Space in China

[Image: Causeway Bay I, Hong Kong, 2004, by Sze Tsung Leong.]

It was quietly announced, at the end of August, that Arup, the almost comically omnipresent British engineering firm, has won a multi-billion pound contract for the design, engineering, and construction of an entire city, to be built from scratch outside Shanghai in the Dongtan wetlands of eastern China.

[Image from Arup’s website.]

The city – called, simply, Dongtan – will be “the world’s first genuinely eco-friendly city,” the Times reports, “powered by renewable energy sources and as close to carbon-neutral as possible.”
It “will eventually extend to cover some 8,800 hectares, roughly equivalent to New York’s Manhattan island” – though Arup, it seems, will only be planning an initial “630 hectares, roughly three times the size of the City of London.”
Arup’s own press release spells out their role in great detail: “Arup is responsible for the integrated master-planning of the built environment… providing a full range of services, including urban design, planning, sustainable energy management, waste management, renewable energy process implementation, economic and business planning, sustainable building design, architecture, infrastructure and even the planning of communities and social structures.” (Which, latterly, sounds rather ominous.)
“Priority projects [will] include the process of capturing and purifying water in the landscape to support life in the city. Community waste management recycling will generate clean energy from organic waste, reducing landfills that damage the environment. Combined heat and power systems will provide the technology to source clean and reliable energy.”
Compare that to the hum-drum initiatives under discussion now to rebuild New Orleans, and you can’t help but conclude that the United States is in such an advanced state of structural decrepitude and urban-imaginative bankruptcy that opening up a few branches of CVS or a Ross Dress For Less somehow passes for successful urbanism.
Dongtan, Arup claims, “underline[s] the Chinese government’s move to take account of environmental considerations in future policy initiatives.”
Whether or not such optimism is warranted, it is interesting to read such a statement in light of an article that appeared last night in The Guardian. Its author, Jonathan Watts, suggests that “a much bleaker future” is in store for China’s nascent, super-powered, high-construction economy: “Environmentally and spiritually,” Watts writes, “[China’s rapid development] is a disaster. China’s rivers are drying up, its cities are choked with pollution, the rural health-care system has collapsed and the cities are seeing record levels of suicide and stress. China is showing all the symptoms of modernity – only on a bigger scale and at a faster rate than the world has ever seen.”
One could argue, however, that this increasingly catastrophic situation is exactly why the Chinese government now seeks to build a city like Dongtan.
In any case, Watts ends with a kind of prescription: “In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.”
I would here hesitantly suggest that Arup’s involvement with Dongtan perhaps offers an odd, if very real – if not, in fact, utopian – source of inspiration for urbanists, environmentalists, and BLDGBLOG contributors the world over. I just really, deeply, and profoundly hope, with unabashed, wide-eyed American sincerity, that Dongtan has at least one Ross Dress For Less.
Returning to Watts – well, returning to the subject matter that Watts is actually discussing: the new Chinese railway to Tibet (in the context of other Chinese infrastructural projects now under construction) – we find some truly astonishing descriptions.
For instance (taken, really, from a pay-per-view New York Times article): “For long stretches the [Tibet-bound] railway, which is fast nearing completion, will operate at altitudes higher than many small planes can fly, huffing and puffing far above the fragrant mists that roll down the Himalayan slopes. Indeed, the train, whose engines will need turbochargers just to get enough oxygen to run, will often soar above the clouds.” (See also Archinect).
Or this, from Watts: “Luxury trains are being built for the new track. They feature pressurised carriages to minimise the risk of altitude sickness [!] and tinted windows to protect from strong ultra-violet rays. (…) The cars will be pulled by diesel engines capable of maintaining an average speed of 100 kph, even at above 4,000m, when the thinness of the air can cut power by almost half.”
Then there’s the awe-inspiring geotechnical challenge, which begs the question of whether human beings are even meant to be there in the first place (I would think not): the railway will cross “a vast sea of permafrost that stretches more than 600km across the [Qinghai] plateau towards Tibet and the Himalayas, prompting some to describe this area as the third pole of the world.” This “third pole” is also known as the earthquake-prone Kunlun Pass, where “[e]ven the best Swiss tunnelling engineers concluded that it was impossible to bore through the rock and ice.”
Watts continues: “There were 5,000m-high mountains to climb, 12km-wide valleys to bridge, hundreds of kilometres of ice and slush that could never support tracks and trains. How could anyone tunnel through rock at -30C, or lay rails when the least exertion sends you reaching for the oxygen bottle? But that’s the sort of challenge today’s China relishes.”
China, indeed, is a nation of infrastructure.

