Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Burglary & Rabies


People of Denver! If you are around next week, MCA Denver‘s legendary Mixed Taste series roars along with a new installment on Thursday, August 6, dedicated to “Burglary & Rabies.”

I’m proud to be representing the burglary part of the evening, discussing some behind-the-scenes tales and spatial research from my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out in Spring 2016; Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, co-authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, will be holding down the infectious vectors for the night’s darker half.

Rabies, Wasik and Murphy write, “is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans.” Relentless and “like no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day.”

However, seeing as one of the rules of Mixed Taste is that the speakers aren’t meant to reference one another’s themes—Mixed Taste consisting of “Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics”—I’ll just leave it at that.

But please stop by if you’re in town: tickets are available here. I’ll be discussing everything from the geology of bank tunnels to roof jobs, LAPD helicopter flights to invisible architectural shapes perceptible only to lawyers.

Touring the Gruen Transfer

[Image: Gruen Day 2015].

One of the most interestingly sinister things I studied a million years ago while writing an undergraduate thesis about shopping and agoraphobia is the so-called “Gruen transfer.”

Named after Victor Gruen, pioneer of American shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer is the moment at which, confronted by an unexpected array of choices—other products, rival goods, similar services, different options—a shopper loses sight of what he or she originally came out to purchase. That shopper originally just wanted new socks; now he wants jeans, a t-shirt, and, oh, that coffee place across the hall is looking mighty tempting right now…

The shopper’s desire has been transferred, against their will, onto another item altogether—and this transfer is a deliberately cultivated, if not entirely predictable, side-effect of how the shopping space itself has been designed.

I say “shopping space” rather than “shopping mall,” because the Gruen transfer is clearly alive and well and living online: speaking only from personal experience, the amount of random add-ons I’ve thrown into an Amazon cart at the last minute over the years, or even the extra songs I’ve bought on Bandcamp, is testament to how easy it can be to convince oneself that something you had no idea you were searching for is suddenly a must-have.

[Image: One of many malls by Victor Gruen].

What was infinitely more interesting to me, however, was the fact that, when taken to an interpretive extreme, becoming hyper-aware of the possibility that the Gruen transfer might be influencing you can lead to a strange, not particularly enjoyable state of paranoia, in which every decision you make—after all, you went to the mall to buy socks, but perhaps even wanting socks was the result of a Gruen transfer, one that began in the peace of your own home, for example, when you first noticed that you would need new shoes in another month or two, only to realize that, hey, a new pair of socks right now would be awesome… You’ve been transferred.

This can be true whether or not it even involves a purchase. Making the decision to move to a new city, or going to a museum there with a new friend, or even having that new friend in your life in the first place—these all might actually be the end results of multiple, cultivated mis-steps, a much more sinister and far-reaching Gruen transfer as you were silently but comprehensively duped by the world around you.

Pushed to this level, the Gruen transfer takes on a weird, paranoid ubiquity, a disturbing omnipresence that appears to be coextensive with desire in the first place. We are, in a sense, always and already being Gruen transferred, making decisions in a state of otherwise undetectable distraction.

In any case, Victor Gruen’s spatial contribution to the American landscape—how he influenced urban form and set a multi-generational path for the design of retail environments—is the subject of a new tour hosted by the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory. July 18, 2015, is Gruen Day 2015:

Victor Gruen (July 18, 1903–Feb 14, 1980) was an Austrian-born visionary architect most remembered for his pioneering work popularizing the enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center in the United States.

On July 18, the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory (BAIO) invites you to celebrate the lofty aspirations and historical legacy of the suburban shopping center at Gruen Day 2015.

Festivities will include an afternoon of talks, tours, and hanging out in the food court at Bay Fair Center, which opened in 1957 as one of the first Gruen designed shopping centers in the country.

Tickets are $30—but the first ten people to email event co-organizer Tim Hwang saying that you read about the tour on BLDGBLOG will get a free ticket. Email him at tim (at) infraobservatory (dot) com, and tell him I said hey.

[Image: Victor Gruen gestures at a mall of his making; photo originally via The Fox is Black].

This is technically irrelevant, meanwhile, but it is nonetheless worth remembering that science fiction author Ray Bradbury—whose house of half a century was torn down by, of all people, architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis— claimed to have invented the indoor shopping mall.

