The Monitor Mine

As old computer monitors – and harddrives, and printers, and scanners, and modems – continue to pile up in the cities and villages of the 3rd world, we’re faced with a kind of mass geological displacement, or literal new mountain ranges of obsolete technology: all those minerals, the circuits and wires, forming new mines left open on the earth, leaching into groundwater, infiltrating bodies, forming cancers, going to waste.
A kind of monitor mine.

[Image: The Basel Action Network/New York Times].

In Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, our erstwhile hero finds himself hiding out for some reason in a huge scrapyard full of refrigerators and harddrives and household waste and home appliances, and – yes – the whole thing just wakes up, anatomically rearranges itself – and mobilizes, artificially intelligent.
As if this could suggest that one day we might find deserts all over the world – their huge, moving dunes of loose silicon, in strange magnetic union with belts of metal in the earth’s surface – have somehow programmed themselves, a planetary harddrive communicating through landfills overflowing with old computers, discarded wireless modems, mountains of digital rubbish piled in rings around African villages.
And it’s not landscape tectonics but a new form of life…
(Perhaps a novel coming soon – from BLDGBLOG).

The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Britain of Drains

Here are some absolutely spectacular photographs of sewers, drains and tunnels, taken by urban spelunkers from London, Bristol, Manchester and beyond:

[Images: See this ridiculously great website for loads more photographs – almost every one of which could be uploaded onto BLDGBLOG with open enthusiasm – as well as for relevant bits of info on tunnel locations and all further et ceteras; meanwhile, an upcoming BLDGBLOG entry will pursue more of this, with a London bias, soon].

An entrance to the topological undercity, a parallel world of drains and bricked abstract passages, monolithic concrete feeder chutes re-leading lost rivers through darkness.

Avant-garde plumbing

The idea here would be to produce a series of short, neo-Dadaist plays about a self-professed avant-garde plumber. He shows up at your flat, taps the walls, gets some tools out – and within five minutes you’re getting water from the Nile. You have no idea how he’s done it; he’s good like that.
He’s an avant-garde plumber.
Along those lines, I was reading last week in Maximum City by Suketu Mehta about Mumbai’s freelance plumbing repairs economy.
Mehta, here, introduces us to his plumber: “I want to assassinate him. He is a low, evil sort of fellow,” who “pits the occupants of the flats against one another, telling the people above and below me that I should pay to fix numerous leaks coming into and going out of my bathrooms, then telling me I should convince them to pay.”
Pay for what?
“All the pipes in this building are fucked,” we’re told. “The drainage pipes that were meant to be on the outside have been enclosed. The residents make their own alterations, and they don’t let the building plumber in to fix the leaks. The pipes in the building don’t run straight; every time people make renovations, which is a continuous process, they get freelance plumbers to move the pipes out of the way when they’re inconvenient. This blocks the natural flow of sewage and clean water, mixing them up. So if you were to follow the progress of drainwater from the twentieth floor to the first, it would make as many zigs and zags and diversions as a crazy mountain road.”
These “zigs and zags and diversions” are referred to as “unauthorized alterations” – they are, in other words, avant-garde plumbing.
Instead of water, you get cherry tomatoes. Pipes that were there five minutes ago have completely disappeared – and when you wake up in the morning your sink’s moved ten feet.
The pipes keep you up at night; they’re tuning themselves to middle C.
You’ve been burgled by an avant-garde plumber.

Lime Works / Mineral Futures / Surface Excavations

Though the work of Naoya Hatakeyama has just been explored elsewhere, these photographs – entitled Lime Works (Factory Series) (1991-94) – totally blow me away.

For starters, their extraordinary density almost imitates the stratigraphy of the rocks being scraped through –

– even while they document how an increasingly powerful part of the human population interacts with the earth’s surface: through highly technical, and very large, digging machines. Entire architectural complexes, instant cities, lit from within and steaming.
They document, in other words, the human interaction with geology.
Here, of course, that interaction takes the form of an excavation complex crossed by elevated walkways – and it looks like something straight out of Star Wars

– or a kind of mineralized King Arthur, ruling from behind a Camelot of mines…

But these photos also bring up the global market in rocks – or the financialization of geology through mineral futures, where taxed and quantifiable fragments of the earth’s surface can be traded as commodities on the futures market.
Lime, after all, is a very useful mineral, with entire international associations and Mineral Information Institute reports devoted to its scientific study, value, and market exploitation.
As that latter link informs us, in fact, “Lime has been used for thousands of years for construction. Archeological discoveries in Turkey indicate lime was used as a mortar as far back as 7,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian civilization used lime to make plaster and mortar.”
Meaning, of course, that these photographs show us an architecture of machinery busy digging up a mineral – that will be used by more machinery in the construction of future architecture. (That, in many ways, is the closed loop of the extraction industries: a campsite digging for oil – because its drills need more oil… At some point the whole thing becomes not unlike performance art.)