[Image: Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam on the planet and “China’s biggest construction project since the Great Wall,” Watts writes.]

See, for instance, China’s new highway system.

[Image: Shanghai gyratory (slideshow).]

From the BBC: “Every year China is constructing around 4,000 km of expressways, towards its target of connecting every city with a population of 200,000 or more to an 85,000 km national motorway network. Half the work is already done.”
Will the Chinese produce their own Kerouac in 30 years? Riding the endless Chinese highways in a beat-up FAW, quoting St. Augustine and rewriting the Diamond Sutra?
Or will cars become obsolete just as China’s national highway system is completed?
Come what may, a (now pay-per-view) article in the Engineering News-Record describes how, across bridges and inland piers, through tunnels and switchbacks, sinkholes and mines, across karst bedrock and the terrain of old wars, the Chinese highway system, come hell or high water – come permafrost or earthquakes – is being constructed.
So what’s the point?
1) Several generations’ worth of infrastructural planning and construction are occurring in China over the span of two decades.
2) The “eco-city” of Dongtan represents a positive model for urban design and development – shaming the United States, in particular, as libertarian pro-Bush anti-urbanists face having to rebuild New Orleans, in a flood zone, below sea level.
3) The Chinese highway and train systems, impressive enough (even if only on the level of national mythology), could have disastrous religious, cultural, and environmental impacts on the people of Tibet, the population of greater China – and perhaps on the global climate at large. This is something I’ve hardly even begun to discuss.
And yet it feels like the only real thing we can do for now is continue to watch space in China.

[Image: Beisihuanxi Lu, Zhongguancun, Haidian District, Beijing, 2004, by Sze Tsung Leong.]

The decay rides

These photos of an abandoned amusement park in Japan remind me simultaneously of the recent film *Requiem for a Dream* and of an old black & white horror “classic” called *Carnival of Souls* –

– which has an unintentionally hilarious scene in which the spooked-out heroine refuses to leave her car during an undercarriage check-up…

In any case, the photographer’s research continues elsewhere, and with consistently high quality; and, in this context, I might humbly suggest checking out an old BLDGBLOG entry on Gunkanjima Island (which the above photographer also explores). (That is to say, he/she explores Gunkanjima Island [also called Hashima – ‘Gunkanjima’ means battleship, and is just a nickname], not BLDGBLOG’s old entry about it…).

Sound dunes

“Sand dunes in certain parts of the world are notorious for the noises they make,” New Scientist reports, “as sand avalanches down their sides. Some [dunes] emit low powerful booms, others sound like drum rolls or galloping horses, and some are even tuneful. These dune songs have been reported to last for up to 15 minutes and can sound as loud as a low-flying airplane.”

To test for the causes, properties, and other effects of these sand dune booms, “Stéphane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate.” There, Douady’s team “found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle.”

The transformation of a sand dune – and, by extension, the entire Sahara desert, indeed any desert – even, by extension, the rust deserts of Mars – into a musical instrument. Music of the spheres, indeed.

“When the sand avalanches, the grains jostle each other at different frequencies, setting up standing waves in the cascading layer, says Douady. These waves reinforce one another, making the layer vibrate like the surface of a loud speaker. ‘What’s funny is that in these massive dunes, only a thin layer of 2 or 3 centimetres is needed to set up the resonance,’ says Douady. ‘Soon all grains begin to vibrate in step.'”

Douady has so perfected his technique of dune resonance that he has now “successfully predicted the notes emitted by dunes in Morocco, Chile and the US simply by measuring the size of the grains they contain.” The music of the dunes, in other words, was determined entirely by the size, shape, and roughness of the sand grains involved, where excessive smoothness dampened the dunes’ sound.

