Feral Cities, Indirect Streets, and Soft Fortification

[Image: “Thomas de Leu, engraver. Perspective view of an ideal city, 1602. From Jacques Perret, Architectura et perspectiva des fortifications & artifices de laques Perret. Courtesy CCA].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

In 1564, the Tuscan urban planner, archaeologist, military theorist, mathematician, and writer Girolamo Maggi published a work of military urbanism called Della fortificatione delle città, written by his colleague Giacomo Fusto Castriotto.

That work, on the fortification of cities, devoted several passages to what might be called indirect or soft fortification: protecting an urban population from attack not through the use of heavy walls, inner citadels, or armed bastions—although the book is, of course, filled with such things—but through nothing more than a complex street plan.

Indirect streets and narrow walkways could be put to use, Castriotto argued, as agents of spatial disorientation, leading an invader everywhere but where they actually wanted to go. It was a kind of urban judo, or the city as martial art.

The city itself could be weaponized, in other words, its layout made militarily strategic: you could transform the speed at which your enemy arrives into exactly what would entrap him, lost, unable to retrace his footsteps, fatally vulnerable and spatially exposed.

The CCA exhibited much of its collected manuscripts on urban fortification seventeen years ago, under the name The Geometry of Defence: Fortification Treatises and Manuals, 1500–1800.

In the accompanying pamphlet, curator and former CCA historiographer Michael J. Lewis describes the geometric complexification that the fortified cities of the Renaissance underwent in the name of self-protection (Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science also contains a lengthy history of this same material and is worth consulting in full). A constantly shifting imbalance of power between the wall-builders and the invaders led to new spatializations of the metropolis. Whether due to the invention of gunpowder, massed assaults or simply new building techniques, the urban landscape was constantly reformatted according to the weapons that might be used against it.

Of course, this will be a very familiar story to most readers, so I don’t want to repeat it; I do, however, want to focus on the idea of forsaking mass—thick walls—for complexity in the name of strategic disorientation. There are well-known stories, for instance, of English coastal villages during World War II removing their road and street signs so as to prevent logical navigation by German aggressors, even erecting dummy signs to send confused Nazi paratroopers wandering off in the wrong direction.

But if the well-fortified Renaissance city could be seen, for the sake of argument, as something like the Hummer of military urbanism, what is the city-as-Bruce-Lee? A city that is lean, even physically underwhelming, but brilliantly fast and highly flexible? What is the city that needs no defensive walls at all?

[Image: “Unknown engraver. Series of views showing the development of the modern bastion system from its medieval origins. Plate A from Matthias Dögen, Matthiae Dögen Dramburgensis marchici Architectura militaris moderna, 1st ed. (Amsterdam, Ludovic Elzevir, 1647).” Courtesy CCA].

There are a variety of possible answers here, all of which would be interesting to discuss; but I’m most struck by the possibility that the phenomenon recently dubbed the “feral city” is, in a sense, an anti-fortress in precisely this spatial sense.

In a now-canonical 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton describes the feral city as “a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.”

From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, Norton explains, the feral city is spatially impenetrable; it is a maze resistant to aerial mapping and far too dangerous to explore on foot. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes, creating, in the process, an environment where soldiers are as likely to die from rabies, tetanus, and wild dog attacks as they are from armed combat.

I’m led to wonder here what a twenty-first-century defensive literature of the feral city might look like—from temporary barricades to cartographically incoherent slums experimenting with limited forms of micro-sovereignty. If the feral city is a city with no external walls but an infinite interior—endless spaces made of oblique architecture and indirect streets—then its ability to defend itself comes precisely through letting invaders in and fatally disorienting them, not by keeping them out.

So if a city does away with defensive walls altogether, what specific spatial strategies are left for it to protect itself? For instance, can a city deliberately be made feral as an act of preemptive self-defense—and, if so, what architectural steps would be necessary to achieve such a thing? Channeling Archigram—or perhaps even Cisco—we might call this the insurgent instant city complete with its own infrastructural practices, its own rogue designers, and its own anti-architects.

