Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Curbed

10-HaywardCornerWEB[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Lacking any sort of seismically-themed historic preservation plan, this seemed all but inevitable: a city works crew has fixed, and thus destroyed, the amazing offset curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect in Hayward, California, where seismic “creep” has been inadvertently tracked for decades.

From the L.A. Times:

Since at least the 1970s, scientists have painstakingly photographed the curb as the Hayward fault pushed it farther and farther out of alignment. It was a sharp reminder that someday, a magnitude 7 earthquake would strike directly beneath one of the most heavily populated areas in Northern California.
Then, one early June day, a city crew decided to fix the faulty curb—pun intended. By doing what cities are supposed to do—fixing streets—the city’s action stunned scientists, who said a wonderful curbside laboratory for studying earthquakes was destroyed.

As you can see here, small black lines had been drawn on the curb as a visual aid for helping measure exactly how far its opposing sides had been displaced by so-called “fault creep.”

11-HaywardCornerWEB[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

The curb on the west is moving north—along with the rest of that part of Hayward, California—while the curb on the east basically marks the edge of a different tectonic plate.

I was there roughly two years ago, looking at fault creep up and down California—primarily along the San Andreas Fault—when I took these shots; at the time, I wrote that the intersection could be thought of as “something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.”

CurbsTwoWEBCurbsWEB[Images: Photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Alas, we’ll have to wait presumably until the 2050s before the curbs offset to anything like they were when these photographs were taken.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the heads up!)

L.A. Recalculated

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

London-based architects Smout Allen and I have a project in the new issue of MAS Context, work originally commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial and closely related to our project, L.A.T.B.D., at the University of Southern California Libraries.

Called L.A. Recalculated, the project looks at Greater Los Angeles as a seismically active and heavily urbanized terrain punctuated by large-scale scientific instrumentation, from geophysics to astronomy. This is explained in more detail, below.

Between the drawings and the text, it’s something I’ve been very enthusiastic about for the past year or so, and I’m thrilled to finally see it published. I thus thought I’d include it here on the blog; a slightly edited version of the project as seen on MAS Context appears below.

L.A. Recalculated
Commissioned for the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Los Angeles is a city where natural history, aerospace research, astronomical observation, and the planetary sciences hold outsized urban influence. From the risk of catastrophic earthquakes to the region’s still operational oil fields, from its long history of military aviation to its complex relationship with migratory wildlife, Los Angeles is not just a twenty-first-century megacity.

Its ecological fragility combined with an unsettling lack of terrestrial stability mean that Los Angeles requires continual monitoring and study: from its buried creeks to its mountain summits, L.A. has been ornamented with scientific equipment, crowned with electromagnetic antennae, and ringed with seismic stations, transforming Los Angeles into an urban-scale research facility, a living device inhabited by millions of people on the continent’s westernmost edge.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. Recalculated can be seen as a distributed cartographic drawing—part map, part plan, part section—that takes conceptual inspiration from the book OneFiveFour by Lebbeus Woods. There, Woods describes a hypothetical city shaped by the existential threat of mysterious seismic events surging through the ground below. In order to understand how this unstable ground might undermine the metropolis, the city has augmented itself on nearly every surface with “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments,” he writes, “measuring light, movement, force, change.”

In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux. Architecture becomes a means for giving shape to these existential investigations.

Twenty-first-century Los Angeles has inadvertently fulfilled Woods’s speculative vision. It is less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.

[Image: Models from the related project, L.A.T.B.D., by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG; photo courtesy Stonehouse Photographic].

L.A. is also a graveyard of dead rocket yards and remnant physics experiments that once measured and established the speed of light using prisms, mirrors, and interferometers in the San Gabriel Mountains (an experiment now marked by historic plaques and concrete obelisks). Further, Los Angeles hosts both the Griffith and Mt. Wilson Observatories through which the region achieved an often overlooked but vital role in the history of global astronomy.

