We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard and the international warehousing strategies of Bechtel than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe – yet we study Mies van der Rohe.
First, whenever I hear the phrase ‘buttressed buttresses’ I think of Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Perhaps to his credit.
Second, the actual point in bringing up (inventing?) the phrase, is that even buttresses can have buttresses. Buttresses, the spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals and hold up the walls of the nave, have always fascinated me, both on the aesthetic level (they’re gorgeous, and absolutely beautiful to look at in their hypnotic repetition and grace) and on the intellectual level. They are, after all, fun to think about it: because they’re not really objects, they’re events. They’re events of gravity channeled downward toward the earth’s core; they’re the building always on the verge of falling apart – and then not falling apart.
They’re somewhere between event and structure.
But what really interests me is to think that you’re visiting Paris, say, or some other city that has no name and, strangely, no one’s ever heard of it, and you’re standing in the apartment of a friend. There’s a rather large arching stone structure that cuts through the center of his bedroom, but he’s done his best to adapt to it: there are pictures, maybe some cool decorative objects, maybe some shelves, all attached with nails into the arch. You say, ‘What exactly is that thing, anyway?’ and he grins, embarrassed, and he says, ‘It’s a buttress.’
You go, ‘What?’ and hold back a yawn, looking around for a place to sit.
He starts laughing. He says, ‘Come on, dude, you know what a buttress is. It’s like those – those big fucking things you see outside Notre-Dame. Those spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals.’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘So… what’s it doing in your apartment?’
It turns out, as the man explains, you friend, standing there looking at you with a beer in his hand, that there’s a monumental structure in the center of the city, a derrick-like core of platforms and offices, and it’s called, simply, The Cathedral. Or The Tower. But it’s big, so big, so incomprehensibly massive, that the only way it can remain standing is to surround itself with massive buttresses that help distribute the gravitational load. The buttresses themselves, on the other hand, are so huge that they were put to dual use almost immediately as motorway bridges and highway flyover supports; but then the weight of the motorways, and of cars and trains and people and maybe some houses built atop the buttresses – and, of course, the weight of The Cathedral itself – was all too much, and the buttresses needed to be buttressed. But, as you can imagine, even these subsidiary buttresses were so huge that they, too, were put to dual use; and so on.
Finally, in an exquisite filigree stretching everywhere throughout the city, a mandala of lace-like interconnected structures that spans the width and breadth of the whole metropolis: there begin to appear thousands upon thousands of microbuttresses, all buttressing the buttresses that buttress the buttresses.
And what you see there in your friend’s apartment is one of those microbuttresses.
There are pubs in the city set in the vertices of two dozen arches; new children’s games invented to incorporate the presence of strange structural blocks; and there are dreams at night, shared by everyone, at different times, that even The Cathedral in the center of the city is itself a buttress, and it, too, is just one structural unit among uncountable hundreds of thousands, all of which add up to some dizzyingly titanic megastructure no one has ever seen the whole of.
My point is not to write a science-fiction novel – though I might, actually, so be prepared – but to explore the idea that even buttresses have buttresses; even foundations have foundations; even arches need arches to support them. Even one buttress, after all, requires the resistance and strength of the ground it’s anchored upon; and that ground depends upon the strength of the ground around it. Which makes earthquake faultlines so interesting, as an architectural consideration, but that’s for another entry.
But the chain never ends. Buttresses simply make visible the always present gravitational forces so well disguised by other styles of building, and, as such, they’re amazing.
What would be even more interesting, perhaps, is: you are out walking in a field and you stumble upon a strange architectural structure, only it has no doors or windows, ie. no inside. You’re twenty, thirty miles away from any metropolitan center, and you have no clue what it is. You’re in a bad mood. You begin to hack away at it, and then finally you just say fuck it, and you drive a Hummer into it. It falls over.
You think that’s the end of it, but then you hear that a cathedral has collapsed in the nearest city, and it collapsed because suddenly one of its outer buttresses gave out. It turns out that, yes, the now-collapsed buttress was reliant upon the compressive and resistant capacity of the soil it was anchored in, and that that structure you knocked over, thirty miles away, was very carefully calibrated as a brace for that soil. By knocking it over you let the earth sag, in a straight line leading right to the cathedral, and voilà: architectural action at a distance.
It’s the magical mystery of buttressed buttresses.
‘Think only of the essentials: the physics of the gyroscope, the flux of photons, the architecture of very large structures.’ J.G. Ballard
“The [Maunsell Towers] Thames Estuary Army Forts were constructed in 1942 to a design by Guy Maunsell, following the successful construction and deployment of the Naval Sea Forts. Their purpose was to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower.” Constant’s Babylon meets the economic mobilization of WWII. These look like a cross between the Empire’s attack-convoy robot-walker things in *The Empire Strikes Back* and, yes, Constant’s Babylon:
As such, these are dying to be used in a film.
