University of Toronto
Zannah Mae Matson
Interview with Jonathan Massey
Zannah Matson: During the conversation this evening and in the examples you used to frame your talk Infrastructure Worth Building, you emphasized building specifically. Obviously the building is an important part of architectural theory and practice, but I’m wondering about the importance of the representation of infrastructure and if the visual communication of infrastructure entangles with the idea of imagining otherwise?
Jonathan Massey: Yes, definitely. I don’t have anything vivid and concrete to summon to mind for the conversation, but there is a whole domain—and a lot of the work we’ve done at Aggregate is working within this—to shift the focus away from architecture as representation toward understanding architecture as directly enmeshed in the political economy. But that representational and symbolic domain dimension of infrastructure is hugely important. I do think there’s been this big affective turn and materialist turn in architecture, as in many other intellectual domains, and probably there are people doing really interesting work on the affective dimension of infrastructure and on how infrastructure materializes social relationships with particular textures, densities, obduracies, and flexibilities. One person who comes to mind is Rachel Armstrong, an architectural scholar at Newcastle University who is doing work on living architecture, which partly includes growing buildings and growing urban armatures and infrastructures out of living material, but also has this even deeper dimension that is really questioning even our conceptual categories of what is architecture and what is ecology. So I think there’s a lot of potential in this avenue of exploration, and the first tools I would turn to today are affect theory and the new materialism because probably they are ways to recognize something a little different from classically representational values in infrastructure.
Zannah Matson: Sure. It’s a complex time to be interested in representation, because on one hand visual representation has been so significant to the establishment of modern systems of classification that are embedded within built infrastructure. But on the other hand, there are questions if the study of such hegemonic representations and infrastructures only further reifies their power.
Jonathan Massey: There’s a book called Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries by Karen Tongson that is a beautiful account from a kind of cultural studies perspective of the inland empire in southern California and especially its queer, Latinx, and Filipino immigrant youth cultures. One thing I love about this book is that it uses the freeways as a kind of connective armature reflecting the reality of suburban southern California life, and that very geographically fragmented sites of culture and community and life are threaded together through ‘cruising the freeways’. This thematic of relocation was a way of talking about moving through space in the car, about queer diasporas, and about Filipino immigrant dislocation. It is a very nice account of freeway infrastructure as a key part of that everyday experience.
Zannah Matson: There are so many cases in which the study of existing hegemonic infrastructure has multiple narratives that that are made invisible by the hypervisibility of a particularly monumental infrastructure – a freeway, a bridge, or a wall for example.
Jonathan Massey: I think part of what you’re referring to, the idea of a border wall is so concrete and visible that it masks things like distributed prayer practices that depend on infrastructure no larger than a mat and have a temporal dimension and a performative dimension rather than only physically monumental dimensions. Or the contrast between the border as monumental infrastructure and the wider cultures, ecologies, and markets of border crossing.
Zannah Matson: Right, these ‘other stories’ of the border that can be told. I’m wondering if, and this is very much an open question, but it seems as though there are methodologies of studying infrastructure that might better lend themselves to understanding these ‘minor’ stories. Do you feel that within architecture there are ways of engaging with these stories or do you find that you have to push to different disciplines to find different methodologies for exploring them?
Jonathan Massey: Great question. I think probably it deserves a longer, slower, and more researched answer, but the first thing that comes to mind is a conversation I had just last week in preparation for this talk with my colleague Meredith TenHoor from Aggregate and a faculty member at Pratt. Meredith was talking with me about infrastructures of care and was highlighting human infrastructures dedicated to caring for one another in the case of mental health. Or we might think of domestic labor, childcare, or other forms of immaterial and affective labor. Or, this is also a bit like what Valentina Napolitano was referencing in her comment about the church, or work on the church as a form of social infrastructure.
This seems like a really rich territory that I don’t think many people in architecture, landscape, and urbanism have done a lot of that work yet to recognize those other modes of relationships that might not show up in the formal economy and might not be easily seen in monumental built form.
Zannah Matson: Sometimes there is a method of how we produce architectural research that maybe doesn’t prioritize those ways of knowing. I think this that may be changing, but it is almost like the discipline has to reach outside itself to find precedents for listening to, showing, and designing for different stories.
