Organic Infrastructure

Been thinking a lot about human vasculature and other organic systems like tree roots and even larger ecosystems and how that relates to the constructed system of infrastructure. What can the constructed world mine from the organic? Which pieces of the system might be missing? What if we could use medical imaging to see all sides (and innards) of infrastructure?

While thinking these thoughts, I did this.

Looking at these gifs, I'm also reminded of breathing, the cyclical nature of systems, and the movement going on within. Things aren't constant. There are periods of heightened activity, and periods of rest. I think I may have found my metaphor.

Shout out to Adele Ruppert and Xirui Zhang for their awesome work on this project.

Playtime under (and over and through and around) the highway

Right before Thanksgiving break, I invited some classmates and friends to a play session involving a 1/2" scale model of a teeny part of the interchange and lots of crafty goodies. We had a lot of fun with legos and pipe cleaners and pom-poms, and more than anything, we just played. Juxtaposing massive infrastructure with kids' craft supplies lightened things up a bit, and made me think about other ways I might approach workshops and other design methods in the future. Much love and thanks to all who came out to play!

This is the approximate portion of highway I showed in my model.

This is the approximate portion of highway I showed in my model.

There's the model!

With little people for scale.

Crowd-sourced meaning

I asked friends and family to help me define some words that keep popping up in my research. Here are some of my favorite responses so far (with some small edits).

Modularity
-The ability to be broken down into parts and put back together in a new configuration.
-Configurable/reconfigurable. Adaptable.
-groups. blocks. clusters
-pieces that can happily live individually, but also can be multiplied and fit together to create new kinds of complexity/function
-Cookie cutter houses

Small multiples
-Small groups of things that can be combined into larger groups of things.
-2-3x, maybe 5, but definitely <10
-Finger numbers
-a collection of small things that have some relation to each other.
-Bottom up
-Little groupings
-Groups divided down into smaller groups to make something more manageable.
-Peas and carrots
-Baby triplets?

Infrastructure
-Roads, bridges, public transportation: the necessary components for a functioning developed society.
-The bones of a thing.
-stuff that enables other stuff to happen - a support network.
-literally "below structure" (thanks Latin class)
-Framework for processes or institutions
-invisible pipes
-crumbling when exposed to the dynamics of the real world, complicated when devised with in the mind
-The basic foundation of an urban center which includes roads, bridges, tunnels, water drainage, sewer system, water and electrical delivery systems to the population; pipes, tubes, wires, poles, towers, etc. The veins and arteries running throughout the city. Things that go under, over and through that make the city liveable. Lifeblood.
-The inner workings of anything functional. A team, a structure, a plan.
-Roads, Bridges and tunnels. Harlem. Crowded buildings.

Shadowy places
-The dark corners of an otherwise lit area that can trick the eye.
-dont walk in shadowy places on the west side. hide in shadowy places during capture the flag. use shadowy places to scare friends
-buy drugs. and prostitutes. oh Bars I might want to drink at
-unintentional corners as biproducts of built stuff
-no sunshine here. Brrrr
-Underpasses and alleyways; dark places where creepy things may happen and danger lurks; places that arouse fear, real or imagined; places that cause you to walk by quickly or cross the street to safety and light. Shadowy places are scary because people are afraid of the dark. It is an evolutionary thing to be afraid of the dark. The lions and tigers will feed on you at dusk!
-Shadowy places are the discrete, dark corners of places where one can escape to enjoy a little solitude or observe the others around them.

Repeating patterns
-Fractals. But really, all patterns repeat or they aren't patterns, amirite?
-Infinite.
-fiber, fabric. order.
-freeway signs
-Modern economy
-will we ever learn? helpful in understanding a place
-this is what life is all about even though we may not like it
-eyeball hypnosis
-Obsessive quality to repeating patterns, but not in a bad way. A certain amount of comfort.
-Repeating patterns are things that you encounter over and over again - like geometrical patterns in stonework, or a small phrase or word you keep coming across. Repeating patterns can take many forms including in nature, in events, in fabrics, in masonry, in experiences.
-Fabric. Material. Things that happen in your youth seem to get repeated as you get older. Repeating behavioral patterns.

Interchange
-A center of activity where people or things moving in different directions converge or meet briefly on their way somewhere.
-a junction point where things move from one place to another.
-a multi-part exchange: A gives to B gives to C gives to A, e.g.
-barter swap trade
-craigslist
-traffic
-place where different motives collide
-like interchangeable parts.
-An interchange is where a group of roads or other thoroughfares converge and provide off shoots to each other to allow choices in which direction to continue
-A point where objects in a system can choose to enter or exit certain paths.
-Sharing of ideas and culture.

