Why study infrastructures? What do we talk about when we talk about infrastructures? These questions are timely to ask. As you read, Russia is attacking critical infrastructure in Ukraine, chipping away at the country’s political independence. China has spent the last decade erecting highways, bridges, and buildings at unprecedented rate and scale, much of that in Africa. The US has recently passed major infrastructure and climate bills at a scale that suggests a major shift in public priorities, even worldviews. Within the mainly North American scope of this journal and the college it represents, the latter seems enough of a prompt.
For far too long, major public works have been presumed to be inevitable and value neutral. Academics, practitioners, and users, claimed that infrastructures become visible only when they crumble and fail. In other words, infrastructures are meant to be invisible. We push against this long-held assumption and argue that infrastructures are not inherently invisible, but they are made to be invisible. And it is not just infrastructures as objects that we learn to un-see, but infrastructures as people, as maintainers, as caregivers, who are made to disappear into the background.
Design has a role in this, for design is a negotiation, and design can make larger abstractions like social policies and technological networks more usable–and sometimes more culturally visible. So there is something very positive about a new appreciation and participation, not only in design futures or policy debates, but also then in more conscientious everyday use of infrastructures. Here cultural values do start to shift, whether around food and water, energy, mobility, broadband, and not only around so much hard infrastructure-building on the agenda, but also with concern for the soft infrastructures that make those more resilient, knowable, and equitable.
The question of whose infrastructures does seem vital. Without it, too many projects serve some and not others. Too few systems imposed from afar match very well with local social practices on the ground, or as an engineer or policy analyst might put it, in the wild. Alas seldom can the big disinterested money of governments or transnational corporations understand and uphold the more enactive kinds of knowledge that reside in places. Seldom does the galaxy of local advocacy groups and nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations have enough clout to uphold nonfiscal values of social practices. But if that sounds like the same old urban politics, (think Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses), it is not. Amplified by media, driven by the planet, and with a vastly more diverse set of players, the perennial work of getting infrastructures right has new dimensions, new opportunities, and new design challenges. (Not just incidentally has the college launched an urban technology degree to probe some such prospects.)
Infrastructure is an obviously pressing contemporary issue, but also a historical one. As a system that organizes, builds, governs, and sustains everyday life, infrastructure has long been wrapped up in politics of imperialism, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. In the 20th century, hard infrastructures were at the center of the New Deal and the military industrial complex alike. The interstate highways were instigated and later named for a wartime general turned president. The internet began as a defense solution. In the 19th century, soft infrastructures of work organized slavery and indentured labor, and everyday uses of urban infrastructures like water and transit paved the way for Jim Crow and segregation. What any of this means today may not be what it meant back then. So it is worth reciting in a somewhat longer global historic voice, how back then (and somehow all the more questionably today) the technological advantages of the industrialized north were too easily mistaken for cultural advantages. It is worth repeating that technological change was (and somehow sometimes still is) considered obvious and inevitable. Yet as social historians of technology have so well explained, the adaptive path was seldom linear. Even for infrastructures so incontestably advantageous as electricity, different cultures built and operated it differently. For of course electric power was also political power.
The question “whose infrastructures?” now invites fresh critique. Whereas new deal projects came from the left, today privatization comes from the right. Where in the 20th century what was salient was how many more people could connect, by now what stands out is those still somehow left behind. Where technologies have disappeared into normalcy globally, their originators no longer control quite so much about them. Today when so many technologies have global reach, if nowhere near not universal access, the earlier lead of the global north or anglo-america industrialization no longer constitutes as much advantage, cannot remain a template, and indeed has worldview shifts of its own at home. Here in North America, the scope of this journal, and certainly here in this college, this cultural value shift shapes up mainly around the egalitarian city.
Scholars of historical and contemporary infrastructures have engaged with Indigenous land defenders, Black Lives Matter organizers, abolitionists, and other activists to document and challenge so many normative frameworks. They have pushed to imagine alternative infrastructures for collective and decolonial forms of being. However vital all this seems for the global south and the future of the planet, it also plays out in the American city. Such work invites positive engagement in a cleaner, greener, more local, and more inclusive set of city services–and also citizenship.
