Easy Freeze

[Image: Fortress of Solitude from Superman, via the Superman Wiki].

Writing for Ars Technica, Jennifer Ouellette reports on “an exotic form of ice dubbed ‘ice VII’ that physicists can create in the laboratory.” It is apparently capable of “freezing an entire world within hours.”

Ice VII can only be created under conditions of literally unearthly pressure: its “oxygen atoms are arranged in a cubic shape, something that only occurs at pressures more than 10,000 times that on Earth’s surface. It’s created in the lab by zapping thin samples of water sandwiched between plates with high-intensity shock waves or laser pulses.”

Those “high-intensity shock waves” surge through water at enormous speed, rearranging the atoms in what sounds a bit like the cracking of a whip. Indeed, as one of the scientists who discovered Ice VII explains, the ice “forms in a very unusual way—by popping into existence in tiny clusters of about 100 molecules and then growing extremely fast, at over 1,000 miles per hour.”

Although we are obviously talking about a physical process unattainable outside constrained laboratory conditions, it is nonetheless interesting to imagine this being controlled somehow and used in the wild here on Earth to create, say, instant ice bridges, pop-up hockey rinks, or other architectural spans and structures flash-frozen into existence at 1,000 miles per hour.

Cathedrals made of ice surge up from lakes in the Florida panhandle to the cries of stunned passers-by.

Read more at Ars Technica or Physical Review Letters.

The City’s Secret Ink

A short article up at The New Yorker follows the adventures of so-called “ink enthusiasts” as they seek new sources of pigment in New York City.

[Image: Via Flickr].

The author, Amy Goldwasser, tags along as the group wanders on “a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink.”

By the time the foragers left Central Park, the pockets of [tour leader] Logan’s jacket were already bleeding pink. After finishing uptown, a few hours later, they went to [a participant’s] apartment, to make ink. One batch was pure pokeberry juice (vivid magenta). Another included five varieties of acorn boiled with rust from various sources—nuts and bolts, wire, brackets—and a drop of gum arabic. It came out a complicated silver-gray. Logan spread a range of ink pots on [the participant’s] kitchen table. He dipped the bottom of a glass jar into the rust-and-acorn ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper, making a silvery circle. “Look at our day,” he said. “Now, that, to me, is the blood of New York.”

The city’s capacity to leave marks—to stain, print, and tattoo the things and people that pass through it—can be found in the most mundane items, secret ink hidden inside “acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.”

Read more at The New Yorker.

(Vaguely related: Dumpster Honey).

As difficult to compose and they will be to follow

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

For a variety of reasons, I found myself looking back at Lebbeus Woods’s blog this morning, where I was captivated by this amazing cut-out paper model of the city of Prague.

The images themselves, “meant to be cut up, very precisely, and assembled into a three-dimensional paper model,” as Lebbeus explained, already resemble an avant-garde architectural proposal, to the extent that, embarrassingly, when I first saw the top image, I thought it was a project by John Hejduk.

[Images: Via Lebbeus Woods].

But, in addition to the images’ artistic complexity, I love this dry line from Lebbeus’s write-up, reflecting on the near-impossible task of explaining to someone else how they are meant to excise each piece and then assemble them all in the proper order: “the several pages of written instructions on the model’s assembly,” he deadpans, “would seem to have been as difficult to compose and they will be to follow.”

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

Read—and see—more over at Lebbeus’s blog.

(Previously: Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods and Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012.)

Anticipatory Libraries of Other Worlds

[Image: The mineral library, via ESA].

A team of “European planetary geologists and young scientists” is assembling a mineral library to help future astronauts identify rocks on other worlds. “The goal,” according to the European Space Agency, “is to create a database of all known rocks and minerals on the Moon, Mars and meteorites surfaces for easy identification.”

This collection, assembled in anticipation of discoveries made far from Earth, can then be used as a basis of forensic identification and formal comparison. We will know future worlds through anticipatory fragments we have collected here on Earth.

Although this particular “library” appears to be part of a specific training course, the ESA blog post about it links onward to what I believe is a separate institution, one called—incredibly—the Planetary Terrestrial Analogues Library.

There, the chemical spectra of rocks are analyzed to help understand “the mineralogical and geological evolution of terrestrial planets.” This, again, prepares humans and their robotic intermediaries to encounter landscapes so alien they cannot be understood at first glance, yet similar enough to our home world we can still work out what they’re made of.

International House of Wobbling

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory was designed in 1899 as part of a ring of similar facilities around the world, all constructed at the same latitude.

[Images: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Each building was installed at its specific location in order to collaborate in watching a particular star, and—as revealed by any inconsistencies of measurement—to find evidence of the Earth’s “wobble.” This was part of the so-called “International Latitude Service.”

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The building seen here basically operated like a machine, with a sliding-panel roof controlled by a rope and pulley, and a solid concrete foundation, isolated from the building itself, on which stood a high-power telescope.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

This pillar gives the building a vaguely gyroscopic feel, or perhaps something more like the spindle of a hard drive: a central axis that grounds the building and allows it to perform its celestial mission.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

What’s interesting, however, is that this absolutely heroic building program—a structure for measuring heavenly discrepancies and, thus, the wobble of the Earth—is hidden inside such an unremarkable, everyday appearance.

