Incidental Detection

[Image: Aura WiFi burglar alarm].

A new home and office alarm system detects disturbances in WiFi to warn residents of potential burglars. The Aura, as it’s known, picks up “disruptions in the invisible radio waves that make up your home’s Wi-Fi network” to determine if someone—or perhaps something—is sneaking around inside, uninvited.

When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.

Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.

Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.

Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.

[Image: GPS satellites, via MIT Technology Review].

There are so many examples of this sort of thing. Recall, for instance, that subatomic particles (or, rather, their absence) can be used to map otherwise inaccessible architectural interiors, or that an experiment in the 1930s designed “to find out what was causing the static that interfered with trans-Atlantic telephone calls” inadvertently kicked off the field of radio astronomy, or the fact that tree rings can be used to detect both sunspots and earthquakes. Or even that LIGO, the gravitational-waves detector, at one point was accidentally being set off by wolves, or that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was picked up as an earthquake by regional seismographs.

Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.

In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.

[Image: Via Outdoor Life].

I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.

Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.

In any case, the CBC has a great write-up about the Aura, if you want to learn more.

Sounds in Detention

[Image: Score for a “soundtrack to a Catalan prison” by Gruff Rhys and Roger Paez i Blanch].

For those of you in Wales next month, there will be an interesting collaboration between musician Gruff Rhys and architect Roger Paez i Blanch, called “Breaking and Entry.”

It is described as the “soundtrack to a Catalan prison,” one designed by Paez i Blanch’s firm, and it relies on an unusual graphic score “based on a map of the prison that registers the emergent life that also occupies the building.”

[Image: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

The design of the penitentiary itself was also documented in a book recently published by Actar.

I’ve included some photos of the facilities here, but you can see many more over at Dezeen.


[Images: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

Finally, for more details about the composition’s debut in Wales next month, see here.

(Thanks to Ed Keller for the tip!)

Arch History

[Image: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

A project I noted while serving as one of many, many design jurors this year for the Architizer A+Awards used a spiraling outdoor corridor of arches in the United Arab Emirates to tell the history of the Islamic arch.

[Image: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

The Hong Kong-based team behind the project, Daydreamers Design, explained that they organized the arches into ten typologies, then arrayed those into a much larger sequence, “in historical order.”

[Images: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

In other words, as you meander down the hallway, you also move forward—or backward—through arch history.

[Images: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

For what it’s worth, I’d love to see something similar done with Western design orders, or even cathedral buttresses.

In any case, the project did not win any A+Awards, but it remains noteworthy, nonetheless. Watch a short video of the project, below.

Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Inflatables Give Structure To Air

[Image: A project by Haus-Rucker-Co].

ONE
Three men with oversize briefcases show up in New York City. They drop their cases onto the sidewalk and leave them there, disguised amongst the workday crowds, several blocks away from one another, unattended. Ten minutes later, the cases pop open: a whirring sound is heard as small industrial fans begin to operate, inflating carefully packed chains of linked polyethylene structures. Buildings emerge, expanding out from each case until entire rooms and corridors block the street. No one knows how to turn the fans off. The buildings are growing, labyrinthine, turning corners now and halting traffic. A news helicopter captures the scene from above as the transparent walls of huge empty buildings made of air flash with the colored lights of police cars.

[Image: An “inflatable nested toroid structure” patented by NASA (PDF)].

TWO
A man toils for thirteen years, sending ever-more complex test diagrams off to polyethylene factories in Florida. He wants to know how much it would cost for them to manufacture these parts he’s been designing, and designing well: temporary inflatable rooms that link off from other rooms, multi-scalar gaskets able to withstand knife attacks, even strange, one-time entry points that can be resealed from within. A retired cargo pilot, he dreams of giving structure to air. He writes, Man can live on air alone!, and sketches obscene bulbous shapes on paper napkins to the discomfort of passing strangers.

[Image: Inflatable toroid test; via NASA/Wikipedia].

