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A Bridge Somewhere: Infrastructure and Materiality

By Peter Christensen

We’ve been hearing a lot about infrastructure these days. In architecture schools across the globe the term has been the subject of numerous studios in architecture and urban design: Ecological Infrastructure at Yale, New Infrastructure at SCI-Arc, or Soft Infrastructure at the AA. Books with the word in its title, such as Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space or the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism’s Scaling Infrastructure bear the promise of helping us better understand the unwieldy and by and large vague mechanics of infrastructure.1 Airports, bridges, broadband, canals, coastal management, critical infrastructure, dams, electricity, hazardous waste sites, hospitals, irrigation, levees, lighthouses, parks, pipelines, ports, mass transit, public housing, schools, railways, roads, sewage systems, telecommunications, and water supply. This is the vast ground being covered. The often frustrating but necessary need to market work in academia and academic publishing has put scholars under a duress to simplify research interests in anything remotely related to these entities by placing them into the au courant envelope of “infrastructure studies.”

Intellectually, however, we might find it useful to resist this label primarily on the grounds that infrastructure is still so nebulously defined and discursively unstable, at least in art and architectural history. At the same time, we might also be excited by infrastructure’s discursive ambiguity and indeterminacy and see here an opportunity to transform the study of infrastructure into one that is embedded in the spatial and visual language of architecture and architectural history in particular. This need not be a recuperative effort to place an orphan in a proverbial home, but rather a synthetic effort seeking to provide the vast and profoundly consequential territory of “infrastructure” with the lexicon and discursive apparatus it merits.

Two questions come to mind about such an endeavor: why is it necessary to create a discursive, architectural historical framework for infrastructure and how can it be done? Let’s begin with the first question. The mere fact that infrastructure is critical to our daily lives and that it is everywhere does not in and of itself mean that it necessitates a visual lexicon the way architecture does. Architectural history’s cohesion as a disciplinary field is in part due to the fact that architects receive, by and large, their education in relatively similar environments informed by the professional context of designing and building habitable structures. The makers of infrastructure, when they are in fact even capable of being linked to a maker / author, hail from a much broader knowledge base, from civil engineering to hydrophysics. Habitability and formal tradition in objects of infrastructure are innately subordinate, but not unrelated, to their technological prowess and efficacy. The prowess and efficacy of a bridge, for example, can be measured quantitatively. This prowess and efficacy is also what affords the bridge its sublime or poetic potential, but is not what offers us epistemic systems for conveying it verbally. This requires a synthetic language, one that architectural history is particularly well equipped to issue.

Let us take a moment to further the bridge as a heuristic device to this end. The Science, Technology, and Society (STS) scholar David Billington has made the argument that the symbolic nature of bridges has been largely misunderstood. We are not, he argues, to adhere to the common dictum that bridges are “designed objects,” “works of architecture,” or “products of science,” but rather to the idea that they are fruitful ambiguations of politics, art, and engineering.2 He locates this ambiguation in the writings of engineers such as the German-born American engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, John Roebling. In this record, we find feelings juxtaposed with reason, and a reverence for the persistent laws of gravity wrapped up in the persistence of political facts. If the issue of overlap in politics, engineering, and art is one of ambiguity, then it is also then certainly an issue of the language and grammar around its description, which seeks to show how ambiguous, fluctuating cultural conditions make beautiful, static objects, as they do in architecture.

Michael Baxandall’s analysis of Benjamin Baker’s Forth Bridge (1890) is also instructive here. Baxandall invokes the bridge to explore the degree to which the so-called work of art marks the genius of a culture or of an individual, ultimately concluding that the two are barely separable. One learns from Baxandall that any attempt to dissociate an individual from that individual’s culture demonstrates our inherent bias against ambiguity because genius, in fact, cannot exist in such a monolith, but rather only in a context that relies on multiple authors and collective purpose.3 Architectural history certainly buttresses many staid concepts of genius but not to the same degree art history or the genre of historical biography does. As such, there is here another opening to further celebrate the ambiguity of the infrastructural object, in this case by celebrating the scale and multivalency of its authorship, which is inarguably collaborative in the way architecture is. To move away from the question of authorship and genius towards a question of materiality seems timely.

