Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offworld boom towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just-in-time urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martian pop-ups

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

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

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

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

Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

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).

Transnational Corporate Sovereignty

With the expected nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position of U.S. Secretary of State, the recent book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Columbia University dean of journalism Steve Coll seems newly relevant—so much so that, following Friday’s news about the nomination, Amazon has been temporarily sold out.

Coll has also just published a new piece over at The New Yorker looking at Tillerson’s legacy with the global oil firm. There, Coll describes ExxonMobil as resembling “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

Exxon’s foreign policy sometimes had more impact on the countries where it operated than did the State Department. Take, for example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in Africa. During the mid-two-thousands, the entirety of U.S. aid and military spending in the country directed through the U.S. Embassy in the capital, N’Djamena, amounted to less than twenty million dollars annually, whereas the royalty payments Exxon made to the government as part of an oil-production agreement were north of five hundred million dollars. Idriss Déby, the authoritarian President of Chad, did not need a calculator to understand that Rex Tillerson was more important to his future than the U.S. Secretary of State.

Should Tillerson be confirmed, Coll suggests, his new role “will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

The Guardian agrees, suggesting that, “In a very real sense, Tillerson has been a head of a state within a state. Exxon Mobil is bigger economically than many countries. It has its own foreign policy and its own contracted security forces.”

Consider picking up a copy of Private Empire and read more from Coll over at The New Yorker.

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

Deep Storage

[Image: Photo by Michele Limina, courtesy Bloomberg].

Bloomberg has a look at the subterranean warehousing strategies of the very rich, including former Swiss military caves and bunkers that have been repurposed as private gold vaults.

Deep in the Swiss Alps, next to an old airstrip suitable for landing Gulfstream and Falcon jets, is a vast bunker that holds what may be one of the world’s largest stashes of gold. The entrance, protected by a guard in a bulletproof vest, is a small metal door set into a granite mountain face at the end of a narrow country lane. Behind two farther doors sits a 3.5-ton metal portal that opens only after a code is entered and an iris scan and a facial-recognition screen are performed. A maze of tunnels once used by Swiss armed forces lies within.

These “Swiss storage operations,” as the article describes them, can be seen as spatial byproducts of international financial loopholes, such as the fact that U.S. citizens “aren’t required under the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to declare gold stored outside financial institutions,” or that these sorts of storage firms “aren’t regulated by the Swiss financial-services regulator Finma. Nor do such companies have to report suspicious activity to Switzerland’s Money Laundering Reporting Office.”

These regulations—or, rather, the lack thereof—assume architectural form: sites of temporary burial for monetary instruments that benefit from being held securely beyond the reach of the active economy.

Now for the inevitable heist film—part Bank Job, part Zork—set in the high-tech mountain bunkers of Switzerland…

Read more over at Bloomberg.

(Thanks to @fabmass for the tip!)

When those who it was built for are not present

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

I’ve got a new article up over at New Scientist looking at the so-called “ghost cities” of China, and where exactly they can be found. This is not as straightforward as it might seem:

It seems hard to lose track of an entire city. But that appears to be what’s taken place—and not just once, but over and over again. The infamous “ghost cities” of China have become a favorite internet meme of the past half-decade. These ghost cities are meant to be sprawling wastelands of empty streets and uninhabited megastructures, without a human being in sight. But for all the discussion, do these places really exist?

The rest of the piece looks at various strategies put to use not only for quantifying but for simply locating these developments in the first place. This includes data analysis and satellite photography—but, just as compellingly, on-the-ground firsthand exploration.

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

Here, I talked to photographer Kai Caemmerer who has recently undertaken a series of photos exploring what he calls “unborn cities,” or cities not dead and expired—that is, not ghost cities—but cities that are incomplete and still awaiting their future populations.

“Unlike many Western cities that begin as small developments and grow in accordance with local industries, gathering community and history as they age,” Caemmerer explains, “these areas are built to the point of near completion before introducing people.”