I’m reminded of the coast of Inishowen, a peninsula south of Malin Head in the north of Ireland, where the rocks endlessly grind across one another in the backwash of heaving, metallic, grey Atlantic waves. Under constant pressure of the oceanic, the rocks carve into themselves and each other, chipping down over decades into perfectly polished and rounded spheres, columns, and eggs – as if Archimedean solids or the nested orbits of Kepler could be discovered on the Irish ocean foreshore –

– all glittering. The rocks, I later learned, were actually semi-precious stones, and I had a kind of weird epiphany, standing there above the hush and clatter of bejewelled rocks, rubbing and rubbed one to the other in the depopulated void of a coastal November. It was not a sound easy to forget.

Because the earth itself is already a musical instrument: there is “a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the ‘Earth’s hum‘, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data.”

Elsewhere: “Competing with the natural emissions from stars and other celestial objects, our Earth sings like a canary – it drones on in a constant hum of a gazillion notes. If it were several octaves higher, and hence, audible to the human ear,” it could probably get recorded by the unpredictably omnidirectional antennas of ShortWaveMusic and… you could download the sound of the earth. Free Radio Interterrestrial. [Note: the “drones on” link, a sentence or two back, offers a contrary theory (published in 2000) about the origins of these planetary sound waves.]

Which, finally, brings us to Ernst Chladni and his Chladni figures, or: architectonic structures appearing in sand due to patterns of acoustic resonance. The architecture of sand, involving sound—or architecture through sound, involving sand. Silicon assuming structure, humming.

The gist of Chladni’s experiments involved spreading a thin layer of sand across a vibrating plate, changing the frequency at which the plate vibrated, and then watching the sand as it shivered round, forming regular, highly geometric patterns. Those patterns depended upon, and were formed in response to, whatever vibration frequency it was that Chladni chose.

So you’ve got sand, dune music, terrestrial vibration, some Chladni figures – one could be excused for wondering whether the earth, apparently a kind of carbon-ironic bell made of continental plates and oceanic resonators, is really a vast Chladni plate, vibrating every little mineral, every pebble, every grain of sand, perhaps every organic molecule, into complex, three-dimensional, time-persistent patterns for which we have no standard or even technique of measurement. Or maybe William Blake knew how to do it, or Pythagoras, or perhaps even Nikola Tesla, but…

The sound dunes continue to boom and shiver. The deserts roar. The continents hum.

Soil-bombing Iceland

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland is in the midst of a rather heroic effort to de-desertify large parts of the country. Iceland, in fact, is the largest desert in all of Europe.

As the BBC says, “The only difference [between the Icelandic desert and] the Sahara is that the sand here is black. Pitch black – with glaciers towering above and the sea shimmering in the distance. And the wind howling in between.” Which sounds like quite a difference.

In any case, the desert’s origins are with human activity; it is an artificial landscape, bearing traces of the island nation’s earlier inhabitants: “Despite the rather frightening name of the country, Iceland was green when Vikings came to settle. About 60% of the country was covered in bushes, trees, grass and all that. (…) But the Vikings, aside from chopping down trees for their own needs, also brought along their sheep. And what do sheep do best? They eat anything that is green.”

What interests me here, aside from the ecological message – don’t overgraze your territory – is the Soil Conservation Service’s preferred method of re-seeding: they pack finely sorted and organized seeds – virtual ecosystems, yet to occur, chosen species by species – into bombs: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated. There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’, dropping the fertiliser and seeds from a WW II DC 3 Dakota.”

Earth, delivered by warplane.

(You can also listen to this story, as I first did, through an often irritating BBC podcast.)

So the bombs collide with the planet, releasing condensed and virtual landscapes: seed-bombs. Soil-bombs. The Icelandic countryside soon becomes an ironic inversion of a warzone: where the bombs fall, trees, grass, and wildflowers grow.

Instead of the lunar landscape of the Nevada test site, for instance—

—you get the opposite: strange oases of green, or gardening by artillery.

Which, conveniently, brings me to a new BLDGBLOG project.