How, then, could the spatial practice of urban feralization be codified, and what architectural lessons might be learned if this were to happen?

Michael J. Lewis, describing the treatises on display at the CCA nearly two decades ago for The Geometry of Defence, refers to “fortification literature” or “the literature of the fortification,” including the publishing practices peculiar to this—for its time—top secret field of study. For example, privately circulated manuscripts, incomplete essayistic reflections, and even word-of-mouth gradually solidified into full-length narratives; only at that point were they intended to communicate finely tuned, often firsthand, military knowledge of a city under siege to anyone who might want to discover it, whether that was a king, a layperson, or an enemy general (indeed, much of the literature of fortification went on to the form the core of an emergent field known as urban planning).

In another fifty, one hundred, or even five hundred years, will there be a defensive literature of the feral city, its systematic description, techniques for its defense (or obliteration), and its urban logic (or lack thereof)? Even if only on the level of urban form, this would be a fascinating journey, going from Castriotto’s and Maggi’s indirect streets to whole cities gone wild in the name of resisting outside intervention.

As if all contemporary buildings have tinnitus: An Interview with Sabine von Fischer

[Image: “A tapping machine used in tests to evaluate the ability of floor coverings to reduce the transmission of impact sound from one floor to another in multi-family dwellings. Courtesy of the National Research Council Canada/Conseil national de recherches Canada,” via CCA].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

Sabine von Fischer is an architectural historian with a specific interest in acoustics. Both Von Fischer and I were Fellows at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in the summer of 2010, where she was “researching the relationship between architecture and sound for a Ph.D.”

I was fascinated by the work she presented one afternoon during a lecture, and, later that week, I caught up with Von Fischer for a brief Q&A about her work. The following interview was originally published in 2010.

* * *

BLDGBLOG: In the most general terms, what is the topic of your dissertation?

Sabine von Fischer: The Ph.D. will be a history of 20th century architecture, with sound being the filter through which I want to look at different spatial configurations, building technologies, and the mutual effect of technologies and architecture on each other. The period that I am looking at is 1930-1970; this was a period when drastic changes in acoustic technology happened that continue to impact our environment today.

BLDGBLOG: Why do you begin in 1930?

Von Fischer: 1930 was the first publication of the tapping machine—that’s my case study for building acoustics. The 1970 date is maybe a little more vague—it’s a nice even number! But if I find other events, I might change it to 1971. [laughs]

BLDGBLOG: What was the tapping machine [seen in the image above]?

Von Fischer: The tapping machine, as it was first published in 1930 and as it was standardized in the 1960s, has five steel rods that hammer against the floor. The speed has changed a bit over time—and its speed is now standardized—but it just tramples on the floor. It’s a very basic machine.

The principle of the machine can be found in older apparatuses, such as those used in grinding food items, but this particular application was to simulate the sound of footsteps, furniture, and machines on the floors of multi-story buildings. In this form—with five hammers, which are electrically operated—it was first published in 1930, in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Everyone who has been working on building acoustics claims that, since 1923 or 1926, they’ve been doing similar tests on structure-borne sound, but almost all of those earlier tests were done with women in high-heeled shoes. High- heeled shoes make a very distinct sound. For impact-sound measurements, these women—and I have never seen a photo with a man or a documentation of a test done with a man—would wear high-heeled shoes, making a very standard noise.

Obviously, there have been comparative tests with men wearing different-soled shoes, evaluating the different ways of walking—or people who are very heavy, who produce different frequencies in the floor—but the National Bureau of Standards, in the period between the wars, had ladies in high-heeled shoes walking around inside buildings.

BLDGBLOG: Did the tapping machine put those women out of work, or was it used in parallel?

Von Fischer: I think they were replaced by the machine—but, then, people came back in over the last decades, mostly for measuring sound inside the same spaces. Because, once there is sound insulation in the floor, there’s a new problem: sound gets thrown back into the room. It’s not transmitted into the lower floors; it wanders around the same room. Especially with laminated flooring, there can be a strange sound when people are walking inside their own spaces. To test that, it’s done with people; the tapping machine wouldn’t simulate it well enough.