What does the discipline of architecture bring to this conversation? How can architects’ insights into locality, scale, and embodiment bring more kinds of participants into the work ahead? And, in turn, how might a clear focus on infrastructure transform the social, cultural, and political commitments of the discipline itself? The Gradient journal is especially well suited to bring this conversation to the forefront. Architects, who balance a view to history and a view to contemporary opportunities, are best positioned to advance this rapidly expanding conversation. They are able to move beyond practical questions of resource efficiencies and environmental resilience, and to provoke others to imagine what life could be like. Grappling with infrastructural inequities requires utopian—and even architectural—thinking. And we can see that the multiplicity of forms, shapes, and effects of infrastructure requires that we think about these vital systems in plural—hence the special emphasis on infrastructures.
Architects are crucial interlocutors in conversations about infrastructures because they work at a multiscalar level, balancing both global systems approaches and small, site-specific projects. We might refer to this as capital-I Infrastructures and small-i infrastructures. They exist in a unique and complicated relationship with one another, at times running parallel, in competition or even in opposition to one another. We must study I and i together because through this relationship we can better understand power. We can see how small infrastructures like local agricultural cooperatives can subvert and challenge large infrastructural frameworks of industrial agriculture and even big tech. Studying infrastructural power also requires that we experiment with new research methodologies, embracing ethnographies in addition to more conventional ways of mapping the geographies of technological networks.
Jono Bentley Sturt
[As members of the Architectural Computational Design + Construction Cluster (ACDCC) converge to look inward, to ‘bend in,’ to reassess our priorities and formulate our collective identity and impact, Gradient: Feed #2 captures these discursive moments of exchange. Gradient will be our way to lean outward, to spark conversations and debate, and highlight our priorities.]
Inflections is a series of contributions on topics pertaining to the role that technology plays in relation to how we conceive, build, experience, and teach architecture. Computational design, digital fabrication, AR/VR/XR, and AI have all matured enough to inscribe their own disciplinary modalities within the design fields. The related technologies in these domains of production have had a profound impact on the discipline of architecture and our built environment. The influence of these technologies and their associated systemic practices in diverse facets of everyday life is palpable, ranging from innovations and discoveries that benefit society in health and social networks to how we work and spend our leisure time. This Gradient feed, with contributions and curations by members of the Architectural Computational Design and Construction Cluster (ACDCC) at Taubman College, reassesses the principles and modalities by which we employ technologies for design to characterize our ethos, habits, and ambitions. The ‘angle’ of each feed—bias, oblique, and parallel—will offer up opportunities to express inflections in our current thinking and production. These inflections, underscore our preoccupations, range, mood, attitudes, and pitch.
—Grammar: a change in the form of a word (typically the ending) to express a grammatical function or attribute such as tense, mood, person, number, case, and gender.
—the process or practice of inflecting words.
—the modulation of intonation or pitch in the voice: she spoke slowly and without inflection | the variety of his vocal inflections.
—the variation of the pitch of a musical note.
—chiefly Mathematics a change of curvature from convex to concave at a particular point on a curve.
Origin: late Middle English (in the sense ‘the action of bending inwards’): from Latin inflexio(n), from the verb inflectere ‘bend in, curve’ (see inflect)
from the New Oxford American Dictionary
Matias del Campo
Tsz Yan Ng
Peter von Bülow
Tsz Yan Ng
Jono Bentley Sturt
Consider the 91.5x2.75x2 in. Crown Molding in Unfinished Beech, available for $25 at Home Depot. Upon installation, your dining room is magically charged with allusion to a broadly cast notion of western culture, recalling the neoclassical cornice, and its Renaissance, Roman, and Greek antecedents. Shaped to cast shadow from an absent Mediterranean sun, the sectional figuration reflects the physical constraints of chiseled tufa stone, later translated through those of plaster application, and then the factory wood mill. This piece of off-the-shelf trim constitutes the material sediment of millenia of collective labor practices, and their attendant social and cultural constructions. Today, crown molding is attached via finish nail to gypsum wallboard, nominally dimensioned to 4’×8’ to align with light-frame construction beyond. This 4’×8’ dimension, and subdivisions thereof, regulates scores of additional building products, logistical practices, factory floors, bodily configuration, spatial patterns, and the habits of life within. The material assemblies that constitute architecture encapsulate, enforce, and inflect a rich aggregation of social, historical, cultural, and political concerns.
