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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

WRITING: The MESH Book: landscape/infrastructure

Emerging from the student-organised MESH conference at RMIT University in 2002, with Jessica Blood, I edited the papers from the conference into a book, published by RMIT Press in 2004, entitled The MESH Book: landscape/infrastructure. The following is the introduction from the book.


Introduction: front and back

Writing about infrastructure is, it seems, like writing about the background: it is always there, but the closer you get to it, the more background there is behind it. Like the background, infrastructure is a relational term, and is not supposed to be the specific focus of discussion: the conjunction of “infra” with structure suggests that while it is a vital, structural term, it is inherently hidden, its significant resting in its ability to facilitate things, other than itself. This contradiction between the importance of its structural qualities and its inherent deferral to other things consistently made the topic of this book, infrastructure-landscape, a challenging one. Peter Connolly qualifies this in his section introduction in this volume as the relationship between landscape and infrastructure not being one of invisibility but rather imperceptibility, suggesting that to focus on the visual “affects” of infrastructure is to fail to recognise its other, more significant “functioning’s”.

An aesthetic of infrastructural landscape

This reminder to us, the editors, is a timely one, considering that the interest in landscape-infrastructure that this book grew out of, via the Mesh conference, was initially aesthetically driven, based around ‘the look’ of a number of exemplary contemporary projects, including Alexander Chemetoff’s Bamboo Garden at the Parc de la Villette, Enric Batlle & Joan Roig’s Parc Trinitat, both of which are discussed by Poole, and Eduard Bru’s Valle de Hebron, which the designer also writes about in this volume. These projects seemed to suggest an emerging formal paradigm, based around engaging the inherent muscularity of infrastructure, offering power to landscape architecture and allowing it to re-engage with the urban, something it has been trying to do, unsuccessfully, since Olmsted. These projects were produced in the late 1980’s early 1990’s, and their infrastructural aesthetic may have resulted from the prevailing formal trends of the period, which could be characterised by its common misnomer at the time, of “deconstruction”. Leaving aside the academic discourse at the time regarding deconstruction, this aesthetic was one that was interested in form that revealed concealed orders or systems at work in objects, in complexifying the simplicity of Modernist form. In this context, it is not surprising that the rich and muscular aesthetic of engineering design, related to municipal infrastructure should become popular. Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou and Rogers Lloyd’s are architectural projects that demonstrate the pervasiveness of this language, and it is not surprising that landscape architecture should also want a bit of the action. It is difficult to see this period as anything other than the next stage of technical modernity, the celebration of technology.

At the same time as the aesthetic of infrastructure was on the rise, designers have also been “given a go” at infrastructure, largely in response to the community backlash precisely about its celebration, seen to be at the expense of the values of the community. Like high-rise housing, also at the same time, while the community wants a quality of life of this “Modern” age, it may not necessarily be interested in the “look” of it. Generally, in the research during the feasibility stages of most infrastructure projects community surveys show that almost overwhelmingly, the community supports public infrastructure improvement – in principle. The fun starts, however, when its specific location begins to get discussed, at which time those same communities tend to believe that there must be a better place to put it – NIMBY – “not in my back yard”. In this context, “quality” design represents a type of mitigation, where the design diverts attention from what a big “mongrel” the infrastructure is – effectively beautification. In contrast to this, however, more often than not, designers operating in the realm of infrastructure like it for precisely the reasons that the community doesn’t – it’s big, it’s legible in the scale of the city and it has effects on the lives of citizens. Infrastructure is a potent force in the city, and its provision has significant impact on quality of life of people, and this sense of relevance is the sort of relevance that designers would like their work to have too. However, by embracing the muscularity of infrastructure, designers potentially put themselves at odds with the community, the same community that has argued for their role within infrastructure in the first place, even if for different reasons. Somewhere between celebration and beautification, contemporary landscape architectural approaches to infrastructure tend now to be about ornamentation, providing a diversion from the relentlessness of the infrastructure, even while their content may interpret the local. This is the approach taken by TCL and Thompson, in the projects in this volume.

