Death’s pyramids and Boullée’s domes

While BLDGBLOG just explored Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton – of which some better images appear here –

– complete with an internal view of the dome’s constellational ceiling –

– Boullée also designed another, if substantially less well-known, cenotaph (complete, again, with monumentally over-sized dome and somewhat ridiculous, almost elephantiasis-stricken, pyramidal shell), revealed here in both elevation and section –

– as well as yet another tomb – or cénotaphe – here a kind of architectural remix of the first pyramid:

And even that wasn’t the end. Boullée designed a tomb for Hercules; a tomb for Sparta; several funerary monuments; and a chapel of the dead that seems to have set the architectural temperature for the bunker-like, uninspired, and potentially even anti-Christian churches you now find all over today’s middle America:

Well, actually, it looks an awful lot like the house Robert Venturi built for his mother –

– which I suppose says something about Robert Venturi.

Sections, Tombs, and Stock Exchanges

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a small exhibition guide to “The Amsterdam Stock Exchange: A Structure Revealed,” by Daniel Castor.
After winning a Fulbright in 1992, Castor “created twenty-two drawings [of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange] that, like x-ray photographs, enable us to look through the building’s walls into its inner spaces in a way that one could neither achieve by means of photography nor by viewing the building in person.”

The drawings are “magnificently beautiful,” the Getty’s guide opines. By “gradually peeling away more and more of the exterior wall, like an archaeologist digging through centuries of rubble… Castor shows that the facade is no more than a thin layer around a circulatory space circumscribing the main exchange halls.”
Castor also produced a series of sketches of Bramante’s Tempietto –

– of which these are two.
But then today I stumbled across a new post on Pruned, about Jean-Jacques Lequeu, architect, cross-dresser, amateur pornographer: “In post-Revolution and Napoleon France,” Pruned writes, “Lequeu produced some of the most imaginary landscape and architectural designs” of his time, using “a masterful combination of the Gothic, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Chinese, and a smattering of hallucinations.” And, however superficially, Lequeu’s drawings reminded me of Castor’s work:

[Image: Elévation géométrale for Laqueu’s Temple consacré à l’Egalité].

Then there is the quite similar, but really, really, really exciting Temple de la Terre:

If you enlarge the image, you’ll see that the building’s dome is actually a detailed globe of the earth, and that its surface is pierced by dozens of small holes; these allow light to burn through, into the interior, in the shape of constellations. Which, of course, makes it rather a lot like Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton

– but, in many ways, Lequeu’s design is more interesting (if only because its less monolithic, less death-obsessed scale makes it a legitimate ancestor for today’s planetaria).

In any case, there are so many cool images – out of 784, total – on the Jean-Jacques Lequeu website that it’s tempting to sit here uploading more and more of the things; but I’ll stop.
Meanwhile, slicing buildings into sections, letting patterned light through, and using architecture to help model the constellations, will all be picked up again elsewhere…

A Drive-Thru Enemy Landscape

In a short article published by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we read about “a rare example of a simulated hostile nation on American soil, open to the public.”
This “drive-thru enemy landscape” is in the Dixie Valley of Nevada.

[Image: Center for Land Use Interpretation; note the tank].
After a long series of complicated land deals, the U.S. Navy “began burning down the homesteads it bought, replacing them with Soviet radar and military equipment to simulate an enemy landscape.”
Because the Valley is still open to “transit by the public,” it currently serves as a kind of “open air gallery of active warfare props,” complete with a few old homestead buildings “left to be used as visual targets, mak[ing] for a mise en scene that resembles the surrealist renderings of Dalí and de Chirico”:

But while Dixie Valley may be “a rare example” of such a landscape, it is not unique: there is also the so-called German Village in Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground.

[Image: The remnants of German Village in 1998, taken by CLUI/Mike Davis].
As Mike Davis writes, “‘German Village,’ as it is officially labeled on declassified maps of the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, is the remnant of a much larger, composite German/Japanese ‘doomtown’ constructed by Standard Oil in 1943.” That same year, “the Chemical Warfare Corps secretly recruited [architect Erich] Mendelsohn to work with Standard Oil engineers and RKO set designers to create a miniature Hohenzollern slum in the Utah desert.”
Hollywood + European Modernism = Enemy Faux-Urbanism.
“Dugway, it should be pointed out,” Davis says, “is slightly bigger than Rhode Island and more toxically contaminated than the Nuclear Test Site in nearby Nevada.”
In any case, German Village was built to be destroyed, as its exact and to-scale replicas of Berlin architecture – down to precise materials – could be tested for flammability. How architecture reacts to bombs.
German Village, in other words, was another “simulated hostile nation on American soil.”

