“Infrastructure” refers to the underlying physical fabric of the structured environment, as represented by familiar examples like the Roman Aqueducts or the WPA projects of the Great Depression.
These massive (concrete) structures provide the operational foundations for the society they serve, and are understandably built to last forever.
Despite its own vast inertia, though, infrastructure’s most important role is to facilitate movement—the flow of people, goods, information that is the life blood of any civilization (even dams are built to control the energy of the rivers they span). It is infrastructure that ensures this flow is maintained with ease, speed and efficiency.
The well-served society tends to grow, however, leading inevitably to conges- tion, which means that its infrastructure must grow with it. Over the course of the twentieth century in particular the scale of infrastructure increased dramatically, paced and outpaced by the rising prosper- ity of the industrialized world. Today’s traffic jams, energy deficits and pollution testify by their own disruptiveness to the continuing importance of infrastructure as an enabler of flow.
But in the twenty-first century, dwindling resources will prevent the relief of this latest round of congestion through yet larger infrastructure. There simply isn’t enough space left in most cities today for more freeways or money available to pay for elaborate subway systems. And today’s problems are too nimble/complex for such ponderous solutions, anyway.
The colossal continuing presence of last century’s legacy infra- structure reminds us that now is different, and it should warn us against outdated thinking that perpetuates that old infrastructure’s massive, resource-intensive inertia.
Today a flexible, pragmatic, small-scale bottom-up approach is more appropriate for thinking about problems of infrastructure in a globalized, flattened, speeded up information society with limited resources.
The solution of mass transit is no solution at all, but a palliative to the designer’s sense of guilt and a proven failure when other options (like those presented here) are available.
Like architecture, infrastructure—which might on occasion be architecture—is an expression of its times. WPA 2.0 will be smaller, lighter, faster, more diffuse than WPA 1.0. It will free the flow to find its own channels, realizing efficiencies impossible for its earlier static forebears.
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