I've been flipping through Brian Haye's book Infrastructure a lot over the past few months. It's the kind of book that contains, on average, about three new and astounding pieces of information per page (Do you know why windmills have three blades? Why steel mills are long extruded sheds?). It's invaluable on long road trips, and as a reference for planning bike rides through an industrial city like Baltimore.
It's made me attempt to come to grips with a long standing, absolute and total fascination for industrial architecture and design. It always seems to be useful to ask 'why' in situations like this: 'This stuff is really cool'; 'Why?' 'I like shipping containers, smokestacks, powerlines, pipes and conduits ...'; 'Why?' The aesthetics are so strong that it's difficult to take apart and examine in a useful way.
It's not about that old question, whether form or function is the head or tail of the snake. In this sense, those are just two components of a machine that ceases to work once they're separated. This stuff is interesting because, in it's implied functional autonomy, it's making a claim to be outside the realm of design entirely, at least as far as architects would recognize that realm's limits. Industrial infrastructure is cool because it looks like it hasn't been designed, but yet, as Brian Hayes' book shows, it has, and very carefully at that.
And isn't this, in one sense, the function of form? The function of aesthetic attraction is to draw the limits of what constitutes design in ever broader and broader circles. That attraction is the bleeding edge that metabolizes the visible world into the words of a lexicon, words that can be read, and written, as people continue to try to make new things, and make old things better.
The forms of the Industriosphere have not pulled themselves into being, they have been put together by human beings through trial and error. They are not innocent, and it serves us to be as skeptical of their claims to functional autonomy as we are about claims to formal autonomy that set the terms of the discipline's other discourses.