28 September 2015

the visual melody of infrastructure

A mini-hydroelectric station on River Brathay, Lake District United Kingdom. Photo by Alan Wiig, July 2015.

Teju Cole has a nicely digressive essay in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Far Away from Here, that is a study of travel and photography in Switzerland. Cole writes:

Only direct observation can reveal [the particularities of places]. The way streetlights and traffic signs vary, the most common fonts, the slight variations in building codes, the fleeting culture of ads (different in each place, even when the company is a multinational), the noticeable shift in the range of hues that people wear in a given city, the visual melody of infrastructure as it interacts with terrain.
This last piece of the sentence is a wonderfully vivid description of infrastructure as a part of a landscape rather than a distraction from it. In certain settings, infrastructure both frames and focuses the wider scene, gathering the eye on particular details, then expanding the view to the way the equipment, the system, the concrete, the steel, the brick, the plastic, makes the place. The nature of infrastructure is to universalize. This is the work of the International Organization of Standardization among others, to make sure mobile phones connect in different countries, that automotive tires fit to rims, that steel and glass conform to pre-determined codes. But in the landscape, infrastructure takes on local character as it is adapted into particular cultural contexts, and these adaptations offer a "visual melody" that a makes place-difference distinct.

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