Dreaming of Islands – whether in joy or in fear… – is dreaming of pulling away,
of being separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone – or it is dreaming of starting from scratch,
recreating, beginning anew. _Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands, 1953-1974
Glass and Garden Community Church, E. Logan Campbell, 1966. Photo: Christien Garcia
This is the first of a series of three intended posts about the relationship between infrastructure and desert islands. Infrastructures literally provide the paths by which we can act out a desire for far-away and isolated places. But, of course, as those ‘get-away’ destinations become ‘built up,’ infrastructures also foreclose the possibility of such escape. “Isn’t the Algarve just unrecognisable?” “It’s a miracle there is any countryside left in England!” This double bind, where the accessibility of desert islands conditions their loss, is increasingly important for narrating the ecology-inflected notion that our innate, superior humanity lies somewhere, just out of reach. But the predicament is equality significant with respect to other, less legible fantasies having to do with a sense of mobility, in time and space, conditioned by a distinction between bodies and landscapes, and with the heterotopic distinction between fantasy and reality itself: in order to get there we need to live with this. The idea that infrastructures somehow support a mobility along a reality/fantasy axis, as well as a physical one, suggests that infrastructures are themselves a kind of desert island. “Infrastructure brings jobs, money, a better politics, the future.” In this and other senses, infrastructures are destinations in and of themselves. We tend to think of infrastructures as the vehicle for connecting people and for manifesting cosmopolitanism but I would like to suggest in these three posts that infrastructures are also about being isolated, disappearing, and are a kind of “place” beyond mapped geography.
It was 42°C degrees in Phoenix on the day of our five-hour layover via the city’s International Sky Harbor (so-called, desert landscape notwithstanding). The wind blew as if straight from a blow dryer and the rental car depot was larger than most airports I’ve been to. We spent our time mostly in Scottsdale, the swish city neighbouring Phoenix, where we found lots of finely laid concrete in the service of an architectural eccentricity so uniquely the domain of the suburban church. In Canadian and American cities defined by post-war growth and prosperity, this kind of expressionist church is ubiquitous. It speaks at once to the pretension of an international aesthetic and the folk sentiments that are perhaps only likely to be expressed where decisions are made in considerable isolation, where commercial interest are relatively subordinate and where a moderate-enough budget is at hand. In the context of the capitalistic and nationalistic ideologies reified in the mid-century, the concrete that characterises these very mid-century buildings has a unique aura. It brings the notion of ingenuity (the improbability of cantilevering projections and organic undulations) together with the notion of purity (the smooth, celestial dome, free of external buttressing). Where steel supports and frames, where glass seals and curtains, concrete does it all. And although concrete was hardly a new material at the time, its employment in the mid twentieth-century defined the futurism of various father-like figures (eg. Auguste Perret who rebuilt the WWII-decimated French city of Le Harve, and Félix Candela, famed for early examples of radiating parabolic, thin-shell concrete buildings), whose status as visionary artist-engineers helped to establish architecture as a primary visual expression of modernism. The purity and ingenuity that defines modernity’s eugenic essence (Bauman 1989) inconspicuously haunts these playful quotidian churches – at least in as far as their commingling in the utility and plasticity of concrete speaks to the relationship between the idea that America was founded as a place of religious freedom (i.e. purity) and the capitalist premise that the only means we have of living with one another is through competition (i.e. ingenuity). The American pilgrims persecuted for their faith are today scripted into history by the colonial narrative of the American continent as itself the oceanic desert island writ large. This is the clean slate, origin fantasy that bolsters present-day historical nationalism, which is to say the mutual feeling of arrival and departure.