Indeed, Bradbury recommended “giant malls as the cure to American urban decay,” Steve Rose explains in The Guardian. “‘Malls are substitute cities,’ [Bradbury] said at the time, ‘substitutes for the possible imagination of mayors, city councilmen and other people who don’t know what a city is while living right in the center of one. So it is up to corporations, creative corporations, to recreate the city.'”

In an essay posthumously published by The Paris Review, Bradbury anecdotally recounted a conversation he once had with architect Jon Jerde. Jerde asked Bradbury if he had ever visited a mall called the Glendale Galleria:

I said, “Yes, I have.” 
“Did you like it?” he asked. I said, “Yes.” 
He said, “That’s your Galleria. It’s based on the plans that you put in your article in the essay in the Los Angeles Times.” I was stunned. I said, “Are you telling me the truth? I created the Glendale Galleria?” 
“Yes, you did,” he said. “Thank you for that article that you wrote about rebuilding L.A. We based our building of the Glendale Galleria completely on what you wrote in that article.”

What Bradbury wrote in that article was the idea that the vast interiors of future shopping malls would supply ersatz urban landscapes “where people could spend an afternoon, getting safely lost, just wandering about.”

[Image: Guy Debord maps psychogeographic routes through Paris; perhaps, all along, psychogeography was just a confused first-person experience of the Gruen transfer on an urban scale].

It was a psychogeography of the interior, as weary shoppers tracked whatever down-market dérive they could find amidst the mirrored escalators and mannequins.

Who knows if Ray Bradbury will come up during Gruen Day 2015, but be sure report back if you take the tour; be sure to email Tim Hwang if you’d like a free ticket.

The City Has Eyes

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the distant summer of 2002, I worked for a few months at Foster + Partners in London, tasked with helping to archive Foster’s old sketchbooks, hand-drawings, and miscellaneous other materials documenting dozens of different architectural projects over the past few decades.

On a relatively slow afternoon, I was given the job of sorting through some old cupboards full of videocassettes—VHS tapes hoarded more or less randomly, sometimes even without labels, in a small room on the upper floor of the office.

Amongst taped interviews from Foster’s various TV appearances, foreign media documentaries about the office’s international work, and other bits of A/V ephemera, there were a handful of tapes that consisted of nothing but surveillance footage shot inside the old Wembley Stadium.

It was impossible to know what the tapes—unlabeled and shoved in the back of the cupboard—actually documented, but the strange visual language of CCTV is such that something always seems about to happen. There is a strange urgency to surveillance footage, despite its slow, almost glacial pace: a feeling of intense, often dreadful anticipation. A crime, an attack, an explosion or fire is, it seems, terrifyingly imminent.

Unsure of what I was actually watching for, it began to feel a bit sinister: had there been an attack or even a murder in the old Wembley Stadium, prior to Foster + Partners’ new design at the site, and, for whatever reason, Foster held on to security tapes of the incident? Was I about to see a stabbing or a brawl, a small riot in the corridors?

More abstractly, could an architect somehow develop an attachment, a dark and unhealthy fascination, with crimes that had occurred inside a structure he or she designed—or, in this case, in a building he or she would ultimately demolish and replace?

It felt as if I was watching police evidence, sitting there, alone on a summer afternoon, waiting nervously for the depicted crime to begin.

The relationship not just between architecture and crime, but between architects and crime began to captivate me.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize what was really happening, which was altogether less exciting but nevertheless just as fascinating: these unlabeled security tapes hidden in a cupboard at Foster + Partners hadn’t captured a crime, riot, or any other real form of suspicious activity.

Rather, the tapes had been saved in the office archive as an unusual form of architectural research: surveillance footage of people milling about near the bathrooms or walking around in small groups through the cavernous back-spaces of the old Wembley stadium would help to show how the public really used the space.

I was watching video surveillance being put to use as a form of building analysis—security tapes as a form of spatial anthropology.

[Image: Unrelated surveillance footage].

Obsessed by this, and with surveillance in general, I went on to write an entire (unpublished) novel about surveillance in London, as well as to see the security industry—those who watch the city—as always inadvertently performing a second function.

Could security teams and surveillance cameras in fact be a privileged site for viewing, studying, and interpreting urban activity? Is architecture somehow more interesting when viewed through CCTV?

