Living Infrastructure Living Infrastructure

Before industrialisation, infrastructure in the form of roads, paths and waterways were closely interwoven with the natural environment. Physical conditions such as topography, flooding and soil resistance determined the position of infrastructure lines and how cities were connected, as roads always followed the route of least resistance. In mountainous areas, the lay of the mountains would dictate the routes of the mountain pass, which always followed the easiest and less inclined areas. In flood-prone Holland, roads were placed along raised dikes besides rivers where they were safe from the water. In preindustrial cities, infrastructure was often also the ordering device of the city, with systems of lanes and streets sometimes giving way to form squares and parks. In this way, infrastructure was closely entwined with the urban morphology of the city. In the last century, as mobility increased,  so did the size of infrastructure projects.  The advancement of technology has destroyed the self-evident relationship between infrastructure and its surroundings, as superior technology made it possible to overcome obstacles imposed by the geography, the topography and the environment. Infrastructure started following its own rules, based on construction techniques, turning radii, ideal inclinations and cost effectiveness. Generic design, construction methods and use of materials based on engineering requirements has made infrastructure everywhere look the same. In fact, not so long ago, urban design and landscape architecture students were still taught that large infrastructural works, such as highways or railway networks, are a system in their own right; systems that follow their own patterns and logic of speed and efficiency irrespective of their context. Students were also taught that when designing a highway, its efficiency should prevail above the need for integration with the surroundings. This led to infrastructure becoming a barrier in cities and an intrusion in the natural landscape. However, in the more urbanised and complex world of today, infrastructure corridors can no longer be considered as isolated, separate networks. As cities have expanded, highways and railway lines that once passed around cities have merged with cities and become important city arteries. These arteries are no longer merely a
Liesl Vivier explores various ways in which infrastructure can co-exist with its surroundings to create a more undisturbed public realm Living Infrastructure connection with another city, but have become city zones in their own right, with parallel roads and exit ramps every hundred or so metres. In dense cities, cleverly fitting the infrastructure lines into the city fabric is imperative to make the infrastructure acceptable for city residents and to reduce the barriers that such huge objects throw up. This requires urban designers and architects to work alongside engineers to come up with integrated solutions to knit infrastructure into the city fabric. Outside cities, the increasing importance of protecting the diminishing natural environment, has led to landscape architects teaming up with engineers to soften the intrusion of highways or railway lines in the landscape. Multidisciplinary teams are created to mitigate the effect of highways running through national parks by building planted ecoducts and tunnels that allow for the free movement of animals over or under the lines  of infrastructure. Different approaches can be taken when integrating large-scale infrastructure projects with the landscape or the built environment. The most common approaches fall into roughly four categories: hiding, concealment, detaching or redesigning the context. However, irrespective of the chosen approach, the process of integration also provides opportunities to re-evaluate and redesign the areas around the infrastructure object.


Of all the approaches chosen, hiding the infrastructure by burying it underground is the most radical and expensive approach to take, but this also creates the greatest opportunities to improve the environment above ground. With the barrier of infrastructure removed, the open space above ground can either become a valuable addition to the public realm or create a development opportunity. In this approach, two worlds are created: a functional underground world, based on the logic of transport and an aesthetic world above the ground. Occasionally, one world is revealed to the other through ventilation shafts visible above the ground, but generally the two entities can be designed separately from each other. An example of this approach is the Madrid Rio Project for which the City Council of Madrid


decided to confront the disconnection caused by the urban ring (the M30) adjacent to the city centre in 2003. As part of this project, 6 kms of highway along the River Manzanares was tunneled. The Dutch office West 8 together with Spanish MRIO architects won an international competition for the reclaimed area of the highway. Their proposal was the only one that improved the urban situation solely through the use of landscaping. It has not only reconnected the once disconnected green area of Madrid City, it also facilitates the connection of the area’s bicycle lanes and made sustainable traffic possible for the citizens.
In the proposed solution, a trilogy of initial strategic projects were created that could be further subdivided into several subprojects. These could be initiated and funded by various public or private stakeholders. One of the most important projects is the Salón de Pinos, running parallel along the Manazares River. Designed as a linear green space, the park is located almost completely on the roof of the submerged highway and links the existing and newly designed urban spaces with one another. The river, which was more or less invisible, has regained an important position in the public realm and connectivity between the urban fabric and the river has been restored.

Where hiding the infrastructure proves to be too costly, another approach often chosen is to celebrate the infrastructure by dramatising its appearance. In this approach, the infrastructure detaches itself from the context but at the same time deliberately becomes a strong visual element and focus of the area. This approach requires a close collaboration between engineers and architects or landscape architects, as the design aesthetic cannot interfere with the engineering requirements.