Seen through the lens of this expanded context, Los Angeles becomes an archipelago of scientific instruments often realized at the scale of urban infrastructure: densely inhabited, with one eye on the stars, sliding out of alignment with itself, and jostled from below with seismic tides.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—ONE—
The surface of Los Angeles is both active and porous. A constant upwelling of liquid hydrocarbons and methane gas is everywhere met with technologies of capture, mitigation, and control. In our proposal, wheeled seismic creepmeters measure the movement of the Earth as part of an experimental lab monitoring potentially hazardous leaks of oil and tar underground.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—TWO—
The speed of light was accurately measured for the first time just outside this city of sunshine and cinema. Using complex scientific instrumentation assembled from rotating hexagonal prisms, mirrors, and pulses of light, housed inside small, architecturally insignificant shacks in the mountains behind Los Angeles, one of the fundamental constants of the universe was cracked.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—THREE—
In the heart of the city, atop the old neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, erased to make way for Dodger Stadium, we propose a series of 360º planetariums to be built. These spherical projections not only reconnect Los Angeles with the stars, constellations, and distant galaxies turning through a firmament its residents can now rarely see; they also allow simulated glimpses into the Earth’s interior, where the planet’s constantly rearranging tectonic plates promise a new landscape to come, a deeper world always in formation. The destroyed houses and streets of this lost neighborhood also reappear in the planetarium shows as a horizon line to remind visitors of the city’s recent past and possible future.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—FOUR—
As the city changes—its demography variable, its landscape forever on the move—so, too, do the constellations high above. These shifting heavens allow for an always-new celestial backdrop to take hold and influence the city. A complex architectural zodiac is developed to give a new narrative context for these emerging astral patterns.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—FIVE—
Seismic counterweights have long been used to help stabilize skyscrapers in earthquake zones. Usually found at the tops of towers, these dead weights sway back and forth during temblors like vast and silent bells. Here, a field of subterranean pendulums has been affixed beneath the city to sway—and counter-sway—with every quake, a kind of seismic anti-doomsday clock protecting the city from destruction.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—SIX—
All of the oil, tar, and liquid asphalt seeping up through the surface of the city can be captured. In this image, slow fountains attuned to these percolating ground fluids gather and mix the deeper chemistry of Los Angeles in special pools and reservoirs.

[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—SEVEN—
The endless jostling of the city, whether due to tectonic activity or to L.A.’s relentless cycles of demolition and construction, can be tapped as a new source of renewable energy. Vast flywheels convert seismic disturbance into future power, spinning beneath generation facilities built throughout the city’s sprawl. Los Angeles will draw power from the terrestrial events that once threatened it.

28_la_recalculated_08[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

—EIGHT—
Through sites such as Griffith Observatory and the telescopes of Mt. Wilson, the history of Los Angeles is intimately connected to the rise of modern astronomy. The city’s widely maligned landscape of freeways and parking lots has been reinvigorated through the precise installation of gates, frames, and other architectural horizon lines, aligning the city with solstices, stars, and future constellations.

• • •

L.A. Recalculated was commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, with additional support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks to Sandra Youkhana, Harry Grocott, and Doug Miller.

Meanwhile, check out the closely related project, L.A.T.B.D.. Broadly speaking, L.A.T.B.D. consists of—among many other elements, including narrative fiction and elements of game design—3D models of the architectural scenarios described by L.A. Recalculated.

The Soft Spot

geoborder[Image: Close-up of the 2010 State Geologic Map of California].

An interesting story published last month in the L.A. Times explored the so-called “sweet spot” for digging tunnels along the California/Mexico border.

“Go too far west,” reporter Jason Song explained, “and the ground will be sandy and potentially soggy from the water of the Pacific Ocean. That could lead to flooding, which wouldn’t be good for the drug business. Too far east and you’ll hit a dead end of hard mountain rock.”

However, Song continues, “in a strip of land that runs between roughly the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa neighborhood in San Diego, there’s a sweet spot of sandstone and volcanic ash that isn’t as damp as the oceanic earth and not as unyielding as stone.”

More accurately speaking, then, it is less a sweet spot than it is a soft one, a location of potential porosity where two nations await subterranean connection. It is all a question of geology, in other words—or the drug tunnel as landscape design operation.

border[Image: Nogales/Nogales, via Google Maps].