To no small extent, that strange summertime task thirteen years ago went on to inform my next book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which comes out in October.

The book explores how criminals tactically misuse the built environment, with a strong counter-focus on how figures of authority—police helicopter crews, FBI Special Agents, museum security supervisors, and architects—see the city in a very literal sense.

This includes the specialty optical equipment used during night flights over the metropolis, the surveillance gear that is often deployed inside large or complex architectural structures to record “suspicious” activity, and how even the numbering systems used for different neighborhoods can affect the ability of the police to interrupt crimes that might be occurring there.

I’ll be talking about all of this stuff (and quite a bit more, including the sociological urban films of William H. Whyte, the disturbing thrill of watching real-life CCTV footage—such as the utterly strange Elisa Lam tape—and what’s really happening inside CCTV control rooms) this coming Friday night, May 8, as part of “a series about spectatorship” at UnionDocs in Brooklyn.

The event is ticketed, but stop by, if you get a chance—I believe there is a free cocktail reception afterward—and, either way, watch out for the release of A Burglar’s Guide to the City in October 2015.

The City and its Periphery

If you’re in the Bay Area at the end of month, consider attending an event called Macro City, organized and hosted by the Infrastructure Observatory. Its purpose is “to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us,” and, in the process, “to celebrate the numerous people whose countless efforts shape the built landscape every day.”

Probably the most interesting part of the whole event is the ambitious program of local field trips, all of which take place on May 30th. They include guided tours of everything from the Zanker landfill & recovery facility down in San Jose to one of San Francisco’s wastewater treatment plants, and from a construction aggregate terminal and a kayak trip to an activist walking tour of the city’s many surveillance cameras.

[Image: The Dutra Group‘s extraordinary San Rafael rock quarry, a Macro City field trip site and striking reversal of the figure-ground relationship; photo courtesy of baycrossings/Macro City].

Tickets are available at various levels of price and access—and I should point out that I am also speaking at the event, alongside Nicola Twilley, so my opinion betrays some bias—but the conference has a great and important interpretive mission, and seems well worth attending: “We rarely see in full the cities that we live in,” the organizers write. “Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.”

Come tour and talk about those hidden systems on May 30 and 31, at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. See the Macro City site for more details.

Secret Soviet Cities

[Images: From ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War at Columbia’s Harriman Institute; right three photographs by Richard Pare].

Speaking of Van Alen Books: earlier this week, they hosted a panel on the topic of “Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” These were closed cities or ZATO, “sites of highly secretive military and scientific research and production in the Soviet Empire. Nameless and not shown on maps, these remote urban environments followed a unique architectural program inspired by ideal cities and the ideology of the Party.”

The ZATO, we read courtesy of an interesting post on the Russian History Blog, was a “Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO)”:

[T]he cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment.

In any case, there are two main reasons to post this:

[Image: Photo by I. Yakovlev/Itar-Tass, courtesy of Nature].

1) Just last week, Nature looked at Soviet-era experiments in these closed cities, where “nearly 250,000 animals were systematically irradiated” as part of a larger medical effort “to understand how radiation damages tissues and causes diseases such as cancer.”

In an article that is otherwise more medical than it is urban or architectural, we nonetheless read of a mission to the formerly closed city of Ozersk in order to rescue this medical evidence from the urban ruins: “After a long flight, a three-hour drive and a lengthy security clearance, a small group of ageing scientists led the delegation to an abandoned house with a gaping roof and broken windows. Glass slides and laboratory notebooks lay strewn on the floors of some offices. But other, heated rooms held wooden cases stacked with slides and wax blocks in plastic bags.” These slides and wax blocks “provide a resource that could not be recreated today,” Nature suggests, “for both funding and ethical reasons.”

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the idea of medical researchers helicoptering into the ruins of a formerly secret city in order to locate medical samples of fatally irradiated mutant animals is a pretty incredible premise for a future film.

[Images: (top) photo by Tatjana Paunesku; (bottom) photo by S. Tapio. Courtesy of Nature].

2) More relevant for this blog, you only have five days left to see the exhibition ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War up at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, featuring “ZATO archival materials, camouflage maps of strategic sites, secret diagrams of changing ZATO names/numbers, [and] ZATO passports.”

