Fab

[Image: “The Sphere” by Oliver Tessman, Mark Fahlbusch, Klaus Bollinger, and Manfred Grohmann].

The Bartlett School of Architecture has made all three volumes of Fabricate, their excellent series of books and conference proceedings dating back to 2011, free to download.

[Image: Matter Design’s La Voûte de LeFevre, Banvard Gallery (2012)].

More than 700 pages’ worth of technical experiments, speculative construction processes, new industrial tools, and one-off prototypes, the books are a gold mine for research and development.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s “Embryological House,” Venice Biennale (2002)].

3D printers, buoyant robots, multi-axis milling machines, directed insect-secretion, cellular automata, semi-autonomous bricklaying, self-assembling endoskeletons, drone weaving—it’s hard to go wrong with even the most cursory skimming of each volume, and that doesn’t even mention the essays and interviews.

[Image: “Custom forming tool mounted on the six-axis robotic arm,” via Fabricate 2014]

Download each book—from 2017, 2014, and 2011—and be prepared to lose a few days reading through them.

A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

In Case You Missed Them

There are a few books I wanted to mention here at the height of the holiday season, not because they’re new or even necessarily recent but because, selfishly, I simply wish more people had read them. If you’re looking for an extra gift, or just a last-minute surprise, for anyone with an interest in architecture, landscape, archaeology, acoustics, geopolitics, history, and more, here are eight titles to consider.

(1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)—This is an academic work, in both tone and approach, but of the ideal kind: nearly every page had something I wanted to underline, write down, or scramble to look up elsewhere. Put simply, The Strait Gate is a history of the door, but, as Jütte shows, this ultra-quotidian architectural detail—the dividing line between inside and outside—has political, psychological, Constitutional, philosophical, mythological, narrative, cultural, and even material implications that are easy to overlook. Whether it’s a controversial order that “all door handles and knobs be removed from homes and shops” so that the metal could be melted down for war materiel, divine gateways as described in the Book of Revelation, or the resonant phenomenon of Torschlusspanik—“panic of gate closure,” aka a fear of being locked out—Jütte’s book is a superb example of how we can still look at architecture afresh.

(2) The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press)—What did cultures without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge think of the monstrous skeletons and fossilized bones they occasionally unearthed? Quite a lot, as it happens. It turns out that huge chunks of human mythology, including the existence of dragons and the idea of an extinct race of titanic super-human ancestors, can all be traced back to misinterpretations of paleontology. Mayor’s writing is casually engaging—even quite funny, at times—and the book’s many examples of ancient human societies encountering monstrous, inexplicable, and possibly otherworldly things hidden in the earth stuck with me long after reading it.

(3) The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox (W.W. Norton)—If you have even a passing interest in sound, this is the book to read. Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer, introduces readers to sonic phenomena around the world, both naturally occurring and artificially induced, from the frozen surface of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Stone Age tombs in rural England. There are examples of sound art, acoustic science, and even landscape-scale auditory effects that easily justify the subtitle, “sonic wonders of the world.” This would pair well with David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, for those of you interested not just in acoustics but in avant-garde composition and ambient music, as well.

(4) The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere (Harvard University Press)—This slim book, part of classicist Mary Beard’s excellent (but, sadly, now hibernating) “Wonders of the World” series for Harvard University Press, hit so many sweet spots for me. Author Cathy Gere convincingly shows how Mediterranean archaeological discoveries over the course of the 19th century helped to shape an emerging European mythos of the glories of war and historical empire. These same emphases lent themselves extremely well, however, to tragic and grotesque distortions that soon fed into the twin ideologies of Nazism and 20th-century fascism. Along the way, Gere writes, Classical discoveries misinterpreted by modern biases helped to justify British involvement in World War I. Gere’s book includes a brief, beautiful, and monumentally sad description of young, Homer-quoting scholars being shipped off to war to fight a rising evil from the East—only to be annihilated in the sodden trenches of the Somme. The Tomb of Agamemnon is probably one of my favorite ten books of the past decade; no other book I’ve read in that time conveys the true political stakes of archaeological research and the clear and obvious risks in distorting history for ideological ends.

(5) Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Anchor)—It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that this widely publicized book has been overlooked, but Lawrence in Arabia is nonetheless an uncannily well-timed history of the post-World War I Middle East and well worth taking the time to read. I was utterly absorbed by it for nearly a week. Part military adventure, part geopolitical biography of Lawrence of Arabia, part soul-crushing alternative history of a region that could have been—complete with agonizing descriptions of the infamous assault on Gallipoli—this book will make you see the entire 20th century differently, up to and including our own century’s Iraq War and the rise of ISIS.

(6) Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta)—I mentioned this book in a recent post and I would recommend it again. Map of a Nation tells the story of the British Ordnance Survey, the institute’s original geopolitical context, and the experimental cartographic tools it used to make its imperial surveys more accurate. For anyone interested in geography, maps, landscape, or British history, Hewitt’s book is a must-read.

(7) Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (Grove/Atlantic)—You don’t need to be interested in the wonkish details of the telephone system to be amazed by the weirdness of Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley’s introduction to so-called phone phreaking. On one level, it’s a story of bored teenagers using synthesized sound and DIY home electronics to hack the global telephone network; on another, it’s a story with hugely metaphoric, almost occult undertones. The phone system’s diffuse and labyrinthine system of “inward operators,” robotic mechanical test numbers, and secret military phone exchanges—to name only a few ingredients—takes on the air of something invented by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison: teens encountering a world of numerological connection and mechanical intelligence through handheld receivers in the long afternoons of the 1960s and 70s. So good.

(8) Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster)—The only thing that makes me pause before recommending Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab right now is that a brand new paperback edition is due out in June 2017; but, that aside, I heartily endorse this one. Imagine Archigram teaming up with a secretive branch of the U.S. military to invent an utterly bonkers new version of human civilization on the ocean floor, and you’ve roughly pictured what this book is about. Whether it’s describing what were, in effect, moon bases at the bottom of the sea or bizarre experiments with farm animals, submerged ecological research stations or Cold War espionage in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sealab is as much outsider architectural history as it is a maritime geopolitical thriller. At the very least, preorder the forthcoming paperback if you want to wait before diving in.

Finally, it’s super-obnoxious to end with my own book, but if you’re looking for something to read this winter—or if you need a gift for someone who can be hard to shop for—consider picking up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City. It’s a mix of true crime, architectural theory, and first-person reporting, from a Chicago lock-picking club to flying with the LAPD’s Air Support Division, from an architect who became the most prolific bank robber of the 19th century to fake apartments run by the British police. A Burglar’s Guide includes interviews with a Toronto burglar known for using the city’s fire code to help pick his next target, with renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, with game designers, and with FBI Special Agents, among others, and the whole thing is currently being adapted for TV by CBS Studios. Check it out, if you get the chance and let me know what you think.

Urban Under

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

I’m honored to have written a preface for the new book Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within, edited by Paul Dobraszczyk, Carlos López Galviz, and Bradley Garrett.

The authors document more than eighty subterranean sites, on every continent, from a nuclear bunker outside London to a secret military city buried in the ice. It is organized into thirteen chapters, by themes including “Security,” “Dwelling,” “Refuse,” and “Futures.”

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

The book is motivated by an intense desire to see: to reveal the underground circuits of utility tunnels, sanitation services, transportation networks, and everyday labor that writhe beneath the surface of the urban world. By doing so, it hopes “to foreground the connections between space and politics that converge underground.”

The editors’ collective goal was obviously more than just adventure tourism, or to produce a new gonzo collection of picturesque photographs. Rather, it was to experience these spaces firsthand whenever possible through direct exploration, whether that meant hiking down into the galleries of abandoned mines or sneaking through the tunnels of an underground prison.

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

Readers already familiar with Garrett’s work, both academic and journalistic, will know, of course, that for him infiltrating sites of public infrastructure is something of an oxymoron, given their nominal status as public space.

Nonetheless, it is often only through surreptitious means that we can truly analyze these labyrinthine systems that we have been funding all along and, today, remain so vulnerably reliant upon.

The book suggests that the peripheries of the built environment—these underspaces tucked away from view—are much more central than their physical position might suggest, and that putting them into an enlarged historical and political context is vital for understanding them.

If that sounds of interest, consider picking up a copy.

Books Received

tadao[Image: Inside Tadao Ando’s studio in Osaka; photo by Kaita Takemura, via designboom].

Somewhere, despite the weather here, it’s spring. If you’re like me, that means you’re looking for something new to read. Here is a selection of books that have crossed my desk over the past few months—though, as always, I have not read every book listed here. I have, however, included only books that have caught my eye or seem particularly well-fit for BLDGBLOG readers due to their focus on questions of landscape, design, architecture, urbanism, and more.

For previous book round-ups, meanwhile, don’t miss the back-links at the bottom of this post.

FirstCovers

1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)

Daniel Jütte’s The Strait Gate seems largely to have slipped under the radar, but it’s my pick for the most interesting architectural book of the last year (it came out in 2015). It has a deceptively simple premise. In it, Jütte tells the story of the door in European history: the door’s ritual symbolism, its legal power, its artistic possibilities, even its betrayal through basic crimes such as trespassing and burglary. He calls it “a study of doors, gates, and keys and a history of the hopes and anxieties that Western culture has attached to them”; it is a way of “looking at history through doors.”

Jütte describes locks (and their absence), city walls (and their destruction), marriage (and the literal threshold a newly joined couple must cross), medicinal rituals (connected “with the idea of passing through a doorway”), even the doorway to Hell (and its miraculous sundering). You know you’re reading a good book, I’d suggest, when something pops up on nearly every page that you need to mark with a note for coming back to later or that gives you some unexpected new historical or conceptual detail you want to write about more yourself. An entire seminar could be based on this one book alone.

2) Witches of America by Alex Mar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Witches of America is simultaneously an introduction to alternative religious practices in the United States—specifically, contemporary paganism, broadly understood—and a first-person immersion in those movements and their cultures. As such, the book is a personal narrative of attraction to—but also ongoing frustration with—the world found outside mainstream beliefs or creeds.

As such, it ostensibly falls beyond the pale of BLDGBLOG, yet the book is worth including here for what it reveals about the spatial settings of these new and, for me, surprisingly vibrant communities. There is the abandoned churchyard in New Orleans, for example, now repurposed—and redecorated—by a group of 21st-century acolytes of Aleister Crowley; there is the remote stone circle built in Northern California by what I would describe as a post-hippie couple with access to land-moving equipment; there is the otherwise indistinguishable collegiate house in central Massachusetts where future “priests” train in the shadow of New England’s peculiar history with witch trials; there is the corporate convention center in downtown San Jose; the overgrown tombs of the Mississippi Delta, where we meet a rather extraordinary—and macabre—burglar; there is even what sounds like an Airbnb rental gone unusually haywire in the hills of New Hampshire.

While descriptions of these settings are certainly not the subject of Alex Mar’s book, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the world of the esoteric, the otherworldly, or, yes, the occult presented in the context of our own everyday surroundings, with all of their often-mundane dimensions and atmosphere. This alone should make this an interesting read, even for those who might not share the author’s curiosity about the “witches of America.”

3) The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)

The Work of the Dead looks at the role not just of death but specifically of dead bodies in shaping our cities, our landscapes, our battlefields, and our imaginations. The question of what to do with the human corpse—how to venerate it, but also how to do dispose of it and how to protect ourselves from its perceived pestilence—has led, and continues to lead, to any number of spatial solutions.

Laqueur writes that “there seems to be a universally shared feeling not only that there is something deeply wrong about not caring for the dead body in some fashion, but also that the uncared-for body, no matter the cultural norms, is unbearable. The corpse demands the attention of the living.”

Graveyards, catacombs, monuments, charnel grounds: these are landscapes designed in response to human mortality, reflective of a culture’s attitude to personal disappearance and emotional loss. While author Thomas Laqueur’s approach is often dry (and long-winded), the book’s thorough framing of its subject lends it an appropriate weight for something as universal as the end of life.

If this topic interests you, meanwhile, I also recommend Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold (Simon & Schuster), as well as Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre—How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray (Picador).

4) The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf)

Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt has justifiably won the author a series of literary awards. Its subject matter is by no means light, yet the book has the feel of an adventure tale, pulling double duty as the life-story of a European scientist and explorer but also as a history of scientific ideas, ranging from the origins of color and the nature of speciation to some of the earliest indications of global atmospheric shifts—that is, of the possibility of climate change.

Natural selection, cosmology, volcanoes—even huge South American lakes full of electric eels—the book is a great reminder of the importance of curiosity and travel, not to mention the value of an inhuman world against which we should regularly measure ourselves (and come out lacking). “In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective,” Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.”

SecondBooks

5) Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich (Princeton University Press)

You might recall seeing Stefan Helmreich’s work described here before—specifically his earlier book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas—but Sounding the Limits of Life is arguably even more relevant to many of the ongoing themes explored here on the blog.

In his new book, Helmreich outlines a kind of acoustic ecology of the oceans, placing deep-sea creatures and shallow reefs alike in a world of immersive sound and ambient noise, now all too often interrupted by the deafening pings of naval sonar. He also uses the seemingly alien environment of the seas, however, to expand the conversation to include speculation about what life might be like elsewhere, using maritime biology as a launching point for discussing SETI, artificial digital lifeforms, Martian fossils (from Martian seas), and much more.