Functionality, modern-ness and obsolescence of Infrastructure

In any discussion of infrastructure, the notion of function must be of critical importance, because without function, there can be no such thing as infrastructure. Infrastructure is only infrastructure if it supports something else, and this type of relationship is a structural or functional one. In the context of architectural disciplines, infrastructure has long been the basic exemplar for characterising function in its purest sense, the engineer the heroic Modern design figure. In this context, discussing an “aesthetic” of infrastructure is absurd, because appearing infrastructural is not the same as being infrastructural: ornament cannot have a structural relationship and still be ornament. In this context, to make something look like infrastructure is to give it the appearance of absolute functional surety, to make it important. Such a characterisation goes a long way to describe the attractiveness of an infrastructural aesthetic for landscape architects, in the context of the programmatic uncertainty of the park, and public space generally. Infrastructure seems to offer the possibility for importance that landscape architecture is searching for.

As a landscape element and urban artefact, which, until recently, is how it has been regarded, infrastructure is an icon for technological modernisation, the harbinger for an immanent increase in quality of life. A new road will quite tangibly allow for more leisure time, or at least a less stressful drive, for a large number of people. Similarly, an expanded sewer capacity will allow development of new areas within an affordable price bracket in an urban real estate market. In these terms then, infrastructure is the “leg up” for the next level of quality of life, which is often precipitated by operationalising new, and hopefully cheaper, technical innovations. While these innovations may be discovered in the laboratory, they are operationalised on a much larger, landscape scale. Infrastructure is, as Chris Sawyer notes, about a particular type of territoriality, and a particular way of seizing and working with it, and as such, our landscape is littered with examples of such a colonial grasp. Each new infrastructure leapfrogs in scale from the previous technological best, rendering those that came before it redundant. These infrastructures become archaeological artefacts to superseded technology.

Historic infrastructure provides a strong landscape aesthetic, demonstrated by classic landscape projects such as Gasworks Park by Richard Haag, as well as the perennial fascination by students with the obsolescent relic’s of infrastructure. It is this dimension that Harrisson explores in her discussion of the Sandridge Bridge, asking us if there is a place for the ugly and obsolete in the city, and further that superseded function is a marker of the history of a cities physical, but also cultural, economic and political development: most industrial cities are having their Dock’s regenerated, and these sites are also home to the largest industrial relics, such as cranes and loaders. The clear utility and purpose of infrastructure during the industrial period has been superseded by a cosmopolitan retail speculation that is trading upon the geographic relationship of proximity that these places have historically had with the city, because of the necessity of their servicing of the city core. However, while the dereliction of Docklands was acceptable close to the city, as a seemingly inevitable part of the cities development, the development of these parts of the city as residential represents a final separation between the city and its functional, economic infrastructure.

Infrastructure and the end of the public

Because of its sheer size, and cost, infrastructure offers its opportunities broadly and democratically – that is, infrastructure is so expensive that it requires a mass of users to make it worthwhile. This makes infrastructure inherently about the public, and as such, infrastructure is also important for landscape architecture because of this inherently public nature, coinciding with landscapes own aspirations in relationship to community and democracy, as well as its desire to have the same functional surety as infrastructure does, a desire which has seen park systems regarded as infrastructure, discussed below.

The historical growth of democratic government, perhaps since Saint-Simon after the French Revolution, has seen a simultaneous increase in the creation of infrastructure, to support the standardisation of quality of life for all urban residents, as noted by Paul Rabinow in French Modern[1]. Infrastructure is in its contemporary sense a public entity, to the public “..a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping[2]”, as Hannah Arendt describes the aspects of public provision by contemporary government. Correspondingly, one can also use the provision of infrastructure, particularly who pays for it, as an indicator of the health of public government. Such a consideration is timely, because we have seen, in the last 10 years in particular, significant changes regarding the construction and ongoing running of infrastructures, particularly roads, which have also continued to be the most significant type of public infrastructure expenditure.

