[Image: The “Tour du Bei Pres Tehran,” photo “Possibly by Luigi Pesce (Italian, 1818–1891),” courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; superficially, I’m reminded of these incredible photos of eroding domes and arches in Uzbekistan].
[Image: As if a lighter-than-air geometric fluid became temporarily frozen between two gateways of masonry, it’s just a bridge over the Norderelbe in Hamburg, Germany; photograph by Georg Koppmann (1888) from the collection of the Hamburg Museum, via Hamburger Architektur Sommer 2015, as spotted by Wassmann Foundation and Darran Anderson].
[Image: “Klaksvik. The whale head wall. Skulls of globiceps.” Photo from the Icelandic and Faroese Photographs of Frederick W.W. Howell, Cornell University Library].
While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.
Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.
He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].
What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.
Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.
“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”
[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].
It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:
Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.
The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”
There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.
The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].
But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.
I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.
Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.
On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].
Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.
In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?
[Image: Map Measuring Tool, CIA].
[Image: Triangular 24-Inch Engineering Scale, CIA].
The collections include state-of-the-art graphic tools for producing maps and other measured cartographic products, as well as the maps themselves. Organized by the decade of its production—including batches from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—“each map is a time capsule of that era’s international issues,” as Allison Meier points out.
[Image: Terrain map of the Sinai Peninsula (1950s), CIA, CIA].
“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”
[Images: The Austin Photo Interpretometer, CIA].
But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.
On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.
[Image: 10-Point Divider, CIA].
Nonetheless, there is something hugely compelling for me in glimpsing the actual devices through which a country’s global geopolitical influence was simultaneously mapped and strategized.
[Images: Rolling Disc Planimeter, CIA].
As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”
[Image: Dietzgen Champion Drawing Instruments, CIA].
In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.
It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.
[Image: Stanley Improved Pantograph, CIA].
I’m reminded of one of my favorite books on the subject of geopolitics, literally understood: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.
Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.
There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.
[Image: Keufel & Esser 20.5-inch Slide Rule, CIA].
In any case, check out more at the CIA’s “Cartography Tools” Flickr set.
(Originally spotted via Alessandro Musetta).
[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
“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.
[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].
While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.
In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.
“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”
The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.
The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.
I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.
It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.
[Image: Photo by James DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution, via the New York Times].
There was an interesting article in The Atlantic several months ago, written by Ed Yong, about the remains of as-yet undiscovered new species hiding away in the collections of natural history museums.
[Image: Behind the scenes of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
Those species are, Yong suggests, just some of “the many secrets that are still locked within their drawers and dioramas,” secrets that will only be revealed and studied if we increase our attention on museum archives and stockrooms not as known quantities, but as potential resources of the altogether new and undocumented.
[Image: Amongst the fish of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
I was reminded of this by a short piece in the New York Times last week, about the skull of “a previously unknown species of extinct dolphin” found “sitting in a drawer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” It is from a descendent of a South Asian river dolphin, and was found in Alaska in 1951.
“One of the great things about the Smithsonian,” researcher Alexandra T. Boersma explained to the New York Times, as if taking a cue from Yong’s article, “is that the collections are so vast. We were just walking around to see if anything was interesting. And then, wow!”
[Image: Piscine preservation at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
Briefly, recall the instigating event in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. There, a researcher uncovers previously unknown letters written by a Victorian poet, folded up and stashed inside a book that “had been undisturbed for a very long time,” we read, “perhaps even since it had been laid to rest.”
Never before published—perhaps never before read by anyone other than their original author—these handwritten notes set off a long sequence of investigations and discoveries and, in the novel’s fictional world, help to partially rewrite British literary history.
Byatt’s archival fantasy—of unknown but magnificent things lying hidden in museums and libraries, in the very places that promised tidiness and knowledge, coherence and totality—is at least equally stimulating when applied to collections of all sorts, from Yong’s and Boersma’s natural history cabinets stuffed full of potential new species, even evidence of forgotten ecosystems, to collections of minerals, antiquities, architectural fragments, or street photographs.
Just one insufficiently described historic artifact, one misattributed drawing, one unpolished gemstone accidentally dropped into the wrong drawer, and off you go, struck by the fever of weaving the threads of the world back together again, one loose detail forcing the entire structure of everything you know to rearrange.
[Image: The Ghent Gate, Bruges, Belgium; via Library of Congress].
It’s easy to lose time clicking through the Library of Congress photochrome—or photochrom—collection.
[Image: St. Croix Gate, Bruges, Belgium; via Library of Congress].
Each image has a strangely volumetric beauty, enhanced by subtle depths of shade, that results from a development and printing process that also produced these otherworldly intensities of color.
[Image: Sevigne Gate, Bordeaux, France; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Narrow Streets, Naples, Italy; via Library of Congress].
Houses, castles, mountains, rivers, ruins.
[Image: The valley of Chamonix from the Aiguille du Floria, Chamonix Valley, France; via Library of Congress].
Utterly mundane subjects seem hallucinatory, like stills from an old animated film—
[Image: Old house in Rue St. Martin, Bayeux, France; via Library of Congress].
—or even hand-colored illustrations from a fairy tale.
[Image: The Rabot Gate, Ghent, Belgium; via Library of Congress].
Many look like paintings.
[Image: The cathedral, Carthage, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].
Purely in the interests of weekend eye-candy, I just thought I’d post a bunch here.
[Image: Sidi-Ben-Ziad, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].
I could look at these all day—these old streets and roofscapes, honey-colored rocks and even brilliant white robes glowing with sunlight.
[Image: Tresure Street, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Mosque of St. Catherine, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Red Sea street, Algiers, Algeria; via Library of Congress].
It’s also interesting to watch as small moments of modernity pop-up in the landscape, like funiculars or—in other images not included here—cable railways, train stations, and steamships.
[Image: Cable railway, Marseille, France; via Library of Congress].
In other cases, it’s just the pure bulk of masonry and its interaction with sunlight that remains so visually compelling, where looking at the city almost meant looking at a geological formation, an artificial mountain chain that you knew was filled with rooms and hallways waiting to be explored.
[Image: Abbey from the ramparts, Mont St. Michel, France; via Library of Congress].
[Image: New Gate, Grasse, France; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Basilica Fourviere, Lyons, France; via Library of Congress].
Finally, these old, looming roof profiles from buildings in Germany are spectacular.
Architects and engineers today should spend more time thinking about roofs, as spaces that can be inhabited, not merely as minimal surfaces used for no other purpose than to cover another space.
Roofs should be labyrinths you can walk through and get lost within. Roofs should have dimension; they should have windows and rooms. They should be spaces in their own right, not just lines where other spaces end.
[Image: Knockenhauer Amtshaus, Hildesheim, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].
[Image: The Sack House, Brunswick (i.e., Braunschweig), Germany; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Leibnitz House, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Das Rattenfangerhaus, Hameln, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Brusttuch, Goslar, Hartz, Germany; via Library of Congress].
[Image: Holstengate, Lübeck, Germany; via Library of Congress].
In any case, last but not least, here are some still-standing “bridge houses” in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.
[Image: Bridge houses, Kreuznach (i.e., Bad Kreuznach), Nahethal, Rhenish Prussia, Germany; via Library of Congress].
See many, many, many more photochrom prints over at the Library of Congress.