BOOK REVIEW: ‘LANDSCAPE INFRASTRUCTURE: CASE STUDIES BY SWA
August 25, 2023 | by shivam saxena
‘Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA‘ published in 2011, is edited by the Infrastructure Research Initiative of SWA including Los Angeles office principals Gerdo Aquino and Ying-Yu Hung. This is supplemented with contributions from Charles Waldheim, Julie Czerniak, Adriaan Geuze, Matthew Skjonsberg and Alexander Robinson. While ostensibly about landscape infrastructure, this type of book is a new sort of publishing hybrid that has emerged, combining the firm-specific work of a monograph within a more topical subject matter on a particular typology or approach to project work.
I think this may become a new trend in publishing, as it provides firms with the opportunity to showcase work, but also offers a more expansive vehicle for exploration of themes and inclusion of more collaborators, making the book both more widely marketable while putting the work of the firm in the forefront of emerging trends. This differs somewhat from the Dutch examples and their production of brick-like graphic tomes of research and work. This collection of essays and case studies benefits from the inclusion of more voices, although is similarly directed at positioning a firm within a certain intellectual and conceptual frame of reference.
“INFRASTRUCTURE, as we know it, no longer belongs in the exclusive realm of engineers and transportation planners. In the context of our rapidly changing cities and towns, infrastructure is experiencing a paradigm shift where multiple-use programming and the integration of latent ecologies is a primary consideration. Defining contemporary infrastructure requires a multi-disciplinary team of landscape architects, engineers, architects and planners to fully realize the benefits to our cultural and natural systems.”
The book exhibits some of the exploration of these topics, picking up on what Aquino mentions as the aim of SWAs Infrastructure Research Initiative “as a testing ground for engaging and redefining infrastructure in the context of future growth in our cities and towns.” (p.7) This is echoed by Waldheim, and the research of the firm and the position of infrastructure as a way to “enter contemporary discourse on landscape as a form of urbanism.” (p.9) and is thus connected to the more well-known broader goals of landscape urbanism and other ‘adjectivally modified’ forms of urbanism. (for more on this, read Aquino’s interview on Archinect ‘What is a Park?‘)
Waldheim’s essay is followed by exploration of landscape urbanism and infrastructure by Hung, which gives some more detail on the history and specificity of these connected trends. The distinction offered is that this is a ‘next step’ “for the further inquiry as a city’s development and economic future is in direct proportion to its ability to collect, exchange, distribute goods and services, resources, knowledge, and people across vast territories.” (p.16) The ideas of landscape infrastructure therefore are given more detail, including the relationship to 1) performance – allowing for metrics; 2) aggregation – scalable collectivity; 3) networks – working towards connectivity; and 4) incrementalism – allowing for changes and adaptation, as well as expansion over time. While I’m not convinced this is altogether new territory, it is important nonetheless, and the sum of this exploration in defining what I would call a subset, not an expansion of what falls under the rubic of landscape urbanism.
Further essays include Czerniak’s exploration of making infrastructure more ‘visibly useful’ (p.20) and additional discussion by Geuze and Skjonsberg on ‘Second Nature’ expanding on previous writings derived from John Dixon Hunt and the expanded concept of the cultural landscape that is not pastoral, but is made up of the entire working landscape (infrastructure) that is shaped by man through direct and indirect means. The final essay by Robinson takes on the ability to modulate, not to suppress or to make off-limits, flows by implementation of new infrastructural systems, using examples like the Los Angeles River, with the goal of providing expanded open space opportunities in the metropolis. All offer ideas worth exploring, giving an additional dimension of understanding to the infrastructural landscape.
If this new type of book is the trend, it’s a welcome one. The idea of a monograph is somewhat anachronistic and indulgent – so I can see how firms and publishers alike would move towards this value-added approach. The book is richly detailed and provides interesting exploration of topics. The 14 case studies of projects – organized per Hung’s four areas of performance, aggregate, network, and increment – are introduced with a concise description and many graphics, exploring the process as well as the product – showcasing innovation beyond merely showing off a project.
While not comprehensive case studies with data and other information, there is some meat on the bones of these cases, making it useful beyond the ‘wow’ factor in informing other projects. Obviously the urban scope of SWAs work makes this a broader geographic range of work that touches North America, as well as China and South Korea. This gives the work a context of both our indigenous urbanism as well as developing solutions in rapidly expanding globalized urban areas as well.
This cross cultural and multi-scalar range of projects offer a glimpse into the complexities inherent in tackling large-scale infrastructural projects. This applies to both the content as well as the visualization, with interesting graphical representations that attempt to communicate temporality, adaptability, and fludity (which is no small feat). I will leave you to check out the book for more and decide if the $70 (US) price tag is worthwhile, but the breadth of information makes this a valuable addition to the library of those landscape and urbanists working in these arenas and interested in ways, as Waldheim mentions in wrapping up his essay, to identify “the discourse around landscape urbanism generally, and infrastructure more specifically, as an entry point into contemporary readings of landscape as a cultural form.” (p.13)