The City’s Secret Ink

A short article up at The New Yorker follows the adventures of so-called “ink enthusiasts” as they seek new sources of pigment in New York City.

[Image: Via Flickr].

The author, Amy Goldwasser, tags along as the group wanders on “a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink.”

By the time the foragers left Central Park, the pockets of [tour leader] Logan’s jacket were already bleeding pink. After finishing uptown, a few hours later, they went to [a participant’s] apartment, to make ink. One batch was pure pokeberry juice (vivid magenta). Another included five varieties of acorn boiled with rust from various sources—nuts and bolts, wire, brackets—and a drop of gum arabic. It came out a complicated silver-gray. Logan spread a range of ink pots on [the participant’s] kitchen table. He dipped the bottom of a glass jar into the rust-and-acorn ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper, making a silvery circle. “Look at our day,” he said. “Now, that, to me, is the blood of New York.”

The city’s capacity to leave marks—to stain, print, and tattoo the things and people that pass through it—can be found in the most mundane items, secret ink hidden inside “acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.”

Read more at The New Yorker.

(Vaguely related: Dumpster Honey).

Governor General of Fortifications

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

As part of some tangential research for an article of mine coming out this weekend, I found myself looking at Michelangelo’s incredible sketches for fortifications and defensive works designed for the city of Florence.

Michelangelo served as “Governor General of Fortifications” for this massive military project, undertaken in the late 1520s to protect the city from an eventual 11-month siege.

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

While Michelangelo’s walls play only the most marginal role in the actual article I was writing, I was so taken by the images that I thought I’d post a few here. Graphically bold and interestingly layered with other sketches and drawings, they’re surprisingly beautiful.

Indeed, as the late Lebbeus Woods wrote, “For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power.”

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

This wouldn’t be surprising. In a paper called “‘Dal disegno allo spazio’: Michelangelo’s Drawings for the Fortifications of Florence,” historian William E. Wallace points out that, “In the Renaissance, military engineering was an important aspect of the profession of being an artist.”

Designing defensive works to protect his own city from attack was thus a natural continuation of Michelangelo’s expertise, and his artistic sensibility only made the resulting designs that much more visually captivating.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

The vocabulary for these structures is also, in its own way, strangely mesmerizing.

As Wallace writes, for example, this is “a design for an extremely complex detached bastion, a triangular-shaped defensive work usually projecting from a rampart or curtain wall, but here situated in front of a rectangular city gate which is drawn toward the bottom center of the sheet. The fortification is actually composed of three separate outworks or lunettes, and two ravelins, the long narrow constructions placed in front of the defensive work in order to break up a frontal assault. The various parts of the fortification are linked by removable log or plank bridges, and the whole complex is surrounded by a ditch repeatedly labeled ‘fosso,’ the outer rim of which, the counterscarp, has a stellate outline echoing the pincerlike (tenaille) form of the fortification.”

Bastions, counterscarps, outworks, lunettes. Ramparts, ravelins, stellate outlines.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

In any case, you can see more over at Lebbeus Woods’s site, or in Carmen C. Bambach’s gorgeously produced exhibition catalog, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.

(Related: The City and its Citadels. Thanks to Allison Meier for helping obtain a copy of William E. Wallace’s paper.)

Thermal Crime Wave

[Image: From FBI surveillance video in Baltimore].

One interesting side-effect of ever-intensifying heatwaves in an era of global climate change might be that infrared imaging technology used by the police is no longer quite as effective. Human bodies will be cooler than the surrounding landscape, meaning that they could simply disappear from view.

It’s like that scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where a portable heater, hidden inside a briefcase, incapacitates an infrared surveillance camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only, here, it’s been scaled up to an entire metropolis. Heat the city; disappear.

This is, of course, a solved problem—forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can be adjusted to accommodate different temperature ranges. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to imagine a fictional future crime wave timed specifically and deliberately for a night of excruciatingly hot temperatures in a city somewhere, the bodies of criminals mischievously blending in with the buildings around them as they only rob buildings close to their own thermal range. Criminals armed with precision thermometers, casing the city.

That, or they can simply wear graphene.

(Thanks to @raihan_ for the heads up; also, I wrote fairly extensively about police FLIR use in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.)

La vie minérale

[Image: Photo by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne].

A new exhibition featuring photos, videos, and sound installations by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne looks at life underground in Helsinki, Finland.

“Imagine a city with more than 400 underground facilities, tunnels that span over hundreds of kilometres and 10 million cubic meters of space carved into old Precambrian bedrock,” they write. These spaces serve as “athletic training sites, energy distribution networks, globalized data centers, archival chambers, a buried church or undisclosed military facilities,” to name only a few of their everyday uses.

The exhibition is up until June 17th, in Québec City. Read more at l’Œil de Poisson.