(Of related interest, see BLDGBLOG’s A miniature city waiting for attack and Law enforcement training architecture).

Bingham Pit, Utah

“It is 2.5 miles wide and 3/4 mile deep. Looking into it is like looking into space,” the Center for Land Use Interpretation suggests. It’s Utah’s Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, and it just might be “the biggest hole on earth.”

[Image 1: CLUI; Image 2: here; Image 3: here].

Also, see Placement‘s One Hundred Years Towards Hell; as well as BLDGBLOG’s World’s largest diamond mine.

Earth: 7.5 Billion AD

Don’t forget “the distant future,” an article in New Scientist warns, referring to an era 7.5 billion years from now – when “the sun will loom 250 times larger in the sky than it is today, and it will scorch the Earth beyond recognition.”

That Earth, however, will be unrecognizable, geologically reconfigured into something called Pangaea Ultima: “Existing [subduction] zones on the western edge of the Atlantic ocean should seed a giant north-south rift that swallows heavy, old oceanic crust. The Atlantic will start to shrink, sending the Americas crashing back into the merged Euro-African continent. So roughly 250 million years from now, most of the world’s land mass will once again be joined together in a new supercontinent that [Christopher] Scotese and his colleagues [at U-Texas, Arlington] have dubbed Pangaea Ultima.”

[Images: Pangaea Ultima, or the Earth in 250 million years, from Christopher Scotese’s website. It’s interesting here to imagine where the cities of today might end up in this configuration, if Manhattan will collide, say, with the docklands of London, and what that new city would then be called – and could you set a novel in a space like that? You look out and see Manhattan coming toward you on the horizon, at the speed of a fingernail growing, and you take little rowboats out to visit it on long summer afternoons, that ghost city adrift on mantled currents of earthquake-laden rock. Or would it be possible for an architect – or two architects, on opposite sides of the ocean – to design, today, different buildings meant to merge in millions of years, to collide with each other and link into one building through plate tectonics, a kind of delayed, virtual, urban self-completion via continental drift… Cairo-Athens: an architectural puzzle assembled by the Earth’s own geological mechanisms].

After Pangaea Ultima, runaway greenhouse warming and a literally expanding sun will mean that everything “gets worse. In 1.2 billion years, the sun will be about 15 per cent brighter than it is today. The surface temperature on Earth will reach between 60 and 70°C and the… oceans will all but disappear, leaving vast dry salt flats, and the cogs and gears of Earth’s shifting continents will grind to a halt. Complex animal life will almost certainly have died out.”

Jeffrey Kargel, from the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Flagstaff, Arizona, offers his own vision of planetwide erosion: “‘Imagine a steaming Mississippi river delta with 90 per cent of the water gone. There’ll be lots of sluggish streams and the whole Earth will be flattening out. All the mountains will be eroded down to their roots.’ Huge swathes of the Earth might resemble today’s deserts in Nevada and southern Arizona, with low, rugged mountains almost buried in their own rubble.”

Kargel believes that the Earth might even become “‘tidally locked’ to the sun. In other words, one side of the planet will be in permanent daylight while the other side will always be dark.”

The side of the planet always in the glare of triumphant Apollo will eventually consist of huge roiling seas of liquid rock – perhaps ready for the return of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. “7.57 billion years from now, the magma ocean directly in the glare of the sun will reach almost 2200°C. ‘At that kind of temperature, the magma will start to evaporate,’ (!) says Kargel.”

Meanwhile, “Kargel thinks the night side of the Earth could be… about -240°C. And this bizarre hot-and-cold Earth will set up some exotic weather patterns.”

[Image: “Exotic” future weather systems (from New Scientist); worth enlarging. We could thus anticipate a market in weather futures: the financial coupling of climatology and the global reinsurance industry, but, here, gone deep time and virtual].

“On the hot side, metals like silicon, magnesium and iron, and their oxides, will evaporate out of the magma sea. In the warm twilight zones, they’ll condense back down. ‘You’ll see iron rain, maybe silicon monoxide snow,’ says Kargel. Meanwhile potassium and sodium snow will fall from colder dusky skies.”

So it would seem possible, amidst all this, to figure out, for instance, the melting point of Manhattan, ie. the point at which rivers of liquid architecture will start flowing down from the terraces of uninhabited high-rise flats, when the top of the Chrysler Building, all but invisible behind superheated orange clouds of toxic greenhouse gases, will form a glistening silver stream of pure metal boiling down into the half-closed Atlantic Ocean.