While the concept of the toll road is far from new, used in Australia to fund the Sydney Harbour Bridge for example, the idea that an infrastructure MUST be a direct business proposition, attractive to private business, to be constructed at all is. While other funds may have been sought in the past to fund infrastructure this was to support cost to the public purse. In contrast to this, the private contribution now must be at least 5 times greater to make it worth the government persevering with it[3]: without the private sector funding it, new infrastructure will now not occur. In Victoria, the Citylink project, which constructed significant new, expensive, technically complex infrastructure right in the centre of Melbourne, has demonstrated that despite significant concessions and legal permutations, it has been difficult for BOOT (Build, own, operate, transfer) contractors to make a decent return. This cooling of the privatisation of infrastructure has been preplaced by the term PPP to reflect the importance of the PUBLIC in the Public-Private-Partnership. Perhaps we need not to operate the Federal Budget like a profit making business, and recognise that the public must pay for things that may well be a financial loss, though an important one, or as economist Frank Gelber notes: “Who takes responsibility for infrastructure provision? And, when government revenues weaken in future, will the new logic of “balalnced budget fiscal responsibility” cut spending at the worst time for the economy?”[4]

This emphasises the ideological importance of infrastructure to landscape architecture, or more particularly to the American model of democratic landscape, expounded by landscape writers such as J.B Jackson, and George Seddon in Australia. It is this democratic, or more precisely civic aspect of infrastructure that Kathy Poole has looked at in her writing on “Civic Hydrology”[5], that are the starting point of her essays in this book. This type of discussion was initiated by Garry Strang[6], whose original article “Infrastructutre and Landscape” was the first piece of writing in this area, and one that initiated much of the interest in this theme for the MESH conference. The model of the Roman aqueduct provides a tangible precedent for the possibility of infrastructure being an icon of a healthy public realm: the provision of resources in an artistic manner, by the government, which in themselves become an artefact for community engagement. This seems to be the model that Poole and Strang elude to in their call for infrastructure to be a landscape tool to reclaim the civic, harking back to Roman notions of the “Civic” - a garland of bay leaves awarded to a person of public importance, however Arendt would regard this as a nostalgic view of that period, and would remind us about the Greek origins of the public realm: a place in which one could participate equally, only after one had privately taken care of the necessities of life in the household. While the Romans did build significant, early infrastructure, our interpretation of these as public, could be a mis-reading – perhaps their articulation and prominence is rather to exhibit their technological modernity at the time – not too dissimilar to infrastructure today.

The landscape is an infrastructure

The entire notion of “infrastructure” resonates strongly with “infrastructure”, because at its most basic, the landscape IS the most basic form of infrastructure. At its most basic, the landscape is the literal surface upon which all the objects and activities of nature and culture take place: it is the set for the play that is existence. One could in effect define the entire environment as various combinations of landscape, architecture and infrastructure. Another analogous relationship between the notions of infrastructure and landscape is both of their status’ as background to the main event. More important than this however is the idea that the landscape, as produced by landscape architects is, itself, an infrastructure. In discursive terms, however, as mentioned earlier, this view of landscape architecture production as the production of infrastructure could be seen as a means to elevate the importance of landscape, appropriating the functional necessity of infrastructure, perhaps unconfident that its subject is more than simply pleasing.

