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Petropolis: Oil Urbanism

A look at the Brazilian cities that have been formed by oleaginous ‘no-places’ forms a wider thesis on the domination and manufacture of nature

Brazil, a nation that relies on ethanol for forty per cent of its fuel supply, has in recent years also become one of the largest oil producers in the world. The latest oil discoveries in the Campos and Santos Basin, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, are destined to put Brazil in the coveted top ten of oil producing nations globally.’

This opening gambit is the founding precept for this book. Its title Petropolis refers to the ‘cities’ that have been formed from the oleaginous infrastructure that Brazil’s new oil fields are constructing. The fact that ‘eighty-six fixed and forty-six floating rigs serve as workplace for over forty-five thousand people in Brazilian waters’ reinforces the notion that this is a neglected urban design problem, albeit fragmented and distributed over the ocean.

This is what Bhatia does best: take an aspect of unquestioned or overlooked infrastructure and interrogate it before proposing an architecture to address it. His previous projects with InfraNet Lab have looked at our relationship with the environment and Petropolis is a result of a research project at Rice University. The book is divided into three sections: observations, positions and projects. The observations comprise a number of photographic essays taken from past exhibitions by Garth Lenz and Peter Mettler both in Alberta’s Tar Sands, and Alex Webb in a Caspian Sea offshore oil platform-turned-city. What they have in common is the obvious and unsurprising exploitation of both the land and humans, with a scale untranslatable through the page.

The essays collected under its positions section are the book’s greatest contribution, where the oil extraction industry is conceived in terms of archipelagos, wild frontiers, and company towns. The essays themselves form an archipelago grounded as much in geographical as architectural theory and create a web of argument whose nodes readers are invited to connect themselves.

The archipelago metaphor has previously been applied to urban design by, for instance, Ungers and Koolhaas’s Berlin as a Green Archipelago (1977) which conceived a depopulating Berlin as a landscape containing islands of villas, or cities within the city, a concept simultaneously employed by Leon Krier for his entry to the Parc de La Villette competition. Less convincing is the application of Team 10’s ideas on mobility and association to the petropolis. The scales of house, street, district, city simply do not map onto the ocean as they do to the land, and although in theory, the ocean offers greater mobility (as does the sky), it’s also an alien environment. So Park and Stone’s FrequenCity is a case of the tail wagging the dog, or an over-enthusiastic application of theory.

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Alex Webb’s stunning photographs of people living on an abandoned oil field in Baku feature in The Petropolis of Tomorrow

Far more interesting is Bhatia’s own essay on the post-oil context of the Tapline pipe across the Arabian Gulf and how this piece of infrastructure has itself harvested an urbanism independent of its initial use. Applying these lessons to Lyster’s ‘On-Demand Urbanism’ essay on Amazon’s history and distribution ecology, could demonstrate how a post-oil world might appear.

The final section − projects − addresses issues of progress, presumably towards a utopia, or the ‘no place’ of an oil-rig archipelago. Although they don’t directly address the various critiques of the essays, they do once again highlight that nature/culture dichotomy. Creating an ‘agricultural island’ and using ‘energy harvesters’ in the pursuit of extracting oil, are both potentially infrastructural oxymorons. The projects present typical student blue-sky thinking for a potential oceanic urbanism quite distinct from, for example, the Metabolists’ marine cities of the 1960s. The proposals are as bleakly industrial as they are inhumane but there is much critical thought behind the ideas, and the Living Offshore Guide provides much data for further projects, should it be needed.

The whole collection can be read as a comment on the binary relationship between nature and culture and how humans exploit, dominate and manufacture nature and construct an artificial idea of it, separate from its natural state, for ideological reasons. Rafico Ruiz’s essay on the Chagos Archipelago broaches this subject from a feminist viewpoint, discussing its natural resources as media in the context of Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledge’. Haraway not only challenges the nature/culture binary, arguing that the two polarities should not be considered as independent opposites, or natural resources considered ‘facts of nature’. This stance demands that we become accountable for the consequences of natural resource extraction, within which would be included the Chagossian people and their way of life, all in the name of an idea of progress derived from Western epistemology. Further militarisation of these beautiful tiny islands as a US military base has become a cause célèbre of such geopolitical heavy handedness and another, less utopian, post-oil scenario.

In summary, Petropolis is a valuable contribution to and provocative engagement with the growing interest in industrial architecture and its geographies.

The Petropolis of Tomorrow

Editors: Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper

Publisher: Actar

Price: £26.50

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