With the very obvious caveat that this next article is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and not in the San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa, it is nonetheless worth drawing attention back to an interesting article by Adam Higginbotham, written in 2012 for Bloomberg, called “The Narco Tunnels of Nogales.”

There, Higginbotham describes a world of abandoned hotel rooms in Mexico linked, by tunnel, to parking spots in the United States; of streets subsiding into otherwise unknown narco-excavations running beneath; and of an entire apartment building on the U.S. side of the border whose strategic value is only revealed later once drug tunnels begin to converge in the ground beneath it.

Here, too, though, Higginbotham also refers to “a peculiar alignment of geography and geology,” noting that the ground conditions themselves are particularly amenable to the production of cross-border subterranea.

However, the article also suggests that “the shared infrastructure of a city”—that is, Nogales, Arizona, and its international counterpart, Nogales, Mexico—already, in a sense, implies this sort of otherwise illicit connectivity. It is literally built into the fabric of each metropolis:

When the monsoons begin each summer, the rain that falls on Mexico is funneled downhill, gathering speed and force as it reaches the U.S. In the 1930s, in an attempt to control the torrent of water, U.S. engineers converted the natural arroyos in Nogales into a pair of culverts that now lie beneath two of the city’s main downtown streets, Morley Avenue and Grand Avenue. Beginning in Mexico, and running beneath the border before emerging a mile into the U.S., the huge tunnels—large enough to drive a car through—created an underground link between the two cities, and access to a network of subterranean passages beneath both that has never been fully mapped.

This rhizomatic tangle of pipes, tubes, and tunnels—only some of which are official parts of the region’s hydrological infrastructure—results in surreal events of opportunistic spelunking whereby “kids would materialize suddenly from the drainage grates,” or “you would see a sewer plate come up in the middle of the street, and five people would come up and run.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of a great anecdote from Jon Calame’s and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities, where the split metropolis of Nicosia, Cyprus, is revealed to be connected from below, served by a shared sewage plant “where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated.” The authors interview the a local waste manager, who jokes that “the city is divided above ground but unified below.”

In any case, the full article is worth a read, but a tactical geological map revealing sites of likely future tunneling would be a genuinely fascinating artifact to see. I have to assume that ICE or Homeland Securitylet alone the cartels—already have such a thing.

(L.A. Times article originally spotted via Nate Berg).

Beginning at Arcs, Centered by Lines

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

This is old, old, old news, widely covered elsewhere at the time, but I rediscovered this link saved in my bookmarks and wanted to post it: back in December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the maritime border of California with an amazing, 108+ page sequence of numerical locations in space.

It is geodetic code for marking the western edge of state power—or Sol Lewitt’s instructional drawings given the power of sovereign enforceability.

Rather than “The Location of a Trapezoid,” in other words, as Lewitt’s work once explored, this is the location of California.

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

Beyond these mathematically exact limits is not the open ocean, however, but sea controlled by the United States federal government. The coordinates laboriously, hilariously reproduced over dozens and dozens of pages simply define where California’s “Submerged Lands” end, or expanses of seafloor where California has the right to explore for economic resources. Outside those submerged lands, the feds rule.

In a sense, then, this is the Supreme Court seemingly trolling California, tying up the Golden State’s perceived western destiny within a labyrinth of constricting arcs and lines, then claiming everything that lies beyond them.

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).

“It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made”

Alec Earnest recently made an interesting documentary about a house in Los Angeles whose owner died, leaving behind a personal map collection so massive that, upon being acquisitioned by the city’s public library, “it doubled the LAPL’s collection in a single day.”

When LAPL map librarian Glen Creason, interviewed for the film, first entered the house, his jaw dropped; “everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” he explains in the film, including an entire floor that was “absolutely wall to wall with street guides.”

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

As the Los Angeles Times described Feathers’s house upon its discovery back in 2012, it held “tens of thousands of maps. Fold-out street maps were stuffed in file cabinets, crammed into cardboard boxes, lined up on closet shelves and jammed into old dairy crates. Wall-size roll-up maps once familiar to schoolchildren were stacked in corners. Old globes were lined in rows atop bookshelves also filled with maps and atlases.”

