It’s been a really busy few weeks, so I’ve missed a lot of interesting stories that would’ve been perfect for the blog; but it’s better late than never, right? So I thought I’d do another Quick List…
[Image: Architectural Design by Rolf Mohr; Modeling and Rendering by Machine Films. Via New York magazine].
First, Lisa Chamberlain, of Polis, had an immensely popular article in New York magazine two weeks ago exploring the idea “that ‘vertical farm’ skyscrapers” designed by a man named Dickson Despommier “could help fight global warming.”
Imagine a cluster of 30-story towers on Governors Island or in Hudson Yards producing fruit, vegetables, and grains while also generating clean energy and purifying wastewater. Roughly 150 such buildings, Despommier estimates, could feed the entire city of New York for a year. Using current green building systems, a vertical farm could be self-sustaining and even produce a net output of clean water and energy.
Despommier’s towers could also free up cropland so that literally hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, wheat, potatoes, cotton, oranges, lemons, artichokes, strawberries, spinach, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, etc., could return to – or be turned for the first time into – forest. This, in turn, might help reverse global warming (though it also might not).
At the very least, it’d be cool.
[Image: Architectural design by Rolf Mohr; modeling and rendering by Machine Films; interiors by James Nelms Digital Artist @ Storyboards Online. Via New York magazine].
Chamberlain cites an example of how this could work: “Depending on the crops being grown,” she writes, “a single vertical farm could allow thousands of farmland acres to be permanently reforested.” For instance, she continues, “after a strawberry farm in Florida was wiped out by Hurricane Andrew, the owners built a hydroponic farm. By growing strawberries indoors and stacking layers on top of each other, they now produce on one acre of land what used to require 30 acres.”
This 30:1 densification rate could radically transform the American landscape.
The actual details of a “vertical farm” are fascinating, meanwhile, and for that reason alone I would recommend reading the whole article; I particularly like the “Evapotranspiration Recovery System,” which will be “nestled inside the ceiling of each floor”; there, it will “collect moisture, which can be bottled and sold.”
In any case, Pruned actually covered this story, albeit in far less detail, two years ago, before anyone – including Boing Boing – took off with it. More on topic, though, if you like the idea of skyscrapers being turned into vertical croplands, then don’t miss Future Feeder‘s look at so-called urban underground farming, also from 2005.
Lisa’s piece wasn’t the only look at farming in recent weeks, however; The New York Times reported that, due to a rising industrial demand for ethanol – a biofuel product derived from corn – American farmers this year will be planting “a staggering 90.5 million acres [of corn], the most since World War II and 15 percent more than last season.”
The fact that the American landscape thus gives physical form to distant legislative decisions meant to regulate the ethanol content of gasoline absolutely fascinates me. For every freeway and gas station, there is a cornfield somewhere – but, for very obvious reasons, the reverse is also true.
But perhaps we should combine Lisa Chamberlain’s article with the rise of biofuels… and free up all these excess cornfields for something a bit more biologically adventurous. Like entire forests full of living knots and ladders.
[Image: The water behind stored Hoover Dam is down more than eighty feet; photo by Jim Wilson for The New York Times].
Speaking of landscapes, then, The New York Times also reported on a growing, nearly decade-long drought in the American southwest. “Everywhere in the West, along the Colorado and other rivers,” we read, “as officials search for water to fill current and future needs, tempers are flaring among competing water users, old rivalries are hardening and some states are waging legal fights.”
With a wonderfully Ballardian twist, we learn that the drought’s effects “can be seen at Lake Mead in Nevada, where a drop in the water level left docks hanging from newly formed cliffs, and a marina surrounded by dry land.”
[Image: One of several “docks left hanging from newly formed cliffs” on the edge of a receding Lake Mead; photo by Jim Wilson, for The New York Times].
Even more interesting:
Preparing for worst-case outcomes, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the upper basin and California, Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin – and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, are considering plans that lay out what to do if the river cannot meet the demand for water, a prospect that some experts predict will occur in about five years.
Five years! Is part of their plan to drain the Great Lakes?
We then read that Las Vegas actually wants to build a pipeline drawing water all the way from northern Nevada – so that water currently used by ranchers can, instead, spray out of faux-Italian fountains at the sagging chests of morbidly obese vacationing children who are too big to fit in the hotel kiddy pool.
[Image: Workers remove turf from a Nevada golf course, revealing the desert sand beneath; photo by Jim Wilson for The New York Times].
To their credit, “[r]anchers and farmers in northern Nevada and Utah are opposed to the pipeline plan”; they have, in fact, “vowed to fight it in court, saying it smacks of the famous water grab by Los Angeles nearly a century ago that caused severe environmental damage in the Owens Valley in California.” This “famous water grab,” of course, was dramatized by Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown – and the water grab’s long-term effects have been beautifully documented, in a series of aerial landscape photographs, by David Maisel, who I had the pleasure of interviewing last Spring in a Feature on Archinect.
David Maisel refers to sites like Owens Lake as “dismantled landscapes, abandoned, collapsing on themselves.”
[Image: The scarred bed of a drained Owens Lake, as photographed by David Maisel; the water of Owens Lake was stolen by the city of Los Angeles nearly one hundred years ago].
Maintaining our temporary focus here on landscape and pollution, the BBC reported last week about the “toxic truth” of a “secretive Siberian city.”
Reporters from that news organization apparently “entered a remote region of Russia normally closed to foreigners that produces almost half the world’s supply of palladium – a precious metal vital for making catalytic converters.” Like an image from William Blake – if he’d perhaps been raised in a different era, watching too many films by Andrei Tarkovsky – we read that, deep in the smelting plants, “[v]ast furnaces roast the ore extracted from the mines, eventually disgorging streams of red-hot liquid metal into containers that dwarf the workers standing nearby.”