BLDGBLOG: I’m reminded of Nightingale floors in Japan: deliberately squeaky floors installed as a security measure against ninjas and assassins. The idea was to make the floor as acoustically noticeable as possible, rather than to mitigate its sonic properties.

Von Fischer: In Indian culture, as well, there’s a related example, where often the lady of the house would have a ring on her toes so that the other people in the house would know when she’s approaching. Different cultures have different traditions of using sound to mark someone’s presence in a building.

BLDGBLOG: Going back to your Ph.D. research, can you explain your idea of the “clairaudient building”?

Von Fischer: The “clairaudient building” is a metaphor, because normally you would say that a person is clairaudient.

BLDGBLOG: It’s like clairvoyant—clairaudient is a kind of supernatural “all-hearing”?

Von Fischer: Yes, I am using “clairaudience” to refer to early and post-war modern building systems, which transmitted sounds much more than any traditional way of building, creating problems that were unheard of before. Then, the word clairaudience, to me, also spans all of the technological machines and apparatuses that are used to broadcast sound inside architecture—speakers, microphones, intercoms, all the way up to surveillance systems and equipment. So buildings became clairaudient through technology.

BLDGBLOG: In that sense, a clairaudient building would be a space of total acoustic transparency?

Von Fischer: Yes, and I also think acoustic transparency is a quality of ambience—what became known as the “atmosphere” of a space. Very often, for example, you can observe that once rooms are silenced, other sounds are introduced artificially because, in the end, total silence doesn’t feel comfortable.

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting—as someone who has very bad tinnitus, I need to have some kind of noise playing at night or I can’t go to sleep. So my wife—I hope!—has gotten used to the fact that we have to have fans on, even in the middle of winter, and sometimes more than one. But what’s interesting about tinnitus is that a silent room is not necessarily socially uncomfortable—in the sense that you need to think of something to say to the people around you—but, speaking only for myself, it can be acoustically uncomfortable. I can actually feel dizzy sometimes when it’s totally silent due to all the ringing in my ears.

Von Fischer: I would say that the term tinnitus can also be applied to buildings and to cities in general. I think sounds in cities and buildings have moved from being distinct signals, or individual sounds, to a constant background. There is often not one loud noise, but a mélange or a multiplicity of dampened—yet still audible—machines.

This will sound too harsh, but it’s as if all contemporary buildings have tinnitus. That’s an image I want to work on—a pathological metaphor for the state of sound in architecture.

[Image: Sulzer air-conditioning ad, ca. 1958, courtesy Sabine von Fischer/CCA].

BLDGBLOG: In your presentation you showed a photo of a man sitting at a desk, smoking a cigarette, listening to the sound of his air conditioner.

Von Fischer: Well, this is from 1958, a man being bothered by his air conditioner! The ad suggests that he should buy a new model because it’s more silent.

I’m fascinated by that image, because it visualizes the constant quest for new technologies that we need simply to make up for the downsides of the previous new technology. For instance, once rooms were air-conditioned, there was the sound of the air conditioner that we had to make up for; and, I assume, this new air conditioner in 1958 was not as silent as we are used to now—and, even today, air conditioners are not silent at all.

BLDGBLOG: The example of air conditioner noise points to an interesting line between the equipment of everyday domesticity—refrigerators, ceiling fans, air conditioning units, even tea kettles—and what could be called proto-musical instruments. They are things that you can tune to make the world quieter or more melodious.

Von Fischer: That’s definitely something I am interested in, although I think that this specific kind of sound design is something that only came after 1970.

It’s all a question of attitudes or personal taste, so tuning everyday objects can be a quite difficult enterprise. There will never be a consensus on what a good sound is. That’s why the noise regulations in cities are so rigid, because there are so many different reactions and compromises in order to avoid being a nuisance to someone.

Different sounds can also mean different things. Lawnmowers are always loud because, if a lawnmower was very quiet, maybe people wouldn’t buy it for fear that a quiet lawnmower isn’t strong enough. And men’s shavers are much louder than ladies’ shavers, even though they do the same thing. There are a bunch of products around us that are already heavily sound-designed.