It went on and on and on: “A giant plastic topographical map of the United States covered a bathroom wall and bookcases displaying Thomas Bros. map books and other street guides lined a small den.”

Urban atlases, motoring charts, pre-Thomas Guide local street maps—Feathers collected seemingly any cartographic ephemera he could get his hands on.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

Earnest’s short film has more information about Feathers himself, and can seen in full either above or over on YouTube.

Although the story of the collection would lend itself well to longer journalistic exploration—and map librarian Glen Creason has actually written up some thoughts for Los Angeles Magazine—it feels like an amazing jumping off point for a piece of fiction, either cinematic or literary.

Perhaps some sort of Chinatown or True Detective-like property speculation noir, where parcels of land and off-books deals are being tracked by a lone collector through generations of local maps, marking boundaries, street names, omissions; or perhaps something more like “X Marks the Spot,” where an old Spanish-affiliated property from the pre-Los Angeles era is rumored to have once had vast brick vaults stocked high with gold, buried beneath the main ranch house, a property long since absorbed into the supergrid of Greater Los Angeles… but the vaults are still down there—along with the gold—if only you can dig up the right map to go find it.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

In fact, there could be a whole genre based purely on the unexpected narrative side-effects of people attempting—and failing—to map Los Angeles.

From Guns, Bridges

[Image: An otherwise unrelated shot of rebar used in road construction; via Wikipedia].

A quick news item from last month seems worth mentioning: “approximately 3,400 confiscated firearms” are being melted down and turned into rebar to be used for bridge and highway construction projects throughout the American Southwest.

As Global Construction Review reported, “The weapons will be melted into steel reinforcing bar, better known as ‘rebar,’ and transformed into elements of construction for upgrades in freeways and bridges in Arizona, California and Nevada.”

The event where this occurs is known as the “annual gun-melt,” and its future byproducts will be coming soon to a highway crossing near you: former armaments, from swords to plowshares, embedded in our everyday landscape.

The Town That Creep Built

[Image: A curb in Hayward reveals how much the ground is drifting due to “fault creep”: the red-painted part is slowly, but relentlessly, moving north. Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

South of San Francisco, a whole town is being deformed by plate tectonics. These are the slow but relentless landscape effects known as “fault creep.”

An earlier version of this post was first published on The Daily Beast.

The signs that something’s not right aren’t immediately obvious, but, once you see them, they’re hard to tune out.

Curbs at nearly the exact same spot on opposite sides of the street are popped out of alignment. Houses too young to show this level of wear stand oddly warped, torqued out of synch with their own foundations, their once strong frames off-kilter. The double yellow lines guiding traffic down a busy street suddenly bulge northward—as if the printing crew came to work drunk that day—before snapping back to their proper place a few feet later.

This is Hollister, California, a town being broken in two slowly, relentlessly, and in real time by an effect known as “fault creep.” A surreal tide of deformation has appeared throughout the city.

[Image: “Fault creep” bends the curbs in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

As if its grid of streets and single-family homes was actually built on an ice floe, the entire west half of Hollister is moving north along the Calaveras Fault, leaving its eastern streets behind.

In some cases, doors no longer fully close and many windows now open only at the risk of getting stuck (some no longer really close at all).

Walking through the center of town near Dunne Park offers keen observers a hidden funfair of skewed geometry.

[Image: 359 Locust Avenue, Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

For example, go to the house at 359 Locust Avenue.

The house itself stands on a different side of the Calaveras Fault than its own front walkway. As if trapped on a slow conveyor built sliding beneath the street, the walk is being pulled inexorably north, with the effect that the path is now nearly two feet off-center from the porch it still (for the time being) leads to.

[Image: The walkway is slowly creeping north, no longer centered with the house it leads to; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In another generation, if it’s not fixed, this front path will be utterly useless, leading visitors straight into a pillar.

Or walk past the cute Victorian on 5th Street. Strangely askew, it seems frozen at the start of an unexpected metamorphosis.

[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Geometrically, it’s a cube being forced to become a rhomboid by the movements of the fault it was unknowingly built upon, an architectural dervish interrupted before it could complete its first whirl.