Huge and poisonous clouds then belch upward from smokestacks, like an artificial weather system hanging above the city.
Greenpeace warns that all this pollution “has created a 30km (19 mile) ‘dead zone’ around the city and quotes scientists as saying the acid rain has spread across an area equivalent in size to Germany.”
[Images: From the BBC].
From there, the BBC leads us into a landscape of industrial destruction; this treeless waste, in what should really be a forest, “stretches across an area so great it has been described as perhaps the largest man-made desert in the world.”
You can find this “desert” on the Kola peninsula, also in Russia.
[Image: A landscape of death in the Kola peninsula; photo via the BBC].
This is turning out to be a rather depressing post at this rate, but I was also interested to read that urban air pollution is considered, according to a recent study conducted in England, “more than dangerous than Chernobyl“:
The study suggests high levels of urban air pollution cut short life expectancy more than the radiation exposure of emergency workers who were sent into the 19-mile exclusion zone around the site straight after the accident.
But cities aren’t all bad…
Even in the filth and ruin and degradation; the anonymity, violence, and emotional free-fall; amidst so much friendlessness and abandonment, we can still find our own strange epiphanies.
In a great interview with writer Luc Sante, for instance, we’re greeted with this wonderful excerpt from his work:
In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.
The use of the word “interzone,” however, immediately conjures up the literary ghost of William Burroughs, who used the term to indicate a city “where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum.” More, the Interzone is a “Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market”; its architecture consists of “perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.”
In any case, Sante continues: New York “was a wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances, a sort of black pearl of world history, when New York City was at one and the same time both the apex of Western culture and the armpit of the Western world.”
This isn’t entirely relevant, meanwhile, but I’m going to quote it anyway; here is a long excerpt from that interview, describing the “founding myth” of the U.S.A.:
Well, think about it: the founding myth of this country involves pushing farther and farther out into terra incognita, cutting ties to family and background, maybe adopting a new name and a completely concocted new identity, and somehow making lots of money, the existence of which in sufficient quantity is enough to stifle any questions about its provenance. The land that formerly belonged to the Sioux, the copper that formerly belonged to the Navaho, the skins that formerly belonged to the beavers, the stake that formerly belonged to the miner who caught diphtheria – they’re yours now, pal. Call yourself “Colonel” and declare that your fortune was left to you by Dutch burghers from the seventeenth century. Now you’re a solid citizen, the embodiment of hard work and rugged individualism. You’re no criminal. The criminal is the guy who comes up short, who gets caught, who fails to adopt a respectable cover. But after a while the solid citizen gets to missing those wild years, even as he is ensconced in his forty-room Carrera-marble Beaux-Arts palace on upper Fifth Avenue. He thinks wistfully of how he used to hop freights, sleep in culverts, drink white lightning in hobo jungles, take a sash-weight to his competitors, go through the pockets of the recently dead. He envies those who live that life now denied him forevermore. It seems to him that he’s a prisoner of his own success and that those yeggs out there are truly free.
Meanwhile, all this talk of “perilous partitions” and “multi-levelled platforms… swinging over the void” reminds me of another story I neglected to link last week: the now well-known tale of a Russian gangster who built himself a castle made of planks.
[Image: The gangster’s castle; photo by Dmitry Beliakov, via the Telegraph].
“Dominating the skyline of Arkhangelsk, a city in Russia’s far north-west,” the castle “is believed to be the world’s tallest wooden house, soaring 13 floors to reach 144ft – about half the size of the tower of Big Ben.”
This “remarkable architectural feat,” the Telegraph says, “defies easy description.”
A whimsical jumble of planking, from a distance it bears a resemblance to a Japanese pagoda, but draw closer and it seems more like a mix between a Brobdignagian tree house and the lair of a wicked fairytale character.
The castle’s designer and builder – the “gangster” himself – now spends his time giving “death-defying tours that involve criss-crossing rotting planking and climbing icy ladders.”
[Image: The gangster’s castle; photo by Dmitry Beliakov, via the Telegraph].
All of which pales slightly when faced with the quote-unquote “looming sink-hole crisis.”
It seems we should all be very afraid: “Last year was the worst ever in the U.S. for sinkholes. Almost every state in the country experienced record problems.”
In what is surely one of the most ridiculous examples of scare journalism I’ve ever seen, we read the following:
In San Diego, the mayor held a news conference near a yawning abyss. A 64-year-old Brooklyn woman fell into a 5-foot-deep sinkhole in front of her house.
In Los Angeles, a broken water main created a sinkhole 30 feet deep and shut down half of Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu. At the same time, a broken sewer pipe shut down the adjacent beach.
In Northern California, an 8-foot-deep sinkhole stunned the occupants of a nearby office building. In Grand Rapids, Mich., residents had to boil water after a sinkhole cut off their water service.
And this year is shaping up to be even worse.
The article goes on to urge almost literally everyone to fix their old pipes – because a broken pipe means leaking water, and that means underground erosion… which just might produce another sinkhole.
What makes the article even more absurd – just totally and stunningly, even amazingly, absurd – is that its author is the “president and chief executive of a large sewer, water and oil pipe repair company.”
I think I’ll leave it at that; these Quick Lists are getting longer and longer. Apologies, meanwhile, for not covering any of these stories when they first hit the web – but I’m hoping to get back on a regular posting schedule soon… Busy times!