It’s a landscape proposal: Artillery Gardens.

Unfortunately, there already is, in London, a place called Artillery Gardens, but no matter. BLDGBLOG’s Artillery Gardens will require the following: a very large parcel of land; a Howitzer; several shotguns; a military engineer who can calculate launching arcs and target distances; and some seed-packing volunteers, preferably experienced gardeners. Constant gardeners, perhaps. Everyone would fill up as many shotgun shells and old Howitzer cases as they could, using odd, rare, or otherwise exciting combinations of exotic seed; we’d all don some earplugs; and then it could begin: you’d blast a garden into existence.

Landscape planning as field artillery calculation. Landscape-at-a-distance. Gardening by artillery.

Through explosion and gunfire and heavy artillery, a rare and fragile garden is born. Species by species, day by day, through blast radii and impact fields, with the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction,” these Artillery Gardens will grow.

War as a garden, pursued by other means.

Das Urpflanze Haus

In what is, by now, a very old Wired blurb, you can read about Stoner Age artist and alien implant conspiracist Paul Laffoley, apparently a trained architect, who has proposed “genetically engineered seeds as a solution to the housing shortage.”
The seeds, you see, would grow into plants, and those plants themselves would grow into the shapes of inhabitable buildings. They would actually be buildings. Imagine a rather light-headed Michael Crichton watching *Swiss Family Robinson* on DVD when Rem Koolhaas stops by – and you’d get what Paul Laffoley has named das Urpflanze Haus, or “the primordial plant house.”

[Image: the Urpflanze Haus… so small you can barely see it, however.]
You’d plant the seeds – or perhaps just one, like a new, Piranesian “Jack and the Beanstalk” – do some watering, perhaps spread a little fertilizer… and at some point your own house will grow.
Thomas De Quincey: “With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.”
But what then? Do you prune excess or unwanted rooms? Can you graft new floorplans into the tree’s genetic code?
And will you get sap all over your FCUKing clothes?
Instead of topiary gardens, rich feudal warlords of the somewhat immediate future, with coked-up guards patrolling razorwire perimeters holding AK-47s and driving stolen Humvees, will cultivate delicate architectural gardens full of intertwined Urpflanze Häusen, on well-watered terraces stretching off past the conflict-laden, desert horizon. The world’s eventual oldest living house will be planted by a fourteen year-old girl in the hills of Missouri, out-living the Anthropocene by uncountable hundreds of years.
“Laffoley’s portfolio,” Wired continues, which “includ[es] a human-powered vehicle and a time machine, echoes the weird science of Nikola Tesla and Buckminster Fuller: Intricate illustrations and collages graft ancient occultism, eccentric engineering, particle physics, and a dose of ufology onto obsessively detailed building plans for a surreal alternative future.”

Privateering America’s prisons, or: “criminal aliens needing beds”

The Economist recently published a short article about the privatization of the US prison system, a process being led by “America’s largest private prison operator, the Nashville-based Corrections Corps of America (CCA).” That company has a massive base of operation; indeed, we are told, with no apparent sense of irony, that its “potential market is growing all the time.”
“America now has 726 prison inmates for every 100,000 people, compared with 142 in England, 91 in France and 58 in Japan. With public prisons notoriously overstretched, private prisons have been quietly picking up the slack since the Reagan years.” No mention is made, however, of the impact that federal law enforcement practices have had on the rise of prison populations during and since that time, or of the role of race in disproportionate sentencing – the author, in fact, refers rather oddly to “a regrettable shortage of inmates at some facilities,” which even in its original context raises eyebrows.
Incredibly, the article seems to look at private prisons as a new source of housing.
Housing? For illegal immigrants. This “potential market” is referred to – almost fantastically – as “criminal aliens needing beds.” According to the article, “a surge in criminal aliens needing beds helped save CCA five years ago.” (Needing beds? Were they drunk?)
Private prisons, capacity problems, criminal aliens needing beds…
One of the ways the CCA plans to stay afloat and save itself money is through sacking people – a strategy which seems to have got them into trouble. According to a recent headline in Correctional News, yessir, “Private Prison Operators Overcharged State $13 Million.” “CCA and GEO were paid an extra $4.5 million because CPC did not require the companies to report position vacancies during most of the time the contracts were in effect. When position vacancies were reported, monthly per-diem payments were not reduced.”
So of course firing people was lucrative – those people never left the payroll. As John Ferguson, CEO of CCA, tells The Economist, “The public sector tends not to eliminate positions when they’re not needed” – which may, of course, be true, but: 1) we’ve just seen how CCA interprets that information; and 2) what actually interests me here are the architectural implications: building a prison without guards.
The “panopticon” is such an obvious reference point here that I’ll just skip it – though I do have two images:

In any case, the uneasy implication of an ascendant private prison industry, at least in the context of saving money through sacking people, is that, in several years, almost literally anything a human guard can do will simply be replaced, automated, and tax-deducted through and by the architecture itself. Or perhaps infrastructure is a more accurate word, but the point is that the building, the physical prison, will become more and more of an electronically automated total environment, overseen through tele-surveillance – in which case private prisons will effectively become like that game *Doom*, or that ridiculous movie *Cube*, or even that other ridiculous movie, *Fortress*, about “the Fortress, a maximum security prison run by a computer and a mysterious warden…” Which almost sounds like soft porn.
My point is that the economic policies behind prison privatization will, by necessity, exhibit effects in the realm of architectural design.
Where human resources, quote-unquote, could have taken care of certain administrative and organizational problems, and done so rather simply, the architecture itself will soon be required to step up to the plate and perform.
Will we see private prisons at the avant-garde of building automation? More to the point, do we already?

[Image: Piranesi’s prison fantasies – automated environments of drawbridges and wheels, arches and guardless vaults.]

BLDGBLOG: Architecturally Reviewed

Somewhat unbelievably, BLDGBLOG was just featured in the August 2005 issue of The Architectural Review (on page 105). For ease of reference, and because I’m clearly not at all moved by this journalistic appearance, I’ve scanned, cropped, contrast-corrected, highlighted, digitally archived, and, now, uploaded images of that review for your reading pleasure…:

That post – Lunar urbanism – can be found here.
Then the next mention is longer, but it’s kind of in the middle of the column, so the beginning and end of the following excerpt don’t make much sense (as per your standard BLDGBLOG post), but…:

Thanks to David Cuthbert at Architechnophilia for pointing this out to me.

White men shining lights into the sky

[Image, Michael Kamber, NYTimes: Check out the rocket imagery in this wall mural, how the rocket itself appears to be part of a mosque & minaret or even Taj Mahal-like architectural complex, complete with Russian Constructivist telecommunications satellite (and is that the Eiffel Tower on the left?) – but it’s the rocket-as-minaret that really does it for me, with its theological appropriation of space exploration architecture. Retro-Futurist Interstellar Islam.]

In what is surely one of the most fascinating, if short, articles to be published recently in the New York Times, we read about a runway in Baafuloto, Gambia, once rented by NASA to act as a “transatlantic abort landing site” – one of several back-up runways, in fact, located around the world in case of emergency space shuttle landings.

The foreigners who would descend on this village… set up giant lights in the middle of an overgrown field and pointed them toward the sky. They stood in front of electronic screens powered by generators and talked hurriedly into radios hanging from their hips.
But for the local residents who saw them come and go over the years, the visitors always behaved most strangely just before they packed up and left Baafuloto. They would bustle about and then suddenly clap their hands and shout.
Sanjaney Saidy, 29, was a night watchman for the foreigners, known as tubabou in the local Mandinka language, thrilled with the roughly $2 a night he was paid, and proud of his uniform: boots, dark pants and a light blue shirt with a shoulder patch bearing the name of his employer – NASA.
“It’s a company, but I don’t know what they do,” said Mr. Saidy, who was 14 when he first worked for the Americans. “They told me to guard the lights, but I didn’t know the purpose.” The lights in Baafuloto, a mile or so from Banjul International Airport in Gambia, would help a shuttle in an aborted ascent find its way back to Earth.