BLDGBLOG: Even police sirens are being redesigned. In New York City, for instance, a new siren called the “Rumbler” was introduced last autumn that uses subwoofers and heavy bass to cut through urban noise (and through the music you might be listening to in your car). It’s like sonic warfare—noise v. noise.

Von Fischer: There was also a project by Max Neuhaus, from the 1970s, where he designed new sirens for emergency vehicles in New York City. His contention was that drivers and pedestrians in the city could not locate where the existing siren sounds were coming from. You would hear a siren somewhere but not know where it was. So he designed a better sound that, he claimed, you could hear which direction it was coming from. He invested a lot in the project, and I think he was quite frustrated when it never made it into the actual system.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, when it comes to specific resources here at the CCA, are you here more for the research & writing time, or is there a specific object or text in the archives that you came to see?

Von Fischer: It’s primarily to have the freedom to really think and focus, but there are things that I want to look at. The archive here is very strong in post-war visionary projects, and I’m looking at their ideas of utopia and the role of technology in buildings and interiors. I’m interested in the audio component of the social utopias of the 1960s—to see what role sound played in projects of this period. One famous example would be François Dallegret’s illustrations for Reyner Banham’s text “A Home is not a House” from 1965.

The Archigram of Mammoth Bones

[Image: Illustration depicting mammoth bone architecture; illustrator unknown].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

In Steven Mithen’s fantastic book After the Ice, a natural history of human culture from 20,000–5,000 BC, we find a brief introduction to the earliest architectural structures. “The world at 20,000 BC is inhospitable,” Mithen writes, “a cold, dry and windy planet with frequent storms and a dust-laden atmosphere… People survive wherever they can, struggling with freezing temperatures and persistent drought.”

Their survival is assisted by the construction of shelters—architecture at its very Ice Age origins.

For instance, “five dwellings form a rough circle on the tundra,” Mithen writes, referring to an archaeological site in what is now Ukraine (and using the present tense that his book maintains throughout).

The dwellings are igloo-like but built from mammoth bone and hide rather than blocks of ice. Each has an imposing entrance formed by two tusks, up-ended to form an arch. The walls use massive leg bones as vertical supports, between which jawbones have been stacked chin-down to create a thick barrier to the cold and wind. Further tusks are used on the roof to weigh down hides and sods of turf that are supported on a framework of bones and branches.

Skulls are used as furniture, and animal hides line the floor and walls, in a kind of corporeal grotesque that would make Ed Gein proud. These structures formed what the Field Museum in Chicago calls—in a now-defunct link—“small villages of bone huts,” adding that, when a bone didn’t work as architecture, it could be repurposed as a musical instrument—as if predating David Byrne’s Playing the Building installation by more than twenty millennia.

[Images: Excavation grids from Mezhirich, Ukraine; from O. Soffer, “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain,” courtesy of Don’s Maps].

In his book The Archaeology of Animals, Simon J. M. Davis refers to these structures as a type of “osteo-architecture,” or “bone ruins.”

He goes on to explain that an archaeologist named Ivan Pidoplichko “excavated some of the most spectacular bone ‘ruins’ so far found in the Ukraine. At Mezhirich, in the Cherkassy Region for example, he found a ‘ruin’ consisting of 385 mammoth bones covering a circular area 4-5m across. Beneath these bones Pidoplichko found 4600 artefacts and an ash-filled circular pit.” Davis’s ensuing description is worth quoting in full:

In Pidoplichko’s reconstruction the building was shaped like a beehive, similar to a Chukot Yaranga or ‘skin tent’ of today. The base of the structure consisted of a circle of some 25 mammoth skulls, each arranged so that its frontal bones faced inwards (this was how he found them). Other elements which made up the foundation were 20 mammoth pelvises and 10 long bones embedded vertically in the ground. On top of these and the skulls were 12 more skulls, 30 scapulae, 20 long bones, 15 pelvises and segments of seven vertebral columns. Still higher—and presumably for holding down skins over a wooden framework—there were 35 tusks. Ninety-five mammoth mandibles, piled up in columns around parts of the foundation, may have served as a peripheral retaining wall.