[Image: A lime works excavation tower seen against the landscape it will soon absorb. If the earth could make horror movies, one wonders if this would be the opening scene…]

I’m left with speculation:
If human beings actually do survive the next ten thousand years; if all this excavation not only continues but accelerates; if usable mineral deposits continue to be found, but only deeper and deeper beneath the earth’s surface; then perhaps we might find that we’ve stripmined every continent below the waterline, returning the earth to the early Devonian, when warm, shallow seas covered most of the planet – only now, or then, the earth will be shelled by a new global city of interlocking excavation architectures – gantry cities, derrick towns, Constant’s Babylon –

– complete with feudal rock-salt guilds and a new U.N. of floating lime works factories.
But deep below, in the dark webbing of undersea buttresses, where barrel vaults are covered with scabs of bleached coral, future geologists will be found scuba diving, like Steve Zissou, seeking out new metals and mineral deposits, torch in hand, scouring the outer edge of a flooded earth, diving further and further toward the core.
Then, one day, the digging machines simply put themselves out of business – because the planet has disappeared.

BLDGBLOG: Some News and Abuses…

A few quick news items:
<1> BLDG|BLOG contributor Geoff Manaugh has joined the Archinect editorial team, a position he will be sure to abuse inappropriately.
<2> BLDG|BLOG contributors Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh have co-written a piece for the upcoming “special issue” of Space & Culture. The issue itself is called “New Orleans and Other Urban Calamities,” and their piece is “On Flexible Urbanism.” Be sure to pick up a copy. In other words, be sure to read a copy.
<3> A new Russian utopia is being built and planned outside Moscow – to be inhabited only by millionaires: “Keeping up with the Jones’s could take on a whole new meaning in a town being planned for rich Russians near Moscow,” the BBC says.

[Image: “The $3bn (£1.7bn) town of Rublyovo-Arkhangelskoye”].

This new, semi-instant city “will house some 30,000 residents and is expected to be almost twice the size of Monaco. It will be completely self-sufficient, boasting luxurious villas, a clinic, bars, sports facilities, a school and a marina on the Moscow River.” And if that sounds fun, you should read Super-Cannes.
<4> A “lost” map has resulted in approximately 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being opened up for oil exploration. You read that right; the foam core ate it. Ate the map, that is.
<5> Is the Chinese building boom a bubble? It depends how you define the word bubble… “China’s real estate market is so hot that miniature cities are being created with artificial lakes, and the country’s nouveau riche suddenly seem eager to put down as much as $5.3 million for a luxury apartment in skyscrapers with names like the Skyline Mansion…”

[Images (and quotation): New York Times – and don’t miss The Observer on Beijing, even while you’re checking out BLDG|BLOG’s own archives for more on space in China].

<6> Regular BLDG|BLOG posts will return shortly.
<7> Whether you are reading “BLDGBLOG” or “BLDG|BLOG” right now – or perhaps both – will be decided typographically very soon. Feel free to vote by commenting on this post. Vote early. Vote often.

Hyperoxic architecture

In this week’s New Yorker there is a short blurb about “Richard Wiese, the president of the Explorers Club,” who is getting ready “to climb a pair of volcanoes in Mexico.”
The real challenge, it seems, will be in preparing his body for substantial changes in altitude – and so Wiese has installed an altitude chamber back home, in the center of his office.
An altitude chamber? “The air inside simulates that which you would breathe high in the mountains: it contains less oxygen” – which prepares your body for the trip ahead. (There are, in fact, whole university training courses in this).
The chamber, in other words, is hypoxic.