It’s a book about how our “definition of ‘life’ is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in earthly organisms,” Helmreich writes, as well as an attempt to explore “what life is, has been, and may yet become—whether that life is simulated, microbial, extraterrestrial, cetacean, anthozoan, planetary, submarine, oceanic, auditory, or otherwise.”

6) Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner (W.W. Norton)

I had been looking forward to this book, exploring the relationship between mapping and the world, ever since reading an op-ed by the author, Greg Milner, in The New York Times about “death by GPS.” Milner’s book is specifically about the Global Positioning System and its power over our lives: how GPS shapes our sense of direction and geography, what it has done for navigation on a planetary scale, and even how it has transformed the way we grow our global food supply.

7) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton (MIT Press)

Design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s magnum opus is a fever-dream of computational geopolitics, “accidental megastructures,” cloud warfare, predictive mass surveillance, speculative anthropology, digital futurism, infrastructural conspiracy theory—a complete list would be as long as Bratton’s already substantial book, and would also overlap quite well with the utopian/dystopian science fiction it often seems inspired by.

In Bratton’s hands, these abstract topics become, at times, almost incantatory—as if William S. Burroughs had taken a day job with the RAND Corporation. As information technology continues to exhibit geopolitical effects, Bratton writes, “borderlines are rewritten, dashed, curved, erased, automated; algorithms count as continental divides; (…) interfaces upon interfaces accumulate into networks, which accumulate into territories, which accumulate into geoscapes (…); the flat, looping planes of jurisdiction multiply and overlap into towered, interwoven stacks…” He writes of “supercomputational utopias” and the “ambient geopolitics of consumable electrons.”

It’s a mind-bending and utterly unique take on technology’s intersection with—and forced mutation of—governance.

8) You Belong To The Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press)

Jonathon Keats’s new book simultaneously attempts to debunk and to clarify some of the cultural myths surrounding Buckminster Fuller, a man who described himself, Keats reminds us, as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” For fans of Fuller’s work, you’ll find the usual suspects here—his jewel-like geodesic domes, his prescient-if-ungainly Dymaxion homes—but also a chapter about Fuller’s work with and influence on the U.S. military in an age of nuclear war games and “domino theories” overshadowing Vietnam.

ThirdCovers

9) Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City by Jessica Maier (University of Chicago Press)

Art historian Jessica Maier’s book suggests that changes in the way the city of Rome was mapped over the centuries simultaneously reveal larger shifts in European cultural understandings of space and geography. Her argument hinges on a sequence of surveys and maps chosen not just for their visual or cartographic power—which is considerable, as the book has many gorgeous reproductions of old engraved city maps, views, and diagrams—but for their influence on later geographic projects to come.

Broadly speaking, the documents Maier discusses are meant to be seen as passing from being artistic, narrative, or abstractly emblematic of the idea of greater “Rome” to a more rigorous, modern approach based in measurement, not mythology.

This widely accepted historical narrative begins to crumble, however, as Maier puts pressure on it, especially through the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etching of the Campus Martius. This is an image of Rome that “was neither documentary nor reconstructive,” Maier suggests, and that thus had more in common with those earlier, more folkloristic emblems of the city. In today’s vocabulary, we might even describe Piranesi’s Campus Martius as an example of “design fiction.”

10) Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of the New City by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a remarkable and often beautifully written history of modern Jerusalem, as told from the point of view of its architecture. Jerusalem is a city, author Adina Hoffman writes, that “has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.” It is a place of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps.” The book, she adds, “is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”

Indeed, the book is structured around the lives of three architects. The story of German Jewish designer Erich Mendelsohn—probably most well-known today for his futurist “Einstein Tower” in Potsdam—looms large, as do the lives of Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “Palestine’s chief government architect,” and the “possibly Greek, possibly Arab” Spyro Houris.

Hoffman’s work is a mix of the archaeological, the biographical, and even the geopolitical, as individual building sites—even specific businesses and kilns—become microcosms of territorial significance, embedded in and misused by nationalistic narratives that continue to reach far beyond the boundaries of the city.

11) City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity by Dayna S. Kalleres (University of California Press)

City of Demons looks at three cities—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan—in the context of early Christianity, when the streets and back alleys of each metropolis were still lined with temples dedicated to older gods and when alleged opportunities for spiritual corruption seemed to lie around every corner. Historian Dayna Kalleres writes that the cities of late antiquity were all but contaminated with demons: imagined malignant forces that had to be repelled by Christian ritual and belief. Cities, in other words, had to be literally exorcized by a practice of “urban demonology,” driven out of the metropolis by such things as church-building schemes and public processions.

While the book is, of course, an academic history, it is also evocative of something much more literary and thrilling, which is a nearly-forgotten phase of Western urban history when forces of black magic lurked in nearly every doorway and civilians faced security threats not from terrorists but from “the marginal, ambiguous, and protean,” from these hidden demonological influences that the righteous were compelled to expunge.

12) City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador)

City of Thorns looks at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya through various lenses: economic, political, and humanitarian, to be sure, but also ethical and anthropological, even to a certain extent architectural.

While author Ben Rawlence’s goal is not, thankfully, to discuss the camp in terms of its design, he does nevertheless offer a crisp descriptive introduction to life in a sprawling settlement such as this, from its cinemas and police patrols to its health facilities and homes. “Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile,” he writes, “and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.” The camp, we might say in this context, is the urbanism of exile.

FourthCovers

13) Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau)

I went through a nearly three-year spate of reading law-enforcement memoirs and books about urban policing while researching my own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. The excellent Ghettoside by Jill Leovy came out at the very end of that peculiar literary diet—but it also showed up the rest of those books quite handily.

Ghettoside is bracing, sympathetic, and emotionally nuanced in its week-by-week portrayal of LAPD homicide detectives investigating the murder of a fellow detective’s teenage son. Much larger than this, however, is Leovy’s dedication throughout the book to sorting through the overlapping mazes of media disinformation that have turned “black-on-black” crime into nothing more than a dismissive explanation of something genuinely horrific, a way to paper-over “racist interpretations of homicide statistics,” in reviewer Hari Kunzru’s words. More damningly, Ghettoside insists, this ongoing wave of murders and revenge-killings is not some new urban state of nature, but is entirely capable of being stopped.

Indeed, Leovy clearly and soberly shows through years of L.A. homicide reporting that today’s epidemic of violence primarily targeting African-American males is due to a failure of law enforcement—or, in her words, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Yet the answer, she explains, is more policing, not less. As an endorsement of effective, community-centered police work, the book is unparalleled.

No matter what side you think you might be on in the growing—and entirely unnecessary—divide between police and the populace they are hired to serve, this is a superb guide to the complexities of law enforcement in contemporary Los Angeles and, by extension, in every American metropolis.

14) The City That Never Was by Christopher Marcinkoski (Princeton Architectural Press)

Christopher Marcinkoski’s book is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between “volatile fiscal events” and “speculative urbanization,” with a specific focus on a cluster of failed urban projects in Spain. Marcincoski defines speculative urbanization as “the construction of new urban infrastructure or settlement for primarily political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially projected) demographic or market demand.”

Although the author jokes that his book is actually quite late to the conversation—discussing the spatial fallout of a global financial crisis that was already five years old by the time he began writing—it is actually a remarkably timely study, as well as a sad assessment of how easily architectural production can become ensnared in economic forces far more powerful than humanism or design.

15) Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog edited by Clare Jacobson (Princeton Architectural Press)

Lebbeus Woods was both a friend and a personal hero of mine; his blog, which lasted from 2007 to shortly before his death in 2012, has now been collated, edited, and preserved by Princeton Architectural Press, with more than 300 individual entries. While primarily text, the books also includes several black-and-white images, including pages from his otherworldly sketchbooks. Thoughts on “wild buildings,” war, borders, September 11th, the now also deceased designer Zaha Hadid, and Woods’s own intriguing mix of cinematic/fictional and analytic/documentary modes of writing abound.

FifthCovers

16) Almost Nature by Gerco de Ruijter (Timmer Art Books)

I’ve written about Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter fairly extensively in the past—most recently in a piece about “grid corrections”—so I was thrilled to see that some of his aerial work has been collected in a new, beautifully realized edition. It collects photos of stabilized coastlines and tree farms, grids and borders.

“Is the wilderness wild?” an accompanying text by Dirk van Weelden asks. “Cities and industrial farming make it seem man is in perfect control,” van Weelden continues later in the essay. “The reality is far more interesting. (…) The truly uncontrollable forces of nature are mutation, chance, hybridity, and contamination,” all subjects de Ruijter’s photos document at various scales, in every season.

17) Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site by Caroline O’Donnell (Routledge)

In the guise of what looks—and even, to some extent, physically feels—like a textbook there is hidden a fantastic study of how buildings relate to their surroundings.

More precisely, Caroline O’Donnell’s investigation of “architecture and site” hopes to reveal how, during the design process, the context of a building affects that building’s final form. Questions of autonomy (do buildings need to reflect or refer to their settings at all?) and generation (can the essence of a site be “extracted” to give shape to the final building?) are woven through a series of essays about ugliness, architectural history, colonialism, monstrosity, and more.

18) How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today by John Thackara (Thames & Hudson)

John Thackara is already widely known for his advocacy of “sustainability” in design—a word I deliberately put in scare-quotes because Thackara himself would prefer, I presume, a term more like transformative or even revolutionary design. That is, design that can flip the world on its head, not through violence, but through unexpected and strategic solutions to problems that often remain undiagnosed or overlooked. This new, short book looks at everything from mass transit to internet access, clothing manufacture to desertification, aging to fresh water, seeking nothing less than “a new concept of the world.” “The core value of this emerging economy is stewardship,” he writes, “rather than extraction.”

19) Design and Violence edited by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt (Museum of Modern Art)

This book, crisply designed by Shaz Madani, documents an exhibition and debate series of the same name hosted by the Museum of Modern Art. Presented here as a combination of short essays by various authors—myself included—and provocative design objects, products, and public events, the aim is both to startle and to moderate. That is, the book seeks to bring together conflicting sides of often quite fierce arguments about the role of design, including how design can be used to mitigate or even, on occasion, to perpetuate violence. There are 3D-printed guns and a short history of the AK-47 alongside examples of prison architecture, classified surveillance aircraft, slaughterhouse diagrams, and border walls, to name but a few.

• • •

Briefly noted. Other books that have crossed my desk this season include Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law by Paul H. Robinson and Sarah M. Robinson (Potomac Books), Memories of the Moon Age by Lukas Feireiss (Spector Books), Shanshui City by Ma Yansong (Lars Müller Publishers), the double publication of Scaling Infrastructure and Infrastructural Monument from the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press), Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal by Niklas Maak (Hirmer), and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton).

Finally, although I have mentioned it many times before, I do also have a new book of my own that just came out last week, called A Burglar’s Guide to the City; if you’d prefer to sample the goods before purchasing, however, you can check out an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. But please consider supporting BLDGBLOG by ordering a copy—not least because then we can talk about burglary, architecture, and heists…

Thanks!

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

The Burglar’s Guide Has Arrived

At long last, after more than three years of research and travel, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is finally shipping.

burglarsboxes
It is a book about crime, policing, and the built environment, and how these forces mutually influence one another, from ancient Rome to contemporary Los Angeles, with a specific focus on the spatial peculiarities of breaking and entering.

I’ve already posted about the book at some length here on the blog—with many more posts available under the Burglar’s Guide tag—and there is also a standalone website worth checking out, as well, with links to reviews, book tour information, and some great blurbs.

However, for now, especially if this is the first you’ve heard of it, consider checking out an excerpt from the book over at The New York Times Magazine, an author profile over at the Wall Street Journal, a short segment about burglary and Los Angeles on NPR’s Marketplace, or a great review published in the Los Angeles Times.

There, Annalee Newitz writes that, “Despite its title, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City won’t teach you how to break into houses. It won’t help you outsmart wily cat burglars with ingenious home alarm systems, either. Instead, it explores something a lot weirder and more interesting: Manaugh argues that burglary is built into the fabric of cities and is an inevitable outgrowth of having architecture in the first place.”

Writing for the Barnes & Noble Review, meanwhile, Sarah Weinman—editor of the recent collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s—said that, after reading the book, “my worldview is altered a little bit more, and far for the better, as a result.” Patrick Lyons at VICE found the book “an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read,” and the BBC recommended it as one of their “Ten books to read in April,” calling it “a surprising and fascinating true-crime epic.”

Most fun of all was doing an interview with Gastropod—a podcast about food, science, and history cohosted by my wife, Nicola Twilley, and journalist Cynthia Graber—discussing food heists, potato bombs, fast-food burglaries, and much more.

Amazon chose A Burglar’s Guide as one of their “Best Books of April 2016,” adding that it is a “caper of a book.” *Update: I also got to speak about the book with Curbed for their recently launched podcast, on “why panic rooms are going to outlast the pyramids.”

In any case, I’d be over the moon if you picked up a copy, and I would love to discuss the book’s many ideas—and people and tools and scenes and histories—in more detail here. However, I’m also aware that I can’t just post about this book over and over—and over—again, so I’ll also get back to regular blogging soon.