Mithen speculates that these anatomical Ice Age building supplies did not come only from coordinated acts of hunting (in which slaughtering large animals would also have meant obtaining spare parts for your house, as if wooly mammoths were a kind of living Home Depot).

[Images: (top) Excavation of Dwelling 4, Mezhirich, Ukraine (1979); photo by O. Soffer, from “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain”; (bottom) Excavation at Mezhirich, Ukraine; photo from J. Jelinek, “The Evolution of Man,” both courtesy of Don’s Maps].

Instead, he suggests, “the river supplies building materials: bones from animals that have died in the north and had their carcasses washed downstream.” These bones thus arrived by, and were harvested from, deltaic processes of the nearby watershed, just a particularly bulky form of sediment or debris for which it was easy to find a cultural use.

There are several architectural points to be made here. First, it seems substantially more interesting to me to locate the birth of architecture in actual paleolithic practices, not in the terminological vagaries of early Greek philosophy (which seems to the prevalent mode of searching for architecture’s theoretical origins today). But what if the knee-joints of extinct megafauna are more important for the origins of architecture than Daedalus or khôra? In other words, why not perform forensic studies of mammoth bones and animal skins, and—however momentarily—put down the Plato?

As a side note, I was intrigued to see that—as of June 2010 [when this post was originally published]—the Wikipedia page for the history of architecture does not even go beyond 10,000 BC, starting instead with the Neolithic. But what of Steven Mithen, Davis’s osteo-architecture, and our bone-encircled Ukrainian forebears? At what point is an inhabitable pile of skulls considered a building?

Second, what was architectural “style” 22,000 years ago? Were there eccentric or personalized methods for tying sinew bone-to-bone, or virtuoso tactics for assembling antlers into windproof screens on difficult hillside sites? Who were the path-breakers for the time—who was the Cedric Price of animal architecture, or the Archigram of mammoth bones? By extension, what palaces of mastodon ribs have been lost to archaeology altogether? Multi-floored labyrinths of cartilage and bearskin rugs. An Early Holocene Plug-In City made from the jaws of saber-toothed tigers. Perhaps it’s time for Pamphlet Architecture to take up the subject of paleolithic home design.

Third, surely a retrospective exhibition of late Pleistocene architecture is long overdue? Even a small gallery show exploring the state of architecture 22,000 years ago would be extraordinarily interesting. At the very least, imagine the weekend outreach programs for kids.

The border between natural history and architectural design deserves more exploration, beyond the odd science museum diorama. We have been living in buildings for more than 20,000 years, if Mithen’s book is to be believed, but nearly half of that period has seemingly been thrown outside the pale of architectural history.

Buildings did not suddenly appear at 10,000 BC with the first stonemasons, woodcutters, or the advent of Greek philosophy; buildings accumulated out of the corpse-filled debris of Ice Age rivers when neurologically modern humans began to interlock and assemble bones into structures of which we have almost no physical record.

So how do we bring these structures out of material anthropology and into architectural history, where they just as equally belong?

Fieldworks

[Image: Via Space Saloon].

For the second year in a row, Space Saloon’s Fieldworks program will take place out in the Morongo Valley, in the California desert near both the San Andreas Fault and Joshua Tree National Park.

Fieldworks bills itself as an “experimental design-build festival,” hosted by a “traveling group that investigates perceptions of place.” The program includes guest lectures, hands-on workshops in digital site-documentation, charrettes, and an eventual build-out of a few pavilion-like proposals.

[Image: Via Space Saloon].

You can read more at the Fieldworks website, including this useful FAQ, but it looks like a great opportunity to get your hands dirty in an extraordinary landscape only two hours or so outside Los Angeles.

Click through for the registration page.

Architecture of the In-Between

“The city owns some of the narrowest, most unusual lots in New York,” we read, but these odd lots might soon host affordable housing. A new competition called Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC is looking for architectural proposals for how these awkwardly sized spaces might be used.