If cities are viewed, in this instance, as geological deposits, then surely there would be a way to account for them in the equations of future geophysicists: all of London reduced to a pool of molten steel, swept by currents of gelatinous glass, as sedimentary rocks made of abraded marble, granite, and limestone form from compression in the lower depths. A new Thames of liquid windows, former walls.

Any account of a future Earth, in other words, melting under the glare of a red giant sun, should include the future of cities, where buildings become rivers and subways will fossilize.

All cities, we could say, are geology waiting to happen.

(See BLDGBLOG’s Urban fossil value for more).

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”

Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.

“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).

“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”

But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:

Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…

Marlboro Motels

According to a recent story in the Observer, Philip Morris, of Marlboro fame, has been redesigning the interiors of British pubs into subliminal, three-dimensional advertisements. That’s right:
“Picture the scene: You walk into a chic bar where the clientele is young and the drinks reassuringly expensive; you note the stylish combinations of red and white furniture, the impressive attention to detail that goes into everything from the cushions to the ashtrays. Suddenly, inexplicably, you urgently want to smoke a Marlboro cigarette.”
Indeed, Philip Morris has “experimented with subliminal ways of communicating its brand, through themed bar areas which could be put up at major social events, and did not feature the Marlboro logo or its packaging. These ‘installations’, as they were called, created lounge areas by placing comfortable red sofas in front of video screens showing scenes redolent of Wild West ‘Marlboro country’ to convey the essence of the cigarette brand while circumnavigating sponsorship bans.”
This is because “cigarette advertising is going underground, it’s becoming more covert.” It’s taking the form of “Marlboro motels,” or chill-out rooms themed in red and white, built to remind you of cigarettes.
Are we inside a building – or an advertisement?

[Image: “Harlequin Sitting on a Red Couch” by Pablo Picasso (1905); quick test: are you reaching for a cigarette…?].
As interior design – architecture itself – becomes fair game in the quest for ever-more-guerilla marketing, let’s just hope we don’t get our signals crossed: instead of smoking Marlboros you start uncontrollably drinking glass after glass of Coke… Or instead of buying a new Burberry suit you suddenly, inexplicably, achingly, urgently, want a new pair of Depends adult diapers… Instead of buying Trojan condoms you buy Tofurky…
Advanced capitalism dissolves in a fog of the wrong purchases.

Tree bombs

Two earlier posts here have strangely merged in real life: while we were off soil-bombing Iceland, MIT’s Moshe Alamaro – of the famed anti-hurricane jet engine barges – was strafing the earth with tree seeds. It’s called “aerial reforestation.”

Back in 1997, Alamaro “designed conical canisters, of a starchy biodegradable material, which each contain a seedling packed in soil and nutrients. The canisters are dropped from a low-flying plane, so that they hit the ground at 200 m.p.h., and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

Whole forests, fired from F-16s. Stealth forestry.

Or, branching off from an earlier comment on the agri-militaristic possibilities of garden wars (“hotheaded dictators and war-time presidents decide to take turns garden-bombing each other” [see comments]), you’d get forest wars, landscape design by Cruise missile: launched from a ship in the Indian Ocean, soon there are rich deciduous forests in the hills of Afghanistan.

Aspen trees. Precision Seedlings®. Bunker busters dropped into the San Andreas fault, where genetically engineered redwood saplings grow so deep they knit the faultline back together…

Riot police discard their plastic bullets and tear gas canisters to fire baby tulip bulbs; you go home and flowers are growing from your wounds… All scars become gardens…

Or on CNN some morning we see ICBMs arcing out of the mid-Atlantic, submarine crews cheering, the hunt for a truly red October now over: new maple tree saplings have been fired – they are reforesting the eastern Canadian plateau –

Or it’s a threat: disarm – or we will reforest you… Using tree bombs…

Earthquake Body Radio

While I was in Denver last week I picked up a copy of The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin. The book covers seismology, California’s self-intersecting jigsaw puzzle of major and minor faultlines, and the imagination of disaster (to paraphrase Mike Davis).