Thanks! And enjoy the book.

Books Received

I haven’t done one of these in a long, long time… Here are twenty-seven new or recent books, ranging from true crime to science fiction, architecture to media theory, for your back-to-school or end-of-summer reading pleasure.

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1) The Cartel by Don Winslow (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Cartel is technically a sequel to The Power of the Dog, but the storyline stands on its own even without prior knowledge of the characters. Here, DEA agent Art Keller must track down—again—a man named Adán Barrera, the leader of a notorious Mexican drug cartel, an organization whose sheer brutality and unsettling ubiquitousness author Don Winslow does not shy away from depicting.

What will probably interest BLDGBLOG readers—in addition to the incredible coincidence of The Cartel‘s publication during the same week that drug lord “Chapo” Guzmán escaped from his prison in Mexico—is Winslow’s exploration of the cartel itself as a self-contained political structure, a kind of sovereignty without borders, operating through a combination of violence and logistics, with few limitations, all over the world.

I had the pleasure of seeing Winslow speak at an event last month at Bookcourt in Brooklyn, where his descriptions of cartel activities offered a kind of diagonal perspective on their operations. Winslow memorably pointed out how farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico had been swept up into the cartel’s infinitely flexible method of production, and that, despite any ensuing role growing and harvesting marijuana or even poppies, the cartel offered them new jobs in logistics, not agriculture. “They didn’t want to be farmers,” Winslow said at Bookcourt, “they wanted to be FedEx.”

2) ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano, trans. Virginia Jewiss (Penguin)

Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah is something of a modern classic in terms of its documentation of organized crime in Italy. A fantastic book, Gomorrah depicts what is, in essence, a parallel state operating side by side with the Italian government. In the process, Saviano’s reporting suggests that sufficiently organized criminal activity is all but indistinguishable from a nation-state, even taking on the tasks of waste disposal, transportation, and de facto taxation, with a tragic aura of incompetence and corruption.

ZeroZeroZero pairs well with Winslow’s novel, as it offers the drug trade as a prism or lens through which to see the world. This is the book’s very premise: “Look at cocaine and all you see is powder,” the cover says. “Look through cocaine and you see the world.” Saviano begins his nested stories of the modern drug trade with an unnamed police officer in New York City, but soon follows cocaine’s narcotic tentacles around the world, from Miami to Colombia, Sinaloa to Spain, by way of drug-smuggling submarines and cargo ships, AK-47s and bullet-proof cars.

As with Winslow’s novel, the interest of the book is not only in getting a glimpse of this stranger, much darker world existing alongside or beneath ours; it’s in the fact that this world has such very real territory, with brute-force powers rivaling municipal governments and nation-states, and that the more intensely authorities might try to stomp it out, the larger and more sinister it grows.

3) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by Peter Singer and August Cole (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I’ve followed Peter Singer’s work with great interest for nearly a decade now, ever since the publication of his book Corporate Warriors, and I was thus intrigued to see that he and fellow war technology theorist August Cole had teamed up to write a novel. While Ghost Fleet is not a book to pick up if you are looking for strong character development, it is exactly the book to pick up if you want to see how a decade’s worth of research into new or speculative military technologies can be assimilated and compiled into a work of near-future fiction.

The basic plot of Ghost Fleet is that a non-nuclear naval and cyber world war has broken out between the United States and China, its battlefields ranging from Hawaii and the broader Pacific to the anti-gravitational heights of near-Earth orbit. I got to see Singer and Cole both speak last month at New America NYC, where they discussed the novel’s depiction of multinational corporations in a future theater of war; the prospect of weaponized logistics chains; whose side our new class of billionaires might take in a global conflict; and even the fate of sovereignty in Greenland. Both authors have pointed out in interviews that they hoped to write the Red Storm Rising of our time: a kind of geopolitical beach read.

Cleverly, the book includes hundreds of footnotes and citations for all of its references to things such as railguns, microdrones, adaptive camouflage, satellite warfare, nuclear submarine detection, and more; this has the effect of making Ghost Fleet feel like reading a more exciting, distorted-mirror version of the daily news and—even better—it has the reverse effect of making the daily news feel like an outtake from Ghost Fleet.

4) Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (Doubleday)

Ghost Fleet pairs very well with Marc Goodman’s excellent, highly recommended book Future Crimes. Goodman’s book should be required reading for anyone using the internet today, let alone anyone interested in the dark side of technological innovation. Expect to learn more about GPS hacking, “burglary 2.0,” mass identity theft, online drug markets, even assassination via medical prosthetics.

5) Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

Long-time readers of BLDGBLOG might remember my interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, in which Robinson talked about offworld utopias, the politics of sustainability, the future of California, and more. Robinson is back with Aurora, a new novel about a massively intergenerational group of human explorer-refugees, passengers aboard a semi-sentient interstellar ship headed toward a distant planet where human life might be sustainable.

The book is not optimistic. Its portrayal of characters driven half-mad with desperation and a realization of doom, of a planet and its crypto-ecosystem that seems intent on rejecting the colonists, and of an on-board computer system that eventually wakes up into full narrative consciousness does not reveal confidence that humans will ever find another planet to call home.

6) The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth edited by Charles S. Cockell (Springer)

This makes for an odder pairing than the previous ones, but Charles S. Cockell’s edited volume on The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth is an interesting companion to set alongside much of contemporary science fiction (including, I should note, Ghost Fleet).

Described as a book that “takes the discussion of liberty into the extraterrestrial environment,” it includes papers on offworld sovereignty, what territory means in space, private corporate enterprise as a possible model for future space-states, and the governmental bodies or institutions that might serve to regulate this emerging sphere. From the book:

As more national governments develop expansive space programmes and more private companies design and build spaceships with the capacity to launch satellites, robots and humans into space, the number of organisations in space is growing. With this expansion comes the inevitable consequence of an expanding number of interests to protect and so with that, the chance for a clash of ownership, rules and regulations which together define the environment for individual freedom.

The The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth includes two pieces authored or co-authored by scifi novelist Stephen Baxter.

7) The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change in the Negev Desert by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh (Cabinet Books)

Inspired by aerial images of the Negev Desert taken by photographer Fazal Sheikh, architect and forensic historian Eyal Weizman wanted to understand something that Sheikh had documented: the ghostly remains of old villages, communal graveyards, and farm houses that could be seen in the ground, almost but not quite erased from the landscape, yet that also did not appear on official Israeli state maps.

This led Weizman to write what is, in effect, an extended essay on the role of agriculture, state archival policies, regional maps, desertification, and climate change in a politically motivated attempt to remove from the landscape any trace of pre-Israeli settlement. As Sheikh’s photos showed, what appears to be bare desert—an inhospitable wasteland outside of human civilization—reveals, when seen from above, the structural outlines of earlier inhabitants.

Together with archaeological evidence, old land deeds, and British military surveillance photos from WWI, this has led to court cases over land ownership and even citizenship. One such court case—a man named Nuri Al-‘Uqbi suing for recognition of his family’s land claim—forms the narrative and legal backbone of Weizman’s essay.

8) KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann (FSG)

Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps is a history of the concentration camps, but as organizational entities, where administration itself becomes a source of dehumanization and brutality. Wachsmann shows how the camp system grew from an archipelago of smaller units to the international scale of the Holocaust, with camps operating throughout Europe, their functions—from daily work schedules to mass executions—systematized and closely reported. There was ultimately no shortage of documentation, despite efforts to destroy records or downplay the system’s horrific extent, and the book itself includes some 200 pages of notes, sources, and appendices.

9) Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)

The “paper architecture” of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin has been reprinted in a new edition by Princeton Architectural Press. Flooded cities of pillars, glass towers, arching landforms across sprawling supergrids, infinite rooms repeated across pyramids, domes, and antenna-covered housing blocks, they are equal parts Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Modernist allegory, and Soviet bloc existentialism, their projects are as much psychological fables as they are architectural proposals.

[Image: From Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)].

10) African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence—Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia edited by Manuel Herz et al. with photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster (Park Books)

Manuel Herz has quietly made a name for himself studying, in admirably granular detail, architectural design and production in Africa, whether that means looking at the spatial effects of migration in Nairobi, Kenya, or the complex interplay between formal and informal settlement practices in the refugee camps of Western Africa, as in his excellent book From Camp to City.

African Modernism is a massive book—it is nearly 700 pages in length and more than a foot tall—that takes as its focus post-independence urban design and architecture in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. As Herz writes in his introductory essay, “In our general perception the African continent stands for suffering and misery. It also remains a mystery as its histories, cultures, traditions, languages, politics and economies remain outside of our framework of reference. The continent is usually seen as a single entity without differentiation and without consideration of its fifty-four countries and the vast differences among its gigantic territory and diverse cultures.”

The resulting project is thus an attempt to address this strange blindness toward African urbanism, cataloging and—at least through publication—helping to preserve buildings all but never documented in contemporary architectural publications. Finally, there is also a political goal, which is to place Modern architecture in its appropriate historical context, “looking at the conscious and deliberate role architecture played in the formation of national states, with all the contradictions, dilemmas and problems this implies.”

11) War Plan Red: The United States’ Secret Plan to Invade Canada and Canada’s Secret Plan to Invade the United States by Kevin Lippert (Princeton Architectural Press)

While, at first glance, the story told in Kevin Lippert’s War Plan Red seems like what might happen if someone rewrote Dr. Strangelove as an episode of South Park, the mutual invasion plans it details between the United States and Canada comes with a dark humor that veers more toward tragedy. That two democracies with a shared 4,000-mile land border would go through the trouble of cooking up elaborately farcical battle strategies for partially consuming one another’s border states says a lot about the militarized distrust and paranoia that scripted the Cold War. Lippert’s book includes the actual war plans, as well as their historical context.

To a certain extent, this pairs well with another title from Princeton Architectural Press, Tom Vanderbilt’s engaging Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (republished a few years ago in a paperback edition from the University of Chicago Press).

12) Equilateral by Ken Kalfus (Bloomsbury)

The plot of Equilateral is seemingly tailor-made for BLDGBLOG readers: a fever-wracked British astronomer at the height of 19th-century colonialism forces tens of thousands of Egyptians to build an enormous equilateral triangle in the Sahara Desert. Its explicit design goal is to be so big that the resulting figure, when set aflame with gasoline, will be visible from Mars. Indeed, the astronomer’s goal is to communicate, through Pythagorean geometry, with the intelligent beings he believes to exist on the Red Planet, and to do so even while he can barely speak with—and arrogantly refuses to recognize intelligence in—the Egyptian workers he has all but enslaved to build this misguided megastructure.

Incredibly, this story was inspired by a real-life plan devised by a man named Joseph Johann von Littrow, to build a flaming geometric sign in the Sahara as a means of communicating with other planets.

Kalfus does an excellent job mocking the racist overtones of the astronomer’s project without becoming didactic or politically heavy-handed, and he even allows moments of genuine wonder into the text, as the possibility of extraplanetary intelligence is debated amongst the novel’s European intelligentsia. It probably goes without saying that all does not end well for the equilateral triangle, a kind of 19th-century SETI project in the desert.

13) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage)

The end of the world has never been so hot. Whether it’s The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, or Peter Heller’s recent, great book The Dog Stars, watching things fall apart is now a billion-dollar industry. As that intro might indicate, I went into Station Eleven with a healthy dose of skepticism, but ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

Far from a work of popular survivalist fiction, its end-times narrative is often only lightly applied. Against the backdrop of a near-universally fatal flu outbreak, author Emily St. John Mandel instead focuses her attention not on fire and apocalypse—although there are the requisite ruined airports and scenes set on the feral edges of a depopulated Toronto—but rather on the lives of a core group of characters whose goals, relationships, and interpersonal conflicts are left abruptly unresolved when the disease begins to spread.

The book thus has a disarmingly quiet air of reflective melancholy, enlivened by voluminous flashbacks to the characters’ pre-flu days, as it moves inevitably forward with a sense that, no matter how much we might believe otherwise, we all live amidst unfinished business. We will all have decisions to regret—and people to miss—when the end of things finally arrives.

14) Consumed by David Cronenberg (Scribner)

Legendary film director David Cronenberg has tried his hand at literary fiction—or, more accurately, at a genre-crossing murder mystery that owes much to William Gibson, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cronenberg’s own film work. The plot of Consumed involves a North Korean kidnapping plot, avant-garde filmmakers, bizarre sexual practices, anthropological fieldwork as reconceived in an age of VICE, and a grotesque use of 3D printers that many of today’s “design fiction” aficionados should find both creatively macabre and technically compelling.

15) Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I was drawn to Fourth of July Creek almost entirely on the strength and enthusiasm of a blurb from novelist Jeff VanderMeer, and I was glad to have followed his advice. While the bulk of the novel falls outside what I might call BLDGBLOG territory, its Cormac McCarthy-like exploration of off-the-grid survivalists in the vast National Forests of the U.S. is in fitting with this site’s interest in human beings forced to negotiate, and establish the barest toeholds of religious belief or culture, in the face of extreme environments.