Now look down at your feet at the ridged crack spreading through the asphalt behind you, perfectly aligned with the broken curbs and twisted homes on either side.

This is the actual Calaveras Fault, a slow shockwave of distortion forcing its way through town, bringing architectural mutation along with it.

[Images: The Calaveras Fault pushes its way through Hollister; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

The ceaseless geometric tumult roiling just beneath the surface of Hollister brings to mind the New Orleans of John McPhee, as described in his legendary piece for The New Yorker, “Atchafalaya.”

There, too, the ground is active and constantly shifting—only, in New Orleans, it’s not north or south. It’s up or down. The ground, McPhee explains, is subsiding.

“Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings,” he writes. “As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise.” This leads to the surreal appearance of carnivalesque spatial side-effects, with houses entirely detached from their own front porches and stairways now leading to nowhere:

Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene.

Like McPhee’s New Orleans, Hollister is an inhabitable catalog of misalignment and disorientation, bulging, bending, and blistering as it splits right down the middle.

And there’s more. Stop at the north end of 6th Street, for example, just across from Dunne Park, and look back at the half-collapsed retaining wall hanging on for dear life in front of number 558.

It looks like someone once backed a truck into it—but it’s just evidence of plate tectonics, the ground bulging northward without regard for bricks or concrete.

[Images: A fault-buckled wall and sidewalk bearing traces of planetary forces below; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, follow this north on Google Maps and you’ll find a clean line connecting this broken wall to the jagged rupture crossing the street in the photographs above, to the paper-thin fault dividing the house from its own front walk on Locust Avenue.

So what’s happening to Hollister?

“Fault creep” is a condition that results when the underlying geology is too soft to get stuck or to accumulate tectonic stress: in other words, the deep rocks beneath Hollister are slippery, more pliable, and behave a bit like talc. Wonderfully but unsurprisingly, the mechanism used to study creep is called a creepmeter.

The ground sort of oozes past itself, in other words, a slow-motion landslide at a pace that would be all but imperceptible if it weren’t for the gridded streets and property lines being bent out of shape above it.

[Image: A curb and street drain popped far out of alignment in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a sense, Hollister is an urban-scale device for tracking tectonic deformation: attach rulers to its porches and curbs, and you could even take measurements.

The good news is that the large and damaging earthquakes otherwise associated with fault movement—when the ground suddenly breaks free every hundred years or so in a catastrophic surge—are not nearly as common here.

Instead, half a town can move north by more than an inch every five years and all that most residents will ever feel is an occasional flutter.

[Images: Crossing onto the Pacific Plate (heading west) in Parkfield; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I spoke with Andy Snyder from the U.S. Geological Survey about the phenomenon.

Snyder works on an experiment known as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, which has actually drilled down through the San Andreas Fault to monitor what’s really happening down there, studying the landscape from below through sensitive probes installed deep in the active scar tissue between tectonic plates.

On Snyder’s advice, I made my way out to one of the greatest but most thoroughly mundane monuments to fault creep in the state of California. This was in Parkfield, a remote town with a stated population of 18 where Snyder and SAFOD are both based, and where fault creep is particularly active.

In Parkfield there is a remarkable road bridge: a steel structure that has been anchored to either side of the San Andreas Fault like a giant, doomed staple. Anyone who crosses it in either direction is welcomed onto a new tectonic plate by friendly road signs—but the bridge itself is curiously bent, warped like a bow as its western anchorage moves north toward San Francisco.

It distorts more and more every day of the month, every year, due to the slow effects of fault creep. Built straight, it is already becoming a graceful curve.

[Image: Looking east at the North American Plate in Parkfield; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Parkfield is also approximately where fault creep begins in the state, Snyder explained, marking the southern edge of a zone of tectonic mobility that extends up roughly to Hollister and then begins again on a brief stretch of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay.

Indeed, another suggestion of Snyder’s was that I go up to visit a very specific corner in the city of Hayward, where the curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect Streets has long since been shifted out of alignment.

Over the past decade—most recently, in 2011—someone has actually been drawing little black arrows on the concrete to help visualize how far the city has drifted in that time.

The result is something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.

