Earlier this year, Pentagram partner Marina Willer and a cadre of her colleagues roamed London’s streets on a search for the city’s most beautiful manhole covers. Yes, manhole covers: those ubiquitous metal caps over access points to the gritty infrastructural underbelly of a city. The gateways to the smelly sewers, tangles of phone and power lines, and labyrinth of water pipes that we step over every day and rarely notice.
When a particular manhole caught the eye of one of the graphic designers in the group, they pulled out a sheet of paper and a hunk of graphite and crouched down to make an old-fashioned rubbing of the patterns stamped into the metal. Afterward, they transformed these rubbings into Day-Glo illustrations that Willer turned into a book and set of limited-edition prints, exhibited during the London Design Festival.
Willer is one of a growing group of designers celebrating urban infrastructure through creative projects–and products. Today, you can buy tiles furniture, lighting, and pillows inspired by the London Underground; necklaces made using GPS data; and jumpsuits printed with subway tile patterns. Two enterprising graphic designers raised over $800,000 on Kickstarter to reprint a retro style guide for New York’s MTA. That’s a heck of a lot of coffee-table books–all dedicated to the ubiquitous and mundane subway sign.
“People thought we were weird and crazy,” Willer says of passersby who saw her making rubbings of the manhole covers. “I was interested in the idea of celebrating street covers–and the beauty of industrial design–in the same way that people used to celebrate the divine. Taking brass rubbings was a popular pastime of devout 19th-century Christians and I wanted to modernize these ‘religious rubbings’ into ‘industrial design rubbings.'”
But how exactly did the industrial workhorses of cities–its systems and mechanisms–become a lifestyle trend? Just as Willer elevated a banal element of city streets into beautiful artwork, this wave of products is symptomatic of a wholesale cultural reassessment of our relationship to infrastructure.
Part of our changing perception of infrastructure likely has to do with our changing relationship to cities. More people are living in urban areas today than a decade ago, and the World Health Organization estimates that most people, globally, will be living in urban areas by 2017. Humans are naturally curious about our environments, infrastructure and all.
“I think designers have always loved infrastructure,” Willer says. “But more and more people are living in big urban areas, which is creating a greater interest and affection for industrial languages.”
Michelle Young, founder and editor of the urbanism website Untapped Cities, thinks there’s a subconscious element to the rise of interest in infrastructure. “I believe it comes from a shared experience of urban design that crosses over typical dividing boundaries of resident/tourist, designer/non-designer,” she says. “The architecture of everyday details in cities–like manhole covers or the graphics of the subway system–are things that everyone encounters as they navigate through them. And because they are often also wayfinding devices, these design elements get recalled in our minds.”
This subtle psychological influence was true for Livia Lauber of the studio Loris & Livia, which created a line of heat-resistant table mats using the same speckled rubber that’s used in the London Underground’s flooring. “In French, we call it ‘avoir un coup de coeur‘–which is similar to ‘having a crush,'” she says. “We just loved the material and its graphic effect and thought it could work very well in a different context. On top of that, it is a hard-wearing and heat-resistant material, therefore perfect for table mats.”
Lauber, who is originally from Switzerland but is now based in London, points out that decontextualization–like turning industrial flooring into a household object–has always existed in design. “In the late 1950s, Achille Castiglioni has used bike and tractor seats as well as car lights in a domestic environment,” she says. “However ‘urban art’ has become mainstream in recent years and helped urban details and materials to be more noticeable and fashionable.”
At the London Design Festival, British practitioner Nick Fraser debuted an artistic map of the London Underground made from copper pipe and brass fittings typically used in plumbing. To him, the infrastructure-in-design trend speaks to a desire for us to surround ourselves with products that speak to our identity, which is often wrapped up in where we reside.
“I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘trend’ but there are clearly more products emerging that are referencing cities,” Fraser says. “I guess it is part of human nature to make connections between our identity and where we live. Designers are perhaps realizing that this can be something to incorporate into objects, adding another element to the design that the user can relate to. It [speaks to] our interest in location, identity, and belonging.”
John Briscella of Aminimal–the studio behind the laser-cut necklaces that are made using GPS data–thinks that the desire for products that reference cities and infrastructure is about making an object about an experience. “What if the design can inspire you to value your quest for travel and experiences and can we share it with others?” he says. “There is an emotional connection between people and places. The [necklace] collection reminds them of that moment or space.”
More telling than the number of people moving to cities are the demographics of just exactly who is arriving. In the United States they’re mostly affluent, young, white, and childless, with disposable income in hand. It’s a population that can afford to spend extra cash on design. Business-wise, it just makes sense for designers to create products that a market will bear.