One particularly haunting scene involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens and a hardcore survivalist who, isolated away from media in his forest homestead, is convinced the horrible, blinding rain of ash and fire is actually the opening salvo of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

16) Crooked by Austin Grossman (Mulholland Books)

Crooked could be thought of as Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. transplanted into the heart of 20th-century U.S. presidential history, with Richard Milhous Nixon presented as a not necessarily willing participant in the battle of ancient magic normally referred to as the Cold War. Of course, if the B.P.R.D. reference doesn’t do anything for you, just imagine H.P. Lovecraft re-writing the history of the Watergate break-in, and you can begin to picture what unfolds in Austin Grossman’s novel.

While I agree with other critics that too much action occurs off-stage—gigantic creatures emerge from the snow-covered forests of eastern Russia, but only in whispered reports Nixon receives from White House aides—it’s nonetheless an enjoyably nuts and well-written book that takes occult conspiracy theories about U.S. governmental power and turns them up to eleven.

17) Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age by Megan Prelinger (W.W. Norton)

Inside the Machine is about what author Megan Prelinger calls “the enormous electronic infrastructures and networks that shape our world today [yet] remain hidden from our sight.” More than that, though, Prelinger looks at the ads, artworks, and cinematic representations that helped 20th-century popular culture visualize the world of the electron. Human nervous systems, player pianos, printable circuit boards, Cold War radar systems, and even an “unsettlingly alert” 1950s thinking machine called “the Perceptron,” all come together with full-color reproductions of amazing, often inadvertently amusing period art.

18) Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman (Simon & Schuster)

Rust, Jonathan Waldman’s long look at the material effects of corrosion, strongly bears the literary influence of John McPhee. From innovations in canned foods to the super-sized national campaign to preserve—and more or less entirely rebuild—the Statue of Liberty, Waldman uses the threat of corrosion as something more like a psychological metaphor for the people he profiles, including industrial consultants and art photographers (with an unexpected dose of LeVar Burton thrown in for good measure).

19) Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe (Scribner)

As Helen Thorpe wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Women are the fastest growing group of veterans treated by the V.A., and projections show that women will make up over 16 percent of the country’s veterans by midcentury.” Her new book Soldier Girls looks at three women from very different personal and political backgrounds both during their times of military service and after. The result is an excellent look at the under-documented experiences of women in the U.S. military, including the physical risks and gendered stereotypes they all but constantly and frustratingly face.

20) Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (William Morrow)

If you’ve ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stared in awe at the incredible collection of objects from Oceania, Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest fills in the necessary backstory for understanding how those works got there. It was not just a story of underpaid local artisans—although it was this. It was a story of cultural misunderstanding and, ultimately, cannibalism, as collector Michael Rockefeller, son of the New York State governor and scion of the wealthiest families in the world, failed to understand the remote and extremely isolated island world he, in retrospect, blindly stumbled into.

Author Carl Hoffman front-loads the book with a gruesome scene of cannibalism, but its shock dissipates as the book shifts focus to tell the larger story, even more tragic story of a tribe knocked about from confrontation to confrontation by an ever-increasing onslaught of globalized outsiders who made little effort to understand the tightly organized world their presence so violently interrupted.

21) St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun (W.W. Norton)

Ada Calhoun’s book about “America’s hippest street” is due out later this fall. It describes the long transformation of a legendary East Village street, from its earliest days as part of the Stuyvesant family farm to a maze of booze-smuggling tunnels in the age of Prohibition, and from a smoke-hazed world of Beat cafes and punk rock bars to the depressing smear of Chipotle wrappers, European tourists, and ill-considered tramp stamps that it is today. The book’s interest is not in its condemnation of the new St. Mark’s, however, but in the deep history of a single street that Calhoun has managed to shape from long walks through the city’s past.

22) The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press)

John Durham Peters asks whether animals, too, have media—or even are media, their bodies communicative vessels relaying and interpreting information through the basic elements of sea, fire, earth, and air. I first came across The Marvelous Clouds through an interview Peters did with the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is worth reading before embarking upon the book itself.

The latter is not strictly speaking a work of media theory or of natural history, but an inspired combination of the two—however, it is also very much an academic work. What I mean by that is simply that I have become so used to reading journalistic nonfiction these days that I kept waiting for Peters to go out into the field, boarding a boat with marine biologists or visiting an avian research lab for some intriguing character studies and a scene of reflective first-person experience; instead, he stays on campus, quoting Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.

This could very well only be a problem when seen through the lens of my own particular expectations, of course; but I do genuinely long for more academic theoretical writing that is not afraid of becoming expeditionary, so to speak, testing its hypotheses not by quoting things you’ve probably already read in grad school but by introducing readers to relevant new worlds they are otherwise unlikely to visit.

Or, to put this another way: get John Durham Peters aboard a deepsea submarine somewhere, pinging abyssal plains or peering up through echoes at thinning polar ice caps, or drop him off in the canopy of a rain forest research station, studying pheromonal discourse networks sensible only to insects; add some Friedrich Kittler and I would read that book in a heartbeat.

23) TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis (North Atlantic Books)

This 2015 reprint of Erik Davis‘s cult classic TechGnosis comes with the refreshing realization that his work is more relevant today, not less. A startling and altogether off-kilter look at esoteric religious beliefs, vernacular folklore, what Davis calls “gnostic science fictions,” and today’s digital technology, it’s something like a bolt of lightning across the sky of today’s tedious tech writing, a world of circular reporting more concerned with product reviews than in discussing why technology exists—and what it’s doing to us—in the first place.

As the book’s own description explains, TechGnosis “uncovers startling connections between such seemingly disparate topics as electricity and alchemy; online roleplaying games and religious and occult practices; virtual reality and gnostic mythology; programming languages and Kabbalah. The final chapters address the apocalyptic dreams that haunt technology, providing vital historical context as well as new ways to think about a future defined by the mutant intermingling of mind and machine, nightmare and fantasy,” and, despite its (deliberately?) dated cover re-design, the book, originally published back in 1998, still feels fresh.

24) Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts edited by Adam Bell and Charles H. Traub (University of California Press)

Vision Anew tries to assess what is happening to photography—not just technically but also historically and metaphorically—as the technology through which it operates rapidly shifts to digital. It is moving from chemistry to data, we might say. An edited compilation—co-edited by an old friend of mine from high school, in fact—it includes an all-star list of writers, from Walter Murch to Trevor Paglen, Rebecca Solnit to Ai Weiwei and László Moholy-Nagy.

25) Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (Current)

I originally spotted this book after my wife reviewed it for Popular Science, where she describes Combat-Ready Kitchen as a look at how “the needs of the military play an outsized role in shaping the food industry’s research agenda, resulting in the proliferation of products that are optimized for portability, convenience, shelf-life, and mass appeal, rather than health, taste, or environmental sustainability.”

As the book’s subtitle also makes clear, author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo hopes to reveal how the needs and expectations of military R&D continually trump other health concerns or even public interest when it comes to food science and product development in the United States. More interestingly, though, Marx de Salcedo shows that everyday food products such as Cheetos and granola bars have military origins, as if the battlefields of the 20th and 21st centuries extend even to our supermarket shelves and our dinner plates.

26) Drone by Adam Rothstein (Bloomsbury)

27) Waste by Brian Thill (Bloomsbury)

The new series Object Lessons from Bloomsbury is an inspired one. It is also ambitious: with twenty-six titles and counting, each small book takes one object and dissects it relentlessly, revealing the constellation of economic forces and historical interests that have caused it to exist. The titles I’ve included here—Drone and Waste—are only two of the ones I’d suspect have the most interest for readers of this site, but forthcoming looks at the Shopping Mall, the Doorknob, and the Phone Booth, among others, all look promising.

Drone—for which I also supplied a back-cover blurb—is simultaneously a concise and a refreshingly widescreen look at autonomous machine systems and uncrewed aircraft, detailing not just their military role today but their algorithmic and even philosophical origins. The drone is now a ubiquitous, near-mythological presence in contemporary society, but author Adam Rothstein takes a step back from current events to ask, in a sense, what do drones want?

Meanwhile, Waste is as much an anthropology of excess production—or what it means to have so much stuff that vast quantities of it can be reclassified as without practical use, or as waste—as it is a look at the cultural, environmental, and landscape-scale effects of easily discarded materials.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Books Received

[Image: Cincinnati Public Library, 1870s; photo via Steve Silberman].

It’s that time of the year again, to take a look at the many, many books that have passed through the halls of BLDGBLOG the past season or two, ranging, as usual, from popular science to fiction, landscape history to the urban future of the refugee camp.

There are some great books included in this round-up, ones I’d love to help find a wider audience—however, as will be clear from a handful of descriptions below, and as is always the case with book round-ups here on BLDGBLOG, I have not read every book included in the following list and not all of them are necessarily new.

However, in all cases, these books are included for the interest of their approach or for their general subject matter, and the wide range of themes present should give anyone at least a few interesting titles to seek out for autumn reading.


1) Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press)

One of the most enjoyable books of my summer was Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Lapsley’s history of “phone phreaks,” or people who successfully hacked the early phone networks into giving them free calls to one another and around the world, would read, in a different context, like some strange occult thriller featuring disaffected teenagers tapping into a supernatural world. Weird boxes, unexplained dial tones, and disembodied voices at the end of the line pop up throughout the book, as do surprise cameos from a pre-Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Teenagers throwing frequencies and sounds at vast machines through telephone handsets managed to unlock another dimension of the phone network, Lapsley explains, a byzantine geography of remote switching centers and international operators. In the process, they helped pave the way for the hackers we know today. I have heard, anecdotally, from a few people who were around and part of these groups at the time, that Lapsley got some of his details wrong, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of—or inability to put down—his book. Recommended, and very fun.

2) Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (MIT Press)

This pamphlet-length book by Carnegie Mellon University’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh on the future of robotics pays admirable attention to the fundamental problem of even defining what “robotics” is. Better yet, Nourbakhsh prefaces each of his short chapters with fictional interludes exploring speculative scenarios of future robotics gone awry. There is a disturbing vignette in which flying robot toys programmed to recognize human eye contact swarm around and terrify anyone not hiding their gaze behind wearing sunglasses—something the toys’ manufacturer never predicted—as well as a memorable scenario in which new forms of robot-readable graffiti throw entire self-driving traffic systems into a tizzy, making car after car wrongly report that an impenetrable roadblock lies ahead. Call it traffic-hacking.

In the end, Nourbakhsh suggests, robots will prove to be fundamentally different from human beings, and we should be prepared for his. “A robot moving down the street will see in all directions, not simply in front of it like humans,” he writes. “If that robot is connected to a network of video cameras along the street, it will see everywhere on the street, from all angles, the entire time it walks. Imagine this scenario. A not-very-clever robot walking down the street will have access to entire synthesized views of the street—up and down, behind you, down the alley, around the corner—and be able to scroll back through time with perfect fidelity. As you approach this robot, it might be cognitively much dumber than you, but it knows far more about its surroundings than you do. It stops suddenly. What do you do? There is no common ground established between you and this robot, just the fact that you occupy the same sidewalk.”


3) Beyond The Blue Horizon: How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked The Secrets Of The Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)

Brian Fagan, an environmental historian known for his books on climate change and civilization, has written a great example of what might be called adventure-history. Beyond the Blue Horizon takes us through roughly twenty thousand—even potentially, depending on how you interpret the archaeological evidence, more than one hundred thousand—years of human seafaring. Every few pages, amidst tales of people sailing in small groups, even drifting, seemingly lost, for days at a time across vast expanses of open water, Fagan makes arresting observations, such as the fact that early Pacific navigators, laden down with seeds and plants, “literally carried their own landscape with them,” he writes.

The importance of the coast in supporting human settlement, and the absolute centrality of the sea—rather than continental interiors—in shaping human history, gives Fagan multiple opportunities to refocus our sense of our own remote past. We are not landed creatures of roads and automobiles, Fagan argues, but a maritime species whose entire childhood and adolescence was spent paddling past unknown coastlines, searching for freshwater rivers and streams—a “world of ceaseless movement,” as he calls it, including now lost islands, deltas, and coasts. Fagan’s brilliance at describing landscapes as they undergo both seasonal changes and variations in climate also applies to his depictions of Earthly geography when sea levels were, for most of the eras described in his book, more than 300 feet lower than it is today. It was another planet—a maritime world—one that humans seem to have lost sight of and forgotten.

4) The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press)

John R. Gillis’s look at “seacoasts in history” proves to be compulsively readable, sustaining many long subway rides for me here in New York, although the final few chapters fall off into unnecessarily long quotations from what seems like any random academic source he could find that mentioned the sea. This is too bad, because a shorter, more tightly edited version of this book would be a dream. Gillis is not shy about making outsized claims for revising the history of human civilization. The shore is “the true home of humankind,” he writes, “the original Eden.” He wants Westerners to forget the “terracentric history” they’ve been taught, which is, he points out, simply a historical misunderstanding of where humans actually spent 95%—the number Gillis uses—of their development: on shorelines and coastal islands.

“The book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked,” he writes, “but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” Gillis quotes the words of writer Steve Mentz here, who argued that we need “fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks” in our narrative understanding of human prehistory.

Gillis allows his book some intriguing political subthemes. He writes, for example, that “it would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” He adds, “for the first century or more [of their habitation in the Americas], northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.” Rivers and lakes were the key to ruling North America, for a time; and, seemingly since the interior land rush of U.S. history, the “seaborne” ways of humans, with or without a state to back them, have been forgotten.