[Images: A moving curb becomes an inadvertent compass for measuring seismic energy in Hayward; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Attempting to visualize earthquakes on a thousand-year time span, or to imagine the pure abstraction of seismic energy, can be rather daunting; this makes it all the more surprising to realize that even the tiniest details hidden in plain sight, such as cracks in the sidewalk, black sharpie marks on curbs, or lazily tilting front porches, can actually be real-time evidence that California is on the move.

But it is exactly these types of signs that function as minor landmarks for the seismic tourist—and, for all their near-invisibility, visiting them can still provide a mind-altering experience.

Back in Hollister, Snyder warned, many of these already easily missed signs through which fault creep is made visible are becoming more and more hard to find.

The town is rapidly gentrifying, he pointed out, and Hollister’s population is beginning to grow as its quiet and leafy streets fill up with commuters who can no longer afford to live closer to Silicon Valley or the Bay. This means that the city’s residents are now just a bit faster to repair things, just a bit quicker to tear down structurally unsound houses.

One of the most famous examples of fault creep, for example—a twisted and misshapen home formerly leaning every which way at a bend in Locust Avenue—is gone. But whatever replaces it will face the same fate.

After all, the creep is still there, like a poltergeist disfiguring things from below, a malign spirit struggling to make itself visible.

Beneath the painted eaves and the wheels of new BMWs, the landscape is still on the move; the deformation is just well hidden, a denied monstrosity reappearing millimeter by millimeter despite the quick satisfaction of weekend repair jobs. Tumid and unstoppable, there is little that new wallpaper or re-poured driveways can do to disguise it.

[Image: Haphazard concrete patchwork in a formerly straight sidewalk betrays the slow action of fault creep; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Snyder remembered one more site in Hollister that he urged me to visit on my way out of town.

In the very center of Hollister’s Dunne Park, a nice and gentle swale “like a chaise longue,” in his words, has been developing.

Expecting to find just a small bump running through the park, I was instead surprised to see that there is actually a rather large grassy knoll forming there, a rolling and bucolic hill that few people would otherwise realize is an active tectonic fault.

[Image: A fault-caused grassy knoll rises in the center of Dunne Park in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, he said, residents have been entirely unperturbed by this mysterious appearance of a brand new landform in the middle of their city, seeing it instead as an opportunity for better sunbathing. Fault creep is not without its benefits, he joked.

Snyder laughed as he described the sight of a dozen people and their beach towels, all angling themselves upward toward the sun, getting tan in a mobile city with the help of plate tectonics.

[Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Daily Beast (where I did not choose the original headline). I owe a huge thanks to Andy Snyder for the phone conversation in which we discussed fault creep; and the book Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough was also extremely useful. Finally, please also note that, if you do go to Hollister or Hayward to photograph these sites, be mindful of the people who actually live there, as they do not necessarily want crowds of strangers gathering outside their homes].

The Moving Mountain, or Terrain as Spectacle

[Image: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, via KCET].

Nathan Masters remains one of the more interesting chroniclers of life and landscape in Southern California, as evidenced by his “L.A. as Subject” blog for KCET. I could (and should) just link to all his posts, to be honest—lost hills! buried rivers! conflicting grids!—but last week’s installment, albeit short, was particularly interesting.

“For a few days in late November 1937,” Masters writes, “it was the Southland’s greatest attraction—a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed.”

Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a “moving mountain,” and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.

Even local astronomers showed up, telescopes in tow, in order to study the mobile mass, this blob of geology suddenly making a move into town.

After a catastrophic lurching of the slow-motion mountain, the terrain appeared to come to a standstill. “The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.”

This pent-up dramaturgy of the landscape—the possibility that its newfound agency would continue—crawling, oozing, rolling, forcing its way into public consciousness—remains strong today, even if subsumed into other contexts.

In other words, I’d suggest that many Angelenos are still, in a sense, “munching on popcorn and hoping the [landscape] would move again,” and that this is the dark fascination of seismic instability, of what it means to live in an earthquake zone: that the land itself is active, motivated from within by a kind of a slow-motion sentience, a mineral energy that is as much an invigorating spectacle as it is an existential threat.

Read the rest of Masters’s post over at “L.A. as Subject.”