Jonathan Massey: Yeah, sure. One of the conversations that I’m starting to focus on is the question of architectural history and theory curriculum. I mean, not starting to focus on, I have been focusing on. But I’m seeing it in new ways lately in particular, I have this other talk that I’ve been giving and starting to write called ‘Building the Discipline We Deserve’, which is about how can we make a coalition of people to scrutinize and change practices in architectural education and the profession.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is that most of us still, if we’re teaching a theory course or if we’re teaching a history course, we start with a canon and we revise it. And I think it’s a great challenge to just let go of the canon and start from the ground up with the knowledge our students deserve. If we want to make a more diverse and inclusive otherly empowered architecture cohort of the future, we need to not start with all the patriarchs and all the dead white aristocratic landowners who had the leisure and the capacity to design and to build things and then add people incrementally, almost as like secondary stories. But really start from entirely new starting points. The best example of this that I know is the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative, which is a group that came out of the global architectural history teaching collaborative project and have a syllabus that they’ve developed and taught that is an introduction to architecture that starts with things like kitchens, bathrooms, closets, menstrual huts, and other architectures that have reinforced gender, gender segregation, and gendered understandings of labor and the body. It’s such a powerful model for history and theory starting from inclusive premises and you can imagine building, as they already do, to look at where it intersects with the canon that has been extensively studied and written about.
Zannah Matson: I don’t necessarily want to bring in something that you didn’t reference in your lecture but since you’ve talked about care, I’m wondering if you’ve seen Shannon Mattern’s new piece on maintenance and care? In it, she suggests, “maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause,” particularly in a time of innovation and disruption.
Jonathan Massey: I have not seen the Shannon Mattern piece, but I’m very excited that she’s coming to University of Michigan for a conference because she is definitely doing great work as a bit of a public intellectual connecting specialized conversations with with bigger audiences and bigger questions. But I know a little bit about maintenance art and David Gissen, my colleague at California College of the Arts has written a little bit about maintenance architecture. So I haven’t engaged with the maintenance of infrastructure very much, but I think it’s very powerful. I do think one of the things I appreciate about the approach is that it puts labor and the people—workers and the different kinds of maintainers—it puts them at the center of our thinking and in a very prosaic way.
Buildings have such a long life typically and their maintenance and sustaining them is such a big economic sector and such a big commitment of time and effort on the part of all of us who clean the floors, wash the windows, vacuum, and repair the roof. I am quite sure that there some incredibly generative and creative opportunities if we design that life. Typically, we think of the architect’s work stopping once the building is completed. If we really designed to that maintenance regime and folded it into the very early generative approaches and I’m sure some people are starting to work that way. I haven’t seen it yet, but that seems really exciting.
Zannah Matson: There is some of this happening in landscape architecture, but mostly in terms of thinking of how to design the maintenance regimes into the creation of spaces themselves.
Jonathan Massey: I’m guessing there are also people who are thinking about the communities and the people who are employed as gardeners and maintainers and are actually thinking how can we design the infrastructure, the landscape, and the architecture that will enable that work and make it better. Andrés Jaque at Columbia Office for Political Innovation has a beautiful piece that looks at the maintenance regime of the Barcelona Pavilion and all the people and the cat—the mouser that lives in the basement—that helps us see the counterpart to the pristine spaces and glazed surfaces of the Barcelona Pavilion. I think Andres is one of the people who is turning that maintenance perspective into a generative problem, and I’m sure there are other people too.
Zannah Matson: I think this is really important work, but I also think there is an important critique to be made. One of the things that comes to mind when talking about maintaining infrastructure is that so much of it has always been broken for certain communities. So much of it was initially built as white supremacist infrastructure. Is it broken, or is it actually doing it was always meant to do? And so the idea of maintenance raises questions about if we are maintaining the status quo when we maintain infrastructure.
Jonathan Massey: Yes. That’s a great perspective. As you’ve pointed out, let’s take urban freeways in particular, which were at some level designed to break African American communities. And so certainly, in both Syracuse and Detroit, I’ve been following along with debates about highway infrastructure and one of the key perspectives is, should they be maintained and repaired or should they be torn down or replaced? That issue you raised has come up exactly. Is there is there a post-interstate, post-elevated freeway future that we could imagine that might be reparative for the communities that were displaced and split-up in the fifties and sixties when those things were built.