Architecture likewise participates in the assembly of people. The spatial configurations and material articulations of the built environment implicate the aggregation of groups, audiences, mobs, publics and counter-publics; even while architecture’s embedded ideologies too often reinforce biases that exclude, segregate, and pull apart. Always an inexact endeavor, the capacity of built form to constitute this kind of human assembly is a recurrent fascination in architecture, from Constructivist social condensers to contemporary speculation on new forms of human and non-human collectives. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the production of the built environment entails the assembly of human labor—from the designer to the pipefitter—in unions, corporations, professional organizations, and other forms of collectivity, indenture, and solidarity.
This first Gradient is titled Other Assemblies. Here, we explore the resonance of the term assembly—the material, the socio-political, and the complex interrelationships between those milieus—in contemporary architecture at Taubman College and beyond. The collection begins with contributions that examine a swell of recent work newly interested in tectonics, or the aesthetic, symbolic, or expressive capacities of material assemblies, joints, and joinery. In this vein, Mireille Roddier surveys projects from the Research Through Making grant program (2009-2018), looking for evidence of what she calls “critical contemporaneity” in the digital tectonic. Her identification of “heretofore unexplored ends” embedded within the digitally-enabled assemblies she analyzes begins to suggest novel tectonics as a means of world-making. Laida Aguirre and Meredith Miller talk about tape, nuts, the “aesthetics of disassembly,” and other topics. If prior visitations of tectonic fascination have attended elite or rarified material cultures, these “temporary tectonics” of imprecious materials might suggest other material cultures of the subaltern or the unauthorized. Matthew Au and Mira Henry of the Los Angeles-based Current Interests have contributed a meticulously assembled Miro board, containing a panoply of ruminations on physical assembly. Recalling Richter’s Atlas or Warburg’s Mnemosyne, the work confuses digital and analog joinery, while leveraging a platform that has organized the assembly of labor for so many of us in the past year.
Extending the labor thread, Daniel Jacobs interviews Peggy Deamer. The two revisit Deamer’s early work on form, aesthetics, and the architectural detail, and discuss how these interests have informed her thinking on subjectivity, politics, and the organization of labor in architecture. John McMorrough then reprises the development of the Situation studio at Taubman College, the third studio in the first year core of our Master of Architecture. Evolving from a studio that focused on the “unresolvability” of format and function, to one about programming and emergent publics, to its most recent iteration that—among other topics—meditates on the simultaneous assemblage of people and things. Finally, Steven Lauritano re-reads former Taubman faculty member Labelle Prussin’s analysis of the tent architecture of the nomadic African Gabra culture. Labelling the work “tent-tonic,” Lauritano builds on Prussin to discuss how tent assembly and disassembly embed and reinforce the construction of gender and female solidarity for the Gabra culture.
As an online journal that aspires to lean in to the potentials of digital media formats, Gradient is organized in “feeds” rather than “issues.” The journal intends to identify and elevate nascent disciplinary conversations at Taubman and beyond. These feeds might be semi-defined topics, compelling misfits, or fragments of latent conversations: dim when first launched, but clarified over time. Each feed will remain active after its launch, welcoming responses and submissions in any format—image, video, text, and more. The conversation will stay active until it resolves itself, loses relevance, or just fades away into the endless digital ether—the Gradient.
Meredith L. Miller