However, it also explores (and, for the most part, debunks, although Ulin seems to do so only reluctantly) earthquake sensitives, or people who experience physical symptoms immediately prior to the onset of a quake. Headaches, back aches, bad dreams, sore joints – the body becomes a warning flag for terrestrial disturbance. The human nervous system, a seismic prediction device.
Kathy Gori, for example, “a Los Angeles sensitive, has run off a string of better than twenty successful predictions – with just a handful of misses – by relying on headaches that come and go a few hours before a quake. The key, Gori believes, is that her brain contains higher-than-average levels of magnetite, the mineral that helps bats and other animals orient themselves to the electromagnetic field of the earth, which enables her to function as a tectonic receiver, as it were.”
A tectonic receiver! Her brain, containing a metallic analogue of the earth’s surface, responds to disturbances in the earth’s surface. The brain as a micro-landscape, metallized and resonating.
Or, more comically, there is the guy “nicknamed ‘Pain-in-the-Butt Man,’ because he feels pain shoot through his ass cheeks before the ground begins to shake.”
There’s also “Charlotte King, the self-styled doyenne of the earthquake sensitives,” who claims that she “has literally been able to hear low-frequency sound waves – a foghornlike moaning she refers to simply as ‘The Sound’ – and, in conjunction with physical symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to nosebleeds, muscle spasms, headaches, and severe stomach or heart pain, use them to predict earthquakes and volcanoes with a rate of accuracy that, by her accounting, comes in somewhere around 85 percent.”
(Somewhat related to this, see BLDGBLOG’s recent post on Sound dunes).
On Charlotte King’s website there’s even a definition of something she calls the “Charlotte King effect,” aka “geosensology,” or “the study of senses and biological systems as it relates to geologic dynamics or geologic events.”
This – geosensology – is all part of Project Migraine:
“Through the efforts of Charlotte King who pioneered Biological Earthquake Prediction, and Chris Dodge of the US Library of Congress, a volunteer research project was born – aptly named ‘Project Migraine.’ The focus of this project was to prove, beyond coincidence, that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions could be forecast, prospective of the event, giving time, magnitude, location and probability” – forecast using the human body.
King has mapped seemingly every part of her body to the earth’s surface, limb by continent by island chain: “Upper back as I have repeatedly said is for Japan;” or “Pain in ears, this is usually Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete.” Her body – and this is not at all something I am endorsing, or implying that I believe – acts as a kind of muscular radio, or nervous antenna, the meat and gristle and bone of being human somehow tuned-in to geoseismic activity.
Ulin’s book then looks at the scientific work of Tony Fraser-Smith, a professor at Stanford University, “who recorded anomalous ultra-low-frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves in the ground near Corralitos, a small town three miles from the Loma Prieta epicenter.” (Loma Prieta was a large earthquake in 1989).
“‘Twelve days before the earthquake,’ he says, ‘the noise level went up by a factor of ten. Three hours before, it went up by another factor of ten.'”
The faultlines themselves – all crushed rock and slurry – were emitting radio waves.
This apparently legitimate discovery, however, collapes into the New Age weirdness of amateur earthquake prediction with a man called Jack Coles. Just after the Loma Prieta earthquake, “Fraser-Smith accompanied USGS seismologist Andy Michael to Coles’s San Jose apartment, where they found [him] monitoring a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial. ‘Clearly,’ Fraser-Smith remembers, ‘he believed in what he was doing. I don’t think he was a charlatan. But every time a radio popped, he’d claim it indicated something, which he’d then interpret according to his criteria that he wouldn’t tell us anything about.'”
BLDGBLOG has already written about radio astronomy; this, I suppose, is radio seismology.
There are people who use clouds to predict earthquakes; there is even Jim Berkland, with his own method of prediction, “which is to read lost and found columns in various California newspapers,” keeping “a daily log of pet disappearances in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, going back twenty-two years.” (His earthquake prediction website can be found here.)
The interest here, at least for me, is not the individual methods these people use, or even whether those methods can be treated as “scientific,” but the basic idea at work behind them: that – through a kind of unintended revival of the medieval Great Chain of Being – the human body, the lived skeleto-muscular present, is actually a terrestrial analogue, a corporeal mappa mundi. The idea that metal in the California hills can also be found in the human brain, thus making the human brain a microcosm or simulacrum of the earth: human anatomy as world model.
Yet it’s also the seemingly disastrous misuse of hermeneutics – reading too far into things – that would lead someone to conclude that missing pet ads in Los Angeles newspapers are harbingers of earthquakes, or that radio static from dead stations hissing and popping outside the usable spectrum is somehow coming from the earth, picking up on planetary reverberations, literally radio-active. Over-literalizing a pun.
The “earth” as a system of signs, meant to be interpreted. The logic behind this.
The logic of earthquake prediction.

(Meanwhile, for those of you dying to use origami as a means to analyze tectonic faulting, click here).