In functional terms, the notion of a landscape being itself an infrastructure was one that has been most clearly demonstrated by the Boston’s Back Bay Fen’s, its Emerald Necklace,by Frederick Law Olmsted, reintroduced by Anne Whiston Spirn in “The Granite Garden”, in the 1980’s (who concludes this volume) and made a specific source of study by Zaitzevsky. While this project looked characteristically picturesque and naturalistic, its emphasis on ecological functionality, combined with the open space planning function, made the project perhaps THE model for an infrastructure-landscape discussion, particularly when detached from the aesthetic of the Picturesque, as the contemporary Barcelonan projects did. Examining these projects in light of the Fens, a landscape infrastructure approach seems tangible, and it is from this standpoint that Poole provides a comprehensive and in-depth discussion of contemporary precedent. The Fens were developed in a period where the provision of parks was seen to form part of a civilising network in a period of Social Darwinism. Like the body analogy in the nineteenth- and early twentieth century, the analogy of the network, which seems to strike a note with a whole range of fields such as economics, media, and communications will become a source of significant design innovation, heralded by landscape urbanism. Networking is one aspect, discussed in depth by Graham and Marvin[7], that has to some extent eclipsed the fledging, but already archaic, discussion of infrastructure, particularly since the network, as a spatiality and a spatial analogy, has been elevated by the diffuseness of the web and communications generally.

There is a form of analogy between the systems of the landscape and their representation as infrastructure. Thus, to speak of water is both to speak of the flexible, dynamic system of hydrology as well as the conventions of its delivery in urban development. However, as Connolly notes, what is missing in landscape urbanism is specificity, so that while the identification of the potential of these systems may be liberating, that liberation is fundamentally limited by the actual material – are we talking about flows or pipes full of running water? For a landscape architectural discussion about infrastructure, the discourse of flows, such as that had by Monacella in her essay ‘Resonance’ offers an important potential that Poole also longs for. We need to re engage with the real qualities of infrastructure – not simply its conduit, but the material that is carried: water, air, electricity and so on. In these terms, to talk about infrastructure is to talk about control and harnessing of the elements, and since Strang onwards, infrastructure has offered landscape architecture the opportunity for its own flexible material palette, particularly water, to gain systemic urban importance. This has been allowed by the ongoing historical importance of the bodily metaphor – veins as pipes, the street as the skin, the lungs of the city – to the urban design field which has long recognised the significance of these elements as major parts of human occupation in the landscape.

The disappearance of infrastructure

As these metaphors take on new meanings in tandem with the institutionalisation of sustainability in the last ten years, ecology has been an important analogy for landscape architecture. However its pragmatic limitation to hydrological systems has finitely limited the potential of landscape architectures contribution to the sustainability debate, even while wetland and water based solution have become more integrated into urban design generally, and much more formally and technically sophisticated. The adherence to water by landscape architects and the main point of its agency in infrastructure has also reduced its functional relevance, which is an important notion for infrastructure because its root is nothing more than function. In becoming more sophisticated, it is doing so by somehow demonstrating or interpreting this function, putting landscape architecture into a formal or perhaps ornamental role, thereby disengaging itself again from the substance, the very concrete, of the infrastructure. The Barcelonan precedents for a landscape-infrastructure approach, in contrast, were first dealing with the infrastructure problem itself, but with a sensitivity, and importantly, ability, to gather things together – both the roads and the parks. This reveals the root problem – that landscape architects simply do not have the professional position to be given the whole box and dice.

Despite resistance from our authors, we stubbornly held onto our thematic intention, however, in the end everything we were reading from them was providing evidence to support the disappearance of our theme. With increasing frustration we noted that very few essays addressed the (literally) concrete reality of infrastructure that confronts us everyday: the roads, the power poles and so on. Professional landscape architects will be more than aware that it is this ‘stuff’ that is challenging to work with, where the mandate for designers is simply to mitigate it, to shrub it up, to screen it, to render it invisible, and thereby restore amenity. It is to address this type of practice that the essay by Bauer, Raxworthy & Razzell is deliberately directed, on the basis of this perceived omission. Unfortunately, the largest provider of infrastructure in the state of Victoria, Vicroads, was unable to provide us their thoughts on the subject, on the basis of their voluminous experience, however, we have included a ‘windscreen survey’ of their recent projects throughout this essay.

