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Post-Postcolonial Sensory Infrastructure


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More than a decade ago, Rem Koolhaas published his widely circulated essay “Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos” as part of a Documenta 11 platform in that city devoted to African urbanism. Koolhaas went on to consider the status of Lagos, which seemed to have an aura of “apocalyptic violence” and of a “smoldering rubbish dump.” A series of further enquiries revealed new informal networks entering the interstices of older, decaying infrastructures. Finally, it was a crucial helicopter ride by which Koolhaas showed that Lagos, rather than bordering permanently on chaos, functioned as a series of functional correspondences, with a dynamic “confrontation of people and infrastructure.” This clinching aerial insight followed a familiar trend in the history of architecture. It was through Corbusier’s flights in Brazil in 1929 and in colonial Algiers that he formulated his claims for a new form of urban imagination, distinct from ground-level perception. Thus, after one of his Brazilian flights Corbusier wrote ecstatically:

From the houses, no one sees [Rio]. There is no more land to build upon … There are nearly a dozen bays, closed, isolated. If you walk through the maze of streets, you rapidly lose all sense of the whole. Take a plane and you will see, and you will understand, and you will decide.

Despite or because of its revelatory encounter lineage, the Koolhaas essay suggested that there was an emerging “instant urbanism” in Lagos beyond the design and designation of postcolonial planning. Its significant limitations notwithstanding, this altogether rare encounter of global architecture with postcolonial urbanism shed light on a dysfunctional-productive space of infrastructure, where constantly moving networks bypassed states and the language of sovereignty. In fact, for some time now, the problematic of circulation has emerged as a new theoretical challenge for debates on infrastructure beyond appearing as a familiar adjunct to neoliberal commodity economies and space-time compression in global capitalism. But first, for a bit of context, let’s rewind to the 1950s and the early 1960s.

The 1950s saw a tribe of modernist planners and architect-adventurers who ventured to the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa like modernized versions of nineteenth-century European colonial travellers. Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, Doxiadis in Islamabad, and Buckminster Fuller in Africa and India were all part of this traffic to the Third World. Pushed by local regimes to set up showcase cities, and even by US and Soviet foreign policy coffers, architect-travellers were in fact on the sidelines of a significant urban transformation initiated by lesser-known transnational urban planners and designers who worked to plan and develop actually existing cities with large populations, such as Delhi, Lagos, Beijing.

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