That exhibition documents everything from the “special food and consumer supplements given as rewards for the secrecy and ‘otherness’ of the sites,” to the cities’ eerily suburbanized, half-abandoned state today: “Today there are 43 ZATO on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their future is uncertain: some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs.” Check it out if you get a chance.

More info at the Harriman Institute.

Do Black Swans Dream of Electric Sheep?

In just a few hours here at Studio-X NYC—an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank run by Columbia’s GSAPP—we’ll be hosting a live interview with Ilona Gaynor. Gaynor is a London-based concept artist, filmmaker, and multimedia designer.

As Gaynor explains it, her work “largely consists of artificially constructed spaces, systems and atmospheres navigated through fictional scenarios,” her intention being “to intensify, fantasize and aestheticize the darker, invisible reaches of political, economical and technological progress. Grounded in rigorous research, consultation and collaboration,” she continues, “my aim is to reveal these worlds by exploring the imaginary limits within them both as critique and speculative pleasure.”

Most of Gaynor’s work has a strong financial bent, as you’ll notice from her portfolio, whether it’s the photographic series “Corporate Heaven,” a research project on insurance and risk, the short film Suspicion Builds Confidence, or even a “fictional artifact designed for the corporate world of tomorrow.”

Her most recent short film, Everything Ends In Chaos, embedded at the start of this post, presents “a mixed-media collection of objects, narrative texts and films that reveal the intricate trajectories of an artificially designed and reverse engineered Black Swan event.” A Black Swan, in Gaynor’s telling of it, based on the economic work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the idea that humans “are collectively and individually blind to uncertainty, and therefore often unaware of the impact that singular events can have on [their] lives: economically, historically and scientifically, until after their occurrence.” Her film is thus an attempt to “reverse-engineer” such an event, piecing together chaos from order; the film’s backstory, which is unfortunately quite hard to detect from the imagery alone, involves an elaborate kidnapping plot, stolen jewels force-fed to doves (which then escape from their cage and fly away), and an actuarial committee in charge of insuring against this event.

In another work, nature—that is, non-human lifeforms, especially plants—has become so expensive and, thus, so out of reach for everyday workers—in Gaynor’s future, for example, a single Ficus tree costs £450,000—that indulging in any interaction with the natural world becomes an experience of “unapologetic decadence.” That film, 120 Seconds of Future, is embedded below:

Gaynor kicks things off at 7pm tonight—Wednesday, 12 October—to be followed by an open Q&A. We’ll be at Studio-X NYC, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610. Here’s a map.

(More on Studio-X NYC, earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Fabricate

[Images: (top to bottom) Projects by Asbjørn Søndergaard , Marta Malé-Alemany, Wes Mcgee, and Nat Chard, courtesy of Fabricate].

Fabricate is the place to be in London next month, when a group of “pioneers in design and making within architecture, construction, engineering, manufacturing, materials technology and computation” all descend on the Bartlett School of Architecture for a two-day exchange of techniques and ideas.

As the conference organizers explain, topics “will include: how digital fabrication technologies are enabling new creative and construction opportunities, the difficult gap that exists between digital modeling and its realization, material performance and manipulation, off-site and on-site construction, interdisciplinary education, economic and sustainable contexts.”

[Image: A project by Amanda Levete Architects, courtesy of Fabricate].

Speakers include Philip Beesley, Neri Oxman, Nat Chard, Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, Matthias Kohler, Mark Burry, and many more. Follow their Twitter feed for further updates, and check out the conference website for information on attending.

In this context, I’m reminded of the “giant 3D loom” that’s been invented to “weave” parts for a “supercar.” More specifically, it’s “a high-tech circular loom, guided by lasers, that can weave 3D objects.”

The “supercar” in question, made by Lexus, “is being used as a test bed for newly-designed parts made from carbon fibre and plastic. Compared to steel or aluminium, it makes the car stronger and lighter but producing these components is much more time-consuming: only one car is currently being assembled per day.”

According to Lexus, 3D weaving technology reduces the volume of materials used by 50 per cent and increases their strength. The automated process should also make it easier to produce a large volume of parts in the future. They hope to use this machine, and other carbon fibre manufacturing technologies, to create more efficient cars.

Or more efficient buildings.

