As a young man, Timo Stammberger would travel Berlin’s subways—on foot—tagging the tunnel walls. “My personal engagement was through graffiti,” the 28-year-old says. “These tunnels are used by so many people every day and are a big part of the infrastructure,” Stammberger says. “But nobody sees them. Their perception is limited. I try to reveal the unseen.”
But if Stammberger’s starting point is discovery, that result share another quality: a happy-sad mix of civic aspiration and the inevitable decay that follows. Precise dirty white walls. An elegant S-curve ends in the entropy of rocks and trash. He instead reveals its hard truths: The city begins crumbling as soon as it has been constructed. Beneath every new project lies the rubble of another.
In the United States today, that’s an important insight. Infrastructure is being revealed, in the sense that it’s attracting more attention than it has in decades. But that attention is divided between repair and renewal, despair and hope. The recent I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis put a catastrophic face on what engineers had been warning for years: our roads and bridges are rotting faster than they can be repaired. Worse, that acknowledgement comes at a moment when repair isn’t enough. As far below baseline as the schools, trains, planes, and power grids have fallen, the baseline itself is rising. Reducing the output of greenhouse gases necessary to reverse global climate change requires building a new transportation and power system, retrofitting buildings, and re-thinking industrial agriculture. Maintaining our existing infrastructure is a totally insufficient task. We need a new infrastructure.
The hope comes in the form of Obama’s New New Deal—“the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system,” as he announced it in an early-December radio address.
As Kazys Varnelis notes in his new book, The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, it was the WPA that introduced Americans to Modernism as both an architectural style and a culture. “The New Deal accustomed Americans to the idea that structures based on functionalism and technology would lead the country to economic prosperity,” he writes. It’s an obvious ambition to hope that a New New Deal could save us from Modernism in the same way that the New Deal introduced us to it. Rather than merely prop up the old infrastructure, it would build one anew: encouraging dense, transit-based development; insisting that new buildings use less energy; constructing a smart power grid. These projects could also accustom Americans to the idea of systems based on ecology and carbon reduction. At best, they could prepare us for an era of eco-Modernism.
If that seems like a naively utopian vision, consider that the transformation of the landscape would be no more extreme than what has happened in the last 50 years. If the interstates could make the suburbs and gut the cities, the next era of development can spur denser growth patterns, served by low-carbon systems. “It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now,” David Brooks wrote in December in the New York Times.
From a technological standpoint, that transformation is precisely what we’re best at—or at least getting better at. The 50-year arc of engines and batteries puts us right on the cusp of viable clean-power transit. The computation and flexibility necessary to make better use of the energy feeding the electric grid are already available; they’re the same technologies keeping cell phones going for days on a single charge. And telecommunications itself is slowly but steadily having a noticeable effect on how and when we use energy, whether through the reduced need for office space because of flexible work locations, the creeping advance of videoconferencing, or even the use of online social networking to buttress face-to-face interactions. It’s not as if we can’t imagine what a viable future might look like (even if it is just as easy to summon a picture of total collapse).
What’s harder to grasp is the inherent flexibility of this new infrastructure. With The Infrastructural City, Varnelis, an architectural historian and the director of Columbia University’s Network Architecture Lab, set out to update Reyner Banham’s 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The major difference is that where Banham saw in Los Angeles’s unplanned urbanism a logic that could be instructive, Varnelis views it as a city in perpetual crisis—a victim of its own infrastructure. The freeways are perpetually clogged. The wildfires burn faster the more they are suppressed. “Infrastructure is no longer a solution,” Varnelis writes. But he really means the old infrastructure, those masterworks built according to a plan—the kind captured by Stammberger.
The emerging infrastructure is different. Varnelis describes it as something multiple and shifting: “networked ecologies,” plural “infrastructures” that are “hypercomplex” and as likely to consist of legal mechanisms and barely visible cell-phone networks as the heavy stuff of tunnels and bridges. Inherently less apparent than the infrastructure that came before, they’re also as likely to be owned by corporations as by governments—meaning these networks can’t really be controlled, only “appropriated” according to their own logic. With traditional planning made impotent by capitalism and NIMBYism, rebuilding the city now requires a “new type of urbanist,” a designer Varnelis compares to a computer hacker who reimagines a new use for the underlying rules and codes. It’s a compelling vision, but it’s darkened by a Marxist conviction about the malevolence of the corporation. Infrastructure has always been a public initiative that complements private investment.
I’d prefer to leave the door open a crack for public aspiration—to see the darkest hour as coming right before the dawn: the birth and death of cities, the simultaneous presence of hope and despair. An Obama New New Deal could show something similar: a new infrastructure rising out of the ferment of economic and environmental crisis.