Postcards from the Edgelands (for Marion Shoard)

37° 40′ 60S, 144° 56′ 60E


Originally published in Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks, Katrina Stoll & Scott Lloyd (eds), Berlin: Jovis, 2010.

All photography by Simon Sellars.


In the built environment, the ‘edgelands’ describes the interfacial interzone between urban and rural, a mix of rubbish tips, superstores, office parks, rough-hewn farmland, gas towers, electricity pylons, wildlife and service stations. The term was coined by the environmentalist Marion Shoard, who has uncovered the hidden dynamics at work in this ‘apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory’.[1] She maps a symbiotic relationship between the waste product, both physical and psychological, of the human world, and its co-dependency with an emergent version of the natural realm that defies all preconceived, ‘rational’ notions of sustainability and environmental care. As such, her work can serve as an instructive metaphor for architects who are willing to approach the question of infrastructure as a crucial new phase in the development of their profession.

In the edgelands, the functionalism of warehouse sheds, sewage farms and switching stations is at the same time an interlocking network of essential services. Architecture and infrastructure are inseparable, a special relationship that moves beyond what the architect Sam Jacob has described as ‘the way in which infrastructure is perceived as inert structure which exists outside of cultural significance’.[2] For Jacob, infrastructure, held within the complexity of the 21st century, must take on a new role as the ‘architecture of the global age’, a physical manifestation of the networked reality that increasingly underscores and dictates our lives. He makes the McLuhanesque suggestion that if electronic media can be thought of as an extension of our senses, then infrastructure can be seen as the projection of our corporeal reality onto physical coordinates. If Jacob is right, then architecture, traditionally at a remove from this corporeal projection (that is, removed from infrastructure’s ‘inertness’), must radically reassess its relationship to the natural world if it is to engage with the problem of infrastructure as a viable extension of architectural practice.

It is here that the ‘problem’ of the edgelands, as defined by Shoard, can help. For in the edgelands, to make such a move as Jacob’s is really just a matter of perception.

37° 37′ 54S, 144° 55′ 22E

In their pure state, the edgelands are unburdened by strict planning laws or design controls. This laxness attracts industry and commerce to them, but it also explains why the normal notions of ‘taste’, ‘aesthetics’ and ‘good judgement’ that shape the gentrified inner city ring are absent. In the edgelands of Melbourne, for example, you find super-sex superstores, Elvis floorshows, faux-Roman brothels and billboards promising longer-lasting sexual intercourse. Out on the Hume Highway, you also find a massive Sikh temple that services the needs of a community apparently unable to find a niche in Australia’s oddly stratified social order. In light of recent concern about the treatment of Indian students in Australia,[3] it seems apposite to draw a connection between the siting of the temple in the edgelands and the perceived standing, right or wrong, of the Indian community in this country, for the edgelands are the runoff of a centre shunting that which it does not understand, or that which threatens it, out to the fringe.

Near the temple, just 20km from the Central Business District, entire kangaroo colonies have been boxed in by exurban development, scrabbling for food in patches of ground trapped between rapidly expanding industrial estates on one side and ceaselessly flowing freeways on the other. With no signage warning motorists to slow down, the hapless animals become road kill. This is a perpetual process: as industry is sucked out to the edgelands, the roads reform to accommodate access to them, and the fringe gradually disappears, or is pushed further afield. Of course, Melbourne, among the world’s largest conurbations, is built around the motorcar, not animal colonies. The arterial freeway is king. Yet the roads initially adhered to the natural order. The original township was aligned along the Yarra River, while its two main streets, Flinders and Spencer, were sited alongside a river and swamp respectively. When the town grew into a city, the power grid was also aligned alongside creeks and natural water bodies. This living symbiosis underscored and inspired the manmade infrastructure, yet today the process is relentlessly top-down. When the emergent, the anarchic, rears its head, the symbiosis is ritually shunned by government planning and development, which imposes ‘urban growth boundaries’[4] to shunt the edgelands back and forth, forever mindful of the chaos embodied by the interzone that threatens to overwhelm order, reason and structure.

