Books Received

tadao[Image: Inside Tadao Ando’s studio in Osaka; photo by Kaita Takemura, via designboom].

Somewhere, despite the weather here, it’s spring. If you’re like me, that means you’re looking for something new to read. Here is a selection of books that have crossed my desk over the past few months—though, as always, I have not read every book listed here. I have, however, included only books that have caught my eye or seem particularly well-fit for BLDGBLOG readers due to their focus on questions of landscape, design, architecture, urbanism, and more.

For previous book round-ups, meanwhile, don’t miss the back-links at the bottom of this post.


1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)

Daniel Jütte’s The Strait Gate seems largely to have slipped under the radar, but it’s my pick for the most interesting architectural book of the last year (it came out in 2015). It has a deceptively simple premise. In it, Jütte tells the story of the door in European history: the door’s ritual symbolism, its legal power, its artistic possibilities, even its betrayal through basic crimes such as trespassing and burglary. He calls it “a study of doors, gates, and keys and a history of the hopes and anxieties that Western culture has attached to them”; it is a way of “looking at history through doors.”

Jütte describes locks (and their absence), city walls (and their destruction), marriage (and the literal threshold a newly joined couple must cross), medicinal rituals (connected “with the idea of passing through a doorway”), even the doorway to Hell (and its miraculous sundering). You know you’re reading a good book, I’d suggest, when something pops up on nearly every page that you need to mark with a note for coming back to later or that gives you some unexpected new historical or conceptual detail you want to write about more yourself. An entire seminar could be based on this one book alone.

2) Witches of America by Alex Mar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Witches of America is simultaneously an introduction to alternative religious practices in the United States—specifically, contemporary paganism, broadly understood—and a first-person immersion in those movements and their cultures. As such, the book is a personal narrative of attraction to—but also ongoing frustration with—the world found outside mainstream beliefs or creeds.

As such, it ostensibly falls beyond the pale of BLDGBLOG, yet the book is worth including here for what it reveals about the spatial settings of these new and, for me, surprisingly vibrant communities. There is the abandoned churchyard in New Orleans, for example, now repurposed—and redecorated—by a group of 21st-century acolytes of Aleister Crowley; there is the remote stone circle built in Northern California by what I would describe as a post-hippie couple with access to land-moving equipment; there is the otherwise indistinguishable collegiate house in central Massachusetts where future “priests” train in the shadow of New England’s peculiar history with witch trials; there is the corporate convention center in downtown San Jose; the overgrown tombs of the Mississippi Delta, where we meet a rather extraordinary—and macabre—burglar; there is even what sounds like an Airbnb rental gone unusually haywire in the hills of New Hampshire.

While descriptions of these settings are certainly not the subject of Alex Mar’s book, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the world of the esoteric, the otherworldly, or, yes, the occult presented in the context of our own everyday surroundings, with all of their often-mundane dimensions and atmosphere. This alone should make this an interesting read, even for those who might not share the author’s curiosity about the “witches of America.”

3) The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)

The Work of the Dead looks at the role not just of death but specifically of dead bodies in shaping our cities, our landscapes, our battlefields, and our imaginations. The question of what to do with the human corpse—how to venerate it, but also how to do dispose of it and how to protect ourselves from its perceived pestilence—has led, and continues to lead, to any number of spatial solutions.

Laqueur writes that “there seems to be a universally shared feeling not only that there is something deeply wrong about not caring for the dead body in some fashion, but also that the uncared-for body, no matter the cultural norms, is unbearable. The corpse demands the attention of the living.”

Graveyards, catacombs, monuments, charnel grounds: these are landscapes designed in response to human mortality, reflective of a culture’s attitude to personal disappearance and emotional loss. While author Thomas Laqueur’s approach is often dry (and long-winded), the book’s thorough framing of its subject lends it an appropriate weight for something as universal as the end of life.

If this topic interests you, meanwhile, I also recommend Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold (Simon & Schuster), as well as Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre—How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray (Picador).

4) The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf)

Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt has justifiably won the author a series of literary awards. Its subject matter is by no means light, yet the book has the feel of an adventure tale, pulling double duty as the life-story of a European scientist and explorer but also as a history of scientific ideas, ranging from the origins of color and the nature of speciation to some of the earliest indications of global atmospheric shifts—that is, of the possibility of climate change.

Natural selection, cosmology, volcanoes—even huge South American lakes full of electric eels—the book is a great reminder of the importance of curiosity and travel, not to mention the value of an inhuman world against which we should regularly measure ourselves (and come out lacking). “In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective,” Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.”


5) Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich (Princeton University Press)

You might recall seeing Stefan Helmreich’s work described here before—specifically his earlier book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas—but Sounding the Limits of Life is arguably even more relevant to many of the ongoing themes explored here on the blog.

In his new book, Helmreich outlines a kind of acoustic ecology of the oceans, placing deep-sea creatures and shallow reefs alike in a world of immersive sound and ambient noise, now all too often interrupted by the deafening pings of naval sonar. He also uses the seemingly alien environment of the seas, however, to expand the conversation to include speculation about what life might be like elsewhere, using maritime biology as a launching point for discussing SETI, artificial digital lifeforms, Martian fossils (from Martian seas), and much more.

It’s a book about how our “definition of ‘life’ is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in earthly organisms,” Helmreich writes, as well as an attempt to explore “what life is, has been, and may yet become—whether that life is simulated, microbial, extraterrestrial, cetacean, anthozoan, planetary, submarine, oceanic, auditory, or otherwise.”

6) Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner (W.W. Norton)

I had been looking forward to this book, exploring the relationship between mapping and the world, ever since reading an op-ed by the author, Greg Milner, in The New York Times about “death by GPS.” Milner’s book is specifically about the Global Positioning System and its power over our lives: how GPS shapes our sense of direction and geography, what it has done for navigation on a planetary scale, and even how it has transformed the way we grow our global food supply.

7) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton (MIT Press)

Design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s magnum opus is a fever-dream of computational geopolitics, “accidental megastructures,” cloud warfare, predictive mass surveillance, speculative anthropology, digital futurism, infrastructural conspiracy theory—a complete list would be as long as Bratton’s already substantial book, and would also overlap quite well with the utopian/dystopian science fiction it often seems inspired by.

In Bratton’s hands, these abstract topics become, at times, almost incantatory—as if William S. Burroughs had taken a day job with the RAND Corporation. As information technology continues to exhibit geopolitical effects, Bratton writes, “borderlines are rewritten, dashed, curved, erased, automated; algorithms count as continental divides; (…) interfaces upon interfaces accumulate into networks, which accumulate into territories, which accumulate into geoscapes (…); the flat, looping planes of jurisdiction multiply and overlap into towered, interwoven stacks…” He writes of “supercomputational utopias” and the “ambient geopolitics of consumable electrons.”

It’s a mind-bending and utterly unique take on technology’s intersection with—and forced mutation of—governance.

8) You Belong To The Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press)

Jonathon Keats’s new book simultaneously attempts to debunk and to clarify some of the cultural myths surrounding Buckminster Fuller, a man who described himself, Keats reminds us, as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” For fans of Fuller’s work, you’ll find the usual suspects here—his jewel-like geodesic domes, his prescient-if-ungainly Dymaxion homes—but also a chapter about Fuller’s work with and influence on the U.S. military in an age of nuclear war games and “domino theories” overshadowing Vietnam.


9) Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City by Jessica Maier (University of Chicago Press)

Art historian Jessica Maier’s book suggests that changes in the way the city of Rome was mapped over the centuries simultaneously reveal larger shifts in European cultural understandings of space and geography. Her argument hinges on a sequence of surveys and maps chosen not just for their visual or cartographic power—which is considerable, as the book has many gorgeous reproductions of old engraved city maps, views, and diagrams—but for their influence on later geographic projects to come.

Broadly speaking, the documents Maier discusses are meant to be seen as passing from being artistic, narrative, or abstractly emblematic of the idea of greater “Rome” to a more rigorous, modern approach based in measurement, not mythology.

This widely accepted historical narrative begins to crumble, however, as Maier puts pressure on it, especially through the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etching of the Campus Martius. This is an image of Rome that “was neither documentary nor reconstructive,” Maier suggests, and that thus had more in common with those earlier, more folkloristic emblems of the city. In today’s vocabulary, we might even describe Piranesi’s Campus Martius as an example of “design fiction.”

10) Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of the New City by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a remarkable and often beautifully written history of modern Jerusalem, as told from the point of view of its architecture. Jerusalem is a city, author Adina Hoffman writes, that “has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.” It is a place of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps.” The book, she adds, “is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”

Indeed, the book is structured around the lives of three architects. The story of German Jewish designer Erich Mendelsohn—probably most well-known today for his futurist “Einstein Tower” in Potsdam—looms large, as do the lives of Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “Palestine’s chief government architect,” and the “possibly Greek, possibly Arab” Spyro Houris.

