Infrastructure and Corporate Design: Pierre Bélanger Interviews Joseph E. Brown of AECOM

“In the next 30 years, 50 percent of the built environment will be entirely replaced. Notwithstanding the effect of global climate change on global metropolises with rising sea levels, we can’t keep doing things the same way. We need global-scale intelligence to communicate and a global scale of operating that addresses these challenges in a unified system. That’s where ground-level implementation comes into play, and that’s what AECOM is about…the integration of that system.” -Joseph Brown

Having just reviewed the Landscape Infrastructures Symposium proceedings, I was interested to see Pierre Bélanger  follow-up on his  interest in the implications of the 2005 corporate merger of AECOM and EDAW, the largest engineering and landscape architecture/planning firms.  The Dirt recently posted the interview between Pierre and Joseph Brown, chief executive of planning, design, and development at AECOM.

The interview probes the status of large corporate engineering + design firms that are able to provide “total service delivery capabilities” in one networked organization distributed around the globe.  In particular the conversation hints that massive corporations such as AECOM are perhaps both better suited than small, single discipline design offices to meet the current challenge of reinventing our collapsing infrastructures, and such entities may be more cutting edge and research savvy than academic design institutions (i.e. Harvard GSD).   The conversation is in turns fascinating, aggravating, and very pro corporate.  So much for decentralizing infrastructure….at least economically.

Quotes and Image of Joseph Brown  courtesy The Dirt

How big is AECOM?   2008 annual report


  1. Aecom is working on the parkmerced project, which is a total tear-down of one of the largest works of thomas dolliver church. See and the “marvels of modernism” landscapes @ risk. The current re-routing of light rail through a residential neighborhood will destroy the community, and is being done to benefit a private developer over direct public routing and connection to the daly city bart station. Community input has been ignored, and AECOM is part of the push to redevelop and redirect transit without looking at alternatives to the proposed demolition of a possible national register candidate.

  2. thanks for the post and opinion. I am just saw Kate Orff last night introduce James Corner for a lecture at the arch league. she made a comment to him (something like “James, you seem to always work for rich clients in the super-affluent cities of the world…) which through into relief for me that despite grandiose claims field ops actually work within a very restricted methodology/conceptual framework that works in specific contexts only (post industrial infill in affluent western city). Anyways…

    Your thoughts on Kristina Hill were very helpful. I’ve recently been going through her essay “shifting sites” and it is extremely challenging and cogent. Had you read much of her before this conference?

  3. Thanks for the comments. The Kristina Hill writings I have looked at are the Shifting Sites essay, and her essay in the Case Downsview book (that she refers to in the Landscape Infrastructures lecture–a great take on the competition) and parts of Ecology and Design: Frameworks for Learning, which I believe she co-edited. I noticed that she has a couple of other essays that I haven’t had a chance to get to yet, including: “Design for Rising Sea Levels” and “Urban ecological Design and Urban Ecology: An assessment of the state of current knowledge and a suggested research agenda” A list of all her publications is listed here.

    How was the Corner Lecture?

  4. So much for decentralizing infrastructure…

    That was exactly what bothered me (well, that and the whole corporate control angle) — I hate to be too binary in my thinking (decentralized=good/centralized=bad, uncertainty=good/certainty=bad, or informal=good/formal=bad), but in as much as there’s a wrong side to those pairings, Brown really seemed to be coming down on it. Hard.

    I tend to think that a big part of the appeal of infrastructure as an object of design, as the place in urban systems where landscape architects might have significant agency, is that it offers an opportunity to (a) design something tangible which we hope will have beneficial effects on the urban system while (b) acknowledging and responding to concerns of the indeterminacy of both urban and ecological systems which have dominated l.arch discourse for the past decade or so. I think you could construct an argument for how Brown’s approach fits into that (something like: (1) the effects of infrastructure on an urban system are extremely difficult to understand (2) only a very large and integrated team of designers and consultants can accomplish that task (3) so in order to design infrastructures which have beneficial effects, infrastructure design must be left to large corporations), but I don’t think he’s even trying to make that argument. Belanger might or might not want to make it (he’s certainly aware of that body of discourse), but I don’t see any evidence that Brown’s interested at all.

    Which is all a bit frightening, as a lack of humility and a confidence that the designer was capable of assimilating all data and anticipating all consequences is exactly what got modernist urban planning into so much trouble. Would hate to see those mistakes repeated.

  5. Well said. I totally agree. For better or worse I think there is a strong modernist bent in the new infrastructure approaches, freshly revived (or legitimized) via the new emphasis on ecological systems (which arguably we still don’t fully understand). I think this has become apparent in the WPA 2.0 competition, as discussed by Polis.
    What gets me about corporations like AECOM is the amazing power they have, arguably more than governments, both in terms of agility (which you mentioned) and funding, which fits all to well with that type of modernist confidence. Thus I see the encompassing inherent (contemporary capitalist logic) of it all and why they will get the work. But while the emphasis shifts to the project practicalities of economic and ecological systems know how of these projects, the darker political dimensions of these landscapes is stealthily hidden via the eloquence with which Brown speaks of it.
    Fascinating and aggravating.

  6. but AECOM will never go after small projects, projects with fees of only a few hundred or thousand dollars. this isn’t how we usually think of infrastructure, but check out, also (in spanish). I can’t help but think there is something to practices like that. it seems like everything else is getting faster, more dispersed, more resilient. or dying.

    anyways, corner seemed TIRED. i’ve seen him a few times up here and whether you like him or not (i do, but have many gripes, of course) he usually “brings it” in a talk. This talk was about “recent work” and he kind of muddled through, made some allusions, a few literary references, vaguely referred to some project details and called it a night. it almost got interesting when he showed a few slides of the precast concrete paver details on the highline- that is a damn good detail.

    you mentioned kate orff and how she is talking about excel spreadsheets and presentation. corner wrote several essays on representation about 15-20 years ago. at the lecture, he reiterated many times that field ops doesn’t have a “style”, referring to the final built product (tough to say with such a tiny portfolio, but whatever). however, he definitely does have a style in representation, one very pertinent to his methodology: diagrams showing iterations through time, aerial rendering, perspective montages and voila! it’s what everyone uses now (evidence of how significant his work is, i suppose), or did.

    but i definitely got the sense that he has settled in to his way. inevitable i suppose, and indicative of how good he is. i expect him to be challenging with each presentation.

    (thanks for the polis link- looks thoughtful)

  7. Thanks for the links – JMJ looks interesting. Never heard of them before.

    I’ve always wanted to see James Corner speak in person but have yet to have the opportunity.

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