Now to the second question of how. This is a decidedly strategic question and one in which we may need to switch from a critical mode into a speculative one. I would like to propose one of several possible blueprints for building a discursive framework around infrastructure, centered on the issue of materiality. I cannot make the argument that this approach is wholesalely new. We could look to Sigfried Giedion in books like Mechanization Takes Command and Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete who treated architecture and infrastructure as coequals both in value and language.4 Giedion did this so effectively because materiality demonstrated the innate consonance of architecture and infrastructure, writing a history of modern architecture that paired bridges with banks, dams with domiciles. Giedion’s materialist interpretation of the built environment is worth both a deeper look and a historiographic update.

Recent studies on materiality, such as Daniel Miller’s Materiality and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, have done much to deepen the theoretical apparatus around the study of objects by virtue of their materiality.5 The arguments in these and other books are diverse, but several major ideas carry across them. A general, but extremely crucial argument, is that the materiality of objects represents that which is apparent while what is real is that which is behind it, embedded immaterially in material. Rather than being the verso of immateriality, materiality is a dialectical companion of immateriality and, as such, constitutive of what Bennett calls “vital materiality,” a kind of innate vitality that reminds us that material has intrinsic dynamism of both form and meaning with or without human interaction, an idea which has permeated many other fields, allowing anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai to talk about the “life of things” or urbanists to talk about the “life of cities.”6

Federico Tovoli, view of the building of a new bridge at Q’eswachaka. © Federico Tovoli.

Let us examine the Q’eswachaka bridge in Peru—one of the only remaining handwoven Incan bridges once common in the Incan road system—as a heuristic. Made of woven grass, the bridge spans 118 feet and hangs 60 feet above the canyon’s rushing river. For centuries, Incan women have braided small, thin ropes, which are then braided again by the men into large support cables, much like a modern steel suspension bridge.7 Handwoven bridges have been part of the trail and roadway system for over 500 years, and were held in very high regard as infrastructural marvels by the Incan people. Over time, however, the bridges decayed, or were removed, leaving this last testament to Incan engineering. Sagging was addressed by destroying and rebuilding it in an annual ceremony – originally considered a social obligation under Inca rule, and now preserved as a way of honoring their history by the nearby community of Quehue, Peru.

In the case of this monomaterial bridge, a stunning scalar arrangement of braided grass is what is apparent. What is then real in the neomaterialist sense is the tradition of the bridge’s rebuilding as a community activity and homage to ancestral tradition. The stuff, the grass, is not merely dead organic matter woven in beautiful ways but rather a receptacle for social meaning, cohesion, and tradition. I would suspect that this is precisely the type of object that would stump the folks at UNESCO as they try to parse the difference between a monument and intangible culture. This dualism represents the grass’s vital materiality, a vitality ironically achieved only through its death upon removal from soil. Bennett would probably remind us though that when the sagging old bridge is released from duty into the river below every year that it is also returning to the soil and generating an opportunity for new life. This is, in a sense, a platonic neomaterialist model for reading infrastructure: a functional object whose beauty derives from the dynamism of its material condition and meaning, placed into a cycle of both time and space.

Postcard depicting the Waschmühltalbrücke in Kaiserslautern by Paul Bonatz, ca. 1936. Theodor-Zink-Museum, Kaiserslautern.