Hoffman’s work is a mix of the archaeological, the biographical, and even the geopolitical, as individual building sites—even specific businesses and kilns—become microcosms of territorial significance, embedded in and misused by nationalistic narratives that continue to reach far beyond the boundaries of the city.

11) City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity by Dayna S. Kalleres (University of California Press)

City of Demons looks at three cities—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan—in the context of early Christianity, when the streets and back alleys of each metropolis were still lined with temples dedicated to older gods and when alleged opportunities for spiritual corruption seemed to lie around every corner. Historian Dayna Kalleres writes that the cities of late antiquity were all but contaminated with demons: imagined malignant forces that had to be repelled by Christian ritual and belief. Cities, in other words, had to be literally exorcized by a practice of “urban demonology,” driven out of the metropolis by such things as church-building schemes and public processions.

While the book is, of course, an academic history, it is also evocative of something much more literary and thrilling, which is a nearly-forgotten phase of Western urban history when forces of black magic lurked in nearly every doorway and civilians faced security threats not from terrorists but from “the marginal, ambiguous, and protean,” from these hidden demonological influences that the righteous were compelled to expunge.

12) City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador)

City of Thorns looks at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya through various lenses: economic, political, and humanitarian, to be sure, but also ethical and anthropological, even to a certain extent architectural.

While author Ben Rawlence’s goal is not, thankfully, to discuss the camp in terms of its design, he does nevertheless offer a crisp descriptive introduction to life in a sprawling settlement such as this, from its cinemas and police patrols to its health facilities and homes. “Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile,” he writes, “and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.” The camp, we might say in this context, is the urbanism of exile.


13) Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau)

I went through a nearly three-year spate of reading law-enforcement memoirs and books about urban policing while researching my own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. The excellent Ghettoside by Jill Leovy came out at the very end of that peculiar literary diet—but it also showed up the rest of those books quite handily.

Ghettoside is bracing, sympathetic, and emotionally nuanced in its week-by-week portrayal of LAPD homicide detectives investigating the murder of a fellow detective’s teenage son. Much larger than this, however, is Leovy’s dedication throughout the book to sorting through the overlapping mazes of media disinformation that have turned “black-on-black” crime into nothing more than a dismissive explanation of something genuinely horrific, a way to paper-over “racist interpretations of homicide statistics,” in reviewer Hari Kunzru’s words. More damningly, Ghettoside insists, this ongoing wave of murders and revenge-killings is not some new urban state of nature, but is entirely capable of being stopped.

Indeed, Leovy clearly and soberly shows through years of L.A. homicide reporting that today’s epidemic of violence primarily targeting African-American males is due to a failure of law enforcement—or, in her words, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Yet the answer, she explains, is more policing, not less. As an endorsement of effective, community-centered police work, the book is unparalleled.

No matter what side you think you might be on in the growing—and entirely unnecessary—divide between police and the populace they are hired to serve, this is a superb guide to the complexities of law enforcement in contemporary Los Angeles and, by extension, in every American metropolis.

14) The City That Never Was by Christopher Marcinkoski (Princeton Architectural Press)

Christopher Marcinkoski’s book is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between “volatile fiscal events” and “speculative urbanization,” with a specific focus on a cluster of failed urban projects in Spain. Marcincoski defines speculative urbanization as “the construction of new urban infrastructure or settlement for primarily political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially projected) demographic or market demand.”

Although the author jokes that his book is actually quite late to the conversation—discussing the spatial fallout of a global financial crisis that was already five years old by the time he began writing—it is actually a remarkably timely study, as well as a sad assessment of how easily architectural production can become ensnared in economic forces far more powerful than humanism or design.

15) Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog edited by Clare Jacobson (Princeton Architectural Press)

Lebbeus Woods was both a friend and a personal hero of mine; his blog, which lasted from 2007 to shortly before his death in 2012, has now been collated, edited, and preserved by Princeton Architectural Press, with more than 300 individual entries. While primarily text, the books also includes several black-and-white images, including pages from his otherworldly sketchbooks. Thoughts on “wild buildings,” war, borders, September 11th, the now also deceased designer Zaha Hadid, and Woods’s own intriguing mix of cinematic/fictional and analytic/documentary modes of writing abound.


