Writing ‘Infrastructure of the Void’

As part of my engagement with the collective reading of The Infrastructural City organized by Mammoth, I wanted to share the process and backstory about my chapter in the book – ‘Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake’. #mammothbook

The chapter title

‘Until Los Angeles’ was my working title of the drafts from October 2006 to May 2007 . ‘Infrastructure of the Void’ was the second working title and the one I’m still the most fond of. ‘Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake’ was coined by Kazys Varnelis in the 20070820 Owens Draft. But the chapter has a longer history worth sharing.

The Back Story

The chapter emerged from the research component from my MLA/MArch thesis, the design of an alternate dust mitigation system to restore Owens Lake and create a hybrid landscape for tourism and habitat. As a resident of LA for several years before grad school, I first visited the Owens Valley on a spur of the moment road trip on Memorial Day weekend in 1998. I looked at a map of California and pointed my car into the unknown of the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and have been haunted by Owens Valley ever since.

Then in summer of 2004, with the intent and dream of return to California, I initially choose the Los Angeles Aqueduct as my thesis topic. Through the arduous thesis proposal/approval process, the Owens Lake Playa became my focus and site.

From the Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1916.

Architecture 812: Theory II

Kazys Varnelis was a finalist for a faculty position at UPenn and invited to teach a PhD proseminar that spring semester. Knowing his writings about Los Angeles and Owens Valley, enrolling in his class was a no-brainer…

Materiality of the Text
Spring 2004
Professor Kazys Varnelis

Lectures/Seminars Wednesdays 10-1, Rare Book Room, Furness Library

The purpose of this seminar is to introduce students to the methods of scholarly inquiry and research through the analysis of a selection of writings by architects. These key documents will be considered within their disciplinary and cultural context and situated with regard to the built objects that surround them.

To give order to this broad undertaking, the semester is organized by the question of the “Materiality of the Text.” More than any other epoch preceding it, our era is marked by radical changes in the way we produce, transmit, and store textual and graphic information. In an attempt to understand la longue durée of the transmission of knowledge and thereby come to a better sense of the present transformations, this course investigates texts from Vitruvius to the contemporary as material objects that inform, and are informed by, architectural thinking…

It was around our discussions in the Rare Book Room, as we contemplated original architectural texts, that I first broached my interest in Owen Lake and asked for Kazys’ input with my thesis. For the term paper, I created an annotated bibliography on infrastructure, Infra to Supra Structures, which identified several key texts that are now part of the curriculum of my fall seminar, Infrastructure, Natural Systems, and the Space of Inhabited Landscapes.

On January 27th, 2005, Kazys sent me the following email:

Hi Barry,
This may be the worst time to ask you about this… But your work on the Owens Valley is intriguing and I’d like to suggest the following … I also have to get you a copy of Forum Annual. Will try to put it in your box next week.

Attached was the prospectus for Infrastructural Cities.

My proposal:

Infrastructural Umbilicals – The Owens Valley and the Growth of the Metropolis

The contemporary Owens Valley landscape owes its condition to the infrastructure introduced by the city of LA and mining. As a remnant of 19th century rural settlement patterns- compact towns with open space between, the place is preserved by the LADPW’s ownership and refusal to sanction new development.

• Photographs: 12-18 images one per page: Documenting/illustrating the infrastructural links between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley- the LA Aqueduct, the Pacific DC Inter-tie high tension line, mines (Cerro Gordo and Dolomite) that provided raw materials and capital, and the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation project (which reduces the amount of water available for export). (Velvia 35mm slides, taken in January 2005).

• Drawings: Site analysis to be integrated in margins of text pages and or full bleed. Maps of the infrastructure layers, movement studies, water flows/hydrology, chronological shrinking of Owens Lake, road/air links and others. Vector graphics, process color or B&W (solid colors- no halftones needed).

• Essay (2500-3000 words): An exploration of the growth of Los Angeles through the development of Owens Valley – starting with the silver/lead mines of Cerro Gordo which financed the growth of the city in the1870s; then the Los Angles Aqueduct spurring the growth of the city’s boundaries, agricultural development of the San Fernando Valley, and population boom in the 1930s; and finally the electric grid powering the modern city economy.

Of course, I was just a few weeks into the final semester of grad school and was going 100mph with my thesis project when I wrote this. But I’m going to save my thesis project for another time and just focus on the development of the text.


But my research had started 8 months earlier when I started the thesis process. After many, many iterations (this is #4: überAqueduct), my thesis project (thesis statement #9) was approved at the end of fall semester 2004. The site had shifted from the Castaic Cascade terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to restoring Owens Lake. A few paragraphs and phrases did make it into the book from my thesis.

Over winter break, I flew out to Los Angeles and spent a week in the Owens Valley. I took over 2,0oo photographs (both digital and on slide film), a few of which made it into the book celebrating the graduation of our MLA class.

Here is the text that accompanied the design plates in my official Thesis book.

An image from my 2005 Masters thesis to restore Owens Lake

First draft of the chapter

Following graduation, I got busy with life again and the move back to Los Angeles where my wife had secured a residency. Work didn’t really start on the chapter until October of 2006. Draft #1’Until Los Angeles’ – October 2006

Back to the Valley

The photographs that made it into the book of Owens Lake came from my August 2007 cross-country move from LA to Minneapolis where my wife had found a post-doc. Since her job was starting immediately after her residency had ended, she flew ahead and I got to drive. By intention, I drove via Owens Valley and spent three days revisiting the lake and the surrounding communities. The photos accompanying the chapter in the book all came from this trip.

Creative Commons License
by Barry Lehrman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

8 thoughts on “Writing ‘Infrastructure of the Void’

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Writing ‘Infrastructure of the Void’ « Infrascape Design -- Topsy.com

  2. Thanks, Barry!

    The Owens Lake bathymetry from 1916 is really haunting, like a map of a ghost.

    Would love to hear more about the design project, too, if it’s something you want to share.

  3. Stay tuned – infrascapedesign will be all Infrastructural City, all week. My thesis project will be posted on Friday. There will be new posts each day this week including: an Owens Lake/Los Angeles Aqueduct bibliography, the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation project team, and a podcast of lecture centered on the reading of the chapter plus the accompanying slides!


    A late breaking development in the dust control saga is that the proposed 3.5 square miles of ‘moat & row’ landforms have thwarted by the California Lands Commission who refused to lease the lake bed to the DWP. They based their action on that M&R isn’t one of MOA’s original three control techniques (gravel, vegetation, flooding) and that the landforms would impact animal habitat (ie snowy plovers). so back to square 1.

    The other news I just uncovered is the construction costs weren’t $400-$500m as often cited, but CHM2Hill only billed $90m for their role in constructing phases 1-6.


    Click to access App_Moat_Row.pdf

  4. Pingback: Owens Lake | From Dust Problems to Towing Icebergs « dpr-barcelona

  5. Pingback: reading the infrastructural city: chapter one index – updated 4.28 – mammoth // building nothing out of something

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s