Because of this, there is an interim period between the final phases of development and when the areas become noticeably populated, when many of the buildings stand empty, occasionally still cloaked in scrim. During this phase of development, sensationalist Western media often describe them as defunct “ghost cities,” which fails to recognize that they are built on an urban model, timeline, and scale that is simply unfamiliar to the methods of Western urbanization.

Caemmerer continued, pointing out that his interest in ostensibly empty urban environments is not about shaming China, or implying that unused architectural space is somehow only a non-Western problem. In fact, in another series—a few example of which I hope to post here in the near-future—Caemmerer turns his lens on his own home city of Chicago.

“I’m interested in what happens to the urban landscape when those who it was built for are not present,” he explained to me. “More specifically, I’m interested in what can be revealed by the architecture when it appears vacant.
”

Read more over at New Scientist.

(Thanks to Richard Mosse for putting me in touch with Caemmerer).

Human Chess

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

Many of the ideas being proposed these days for housing international refugees, including families fleeing from the war in Syria, are beginning to sound less like genuine examples of humanitarian outreach and more like a strange new form of hide-and-seek, a bizarre ploy at stashing live human beings in ever-more resourceful locations, like searching for a clever new place beneath your back stairs to store excess home goods.

Three stories, in particular, seem to stand out for this—coming across not as real solutions to human tragedy but as a kind of abstract mathematical exercise.

A notable example of this came last year, in the summer of 2014, when FEMA was allegedly looking into housing migrant children—that is, “unaccompanied minors” from countries outside the United States—inside abandoned shopping malls and empty big box stores.

As The New Republic reported at the time, FEMA was searching for examples of an “‘office space, warehouse, big box store, shopping mall with interior concourse, event venues, hotel or dorms, aircraft hangers [sic]’—provided that they are vacant and able to be leased.”

The strange dystopia of this—cramming literally thousands of children who are, at least temporarily, orphans, into derelict shopping malls, empty hotels, and disused office complexes—outweighs the potential cleverness of finding, hidden in plain sight, an architectural resource ripe for humanitarian reuse.

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

As FEMA themselves make clear, such facilities are only useful if they are already outfitted with showers and bathrooms, among other bare necessities; retrofitting them for this purpose, while knowing that the day you need to put those showers to use might never arrive, would be both financially improbable and ominously permanent.

More optimistically, however, consider the case of dual-use infrastructure as put to use during events of mass quarantine. As Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, explained in a joint interview with BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography back in 2009, large architectural complexes not only can be designed for these sorts of secondary uses, but it’s actually a very good idea to do so.

While Benjamin’s primary example in that interview was a sports stadium outfitted for secondary use as a quarantine ward or post-earthquake gathering place, you could quite easily imagine entire shopping malls being designed such that they could be repurposed, with minor fuss, as de facto community centers following major events of social upheaval.

After all, many of today’s malls, schools, airports, and office complexes already contain—or even double as—tornado shelters. Surely, FEMA’s proposal is just a more ambitious continuation of this idea, scaling it up to the point that housing 500 children in an abandoned Circuit City would actually make architectural sense? If successful, it would give the idea of “big box reuse” a whole new valance.

Yet the reality of this threatens to be far less polished than such a speculative vision might otherwise suggest.

Indeed, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could become a clear case of good architectural intentions gone surreally awry. We might well create one of the emptiest childhood experiences imaginable, a Ballardian architectural prism through which eventually tens of thousands of “unaccompanied minors” would be filtered into something vaguely resembling adulthood. Unaccompanied minors, raised by abandoned malls.

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

In any case, the ill-conceived plans don’t end there.

As the Syrian refugee crisis accelerated over the past two months, the idea of housing refugees on Svalbard—a sparsely populated archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, known not for its strong sociopolitical infrastructure but for its polar bears—was suggested by Norwegian politicians.