16) Almost Nature by Gerco de Ruijter (Timmer Art Books)

I’ve written about Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter fairly extensively in the past—most recently in a piece about “grid corrections”—so I was thrilled to see that some of his aerial work has been collected in a new, beautifully realized edition. It collects photos of stabilized coastlines and tree farms, grids and borders.

“Is the wilderness wild?” an accompanying text by Dirk van Weelden asks. “Cities and industrial farming make it seem man is in perfect control,” van Weelden continues later in the essay. “The reality is far more interesting. (…) The truly uncontrollable forces of nature are mutation, chance, hybridity, and contamination,” all subjects de Ruijter’s photos document at various scales, in every season.

17) Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site by Caroline O’Donnell (Routledge)

In the guise of what looks—and even, to some extent, physically feels—like a textbook there is hidden a fantastic study of how buildings relate to their surroundings.

More precisely, Caroline O’Donnell’s investigation of “architecture and site” hopes to reveal how, during the design process, the context of a building affects that building’s final form. Questions of autonomy (do buildings need to reflect or refer to their settings at all?) and generation (can the essence of a site be “extracted” to give shape to the final building?) are woven through a series of essays about ugliness, architectural history, colonialism, monstrosity, and more.

18) How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today by John Thackara (Thames & Hudson)

John Thackara is already widely known for his advocacy of “sustainability” in design—a word I deliberately put in scare-quotes because Thackara himself would prefer, I presume, a term more like transformative or even revolutionary design. That is, design that can flip the world on its head, not through violence, but through unexpected and strategic solutions to problems that often remain undiagnosed or overlooked. This new, short book looks at everything from mass transit to internet access, clothing manufacture to desertification, aging to fresh water, seeking nothing less than “a new concept of the world.” “The core value of this emerging economy is stewardship,” he writes, “rather than extraction.”

19) Design and Violence edited by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt (Museum of Modern Art)

This book, crisply designed by Shaz Madani, documents an exhibition and debate series of the same name hosted by the Museum of Modern Art. Presented here as a combination of short essays by various authors—myself included—and provocative design objects, products, and public events, the aim is both to startle and to moderate. That is, the book seeks to bring together conflicting sides of often quite fierce arguments about the role of design, including how design can be used to mitigate or even, on occasion, to perpetuate violence. There are 3D-printed guns and a short history of the AK-47 alongside examples of prison architecture, classified surveillance aircraft, slaughterhouse diagrams, and border walls, to name but a few.

• • •

Briefly noted. Other books that have crossed my desk this season include Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law by Paul H. Robinson and Sarah M. Robinson (Potomac Books), Memories of the Moon Age by Lukas Feireiss (Spector Books), Shanshui City by Ma Yansong (Lars Müller Publishers), the double publication of Scaling Infrastructure and Infrastructural Monument from the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press), Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal by Niklas Maak (Hirmer), and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton).

Finally, although I have mentioned it many times before, I do also have a new book of my own that just came out last week, called A Burglar’s Guide to the City; if you’d prefer to sample the goods before purchasing, however, you can check out an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. But please consider supporting BLDGBLOG by ordering a copy—not least because then we can talk about burglary, architecture, and heists…


All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Seismic Suburb

[Image: Screengrab from Stuff showing the test-suburb, a kind of seismic Operation Doorstep].

An empty suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand, abandoned after the 2011 earthquake, was bombed from below last autumn, as a series of carefully timed underground explosions set off an artificial earthquake. The controlled seismic event was part of a closely studied experiment to test how soil liquefaction could be reduced or even eliminated by better geotechnical design.

As Next City explains, it was a 70-year old former resident of the neighborhood named Martin Howman who kicked off the event, triggering the buried necklace of explosives beneath his own street and the houses of his neighbors.

“As he pressed the buttons,” Charles Anderson writes for Next City, “a piece of Howman’s old neighborhood, long since abandoned, jumped and jostled just like it had the day of the 2011 quake. Cameras inside the homes showed floor boards shaking and kitchen benches being thrown from their foundations. Drones hovering above captured images of roof tiles being shaken loose and shock waves thudding through the earth. Signs had been placed throughout the wider area to reassure passersby that the sounds were just science in action. Many gathered at a safe distance to watch the spectacle unfold.”

In video footage of the event, small clouds of dust can be seen bucking upward from the roofs of houses to drift away in a light breeze as the soil continues to jolt and shudder.

Stuff reported at the time that Howman’s initial response to the near-total abandonment of his neighborhood after the 2011 earthquake was that “he might buy a tractor and some cows and revert the land back to dairy farm”—but, instead, he stuck around just long enough to see the empty streets transformed into a seismic research facility like something out the work of Lebbeus Woods.