Another bridge, the Waschmühltalbrücke designed by Paul Bonatz and completed in 1935, has also been celebrated as a sort of platonic ideal. The bridge is located near the city of Kaiserslautern on the autobahn connecting the cities of Mannheim and Saarbrücken and marked the apogee of a decades-long struggle in Germany to conceptually and aesthetically unify the work of the architect and engineer in this, the most public (and by many accounts most difficult) form of civil engineering.8 Neither Paul Bonatz nor John Roebling wrote of the marriage of art and engineering as a sort of teleological goal in the way Billington and Baxandall describe. The necessity, rather, came from the political realm, which instituted the disambiguation of art and engineering as a modernist mantra. As Andrew Saint has shown, Bonatz’s bridge was less a stroke of genius than it was simply a clarion call for a certain type of purist material construction. The call was prescriptive for masonry viaducts with elegant detailing and proportion that compensated for the almost vernacular conventionality of its twelve railway-type steel arches.9

With his design, Bonatz offered a succinct answer to what had become a matter of political debate about bridge design in turn-of-the-century Germany, the so-called Cologne Bridge Quarrel of 1913. The quarrel was one in which Peter Behrens accused the city of Cologne of allowing his design for the Hindenburgbrücke (completed 1915) to be plagiarized. The testimony and conclusions of an armada of experts, who gathered to weigh the claims about which aspects of bridge design were mere engineering and which were in fact “art,” shaped a long-lingering discourse that turned bridges into some of the most potent sites of architectural modernism in the decades to come. Much of the debate hinged specifically on the role of materiality: innovative features in the steel components of the bridge were rated, literally, as more important than that of the masonry foundations. Bonatz’s later task of developing many of the bridges for the ambitious autobahn network under the National Socialists, like that at Kaiserslautern, was given conceptual clarity through the “engineered” tradition of the railway bridge with its ashlar construction, free-span (freie Bahn) deck, and Romanesque austerity. These bridges eschewed the mixed materiality of bridges like that of Behrens for fear that the overt combination of materials would undermine its conceptual clarity.

What is vital for understanding materiality in infrastructure is moving beyond the obvious evidence of the monolith. Architectural history has made some strides to advance infrastructure as an integral part of its history, using the tools of cultural, social, political and economic analysis in addition to formal analysis. To do this by linking architecture and infrastructure by materials, to consider the lifespan of matter, and the multivalency of those who make and act upon it, represents a self-conscious move away not only from formalism but also from the cult of genius and limited topical scope that plagues it. We may see in this greater project a historical world where the unity of experience represented by materiality holds immense potential for the global imperatives of contemporary historiography. It is through a desire to speak dynamically about inert matter that we may be able to more holistically consider our shared built environment well beyond the building.


Featured image: Evelyn George Carey, “Two Men Raising a Boy up to Demonstrate the Cantilever Principle,” September 17, 1885. National Archives of Scotland.

Peter Christensen is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester where he teaches Modern and Islamic Architecture. His book, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in September. Christensen is the editor of the volume Buffalo: A Critical Anthology, forthcoming from Cornell University Press, and Expertise and the Architecture of the Modern Islamic World, forthcoming from Intellect both in 2018, as well as co-editor of Architecturalized Asia: Mapping a Continent Through History (University of Hawai’i Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2014), Instigations: Engaging Architecture, Landscape, and the City (2012) and Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (2008), winner of the Philip Johnson Award from the Society of Architectural Historians. Peter’s writing has appeared in the Journal of Architectural Historians, MUQARNAS, and the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, among others. Peter is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Society of Architectural Historians, and The Fulbright Commission among others. Peter holds a PhD and Masters in Design Studies from Harvard University and a Bachelors of Architecture from Cornell University.

  1. Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York and London: Verso: 2016); MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, Scaling Infrastructure (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press).
  2. David Billington, The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 84-86.
  3. Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. (New Haven: Yale University Press, reprint 1985), esp. 12-40.
  4. Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History 1st edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948); Sigfried Giedeion, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, English translation (Los Angeles: Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, 1995)
  5. Daniel Miller (ed.), Materiality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
  6.  Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Mohsen Mostafavi (ed.), In the Life of Cities: Parallel Narratives of the Urban (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2012)
  7. See Ric Finch, “Keshwa Chaca: Straw Bridge of the Incas,” South American Explorer (2002): 6-13.
  8. Roland May, “Discovering Construction as an Art – The ‘Cologne Bridge Quarrel’,” Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History (Cottbus, May 2009), 1011-18. Andrew Saint, Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) 356-8.
  9. Saint, Architect and Engineer, 356.

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