Singapore Bio-utopia

“In 2001,” the entire island city-state of Singapore spontaneously “realised that the rest of Asia was starting to rival it for low-cost manufacturing and electronics, so prime minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the way forward lay in nurturing its science. Hey presto, an R&D park called Biopolis was built and staffed within two years” – and it has some freaky building names, like “Proteos” and “Chromos” and “Nanos,” the latter of which houses the so-called “Singapore Tissue Network.” (They rent Meg Ryan movies together).
Check it out:

[Image: From New Scientist, which is also the source of the quotation, above; click on the image for larger version].

Thomas More’s Utopia meets the biosciences, in a city once described by William Gibson as “Disneyland with the death penalty.”
Yet Biopolis is already “a major new bioscience hub that has rocketed up from nothing” – and if anyone has more information on this thing – or if you’ve been there – whether that’s the architects involved, the future development plans, or especially some image, just let me know…
A kind of Lonely Planet Guide to the world’s purpose-built bioscience cities. The Rough Guide to Biopolis. Written by BLDGBLOG. Dedicated to Ovid.
Anyway, if you’ve got images… send ’em in.

Pontoon City

[Image: An “entire flotilla of floating greenhouses” by Dura Vermeer; as The New York Times writes, “For the first time in its long history, the Netherlands has begun to strategically uncreate itself,” in the face of future oceanic flooding. “[L]ast year the government, at the start of a 15-year program, began buying up land and reserving it as flood plain, mostly along river banks. The Dutch are also exploring a solution as old as the first flood: floating architecture”].

As BLDGBLOG explored in our series on Katrina – see Katrina 2 – the Dutch engineering firm Dura Vermeer has committed itself to building floating towns – pontoon cities – moored to the foreshores of Dutch inland waterways. In this case, it’s the river Maas – and The New York Times takes us there.

[Image: The town of Maasbommel, where “amphibious houses designed with lightweight wood by the Factor architectural firm” float on the River Maas].

Without going back through the specifics of Dutch terrain – vast sections of which are actually reclaimed Atlantic seafloor, only existing as dry land through a complicated network of levees, canals, and seawalls – it is worth quickly highlighting the obvious: that in a “post-Katrina world,” whatever that is, a world with rising sealevels and accelerating polar thaws, architecture that can adapt to its hydrological surroundings – that is, architecture that can float – is now very much in vogue.
“The goal,” as the Times writes, “is a town that can live with flooding, not just wall it off, using a variety of floating structures and an extensive system for rainwater storage, among other means.” (But, again, see Katrina 2 or the Netherlands Architecture Institute for more).
So, Dura Vermeer’s “brightly colored 700-square-foot homes, designed by Factor Architecten… are set in what was once a parking area for recreational vehicles,” The New York Times says. It was once a car park! The U.S. should have no trouble finding a place to put floating towns, then.
In any case, “‘These are not houseboats,’ said Ger Kengen of Factor. ‘You have to design everything as if it were on the ground, only 10 feet up in the air.'”
As if it were on the ground.
The Earth, here, takes on the form of an architectural presumption.
This absence of ground is not only architecturally stimulating – at the very least, inspiring images of stilt cities, floating railway yards, and perhaps even urbanism-meets-the-hovercraft – it’s got something of a philosophical challenge to it, as well.

[Image: A floating greenhouse].

To deal with this state of aquatic groundlessness, floating greenhouses have begun to appear – indeed, go back to the first image for an entire city of them.
But a floating greenhouse puts the earth at a double-remove: first, the greenhouse, any greenhouse, already supplements its natural climate by altering the air temperature, humidity, and even oxygen levels of the air itself, forming a highly artificial microclimate in which things like rare orchids can grow.
Second, you take that – a kind of fake climate – and you put it on pontoons, and all of Western philosophy goes haywire. Now it’s a fake earth, enclosing a fake sky… and that’s enough about that.
But such techniques of hydrological adaptation are quite exciting to think about. How to make a house float; then the city around it; and could you still, perhaps, have a backyard pool? Even build-in a water purifier, so everywhere your house floats becomes potable… Drinking your own wake.
Or a floating concrete superhighway that drifts across the Pacific Ocean, with cars still driving along its hinged and twisting spine…

[Image: “For the southern city of Dordrecht, Bart Mispelblom Beyer of Tangram has proposed 85 houses with parts that float”].