[Image: David Blaine, in a transparent box over the Thames – totally irrelevant to this post, but it looks hypoxic, so…]

What’s fascinating here, aside from the levels of metaphor at work – the president of a prestigious Club in New York City, whose office is “on the third floor of a Tudor-style mansion on the Upper East Side,” steps into his own private atmosphere everyday, a rarefied chamber of unearthly reserve, at one remove from the polluted ruins of Manhattan outside, a man of Olympus, breathing only the best oxygen his money could buy, etc. – but the terrestrial implications.
The geographic implications of an altitude chamber.
Much has been made of the so-called “horizontal” networks in which we now supposedly exist – I can phone someone in Adelaide, for instance, or order machine parts to be fabricated in Guangdong; it’s all part of advanced globalization.
But an altitude chamber raises the intellectual stakes: this is the vertical linking of different, unconnected levels of the earth’s atmosphere. The altitude chamber, as The New Yorker says, “simulates” other vertical levels of the planet. Sitting inside of one, you could talk down to what the article calls “a sea-level visitor” even while resting high and mighty – at the exact same level of altitude.
One could, in fact, very easily imagine the next trend in restaurant design: rather than decorate with a Thai theme, or Japanese decor, a Roman ambience, you’d have a 15,000-foot foyer, or an exclusive, 22,500-foot back room. It would be the literal depressurization of the social environment.
Who cares if you can eat in a restaurant that feels like Paris? When you could eat at a restaurant that feels like it’s at 65,000 feet?
But I think I would prefer a hyperoxic chamber, in fact, because the more oxygen the better. Unless I burst into flame. But I could sit there, behind glass walls, like Lance Armstrong or the Oracle at Delphi, making elliptical pronouncements on a steady flow of pure oxygen about the virtuality of altitude, the simulational abilities of air itself – and I could impart upon legions of sealevel dwellers this vision of a new city, circular, utopian, made entirely of hyperoxic architecture, Euclidian, cubic, cylindrical, gleaming glass like crystal in every wall, people breathing, breathing, a city of nothing but ageless people breathing.
And the sun would set over a world of pressurized geometry.

[Image: Human-Rated Altitude Chambers.]

Structures of mass wasting

In an almost giddily good essay called “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” John McPhee describes how architecture can survive in the fallout paths of rock slides, debris slugs, and other flows of geologic mass wasting.

The scene? Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains – “divided by faults, defined by faults, and framed by them” – against which Los Angeles has grown, its outermost neighborhoods now encroaching upon what McPhee calls the “real-estate line of maximum advance.”
“The San Gabriels are nearly twice as high as Mt. Katahdin or Mt. Washington, and are much closer to the sea. From base platform to summit, the San Gabriels are three thousand feet higher than the Rockies.” Further, McPhee informs us, “in their state of tectonic youth, [the San Gabriels] are rising as rapidly as any range on earth… Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world.”
Rising up, rising down – the San Gabriels produce, in the process, some of the most extraordinary rockslides ever documented: “On the average, about seven tons disappear from each acre each year – coming off the mountains and heading for town.”
These slides are known as debris slugs, and they “amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size.” Debris slugs have been known to contain “propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick.”
And all of it comes crashing down – frequently going right through people’s houses.

In the face of “this heaving violence of wet cement,” new architectural techniques become urgently necessary – that is, architecture becomes as much a technique as it is a structure: “At least one family,” for instance, “has experienced so many debris flows coming through their back yard that they long ago installed overhead doors in the rear end of their built-in garage. To guide the flows, they put deflection walls in their back yard. Now when the boulders come they open both ends of their garage, and the debris goes through to the street.”
Deflection walls, overhead doors, feeder channels, concrete crib structures – the lived topography of dwelling shifts in the presence of geologic collapse, as if to mimic those inhuman tectonics.
And yet the shift’s not limited to houses – the whole city’s in on it.
Los Angeles county “began digging pits to catch debris,” surrounding itself with voids to counteract the unleashed brawn of surprise geology. These debris pits are “quarries, in a sense, but exceedingly bizarre quarries, in that the rock [is] meant to come to them.”
Strange attractors.
“Blocked at their downstream ends with earthfill or concrete constructions, they are also known as debris dams. With clean spillways and empty reservoirs, they stand ready to capture rivers of boulders – these deep dry craters, lying close to the properties they protect.”