THREE
A building made of polyethylene and sealed air takes shape on a beach near Cape Canaveral. Tourists flock to it, taking selfies and filming short videos with their kids. But the midday sun is relentless; the structure is heating and the winds are picking up. Within two hours, the complex inflated shape begins to tremble and beat against the sand, until, accompanied by an audible gasp from the assembled crowd, it is sucked out to sea. It tumbles and rolls and rises through the sky, a spinning point reflecting glints of subtropical sunlight as it disappears over the Atlantic horizon. No one can say who it was, but all witnesses insist there was a man inside. Sure enough, smartphone video of the structure being lifted over the waves reveals a man bracing himself against the interior walls, bearing an expression somewhere between mania and glee. Two weeks later, French police find him, disoriented and unshaven, lacking his passport, at a seaside bar in Arcachon. “I have a very strange story to tell you,” he slurs, before falling off his seat.

Entry Maze

[Image: Via India Times].

In order to comply with a new regulation that drinking establishments must be “at least 500m away from state and national highways,” a bar in India has apparently installed “a 250m-long maze-like walkway to the entrance, theoretically making it more than 500m away from the highway.”

It is a regulatory baffler, we might say.

According to the local excise commissioner, “We do not measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance”—therefore this multiplication of space does, indeed, meet the letter of the law. Two objects standing side by side could, legally speaking, be miles apart.

It’s the architecture of compression and delay: a hundred feet hidden in ten, a short walk transformed into a labyrinth of approach and misdirection.

(Via Atlas Obscura; vaguely related: The Switching Labyrinth, The Permission We Already Have, and The Rule of Regulations).

Many Norths

[Image: Many Norths: Building in a Shifting Territory].

Architects Lola Sheppard and Mason White of Lateral Office have a new book out, Many Norths: Building in a Shifting Territory, published by Actar.

The book is something of a magnum opus for the office, compiling many years’ worth of research—architectural, infrastructural, geopolitical—including original interviews, maps, diagrams, and historical analyses of the Canadian North. Or the Canadian Norths, as Sheppard and White make clear.

[Image: A spread from the book, featuring a slightly different, unused layout; via Actar].

The plural nature of this remote territory is the book’s primary emphasis—that no one model or description fits despite superficial resemblances, whether they be economic, ecological, climatic, or even military, across massive geographic areas.

“For better or for worse,” they write in the book’s opening chapter, “if nothing else [the Norths are] a shifting, multivalent territory: culturally dynamic, environmentally changing, and socially evolving. Digital and physical mobility networks expand, ground conditions change, treelines shift, species hybridize, and cultures remain dynamic and cross-pollinating.”

Exploring these differences, they add, was “the motivation for this book.”



[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

Their secondary point, however, is that this sprawling, multidimensional region of shifting ground planes and emergent resource wealth is now the site of “a distinct northern vernacular,” or “polar vernacular,” a still-developing architectural language that the book also exhaustively documents, from adjustable foundation piles to passive ventilation.

There are Mars simulations, remote scientific facilities, schools, military bases, temporary snowmobile routes (snowmobile psychogeography!), and communal utilities corridors.



[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

The book is cleanly designed, but its strength is not in its visual impact; it’s in how it combines rigorous primary research with architectural documentation.

The interviews are a particular highlight.

Among more than a dozen other subjects, there are discussions with anthropologist Claudio Aporto on “wayfinding techniques and spatial perception” among the Inuit, with “master mariner” Thomas Paterson on the logistics of Arctic shipping, with historian Shelagh Grant on “sovereignty” and “security” in the far north, and with Baffin Island native whale hunter Charlie Qumuatuq on seasonal food webs.



[Images: Spreads from Many Norths].

While the focus of Many Norths is, of course, specifically Canadian, its topics are relevant not only to other Arctic nations but to other extreme environments and remote territories.

