Theses Doctoral

Metropolitan Equipment: Architecture and Infrastructural Politics in Twentieth-Century New York City

Godel, Addison McMillan

This dissertation explores architectural building types as critical components of, and unique points of interface with, three infrastructural systems, built or re-built in New York City in the decades after World War II. While contemporary infrastructure is enmeshed in regional and global networks far beyond the administrative bounds of the five boroughs, an architectural focus reveals these systems as inescapably local, tied to political struggles surrounding the siting, design, and construction of buildings; to socio-technical imperatives of density; to material consequences like traffic and air pollution; and to aesthetic effects like beauty, monotony, and monumentality. Three case studies—in food distribution, telephone service, and sewage treatment—explore different spatial techniques involved in the management of commodities, information, and waste. Reading each through the social history of technology, as well as the disciplinary tools of architectural history, brings to light unique aspects of architecture’s participation in the political, social, and technological landscapes of the contemporary city.

This dissertation looks closely at the prewar roots and postwar creation of New York’s present-day systems: the adoption of the infrastructural buildings we see today, and the rejection of alternatives in design, values, and policies. It argues that the city’s vital systems, and their architectural manifestations, were largely designed according to the needs of various elite groups, in ways that supported the long-term deindustrialization and stratification of urban existence, though not according to a consistent or coherent plan. Well-studied postwar phenomena such as decentralization, automation, demographic change, and “urban crisis” take on different casts as familiar characters like politicians, property owners and architects are joined by monopoly corporations, technicians, and neighborhood organizers. Granular study of the processes that led to the adoption of particular plans, and the rejection of alternatives, reveals the city’s visual and functional landscape as one shaped by a wide—though far from democratic—range of actors.

Today, these same infrastructures, physically durable even as their social use has been redirected or transformed, continue to participate in an ostensibly postindustrial and rapidly gentrifying city. By reexamining the narratives of these systems’ design and construction, the study of infrastructural architecture illuminates this inequitable history, while revealing moments of resistance and supporting calls for the further democratization of urban life by those whose needs have been discounted.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Scott, Felicity Dale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 19, 2021