Abandoned
-Left behind, unwanted.
-improperly disposed of. divorced from its band-mates.
-uselessness unneeded alone
-forgotten, misplaced, result of neglect
-vacant or unfinished
-No longer kept up or looked after.
-Left for dead
-no friends, they were here, but they left
-Dropped. Lost. Forgotten. Run-down. Sad. Lonely. Sagging. Pealing paint. Loose shutters. Deserted. Broken windows. Rusty. Crumbling. Forlorn. Tumble weeds and wind whistling. Leaky roof. Broken pipes. A bare light bulb in the ceiling. Loose floor boards. Single beds on rusty frames with sagging mattresses. Dark hallways. Broken steps. Mildew and mold. Overgrown bushes and grass. Cracked sidewalks. Rusted car in the front yard. A tree swing hanging in the tree.
-No longer inhabited by people.
-Left to your own devices. A child who is abandoned is left to fend for himself/herself. Even adults are abandoned. Emotionally, for ex. a divorce. If someone is fired, they are left abandoned. You abandon a car. In a divorce, you are abandoning your wife.

Food deserts
-(Urban) areas where they only option for acquiring groceries is something like a 7-11 or gas station, places which carry -instant foods but not fruits, vegetables, and ingredients.
-Places where there is no food.
-places that don't/can't grow a certain % of food locally.
-downtown providence
-i worked on properties near 5th and 65th and there was nothing to eat for lunch except for diamonds, furs and fine china.
-so hungry, but grocery shopping is too far away. lets just order delivery.
-When there is no grocery store (specifically one with healthy food options) within a one mile radius of an apartment building or house.

Bricks
-Sturdy building blocks made of clay that last a long time and can indicate the strength or age of a building.
-Legos. Cocaine. Benefit Street.
-solid. structure. system
-antiquated
-standardized system for constructing various things
-red; stackable; foundation
-Building blocks (physically and metaphorically). Solid. Strong foundation.
-Bricks typically take on the aforementioned "repeating pattern"
-Substantial. If someone builds a brick house they are financially secure.

Spectacle
-An extravagant show with multiple performances or performance types.
-something to watch or observe that draws a crowd
-awesome to awful
-woah thats weird
-Flashy often without meaning.
-look at that!
-Sound and light. Colors. Excitement. A spectacle can be a creative endeavor for the entertainment of others which would include sound and light and costumes and colors and music. Hopefully for the spectator, the spectacle is spectacular.
-An over the top scene - either positive or negative which captures the attention of those nearby.
-Eyeglasses. A scene. An argument. "He put on quite a spectacle. He made a fool of himself."
-Alternately, a monocle. Usually used by oil or railroad barons.

Intervention
-Inserting oneself into a situation to affect change.
-to change the course of something.
-stop change rescue
-closed door
-interrupted for change
-I associate this with addiction; the need to step in and create change
-You have medical intervention when a patient is ill. That's a good thing. But the word intervention creates some problems for me because in some cases, other than medical, it can have a "butt-insky" quality to it. Trying to fix something where maybe one is substituting his/her judgement for someone else's. You must carefully examine your intentions before taking action to "fix" something for someone else or for the community. Ask yourself, why am I doing this? What is my role in the process? Is it a real problem or is it my own perception?
-Something that Is introduced to facilitate a change
-A stopping of something. A cessation. An interruption. Stopping the progress of whatever is. Parental intervention for safety of children.

Blight
-Urban decay or spots on plant leaves. Death/decay in an area which should be thriving.
-a disease that makes crops useless and spreads on its own
-A plague, or a mark indicating a negative distinction.
-something bad
-neglect
-rot
-thorn in my side
-Potato blight.
-Urban blight. (see abandoned above)
-A tremendous problem
-Mess as it relates to neighborhoods. Agriculture.

Guerilla
-Someone who is an outlaw fighting against a probably unjust regime, often using underground tactics
-Using the element of surprise and hiding the identity of the acting party.
fighting style in which smaller adversary employs tactics that put them at an advantage.
-El Che.
-Asymmetric, cellular in nature. Adaptive and rapidly changing based off popular support rather than institutional direction.
-strong forceful stalwart
-not publicly established fighter, "fighter" sometimes used more loosely to represent anyone trying to achieve change
-marketing
-take control take advantage send a message
-Scrappy, with whats at hand.
-Without official sanction.
-Badass, no-holds-barred Warriors.

Trespass
-A sin (Lord's prayer). More generally, going onto private property without permission.
-Going somewhere you're not allowed to.
-Violate a legal, physical or other border into another's physical or intellectual realm or domain.
-step over the line, invade, without permission
-right to roam
-no one owns anything. we all die sometime
-property, mysterious owners
-mischievous
-Get out of my yard!
-To cross a line set by others.
-To enter a privately owned or controlled territory without permission.

In which I wind up being the interviewee

I recently met with Stephanie Zurek, an architect at Union Studio in Providence and Vice President of CNU New England. She and I talked generally about highways, boulevards, and pedestrians. Eventually, she just asked me to talk about my ideas and after that, she gave me a brilliant nugget of insight. Here is an excerpt of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

The area in question, pretty much dead center of Providence.

The area in question, pretty much dead center of Providence.

Surface Parking under the overpasses behind the convention center

Surface Parking under the overpasses behind the convention center

Stephanie Zurek: So what is your research methodology?

