Urban Infrastructure as Geologic Material in Motion (Geologic City Report #8)
11.30.2010, 9:28 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

urban exoskeleton of steel and aluminum, scaffolding is an ephemeral infrastructure afforded by geologic materials

We’ve been working on Geologic City for just over 3 months. In this span of time we found ourselves taking photographs under bridges, walking on top of massive piles of garbage, visiting Staten Island for a first and second time, using GPS to navigate our own borough, realizing we live in close proximity to many more Superfund sites than we ever imagined, participating in organized tours, and constructing our own self-guided expeditions to “remote” edges of the City. We also joined multiple previously unknown City email listserves, communicated with City historians and bureaucrats. These conversations and connecting-of-dots have added an element relational aesthetics to the project.  We designed the itinerary for this project and thought we were the tour guides. But we’ve been awe-struck by all we’ve learned and by places we found ourselves–unexpectedly.

After twelve weeks of surprises, we’ve concluded that our project is no longer the one we embarked upon last August. We had designed Geologic City to trace New York City’s architecture and infrastructure back to their geologic roots: the literal stuff of bricks and stones. While we did document the Triassic brownstones of Brooklyn, now, after 10+ expeditions (many of which we’ve detailed on this blog), we’ve yet to research any single building per se.  It seems we’ve become drawn instead to tracing elusive, sometimes invisible geologic flows and spills rather than static blocks of material more easily recognizable as “geologic.”

We’ve been confronted, in other words, with the reality of Anthropogenic remixing of geologic materials.  And in response, we are documenting how human remixing of the geologic gives form and structure to our contemporary City.  To marble, we’ve added concrete and nameless mounds of deicing salt.  To iconic skyscrapers and bridges, we’ve added slicks of oil and spills of uranium.

concrete plant in Brooklyn, a geologic amalgamation for modern times

Our change in tack reflects the reality that the geologic materialities pulsing through NYC are almost always linked to other geographic locations, as well as to far distant times.  We haven’t felt comfortable assigning a single geologic epoch to any materiality or site we’ve encountered. Our categorization system for the sites we’ve responded to has morphed into something more along the lines of: Triassic + Anthropocene.  Or we’ve had to invent terminology to account for how so many materials we’ve encountered are composed of elements that pre-date the earth altogether.

Consider, for example, the uranium that still contaminates the edge of Staten Island.  We know the mineral itself was born in supernova 6.6 billion years ago.  It concentrated into a variety of ores over millenia on earth in a place once known as the “Belgian Congo.”  It was mined in the 1930s, then shipped to and stockpiled on Staten Island. The bulk of this ore (the part that didn’t get left behind on Richmond Terrace) was sent to Los Alamos, NM and other locations to be refined and reconfigured into an atomic bomb. Soon after, this bomb containing the uranium was dropped over Hiroshima.  One story of this particular geologic flow “through and as New York” comes to rest, for now, in a compelling instance of “eternal return:”  A bronze statue of Shiran, a Japanese Buddhist monk, was relocated to New York’s Upper West Side in a gesture of peace by the Japanese.  The statue was a literal witness to the bombing of Hiroshima.  You could say that the uranium once stored on Staten Island has “returned” to New York as the statue’s geologic memory.  The circuit of this particular geologic flow of uranium continues on the Upper West Side and Staten Island.  Standing at the foot of the Shiran statue, we sensed that the flow of this specific quantity of uranium across time and planet connects the geologic materialities of Manhattan and Staten Island with a charge of human meaning that is palpable.

Accounting for such connections, exchanges, and transformations across disparate locations, events and times in planetary history is challenging, and humbling.

We’re now working through this unanticipated challenge presented to us by the Geologic City project.  We’re experimenting with modes of visualization for communicating flows and transformations of materials and meanings across vast distances and vastly incongruous times.  And we’re generating arguments for how flows and spans of deep time (6.6 billion years to the present) actually qualify as contemporary architecture and “infrastructure.”  As the project moves forward, it is becoming, more and more, a project of finding words and images that can expand current understandings of  “infrastructure.”

the materials of the cosmos, most originating in supernovae billions of years ago, remixing today in the scrap heaps of Brooklyn

Infrastructure, according to the Miriam Webster dictionary is:

1 : the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2 : the permanent installations required for military purposes
3 : the system of public works of a country, state, or region; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity

Our recent work with Geologic City doesn’t reject this definition.  But it seems to require that the concepts of “underlying foundations”, “systems” or “resources required for an activity” include the remixed forms and flows of geologic materiality that compose contemporary New York City.

We’ve come to believe, for example, that Devonian oil and steps carved into Manhattan schist in Centeral Park give structure to the City as much as do Rockefeller Center and Holland Tunnel.  By presenting such sites side by side in our field guide, we hope to create a context for city dwellers to encounter infrastructural flows of geologic materiality alongside traditional infrastructure – and to experience infrastructural systems and dynamics as activating former worlds in quite literal ways.

We also want to highlight the urban infrastructures that are developed to support the flow of geologic materials. Whether it’s an aluminum warehouse for road salt or shrouds of impermeable plastic for containing 53 years of the entire city’s garbage, New York City has invested massive amounts of resources in building infrastructures to control, distribute, monitor and/or remediate movements and interactions of geologic materials.

Consider what’s required to acquire, house and distribute 235,000 tons of road salt each year.  After an ice storm, the 8 million year old salt from the Atacama dissolves and flows down urban drains in a matter of days.  But the support system for this salt involves ports, boats, trucks, spreaders, streets, drains, sewer systems and water supplies. Urban life (arguably) demands that the specific geologic material of salt flow into and through the city, and life in New York City is structured around it.

Through Geologic City we’d like to ignite a renewed, or perhaps just new, appreciation for the presence of such geologic materialities and the infrastructures that channel them.  To do that, we’re designing and building visual stories, maps, and brief texts that detail spaces and distant times of their births, their arrivals at our door steps or passages within our walls as they contain our garbage and melt our snow.

Our redefined Geologic City project now proposes that the infrastructure our City often takes the form of a “geologic flow,” and that even when invisible, the movement and remixing of geologic materiality contributes immensely to the shape and form of our urban experience.  It also proposes that because of it is geologic materiality, all infrastructures have a twist of otherworldliness flowing through them.

huge reserves of calcium phosphate exist in the hills of Greenwood Cemetery

Last, but not least, this spring we’ll explore how we humans factor into Geologic City as geologic material ourselves. Humans are carriers of geologic elements, transporting and hosting iron and calcium, for example. And we are agents of geologic change.  Always in motion, we augment and intensify the movements, remixing, and materialities of geologically-based architectures and infrastructures in New York City and beyond.

We have one more field expedition planned for 2010, then we’ll take a winter break to consider how to begin to synthesize and visualize realizations and experiences to date.  We’ll gather inspirational data for the design of our field guide from folks such as the Eames’ and Tufte.  But we also welcome your ideas and input, as always.

| additional Geologic City posts can be read here: intro, 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 |

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[…] Walk 6. Monument to the Miocene: Rock Salt Warehouse 7. From the Top of the Heap: Freshkills Park 8. Urban Infrastructure as Geologic Material in Motion 9. El Dorado Found: 33 Liberty […]

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