[Image: A photo of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via NOAA].

It’s a kind of normcore beach hut that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod, with one eye fixed on the stars, a geodetic device revealing our planet’s wobbly imperfections, masquerading as vernacular architecture.

Found Robotics

Imagine a flexible suit or garment that you can wrap around an object to turn it into a robot, something that convulsively—compulsively—moves against its will. Researchers at Yale have created a lo-fi version of exactly that: “Robotic skin that bends, stretches and contracts can wrap around inanimate objects like stuffed animals, foam tubes or balloons to create flexible, lightweight robots,” Science News reported last week.

“The researchers achieved different types of motion by altering the layout of air pouches or coils in the skin and by attaching pieces of skin to an object in various configurations,” the report explains. “For instance, wrapping the skin around foam tubes in different orientations created robots that either scooted like inchworms or paddled forward on two ends. Patches of robotic skin around three foam fingers animated a soft robot grabber.”

While the results, at least for the time being, look more like epileptic children’s toys, as you can see in the video embedded above, the idea of giving unnatural movement to the inanimate through an external suit is a compelling reversal of a standard literary narrative. There are so many stories, for example, where something from within—a drug or medicine, a magical spell, an act of demonic possession—causes a person or thing to act strangely, against their will.

Instead, a robotic suit like this makes the source of alien locomotion an exterior one. Put on this clothing, the story would say, and watch yourself change. Like, say, Venom.

In any case, the construction implications of this are also interesting. Rather than assemble materials into a building using nails, screws, or joinery, you could instead wrap those materials up in a particular order inside a geotechnical fabric or cloak; then, using a particular sequence of air pouches and electrical charges, you could watch as previously unconnected materials heave upward and compress like a fist, assembling into some sort of architectural unit.

While this seems useless on any real industrial scale, a series of small architectural sculptures taking shape could make for an interesting gallery installation—a kind of found robotics, enlisting everyday objects into uncanny mechanized forms.

Read more over at Science News.

Mars P.D.

[Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth, via The Atlantic].

Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.

If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.

But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?

Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.

Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?

In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?

The full feature is now up over at The Atlantic.

Terrestrial Chiaroscuro

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

I’ve been a fan of photographer Reuben Wu’s work for years—it’s hard to visit even his Instagram feed and not come away in a state of awe—so I was thrilled to contribute a short essay for his new book, Lux Noctis.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

Lux Noctis is also the name of an ongoing project of his that uses drone-mounted LED lights to illuminate remote geological formations, towering figures highlighted against the landscape with what appear to be haloes or celestial spotlights.

It’s an ingenious approach to landscape lighting that Wu continues to push in new directions, and one that I compare in my essay to chiaroscuro, the use of dramatic, often single-point lighting to create deep contrasts and a sense of roiling, three-dimensional activity, a technique dating back to the Renaissance.

In Wu’s case, this is terrestrial chiaroscuro: unexpected, robotic sources of aerial light that transform how landscapes can be depicted.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

The book is now available for preorder from Kris Graves Projects, publisher of many other artists books also worth a browse while you’re there.

Warnings Along the Drought Line

[Photo by Petr David Josek/AP, via NPR].

Elise Hunchuck, whose project “An Incomplete Atlas of Stones” sought to document warning stones placed along the Japanese coast to indicate safe building limits in case of tsunamis, has called my attention to a somewhat related phenomena in Central Europe.

So-called “hunger stones” have been uncovered by the low-flowing, drought-reduced waters of Czech Republic’s Elbe River, NPR reports. Hunger stones are “carved boulders… that have been used for centuries to commemorate historic droughts—and warn of their consequences.” One stone, we read, has been carved with the phrase, Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine, or “If you see me, weep.”

Although there are apparently extenuating circumstances for the rocks’ newfound visibility—including a modern-day dam constructed on the Elbe River which has affected water levels—I nonetheless remain haunted by the idea of uncovering buried or submerged warnings from our own ancestors stating that, in a sense, if you are reading this, you are already doomed.

Read a bit more over at NPR.

(Thanks, Elise!)

Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Buy a Border Patrol Station

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Somewhat amazingly, a former U.S. Border Patrol station is for sale outside the town of Gila Bend, Arizona.

The minimum bid is only $8,000—but the property doesn’t look too good and is “not warranted,” so buyer beware.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Structural conditions notwithstanding, this could be an amazing opportunity to create a Border Museum, a desert arts center, a writers’ retreat, an urban explorers’ redoubt, a remote branch of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a field school for an avant-garde university geography program, a pop-up site for an architecture school to host student installations, a future restaurant, a weird Father’s Day gift, a place to store your favorite Paul Manafort trial memorabilia, an asbestos-exposure demonstration facility, or just a roadside site to park your pick-up truck.

Here is the facility on Google Maps.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Bidding begins on August 28th.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Government Services Administration].

Note that there is an open house on Friday morning, August 17th, 2018, at 9am, for those of you near Gila Bend.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner, Buy a Complex of Submarine Pits, Buy a Skyway, Buy a Fort, Buy a Lighthouse, Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).