As a brief side note, it’s interesting here to look at the Somali pirates so often mythologized in Western media, including the forthcoming Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips—that stateless, seaborne groups of humans still exist and are the rogue scourge of landed empires (see also The Enemy of All by Daniel Heller-Roazan, etc.).

5) The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush by Davig Igler (Oxford University Press)

David Igler’s own book on all things anthropologically oceanic focuses solely on the Pacific Ocean, from the first wave of European exploration to early-modern sea trade. Igler, too, finds the land-locked nature of traditional history both claustrophobic and incorrect. “The ‘places’ usually subjected to historical analysis—nations, regions, and localities—have fixed borders enclosing land and thus constitute terrestrial history,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Historians have far less experience imagining the ways that oceanic space connects people and polities, rather than separating them.” Igler’s larger point—that tides, currents, and winds, even specific ships, are also, in a sense, “places” deserving of historical recognition—animates the rest of the book.

Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, And Future Of Human Space Exploration by Claude A. Piantadosi (Columbia University Press)

6) This book is admittedly quite hampered by its extraordinary practicality: there is very little poetry here, mostly straight talk of musculoskeletal disorders in low gravity and heat-loss from warm bodies in space. We begin on the ground floor, not only with a short and perhaps unnecessary history of the U.S. space program, but with the very basics of human physiology and the mechanics of flight. I suspect, however, that most readers are perfectly willing to jump into the deep end and read what’s on offer in the book’s later chapters: human visits to Mars, to asteroids, to “big planets, dwarf planets, and small bodies,” in Piantadosi’s words, to the “moons of the ice giants” and beyond. Ultimately, though, the book is simply too dry to feel like these later glimpses of “mankind beyond Earth,” as the title teasingly—and, for the most part, misleadingly—promises, are a worthy reward. If you must, one to look for in the local library.


7) Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday)

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 and thus, now, a colleague of mine, has exceeded all expectations with the research, depth, and range of this quirkily enthusiastic look at planetary mass extinction. Her early chapters on dinosaurs, plagues, extremophiles, world-altering volcanic eruptions, long geological eras when the Earth was locked in ice, possible human/Neanderthal guerrilla warfare (not to mention inter-breeding), and much more, are like a New Scientist article you hope never ends. It’s an exciting read.

Oddly, though, the central premise of the book—that, through urbanization, human beings will find ways to avoid their own extinction—feels tacked on and unconvincingly developed. If I’m being honest, it feels like Newitz is trying to make more of an ideological point about the political value and cultural centrality of cities today, rather than actually arguing rationally for the possibility that cities will save the human species. This is especially the case if we’re talking about—as, in this book, we are—catastrophic asteroid impacts or the outbreak of a super-virus. This otherwise gripping book thus has a bit of an are-you-serious? feel as it wraps up its final fifty pages or so. While advancing a theory of safety achieved through collective living, urban farming, and social cooperation, Newitz also inadvertently seems to contradict the first command of her book’s title: to scatter. That is, to fling ourselves to the far edges of the universe—to explore, survive, and mutate with the cosmos—not to band together, urbanize, and cooperate.

As such, it seems possible to imagine an identical version of this book—identical, that is, for 200 pages or so—but with a radically differnet ending: one in which truly scattering, adapting ourselves, isolating ourselves, and differentiating our civilizational pursuits—even differentiating our very DNA through evolution in separation—would be the most effective way to avoid human extinction. But that argument, it seems, is ideologically impermissible; it makes you an anti-state survivalist, a cosmic redneck, building bunkers in the Utah desert or on the moons of another world, more Ted Nugent than Stewart Brand.

In any case, putting political arguments like these aside, the book ends with a mind-popper of a quotation. In a conversation with Randii Wessen at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Wessen tells Newitz: “Our kids are the last generation who will see no city lights on the Moon.” This is both wonderful and terrible, and as concise a statement as I’ve read anywhere to show the human future rolling on.

8) Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings (Current)

Gifted science writer Lee Billings takes us on a search for other Earths—or, more accurately, for habitable “exoplanets” where life like us may or may not have a chance of existing. The book starts off with quite a coup. Billings treats us to a long, at-home visit with astronomer Frank Drake of Drake’s Equation fame: the abstract but reasonable calculation used for decades now to determine whether or not intelligent civilizations might exist elsewhere (and, by extension, how likely it is that humans will find them).

The book is not hard science, it is easy to follow, and Billings is a great writer; his tendency, however, veers toward the humanistic, following the life stories of individual astronomers or physicists here on Earth as they search the outer reaches of the detectable universe for signs of exoplanets.

A sizable diversion late in the book, for example, takes us on a canoe trip far into the Canadian north, past lakes and rivers, with a wary eye on approaching storms, to tell the story of how physicist Sara Seager met and fell in love with one of her colleagues. It is not a short diversion, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Seager’s canoe trip has little to do with the search for “life among the stars,” as the book’s subtitle suggests. It is at moments like this, as Seager and her partner paddle from one portage to another, that I found myself wondering if the only stories to tell are of other human beings—whether scientists or NASA administrators—then why, in a sense, are we looking for exoplanets at all?

Of course, the book jacket never promised us surreal descriptions of other worlds. But it’s hard not to hope for exactly that: that Billings would focus his considerable rhetorical powers away from our world for a few more chapters and offer those evocative glimpses of Earth-like planets I suspect so many readers will come to his book to find—visions of worlds like ours but magically, cosmically different—and thus communicate the beautiful, poetically irresistible urge to discover them. His introductory descriptions of the formation of our solar system, for instance, are breathtaking, clear, and poetic, and similar passages elsewhere show the pull of the exoplanetary; the narrative structure of the scientist profile seems inadvertently to have focused the bulk of the book’s attention here on Earth, where we are already bound, rather than to let the strange light of the universe shine through more frequently.

But this is like complaining about dessert after a delicious meal. I’ll simply hope that Billings’s next book concentrates more on the inhuman allure so peculiar to astronomy, a field astonishingly rich with worlds mortal humans long to see.

9) Are We Being Watched?: The Search for Life in the Cosmos by Paul Murdin (Thames & Hudson)

The off-putting and sensationalistic title of Paul Murdin’s new book is, thankfully, not a sign of things to come in the text itself. Murdin’s sober yet thrilling look at the history and future of astrobiology is a bright spot in a recent spate of books about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “The twenty-first century is the century of astrobiology,” he writes in the first sentence of chapter one; indeed, he adds with extraordinary confidence, “this is the era in which we will discover life on other worlds, and learn from it.”

Amidst many interesting tidbits, one worth repeating here actually comes from Murdin’s quotation of paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris. Conway-Morris, referring to the possibility of discovering truly alien life, rightly suggests that we could very well have no idea what we’re looking at. Indeed, he memorably says, these other life forms could be “constructions so unfamiliar that they are only brought home by accident and then inadvertently handed over for curation in a department of mineralogy.” The idea that rocks sitting quietly in a Natural History museum somewhere are actually alien life forms is mind-blowing and but one take-away from this thought-provoking book.

Over the course of Are We Being Watched?, Murdin enjoyably goes all over the place, from amino acids to plate tectonics, to radio-stimulated organic molecules in the atmosphere of Titan. As if channeling H.P. Lovecraft, Murdin at one point writes that, on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, scientists have seen the same churning processes as witnessed in Antarctica, but, on Europa, “we see the results of this churning as colored stains on ridges of ice at the boundaries of ice floes. Perhaps in these colored stains lie dead creatures, brought up from the depths of the ocean and exposed to view by orbiting spacecraft or landers that can rove over the surface.”

10) Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes (FSG)

Frankenstein’s Cat follows the 21st-century quest to re-engineer biology, to design “the fauna of the future,” as the book promises, or “biotech’s brave new beasts,” where resurrected species, pets with prostheses, and militarized insects crawl through forests of genetically modified trees. At once terrifying and thrilling, and animated in all cases by the gonzo enthusiasm of any science operating at seemingly unstoppable speed, Emily Anthes’s book shows the weird biological breakthroughs that will ultimately create the landscapes of tomorrow: the cities, gardens, parks, oceans, and backyards our descendants will inevitably mistake for nature (and then, eventually, dismiss as mundane).


11) Sweet & Salt: Water And The Dutch by Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel (NAi Publishers)

Journalist Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel have teamed up for this collaborative look at “environmental planning” in the Netherlands, with a focus on all things aquatic. While Metz visits the country’s numerous megaprojects and anti-flooding infrastructure to speak with water engineers, “dike wardens,” and other stewards of Holland’s relationship with rain and the sea, van den Heuvel assembles a spectacular catalog featuring visual depictions of waterworks throughout Dutch art history. This is “the visualization of water in art,” as she calls it, revealing “anxieties about flooding” and a deep-rooted infrastructural patriotism inspired by the technical means for controlling that flooding.

Ultimately, the book’s goal is to show how Dutch water management is changing in the face of rising sea levels and climate change, and how “water is coming back into the city,” as Metz writes, changing the nature of contemporary urban design.

12) Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 by Christian Salewski (010 Publishers)

This well-illustrated history and catalog of large-scale hydrological projects in the Netherlands—and the “Dutch new worlds” those projects helped generate—offers a provocative look at the very idea of infrastructure. Salewski suggests that a nation’s infrastructure is like literature or mythology, a built narrative in which a much larger constellation of dreams and aspirations can be read. “There is no Dutch Hollywood,” Salewski writes, “no cinematic dream machine that constantly processes the current view of the future into easily digestible, mass-consumed science fiction movies. Dutch views into the future are probably best found not in cultural works of literature and art, but in physical planning designs.” That is, in the dams, dikes, levees, and polders the rest of the book goes on to so interestingly describe. Infrastructure, Salewski offers, is one of many ways in which a nation dreams.

13) Bird On Fire: Lessons From The World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross (Oxford University Press)

Andrew Ross takes a critical look at Phoenix, Arizona, a desert city “sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.” As the city tries to “green” itself through boosts in public transportation and a more sensible water management strategy—among other things—Ross asks if an urban transformation, something that might save Phoenix from its current parched fate, is even possible.

14) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (Oxford University Press)

Kate Brown’s Plutopia creates a horrifying set of conjoined urban twins, so to speak, by both comparing and contrasting the purpose-built plutonium production towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia. These were fully planned and state-supported facilities, yet both were also highly delicate, secret cities—in Ozersk’s case, literally off the map—constantly at risk of nuclear disaster. And disaster, of course, eventually comes.

Brown points out how, between the two of them, Richland and Ozersk released four times the amount of radiation into the environment as the meltdown at Chernobyl, and she tracks the disturbing long-term health and environmental effects in the surrounding regions. In both cases, perhaps cynically, perhaps inspiringly, these polluted regions have become nature reserves.

In a particularly troubling anecdote from the final chapter, referring to the experience of Richland, Brown points out that “periodically deer and rabbits wander from the preserve and leave radioactive droppings on Richland’s lawns,” but also, more seriously, that multiple wineries have sprung up perilously close to the hazard zone, “near the mothballed plutonium plant.” While sipping wine at one of those very vineyards, Brown tries to talk to the locals about the potential for radiation in the soil—and, thus, in the wine—but, unsurprisingly, they react to her questions “testily.”

These carefully manicured utopian towns, like scenes from The Truman Show crossed with Silkwood, with their dark role in the state production of plutonium, give us the “Plutopia” of the book’s title. Ozersk and Richland are “citadels of plutonium,” she writes, instant cities of the atomic age.


15) From Camp To City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara by Manuel Herz (Lars Müller Publishers)

Based on original research from a studio taught at the ETH in Zurich, architect Manuel Herz has assembled this fascinating and important guide to the urban and quasi-urban structures of refugee camps. Focusing specifically on camps in extreme southwest Algeria, populated by people fleeing from conflict in the Western Sahara, these camps are, Herz suggests, Western instant urbanism stripped bare, the city shown at its factory presets, revealing the infrastructural defaults and basic political conditions of the modern metropolis. They are “the spatial manifestation of the state of exception,” he writes, citing Giorgio Agamben, mere “holding areas” in which urban forms slowly take shape and crystallize. The camps are where, Herz writes, “Architecture and planning becomes [sic] a replacement for a political solution.”

From the architecture of the tents themselves to the delivery infrastructures that bring water, food, and other vital goods to their inhabitants, to culturally specific spatial accouterments, like carpets and curtains, Herz shows how the camps manage to become cities almost in spite of themselves, and how these cities then offer something like training grounds for future nations to come. In Herz’s own words, “the camps act also as a training phase, during which the Sahrawi society [of the Western Sahara] can develop ideas and concepts of what system of education they want to establish, and learn about public health and medical service provision. The camps become a space where nation-building can be learned and performed, to be later transferred to their original homeland, if it becomes available in the future.”

This idea of the state-in-waiting—and its ongoing spatial rehearsal in the form of emergency camps—runs throughout the book, which is also a detailed, full-color catalog of almost every conceivable spatial detail of life in these refugee camps. In the process, Herz and his team have assembled a highly readable and deeply fascinating look at urbanism in its most exposed or raw condition. “In the blazing sun of the Sahara Desert,” he concludes, “we can observe the birth of the urban condition with a clarity and crispness almost unlike anywhere else in the world.”

