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Infrastructure Space
Jill Desimini

Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby
Ruby Press

Infrastructure Space, edited by Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby, is a tome—a genre of design book that stands on its own, both literally and figuratively. It brings to mind OMA’s seminal S,M,L,XL of 1995, self-described as a mammoth compendium of the firm’s work.1 However, the ancestral link is perhaps stronger with the more pluralistic volume, Ecological Urbanism, edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty in 2010. Ecological Urbanism has roughly half the pages of S,M,L,XL but nearly 150 contributors from around the world. Infrastructure Space also draws widely—albeit less widely—with twenty-five contributing essayists in its 422 pages. Authors include urbanists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, architects Kathy Velikov and Geoffrey Thün, and theorists Jesse LeCavalier and Jason Young. It is unquestionably an impressive cast of contemporary thinkers related broadly to the disciplines of architecture, urban studies, and engineering. The book’s strength lies in the diversity and quality of the contributions and in its clear thesis: that infrastructure must be more than a technical issue. It must carry aesthetic impact and civic value. These notions are unpacked across scales, geographies, and themes in essays, images, and transcripts that describe ideas, policies, and projects.

Infrastructure Space belongs to a rich literature on the relationship between infrastructure and spatial design. Scholars argue both that architecture might benefit from a systems-thinking approach and that effective engineering demands design consideration. In Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks, published by Jovis in 2010, Katrina Stoll and Scott Lloyd argued for involving architects in the design of urban infrastructure.2 They included contributions from some of the same authors featured in Infrastructure Space. In Landscape as Infrastructure, published by Routledge in 2017, Pierre Bélanger shared the graphic quality and manifesto-like urgency of Infrastructure Space. Contributors to both books understand the exigent situation created by the conjunction of the climate crisis, material consumption, and population migration. Landscape as Infrastructure, while arguing for a nonsingular approach to infrastructure, brought living material and ecological thinking to the forefront. In contrast, Infrastructure Space draws more on the architectural and the political.

The book is beautiful. Designed by Something Fantastic, it should be judged by its cover, and by the images within, whose subtle critiques and clever subtitles perfectly underline the need for an aesthetic and spatial consideration of the systems that support life and life’s logistics. The images are global, historically neutralized, and cropped for abstraction, allowing the mind to draw key parallels among images.

In arguing for the marriage of architecture and infrastructure, Infrastructure Space adopts a complex structure that is hard to grasp as a reader. The content comes from a forum on infrastructure held in Detroit in 2016, sponsored by the foundation of the Swiss building products company LafargeHolcim. Architectural educator Reed Kroloff convened the event with urban historian Robert Fishman. With keynote lectures by preeminent thinkers Ricky Burdett from the London School of Economics and Keller Easterling from the Yale University School of Architecture, among others, the forum was organized by scale: architectural, metropolitan, territorial, and planetary. But with the compression of information into the book format, this system shifted to a tripartite order that reflects the thematic threads: “Infrastructure as Thing,” “Infrastructure as Network,” and “Infrastructure as Agency.” The editors include transcribed speeches, published treatises, and a visual atlas in each section.

The book sets up nicely, exploring the evolution of the term “infrastructure” from its roots in nineteenth-century French society through its expansion with the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and into contemporary usage as a system to facilitate the flow of anything from people to information and goods. In the section “Infrastructure as Thing,” the risk and politics behind the act of provision are highlighted in global contexts. For example, architect and urbanist Charlotte Malterre-Barthes deftly navigates the Egyptian political project of controlling the hydrology of the Nile Delta for both food and subjection. In “Infrastructure as Network,” essays explore the reading of a city through its intangibles and the idea of infrastructure as a dynamic entity. Discussions of sound, telecommunications, energy, cybernetics, and even the ocean imply regional and territorial scales. In art historian Carlotta Daró’s essay on sound networks, questions of public and private space are raised when boundaries become blurred with invisible transmission. Finally, the essays in “Infrastructure as Agency” highlight social impact, reframe paradigms, and offer projections of an equitable future of provision. These are projects, some more grounded in physical materiality than others, that force us to think differently about the things we take for granted: the placement of a toilet, the definition of a river, the human Leviathan. The tone is optimistic, playful yet well researched. Landscape architects and urbanists Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha argue for the agency of rain (water is everywhere, and a river is a false construct), and Design Earth’s Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy speculate on life after oil. Both point to a way of thinking that can infiltrate our design minds and force different future engagements.

The book is best when sampled rather than read sequentially. It is a mega-primer, an appetite-wetter. Its essays introduce seemingly every theorist imaginable: Donna Haraway, Rosalind Williams, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Bruno Latour, Gilbert Ryle, Gregory Bateson, Gabriel Tarde, Erik Swyngedouw, Sigfried Giedion, and more. In this sense, the book is both satisfying and frustrating. In this time of 280-word opinions and twenty-minute conference talks, and sometimes even 280-word commentaries on twenty-minute talks, I crave something in-depth and cohesive.

Having closed the pages, I am still left wondering if the many thoughtful essays build on each other and what exactly the categories mean. How is a thing different from a network or from an agent? I can answer this question abstractly, but I struggle at points within the book. I am excited about the projects, examples, and ideas, but the editors needed to synthesize, to draw connections, and put forth guidelines. The collective interests in politics and design hold the volume together, but perhaps the content is too diverse to be considered within a single cover. So, mine the table of contents—and enjoy the quick reads over slow time. Avoid overwrought structure and revel in the aesthetic and critical experience that the book so compellingly demands of itself and of its subject: the spaces of infrastructure.


OMA, Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau, ed. Jennifer Sigler, S,M,L,XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995).
Katrina Stoll and Scott Lloyd, eds., Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks (Berlin: Jovis 2010).

Jill Desimini is a landscape architect and educator. Her research and design work focus on strategies to address urban abandonment. She is the author of From Fallow: 100 Ideas for Abandoned Urban Landscapes, coauthor of Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary, and an associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

How to Cite This: Desimini, Jill. Review of Infrastructure Space, by Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby, eds. JAE Online. March 27, 2020. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/review/infrastructure-space#/.