What's Holding Us Up?

What's Holding Us Up?

Opening day on March 27, 2008 at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5—designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to radiate confident, high-tech bravura—was a complete disaster. Instead of the planned celebration, mayhem ensued when airport personnel failed at working key networking infrastructure, from following directions to their work stations to operating their hand-held computers. At the end of the day, 23,205 suitcases had gone astray, and most had to be hand sorted in Milan. National embarrassment was complete, according to Donald McNeill of the Urban Research Center at the University of Western Sydney, who has written a paper about the increasingly complex intersection of hard and soft infrastructure at airports, when Naomi Campbell pitched a fit and The Daily Mail called the supermodel “a martyr to the Terminal 5 fiasco.”

Tunnels, bridges, highways, and airports have traditionally been both the backbone of organized societies and the way they dig out of economic ruts and push on to higher standards of living. Yet events such as those at Heathrow have drawn attention to another, emerging infrastructure, one with none of the steel beams, soaring trusses, and hulking pipes we associate with the hard underpinnings that make cities work.

This so-called soft infrastructure tends to be invisible or disembodied, organic in behavior, and powered by data networks, not engines. But when the world’s financial systems—soft infrastructure of an especially indecipherable kind—collapsed in 2009, the reverberations felt every bit as shocking as the collapse of a four-span suspension bridge. As with the disastrous opening day at Terminal 5, hard infrastructure—no matter how brilliantly designed— cannot triumph without effective soft infrastructure.

The need to pay equal attention to both is fast becoming apparent across many professions, from education, healthcare, and government to architecture and urban design. Key areas of interest especially for designers include water management, layering social networks over transportation, and programming public spaces. In fact, finding ways to integrate soft solutions into building projects could be the opportunity that architects have been seeking to show how design thinking is an essential tool for building not only offices, schools, and museums, but also more smoothly functioning societies.

Efforts to explore this largely uncharted territory are well underway. Last fall the Architectural League did so with its exhibition Toward the Sentient City, based on the premise that we “are now on the cusp of a fundamental reconfiguration of physical space, one in which a vast and mostly invisible layer of technology is being embedded into the world around us,” according to exhibitions director Gregory Wessner. Installations included LED sensors measuring and reporting on water quality in real time from the Bronx and East rivers, and mobilizing opportunities for office work in public places through social software.

In February, Parsons launched a new graduate program in transdisciplinary design to engender fresh thinking about what constitutes design in a world where, according to TransDesign program director Jamer Hunt, “Designers are increasingly designing businesses, services, experiences, policies, and even emergent social forms; and along the way they are inventing new methods, new tools, and new ways of conceiving design.”

But what soft infrastructure—if that’s the operable word—exactly is remains frustratingly vague. As he prepares a new curriculum at Parsons in large part focused on it, Hunt said, “We are all struggling to understand what we mean when not talking about the old infrastructure. Is it whatever is systems-based, sentient, dynamic, or wetware and squishy?” Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, finds the roots of soft infrastructure in the traditions of 18th-century landscape design, where complex systems of land management sometimes manifested themselves in stunning visual and architectural effects. And while the formation of any network of exchange might qualify as a type of soft infrastructure, Bergdoll considers the adaptive networks engendered by meshing the demands of landscape, urbanism, and sustainability—especially as they relate to changing coastlines and water levels—to be at the most compelling frontiers of the subject. (See our with Mayor Daley’s office to develop an “eco-boulevard toolbox,” including recommendations for improving ongoing and upcoming road renovations. The ideas are robustly doable and include both point- and linear-based solutions for water absorption, including swales along median strips and planter boxes next to sewer points.

While much of the current thinking about soft infrastructure is focused on storm water, a second front is networking, especially as it applies to social and civic space. In a series of talks, and notably in a review of Sentient City on the Architectural League’s blog, the Sydney-based Arup designer and urbanist Dan Hill describes soft infrastructure as a way to “bend the physical city” and rescale it to what he calls “walkable urbanism.” Hill could have been referring to Bike It, an initiative by Jake Barton of Local Projects, a design firm focused on public space. Bike It takes advantage of underused infrastructure—in this case, New York’s bike lanes—by layering them with an interactive network. In brief, said Barton, Bike It is a “super-charged iPhone app that calculates time and money saved, as well as calories burned plus locations of other cyclists” that could be broadcast on LED panels already embedded in bus shelters around the city.

Barton sees soft infrastructure as a powerful planning and advocacy tool that promises to change people’s behavior. And while Bike It could be a model for encouraging bicycle commuters, Barton realizes there is a cultural component to soft infrastructure that could thwart the best-laid plans: People don’t like to arrive at work in sweaty clothes. And so there is Cool Biz, a governmental initiative from Japan that recommends minimal air-conditioning at work and a greater tolerance for casual clothing. Intended to lower energy costs but equally focused on office culture, pilot programs are already in place in California and Colorado. 

Unintended consequences are a constant where soft infrastructure and humans meet. During a recent lecture for the New School’s Design and Social Science Committee Seminar—whose theme this year is “Infrastructure: Complexity, Risk, and Design”—McNeill of Sydney’s Urban Research Center described the collision of privatized interests, political will, digital interfaces, and human error at Heathrow, where hard and soft infrastructure are intimately entwined. Soaring spaces buttressed by structural derring-do may impress, but the real business of getting around depends on information in digital code, from e-tickets to LED announcement boards. The subtitle of McNeil’s paper is “The Heathrow Hassle,” and in it he detailed the Terminal 5 catastrophe to underscore the new reality that without complete integration, neither hard nor soft infrastructure is going to work.

“The way we build has to be rethought, as the old ways don’t cut it,” said Hunt of Parsons’ TransDesign program. “The real opportunity for designers is to have a voice. We bring the right capabilities to this kind of problem.” And better understanding may offer the sturdiest bridge to get there.