And it gets better: Lasanna Saidy, the chief of Baafuloto, quite sensibly decided to go ahead and ask NASA what the lights were actually for: “‘When I asked them about the lights, they pointed up in the sky,’ the 75-year-old chief said. ‘They said there was a door in the sky and that their big plane might come through the door. They said the lights would help the plane, but I never did see it.'”

Then we read about NASA’s socio-medical reinvention of the car park (or landscape design as quarantine strategy for low earth-orbiting objects); in other words, “NASA built a parking area at Banjul’s airport to isolate the shuttle in case it came down spewing hazardous substances.”

In any case, NASA’s moved on from Baafuloto – because they have “another emergency landing site in Africa, [at] an abandoned Strategic Air Command base near Ben Guerir, Morocco.” But someone needs to send this to J.G. Ballard, because I think he’s already written that novel…

Can a novelist sue NASA for making his or her own fictional future come true?

Podcasting the sun

[Image: Helioseismology, or earthquakes on the sun (because “Sunquakes” would sound too much like a breakfast cereal…)]

“Have you ever wondered,” the Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research asks, “what the Sun would sound like if you could hear it?” Why yes.
Luckily, you can now listen to “sun sounds,” courtesy of the SOHO Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) project, “part of an international collaboration to study the interior structure and dynamics of the Sun” – including what the sun sounds like.

[Image: Computer simulation of the sun’s convective interior]

As you probably know, “the Sun is essentially spherical” – but this also means that it “forms a spherical acoustical resonator with millions of different normal modes of oscillation. Due to the waves’ long life times, destructive interference filters out all but the resonant frequencies, transforming the random convective noise into a very rich line spectrum in the five-minute range. Thus, convection acts rather like a random clapper causing the Sun to ring like a bell.”
To measure these oscillations – indeed, to listen to the sun “ring[ing] like a bell” – a whole new kind of densely connected, architectural network is required: “an uneclipsed instrument in space, observatories at the Earth’s poles, and a network of observatories around the Earth.”
All of these, of course, would need unimpeded sonic access to the solar “clapping.”

[Image: The Wilcox Solar Observatory]

The sun can be listened to indirectly, of course, in the form of solar storms interfering with terrestrial radio and television broadcasts – which brings to mind the story of how radio astronomy was first discovered, at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Thinking that his antenna was generating its own heat and noise, and therefore interfering with the experiment at hand (which I believe had something to do with telephones: discovering the universe by telephone), Karl Jansky eventually realized that all that white noise was *coming from deep space* – it was the sound of stars – and that he had discovered the radio-noise background in which our entire universe hums, eternally, at every second of every day, a kind of quiet hiss or whisper that we now know is an omnipresent sonic fossil left over from the Big Bang.
Space is full of sounds.
It was reported by Reuters, for instance, almost exactly two years ago, that a “particularly monstrous black hole has probably been humming B-flat for billions of years, but at a pitch no human could hear, let alone sing” – and that scientists “believe it is the deepest note ever detected in the universe.”
“As the black hole pulls material in, [Andrew Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, England] said, it also creates jets of material shooting out above and below it, and it is these powerful jets that create the pressure that creates the sound waves.”
Seismology in B-flat.
Or – similarly, about two years ago – the consistently exciting magazine New Scientist revealed that the Big Bang sounded “rather like a large jet plane flying 100 feet above your house in the middle of the night”: “Giant sound waves propagated through the blazing hot matter that filled the Universe shortly after the Big Bang. These squeezed and stretched matter, heating the compressed regions and cooling the rarefied ones. Even though the Universe has been expanding and cooling ever since, the sound waves have left their imprint as temperature variations on the afterglow of the big bang fireball, the so-called cosmic microwave background.”
Enter Karl Jansky and his broken telephone, throw in some helioseismology – and you get landscapes of noise, in deep space.

(For some gorgeous MP3s of global shortwave radio music, full of radio hiss and strange sidereal cross-broadcasts – the sun whispering to itself, drenched in light – see the blog ShortWaveMusic; and for another post on a similar theme, see Radio Haloes of Earth).

[Image: This is actually a satellite measuring the earth’s magnetic field, but…]