Exactly how Svalbard would be transformed overnight into a land of economic opportunity was not discussed as part of the plan—although, unbelievably, coal mining was suggested as one possible route toward assimilation and success.

Moving broken families from the Middle East to what is, in effect, the North Pole so that they can mine coal there in an impossibly remote frozen landscape surrounded by polar bears sounds like something Josef Stalin would have come up with, lending even more of an air of unexpected inhumanity to these so-called “plans.”

But a third option, while seeming at first to be the most sensible example of this sub-genre of human chess, is possibly the strangest. “Let The Syrians Settle Detroit,” an op-ed for The New York Times suggested last month. The underlying logic is sound: the city’s population has plummeted, there is already a strong Muslim community in Michigan, and refugees very often exhibit strong entrepreneurial tendencies.

So far, so good.

[Image: Abandoned Packard plant in Detroit, via Wikipedia].

On the other hand, if Detroit’s only problem was population, then other people would already be moving back to fill that city’s wide-open economic niches; in fact, this has been the purported goal of many recent programs aimed at inspiring millennial artists and entrepreneurs to move there from overpriced cities such as San Francisco and Brooklyn and “revitalize” the region, an aim not without its own complex racial and political complications.

Worse, though, Detroit was not carefully moth-balled and set aside with packing tape for future generations simply to move in and reclaim it. It’s not a turn-key urban fantasy lying in wait for someone to come back, flip a switch, and turn the lights—and the police, and the fire departments, and the healthcare—back on. Its infrastructure is in decline; its streetlights and even its water supply are gradually being shut off; its houses are being torn down by the hundreds.

Randomly settling 50,000 Syrian refugees there straight from a war zone would mean depositing people in a condition of notoriously rapid urban decline, without any real cultural or economic context in which to orient themselves.

My own suggestion here is not in any way that a war zone in the Middle East would be preferable to living in Detroit—although it is worth noting that the premise of this program is precisely that only people fleeing war would want to live there.

However, people aren’t just game pieces you move from one place to another, swept up by your own architectural cleverness. If they were, well, then let’s put refugees on abandoned oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, or move them all to Centralia, gas masks thrown in for free. Let’s settle them in abandoned trailers as fracking “man camps” go empty.

Realizing that something is currently uninhabited does not mean that you can just fill it with human beings and expect a new society to take root. This is a geometric exercise—an experiment in space-packing—not a humanitarian plan.

Finding new homes—whether or not this “solves” the underlying geopolitical problem—is morally and economically necessary, and it will benefit everyone; but turning involuntary mass migration into a new form of architectural science fiction is not the way to go.

Hacked Homes, Gas Attacks, and Panic Room Design

[Image: “How The Burglar Gets Into Your House” (1903), via The Saint Paul Globe].

One unfortunate side-effect of the Greek financial crisis has been a rise in domestic burglaries. This has been inspired not only by a desperate response to bad economic times, but by the fact that many people have withdrawn their cash from banks and are now storing their cash at home.

As The New York Times reported at the end of July, “in the weeks before capital controls were imposed at the end of June, billions of euros fled the Greek banking system. Greeks feared that their euro deposits might be automatically converted to a new currency if Greece left the eurozone and would quickly lose value, or that they would face a ‘haircut’ to their accounts if their bank failed amid the stresses of the crisis.”

This had the effect that, while the rich simply shifted their assets overseas or into Swiss bank accounts, “the middle class has stashed not just cash but gold and jewelry, among other valuables, under the proverbial mattress.” Now, however, those “hidden valuables had become enticing targets for thieves.”

Or, more accurately, for burglars.

Burglary is a spatial crime: its very definition requires architecture. By entering an architectural space, whether it’s a screened-in porch or a megamansion, theft or petty larceny becomes burglary, a spatially defined offense that cannot take place without walls and a roof.

[Image: A street in Athens, via Wikipedia].