At the time of establishing this book (after having produced refereed proceedings, from which we had assumed the final essays would arise) we attempted to develop a model that could accommodate the varied material that sat under the umbrella of landscape and infrastructure. The structure is based on a metaphysical one around differing levels of appearance, from ‘the invisible’, to ‘the immanent’, finishing with ‘the present’. While difficult, this schema captured the key aspects of visibility that seemed to govern infrastructure, as well as the force or action of infrastructure – its ‘verb-ness’ – as an activity that happens in time, as Howard discusses in relation to meteorological systems in this volume, This notion has remained important to many of the authors, particularly in relation to the discussion of landscape urbanism. Infrastructure does something – of that we are certain. While this schema loses something of the original activity within the metaphysical definitions, it does accommodate some more logical and pragmatic material that relates to landscape systems and infrastructure. This movement from the invisible to the physical has now been inverted: infrastructure as a formal subject is disappearing. This could be because the entire discussion of landscape urbanism, introduced in this volume by Weller and Musiawitiz has elevated ‘landscape’ to the point that it is now synonymous for the terms ‘infrastructure’. This topic has risen during the production of this book, to some extent eclipsing the infrastructure theme, or rather, by recasting it.

Infrastructure, when thought of as a concealed, but foundational order, can be, as we discovered, a potential type of critique, or a propensity to note systems, patterns and structures that effectively underlie visible orders and events. To be sensitive to infrastructure in this sense is to have the ability to see the foundation on which the visible lies, whether it these structures are subtle and nearly invisibly, such as racism in Australia, discussed by Ware, or the clear ideological marks of Canberra, the backdrop for the infrastructure of national significance, of monuments, discussed by Walliss. Displaying infrastructure is, as Mark Jacques notes, ‘displaying ones bones’ – showing your guts, making what is private, public. While often inaccurately used to denote an aesthetic, the term ‘deconstruction’, does note an interest in expressing the hidden, discussed by Wigley as a type of practice, that may well provide a useful way of thinking about infrastructure and landscape: an infrastructural way of working.

Conclusion: Working infrastructurally

In the context of the Catalan projects discussed by Poole, Bru reminds us in his paper, Objects and Places’ translated by Ben Ackerman, that these projects are infrastructural because they operate instrumentally within the city, rather than because they look like infrastructure. Like the projects of Hood, Occulus and most importantly Vista, these projects demonstrate clearly that most importantly, it is the ability work in a manner like infrastructure that offers the greatest potential for landscape architecture, as well as for infrastructure. This is not to suggest that there is some sort of infrastructure design process, but rather can be characterised as an ability to locate the strategic moments, that exist within a number of realms and disciplines, that can be influenced by designers to achieve significant outcomes. These are the “sticks” that van Gerwen discusses, the steering processes that will create form for much longer than their initial completion. For the editors of this book, the work of Vista represents the greatest realized potential both for landscape urbanism, but more importantly the entire discipline of landscape architecture. That many of the projects in this volume are overtly political in their discussion of infrastructure emphasises that infrastructure is inherently something of public significance. Ultimately then, for any design discipline, such as landscape architecture working in this way may go a long way to satisfying its utopian premises: value to the community, to the environment.

Everything has an infrastructure but not everything is an infrastructure. In a discussion about infrastructure and landscape, the biggest question is Do we have a current cultural interest in what lies beneath the obvious, in the premises and themes that underlay design, and more generally, cultural production? If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then we are probably talking about infrastructure, in some sense of the word. Within current and future discussions of landscape urbanism, the notion of infrastructure will be and can be applied to almost everything. However, there may not be an interest in the infrastructural ‘object’ again until megastructure inevitably comes back into vogue. In the meantime, let’s not talk about infrastructure, please; lets just talk, and work, infrastructurally.



[1] Rabinow, P. (1989). French modern : norms and forms of the social environment. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.

[2] Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. P29

[3] Or even 50 times greater, as Premier Steve Bracks desribed the proportion of public to private funding of the Docklands, reflecting a “good return”.

[4] Gelber, F. (12th August 2004). Finding the right mix for infrastructure. The Australian: 44.

[7] Graham, S. and Marvin, Simon (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London, Routledge.

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