Another site verges on the illiterate, but it’s clearly enthusiastic, and explains the towers’ construction.
As a continuation of the previous post, imagine a house whose plans are based upon a photomicrograph of glass. The house’s actual lay-out and external appearance are exact translations of the mineral structure and microtectonics of glass. The house itself, though, is also a glass house; that is, even as its layout and structure are based upon the mineral tectonics of glass itself, the house uses glass as its primary material.
Now imagine a Charles & Ray Eames-like film where we zoom-in at powers of 10 till we end up on the photomicrographic level, looking at the glass that the house is constructed from: the only problem is that it looks exactly like a full-scale photograph of the house. Have we zoomed all the way in, or did we zoom all the way back out?
MC Escher meets Mies van der Rohe, perhaps. Or Ouroborus as an architectural condition. And what happens if we keep zooming in?
I was thinking of an idea for a short story, perhaps a movie plot: a man without an arts background or even a portfolio wants to apply for an M.Arch. He thinks all he has to do is copy some obscure, preexistent architectural plans—literally copy them, using tracing paper and maybe a flatbed scanner—and then submit them, tweaked a bit and fingers crossed, as his own. But realizing this couldn’t possibly work, that he’ll be found out, his application discarded, he panics—till he notices some knitting books sitting on the family bookshelf one night.
So he copies fabric diagrams instead—cuts, pleats, folds, overlays, knots, sutures, weaves, plaits, braids, etc.—and, next thing you know, not only is he on a stipend at the school of his choice, he’s the recipient of the Deleuzian of the Year Award.
Once in school, he finds he can’t do any of the assignments—and so does the same thing, but now with geology diagrams: mineral structure, micron by micron transposed to the inhabitable scale. Then microorganic structures like molds and lichens, blown up and built the size of houses.
In any case, it also struck me as interesting that you could take a photomicrograph of dust mites sitting on skin cells and re-scale it: instead of strange little alien creatures perched on an artificial landscape of skin cells and forearm hair, it’s really a cute, stilt-built pod house—complete with antennae—in a mountainous, bedrocky landscape. It’s just a matter of changing the scale. Biomachinic pod architecture.
My point simply being that the metaphor or analogy of “fabric as architecture,” and vice versa, seemed really trite till I realized you could literally build, on the inhabitable scale, a knitting diagram. Literally build a tailoring diagram. Not so that a whole men’s suit is perched up above the city, but just take a small patch of interwoven fabrics, of different texture and weave, and blow that up to be a small house in the suburbs.
It’s like in Graham Greene’s novel *Our Man in Havana*, where the guy sends vacuum cleaner diagrams to MI5 and passes them off as Soviet missile plans—only architectural this time.
Photocopies from an advanced origami textbook are accidentally left at the contractor’s office. Excerpts from a quilting manual are mistakenly sent to a steel-frame fabrication plant. A diagram of the Golgi apparatus is accidentally slipped-in to an architectural construction handbook.
Next thing you know, he’s on the Charlie Rose Show: “Just how do you do it…?”
[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].
“Off the westernmost coast of Japan,” we read, “is an island called ‘Gunkanjima’ that is hardly known even to the Japanese.”
Long ago, the island was nothing more than a small reef. Then in 1810, [with] the chance discovery of coal … people came to live here, and through coal mining the reef started to expand continuously. Befor [sic] long, the reef had grown into an artificial island of one kilometer (three quarters of a mile) in perimeter, with a population of 5300. Looming above the ocean, it appeared a concrete labyrinth of many-storied apartment houses and mining structures built closely together.
“Seen from the ocean,” the site continues, “the silhouette of the island closely resembled a battleship – so, the island came to be called Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island.”
[Images: Gunkanjima Island (via)].
The idea of an entirely artificial mining island seems to lie somewhere between James Bond and Greek mythology. I’ve always wanted to write a short story about a mineral-rich island where a man similar to Conrad’s Kurtz sets up a mining operation; in mining the mineral wealth of his new little island, the architecture and structural engineering – the gantries, vaults, platforms, roads, etc. – come to be built from the island itself. Eventually the island entirely disappears beneath the waterline, mined down to nothing – and yet a small stilt-city of mining platforms, engineering decks, control rooms, and cantilevered walkways still exists there, built from the island it all now replaces.
[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].
In The Scar by China Miéville, there’s a floating city made from tightly lashed-together hulls of ships, built so densely that, for those deep within it, it appears simply to be a particularly over-built – albeit floating – island. The rudders and keels of old boats cut through the water at angles contrary to the direction that the ship-island floats in, and thousands of anchors secure the city in place when it needs to find harbor.