In any case, while Greece sees its burglary rate go up and reports of local break-ins rise, home fortification has also picked up pace. “Many apartment doors have sprouted new security locks with heavy metal plates, similar to the locks used in safes,” we read, and razor wire now “bristles from garden gates where there were none last summer.”

This vision of DIY security measures applied to high-rise residential towers and other housing blocks in Athens is a surprising one, considering that, globally, burglary is in such decline that The Economist ran an article a few years ago asking, “Where have all the burglars gone?

As it happens, I’ve been studying burglary for the past few years for many reasons; among those is the fact that burglary offers insights into otherwise overlooked possibilities for reading and navigating urban and architectural space.

Indeed, burglary’s architectural interest comes not from its ubiquity, but from its unexpected, often surprisingly subtle misuse of the built environment. Burglars approach buildings differently, often seeking modes of entry other than doors and approaching buildings—whole cites—as if they’re puzzles waiting to be solved or beaten.

Consider the recent case of Formula 1 driver Jenson Button, whose villa in the south of France was broken into; the burglars allegedly made their entrance after sending anesthetic gas through the home’s air-conditioning system, incapacitating Button and his wife.

Although the BBC reports some convincing skepticism about Button’s claim, Button’s own spokesperson insists that this method of entry is on the rise: “The police have indicated that this has become a growing problem in the region,” the spokesperson said, “with perpetrators going so far as to gas their proposed victims through the air conditioning units before breaking in.”

There are other supposed examples of this sort of attack. Also from the BBC:

Former Arsenal footballer Patrick Vieira said he and his family were knocked out by gas during a 2006 raid on their home in Cannes. And in 2002, British television stars Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine said they were gassed while attending the Cannes Film Festival.

Other accounts, particularly from France, have appeared in the media over the past 15 years or so, describing people waking up groggy to discover they slept through a raid.

It’s worth noting, on the other hand, that actual proof of these home gas attacks is lacking; what’s more, the amount of anesthetic needed to knock out multiple adults in a large architectural space is prohibitively expensive to obtain and also presents a high risk of explosion.

Nonetheless, a security firm called SRX has commented on the matter, saying to the BBC that this is a real risk and even pointing out the specific vulnerability: ventilation intake fans usually found on the perimeter of a property, where they can be visually and acoustically shielded in the landscaping.

Their very inconspicuousness also “makes them ideal for burglars,” however, as homeowners can neither see nor hear if someone is tampering with them; as SRX points out, “we have to try and prevent access to those fans.”

Fortified air-conditioning intake fans. Razor wire defensive cordons on urban balconies. Reinforced front doors like something you’d find on a safe or vault.

[Image: A totally random shot of A/C units, via Wikipedia].

The subject of burglary, break-ins, and home fortification interests me enough that I’ve written an entire book about it—called A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out next spring from FSG—but it is also something I’ve addressed in an ongoing three-part series about domestic home security for Dwell magazine.

The second of those three articles is on newsstands now in the September 2015 issue, and it looks at the design and installation of safe rooms, more popularly known as panic rooms.

That article is not yet online—I’ll add a link when it’s up—but it includes interviews with safe room design experts on both U.S. coasts, as well as some interesting anecdotes about trends in home fortification, such as installing “lead-lined sheetrock to protect against radioactive attack.” Bullet-proof doors, rocket-propelled grenades, and home biometric security systems all make an unsettling appearance, as well.

Prior to that, in the July/August 2015 issue, I looked at technical vulnerabilities in smart home design. There, among other things, you can read that the “$20,000 smart-home upgrade you just paid for? It can now be nullified for about $400,” using a wallet-size device engineered by Drew Porter of Red Mesa.

Further, you’ll learn how “specific combinations of remote-control children’s toys could be hacked by ambitious burglars to do everything from watching you leave on your next vacation to searching your home for hidden valuables.” That’s all available online.

The final article in that three-part series comes out in the October 2015 issue. Check them all out, if you get a chance, and then don’t forget to pick up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City next spring.