In fact, the book serves as a challenging precedent for similar undertakings—one can easily imagine a Many Wests, for example, documenting various modes of inhabiting the American Southwest, with implications for desert regions all over the world.

[Image: Spread from Many Norths].

In any case, I’ve long been a fan of Lateral Office’s work and was thrilled to see this come out.

For those of you already familiar with Lateral’s earlier design propositions published in their Pamphlet Architecture installment, Coupling, Many Norths can be seen as an archive of directly relevant supporting materials. The two books thus make a useful pair, exemplifying the value of developing a deep research archive while simultaneously experimenting with those materials’ speculative design applications.

(Thanks to Mason White for sending me a copy of the book. Vaguely related: Landscape Futures and Landscape Futures Arrives).

Arcs, Sets, Circles






[Images: Via the Getty Research Institute].

Thanks to some “newly digitized” versions of the classic Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and Robert Bénard—among others—I stumbled on these beautiful carpentry diagrams, presented here simply for your Monday morning viewing pleasure.

Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

Gold Standard

[Image: “Ringroad (Houston)” (2005) by Bas Princen].

Photographer Bas Princen has published a new book looking at the visual and personal backstory to one particular photograph, seen above, “Ringroad (Houston),” from 2005. Called The Construction of an Image, the book is also the final publication from Bedford Press.

It is, the book’s editor, Vanessa Norwood, writes, “an arresting image: an ordinary American office block transformed by Princen’s lens into a glowing golden cube cut by the horizon, acting as both mirror and container; the reflected landscape of trees confined within its gridded exterior.”

As part of his work process, Princen assembles small research notebooks of images he is thinking of or influenced by during the production of certain images; The Construction of an Image includes those along with other examples of Princen’s work created at the same time. As such, it offers a sustained glimpse of how Princen operates, how visual concepts are formed, and how analogies are identified and tracked from one building or landscape to another.

In the case of “Ringroad (Houston),” these precedent images range from engravings by Albrecht Dürer—fitting the world into a perspectival grid—to photographs taken inside geodesic domes, and from corporate lobbies to archaeological earthworks. These represent moments or sites where solitary structures, all-encompassing geometric frames or grids, and uneasy distinctions between foreground and background predominate.

I’m proud to have a short essay featured in the book, alongside texts by editor Vanessa Norwood, architect Kersten Geers, curator Moritz Küng, and a summary by Princen himself.

Geers, in particular, swings for the fences with his assessment of the photo, writing, “Bas Princen’s photograph Ringroad (Houston) encapsulates, through its simple presence and curious ambiguity, almost everything I feel we can ever say about architecture,” continuing over the rest of his essay to explain how the photo went on to influence Geers’s own architectural design work.

My own look at the image is in the context of Princen’s output, from Los Angeles to Dubai, focusing on his images in which “there is often an extraordinary, building-size geometric shape in the center of the frame, yet it is not always clear if it can be described as architecture. (…) Rather, these abstract objects—sometimes mirrored, sometimes with no visible points of entry—function more like undeclared monuments with no clear subject of commemoration. They are, in a sense, both unexplained and inexplicable.”

[Image: “Cooling Plant, Dubai” (2009) by Bas Princen; while this photograph does not appear in The Construction of the Image, I mention it in my essay as an inversion of “Ringroad (Houston)”].

If you’re curious to see a slightly different sort of approach, Princen’s photos are also—as of yesterday—on display at the Met Breuer museum in New York City.

In a show called Breuer Revisited, photographers Luisa Lambri and Princen both offer their own distinctive visual analyses of four buildings designed by Marcel Breuer.

“Evoking minimalism and abstraction,” the museum explains, “Lambri creates images that examine the dialogue between interior and exterior, and the interaction between surface and light. Princen investigates and reframes urban and rural spaces through documenting the concept of post-occupancy, or the evolution of a building and its enduring relevance.”

The show is open until May 21, 2017; The Construction of an Image is available through the Architectural Association.

(Earlier: Pieces of the city are forming, like islands).

An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”