What seems to be missing, at least to my experience, from architectural history & design courses are things like – drum roll – offshore mining derricks. Once again, it seems the wrong people are teaching our design labs: instead of more M.Arch grads who’ve read too much – or not enough – Deleuze, we need to bring in junior executives from BP or Halliburton, geologists and NASA engineers, and put them into dialogue with Situationism – and, why not, with China Miéville. Science fiction writers. Get ideas out of the one side, practical engineering science out of the other, and shebang…
What could that produce…? is a legitimate question. A terrible example, but still marginally interesting I think, would be something like the Burning Man festival, thrown not in the desert but in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A joint-venture between BP, Halliburton, and Peter Cook of Archigram. And the Mars Homestead Project. Seaborne utopias. Platform cities. Perhaps Atlantis was built by a battalion of rogue Roman engineers lost to history.
[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].
It’s not Damien Hirst, Daniel Libeskind, Matthew Barney, or Norman Foster we should be watching, neither artistically nor architecturally, I mean; it’s the Chief Operating Officers of offshore oil-services firms. The architectural patrons of today are not avant-garde, middle class Connecticut home-owners but logistical managers in the US Department of Energy. New building types are not being discovered or invented in the design labs of American architectural offices, but in the flowcharts and budgetary projection worksheets of multinational petrochemical firms. Forget Spiral Jetty – we need a platform city built above the mid-Atlantic rift, an uninhabited, reinforced concrete archipelago ideal for untrained astronomical observation. The Reef Foundation – you win their residency grant and get to spend six months alone staring at the sun on a perfectly calibrated Quikrete lily pad.
We need the wastrel sons of hedge fund billionaires out there patronizing manmade archipelagos in the South China Sea.
We need more Gunkanjima Islands.
[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].
An apartment building in Washington DC, the Summit Grand Parc, comes complete with a fully automated, multistory, underground car park. If you’re rich enough to have a parking spot at the Parc – no pun intended – you just type in your code, leave your car, and then watch as it’s inched forward atop a moving platform and deposited into its own specific parking spot deep underground.
“The floor is a giant metal turntable that circumscribes a smaller, car-sized metal rectangle” – a kind of mandala, geometries within geometries, smooth and automated. “If the car’s not too big or fat, the driver – aided by a low-slung mirror and a sign that says ‘Drive right’ or ‘Pull forward’ based on data from some more lasers and motion sensors – nestles the tires into two grooves that run diagonally along the length of the metal rectangle.” (All quotations from Josh Levin, “The Valet You Don’t Have To Tip,” 1 April 2004, slate.com).
The possibilities for film sets – *Mission Impossible 3* etc – are immediately obvious. A new Kafka adaptation. A Steve Martin film.
The “Wöhr Auto Parksysteme,” outlined on their website, includes “parking towers,” “Carports,” “Multiparkers,” and other descriptions of their “innovative parking concept” – the vocabulary alone justifying entire new textbooks in urban planning & design. You can also download cool CAD-files from them.
Hard not to imagine vast automated landscapes operating without human intervention, installed parasitically in the basements and attics and corridors and backyards of all our buildings, the surface of the earth hollow, crawling and turning and flowing across & through itself. Or a new cable channel: The Parking Network. Innovative Parking: The Magazine. Or a new sci-fi novel: *I, Parker*. A man alone in the automated parking decks of an alien planet… Starring Val Kilmer. Sculpted by Auguste Rodin. Car parks that come complete with their own soundtracks, and are wafted continually with rare perfumes.
MIT’s Mars Homestead Project plans on one-upping Archigram and Buckminster Fuller both with its plans for high-tech, locally-fabricated homes on Mars. Each home will be outfitted with a garden, library, greenhouse, and private parking space, exporting middle class comforts deep into space; and all of it will be made locally, farmed from elements occurring naturally in the atmosphere and soil. Or ‘the surface,’ I should say…
After “a seven-month journey inside a container the size of a minivan” hopeful colonists will decamp into “a comfy home – made with locally produced red brick, metal and fiberglass”. The homes may even be built directly into Martian hillsides, forming Tolkien-esque towns accessible through multiple airlocks. The airlocks, in tandem with reinforced building materials, will prevent explosive pressure leaks: “Materials such as brick and stone will have to be lined or sealed with plastic or fiberglass, and sufficiently reinforced with soil or other materials to prevent the buildings from exploding.”
Meanwhile, the Mars Society has already constructed a prototype Martian city on Devon Island, Canada, called the Flashline Arctic Research Station. Even more interestingly, due to the very real fear of “cabin fever” and extreme claustrophobia – or other, as yet undiscovered, architectural pathologies – in Martian settlers, “‘we have added a psychiatrist to the project team, to evaluate those issues’,” claims Mark Homnick, co-founder of the Mars Homestead Project. (All quotations from Mark Baard, “Builders in a Strange Land,” 18 June 2004, Wired online; see also ExploreMarsNow.org).
Testing, testing… Is this on…
Corporate automobile test-landscapes. Deserted beach resorts. Ruined stripmalls.
‘Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system.’ J.G. Ballard