Entry Maze

[Image: Via India Times].

In order to comply with a new regulation that drinking establishments must be “at least 500m away from state and national highways,” a bar in India has apparently installed “a 250m-long maze-like walkway to the entrance, theoretically making it more than 500m away from the highway.”

It is a regulatory baffler, we might say.

According to the local excise commissioner, “We do not measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance”—therefore this multiplication of space does, indeed, meet the letter of the law. Two objects standing side by side could, legally speaking, be miles apart.

It’s the architecture of compression and delay: a hundred feet hidden in ten, a short walk transformed into a labyrinth of approach and misdirection.

(Via Atlas Obscura; vaguely related: The Switching Labyrinth, The Permission We Already Have, and The Rule of Regulations).

The Labyrinth of Night, The Polar Gothic, and a Golden Age for Landscape Studies

It’s hard to resist a place called the Noctis Labyrinthus, or “the Labyrinth of Night,” especially when it’s on Mars.

NoctisLabyrinthus[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

“This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus,” the European Space Agency reported earlier this week.

“As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks—graben—stranded within the resulting trenches,” the ESA adds. “The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.”

In other words, it’s an absolutely massive expanse of desert canyons and landslides, stretching roughly the distance from Switzerland to Rotterdam—a “700-mile labyrinth of fractures and landslides,” in the words of the reliably interesting Corey Powell on Twitter.

Imagine hiking there.

NoctisLabyrinthusAerial[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

We are living in something of a golden age for landscape studies. Over a remarkably short span of time, for example, we’ve learned that there are sinkholes on comets—that is, that comets have undergrounds. They have pores, caves, and tunnels, with sinkholes explosively airing this subterranean world into outer space. These “mysterious, steep-sided pits—one up to 600 feet wide and 600 feet deep,” as National Geographic described them, indicate that “there must be gaps inside.” Picture caves and tunnels evaporating in the darkness, before collapsing in on themselves in a crystalline flash.

Meanwhile, I have always loved the fact that there is a mountain range on Mars named after dead American astronauts, as if the Red Planet is somehow haunted in advance of human arrival by the mythological figures of explorers who never made it there. But this is just one small example of how a radically unfamiliar environment can gradually become known through the process of naming.

2016-01-01 22.59.25[Image: From India’s Mars Orbiter, via @coreyspowell].

My wife, Nicola Twilley, was actually at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for the recent Pluto flyby, covering it for The New Yorker; she wrote a great description of how the former planet became a true landscape:

As the scientists traced tendrils of reddish brown and speculated as to the rate of melt at the edge of a two-toned ice patch near Pluto’s equator, the impossibly distant world came to life. Fed up with referring to features as, for instance, “the black circle at two o’clock” and “the big white patch,” the team had started to give them names—first nicknames, such as “the heart” and “the whale,” and then unofficial but more formal names drawn from the mythology of the underworld. The whale became Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and a nearby dark smudge was christened Balrog, after the demons of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. An alien landscape had started to become a collection of places: knowable, if not yet known.

Interestingly, it seems that names come first, algorithms later.

In any case, while naming, of course, lends an air of familiarity to alien terrains—or knowability, we might say—the utterly bonkers nature of these landscapes remains extraordinary.

Nicky later revisited the subject, for example, writing that “the reddish patches” seen on Pluto might actually be “the organic material nicknamed ‘star tar,’ a precursor to life”—sludge awaiting sentience—and that “cryovolcanoes—volcanoes that spew slushy methane and nitrogen ice rather than molten rock,” might exist at the planet’s south pole.

There, this slow-moving matrix of frozen elements would circulate amongst other “exotic ices” in the distant cold, surely another kind of “labyrinth of night,” if there ever was one.

Think of what writer Victoria Nelson has called the “polar Gothic,” referring to an era of science-fictional representations of the Earth’s own polar regions as places of psychological menace and theological mystery; now picture weird slurries of nitrogen and star-tar sinkholes in a region named after Cthulhu, and it seems that perhaps the great age of landscape exploration has only now truly begun.

Consider, for example, this tweet by Rob Minchin, referring to the latest geological revelations coming from Pluto, a world of nitrogen glaciers and ice tectonics. “Water ice floats on nitrogen or CO ice,” he explains. This means, unbelievably, that “numerous mountains on Pluto appear to be floating.”

pluto[Image: Pluto, via @CoreySPowell].