16) Roman Disasters by Jerry Toner (Polity)

Cambridge Classicist Jerry Toner had described his wide range of interests as being centered on the notion of “history from below.” He has written prolifically about ancient Rome, in particular, from several unexpected points of view, including popular culture in antiquity, the smellscape of early Christianity, and an currently in-progress work on crime in the ancient metropolis.

Roman Disasters looks specifically at imperial disaster-response, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic fires, warfare, and disease. Toner describes how the abstract notion of risk was first formulated and understood; the role of religious prophecy in “imagining future disaster”; and halting, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to construct a fireproof metropolis, such as the widening of city streets and the creation of a semi-permanent Roman fire brigade.

Very much a history, rather than a page-turner directed at a popular audience, Roman Disasters nonetheless offers a compelling and unexpected look at the ancient world, one peppered with refugee camps, tent cities, and displaced populations all looking for—and not necessarily finding—imperial beneficence.

17) Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (FSG)

Robin Nagle is an “anthropologist-in-residence” at the NYC Department Sanitation. Picking Up is her document of that incredible—and strange—backstage pass to the afterlife of the city, where all that we discard or undervalue simply gets tossed to the curb. Nagle tags along with, interviews, and reveals the “garbage faeries” who rid our streets of the unwanted detritus of everyday life, whether trash or snow. In the process, she’s written a kind of narrative map or oral history of another New York, one with its own flows and infrastructure, and one that exists all but invisibly alongside the one we inhabit everyday.

18) Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook edited by Stefan Al (Hong Kong University Press)

Architect Stefan Al, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a team of researchers to the Pearl River Delta, the “factory of the world,” to explore how people live and—even more—how they work in the region. A fascinating glimpse at the “self-contained world” of what amounts to corporate-industrial urbanism, the book nonetheless feels very much like a book assembled by architects who had a grant for producing a publication: it is heavy on comparative infographics, layered images, pie charts, and small-print introductory essays, all on coated paper resistant to underlining. The subject matter is fascinating, but the book is ultimately of less use than, say, sending Robin Nagle to visit these “factory towns of south China,” reporting back about the complicated lives and material cultures found there.


19) Ruin Nation: Destruction And The American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press)

Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation is a kind of Piranesian guide to the Civil War ruins of American cities of the 19th century. The book is a bit slow and overly cautious in its descriptions, but it is remarkable for a specific focus on architectural ruins following the Civil War. “Architectural ruins—cities and houses—dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the Civil War,” she writes in the book’s introduction, a time when whole cities were reduced to “lone chimneys” amidst the smoke and obliteration of urban warfare. We often hear—especially post-9/11—that Americans have never really experienced war and destruction on their own soil, but Nelson’s book convincingly and devastatingly shows how inaccurate a statement that is.

20) Line In The Sand: A History Of The U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John (Princeton University Press)

Heading west from the Gulf Coast, the U.S.-Mexico border takes an unexpected turn when you get past El Paso, Texas—that is, by not really turning at all. The border instead becomes a series of abnormally, mathematically straight lines, cutting, with only a few diversions north and south, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It thus no longer follows any natural feature, such as the Rio Grande River.

But why is the border exactly here, and why the rigid, linear path that it takes? Rachel St. John’s “history of the western U.S.-Mexico border” looks at sovereignty, surveying, geography, diplomacy, war, conquest, and private property to piece together the tangled story of this “line in the sand” and the people (and economies) it has divided. Line in the Sand—which often has the ungainly feel of a Ph.D. thesis later edited into a book—ends with a critical look at the “operational security” falsely promised by a border fence, and a more hopeful look at mutations of the border region yet to come.

21) The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon To Richter by Deborah R. Coen (University of Chicago Press)

Deborah Coen’s Earthquake Observers looks at the history of seismology—or the study of earthquakes—but, more specifically, seismology’s transition from something like a folk art of human observation to an instrumented science. It is a consistently interesting book, so much so that I invited Coen to speak to my class at Columbia last semester.

The book includes a great deal worth mentioning here, from the gender of early earthquake observers—writing, for example, specifically in reference to early-modern domesticity, that “a quiet, housebound lifestyle and close attention to the arrangement of domestic objects put many bourgeois women in an excellent position to detect tremors”—to the literally geopolitical effects of earthquakes. In the latter case, a state of emergency following catastrophic seismic events helped to influence 20th-century legal theory as well as to challenge accepted hierarchies of what it means for a state to respond. “Particularly in the Balkans,” she writes, “earthquakes called into question the political framework that tied the monarchy’s fringes to its two capitals: which level of the state’s intricate web of governance would respond?”

John Muir, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the study of earthquake-related traumas, or “seismopathology,” all make their appearance in Coen’s study of how seismology became both modern and scientific.


22) From Roof To Table: Photographs By Rob Stephenson by Rob Stephenson (Design Trust for Public Space)

This magazine-style pamphlet of images by photographer Rob Stephenson documents urban farming efforts—not necessarily limited to roofs—across New York City. Plots of land beside empty brick warehouses, backyards, and even university labs bloom with fruits and vegetables in Stephenson’s full-color shots. “With the influx of people to cities and a continuing rise in the financial and environmental costs of shipping food, the widespread and large-scale adoption of urban agriculture seems inevitable,” Stephenson writes in an accompanying project description. “New York City, with its network of backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and rooftop farms, is at the forefront of this transformation.”

23) The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press)

Gordon Campbell’s history of the garden hermit attempts to discover why the phenomenon of the live-in hermit—an actual human being, installed in a landscaped garden, acting as a form of living ornament—arose at all. Along the way, he explores what architectural structures these hermits required and the cultural motifs their strange roles kicked off. “Who were these people?” Campbell asks. “Why did landowners think it appropriate to have them in their gardens? What function did they serve?”


24) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Killcullen (Oxford University Press)

Military strategist David Kilcullen takes on the urban future of war, arguing that armed conflict will occur more often, and with increasingly devastating effects, in cities. If the future is such that, in his words, “all aspects of human life—including, but not only, conflict, crime and violence—will be crowded, urban, networked and coastal,” then it only makes sense to attempt to make sense of this, both sociologically and from the perspective of the military.

Citing everything from Richard Norton’s revolutionary notion of the “feral city” to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums—Davis, in fact, blurbs the book—Kilcullen has written a must-read for anyone unconvinced by the rosy take on cities and their triumphant future currently dominating the best-seller list.

25) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (PublicAffairs)

Radley Blako’s libertarian take on the “militarization of America’s police forces” is more Rand Paul than ACLU, if you will, but it’s a worthy read for all sides of the political debate. It opens with the jarring rhetorical question, “Are cops constitutional?” And it goes on from there to discuss legal debates on federal power and the 3rd and 4th Amendments, a short history of military tactics creeping into the U.S. police arsenal following urban riots in Watts, the rise of reality TV shows seemingly encouraging police belligerence, the War on Drugs, the Occupy Movement, today’s all but ubiquitous Taser (and its abuse), no-knock raids, and more.

If you’re interested in cities, you should also be interested in how those cities are policed, and this is as interesting a place as any to start digging.

26) Manhunts: A Philosophical History by Grégoire Chamayou (Princeton University Press)

I picked up a copy of this book after an interesting, albeit brief, email exchange with L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who described a shift from the high-speed chase (that is, a large amount of space covered at high speed) to the manhunt (or a limited space studied with incredible intensity).

I’ve written about Hawthorne’s observation at greater length in my own forthcoming book about crime and architecture, and, while researching that book, I thought Grégoire Chamayou’s Manhunts would be a helpful reference. It was not, if I’m being honest, but it is, nonetheless, a striking work on its own terms: a history of what it means to hunt human beings, from runaway slaves and “illegal aliens” to Jews in World War II. He calls this an “anthropology of the predator”—“a history and a philosophy of hunting powers and their technologies of capture”—wherein the prey subject to destruction is a banished or shunned human being, terrifyingly relegated to the status of animal.

27) Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (New York Review of Books Classics)

This strange, quite short, and very readable novel, recently brought back into print by the New York Review of Books, tells the story of a British political agent who fails in his attempt to assassinate an unnamed German political leader (who is, clearly, Adolf Hitler). The man flees Germany for the comparative safety of England, only to be relentlessly—and, as it happens, successfully—hunted by German agents intent on revenge.

It both does and does not spoil the rest of the book to reveal that the hunted man literally goes to ground, terrestrializing himself by digging a burrow in the Earth and hiding out there amidst the mud, the exposed tree roots, the darkness, and his own waste, sleeping unwashed in a humiliating cave of his own making, his clothes rotten, his feet swollen by rain, living underground at the side of a small lane in Britain’s agrarian hinterland. When he is found—and he is found—what could descend into a Rambo-like scene of violence and retaliation instead offers something that is still violent but far stranger, as this nearly worldchanging political actor, a failed assassin who could have changed the 20th century, finds a way to escape his grotesque and feral state.

Have a good autumn, and enjoy the books.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

(Thanks to Dan Bergevin for my copy of Out of the Mountains).

Books Received

[Image: The Wiederin bookshop in Innsbruck, Austria; photo by Lukas Schaller, courtesy of A10].

Barely in time for the holidays, here is a quick look at some of the many new or recent books that have passed through the home office here at BLDGBLOG.

As usual, I have not read all of the books listed here, but this will be pretty clear from the ensuing descriptions; those that I have read, and enjoyed, I will not hesitate to recommend.

And, as always, all of these books are included for the interest of their approach or subject matter as it relates to landscape, spatial sciences, and the built environment more generally.

1) Map of a Nation: A Biography Of The Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta).

2) The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor by Marguerite Holloway (W.W. Norton).

These two fantastic books form a nice, if coincidental, duo, looking at the early days of scientific cartography and the innovative devices and mathematical techniques that made modern mapping possible. In Rachel Hewitt’s case—a book I found very hard to put down, up reading it till nearly 2am several nights in a row—we trace the origins of the UK’s Ordnance Survey by way of the devices, tools, precision instruments, and imperialist geopolitical initiatives of the time.

Similarly, Marguerite Holloway introduces us to, among many other things, the first measured imposition of the Manhattan grid. I mentioned Holloway’s book the other day here on BLDGBLOG, and am also very happy to have been asked to blurb it. Here’s my description: “This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of 19th-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and 5th Avenue. Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.”

For anyone at all interested in cartography, these make an excellent and intellectually stimulating pair.

3) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Viking).

4) Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey (Ecco).

I’ve spoken highly of Robert Macfarlane’s writing before, and will continue to do so. His Wild Places remains one of my favorite books of the last few years, and I was thus thrilled to hear of his newest: a series of long walks (and a boat ride) through the British landscape, from coastal mudflats to chalk hills and peat bogs, following various kinds of well-worn routes and paths, the “old ways” of his book’s title. Macfarlane’s writing can occasionally strain for rapture when, in fact, it is precisely the mundane—nondescript earthen paths and overlooked back woods—that makes his “journeys on foot” so compelling; but this is an otherwise minor flaw in a highly readable and worthwhile new book.

Meanwhile, Richard Mabey has written an almost impossibly captivating history of weeds, “nature’s most unloved plants.” Covering invasive species, overgrown bomb sites in WWII London, and abandoned buildings, and relating stories from medieval poetry and 21st-century agribusiness to botanical science fiction, Mabey’s book is an awesome sweep through the world of out-of-place plant life.

5) The Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination by Kelly Enright (University of Virginia Press).

6) In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery by Annette Kolodny (Duke University Press).

7) The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald (Simon & Schuster).

These three books variously describe encounters with the alien wilderness of a new world. Kelly Enright’s look at “the jungle in American imagination” reads a bit too much like a revised Ph.D. thesis, but its central premise is fascinating, looking not only at the complex differences between the meaning of a jungle and that of a rain forest, but exploring, as she phrases it, “some of the consequences of expanding an American image and ideology of wilderness beyond American shores,” from Theodore Roosevelt to the early days of tropical anthropology.

Annette Kolodny’s review of what can more or less be summarized as the Viking discovery of North America is incredibly rich. Quoting from the cover, Kolodny “offers a radically new interpretation of two medieval Icelandic tales, known as the Vinland Sagas. She contends that they are the first known European narratives about contact with North America.” However, in addition to these tales of “first contact,” Kolodny examines rock carvings in Maine and Canada, as well as Native American folktales, to try to geographically and historically locate the moment when Europeans first arrived in North America, sailing up the small coastal rivers and setting foot on foreign land. Kolodny convincingly demonstrates, in the process, that the Viking discovery of North America was more or less widely accepted by 19th-century historians, but that, she argues, following a large influx of Italian immigrants toward the end of that century and into the 20th, the national importance of Christopher Columbus—an Italian—began to grow. From this emerged, she shows, a kind of narrative contest in which rugged northerners from a stoic, military culture (the Norse) were pitted against royalist Catholic Mediterranean family men as the true cultural progenitors of the United States. It is also interesting here to note that Kolodny assigned these early Icelandic contact narratives to her English literature class, asking students “to consider the possibility that American literature really began in these early ‘contact’ narratives that constructed a so-called New World and its peoples through and for the contemporary cultural understandings of the European imagination.”