Cities of the Sun

[Image: Ningbo, China, via Google Maps].

Although I will leave it up to you to decide if you agree with the author’s critique of planning regulations, there is nonetheless a fascinating post over at NYU’s Marron Institute. It was originally published back in 2014, but I just saw it the other day thanks to a tweet from Nicola Twilley.

There, Alain Bertaud describes a planning rule from 1950s China: “In the 1950s,” Bertaud writes, “China established a regulation requiring that at least one room in each apartment receive a minimum of one hour of sunshine on the day of the winter solstice, December 21.”

As an architectural constraint, this is actually quite amazing: it needn’t inspire identical towers with identical windows all pointing in the same direction, but could very easily lead to a riot of creativity and innovation, pushing architects to imagine increasingly clever structural and material means for opening even the deepest megastructural interior to winter sunlight.

In a sense, I might say, it is not the regulation’s fault if architects come to the table with a yawning and lackluster response. While this is admittedly an anachronistic comment, given what little I know about city planning in China’s state-driven economy of the 1950s, my larger point is simply that even extreme design constraints can be implemented with subtleness and creativity.

[Image: Guangzhou, China, via Google Maps].

Bertaud continues: “even though the rule no longer applies, its impact on the spatial structure of Chinese cities remains.” This kicks off a kind of forensic examination of Chinese urban form, with the goal of finding the sun of the winter solstice shining somewhere at each city’s regulatory core.

First of all, right away stuff like this is incredible: it is urban-planning analysis as astronomical inquiry, or, more abstractly speaking, it is the suggestion that, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the world we’ve built for ourselves, there are traces of older rules or beliefs that still make their presence known.

This is why things like apotropaic marks are so interesting, for example, not because you have to believe in the occult, but because these marks reveal that even superstition and folklore have spatial effects, and that these beliefs have influenced the design and construction of thresholds and hearths for centuries. Even apparently secular architecture has irrational patterns of belief built into it.

[Image: Beijing, China, via Google Maps].

In any case, the solstice-planning rule “boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: distance d between buildings is determined by the height of building h multiplied by the tangent of the angle α of the sun on the winter solstice at 11:30 in the morning using solar time.” It is “a mathematical formula linked to the movement of the sun,” which, for Bertaud, falsely lent it the air of science, creating the illusion that this approach was rational—in short, that it was a good idea.

One interesting emergent side-effect of the rule, however, is that, by necessity, it had different spatial effects at different latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth. Chinese urban form became a kind of diagram of the Earth’s relationship to the solar system: the distances between buildings, the layouts of rooms inside those buildings, the locations of windows inside those rooms, all taking their cue from a celestial source.

Like a careful study of Stonehenge, you could reverse-engineer the precise location of the sun on a specific day of the year from the layouts of Chinese cities.

But is such poetry really worth it, economically and spatially? Bertaud certainly thinks not. Check out the original post for more.

(The images in this post were arbitrarily taken from Google Maps purely based on locations referred to by Bertaud’s post; they should not be seen as visual evidence of the 1950s planning law discussed here.)

How The City Uses Algorithms

New York City has announced the “Automated Decision Systems Task Force which will explore how New York City uses algorithms.” This makes New York “the first city in the country bringing our best technology and policy minds together to understand how algorithms affect the daily lives of our constituents. Whether the city has made a decision about school placements, criminal justice, or the provision of social services, this unprecedented legislation gets us one step closer to making algorithms accountable, transparent, and free of potential bias.”

(Spotted via Kate Crawford.)

Logan

[Image: Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood, via Google Maps].

On a work trip to Philadelphia last week, I learned about the city’s semi-evacuated Logan neighborhood. As you can see in the satellite view, above, a huge swath of the neighborhood was emptied of its residents, their buildings torn down—because the ground there is not really ground at all, but “an unstable foundation of cinder and ash on a creek bed.”

As the New York Times reported back in 1989, “row houses listed at angry angles, sidewalks were crumbled and the ground seemed no more steady than the nerves of the residents… The houses are sinking, officials say, because the soil is shifting.”

“Some parts of vacant houses, like front porches or walls, have collapsed on their own,” we read, as if the neighborhood had become a slow, gridded sea of unspectacular but relentless subterranean motion. Some houses took on the form of scuttled ships: “Some sag. Some list. Some lean into each other, Corinthian columns askew. One front porch juts upward, like the prow of a galleon. In some homes, the tilt is so bad it looks as if dishes would slide off the dinner table.”

[Image: The empty streets of Logan, via Google Street View].

