A photo from Kazys Varnelis's The Infrastructural City

A photo from Kazys’s The Infrastructural City


“Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land,” writes Varnelis. “No city should be here.” – The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Kazys Varnelis

VarnelisEvents like El Niño bring Angelenos together in a communal sense of worry and anticipation. Mainly driven by unpreparedness, Los Angeles as a whole is feeling the toll of physical, mental, logistical, and for the purpose of our focus as urban shapers, infrastructural stress. Any minor interruption in the electric power, gas lines, imported potable water supply, or wireless communication could result in repercussions of exceptionally disastrous effects to city and citizens alike. While the extensive infrastructural networks connect the metropolis physically and virtually – internally and globally with optimized efficiency –  it also renders the city vulnerable to damage when one of these networks is severed.

Questions of risk and resilience constantly looming over each of today’s urban agglomerations come down to really two pillars: design and politics. Politics seeks tangible results and short-term solutions, while design seeks scientifically-informed planning and long-term strategies. Design is therefore challenged by politics and politics of economic systems that shift at rates faster than the architectural and design plans themselves.

Photos: Archdaily.com

Photos of Villa Verde Housing: Archdaily.com

What the historical politics of fragmented urban decision-making, engineered solutions, and top-down approaches reflect in Los Angeles is rigidity and permanence. Both of these qualities are not compatible with the qualities of design for resilience. On the contrary, design for resilience emphasizes planning as a set of flexible and responsive strategies. These strategies are context-specific. In this case, Los Angeles carries a uniqueness to its history – site evolution – its ways of being and ways of functioning. As Varnelis strongly argues in his collection of essays, framing Los Angeles as an infrastructural city is required in establishing a natural framework to the understanding, spatializing, and planning for a more resilient urban Los Angeles, specifically as a networked system of flows of bits and matter, all intertwined and interconnected. The infrastructural systems, once the “life-support systems” that sustained Los Angeles, can soon become obsolete, and something is to be done!

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

When considering long-term impactful design in Los Angeles, it is inevitable to revisit the key concepts and approaches of one of my favorite influential architects, Alejandro Aravena. Just last week, Aravena was celebrated as the 2016 Architecture Pritzker Award winner for his work on post-disaster long-term social design strategies.  This news matters because it empowers designers and reinforces the belief that good design is indeed capable of causing change. And most of all, this capability is possible because his work is an exceptional example of design-politics tensions simplified, negotiated, and compromised for the good of all. Aravena translated the once conceptual and speculative approaches of flexible incremental design and socially-based design into pragmatic built projects. Design as strategy is key to the planning of vulnerable cities, whether in terms of planning for or post natural disasters.

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