Infrastructural Space

I’m at the planning stages for a paper on infrastructural space aimed at undergraduate students. I intend the paper to serve as a springboard for further inquiry: a substantial theoretical background, lots of examples, and raising the question of designing in and alongside, infrastructural systems. This is the abstract I’ve written so far:

In the 21st century, one of the major determiners of our space is infrastructure. We are plugged into motorways, railways, telecommunications networks, wireless data transmitters, air-conditioning systems, financial networks, electricity lines, sewers. Infrastructure is not only an urban condition, either: entire regions of NZ have been harnessed for power-generating, dairy-farming depends on a milk-collecting infrastructure, and irrigation is one of the oldest of human infrastructures. This paper explores the spatiality of infrastructure. It describes how infrastructural space differs from contained space, and outlines some of the implications and opportunities for spatial designers in an infrastructural world.

Networks are a precondition for many of the characteristics of the 21st century world: rapid mobility, instantaneous data transfer, information processing. Many of the things we do that used to require lots of material constructions and artefacts can now be carried out remotely from nearly anywhere. This is commonly seen as a dematerialising effect of networks, but it is more accurate to see it as a rematerialisation. Infrastructure lessens the importance of service spaces to which you go (like banks, bookshops), and increases the importance of spaces through which things pass: hubs, distribution centres, passages.

Manuel Castells argued in 1996 that a new form of society had emerged, which he called ‘network society’. Networks, systems of interconnected nodes, had become a dominant form, not only of the things we make, but of our societies as well. Network society, Castells argued, was characterised by a new kind of space, the space of flows. A number of other writers near the turn of the twenty-first century picked up on this thought: Mark C. Taylor in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (2001); Negri and Hardt in Empire (2001) followed up by their Multitudes: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and Kazys Varnelis in The Infrastructural City (2007) and Networked Publics (2008). Infrastructure operates in network space. It is based on connectivity. In network space, my presence is not determined by the physical location of my body, but by my connectedness.

The 2009 recession has brought infrastructure to the fore. Many of the governmental stimulus packages initiated globally emphasise infrastructure projects, because they are labour-intensive, providing jobs; because they are too difficult for private capital to undertake; and because by generating new connections, greater flows of people, goods, information, and crucially, capital, can be anticipated in future. In particular, ‘green’ infrastructure is prominent: low-environmental-impact energy generation, and public transport especially. Infrastructure can be environmentally disruptive, and there has been a great deal of concern for how infrastructure might act to integrate natural flows.

This paper will progress through a series of propositions, illustrated with examples: infrastructure indicates a spatiality of connectedness rather than containment; in the present, our space is infrastructurally defined; the concept of nature is being transformed infrastructurally; the position of being off-the-grid is an important critical opportunity.

There are a number of open issues, particularly differences between networks and an infrastructures (can we really conflate the two as synonyms?), and shifts and developments since the turn-of-the-century thinking about them. It’s a major defect in this abstract that no specific examples are addressed yet. There’s probably also a little historical material that needs to get in: the modernist fascination with infrastructure as an abstract assertion of human potency (Corb’s Algiers project, etc.), and some of the 70s oil-shock-triggered sense of a global environment (Fuller), and the 60s displacement of architecture into infrastructure by Archigram. This alone could fill hundreds of papers so I may be limited in what I include. Another open question is the relation between infrastructure and globalism – although current infrastructural practices and discourses incorporate the concepts of a finite environment and the facilitation of global circulation of flows, I don’t believe infrastructure is necessarily derived from a global view. However, it does seem that infrastructural development is increasingly promoted as a fundamental premise for engagement with a global community.

Any thoughts or suggestions from people more expert in this area would be welcomed.