Unsurprisingly, the results were often nightmarish. Houses were “constantly flooded by raw sewage” from leaking pipes. Gas lines exploded. Or this, also from the New York Times:

Elizabeth Stone, a secretary who has lived in Logan for 15 years with her husband and three children, said she moved her washing machine from the basement to her kitchen because the basement floor was caving in. Her dryer is still down there, but she will not go in the basement because she is afraid the floor will collapse. Besides, she said, there are rats down there and there seem to be more of them in the neighborhood because of shifting foundations.

Perhaps the most evocative description, however, comes from a 2010 entry on the blog Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

A lone medical facility, run by Dr. Donald Turner, was never moved, receiving no help or financial aid from the city, which claimed it was somehow more stable than literally every other building around it. This, despite the fact that the ground has visibly buckled and the evacuated neighborhood around it became a magnet for crime.

In the late 1980s, when the removal of the houses commenced, [Dr. Turner’s] building was spared. “My building should have been one of the first to go,” he says. Houses sat directly next to and across the street from his office. “This whole street was houses!” he exclaims, pointing to a cement path that now sinks into an empty field.

As residents were moved out, the houses were left vacant and became hot spots for criminal mischief. When they were eventually torn down, things got even worse. Turner’s office fell victim to numerous crimes. “People have drilled through the ceiling and climbed in through the back window,” he explains, “they want pills, once one of them had a gun.”

Dr. Turner thus put up a rather apocalyptic sign proclaiming, “Mayor Goode Thought My White Friends Would Help Me.”

The real kicker, however, is this: “‘One time a cancer patient fell in a sinkhole,’ says Turner, ‘I thought they’d shut me down for sure.’”

They did not. The building, incredibly, is apparently still there.

Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

The Remnants

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

Sounds in Transit

I’ve been delinquent in mentioning Jace Clayton’s new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize Clayton—aka DJ /rupture—from an interview published many years back in The BLDGBLOG Book, on the topic of music, sound, and cities.

Uproot is Clayton’s guide to various sonic undertows shaping contemporary music around the world, from Autotuned vocals spilling out of North African villages to raves in ruined buildings on the divided island of Cyprus, or from Jimi Hendrix’s literally sinister left-handed amplification of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to five thousand years of continuous habitation—and urban music—in Beirut.

Clayton has long defined himself as a kind of human forward-operating base, picking up the signals of incoming future music, writing dispatches for Fader, giving interviews to The Wire, and chronicling much of this on his own blog, Mudd Up!

The book itself proceeds through a series of longer chapters punctuated by aphoristic statements (“Dancing is a form of listening”; “Music that doesn’t change is free to do other things”; “To be local is to have few options”; “What we care for we repeat”). These summations both highlight and launch each chapter’s short, linked essays that back up Clayton’s claims.

Its very first sentence simultaneously warns against and advocates digital amnesia: “The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting,” he writes. He is referring to the complex effects of an ongoing format change, as musical culture transfers “from analog to digital.” Later in the book, Clayton develops this into what he calls the “distributional aesthetics” of 21st-century music, with both approval and slight political hesitation. He has in mind not just DIY punk CDs sold for cash after road shows but Lebanese cab drivers streaming new, anonymous tracks to jet-lagged passengers over Bluetooth.

How the sounds are delivered—through whom they are distributed and how they are saved—becomes as much a part of their effect as their rhythm or their BPM.

Uproot is at its best and most resonant when Clayton is out in the field, tracking down the physical origin of today’s music, whether that means visiting a town in Monterey, Mexico, to interview a 17-year-old bedroom producer of tribal ranch techno or browsing the stalls of Moroccan public markets.

In the latter case, Clayton gives an unexpected material signature to otherwise ephemeral MP3 culture. “The inorganic tang of injection-molded plastics off-gassing complex, probably carcinogenic polymer molecules mingles with sweat and diesel exhaust,” he writes. “Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on.”

[Images: Jace Clayton at work; photos by Erez Avissar, via NPR].

Questions of preservation, economic control, and cultural power interlace throughout the book, but Clayton manages to ground these in examples of samples—Sting profiting from P. Diddy, say—and software, such as the now-ubiquitous Autotune mentioned earlier, originally developed as a seismic tool for oil exploration.

Clayton remains both attention-addled and unusually focused, zooming in to track, with forensic detail, the unlikely paths a specific remix followed from a Berlin apartment to becoming an online dancing meme, before he abruptly changes station and moves on to new ground. Later, for example, Clayton shifts from the impossible task of preserving an ever-growing ocean of MP3s washing around online to thoughts about why sending golden phonographs to space with the Voyager mission—intergalactic file-sharing—wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

In any case, what’s particularly great about the book is that it wasn’t simply written from the comfort of Clayton’s home, an introvert’s report from too many hours spent downloading vast catalogs of exotic sounds; instead, Uproot is a road book, part field guide, part treasure map, a demonstration project to show that all music is made somewhere and that Clayton is unusually good at locating it.

Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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