There’s another conversation in Detroit that’s quite interesting, powerful, and challenging. Which is the perspective that the ‘renaissance’ of downtown Detroit, through massive investment by Dan Gilbert and his affiliated company Quicken Loans and now many others, was only made possible by the radical devaluing of Detroit real estate over many decades through abandonment. So the new Detroit that’s emerging in downtown and midtown is only possible because of a radical devaluation of the prior city.
Zannah Matson: This idea of the post-elevated freeway future is really interesting here to think about how maintenance, but specifically repair could be more generative. I think that’s where Ta-Nahisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations that you discussed in the lecture comes in because of the idea of repair being a radical re-thinking.
Jonathan Massey: Definitely, and it comes back again to this concept of human infrastructure and social infrastructure. I think there are probably some very interesting ways to tighten up that linkage between the physical infrastructure and the community networks, the local economies, the networks of family and friendship in a neighborhood that are enabled, disabled, impaired, or supported by the physical infrastructure.
In Detroit, for instance, Maurice Cox and Detroit Planning and Development are really focusing on the concept of an inclusive recovery and thinking about how new investments in streets and parks can support the people who held the neighborhood together over 40 years of disinvestment. All those people who invested their effort in maintenance over many decades by mowing vacant properties or by filling potholes but don’t have a legal equity stake in the properties that they were maintaining. And so I think there’s a lot of effort to think about how infrastructural investments can concretely benefit those people through shared prosperity and inclusive recovery.
Zannah Matson: I guess this actually turns us to our last idea of sovereignty. If we think of the damaging historic role that infrastructure has played to reinforce a hegemonic sovereign or sovereignty, I’m wondering if ‘infrastructure worth building’ should also be redefining what sovereignty means. Right before your talk, we had a land acknowledgement about the sovereign Indigenous land that we are occupying, which is maybe a good entry point into this conversation about fragmented sovereignties. Are there alternative sovereignties that infrastructure should be working towards or should we just try to actually part ways with sovereignty because it’s been so very problematic to have hegemonic infrastructure?
Jonathan Massey: Oh, that’s a good question and I don’t totally know. I mean, among the projects I showed, I think I suspect that MANY, the Keller Easterling led collaboration, is really interested in creating webs of connection and barter and exchange that are totally decoupled from any kind of regulatory and governance structure with the hope that an app based platform could do that. The thing that really compels me about Occupy, Ephemerisle, and Burning Man—as different as they are—is that governance and sovereignty are the explicit focus. In each case, they intentionally build principles of self-governance for these temporary communities or these alternative counter publics. For me, these are less interesting in the specificity of those governance practices than they are as examples of how we can come up with a new social contract. We can learn how to govern ourselves outside of the formal electoral systems that we’ve inherited the formal governance structures for a minute, or a day, or a week, or spatially in a zone that’s outside of them, even if just notionally.
Perhaps Native American reservations are an example of this. Not a powerfully positive one, but a reminder that there are heterodox and fragmented sovereignties already existing. I really value the spaces and temporalities that challenge us to rethink what we owe one another and how we regulate ourselves together and how we think about assemblies outside of what we’re used to recognizing as governance.
Zannah Matson: This is inspired by the work of Deborah Cowen here at the University of Toronto, but I also wonder if movements of water protectors or land protectors—the Standing Rock Water Protectors being perhaps the most well-known—becomes a kind of model for these responsibilities that we have to one another. Because it is actually a system of governance that prefigures the modern state, and instead of being a new invention is a reassertion of how other sovereignties can operate. In this case, fighting certain infrastructures and maintaining others that are often the social ones we have been talking about.
Jonathan Massey: One of my big takeaways from Bruno Latour that I’m still working through is his beautiful recognition, stated explicitly in We Have Never Been Modern, that the idea of a unitary time that moves forward is so deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and yet is the biggest myth of them all. Realizing that we have access to all those other modalities, not the same as they would have been experienced 400 years ago, but they’re still there and there’s nothing that says we can’t inhabit them mentally and practically. Which I think is probably part of what is surfacing through entangled worlds: recognizing some of those non-modern structures that are still powerfully available to us.
Zannah Matson: Thank you so much.
Jonathan Massey: Thank you for talking.
 Mattern, Shannon. “Maintenance and Care.” Places Journal. November 2018.URL: https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/