Although these overlooked lots exist all over New York—“The city became the owner of thousands of properties beginning in the 1960s and ’70s,” The New York Times explains, “many in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where properties were seized from delinquent landlords and urban blight was rampant”—the competition is focused on one particular location:

Entrants will be asked to focus on a property on West 136th Street in Harlem, a 17-foot-wide, 1,665-square-foot mid-block lot that is overgrown with weeds and home to a number of feral cats. It was chosen because many of its challenges, including narrow frontage and limited sunlight, are present at other lots on the list, according to a spokesman for the project.

Read more at the project website or at The New York Times.

(Very, very vaguely related: Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner).

Inside Job

[Image: Via Wikipedia].

Although it’s by no means new, I realized I’ve never posted about Gregor Schneider’s project Dead House ur here. For that, Schneider spent roughly a decade systematically dismantling and rebuilding the interior of his own childhood home.

Writing for Artforum back in 2000, Daniel Birnbaum suggested that the project “is more labyrinth than house, and the prospect of getting stuck in a particularly narrow passage is truly frightening.” Indeed, there are some rooms and corridors remade in miniature, such that it’s only possible to crawl through them.

For that article, Birnbaum toured the house with Schneider himself. After having a cup of coffee, Birnbaum writes, “We leave the room not through the door but through a secret aperture that is revealed by pushing back part of the wall behind me. On the other side, we get a surprising view of the room we’ve just left: It is a motor-driven contraption set on wheels and may very well have been circulating slowly, like a high-rise cocktail lounge, while we were having coffee.” It’s a house, it’s a mechanism, it’s a maze.

So why couldn’t Birnbaum tell if the room they were sitting in had been rotating? Because the windows weren’t really windows—“Behind the window is a second window,” he writes—and many of the rooms offer no view of anything outside their own walls. Indeed, Birnbaum adds, “There seems to be no outside. Everything leads back into the house.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of the fake ophthalmologist’s office constructed in Eugene, Oregon, of all places, back in 1965, where it was used to test how people reacted to subtle room movements—without first explaining to them that the room was an experiment. Bizarrely, the room’s movements were meant to simulate what it would be like to stand at the top of a future skyscraper on the other side of the country in Manhattan: the World Trade Center towers.

In any case, everything might lead “back into the house,” as Birnbaum writes, but the interior of Schneider’s house had been made unrecognizable. Schneider hid walls behind walls, ceilings beneath other ceilings, until “the original dimensions and configuration of the various rooms are all but impossible to reconstruct.”

In an article I’ve been saving inside of a binder for some reason, and whose original place of publication is no longer clear, curator Yilmaz Dziewior continues this discussion of the architectural interventions Schneider has made. Schneider, Dziewior writes, “places walls in front of existing ones. The new walls are almost impossible to distinguish from the old. Sometimes he insulates the spaces between these walls with noise-reducing materials such as lead or foam. These structural alterations result in almost imperceptible changes in the acoustics.”

You could say that the work falls somewhere between, say, Gordon Matta Clark and the Saw franchise.

[Image: Via with reference to death].

Turning one’s own childhood home into a maze that is periodically dismantled, its rooms and parts sent around the world to various art galleries and museums, is, I suppose, as good a way as any to make it clear you want to complicate your relationship to the past.

Submarine Psychiatry

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photograph of a submarine, via Vice].

Something I’ve always loved about the architectural novels of J. G. Ballard—his excellent but under-rated Super-Cannes, the classic High-Rise, even, to an infrastructural extent, Concrete Island and Crash—is their suggestion that Modernism had produced a built environment so psychologically novel that humans did not fully understand how to inhabit it.

Ballard recasts residential towers on the edge of the city, for example, as fundamentally alienating, often inhumanly so, as if those structures’ bewildered new residents are encountering not a thoughtfully designed building but the spatial effects of an algorithm, a code stuck auto-suggesting new floors, supermarkets, and parking lots when any sane designer would long ago have put down the drafting pen.

