Soft Infrastructure: Interview with Mario Gandelsonas

Last year for the USC School of Architecture’s journal IDNWS, I interviewed architect and urbanist Mario Gandelsonas who was on campus to give a lecture entitled ‘Soft Infrastructure.’  Gandelsonas is a professor at Princeton University (where I first met him when I was there as a graduate student). He is also a principal at the renown firm Agrest + Gandelsonas, Director of Princeton’s CAUI (Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure), and author of numerous books and articles on urbanism and theory.

I thought his ideas on the evolution of urban infrastructure were insightful and provocative, and also relatively optimistic in terms of the importance of public space in the new post-industrial, digital city (despite all forecasts to the contrary).

Penn Station: The 'hard infrastructure' of the industrial age had terminals at the beginnings and ends of routes dedicated to the movement of goods and peoples.

The new 'soft infrastructure' supports the production and dissemination of information. The mobile phone has turned us all into 'body-terminals.'

JD: Your recent work proposes that we need to rethink the idea of infrastructure, that ‘hard’ infrastructure is being replaced by ‘soft’ infrastructure? What is the difference?

MG: I call hard the infrastructure developed in the late 19th century and early twentieth century, on the basis of the technical advances of the industrial revolution. The late 20th century and early 21st. century softer technologies–of electronic information processing and of media and communication systems–are generating new possibilities of interaction and contact for the production, reception, and distribution of information. However, they do not constitute yet a soft infrastructure equivalent to the hard infrastructure of trains, cars and airplanes.

JD: What is the connection between modernist urbanism and hard infrastructure?

MG: Modernist urbanism was based pragmatically and symbolically on the machine which becomes a model for architecture and for the city.  There is a section of a New York street in Le Corbusier’s book “the city of the future” that describes the different underground infrastructural layers of the modernist city including water management, sewage, electricity and heating. With respect to mobility infrastructure the  modernist city created a condition of total fluidity for the car by “killing” the street produced by the historical city of fabric and replacing it with city of objects on a field.

JD: How is this emergent soft infrastructure replacing, subverting, or challenging our systems of hard infrastructure?

MG: I am not proposing that this soft infrastructure will just replace the existing hard infrastructure but that their interaction will modify, displace and in some instances render obsolete the 20th century hard infrastructure.

In fact, I am not interested in those infrastructures per se but in the “couplings” that are formed between hard and soft. i.e. in the sixties the coupling between the house and the tv or the coupling between the car and the radio.

JD: Do these ‘couplings’  undermine traditional notions of urban – and suburban-  experience?  The advent of soft infrastructures, say the radio, allowed us to extend our notion of the hard infrastructure, in this case the house, into cultural realms which weren’t inherently part of the domestic. Yet in this case the two parts of the coupling were still very much distinct and culturally legible.   Has the nature of these soft/hard infrastructural couplings changed with technologies beyond the TV and radio? 

MG: The opposition between urban and suburban has been undermined in the last 30 years by the development of the exurban city and now the monoculture of the car is being challenged by its incompatibility with the new media. Young people are not buying cars anymore in Europe and in Japan. Teenagers are not getting driving permits in the US: they rather get their parents to drive them so they can keep texting.

JD: What role does ‘traditional’ media and its terminals (radio, television) play in urban form?

MG: In fact we should use the past tense to refer to the “urban role” of the radio and the television because these two media have transformed, multiplying options and articulating new combinations with the internet– satellite radio, internet radio, internet tv, etc). The sixties and seventies the equation house/tv//car/radio provided an apparently stable opposition between the center city and the suburbs. With the arrival of the internet we have to talk about a fluid media environment that articulates multiple possibilities of combining radio/tv/internet. The effect is increasing demand of wireless public transportation environments and an increasing demand of indoor/outdoor public environments for “body terminals”.

JD: So if terminals of the modernist city were static, such as nodes of transport such as train stations, ports, the private garage, the terminals of ‘soft infrastructure?’ are inherently part of our body?

MG: Yes, as opposed to the twenty century terminals as fixed nodes in urban space, we carry the new devices with us and perhaps in the near future within us; we- each and every one of us-  are now the point of departure and arrival of information. I refer to “body terminals” to describe this condition.

JD: Has our notion of mobility therefore changed? Are the goals of speed and efficiency relevant still in the city?

MG: Mobility is not anymore linked to access the way it use to be, because the new telemediatization devices make contact possible without physical mobility. The cellphone and the internet have multiplied the possibilities of contact and one of the results is the increased mobility to provide the physical contact that complements the digital contact provided by the new media. Speed and efficiency are terms that describe only some of the possibilities and coexist with the desire of “lingering”, of slowing down, of “hanging out” and the need of urban spaces where these desires could be fulfilled.

JD: Is ‘telemediatization’ producing a sedentary life, as some critics predicted?

MG: Not at all. The research group at Pew Internet is constantly polling, describing and analyzing the effects of telemediatization and has been arriving to conclusions that contradict the common assumptions about them. Contrary to fears that email would reduce other forms of contact, there is “media multiplexity”: the more contact by email, the more in-person and phone contact. As a result, Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the internet. In person contact, implies displacement, and travel.  The new connectedness is increasing both the internet traffic and the real traffic, in particular because the new social networks include people who do not live nearby and therefore travel to connect.

JD: So can it be argued that telemediatization and the emergence of individual ‘body-terminals’ is creating new demands for public space?  If so, what kinds of public space and how do they differ from that of the modernist ‘machine-city?’  

MG: A multiplicity of publics spaces that result from “augmented” forms of public space, where the new soft infrastructure is overlaid to the old infrastructure. For instance publictransportation doubling as workspace or entertainment space. For the time being, there is no physical change or insignificant changes. However these augmented spaces represent a potential laboratory for the exploration of new configurations that result from the impact of the soft infrastructure on our design tools and fabrication processes.

Greenbelt Studies, Gandelsonas and CAUI