Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.

Architectural Potential Energy

[Image: From the forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32 by Stasus].

The forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32, on the theme of “resilience,” will be authored by Matt Ozga-Lawn and James A. Craig of Stasus, a young design firm based in Edinburgh and London.

[Images: From the forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32 by Stasus].

The pamphlet, which will explore a series of post-industrial sites in the city of Warsaw—”a desolate area of disused freight rail tracks, commercial lots, gasometer buildings and other industrial apparatus,” as the architects describe it—is more explicitly narrative than the other pamphlets that have been most recently published.

“The scope and intent of our book,” Stasus writes, citing such influences as Piranesi and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, “is to highlight the importance of forgotten landscapes in our cities and the potentialities that can be extracted from them.”

A sprawling, unplanned city centre threatens a desolate landscape that still embodies many resilient aspects of the city. In many ways, the “value” of this landscape, though barren, could be said to exceed that of the new centre. The profound additional meanings inherent to a disused rail track in Warsaw, for example, eclipse the meanings inherent to a city block of financial skyscrapers. Rather than replace or erase these attributes, we aimed to augment the resiliency of the meanings that were embodied in every element of the landscape we stumbled across. As our design process progressed this methodology spread to every aspect of our thinking.

Within this urban landscape “on the edge of oblivion,” as they describe it, “frozen, awaiting the imminent state of transition from one state to the next,” they focused on a series of found objects and particular locations—a kind of readymade architectural forensics of the city.

[Images: From the forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32 by Stasus].

Their chosen strategy seems to have arisen directly from a course taught at the University of Edinburgh by professor Mark Dorrian.

As Dorrian himself explains, his students were urged “to set aside all familiar hierarchies, and recognize that dust, a discarded piece of paper or a scratch on the floor is as important as a window, cornice, column or door. We are in a situation in which everything counts—or at least in which we can discount nothing.” Overlooked minor objects, apparently without use, and peripheral spaces of the city, apparently without residents, were thus taken as central to the course’s architectural intentions.

[Images: From the forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32 by Stasus].

For their part, Stasus interpreted this design brief as requiring the use of narrative in order to help them reveal their site’s future spatial possibilities. In their own words:

Once identified, the design process takes the form of a testing and investigation of the properties inherent to these existing landscapes of possibilities. The more resistant certain elements are to transformation, deletion, or manipulation, the more they are worked into the design process and become adapted within and integral to design “outputs.” The approach is therefore vastly different from a blank-paper methodology. Rather than creating our own clearing for design work, we aim to identify the most resilient elements within our field of exploration. These may be meanings passed through material context, implied mythical narratives, incidental connotations, historical and pre-historical implications.

“Our design process could therefore be described as an investigation of the resilient qualities of that which exists, a navigation of resilient landscapes,” they summarize.

And it is the work that came out of that course that thus forms the conceptual backbone for the work that will soon appear as Pamphlet Architecture #32.

[Images: Derelict landscapes and optical devices scaled up to the size of megastructures, by Stasus].

In his introductory essay for the pamphlets, Dorrian suggests that Stasus’s work “draws upon the strange imagined half-lives of obsolescent and anachronistic things” that are “charged with the future.”

Put another way, abandoned objects, locations, and spaces have a particular kind of architectural potential energy, a lack of precise definition that allows them to hover somewhere between promise and realization; however misleading it might actually be, then, dereliction implies a unique capacity for transformation—an ability to assume radically new spatial characteristics in the future—whilst simultaneously presenting what we could describe as fossils of an earlier world, one that has long since disappeared or ceased to operate.

[Images: From the forthcoming Pamphlet Architecture #32 by Stasus].

In any case, I’ve included some preliminary images from the pamphlet here, as well as some project images by Stasus; for more, check out Stasus’s website and keep your eye out for the Pamphlet itself, which I assume will be out sometime in the autumn.

Pamphlet Infrastructure

[Image: From InfraNet Lab’s submission to the WPA 2.0 competition, “centered on the twin dilemma of rising population and water shortages in the US southwest.”]

As a longtime fan of Mason White’s and Lola Sheppard’s work both at InfraNet Lab – an amazing web resource for anyone interested in cities, infrastructure, built landscapes, hydrological processes, international communications networks, and more – and at their architecture firm, Lateral Office – mentioned many times on BLDGBLOG before, from IceLink and A.I.R. Unit to Reykjavík’s Runways to Greenways – and as an enthusiast for Princeton Architectural Press’s Pamphlet Architecture series, I was absolutely thrilled to learn last week that InfraNet Lab will be authoring Pamphlet Architecture 30. Their book will be called Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, and it will be published in 2010.

Along with Lola and Mason, Neeraj Bhatia and Maya Przbylski from Lateral Office will also be contributing – and this promises to be one of the best pamphlets yet. It’s also fantastic news for Lateral Office, who well deserve this exposure for their ideas and work. Congrats, guys! I can’t wait to see the results.

(By way of a brief PS, Mason will actually be speaking at the North American launch of The BLDGBLOG Book on Saturday, September 26, at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, along with Lebbeus Woods, another Pamphlet Architecture author).