Get one of these circular superlooms in London for the Fabricate conference; Lexus can offer some corporate sponsorship to make it worthwhile, and you can weave a new structure in its entirety each day, unleashing this hypnotic race of machine-spiders and their laser-assisted loom.

Also, check out this video:

New industrial shapes emerge from a slow cyclone of threaded metal. Future silks for future objects.

In any case, if you’re in London on 15-16 April, be sure to check out Fabricate, and, if you see the organizers, tell them you read about it on BLDGBLOG.

Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales

While I’m announcing things, I also want to give a heads up to anyone in the Los Angeles area that I’ll be lecturing on Wednesday evening, October 13th, over at SCI-Arc, speaking on the subject of “Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales.” I’ll be delving into the long-running subtheme on this site of the role of architectural ideas in poetry, myth, comics, and fiction, from the ancient to extreme futurity.

From “trap streets” in London and the fiction of China Miéville to the folklore of The First Fossil Hunters and myths of Alexander’s Gates—to, of course, Quadraturin—by way of Franz Kafka, Mike Mignola, Rupert Thomson, 3D-printing bees, haunted skyscrapers, neutrino storms, the Cyclonopedia, and much more, the talk will be a quick rundown of both the narrative implications of architecture and the architectural implications of specific storylines.

It’s free and open to the public, and there’s an insane amount of parking, so hopefully I will see some of you there. Here’s a map. Things kick off at 7pm.

The Quarantine Banquet

New Yorkers with a taste for great—and jaw-droppingly creative—food should take note that, next weekend, two quarantine-themed banquets will be held inside Storefront for Art and Architecture, adding a culinary dimension to the ongoing exhibition Landscapes of Quarantine.

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; photo by Jennifer May for the New York Times. See more photos here].

As Nicola Twilley describes these nights over on Edible Geography, “on Saturday, April 10, and Sunday, April 11, the Brooklyn-based a razor, a shiny knife team will explore the culinary implications of quarantine, preparing and serving a quarantine-themed dinner inside the exhibition itself. Tickets are not cheap but then this will not be just dinner,” she adds; it will “explore the outside limits of the science of cooking, as well as the theatrical, social, and experiential possibilities of a meal.”

Michael Cirino himself explains that “these events are not only for professional chefs or foodies; they are for anyone who loves food, regardless of culinary knowledge or experience. We produce these evenings to effect a communal environment of social interaction, education and fun.” As such, the quarantine dinners will also include live demonstrations of Cirino’s techniques—including a lesson in “interesting applications for an iSi whipper.”

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

I would highly recommend reading the detailed rundowns of the quarantine menu both at Edible Geography and at the event listing itself (where you can also buy tickets). Edible Geography points out, for instance, that “if the dinner guests are passengers on a journey through quarantine, then the first course plays with the idea of exposure to disease, and the second course mimics the first step taken on arrival at the lazaretto—disinfection.”

In our initial conversations, I had told Michael that during outbreaks of the Black Death in fifteenth-century Europe, port officials would “disinfect” suspect cargo and mail by dousing it in vinegar and/or subjecting it to cedar or sandalwood smoke: from that seed of an idea, combined with culinary technology, a new edible experience emerged.

There will be “vacuum-sealed plastic bags,” riffing off the idea of separation and containment, and an “encapsulated” dessert course, all prepared by Cirino using the best ingredients on offer (such as dry-aged steak from the finest purveyors in New York City, white truffles, steelhead trout roe, and specially paired wines from Cabrini).

[Images: Photos from previous a razor, a shiny knife meals; see many more photographs here].

The very idea of a quarantine menu is, I have to say, extraordinarily inspired, as it recontextualizes the spatial tactics of quarantine as unexpected new techniques for cooking, and it takes materials and foods that have themselves, at various points in history, been subject to quarantine and treats them as ingredients for a gourmet meal. Further, an elaborate dinner served and plated after-hours inside Storefront for Art and Architecture will be quite a thrill (for photos of what such a meal might look like, check out the dinner for the Storefront re-opening gala a few years back).

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

In any case, all proceeds go to a razor, a shiny knife, and the events sound brilliant; definitely consider supporting Cirino’s culinary experiments, as you’ll get a night of cooking demonstrations and a delicious, once-in-a-lifetime meal in the process.