government wanted to demolish the structure, I did. I joined others in the struggle to preserve the building. Historians, attorneys, artists, and the general public held live debates near the building to show solidarity for one of the last modernist buildings left in the city.
The building mattered because it complied with two of Riegl’s categories, use-value and newness value (Riegl, 1982). However, it was also a signature of Mexican modernism and paraboloid concrete construction made famous by Felix Candela. La Concha was a testament that there was a time when Mexico and Tijuana wanted to be modern. The building was not only a magnificent building but part of a more significant project, the modernization of ports of entry in Mexican border cities. Architect Mario Pani directed the federal initiative known as the Border National Project of 1965 and oversaw most of the design and construction for the country’s modern open land ports.
Lange, A. (2012). Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Building and Cities. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Riegl, A. (1982). The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin. Oppositions 25, 21-51.
A Wired World. In The Undersea Network , Nicole Starosielski argues that we still operate in a material realm where geography, topology, and topography are intertwined within a system of communication technologies codifying worldviews. Material megastructures for digital flows permit localized institutional structures to act as global networks. Moreover, these communication ecologies tend to perform in the manner of Foucault as “other” spaces, as heterotopias that store and transmit microcosm of the world. I will briefly analyze Starosielki’s global infrastructure thesis with Benjamin Bratton’s concept of The Stack, an imminent planetary computational megastructure operating over the material world.
In the age of digital technology, we may believe that wireless and satellite communications are managing global information networks. However, since the 19th century, we have relied on cables across the ocean floor for secure and reliable communication transmission (Starosielski, 2015). The Undersea Network is an eye-opening account of how deep-ocean data/telecommunication cables transmit our present-day digital information. The book unearths crucial information network artifacts essential to capitalism and state security across the globe. Starosielski’s background in media studies brings a material view of the marine cable archeology deployed and connected to land base nodes across the world.
In the early stages of telegraph communication, the undersea system of cables was made from copper, while the conversion to coaxial cable occurred during the cold war period. Currently, fiber optic cable is the preferred option. According to Starosielski’ a signal from NY to London only takes eight of the time to reach its destination as it does by satellite (Starosielski, 2015).
The cables on the ocean floor are vulnerable to clipping by ships navigating or anchoring near them; therefore, they are covered with a layer of soil to avoid any possible disruption. As a fragile cable on the ground, the system is practically defenseless; however, what keeps it secure is that it is laid in some of the most inaccessible geographies to human beings. As the cables reach the surface, they connect to gateways stations designed as discrete buildings in rural areas. These compounds are built to relay data from the numerous network cables serving different nations. They can be categorized as heterotopias producing our world’s digital information twin. A heterotopia, in the manner of Anthony Vidler’s interpretation of the concept, as spaces that are obsoletely other (Vidler, 2014).
The undersea cable system is not an allegory. It is a real object, as real as the geography of the oceans. What is running inside the data servers is a networked microcosm of our existence. Described as a “cable colony”, the station was a self-sufficient and insular space where companies reproduced a microcosm of empire” (Starosielski, 2015).
Stacks. In The Stack, digital theorist Benjamin Bratton states that our world is layered by soft and hardwired systems, Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, User (Bratton, 2016). Interestingly, the layered components are a worldview of Earth and Cloud as a complex organization. Technology is a fundamental imperative to interact with the world in the layers after the earth. For Bratton, our political and economic systems work at a planetary scale made possible by digital technology and computing infrastructure that creates a series of non-geographical layers. The earth provides material and energy (resources and labor), while the Cloud is where virtual technologies operate ubiquitously across the globe
For Starosielski, technology is a form of layering building on its predecessor. The stack is a layer of continental, urban, and perceptual scales. In The Stack, the earth (as a layer) provides a datum and produces the resources needed to escape geographical domination by creating new computational megastructures. These planetary-scale computational layers are networks alluding to possible new world sovereignties that operate above the physical datum. As seen in The Undersea Network, the material world is still the structure from where the digital globe anchors itself. Yet, I think both the stack and the cable network are sedimentary structures.
In the end, everything needs to be plugged in somewhere.
Bratton, B. (2016). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press.
Starosielski, N. (2015). The Undersea Network. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
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 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).
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.
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 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).
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 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.
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)
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).
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).
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.
 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).
 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.
 Urbicide is defined as “violence against the city”. The term was first coined by Michael Moorcock in 1963
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
In the next weeks, I will be posting short essays on the theme of infrastructure. Ideas about the nature and impact this concept has on our daily life. I will revisit some historical infrastructures and contemporary versions of them.
Notes on what (and when) is infrastructure
A Lecture, the Classical and the Machine. In October of 2009, as part of the Post-Industrial Landscape Symposium at Woodbury University in San Diego, architect and critic Peter Martinez-Zellner presented a lecture titled Architecture is not Infrastructure. Zellner argued that architecture has an aesthetic quality that physical infrastructure does not possess. The mere utilitarian function of today’s lived space has outmoded functionality. He reminded us that in the Vitruvian Trinity of firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis (Vitruvius, 1826), a kind of Hippocratic Oath for architects, Firmness (i.e., structure) is implied and therefore not an essential subject of discussion for architects in the 20th century. However, in western culture classical architecture influenced the design of buildings for hundreds of years via a platonic theory of objects. Primarily, infrastructure was consigned to the parts of a larger, sometimes unachievable, ideal form. Consequently, we can argue that after a couple of centuries, architecture is being redefined aesthetically from a singular object with a defined hierarchy to an intellectual component relevant to the discipline of sensory arts such as painting or music. A post-Kantian attitude where “beauty” in architecture is non-dependent on solely function and form (Guyer, 2011).
