The lunar frigidity of electric light: atmosphere and infrastructure in Haussmann’s Paris

In his Arcades Project (1999), Benjamin cites Georges Laronze:

“The visual effect was thus very striking, with the swirling branches of the fifty-six great streetlights along the avenue, the reflections from the surfaces below, and the flickering of flames from the five hundred thousand jets of gas” (128-29).

And Georges Montorgueil:

“A dreamlike setting, where the yellowish flickering of the gas is wedded to the lunar frigidity of electric light” (562).

Light exemplifies the relationship between atmosphere and infrastructure in Haussmann’s Paris. Atmosphere and infrastructure, while seeming to belong to two different worlds, are actually two sides of the same coin.

Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

Failed Architecture

Failed Architecture, with its studies of urban decay and quixotic hopes, has been on a roll recently. I’ve enjoyed Celeste Olalquiaga’s Tropical Babel on a helical tower in Caracas that became “a black sun, radiating inconspicuous state control, detention, and surveillance”; Barbara Prezelj’s description of Jože Plečnik’s abandoned Ljubljana stadium, which now hosts allotment gardens; and The Sudden Death of Cambodia’s Homegrown Modernism, in which Alexander Doerr visits Kep, where ruined villas in the jungle attest to an interrupted local modernism. And there’s plenty more good stuff in the archives.

Severe models — Le Corbusier and Addis Ababa, 1936



At Failed Architecture, Rixt Woudstra writes about Le Corbusier’s sketch proposal for Addis Ababa. The drawing was sent to Mussolini in 1936, a manifesto for the modernist city:

“Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by “…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.” Further in his letter he added: “…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…””

The drawing is a perfect example of what I’m writing about currently as the ‘unified city model’, in which the city is treated as a single integrated entity, in keeping with an emerging “techno-cosmopolitanism… an understanding that society must be constructed, planned, and organised through art and science… the operationalisation of history, society, and culture” (Rabinow, 1996: 59). The allegiance between fascist ideas of governance and organic or unified models of the city is more than superficial. Once the city is imagined as a single entity, it’s not a big step to understand its purpose and ends solely in terms of the will of its rulers.

Rabinow, P. (1996). Essays on the anthropology of reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Infrastructures are the new commons

Infrastructure as a new commons

Frischmann proposes that infrastructures are resources that should be thought of and managed as commons:

Specifically, infrastructural resources satisfy the following criteria:

(1) The resource may be consumed nonrivalrously for some appreciable range of demand.

(2) Social demand for the resource is driven primarily by downstream productive activity that requires the resource as an input.

(3) The resource may be used as an input into a wide range of goods and services, which may include private goods, public goods, and social goods. (Frischmann, 2012)

This aligns with the idea that infrastructure is fundamentally an element of an industrial economy, but it takes a wider scope, allowing for forms of production, use, and value that may not be of immediate economic value. Treating infrastructure as a resource is interesting in itself, and the idea of linking this to the commons, a principle effectively eliminated by the rise of capitalism is also appealing.

Frischmann, B. M. (2012). Infrastructure. The social value of shared resources. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.