AAPC Guest Seminar: Tom Avermaete

Date: 27/4/2016
Time: 14:00
Venue: 37 FFF

The Infrastructure of Bare Life: Architectural Perspectives for and from the Global South


Michel Ecochard, The 8×8 Grid of Housing, Morocco, 1950s

“a continuous network of centers and lines of communication [in which] all parts of the settlement and all lines of communication will be interwoven into a meaningful organism.”[1]

This is how the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis described his city of the future. In 1972, Doxiadis published photographs of a spider’s web before and after the animal had been drugged with amphetamines. The distorted organization of the doped spider was equated with a map showing “the chaos of networks” in the urban Detroit area.[2] On the basis of this visual analogy Doxiadis argues that the role of the architect is no longer limited to a simple ‘form giver’ but also includes that of a coordinator of various infrastructural networks: “We must coordinate all of our Networks now. All networks, from roads to telephones.”[3] Doxiadis’ project for Detroit consequently is a negotiation between the existing chaotic arrangement and a well-structured regional geometry of underground infrastructural networks of transportation and utilities. His proposal for the Detroit area echoes earlier planning experiences in Africa and the Middle East, where Doxiadis established a profound expertise on the role of an architecture of infrastructure for future urban development.

This seminar is based on a double point of departure. First, it argues that much of the conceptions of infrastructure that we hold in architectural discourse remain largely based on Western experiences and categories. The majority of the reflections on the architecture-infrastructure nexus are firmly located in the urban experience of North America and Western Europe. They are part of a canonical tradition where new approaches are produced in the crucible of a few ‘great’ cities: historical cities such as Paris, Berlin and Vienna and modern metropoli such as New York and Chicago – cities inevitably located in Euro-America. However, this paper holds that it is time to rethink the list of ‘great’ cities. Urban development already lays elsewhere: in the megalopoli of the global South, in cities such as Karachi, Dakar and Casablanca. Can the experiences with infrastructure in these cities reconfigure the heartland of architectural and urban thinking?

Second, this seminar claims that the architectural thinking on infrastructure gained an unprecedented impetus in the decades after the Second World War. In the context of the international debates about development the notion of infrastructure became a label for the technical-political systems that were required for growth and modernization. This new understanding of infrastructure, during the so-called ‘development decade’, had also a profound impact on the discourse and practice of architects. I argue that the debates about development aid shifted attention from a technical concern with infrastructure towards one framed more in terms of the integrative capacities. Infrastructure came to be understood as the integrator of social, economical and cultural factors, but also of formal and constructive considerations. Moreover, housing and houses came to be looked upon as the most fundamental infrastructure off all; an “infrastructure of bare life”. The development decade saw the emergence of an understanding of the house as an infrastructural dispositive, with multiple social, cultural, economic and political meanings attached to it.

The seminar will look into the approaches to this ‘infrastructure of bare life’ in the work of three protagonists of this development decade. First, the German architect and planner Otto Koenigsberger, who wrote retrospectively for the Ford Foundation the book Infrastructure Problems of the Cities of Developing Countries.[4] Second, the French architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard, who developed with his approach of the ‘trame urbaine’ a way to minimally coordinate different infrastructural layers of the city in the figure of the house and applied this in various contexts in the Global South.[5] Third, the Greek architect and planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who conceived of infrastructure networks of housing as a ‘firm foundation’ for the multiple new towns he designed for the Middle East and Africa and who afterwards applied his approach in many places in the Global North –amongst others in a threefold study of Detroit that he developed for the Detroit Edison Company between 1964 and 1972.[6]

This seminar argues that the experiences of these three protagonists in the Global South offer a fertile basis to reconsider some of the prime characteristics and potentials of infrastructure in the domain of architecture. The discourse and practice of Koenigsberger, Ecochard and Doxiadis suggest an alternative threefold definition which conceives of infrastructure as:

  • a guide of urban growth, which is not a container but an active enabler of urban development;
  • a social armature, which regulates the balance between collective interest and self-reliance in the built environment;
  • a ‘commons’, understood as a resource to the city and its citizens that is co-produced and reproduced on an everyday basis.

In conclusion this seminar argues that these definitions have forged historically a particular conception of the relation between architecture and infrastructure, at the verge of questioning the limits between both. These conceptions for and from the Global South might offer today a fresh alley to rethink the possible characteristics and roles of the ‘infrastructure of bare life’.

[1] C. A. Doxiadis, Ecumenopolis: Towards a Universal Settlement, Document R-GA 305 (Athens: Athens Technological Institute, June 1963), 116.
[2] C. A. Doxiadis, “The Two-Headed Eagle: From the Past to the Future of Human Settlements,” Ekistics 33 (May 1972): 406–20.
[3] C. A. Doxiadis, “The Two-Headed Eagle,” 418.
[4] O. H. Koenigsberger, Infrastructure Problems of the Cities of Developing Countries (New York: International Urbanization Survey, Ford Foundation, 1971)
[5] M. Ecochard, Le Problème Des Plans Directeurs D’urbanisme Au Sénégal: Documents Présentés Au Conseil National De L’urbanisme, Dakar, Le 7 Octobre 1963 (Dakar: Secretariat d’Etat au plan et au développement, Aménagement du territoire, 1963
[6] C. A. Doxiadis. Emergence and Growth of an Urban Region: the Developing Urban Detroit Area; a Study. 1. Analysis (Detroit, Mich: Detroit Edison, 1966); C. A. Doxiadis. Emergence and Growth of an Urban Region: the Developing Urban Detroit Area; a Study. 2. Future Alternatives (Detroit, Mich: Detroit Edison, 1966) and C. A. Doxiadis. Emergence and Growth of an Urban Region: the Developing Urban Detroit Area; a Study. 3. A Concept for Future Development (Detroit, Mich: Detroit Edison, 1966).

Tom Avermaete is full professor of architecture at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. He has a special research interest in the public realm and the architecture of the city in Western and non-Western contexts. With the chair of Methods and Analysis he focuses on the changing roles, approaches and tools of architects. His research examines precedents -design attitudes, methods and instruments- with the explicit ambition to construct a critical base of design knowledge and to influence contemporary architectural thinking and practice.

Avermaete is the author of Another Modern: the Post-War Architecture and Urbanism of Candilis-Josic-Woods (2005), The Balcony (with Koolhaas, 2014) and Casablanca -Chandigarh: Reports on Modernity (with Casciato, 2014). He is a co-editor of Architectural Positions (with Havik and Teerds, 2009), Colonial Modern (with von Osten and Karakayali, 2010), Structuralism Reloaded (with Vrachliotis, 2011), Making a New World (with Heynickx, 2012), Architecture of the Welfare State (with Swenarton and Van den Heuvel, Routledge, 2014) and Casablanca-Chandigarh: Reports on Modernization (with Casciato, Park Books, 2015).

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