Emily Fishbaine: I just feel like this space would be pretty much Providence city center. It’s next to the state house, it’s next to the mall, it’s next to city hall. It should be an extremely valuable piece of land, this interchange. Instead, it’s unoccupied except by the highway. And it’s football field upon football field of space. So this [see photo at right] was behind the convention center, and there was some surface parking. I was just wandering around down here and thinking about… I wasn’t sure if i was allowed to be down there. But I mean, there was nothing preventing me.

SZ: It’s this total no-man’s land.

There are sidewalks for pedestrians, but walking through a tunnel-like structure creates anxiety

There are sidewalks for pedestrians, but walking through a tunnel-like structure creates anxiety

EF: Yeah, and the space is being used by cars, but then there’s other space that’s just occupied by construction vehicles. And it makes no logical sense in terms of how to get… there’s no "as the crow flies" way to get across. But on the other hand, there was a sidewalk that I saw people walking on cutting under the overpasses. So there are a couple of ways under, but it’s buried, and scary, and--

Secret cut-through in the mall.

Secret cut-through in the mall.

SZ: No, there’s been no thought to how a pedestrian would cross.

EF: No. And I did see a couple of people, which surprised me. So one of the things that i’ve been doing is: how many ways can I walk around the highway, and where can i get, and where can I not get? The other day I went through the mall in that little tiny archway I didn’t even know existed. And I wound up on Harris St, and from there I realized, ‘There’s Federal Hill, there’s Valley. I cannot get to Federal Hill, because I am under the Dean St. Bridge, until I go to Atwells. So I’m completely cut off.’ Today, I tried to go around the mall behind the CVS, and I’m walking walking walking, sidewalk ends, fence. Which is pretty typical. So then I went around the Omni Hotel behind the convention center. I’m just seeing where I can go and where I can’t go. And I’m willing to go in places that are not hospitable, but these are not convenient ways to get anywhere.

I have to do a lot of research about who owns that land, what that parcel is. I saw somewhere that it was managed by the dept of transportation. But I don’t know if that’s state or federal, and because Amtrak runs through there, I feel like that also complicates things. I saw a sign down on the other side of the mall before I got to Harris and Promenade that said “State Property” so that portion was clearly marked.

So I’m doing that, but then on the other side of things, I’ve been fabricating bricks. Partially because I’m like 'Jesus Christ, this scale is too huge to get my head around, let me just make something that I can hold.' So I’ve been making bricks that have words in them, doing a magnetic poetry-for-street kind of thing. And if I’m able to continue with this, phase 1 I think will be me replacing some bricks - some of the gap-toothed portions of paving with some of my bricks, and I'll make statements where I see the opportunity. And then phase 2 if I can get enough of a quantity, I would try to figure out some kind of system where I could either leave bricks stacked somewhere or create some kind of opportunity for people to do their own sort of magnetic poetry.

Some of my friends who are interested in repair were like, “Oh that’s so cool, you’re doing guerrilla repair” and I said, "I wasn’t even thinking about that." I’ve kind of gotten to a point where I've accepted that Providence infrastructure is broken and I saw it as an opportunity, rather than as a comment of, “hey Providence, fix this."

That would be my first foray into public art. And I’ve been thinking, I’m having a lot of fun with these bricks, bricks are everywhere in Providence, I feel like I could totally go down that rabbit-hole and just do a thesis about bricks, and the history of bricks and who makes them, blah blah blah… But I’m not sure I want to go that route. So I’ve been thinking, “Ok, what does this brick project symbolize?” And I think a lot of it is the tangible, small multiples, the pedestrian/human scale. And also a disruptive moment with some humor, with some softening, making meaning in a place that’s traditionally overlooked-- all of these elements that I think are elements that could be cited as pieces of a healthy neighborhood. Because my heart is really in healthy neighborhoods and that kind of Jane Jacobs tradition. But I'm also fascinated by this massive infrastructure. And how the placement is so destructive. I’ve also been looking into redlining and why things got placed where they are.  I saw a redline map that looked like it was mostly Charles and the Point St./Wickenden area. And then everything else that you would suspect based on the current socio-economic breakdown was yellow-lined. There wasn’t as much red-lining as I expected. So I’m not sure how the red-lining and the highway build coincided, but I know that the two were talking to each other. And yeah, the Robert Moses concept that people are flexible, people are movable, neighborhoods can just be uprooted and moved and they’ll be fine, they’ll figure it out— we’ll compensate them with housing units of equivalent value, which of course wasn’t done, and not taking into consideration street life and all these things. [See also William Whyte's work}

So I guess given that these destructive things have occurred and that this huge piece of concrete and steel is there, my question becomes: can some of these street life qualities be applied to this area? I’m still struggling to form the question clearly, but I’m somewhere in that realm.

SZ: The bricks sort of represent this very tactile material that was — that’s representative of the detail and intention that was used in building in older places, older neighborhoods. We’ve lost that now. And I would say that the highways and the superstructure for the highways is just so monolithic and lacking in any sort of detail. And those are actually constructed elements. What’s below the highway is not even considered at all. So it’s sort of like bringing the attention of the brick— you know?


Thank you, Stephanie Zurek, for your time, insight, and for helping me talk this through.