37° 38′ 60S, 144° 55′ 60E

Throughout the Western world, edgelands form the same relationship to the built environment as the unconscious does to the human mind: as a repository of fear, desire and repression. In Melbourne, when trouble strikes on the edge, it is invariably described in terms more akin to the Wild West, as in recent furores over ‘hoon’ car culture in the outer suburb of Mill Park.[6] New York City has its Meadowlands, a part-natural, part-industrial wilderness just five miles from the city centre, a typical in-between zone once described by the New York Times as a ‘reviled land of burning garbage dumps, of polluted canals, of smokestacked factories, and impenetrable reeds’.[6] Shoard, in turn, describes how the edgelands of England have traditionally been framed as ‘a vaguely menacing frontier land hinting that here the normal rules governing human behaviour cannot be altogether relied upon’.[8] Yet she also makes a surprising discovery. The ad-hoc nature of the edgelands in their pure state can actually be more beneficial for wildlife than redevelopment, relocation or modern agricultural techniques: ‘Wildlife habitats often survive in the interface because farming is pursued less intensively, either because the land is fragmented or because the owners are no longer altogether serious about agriculture’.[8] The forgotten nature of the edgelands, and its chaotic, fragmentary character, gives rise to new modes of being that would not have been possible otherwise, a complex, co-dependent ecology and a refuge for many species of plant life, and even startling hybrid flora. These thrive in the mixed-use soil strata deposited by multiple industries, which would not otherwise occur in nature.[9]

It is only a matter of perception.

37° 36′ 0S, 144° 56′ 60E

Behind the Sikh temple, a truck breaker yard symbolically recycles the vehicular runoff from the Hume, that intense four-lane blacktop plugged like a mainline cable directly into the city’s flagging heart. Land and equipment are similarly reused: shipping containers double as advertising hoardings, and immigrants maintain a warren of sovereign businesses, trading out of retrofitted caravans that have been grafted onto the sides of buildings and warehouses. But this ‘interfacial jungle’ – a hot mix of industry, animals, emergent wildlife and itinerant humans – is disappearing. Soon, there will be no interface, just rampant development, a monoculture. The lax planning controls that initially attracted business means that the edgelands become a dumping ground for more and more construction as the private sector rules supreme. It is this type of development, not the edgelands themselves, that is detrimental to the environment and to wildlife. It is the interface that must be preserved.

In the edgelands, past, present and future collide. Shoard points out that electricity pylons, among the edgelands’ most recognisable symbols, were not conceived of when most settlements were founded. Later, they were dumped on the edge, as close as can be to the city, where they mingle with the essential services that grew with the settlement itself, such as mills and excavation sites. The edgelands therefore offer a privileged glimpse at ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’,[10] and even of the future. For Shoard, this archaeological element is worth preserving. She even proposes guided historical walking tours that take in the edgelands, giving people an insight into how society actually functions through the interlocking grid of infrastructure. The Sikh community, similarly dumped at the edge, points towards a potentially vital contributor to the new Australian economy waiting in the wings for acceptance and admittance into the centre. Even the signifiers of porn culture in the edgelands serve as signposts to the future, as the writer J.G. Ballard reminds us: ‘A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction’.[11]

The edgelands are where the future waits to happen.

37° 47′ 60S, 144° 54′ 0E

In seeking to preserve the delicate balance of the edgelands, Shoard diametrically opposes unrealistic approaches to ‘sustainability’ that require us to either divorce ourselves from reality by preserving the natural world no matter what, or that seek to drive away any speck of disorder, dirt or chaos in the manmade world. Instead, she acknowledges that we are part of the process, part of nature, furniture superstores, rubbish dumps and all. This is strategic. It requires a voyage to a parallel world, for preserving the environment in her view also means honouring, and maintaining, the essential character of man-made infrastructure: ‘Instead of seeing the interface as a kind of hellish landscape to be shunned, we should celebrate it. We should see reservoirs and rubbish tips as sources of fascination not only for the civil engineering and landscaping challenges they present, but for what they can tell us about the way our society is’.[12] For Shoard, it is not heritage Britain that must be preserved, but instead, found in the edgelands, ‘the architecture of our own time in all its majesty. The electricity sub-stations and rubbish tips of the interface perhaps more accurately express the character of our time than Portcullis House or the new Scottish Parliament building’. Further, it is their ‘naked functionalism’ that allows such architecture to ‘find [its] own accommodation with Nature, evolving silently and unhindered’. For example, ‘the clutter of the interface, which would be tidied out of sight by those concerned with creating an acceptable landscape there, often enhances wildlife by creating new niches that wild creatures can exploit. Throw an empty milk crate into a lake and while it may look untidy, fish will swim in and out of it and use it as part of their ecological world. Black Redstarts nest in the brickwork of derelict buildings’.[13] The electricity pylon, too, is far from the eyesore of common lore, its very presence a visual ‘reminder that [certain] plants flourish not on naturally occurring soil but a substrate of the dark grey powder of pulverised fly ash, deposited from a local power station years ago’.[14]

It is just a matter of perception.