Even within our own solar system, it seems, if you have an idea for a landscape so unreal it borders on pure fantasy, there is a planet, comet, or asteroid already exceeding it.

(In addition to @CoreySPowell, another good Twitter account for offworld landscape studies is @LoriKFenton, as the images seen at the link make clear).

The Switching Labyrinth

[Image: From “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

Sam McElhinney, a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, has been building full-scale labyrinths in London and testing people’s spatial reactions to them. See photos of his constructions, below.

McElhinney explained his research to BLDGBLOG in a recent email, attaching a paper that he delivered earlier this month at a cybernetics conference in Vienna, where it was awarded best paper. Called “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween,” it describes McElhinney’s fascinating look at how people actually walk through, use, and familiarize themselves with the internal spaces of buildings, using mazes and labyrinths as his control studies.

In the process, McElhinney introduces us to movement-diagrams, Space Syntax, and other forms of architectural motion-analysis, asking: would a detailed study of user-behaviors help architects design more consistently interesting buildings, spaces that “might evoke,” he writes, “a sense of continual delight”? Pushing these questions a bit further, we might ask: should all our buildings be labyrinths?

[Images: Movement-typologies from “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

Early in the paper, McElhinney differentiates between the two types of interior experiences—between mazes and labyrinths.

A path system can be multicursal: a network of interconnecting routes, intended to disorient even the cunning. It may contain multiple branches and dead ends, specifically designed to confuse the occupant. This is a maze.

Alternatively, a path can form a single, monocursal route. Once embarked upon, this may fold, twist and turn, but will remain a constant and ultimately reach a destination; this is a labyrinth.

The experience of walking these two topologies is very different.

These basic definitions set the stage for McElhinney’s own “premise,” which is “that all space is found, experienced and inhabited in a state of ‘switching’ flux between the diametrically opposed topologies of maze and labyrinth. This offers insights into how we might evoke a sense of continual delight in the user [of the buildings that we go on to design].” Accordingly, he asks how architects might actually construct “a path that switches from a labyrinth into a maze (and vice-versa).”

How can architects design for this switch?

[Images: From “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

McElhinney’s argument segues through a discussion of Alasdair Turner’s Space Syntax investigations (and the limitations thereof). He describes how Turner put together a series of automated test-runs through which he could track the in-labyrinth behavior of various “maze-agents”; these reprogrammable “agents” would continually seek new pathways through the twisty little passages around them—a spatial syntax of forward movement—and Turner took note of the results.

Turner’s test-environments included, McElhinney explains, a maze that “was set to actively re-configure upon a door being opened, altering the maze control algorithms” behind the scenes, thus producing new route-seeking behavior in the maze-agents.

[Images: From “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

Unsatisfied with Turner’s research, however, McElhinney went on to build his own full-scale “switching labyrinth” near London’s Euston Station. Participants in this experiment “animated” McElhinney’s switching labyrinth by way of “a stepper motor and slide mechanism” that, together, were “able to periodically shift, ‘switching’ openings to offer alternative entrance and exit paths.”

The participants walked in and their routes warped the labyrinth around them.

[Image: Sam McElhinney’s “switching labyrinth,” or psycho-cybernetic human navigational testing ground, constructed near Euston Station].

After watching all this unfold, McElhinney suggested that further research along these lines could help to reveal architectural moments at which there is an “emergence of labyrinthine, or familiar, spatialities within an unknown or changing maze framework.”

There can be a place or moment within any building, in other words, at which the spatially unfamiliar will erupt—and from movement-pathway studies we can extrapolate architectural form, buildings that perfectly rest at the cognitive flipping point between maze and labyrinth, familiar and disorienting, adventurous and strange.

[Images: Sam McElhinney’s “switching labyrinth”].

The cybernetics of human memory and in-situ spatial decision-making processes provide a framework from which we can extract and assemble a new kind of architecture.

[Image: From “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

How we move through coiled, labyrinthine environments can be studied for insights into human navigation, physiology, and more.

[Image: From “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

McElhinney sent over a huge range of maze and labyrinth precedents that served as part of his research; some images from that research appear below.

[Images: Maze-studies from “Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween” by Sam McElhinney].

It’s fascinating research, and I would love to see it scaled way, way up, beyond a mere test-maze in a warehouse into something both multileveled and city-sized.