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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.99 Santiago ago. 2018 


Fashionably late

Francisco Díaz1 

1Editor revista ARQ. Profesor asistente, Escuela de Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.

It’s not easy to start a global debate from Chile. However, the advantage is that we can join the conversation once its relevance is already proved. Today, when magazines are too slow to be considered novelty, our function is to separate the chaff from the wheat: not only to differentiate topics with historical scope from those that are merely news, but also to discern what is valuable enough to be printed. Thus, this issue of ARQ arrives ‘fashionably late' to a conversation already underway in magazines3 and seminars.4 The question is, what can our contribution be to the conversation about infrastructure?

Let's start with an image: a couple of tourists who, after having ceviche for lunch in the Central Market of Santiago, pay the check at their table using a credit card. They landed at the airport, went through customs - security and sanitary controls - and then drived to Santiago by a private urban highway. The fish for the ceviche reached a city without coast in a refrigerated truck which kept it fresh in its transit from the port to the Fishing Terminal and then to the kitchen of the restaurant; the vegetables on the plate also grew kilometers away thanks to rural irrigation infrastructures, later stored and distributed throughout the country by interurban roads until arriving at the Distribution Center and from there to the restaurant - where they were cleaned using water and sewage infrastructures. When paying, the couple took advantage of the global interconnection of banking infrastructures, in addition to using the country's electricity infrastructure, the communication networks that allow wireless payment and the tax collection apparatus. That is, more than 15 different infrastructures working together to allow tourists to have a ceviche. Had we noticed this?

Although infrastructures “are a prerequisite for any modern notion of 'civilization'” (Graham, 2010:4), we rarely notice how much we depend on them. Maybe the fact that we only interact with their interfaces makes them go unnoticed, to the point that we only remember their existence when they fail or at the end of the month when we have to pay the bill.

Such invisibility makes it difficult to approach them from architecture. Perhaps as a way to ‘architecturize’ them is that Keller Easterling (2016:24) calls them “matrix-space”; showing that, even if they are intangible, infrastructures are located in space and, as a matrix, they always operate in interconnection with others.

But Easterling also defines the contemporary infrastructural space as “the secret weapon of the most powerful people on Earth” (2014:15), because it allows activities that may go unnoticed but are consequential. That is, infrastructures may be of public usefulness, but they do not necessarily arise as a way to increase the common wealth.

As a neoliberal response to the problem of the large scale, infrastructures threaten to replace planning, allowing authorities to give up their duty to think in the long-term and simply conform with announcing, approving or rejecting infrastructure projects.

Infrastructures also show that utopias still exist. But it is no longer the modern utopia (the idea that development would enable a better society), but rather the utopia of management (the argument that an invisible, abstract system would optimize the outcome of contradictory demands). Since the complexity of infrastructure projects makes them impossible to be controlled by a single person, the ability of the system to manage variables - such as resources, actors, knowledge or others - is highlighted by infrastructures. In the realm of infrastructure, the best outcome is replaced by the optimal, just as the management office replaces the architectural.

And here is where the problem appears. Many decades of historical research were needed for the discipline to recognize its political condition and for the profession to assume its dependence on power. However, it only took a couple of decades of neoliberal space for architecture to go back several slots, barely achieving a position in the makeup room of abstraction: it became, at its best, a mitigation measure to soften the impact of infrastructure. Thus, while a significant part of the discipline barricades itself behind the argument of the thinking hand, the invisible hand of management occupies the role architecture claimed as its own a century ago. Had we noticed this?

Between the tourists who carelessly use infrastructures and the management offices that carry them out without questioning them, there is a critical space which can be occupied by architecture. It is there that the projects, essays, and research in this issue of ARQ are located and, from that position, their contribution consists of expanding such a space. The advantage of arriving late to the conversation is that we can evaluate what has already been said; the advantage of our delay being fashionable is that our contribution can still be useful.


GRAHAM, Stephen. Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. New York: Routledge, 2010. [ Links ]

EASTERLING, Keller. Extrastatecraft: the power of infrastructure space. London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014. [ Links ]

EASTERLING, Keller. “Zonas de excepción económica”. ARQ 92 (abril, 2016):16-25. [ Links ]

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