37° 52′ 0S, 144° 49′ 60E

According to Kazys Varnelis, ‘if architects were serious about sustainability, they would call a halt to new building in the developed world right now’.[15] However, he qualifies, infrastructure should not be the next ‘fantasy’ architectural project. Nothing could be worse than a forest of ‘cell phone trees disguised as mission bells throughout Los Angeles … Please save us from OMA-designed off-shore wind farms.’[16] Yet architects can have a role to play in rethinking infrastructure, especially in light of new environmental concerns and the increasing complexity of the 21st century, all of which require a thinking through of issues that move beyond notions of aesthetics and into what Jacob describes as ‘architecture in all of its other guises: as organisation, ecology, network, system and so on’.[17] But if architects are to do the work of engineers (or, preferably, work alongside engineers) in redesigning an ailing infrastructure that is beginning to crack with the strain of the new global economy, then perhaps they should also take a cue from the engineering profession and remove ego from the process.

Undeniably, architecture is in crisis. Its practitioners are being laid off in large numbers in the United States, some even resorting to selling ice creams named after famous ‘starchitects’, about as close to their former life as they can now get.[18] Can a niche be formed within the industry of infrastructure? Once again, the electricity pylon proves instructive. Among the great artefacts of industrial design, its original lattice arrangement was created to last for perhaps a century or more. It is resilient and effective, yet has inherent flaws. The traditional width of the steel framework means that electrical conductors are not compacted together, creating a large magnetic waste-emission field and subsequent health fears for those living close to them. In addition, the pylon, as mentioned, has traditionally been thought of as a blight on the landscape. While this latter point is debatable (its Colossus-like visual quality certainly has its adherents),[19] the former is rather more pressing, and it is for both reasons that architects, fighting their constant war between form and function, have been recruited to redesign the pylon. An example is Arphenotype’s organic, ‘parametric’ design, submitted for a competition to redesign Iceland’s power grid.[20] It must surely confirm Varnelis’s worst fears. The contorted form of the Arphenotype pylon looks like a monstrous alien life form deposited on the landscape, remarkably out of place in a land of fiords and rugged countryside. The overdesigned, twisted nature of the pylons would surely render them difficult to climb and maintain, while the hanging of wires does not address the demand for a cleaner, more efficient energy field, given that it replicates the spacing and width of the original lattice design.

Arphenotype’s pylon is a sci-fi future shock, dystopia disguised as utopia, an index of the architect’s own aesthetic taste and ego rather than any utilitarian function, and an imposition on the landscape rather than a function of it.

37° 49′ 0S, 144° 58′ 0E

In the Netherlands, another call for new-generation pylons was held. It was answered by the architectural practice Zwarts and Jansma, who redesigned the pylon to reduce electrical waste emission by placing conductors closer together and higher up the towers. The supporting poles are smooth, round and unobtrusive, rather than the standard truss design.[21] This makes them both visually appealing (they are grey, blending in with the Dutch sky’s most constant shading) and less susceptible to damage and wear, a restrained, though contemporary aesthetic that is true to the original design and intent, while also reaping significant environmental rewards. As a template for a potential marriage of architecture and infrastructure, it is an example worth remembering: about how architects can play a role in redesigning infrastructure in partnership with the natural world, without recourse to either the type of wishy-washy ‘nature first’ ecocriticism that characterises the discourse of sustainability, or the typical ego-driven architectural arrogance that imposes an artificial reality layer upon the landscape. This reconnects with Shoard, who issues a call equally applicable to architects, politicians, engineers, urban planners and the general public alike: ‘The way in which we intervene will determine whether we conserve or mutilate these strange spaces … we need to see the planner not as the shaper of an entire environment but as a handmaiden, who helps along a universe he or she does not seek to control’.[22]

The first step must be to acknowledge the singular context of our lived urban experience. The enmeshing of natural and human agency has become so total now that it seems impossible, much less desirable, to disconnect from it. By refusing to acknowledge the special example of the edgelands, where nothing is what it seems and where categories blur and plane together, resisting the dictates of ‘taste’ and ‘morality’, we risk losing forever our chance to effect real change. If the edgelands really are the psychological unconscious of the built environment, then we all know what happens, in Freudian terms, when the repressed returns. This outcome, a form of collective psychosis, we surely risk, whether by governmental planning that fails to understand our emergent symbiosis with the natural world, or by unrealistic architectural design that also refuses the symbiotic by paving it over with the shiny parametrics of a disembodied virtual reality.