Ballard’s novels suggest that these buildings should perhaps have come with a user’s guide, even a live-in psychiatrist for helping residents adapt to the otherwise unaccommodating, semi-psychotic emptiness of an un-ornamented Modern interior, a soothing Virgil for all those cavernous lobbies and late-night motorways.

Briefly, I might add that, in today’s age of questioning what it is that algorithms really want—for example, critiquing why social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and, especially, YouTube recommend what they do—we are essentially repeating the same questions Ballard asked about modern urban planning and architectural design. Do we really want these spaces being foisted on us by a design ideology—a cultural algorithm—and, much more interestingly, Ballard asked, are we psychologically prepared for them when they arrive?

Perhaps Ballard’s characters sent reeling by the elevator banks of endless high-rise apartment complexes are not all that different from someone being red-pilled by YouTube autoplay recommendations today: they are both confronting something designed to fulfill the ideological needs of a rationality gone awry. Seen this way, Le Corbusier could be compared to a YouTube engineer too enthralled by the inhuman power of his own design algorithm to ask whether it was recommending the right thing (cf. Patrik Schumacher).

In any case, I mention all this because one fascinating—and real—example of psychiatrists tasked with evaluating a new spatial environment for its effects on human beings comes not from architecture but from the early days of the long-mission nuclear submarine. We might say that, while J. G. Ballard himself remained on land and in the cities, the true Ballardian environment was offshore and heavily militarized, a hermetically sealed psychological experiment prowling the ocean depths.

Papers such as “Human Adjustment to an Exotic Environment: The Nuclear Submarine,” “An Experience in Submarine Psychiatry,” and “Psychiatry and the Nuclear Submarine,” all published in the late 1960s, suggested that humans might well be undone by an encounter with an environment of their own making—perhaps an early foreshadowing of how we will greet the Anthropocene.

Much of this, of course, was aimed at ensuring that we only sent the most stable and qualified personnel out to sea in a confined environment for prolonged periods of time with intercontinental missiles at their disposal, so as to avoid erratic or petulant individuals from starting a nuclear war.

But the prospect that humans might have constructed something they themselves are unable to tolerate psychologically was an explicit secondary theme of that research.

In one more recent work, looking back at several decades’ worth of pathological behaviors observed in submarine personnel—among other things—crew members were described as hiding in ever-smaller places at the outermost periphery of a submerged vessel, curled up against the hull as if seeking solace there, even examples of “hypnotic phenomena” and other slowly emerging neuroses.

There is obviously more to say about all of this, but what interests me the most here is the prospect that we are underestimating the psychological power of architectural design—and that J. G. Ballard was unusually sharp at highlighting what happens to a person when they are not prepared to inhabit a new kind of spatial environment.

Whether it’s the potential loneliness of an American suburb, a high-rise overlooking London, or, for that matter, a nuclear submarine, it is an intriguing topic to explore in future fiction, perhaps some strange literary hybrid of J. G. Ballard and Tom Clancy in which the psychological effects of military isolation are explored in more depth.

(Related: Psychology at Depth.)

Easy Freeze

[Image: Fortress of Solitude from Superman, via the Superman Wiki].

Writing for Ars Technica, Jennifer Ouellette reports on “an exotic form of ice dubbed ‘ice VII’ that physicists can create in the laboratory.” It is apparently capable of “freezing an entire world within hours.”

Ice VII can only be created under conditions of literally unearthly pressure: its “oxygen atoms are arranged in a cubic shape, something that only occurs at pressures more than 10,000 times that on Earth’s surface. It’s created in the lab by zapping thin samples of water sandwiched between plates with high-intensity shock waves or laser pulses.”

Those “high-intensity shock waves” surge through water at enormous speed, rearranging the atoms in what sounds a bit like the cracking of a whip. Indeed, as one of the scientists who discovered Ice VII explains, the ice “forms in a very unusual way—by popping into existence in tiny clusters of about 100 molecules and then growing extremely fast, at over 1,000 miles per hour.”