[Image: “Near Amsterdam, the living room of a floating house by Waterstudio”].

Meanwhile, if you want to watch a Dutch flood in action, check out this little video clip by MVRDV, though it can take a long time to load. Video clip here. Finally, check out the extremely thorough and depressingly well-illustrated review of the Rotterdam Architecture Bienniel’s Flood theme, over at Core77.

Elevator hacking

A recent comment on BLDGBLOG reminded me of a short article I read in The New Yorker, about elevator hacking, and whether or not such hacking is an urban myth.

In an old horror movie, for instance, there’s a scene where the dastardly, evil psychiatrist gets into an elevator in his old, spooky mental hospital and he hits the button for the janitorial floor… Only it’s not the janitorial floor at all, see, but where he keeps the real, poo-throwing lunatics. Nobody else knows about it; the floor is hidden in plain view.
It’s the purloined floor.
In any case, the idea that you don’t really know where your elevator might go is totally fascinating to me. It’s like the opening scene in Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland, where the narrator can’t tell if the elevator he’s in is going up or down, or even moving at all… But then the doors open – and he may not have felt it, but he’s clearly gone elsewhere. He’s been vertically displaced.
Back to The New Yorker. “Supposedly,” the author writes, “if an elevator passenger simultaneously presses the ‘door close’ button and the button for the floor he is trying to reach, he can override the requests of other passengers and of people waiting for the elevator on other floors. The elevator shifts into express mode, racing directly to the floor of his choosing…”
Despite the (suspicious?) denials of elevator-maintenance companies, one wonders what else might be possible in the world of elevator hacking. Could you… end up in another building? Or maybe go sideways, through the floor?
I was an intern once, in Washington DC, but the building I worked in was really two buildings in one: they’d been joined together (apparently), and so the floors didn’t quite match-up. In other words, elevators on the west side of the building could reach floors 1, 2, and 4, but elevators on the east side could only go to floors 1, 2, and 3. Or however it was – it was ages ago.
But, you’d find yourself thinking, perhaps if I found a third bank of elevators, I could reach floors 6, and 7, and -8, and…? The mysticism of the elevator hack.
Things, of course, get even more complex when you consider the so-called space elevator they’re trying to build right now. Which leads directly – like a hacked elevator – to the ultimate question: if you could hack it, where would you go?

The geometry of traffic control

The bewilderingly complex world of Los Angeles traffic control was explored last year at the Center for Land Use Intrepretation, in an exhibition called “Loop Feedback Loop: The Big Picture of Traffic Control in Los Angeles.”
As part of the monumental and continuous task of keeping the city’s vehicle fleet moving, “the highway and surface street network of Los Angeles has become the most instrumented and managed of any American city.”

Its surfaces carefully painted and inlaid with sensors, its intersections programmed from afar, the Los Angeles road network is not unlike an immersive, 24-hour experimental film set. It is a counter-Hollywood, constantly filmed – a paparazzi for empty concrete – and its main actors are the surfaces of roads. All of this is overseen by a rotating staff of technicians who sip coffee and watch for “incidents” in secure, air-conditioned control rooms.
These rooms are where new scenes in the great and secret show of Los Angeles are recorded everyday.

It’s a kind of metropolitan nervous system, an intelligent city, the urban dreams of Futurists made (almost) real: “Increasingly automated, signals also flow out from these control rooms, adjusting timings of lights at intersections and freeway metering ramps, dispatching incident response teams, and updating traffic reports, including live maps on the web. These in turn effect the flow, feeding back into the system and changing its form, as indicated by the sensors that send their signals to the control rooms: the loops feeding back to the loops.”

These loops are literal: they’re called inductive loops, and they’re magnetically active zones of the road that detect the presence of large metallic bodies – cars, in other words, that have stopped at a light and are waiting.

All of this information – scientifically registered, studied, and saved – is monitored in real-time; and, as anyone who has seen the remake of The Italian Job knows, the true public life of Los Angeles is played out on walls of monitors, screened by private security firms, given order and sense where there can still be the illusion of control.
The highway as reality TV.

The city, in unedited time.

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.