I read Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp under particular circumstances—traveling around Florida as part of Venue, along with Smout Allen and a group of students from the Bartlett School of Architecture (photos of that trip can be seen here and here)—which might have added to its appeal. But, either way, I was riveted. Grunwald’s book presents, in effect, all of Florida south of Orlando as a massive series of ecologically misguided—but, from an economic perspective, often highly successful—terraforming projects. Speaking only for myself, the book made it impossible not to notice waterworks everywhere, on all sides and at every scale: every canal, storm sewer, water retention basin, highway overpass, levee, reservoir, drainage ditch, coastal inlet, and flood gate, all parts of an artificially engineered peninsula that wants to—and should—be swamp. Environmentally sensitive without being a screed, and written at the pace of a good New Yorker article, The Swamp was easily one of my favorite discoveries this year, a book I’d place up there with Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert; it deserves the comparison for, if nothing else, its clear-eyed refocusing of attention onto a region’s hydrology and onto civilization’s larger attempts to manage wild lands (and waters), from the Seminole Wars to George W. Bush. Grunwald also makes clear something that I had barely even considered before, which is that south Florida is actually one of the most recently settled regions of the United States, far younger than the new states of the American West. South Florida, in many senses, is an event that only just recently happened—and Grunwald shows both how and why.

8) Petrochemical America by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff (Aperture Foundation).

9) Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park edited by Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand, and Kate Orff (Princeton Architectural Press/Van Alen Institute).

Here are two new books, each connected to the work of landscape architect and Columbia GSAPP urban planner, Kate Orff.

The first is a split project with photographer Richard Misrach, looking both directly and indirectly at petrochemical infrastructure and the landscapes it passes through in the state of Louisiana. Misrach’s photos open the book with nearly 100 pages’ worth of views into the rapidly transforming nature of Louisiana’s so-called Cancer Alley, “showcasing the immediate plight of embattled local communities and surrounding industries.” Orff’s work follows in the second half of the book with what she calls an “Ecological Atlas” of the same region, mapping what currently exists, more thoroughly annotating Misrach’s photos, and proposing new interventions for ecologically remediating the spoiled landscapes of the region.

The second book is an edited collection of essays and proposals for New York’s Gateway National Recreational Area. Gateway is a strange combination of protected lands and artificial dredgescapes, at the border between ocean and land at the very edge of New York City. Photographs by Laura McPhee join essays by Ethan Carr, Christopher Hawthorne, and others to suggest a new role for parks in American urban life, and a new type of park in general, one that is distributed over discontinuous parcels of marginal land and includes large expanses of active waters.

10) Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong (ORO Editions).

11) Oblique Drawing: A History of Anti-Perspective by Massimo Scolari (MIT Press).

12) Bulwark & Bastion: A Look at Musket Era Fortifications with a Glance at Period Siegecraft by James R. Hinds and Edmund Fitzgerald (Pioneer Press).

13) On the Making of Islands by Nick Sowers (self-published).

Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook was inspired by the revelation that a person can navigate the city of Hong Kong over great distances without ever leaving architecture behind, meandering through complex networks of internal space, from walkways and shopping malls to escalators and covered footbridges. Indeed, one can explore Hong Kong without really setting foot on the surface of the earth at all, making it a “city without ground.” The resulting labyrinthine spatial condition—consisting of “seemingly inescapable and thoroughly disorienting sequences” that cut through, around, between, and under nominally separate megastructures—has led the book’s authors to produce a series of visually dense maps dissecting the various routes a pedestrian can take through the city. A particular highlight comes toward the end, where they focus solely on the city’s air-conditioning, suggesting a kind of thermal cartography of indoor space and implying that temperature control and even humidity are better metrics for evaluating the success of a given project than mere visual or aesthetic concerns.

Massimo Scolari’s Oblique Drawing also pursues the idea that there are other, less well-explored methods for representing the built environment. Although I was disappointed to find that the chapters are, in effect, separate, not always related papers that happen to share a common interest in architectural representation, the book manages to tie together everything from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the military drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, from medieval Christian landscapes to Chinese painting techniques and the Tower of Babel. Scolari’s book was also mentioned here on the blog last week in the context of architectural espionage.

I was actually given a copy of Bulwark & Bastion while out at the surreal and extremely remote site of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas of Florida, and I read it on the 2-hour boat ride back to Key West. No more than a stapled pamphlet, like something you’d make at Kinko’s, it is, nonetheless, an extremely interesting look at built landscapes of warfare and defense. Unsurprisingly, it includes a history of walled cities and forts from Europe; but—and this topic alone deserves a full-length book from a publisher like Princeton Architectural Press—it discusses in detail the landscape defenses of the American Civil War, including massive brick citadels in Alabama, Maryland, South Carolina, and New York City. Star forts, bastions, casements, field works, and other geometries of assault and counter-attack are all illustrated and diagrammed, and they’re followed by a glossary of architectural defensive terms. Thoroughly enjoyable, in particular for anyone interested in military history.

Many of you will know Nick Sowers from his blogging at Archinect, where he explored the niche field of military landscapes and sound recordings. Nick was a deserving recipient of UC-Berkeley’s generous Branner Fellowship, which gave him the resources to travel the world for nearly a year, visiting overseas military bases, old battlefields, and urban fortresses from Japan and the South Pacific to Western Europe, including even the legendary Maunsell Towers in London’s Thames Estuary. At all of these sites, he made field recordings. Nick and I first met, in fact, down in Sydney, Australia, as part of Urban Islands back in 2009. This self-published book tells the story of those travels, including sketches and models from Nick’s own final thesis project at Berkeley, black & white photos from his long circumambulations of closed U.S. bases overseas, and a consistently interesting series of observations on the spatial implications of sound in landscape design. Weird visions of limestone caves being vibrated into existence by the tropical sonic booms of military aircraft give the book a dream-like feel as it comes to a close. Congrats to Nick not only for putting this book together, but for organizing such an interesting, planet-spanning trip in the first place.

14) Architecture for Astronauts: An Activity-based Approach by Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger (Springer Praxis).

15) The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight by Christopher Schaberg (Continuum).

16) Urban Maps: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City by Richard Brook and Nick Dunn (Ashgate).

Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger’s Architecture for Astronauts has an accompanying website where we read that a “number of extra-terrestrial habitats have been occupied over the last 40 years of space exploration by varied users over long periods of time. This experience offers a fascinating field to investigate the relationship between the built environment and its users.” Häuplik-Meusburger goes on to definite extra-terrestrial habitat as “the ‘houses and vehicles’ where people live and work beyond Earth: non-planetary habitats such as a spacecraft or space station; and planetary habitats such as a base or vehicle on the Moon or Mars. These building types are set up in environments different from the one on Earth and can be characterized as ‘extreme environments.’ Multiple requirements arise for the architecture and design of such a habitat.” These requirements include different lines of sight, a shifted posture for humans in low-gravity, and different needs for visual clarity and even thermal insulation—a very different architecture, indeed. Her book is thus organized as an activity guide for thinking through things like sleep, food, and hygiene, and how architects can reimagine the spatial requirements of each for the “extreme environments” into which these houses and vehicles might go.

Christopher Schaberg’s Textual Life of Airports looks at the airport as a new kind of cultural space, one with its own emerging literature and its own untold stories, including what he calls “the secret stories of airports—the disturbing, uncomfortable, or smoothed over tales that lie just beneath the surface of these sites.” Citing Marc Augé and ambient music, the “airport screening complex” and Steven Spielberg, his book tries to clarify some of the “spatial ambivalence” travelers feel in an airport’s interconnected spaces. In the context of Häuplik-Meusburger’s book, one wonders what future literatures will emerge for the transitional sites of offworld infrastructure, the spaceports and gravity-free hotels that may or may not be forthcoming for the human future.

For Urban Maps, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn “use the term ‘map’ loosely to describe any form of representation that reveals unseen space, latent conditions or narratives in and of the city.” Their examples come from Google Street View, the photographs of urban explorers, advertisements, contemporary film, surveillance, and the art world, to name but a few.

17) Belgrade, Formal/Informal: A Research on Urban Transformation by ETH Studio Basel Contemporary City Institute (Scheidegger & Spiess).

18) The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City by Katherine Wentworth Rinne (Yale University Press).

Using an awesome font called Warsaw Book/Poster, Belgrade, Formal/Informal zeroes in on “a city that was isolated on the European periphery, a city a long history that was as significant as it was turbulent,” to find what parts of a metropolis with such locally specific circumstances have managed to stay more or less the same, through both war and economic estrangement, and what parts were fundamentally transformed by larger, pan-European events and processes. Further, within this, and as the book’s title suggests, they break the city into formal and informal sectors, the generic and the specific. The book is extensively illustrated, and attractively designed by Ludovic Balland.

Katherine Rinne teaches architecture at the CCA in Oakland, though her online project on the waters of Rome is hosted by the University of Virginia. Her book, The Waters of Rome, coalesces much of that work into a detailed study of the city’s hydrological infrastructures, from the ancient to the nearly modern, with a particular emphasis on the city in its Baroque age. Her approach is “largely topographic,” she explains in the book’s introduction, tying even the innermost fountains and waterworks to the landscapes of hills and rivers outside the city. As she writes, “Rome’s fountains are so dazzling that it is easy for even dedicated to overlook the profound changes that their construction initiated in the social, cultural, and physical life of the city. The transformation was systematic and structural, reaching from ancient springs outside the city walls to include aqueducts, fountains, conduits, drains, sewers, streets, and the Tiber. Because of gravity, which dictated distribution, the water’s flow was constrained or encouraged by the existing topography, which influenced in part how the water was displayed or made available for use, who controlled it and who was served by it, what it cost, and obligations that attached to the people who were allowed to access it.” The book is a vital addition to any syllabus or library on hydraulic urbanism.

19) Foodprint Papers, Volume 1 by Nicola Twilley & Sarah Rich (Foodprint Project).

Last not but least, the Foodprint Papers, Volume 1 have been released, edited by Nicola Twilley (my wife) and Sarah Rich, documenting Foodprint NYC from back in 2010, “the first in [a] series of international conversations about food and the city.”

From a cluster analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists examined the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and collaboratively speculated on how to feed New York in the future. The free afternoon program included designers, policy-makers, flavor scientists, culinary historians, food retailers, and others, for a wide-ranging discussion of New York’s food systems, past and present, as well as opportunities to transform our edible landscape through technology, architecture, legislation, and education.

The pamphlet is self-published through Lulu, and all purchases help Nicola & Sarah throw more such events in the future. And, while we’re on the subject of food, don’t miss Sarah’s own recent book, Urban Farms.

Happy reading!

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All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Books Received

[Image: A riverboat library in Bangladesh; image courtesy of the Gates Foundation].

Many, many books have arrived at the home office here, and I’m thus once again woefully behind in tallying up all the titles that have come my way. Accordingly, there are still many more write-ups to come, but it will be next month, after some upcoming travels, before I get to those other books.

Meanwhile, as has always been the case with Books Received posts, I have not read all of the books linked here and not all of them are necessarily new. However, in all cases, these are included for the interest of their approach or subject matter, and the following list should easily give just about anyone at least one good book to read over the coming summer.


1) City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age by P.D. Smith (Bloomsbury) — P.D. Smith’s voluminous look at the history of urbanism stretches from the Sumerians to the 2012 London Olympics, from Tenochtitlán to Dubai, from the Code of Hammurabi to J.G. Ballard, and from the Italian Renaissance to the urban ruins of nuclear war. Smith has organized his book like a travel guide, albeit not for a particular metropolis but for the city in and of itself. Chapters are thus divided into overarching categories such as “arrival,” “where to stay,” “getting around,” and more, and while the result can sometimes conflate otherwise quite different urban phenomena found in disparate cities around the world, that slight sense that things are starting to blur is evened out by Smith’s eye for detail in the stories and anecdotes he relates, particularly in the book’s many boxed texts and sidebars. Migration, food security, global tourism, natural disasters, economic expansion, and war: these are all perennial influences on urban form—and urban futures—and Smith works hard to show their role in shaping the life of what he calls “the ape that shapes [its] environment, the city builders.” City comes out in the United States in June 2012.

2) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum (Ecco) — I had the pleasure of receiving periodic email updates from author Andrew Blum as he traveled to the unmarked buildings and coastal warehouses—amongst many other sites—that enable, store, and protect what we broadly refer to as the internet. The resulting book, released earlier this week, tells the story of those travels: it is Blum’s field guide to the physical infrastructure of contemporary data, tracking the internet’s actual geography, the sites where the switches are kept and the servers are cooled, where the cables come out of the sea and relay onward, deeper into cities and suburbs, into office and apartments like the one from which I’m posting this. “The Internet couldn’t just be everywhere,” Blum writes, questioning ethereal metaphors like “the cloud” or the abstract “tubes” of the book’s title. “But then where was it? If I followed the wire, where would it lead? What would that place look like? Why were they there? I decided to visit the Internet.” In one particularly memorable description, Blum quips that he “had begun to notice that the Internet had a smell, an odd but distinctive mix of industrial-strength air conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors,” as if even the most amorphous realms of data have their own peculiar body odor. This body—the “tubes” of the internet—leads Blum from underground London to the middle of nowhere in central Oregon, from downtown Milwaukee to locked rooms in Amsterdam, on the trail of the “pulses of light” that give the internet physical and geographic form.