Although we are obviously talking about a physical process unattainable outside constrained laboratory conditions, it is nonetheless interesting to imagine this being controlled somehow and used in the wild here on Earth to create, say, instant ice bridges, pop-up hockey rinks, or other architectural spans and structures flash-frozen into existence at 1,000 miles per hour.

Cathedrals made of ice surge up from lakes in the Florida panhandle to the cries of stunned passers-by.

Read more at Ars Technica or Physical Review Letters.

As difficult to compose and they will be to follow

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

For a variety of reasons, I found myself looking back at Lebbeus Woods’s blog this morning, where I was captivated by this amazing cut-out paper model of the city of Prague.

The images themselves, “meant to be cut up, very precisely, and assembled into a three-dimensional paper model,” as Lebbeus explained, already resemble an avant-garde architectural proposal, to the extent that, embarrassingly, when I first saw the top image, I thought it was a project by John Hejduk.

[Images: Via Lebbeus Woods].

But, in addition to the images’ artistic complexity, I love this dry line from Lebbeus’s write-up, reflecting on the near-impossible task of explaining to someone else how they are meant to excise each piece and then assemble them all in the proper order: “the several pages of written instructions on the model’s assembly,” he deadpans, “would seem to have been as difficult to compose and they will be to follow.”

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

Read—and see—more over at Lebbeus’s blog.

(Previously: Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods and Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012.)

International House of Wobbling

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory was designed in 1899 as part of a ring of similar facilities around the world, all constructed at the same latitude.

[Images: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Each building was installed at its specific location in order to collaborate in watching a particular star, and—as revealed by any inconsistencies of measurement—to find evidence of the Earth’s “wobble.” This was part of the so-called “International Latitude Service.”

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The building seen here basically operated like a machine, with a sliding-panel roof controlled by a rope and pulley, and a solid concrete foundation, isolated from the building itself, on which stood a high-power telescope.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

This pillar gives the building a vaguely gyroscopic feel, or perhaps something more like the spindle of a hard drive: a central axis that grounds the building and allows it to perform its celestial mission.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

What’s interesting, however, is that this absolutely heroic building program—a structure for measuring heavenly discrepancies and, thus, the wobble of the Earth—is hidden inside such an unremarkable, everyday appearance.

[Image: A photo of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via NOAA].

It’s a kind of normcore beach hut that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod, with one eye fixed on the stars, a geodetic device revealing our planet’s wobbly imperfections, masquerading as vernacular architecture.

Found Robotics

Imagine a flexible suit or garment that you can wrap around an object to turn it into a robot, something that convulsively—compulsively—moves against its will. Researchers at Yale have created a lo-fi version of exactly that: “Robotic skin that bends, stretches and contracts can wrap around inanimate objects like stuffed animals, foam tubes or balloons to create flexible, lightweight robots,” Science News reported last week.

“The researchers achieved different types of motion by altering the layout of air pouches or coils in the skin and by attaching pieces of skin to an object in various configurations,” the report explains. “For instance, wrapping the skin around foam tubes in different orientations created robots that either scooted like inchworms or paddled forward on two ends. Patches of robotic skin around three foam fingers animated a soft robot grabber.”

While the results, at least for the time being, look more like epileptic children’s toys, as you can see in the video embedded above, the idea of giving unnatural movement to the inanimate through an external suit is a compelling reversal of a standard literary narrative. There are so many stories, for example, where something from within—a drug or medicine, a magical spell, an act of demonic possession—causes a person or thing to act strangely, against their will.

Instead, a robotic suit like this makes the source of alien locomotion an exterior one. Put on this clothing, the story would say, and watch yourself change. Like, say, Venom.

In any case, the construction implications of this are also interesting. Rather than assemble materials into a building using nails, screws, or joinery, you could instead wrap those materials up in a particular order inside a geotechnical fabric or cloak; then, using a particular sequence of air pouches and electrical charges, you could watch as previously unconnected materials heave upward and compress like a fist, assembling into some sort of architectural unit.

While this seems useless on any real industrial scale, a series of small architectural sculptures taking shape could make for an interesting gallery installation—a kind of found robotics, enlisting everyday objects into uncanny mechanized forms.

Read more over at Science News.