Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Industriosphere: On Functional Autonomy

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.


Anonymous said...

My girlfriend bought me this book for xmas in 2005, and I agree it's amazing. I haven't read the whole thing - just pick it up once in a while to get my mind blown about power transmission or waste treatment plants. My only complaint is that it's designed in the style of a high school biology textbook.

sevensixfive said...

Yeah, totally, that's kind of part of the charm, though, right?

You know what the next edition of this book needs badly? Diagrams. I expect it would have been too expensive to have them all drawn.

The photos are great, he takes the pictures himself. Look for him on flickr, a lot of the shots from the book are there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback.

High school biology text? Yeah, for better or worse, you're right. That *is* the look. I guess I like high school biology texts.

Diagrams. The original plan was to do all the illustrations as pen-and-ink drawings. When I started taking photos, they were meant as source material for the artist. But that plan proved too expensive, as you guessed.

In addition to the flickr collection, there are also more photos (and lots else) on the book's own web site,

sevensixfive said...

Brian, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the link, I didn't know that the book had a website.

Anonymous said...

Oh, hi Brian! Since you dropped by, thank you for the excellent book.