According to anthropologist Ashley Carse, in its fundamental definition infrastructure is a mere “collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking”. During the post-war era infrastructure became an abstract concept beyond engineering (Carse 2017). Similarly, the term Architecture is going through a re-assembling and recoding. Nowadays additional forms of architecture(s) such as data architecture, software architecture, architectural engineering are part of the technology lexis. Another argument would entail the possibility of architecture and its influence in the world through material effects (new contemporary forms of inhabiting the earth) and conceptual world making (speculative views of the world). Architecture’s ontological foundation operates in disciplines that produce material effects in the world, such as landscape architecture, interior architecture, etc. Infrastructure and Architecture not only coincide in the attempt to redefine their agency in the pursuit of world-making, but they both also have a stake in the spatial sphere. “Infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space” (Larkin, 2013).
During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the modernist architectural movement advocated a disruption from social and economic monarch power and idealized the birth of a modern, independent universal subject. Machines such as those used for the world’s industrialization and transportation infrastructures (boats, planes, autos, and trains) were ideal metaphors for architecture since their functionality and esthetic come together harmoniously. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who promoted the Machine for Living aesthetic as a functional and formal style, imagined that functionalism and rationalism would produce urban environments that could embrace new concepts of democracy and homogeneity (Corbusier, 1982). Since then, the valorization of efficiency and development via industrial technology influenced theories in architectural pedagogy.
A few decades before Le Corbusier, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared war on building ornamentation and classical architecture. He advocated for the stripping away of symbols of hierarchy, class, and power in public and private buildings and proclaimed ornament as a ‘crime’ (Adolf & Adolf, 1998). These new theoretical underpinnings facilitated infrastructure to emerge from behind the scenes. During this period, agricultural infrastructure such as grain silos, barns, and other industrial structures inspired new imagery for future architecture in the USA. These structures, even in decay, were viewed as a form of optimism in the same way Roman aqueducts were during the neo-classical period (Cymene, 2016).
Latin America’s Infrastructural Redux. During the modernization of Latin America in the middle of the 20th century, many large cities searched for alternative and contemporary models of urbanization beyond the principles of colonial planning. Countries explored urban concepts that emphasized public health infrastructure rather than aesthetic representation (Almandoz, 2009). Spanish city planner Ildefonso Cerda coined the term urbanism in his Teoria General de la Urbanizacion published in 1867 to differentiate city-design and aesthetics from more technical aspects of city-making (administrative, infrastructural, and socio-political) that conforms to the contemporary city (Soria Y Puig, 1995). In Latin America, cities such as Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City had regained control over their natural resources after centuries of colonial rule and planning patterns based on The Law of the Indies. These new republican cities believed in modernism’s anti-aesthetic and large infrastructural projects as a path to their modernization. However, during this era of modernity and technological development in city-making, most decisions were left to the state apparatus, which promoted international views on development strategies—specifically those from the USA towards Latin America (Escobar, 1995).
In contemporary architectural philosophy, infrastructure shows up in speculative theories. In all its characterizations, infrastructure is a significant part of our conception of the world. In the work of philosopher Benjamin Bratton, the world is composed of stacks that include our physical and spatial reality and numerous digital infrastructures that project image/system realities. The Stack is a political design theory at a planetary scale (Bratton, 2016). Infrastructure has a role beyond the material; it is part of a gauzy geopolitical architecture. Like Bratton, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio has had a profound impact on the way we conceptualize the ‘structures’ of the world through their potentials and perils. Virilio is known for the comment, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution…Every technology carries its negativity, which is invented simultaneously as technical progress” (Virilio, 1999).
In the era of the Anthropocene, various ways of relating to infrastructure have emerged, especially those dealing with non-human living organisms or actants, as Latour calls them, that modify or produce action in an assemblage. Infrastructure has become relevant for the development and survival of life on the planet within our time frame and beyond. Our infrastructures are becoming social, biological, and digital. It is a thing and a relationship (Cymene, 2016).
For clarity (at least my own), in this short essay, I have intended to follow the transformation of the term “infrastructure” along with theoretical positions in urbanism and architecture. Initially, I argued that infrastructure in architecture was related to ‘structure’ via classical architecture. All things should be designed and built conforming to a divine set of principles. These principles are later replaced by theories of aesthetic perception rather than formal rules. At the onset of the 20th century, the industrial revolution and new modes of political sovereignties around the globe give infrastructure an essential role in rebuilding cities and society. Our current view of the built world(s) is now studied through an epistemological approach that includes a redefinition and re-conceptualization of infrastructure’s role.
Adolf, L., & Adolf, O. (1998). Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays.
Almandoz, A. (2009). Planning Latin America’s Capital Cities 1850-1950. NY: Routledge.
Amin, A. (2014). Lively Infrastructure. Theory Culture and Society, 137-161.
Bratton, B. (2016). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press.
Carse, A. (2017). Keyword: Infrastructure. How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world. In P. Harvey, J. B. Casper, & M. Atsuro, Infrastructure and Social Complexity: A companion (pp. 27-39). Routledge.
Corbusier, L. (1982). Towrads a New Architecture. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.
Cymene, H. e. (2016). Paradoxical Infrastructures: Ruins Retrofit and Risk. Science, Technology & Human Values, 547-565.
Dennis, R. J., & Simpson, D. (2011). The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Guyer, P. (2011). Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 7-19.
Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 327–43.
Soria Y Puig, A. (1995). Ildefonso Cerda’s General Theory of ‘Urbanizacion.’. The Town Planning Review 66 no. 1, 15-39.
Virilio, P. (1999). Politics of the Very Worst. New York: Semiotext.
Vitruvius, P. (1826). The Ten Books of Architecture. London: Priestley and Weale.