While fresh eyes on infrastructure make for novel design, the attention paid isn’t just to do with curiosity–it has to do with concern. Population growth is putting more pressure on infrastructural systems. Our bridges, roads, tunnels, and train systems are aging fast and updates haven’t kept pace. News story after news story about airport delays, traffic congestion, and interruptions to public transportation are making infrastructure impossible to ignore.
“As our infrastructure gets older and breaks down more often, I believe the general public is being forced to be more aware of their surroundings,” says Michele Brody, an artist who leads infrastructurally oriented walking tours in New York City.
The concern extends to less visible infrastructure, too. The writer Ingrid Burrington recently published a book called Networks of New York–a field guide to identifying communications infrastructure in the city. She believes that part of the interest in communications infrastructure–like the fiber optic cables that power the internet–is tied to the fact that while the web is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives, few know how it actually works. Privacy concerns, net neutrality, and NSA spying has also turned networking into a political and social controversy in the last few years.
“I was really surprised that anyone was interested in the stuff I was doing around internet infrastructure, but I think a lot of the appeal has to do with a growing public anxiety over the opacity of networked systems,” Burrington says. “More and more of everyday life is tied into networked systems that most people interface with via a scrying mirror, which tends to obscure all the algorithmic spells and hexes going on behind the scenes. Looking at data centers and cables and microwave towers doesn’t really make those hexes any more legible, but it grounds this increasingly incomprehensible system in something real, something made by humans, something that could hypothetically be destroyed by humans. It’s comforting, kind of.”
In some ways infrastructure is opaque, as Burrington suggests. But changes in how cities and government agencies communicate with residents about what’s happening within these systems is fueling a shift in how we perceive infrastructure, too. (For example, transit agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco took to Twitter for a friendly haiku battle.) In a handful of situations, there is active intent on behalf of the agencies that manage infrastructure to shed stodgy reputations, adopt more modern practices, and become a bit cooler in the process. Cities are recognizing that to improve infrastructural systems and become more livable, it makes sense to bring citizens into the fold.
Earlier this year, BART–a regional train system in the San Francisco Bay Area–made headlines for its frank Twitter rant about the problems it’s facing with budget shortfalls, overcrowding, and system malfunctions that lead to delays.
To solve some of these overcrowding problems, BART is also experimenting with a Silicon Valley–style gamification strategy to incentivize off-peak travel.
“There has been a tremendous interest in urban infrastructure over the past decade, and I believe it is connected to the fact that residents feel more empowered and informed about transit decision-making than ever before,” Michelle Young says. “It’s not that long ago that we were in the era of Robert Moses; now he’s vilified for the type of [top-down] decisions he took.”
Now, planners are for advocating participatory design, like letting residents vote on how to spend public funds to improve infrastructure.
Indeed, bottom-up planning has yielded some of the most influential urban design projects that involve infrastructure. The High Line–an elevated park on a formerly abandoned elevated railway–was the product of a grassroots organization, Friends of the High Line. Now what was once a blighted stretch of track is now one of the most popular destinations in Manhattan–for better or worse–and cities across the country are clamoring to create their own “X Lines.”
Celebrities, too, have given their stamp of approval to nascent projects that seek to give underutilized infrastructure a makeover. A fundraiser for the Low Line–an idea to turn part of an subway line into an underground park–was attended by Lena Dunham, Diane von Furstenburg, Mark Ruffalo, and Edward Norton, who got urban design into style-section pages, something likely unheard of a decade ago.
Now, some designers are hosting competitions to broaden the idea pool for infrastructural projects. One recent competition resulted in an online game that let people redesign–and hopefully improve–the New York City subway.
We have products that celebrate the beauty of infrastructure, celebrities who endorse infrastructural adaptive reuse, and infrastructure communicating with the public in 140 characters or less. But one of the most compelling pieces of evidence about infrastructure’s resurgence has to do with how we define “infrastructure” in the first place.
“One thing I’ve noticed rising in tandem with the appeal of an infrastructural aesthetic is a massive expansion of the use of the term ‘infrastructure’ to describe lots of things that aren’t manholes or bridges or railroads,” Burrington says. “Software is infrastructure, social media is infrastructure, UX is infrastructure–that sort of thing. I’ve seen artists who would have called their work ‘social practice’ five years ago now describe it as ‘making infrastructure.’ And it seems like a really strategic choice–because infrastructure is also sort of assumed to be indispensable. Defining one’s work as infrastructure valorizes it, elevates its importance in a system as something crucial and in need of attention, care, maintenance, and support.”
Let’s hope that this surge of interest in infrastructure leads to a renaissance of urban design, not just a slew of pretty products. Fixing our aging and overcrowded roads, bridges, and transit systems will take serious funding and action. And ultimately, it will make the quality of life better for all urbanites–not just those who are fortunate enough to purchase beautiful design for themselves.