NOTES


[1] Marion Shoard, ‘Edgelands’ in Remaking the Landscape, ed. Jennifer Jenkins (London: Profile Books, 2002), 118.
[2] Sam Jacob, ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconscious’, Strange Harvest, 20 January 2009. http://www.strangeharvest.com/2009/01/ceci-nest-pas-une-pipe-infrast.php (accessed 25 June 2010).
[3] This issue was exacerbated by the murder of Indian student Nitin Garg in Melbourne. The crime inflamed diplomatic relations between the two countries and led to charges of racism directed at the Victorian police force, which was accused of doing little to solve the case.
[4] In Melbourne 2030, the Victorian government’s 30-year plan for Melbourne’s future, an ‘urban growth boundary’ was proposed to confine ‘urban use to the developed parts of Melbourne and the designated growth areas … satellite areas … and some bayside areas … The urban growth boundary will limit urban expansion, protect valued non- urban areas, ensure ready access to infrastructure in the key transport corridors and encourage urban renewal.’ Quoted in Melbourne 2030: Planning for Sustainable Growth (Melbourne: Department of Sustainability). However, after public opinion turned against the idea, fearing the effects of congested urban space, the Victorian state premier John Brumby announced in 2008 that the metropolitan boundary would be significantly expanded. This placed Melbourne 2030 in limbo and gave rise to further criticism that the original plan was a failure at its most fundamental task – that of providing tangible responses to concrete problems.
[5] Simon Sellars, ‘The Rats that Ate Mill Park’, Ballardian, 27 March 2007. http://www.ballardian.com/the-rats-that-ate-mill-park (accessed 25 June 2010).
[6] From a 1959 editorial quoted in Robert Sullivan, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 17.
[7] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 130.
[8] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 129.
[9] Marion Shoard, ‘A Call to Arms’ in Urban Wildscapes, ed. Anna Jorgensen (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 2008), 47.
[10] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 123.
[11] J.G. Ballard, ‘News from the Sun’ [1982] in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), 551.
[12] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 142.
[13] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 141, 129.
[14] Shoard, ‘A Call to Arms’, 47.
[15] Kazys Varnelis, ‘On performance, green architecture, and architecture fiction’, varnelis.net, 9 January 2009. http://varnelis.net/blog/on_performance_green_architecture_and_architecture_fiction (accessed 25 June 2010).
[16] Kazys Varnelis, ‘Back to infrastructure’, varnelis.net, 15 February 2009. http://varnelis.net/blog/back_to_infrastructure (accessed 25 June 2010).
[17] Jacob, ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe’.
[18] Kristina Shevory, ‘Architect, or Whatever’, The New York Times, 20 January 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/garden/21architects.html (accessed 25 June 2010).
[19] For example, the Pylon Appreciation Society: http://www.pylons.org.
[20] Rose Etherington, ‘High Voltage Transmission Line Towers by Arphenotype’, Dezeen, 30 March 2009. http://www.dezeen.com/2009/03/30/high-voltage-transmisison-line-towers-by-arphenotype (accessed 25 June 2010).
[21] Zwarts and Jansma, ‘New High Voltage Pylons for the Netherlands’, zwarts.jansma.nl. http://www.zwarts.jansma.nl/artefact-2410-en.html (accessed 25 June 2010).
[22] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 140.



Postcards from the Edgelands (for Marion Shoard) was originally published in Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks, Katrina Stoll & Scott Lloyd (eds), Berlin: Jovis, 2010.


Infrastructure has played a key role in dramatically reformatting the built fabric and spatial reserves within the past one hundred years, and will continue to do so in the future. The involvement of architects is necessary to shape the development of infrastructural design.

Infrastructure as Architecture contains a selection of influential architects and writers who have critically evaluated the coupling of these fields through essays and projects. The book is structured by five organizing themes that frame the diverse approaches to the subject, namely: Infrastructure Economy, Infrastructure Ecology, Infrastructure Culture, Infrastructure Politics, and Infrastructure Space/Networks.

Sample PDF from Jovis.