Infrastructure and the Imaginary


Wednesdays 2:10 – 4:00 in Langley

CalArts - School of Critical Studies

Fall 2013

Instructor: Ken Ehrlich

This class will investigate sites of presumed stability located between landscape and architecture, looking to infrastructure to activate a number of questions related to form and function. How is the built environment shaped by water, power, waste disposal and transportation systems? What social networks are given form through infrastructure and land use? How have artists employed infrastructure to make visible hidden relationships and power dynamics? We will investigate the complex technological systems that deliver basic services as a way to think about public space and to reflect creatively on the structures that shape our daily lives.

Structured as a seminar, with readings and in-class discussion, the class will also involve field trips to a variety of locations in Santa Clarita associated with infrastructure. In addition, we will consider our broader relationship to "place" and how it functions in the construction of social and political identities.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will become familiar with the concept of infrastructure, i.e. the structures that govern daily life but are normally hidden from view.

  2. Students will learn to integrate fieldwork and research in critical response writings.

3. Students will learn to relate the course readings and field trips to their own metier and artistic practices.

Course Outcomes:

    1. Students will write a series of creative Reaction Papers relating the course readings to their field trip experiences of infrastructure.

    2. Students will observe up close the technical processes that structure the local management of water, electricity, transportation systems, sewage, and garbage.

    3. Students will research some aspect of contemporary infrastructure using both critical and artistic methods, culminating in an essay and a class presentation.


Week one – 9/11: Introduction: definitions, infrastructures, technologies and virtual spaces.

Week two – 9/18: Dialectics of Inside-Outside, Real-Imaginary

Reading: “Space as a Key Word by David Harvey in Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development.

Week three – 9/25: Freeway space

Reading: Motor Chorus: Spatializing an Automotive City by Jennifer Gabrys

Reaction Paper: Find a location where you can observe freeway infrastructure. With reference to Gabrys, write a short reflection on based on your observations.

Week four – 10/2: Infrastructures of Waste

Reading: Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers

Week five – 10/9: Guest lecture: Louis-George Schwartz

Please view Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits” before class meeting. (The film is available on youtube.)

Week six – 10/16: Codes of Construction

Reading: “At the Sink: Architecture in Abjection” by Nadir Lahiji and D.S. Friedman in Plumbing: Sounding Modern Architecture.

Week seven – 10/23: Class Trip: Sewage treatment

Reading: “Landscapes of Infrastructure” by Elizabeth Mossop in The Landscape Urbanism Reader edited by Charles Waldheim.

Reaction Paper: With reference to Mossop, reflect on your experience of the sewage treatment plant.

Week eight – 10/30: Site-Specific Structures

Reading: Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections interview by Donald Wall.

View films by Gordon Matta-Clark.

Week nine – 11/6: Imagining the internet

Reading: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum (selections)

Week ten – 11/13: Class Trip: DWP electrical distribution center in Sylmar.

Reading: Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes

Reaction Paper: With reference to Hayes, write a short reflection on your experience of the DWP facility.

Week eleven – 11/20: Imaginary Infrastructures

Reading: The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure by Kelly Shannon and Marcel Smets (selections)

Week twelve – 11/27: Designing Infrastructure/Design as Infrastructure

Reading: “Designing Infrastructure, Designing Cities” by Ryan Gravel in Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford.

Week thirteen – 12/4: Infrastructures of Energy

Reading: “The Social Construction of Energy” by Ivan Illich and “Global Landscapes of Oil” by Carola Hein in New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy.

Week fourteen – 12/11: Student presentations

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