Los Angeles is the inscrutable city. Every effort to explain the place—to take it in, whole—invariably is surpassed by the city’s hurtling reality. From the first encounters of Father Juan Crespi, who found “this delightful place among the trees on the river,” to Carey McWilliams’ An Island on the Land, rife with eccentricity and darkly tainted ambitions, to Reyner Banham’s joyous embrace of chaos as the mystical armature of the city’s greatness, to Mike Davis’ prognostication of its privatized and hyper-exploitative demise, Los Angeles has defied comprehensive reading. In his introduction to The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, who until fairly recently lived in Los Angeles and thus had to suffer its impassable streets, admits that “a total approach” is not possible. The book, instead, is offered as an “atlas… a manual… however incomplete.”
This may sound like a cop-out, but isn’t. The 16 contributors to this densely-packed series of essays are trying to map the contours of a contemporary city that can no longer be understood simply by eating fast-food and learning to drive—as Banham famously did. Varnelis correctly notes, “Los Angeles exists by grace of infrastructure, a life-support system that has transformed this wasteland into the second largest metropolis in the country.” Far-flung aqueducts tote its water, vast stretches of freeways connect its sprawling suburbs, electrical cables spanning half a continent feed its voracious appetite for megawatts.
Yet this kind of steel-and-concrete-and-pylon infrastructure no longer defines the city, or more precisely, the region. Simply, this infrastructure is out of control. Water is a dwindling resource for which there are no new supplies. Freeways are clogged, and building new ones only increases congestion. Electricity consumption climbs faster than the ability to build new generating plants. Meanwhile, even if we could readily grasp this old infrastructure, the emerging one is more slippery to pin down. The new consists of multiple layers of political, social, economic, and technological forces—a tangle of interlocked and often unworkable systems that defy definition as readily as they escape the imposition of a hegemonic will.
To begin to see the outline of this “networked ecology,” many of the components of traditional infrastructure are recapitulated—from the Los Angeles–Long Beach Port (the nation’s largest) and the Alameda rail corridor (through which the port’s containers are transported, out of sight and below grade, ending up in warehouses on the plateaus of the Tejon Industrial Complex far to the north of downtown), to the gravel pits of Irwindale (great depressions that occupy more area than the at-grade portion of the city) and the countless oil derricks (which still pump the liquid gold that once was so abundant and that, until 1970, supplied all of Los Angeles’ needs). Cobbled atop these bedrock elements are things like cell-phone networks, with their faux Deodar Cedar microwave repeaters, computerized traffic-signal controls, and buildings like One Wilshire, the former office tower at the hub of downtown, where the entire telecommunications of Asia, Latin America, and the western half of the United States are, literally, tied together in “meet-me” rooms.
Much of this is not new. The nature of infrastructure has been moving in these directions at least since Al Gore started to claim credit for inventing the information superhighway. So when the authors of the chapter “Traffic, Blocking All Lanes” argue that “most new progress is made at the level of code,” citing the example of “optimizing algorithms,” you are left wondering where the irony is. The only algorithm that can optimize the flow of traffic is one that eliminates those of us behind the wheel. Similarly, when Lane Barden notes that Los Angeles is a dispersed metropolis, “a polycentric matrix of aging suburbs embedded in a larger urban fabric,” he is telling a twice-told tale that dates to the time when Henry Huntington installed his electric trolleys and invented sprawl.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss these snapshots as images from the archives. The Infrastructural City has a cumulative effect, much like the elements of a composite drawing or the dozens of images in David Hockney’s Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18 April, 1986. True, the constituent parts are familiar, but the whole composes a portrait of something else—indeterminate, ambiguous, unknown, yet revealing. Those fake trees that serve as stanchions for cell phone transmitters, for instance, are remaking the city’s geography. Like area codes no longer bound to a specific location, the plastic forest helps extend the city far beyond its statutory boundaries. The city is thus redefined.
Nothing makes this more obvious than Lane Barden’s splendid aerial photographs of the Los Angeles River. Taken at a low altitude, with a clear horizon and a panoramic perspective, the 33 shots reveal a totally man-made object. As Barden notes, “Precise straightaways move smoothly and rhythmically across the landscape in a controlled trajectory, minimally affected by the lay of the land.” Is this a river at all? Indeed, what exactly is it? To begin to ask such questions is to get to the heart of the matter.