The Randstad Rail in The Hague, The Netherlands, is an excellent example of this approach. The Randstad Rail is a public, light rail transport system connecting the cities of Rotterdam and The Hague with smaller suburban areas between the two cities. It consists of metro and tramlines and partially moves on existing infrastructure. However, to improve the connectivity in The Hague, the rail system had to be extended. This meant that new infrastructure had to be constructed and a new light rail station positioned within an already heavily urbanised area. The chosen position for the new station was the Beatrixlaan – designed by ZJA Zwarts & Jansma Architects – in the heart of the commercial district of The Hague, but also a main city artery crossing a commercial zone and bearing heavy traffic during parts of the day. Having no space for the light rail system and station at ground level, the new line has been elevated above the ground plane. By encasing the line and the station with a striking stocking net patterned structure, the elevated infrastructure has become an icon of the Beatrixlaan; a new, monumental, urban object within the city. At the elevated level the Beatrixlaan connection is fully functional for people using the public transport system, while at the ground level pedestrians cyclists and motorists can use the public realm undisturbed from the public transport system.
Concealment A third approach is to blend the infrastructure with its surroundings. This can either be done by reflecting the forms of the surroundings in the forms of the infrastructure lines, so that they become less visible, or by screening the infrastructure from view through buildings, plants or earthworks. The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park is a clever exercise in concealment. The park is built on a brownfield site adjacent to the lake edge. Crossing the site were two lines of infrastructure, which could not be removed and had to remain fully functional. The lines of infrastructure divided the parcel of land into three parts. The solution of the designer, Weiss Manfredi, was to let the park and the infrastructure coexist. A new landform conceals the existing infrastructure while the three separate sites are connected with a Z-shaped grassed platform. This passes over the highway and the railway line and creates an uninterrupted, continuous pedestrian route. The park not only unifies the different parcels offering visitors a pleasant stroll, but also connects the city with the waterfront and the new beach. In this way the relationship of the city with its waterfront is reestablished. The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park conceals the existing heavy infrastructure and provides the means for this infrastructure to co-exist with other uses, even art, and add value to the city.
Redesigning the Context Implementing infrastructure projects requires vast amounts of funding. Changing, burying or realigning existing routes in order to integrate the infrastructure with the surroundings is not always possible or financially viable. In such cases the surrounding context may be reconfigured to remove the barriers caused by the infrastructure while the object itself could be left untouched. The infrastructure remains visible, even intact, but through changes in the context, no hindrance is caused to the surrounding area. Until recently, the railway line cutting through the town of Bilthoven in The Netherlands formed a physical barrier in the town. This was especially true around the station area next to the town centre. The railway crossing, where the main road through the town and the railway line crossed at ground level was the most dangerous, where a number of fatal accidents have occurred. BDP was commissioned by the city of Bilthoven to redesign the entire station area in order to increase the safety of the crossing and freshen up the station area as a whole. Burying the railway line was out of the question, but the multidisciplinary design team of engineers, cost analysts, landscape architects and urban designers came up with a bold solution to address both the safety issues as well as the barrier of the railway lines. In the design, two separate tunnels, passing under the railway lines, are created, thus separating the vehicular traffic from cyclists and pedestrians. The functional vehicular tunnel is projected 200 metres away from the station, while the bicycle and pedestrian underpass is positioned under the

The Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle from the east with Elliot Bay in the background

The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park is a clever exercise in concealment

Top: The bicycle tunnel, Bilthoven, The Netherlands, is conceived as a series of planted terraces that gently step down under the railway tracks

Bicycle repair shop and 850 new bicycle storage places close to the station
station. The bicycle tunnel is conceived as a series of planted terraces that gently step down under the railway tracks, so that the bicycle tunnel becomes more like a place of arrival than a mere cycle route. By doing this, the underpass itself becomes the heart of the station area, where passengers arrive, passersby can meet and where visitors catch their first glimpse of Bilthoven. The improvement of the public realm has sparked a whole series of other local developments around the station, as entrepreneurs respond to the improved environment. The introduction of a bicycle repair shop in the cycle tunnel and 850 new bicycle storage places close to the station
have boosted cycle travel to the station and the town centre.

Infrastructure is a necessary aspect of the modern world; it is crucial for connecting people, driving business and exploring the world. But it also remains an intrusion in both cities and in the landscape. However, through adopting a creative approach, infrastructure may be successfully integrated in the environment and multiple disciplinary design teams can create excellent solutions to marry the functionality of infrastructure with the beauty of cities and landscapes.