In all their concrete, neolithic abstraction – like great walls of pharaohs, embedded in the Los Angeles hills – these basins can be “ten times as large as the largest pyramid at Giza.” Yet they are empty – vast concavities – ready to be filled in a single night’s rush of silt. Attack of the debris slugs.
When so filled, in fact, these artificial mini-anti-quarries, so to speak, bearing nearly “four million tons of rock, gravel, and sand” in some of the deeper basins, become something of a highway-builder’s wet dream: a “private operator,” for example, “has set up a sand-and-gravel quarry,” using exactly these reservoirs as rock mines. You can almost feel McPhee kicking himself for not thinking of it first…
In any case, the rockslide-ready house, complete with internal avalanche channels and overhead doors, offers us a new domestic typology: a house that also serves as a valve for natural processes.
Several variations ensue: you could build a house on a migration route for international waterfowl. It should be a very, very large house. The international waterfowl should be very, very stubborn. They will not change course. They are committed, and your house is in the way.
Every March, therefore, a ritual begins: you roll up your garage doors, you slide open the glass back living room walls, you throw plastic tarping over all of your most expensive furniture – and then, all afternoon, massive flocks of waterfowl come arcing straight through. Temporary house inhabitants. Clouds of them. Soon you charge admission, and at $5 a head you’re a millionaire: people come from all over the world to sit inside your house, in specially placed chairs, and just watch migrating birds fly through.
So as debris slugs continue to scour their way down out of the San Gabriel Mountains, reclaiming the terrain of peripheral Los Angeles, perhaps Californian houses can learn to open up: pop open a door here, a window there, perhaps attach some chutes and kiddy slides between them, all ramps and moving surfaces, and you’ve got a valve house, flexibility vs. natural collapse. A kind of earth-fountain.
The spectacle of mass wasting begins: sand, pebbles, rocks, boulders, Oldsmobiles, canyon live oaks, migratory birds – everything nature’s got, whirling through your house in a geotechnical storm…
But there you are – with the architecture at the center of it – sitting ready, open to the world, tectonic.

City Idols

The urban coats of arms made me think of the amazing city models that are to some extent the antithesis to the postage stamp icon.
Dubrovnik probably has the most intimate relationship with their city model. Throughout the gates, one finds sculptures of their bishop holding the model of the city – a reference to the complete reconstruction of the city after a 1667 earthquake.

Similarly, Berlin houses an enormous model of the present day city, as well as a replica of the Soviet plans that were only partially built.

I believe the largest of the these city models is of Shanghai.

Koolhaas talks about the 1845 model of New York as an act of self-idolatry – both possessive and communicative. Unlike the icon, the model is aspirational.


“As the World Cup approaches,” we read in The Economist, “Berlin’s businesses are positioning themselves for best advantage. The latest manifestation of this trend is a new, luxury mega-brothel, which opened in late September, just three train stops away from the Olympic Stadium, the tournament’s main venue.”

[Image: The interior of the Artemis, Berlin; from Der Spiegel].

“With plush red curtains,” Der Spiegel writes, “leopard-print cushions and more gold than you’d find at Posh and Beck’s wedding,” the so-called Artemis boasts €5 million worth of refurbishments, including “saunas, jacuzzis, cinemas and a swimming pool, complete with the requisite mini-tropical island. Leopard skin textiles and strategically-placed mirrors abound” – transforming the brothel into a kind of sexualized Sir John Soane’s museum.
Further, the Artemis “can cater for up to 100 prostitutes and 650 male clients. The women are not actually employed: along with the men, they pay a €70 entrance fee and then keep the money they earn,” says The Economist.
But what if there are women clients? And would male sex workers be able to “employ themselves” there, as well? Or will the building financially reinforce expected sex roles?

[Image: The Artemis; from Der Spiegel].

According to Norman Jacob, lawyer for the Artemis (and he says this with apparent sincerity): “[Any female sex worker] can go into the sauna or the swimming pool, get food and non-alcoholic drinks for free. She can even spend the night here and just sleep. And if she has sex she earns money.”
I suppose this is considered a good deal.
But what about the architecture?
As Der Spiegel writes, “the outside of the building is about as erotic as a corporate office park, the interior is a bizarre cross between mid-1990s Las Vegas and a cheezy British ‘Carry-On’ film. The historical decorative flourishes, presumably designed to give the place a touch of class, are almost overwhelming: Greek and Roman statues nestle under Moorish arches, pseudo art deco frescos adorn the walls and even the odd Chinese character on black lacquer is thrown in for good measure. Pretty much every era which has ever been deemed erotic is represented.”
Or, eroticism as a function of architectural ornamentation.
Adolf Loos must be spinning in his grave (or perhaps he’s just humping the coffin…).