American Mine

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The following essay was previously published under the title “Infinite Exchange” in Black Maps by David Maisel (Steidl), as well as in Cabinet Magazine #50.

1.
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds.

“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”

In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 5, 2007)” by David Maisel].

2.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.

The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Writing in 1989, John Seabrook of The New Yorker pointed out that, in the previous eight years alone, more gold had been mined from the Carlin Trend “than came out of any of the bonanzas that feature so prominently in our national mythology, including the California bonanza of 1849.” That’s because gold in the region is all but ubiquitous, peppered and snaked throughout Nevada:

There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.

“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.

In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”

Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.

The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Where the gold came from in the first place is yet another interpretive preoccupation. A paper—forthrightly titled “Is the Ancestral Yellowstone Hotspot Responsible for the Tertiary ‘Carlin’ Mineralization in the Great Basin of Nevada?”—suggests that the gold of the Carlin Trend is actually a thermal after-effect, or geochemical ghost, of the still-nomadic Yellowstone hotspot that once pulsed and geysered beneath Nevada.

The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.

Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 10, 2007)” by David Maisel].

In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.

Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.

As architect Liam Young suggested in a recent interview, conducted after he returned from leading a group of design students on a research trip to the gold mines of Western Australia,

mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.

In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.

This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.

[Images: (top) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)“; (bottom) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 13, 2007),” by David Maisel].

Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”

These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:

Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.

These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.

[Images: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)” by David Maisel].

3.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.

Mystery is not used lightly. In his odd but insightful study of the various symbolic entanglements between gold, cocaine, violence, and colonial labor in South America, anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, with suitably mythic overtones: “How perfect is gold, the great shape-changer, the liquid metal, the formless form.”

This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:

The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.

For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.

Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 22, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.

Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.

Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 20, 2007)” by David Maisel].

To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.

In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.

Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 7, 2007)” by David Maisel].

4.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.

Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 17, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.

In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 14, 2007)” by David Maisel].

What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.

The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.

In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.

• • • 

I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel’s work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Maps over at the publisher’s website.

For those of you in Los Angeles, meanwhile, Maisel has a new show opening this spring—on March 26th, 2015—at the Mark Moore Gallery. Check back at this link in the weeks to come for more information.

Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel’s work, don’t miss “The Fall” or “Library of Dust,” among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.

Just-in-Case Informatics

[Image: A screen grab from the homepage of Orbital Insight].

Proving that some market somewhere will find a value for anything, a company called Orbital Insight is now tracking “the shadows cast by half-finished Chinese buildings” as a possible indicator for where the country’s economy might be headed.

As the Wall Street Journal explains, Orbital Insight is part of a new “coterie of entrepreneurs selling analysis of obscure data sets to traders in search of even the smallest edges.” In many cases, these “obscure data sets” are explicitly spatial:

Take the changing shadows of Chinese buildings, which Mr. Crawford [of Orbital Insight] says can provide a glimpse into whether that country’s construction boom is speeding up or slowing down. Mr. Crawford’s company, Orbital Insight Inc., is analyzing satellite images of construction sites in 30 Chinese cities, with the goal of giving traders independent data so they don’t need to rely on government statistics.

If watching the shadows of Chinese cities from space isn’t quite your cup of tea, then consider that the company “is also selling analysis of satellite imagery of cornfields to predict how crops will shape up and studies of parking lots that could provide an early indicator of retail sales and quarterly earnings of companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc.”

[Image: A screen grab from the homepage of Orbital Insight].

The resulting data might not even prove useful; but, in a great example of what we might call just-in-case informatics, it’s scooped up and packaged anyway.

The notion that there are fortunes to be made given advance notice of even the tiniest spatial details of the world is both astonishing and sadly predictable—that something as intangible as the slowly elongating shadows of construction sites in China could be turned into a proprietary data point, an informational product sold to insatiable investors.

Everything has a price—including the knowledge of how many cars are currently parked outside Home Depot.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.