3) The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads by Robert A. Kaster (University of Chicago Press) — As Kaster’s book claims on its opening page, “No road in Europe has been so heavily traveled, by so many different people, with so many different aims, over so many generations.” The Appian Way, which cuts broadly southeast from the old city walls of Rome, gives Kaster—a Classicist at Princeton—a long and meandering geography on which to base this otherwise concise, almost pamphlet-length look at the Italian landscape and how it has evolved over the past two millennia. From marshes and town centers to incongruously 21st-century wind farms where the ancient road all but disappears into gravel-strewn ruins, by way of endless crumbling tombs that will be familiar to any fan of Piranesi, Kaster’s book describes the sites, monuments, churches, cemeteries, and more that give readers an opportunity to explore the historical—usually archaeological—context for this legendary piece of transportation infrastructure. The Appian Way is part of the “Culture Trails” series from the University of Chicago Press.


4) Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews (University of Chicago Press) — Mathews offers a kind of anthropological critique of globalization in the guise of architectural reportage, telling the story of Chungking Mansions, “a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district,” and using close descriptions of everyday life in the complex to build a cross-section of the global economy. “A remarkably motley group of people call the building home,” we read in the book’s own description: “Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.”

5) Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert J. Sampson (University of Chicago Press) — Sampson’s very academic book—less narrative than statistical and analytic, and keenly based in empirical research—weighs the importance of community in defining, empowering, and uniting the city of Chicago, neighborhood by neighborhood.

6) New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham by Steven H. Jaffe (Basic Books) — Jaffe has written an incredibly interesting military history of New York City, beginning well before it was either New York or a city. Jaffe’s detailed accounts of early colonial battles and Revolutionary battlegrounds reveal the, to me, surprising number and topographic diversity of combat sites that dot the greater New York landscape. In the process, he offers little-known historical anecdotes—for instance, not only that Wall Street is so named after the defensive wall once constructed there, from one side of the island to the other, but that the wall was the first example of debt-financed urban infrastructure in what were then Dutch colonies. Jaffe’s look at a military urbanism peculiar to New York, from the 1600s to WWII to the security bollards of post-9/11 NYC, has proven hard to put down.

7) The Insurgent Barricade by Mark Traugott (University of California Press) — Traugott’s history of the barricade as a uniquely successful “technique of insurrection” is, first and foremost, a look at the spatial politics of the built environment. These politics operate in at least two primary, and clearly oppositional, ways, Traugott suggests. The first is the deliberate mis-use or counter-use of the city, transforming it into something that, through improvisatory re-design, can be express the political demands of an otherwise overlooked constituency. This is the production of barricades, which interfere with and strategically realign the internal movements of the city. The other side of this story, however, is the purposeful and systematic alteration of a city’s fabric precisely so that its everyday spaces cannot be used as outlets for political expression. In the latter example, streets can be widened or public spaces closely surveilled; in the former, makeshift tools and ad hoc materials, from cobblestones to wheelbarrows, can be transformed at a moment’s notice into walls that clog the city’s arteries and bring its streets to a halt. Traugott shows how all this has played out over more than four centuries of European urban history, also looking at what future spatial possibilities exist, on both sides of the barricade, for the political life of the metropolis.


8) Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf) — Fortey is easily one of my favorite natural history writers, and his Earth: An Intimate History remains high on my list of recommended books. With this new book, Fortey takes on the question of survival—or super-survival—in creatures whose wildly successful evolutionary paths mean they have had a disproportionately deep effect on whole ecosystems still thriving today. This is “life’s history told not through the fossil record but through the stories of organisms that have survived, almost unchanged, throughout time,” in the book’s own words. The horseshoe crabs and velvet worms of the title are only two of the most-cited creatures in Fortey’s unsurprisingly enjoyable book.

9) The Prehistory of Home by Jerry D. Moore (University of California Press) — Moore starts things off with the unfortunate claim that “various animals build shelters, but only humans build homes,” an unprovable statement that belongs on the sadly endless pile of false comparisons made about humans and animals. Indeed, only four pages later, Moore himself writes that “we [humans] have been building homes longer than we have been Homo sapiens,” which can literally only be true if animals—that is, non-humans or non-Homo sapiens—can, after all, build homes, not just shelters, and have been doing so all along. In any case, this minor but by no means inconsequential quibble shouldn’t hold you back from enjoying Moore’s engaging history of the home—that is, the symbolically rich personal shelter—which he takes on a wide and exciting run from hand-woven walls and mud floors on the coast of Peru all the way to maximum security prisons, from Mesopotamian walled cities to gated suburbs, and from bachelor pads to underground “dwellings” built for the recently deceased in globally diverse burial practices. Part archaeological survey dating back, as Moore explains, to before humans were Human, and part speculative treatise as to why humans have an emotional need for homes at all, Moore’s book spans hundreds of thousands of years and nearly every continent.

10) The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World by Robert McGhee (Oxford University Press) — McGhee, an archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, “paints a vivid portrait of Viking farmers, entrepreneurial Inuit, and Western explorers” in their encounter with, and long-term settling of, the Arctic. Though the book has been out for several years, it just crossed my desk and I look forward to jumping in over the summer.

11) Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains by Keith Heyer Meldahl (University of California Press) — Meldahl’s book is, in its own words, “a 1000-mile-long field trip back through more than 100 million years of deep time to explore America’s most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes.” Those landscapes are the western plateaus, mountains, and deserts of the southwestern United States, a region whose terrain now verges on the over-exposed—hardly a season goes by without a new book on the subject—but, as Meldahl suggests, “geology is stranger than fiction,” and the book he’s built around that statement is a worthwhile read.


12) American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light by Daniel Freund (University of Chicago Press) — Freund’s book is a delightfully idiosyncratic look at the “quest for natural light” in American culture, from the earliest use of tanning beds as a kind of surrogate sun to the mainstream acceptance of “light therapy” as a cure for Seasonal-Affective Disorder, and from the marketing of climate tourism to the development of specialty lighting rigs for use in industrial food preparation. Freund explains in his introduction that the book was motivated by three otherwise unrelated historical figures—Akhenatan, Vitruvius, and Linnaeus—all of whom represent for Freund “the universality of sunlight as a subject for consideration.” The results are this unique look at the confluence of personal health, urban design, and near-religious popular beliefs about the purifying power of sunlight over roughly 150 years of American culture.

13) Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster) — Hellwarth relates the surprisingly overlooked story of U.S. Navy “saturation divers” and the international oceanographers whose research helped to pioneer the construction of deepsea equipment and large-scale architectural environments that almost made living on the ocean floor an everyday reality. Equal parts tropical retro-futurism, complete with scenes of Jacques Cousteau assembling his Conshelf habitats in the Mediterranean Sea, and high-tech adventure story populated by military super-athletes and entrepreneurial gear manufacturers few of us even knew existed—including surreal high-pressure diving experiments involving presumably quite bewildered farm animals—Hellwarth’s book tells the true history of what have been (and what might still be) for human inhabitation of the oceans. Best of all, it’s almost entirely set in a quasi-utopian underwater world, like Archigram crossed with The Abyss.

14) American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore (MIT Press) — Warner and Whittemore have produced an illustrated historical survey of U.S. urbanism, with short chapters ranging from “the city’s seventeenth-century beginnings” on the Atlantic coast to “the federally supported city” of the 1950s, ending with a somewhat obligatory overview of the “global city” and its suburban fringe. The book is a great introduction to the processes that have influenced and restrained urban development in the United States for more than three centuries, but it focuses more on presenting a coherent narrative—often reading more like a special issue of The Economist—as opposed to developing an original or otherwise surprising new interpretation of American urban form.

15) The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways by David M. Solzman (University of Chicago Press) — Re-released in its current, second edition back in 2006, Solzman’s book will no doubt already be familiar to many readers of BLDGBLOG, but his history of the Chicago River, its ecological context and industrial re-engineering, complete with a hands-on guide for anyone who might want to explore it, was new to me.


16) Pyongyang: Architectural and Cultural Guide edited by Philipp Meuser (DOM Publishers) — In print for less than three months, Meuser’s guide is already something of a cult classic in architectural circles, offering as it does a photographic and textual survey of the gonzo dictatorial postmodernism of Pyongyang, North Korea. A genuinely fascinating look at the political symbology of a capital city—Stefano Boeri’s memorable description of Pyongyang as a “rogue city” comes to mind—this slipcased, two-volume set offers “photographs and descriptions” in one book, including brief lessons on Pyongyang’s overall urban organization, and, in the other, what Meuser calls “background and comments.” These latter categories include—incredibly—excerpts from an architectural pamphlet written by the late Kim Jong-Il, who explains to his readers that, among other things, “architects are creative workers and operations officers,” spatially gifted functionaries of the State. Many of the photographs found in each volume can unfortunately resemble washed-out tourist postcards, and the buildings themselves are often striking for their super-ornamental, propagandistic absurdity—in a city whose natural setting makes it look oddly like Memphis, Tennessee—but to mock the city so easily and dismissively would be to miss the guide’s more interesting insight, which is that Pyongyang is, in fact, a remarkably assembled collection of processional spaces and monumental object-buildings, aesthetically arranged in a kind of 3-dimensional essay extolling the wonders of uncontested state power.

17) How to Make a Japanese House by Catherine Nuijsink (NAi Publishers) — Although architecture blogs have perfected the art of Japanese house fatigue over the past few years—in which it seems like a central server somewhere has been auto-feeding photos of small Japanese houses to the same design blogs over and over again every week—Nuijsink’s book is, refreshingly, a more substantive exploration of 21st-century domestic space in Japan, complete with one-on-one architectural interviews and occasional floor plans. Many of the projects you will already have seen online, but, given the breadth of context here, some great photographs, and three framing “monologues” written by architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Taro Igarashi, and Jun Aoki, it more than justifies its publication.

18) Dash 5: The Urban Enclave edited and produced by Delft Architectural Studies on Housing (NAi Publishers) — Dash—not quite a magazine, more of a subscription book series—continued last autumn with this look at the “urban enclave,” which the editors have framed as an often progressively intended urban mega-project. These developments, both privately and publicly funded, can create what one of the book’s essays calls “a city-within-the-city” or a city “made up of miniature utopias”: social developments and architectural forms that appear, at first glance, to be entirely disconnected from one another but that, the authors argue, actually invigorate the city through these clear and obvious contrasts. The enclave offers—in fact, it does not let you avoid—”the proximity and the accessibility of ‘the other.'” Agree or disagree, it’s another well-produced issue in the ongoing Dash series, including an interesting look at Oswald Mathias Ungers’s notion of Grossform by historian Lara Schrijver, author of Radical Games.

19) Toward A Minor Architecture by Jill Stoner (MIT Press) — Stoner’s book looks to “dissect and dismantle prevalent architectural mythologies,” and to do so through a turn toward fiction—but the result is an often somewhat timid and unnecessarily academic entry in what should be a very rich conversation. Stoner relies too much on citations from the usual suspects found in your, mine, and everyone else’s thesis papers from the 1990s (Deleuze & Guattari, Walter Benjamin, Leibniz, Sigmund Freud, Italo Calvino, and even the now sadly over-exposed J.G. Ballard). But, having said that, it’s hard not to find pleasure in a book that takes, well, J.G. Ballard, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and more—even the Berlin Wall—as fuel for a descriptive expansion of architecture into various other genres and media.


20) Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles (Amazon) — Many of you will recognize Will Wiles from his work as deputy editor of ICON magazine or his excellent though infrequent blog Spillway, but here he turns to fiction in a debut novel that tells the story of a man slowly going mad whilst house-sitting for a friend in Eastern Europe. From the book’s own description: “A British copywriter house-sits at his composer friend Oskar’s ultra-modern apartment in a glum Eastern European city. The instructions are simple: Feed the cats, don’t touch the piano, and make sure nothing damages the priceless wooden floors. Content for the first time in ages, he accidentally spills some wine. The apartment and the narrator’s sanity gradually fall apart in this unusual and satisfying novel.” The book has already been released in the UK, where it’s been receiving good reviews as a dark-humored “disaster novel,” but it’s not due out in the States until later this year, when it will become part of the first crop of books published directly and exclusively by Amazon.com.

21) Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinet (Grove Press) — Boudinet’s “bracingly weird new novel” has been receiving high praise and enviable comparisons for the author’s style, including to such writers as Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, and Neal Stephenson, as Blueprints of the Afterlife picks up considerable buzz in the scifi/speculative fiction world. Fans of odd settings and spatial details will presumably appreciate the book’s “sentient glacier” or its “full-scale replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound.” I’m looking forward to reading this while traveling over the next few weeks.

22) Joe Golem and the Drowning City by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (St. Martin’s Press) — It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Mike Mignola’s work, and his novelistic collaborations with Christopher Golden have so far been great, if not quite as gripping as Mignola’s own early Hellboy tales. Joe Golem tells the story of a flooded Manhattan, or, in the book’s own words: “In 1925, earthquakes and a rising sea level left Lower Manhattan submerged under more than thirty feet of water, so that its residents began to call it the Drowning City. Those unwilling to abandon their homes created a new life on streets turned to canals and in buildings whose first three stories were underwater.” The results, set 50 years after the flooding, are somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Central European urban folklore, featuring occasional black and white drawings by Mignola.

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All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.