Recall, for example, the ideas behind Woods’s film treatment, Underground Berlin. There—as we explored here on BLDGBLOG back in 2013—Woods posited a fictional network of government seismic labs secretly operating beneath the surface of Berlin, called the Underground Research Station.

[Image: From Underground Berlin by Lebbeus Woods].

Inside the Station, Woods’s unmade film would have shown, “many scientists and technicians are working on a project for the government to analyze and harness the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth… a world of seismic wind and electromagnetic flux.” Their eventual goal is to achieve “a mastery”—that is, to weaponize—the “primordial earth forces” they actively study.

In his book OneFiveFour, Woods pushes these ideas further, describing a city so defined by the seismic energy destabilizing the ground beneath it that almost every building and surface has been covered in “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change.”

The entire city has become a seismic instrument where “tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes… Indeed, each object—chair, table, cloth, examining apparatus, structure—is an instrument; each material thing connects the inhabitants with events in the world around him and within himself.”

In a video posted on Stuff, the ground rhythmically ripples and pops from below, as if a living creature has stirred beneath the cracked foundations of this empty neighborhood, “primordial earth forces” intent on resisting the architecture so flimsily built upon their shoulders.

(Thanks to mike.m.d. for the heads up!)

Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012

[Image: “Lower Manhattan” (1999) by Lebbeus Woods, discussed extensively here].

Like many people, I was—and remain—devastated to have learned that architect Lebbeus Woods passed away last night, just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 34th Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.

I can’t pretend to have been a confidant of his, let alone a professional colleague, but Lebbeus’s influence over my own interest in architecture is impossible to exaggerate and his kindness and generosity as a friend to me here in New York City was an emotionally and professionally reassuring thing to receive—to a degree that I am perhaps only now fully realizing. I say this, of course, while referring to someone whose New Year’s toast a few years ago to a room full of friends gathered down at his loft near the Financial District—in an otherwise anonymous building whose only remarkable feature, if I remember correctly, was that huge paintings by Lebbeus himself were hanging in the corridors—was that we should all have, as he phrased it, a “difficult New Year.” That is, we should all look forward to, even seek out or purposefully engineer, a new year filled with the kinds of challenges Lebbeus felt, rightly or not, that we deserved to face, fight, and, in all cases, overcome—the genuine and endless difficulty of pursuing our own ideas and commitments, absurd goals no one else might share or even be interested in.

This was the New Year’s wish of a true friend, in the sense of someone who believes in and trusts your capacity to become what you want to be, and someone who will help to engineer the circumstances under which that transformation might most productively occur.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

Lebbeus mentored and taught many, many people, and I am, by every measure, the least qualified of any of them to write about his influence; but learning that Lebbeus has passed away, and under such utterly surreal circumstances, with his own city—literally, the streets all around him—flooding in the darkness as the oceans rose up, compelled me to write something for him, or about him, or because of him, or to him. I have been fortunate enough, or perhaps determined, to live a life where I’ve met several of my heroes in person, and Lebbeus is—he will always be—exactly that, a titanic and strangely omnipresent figure for me whose work set off special effects he himself would be puzzled—even slightly embarrassed—to learn that I’ve attributed to him.

Speaking only for myself, Lebbeus is a canonical figure in the West—and I mean a West not of landed aristocrats, armies, and regal blood-lines but of travelers, heretics, outsiders, peripheral exploratory figures whose missives and maps from the edges of things always chip away at the doomed fortifications of the people who thought the world not only was ownable, but that it was theirs. Lebbeus Woods is the West. William S. Burroughs is the West. Giordano Bruno is the West. Audre Lorde is the West. William Blake is the West. For that matter, Albert Einstein, as Leb would probably agree, having designed an interstellar tomb for the man, is the West. Lebbeus Woods should be on the same sorts of lists as James Joyce or John Cage, a person as culturally relevant as he was scientifically suggestive, seething with ideas applicable to nearly every discipline.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

In any case, it isn’t just the quality of Lebbeus’s work—the incredible drawings, the elaborate models—or even the engaged intensity of his political writings, on architecture as politics pursued by other means or architecture as war, that will guarantee him a lasting, multi-disciplinary influence for generations to come. There is something much more interesting and fundamental to his work that has always attracted me, and it verges on mythology. It verges on theology, in fact.

Here, if I can be permitted a long aside, it all comes down to ground conditions—to the interruption, even the complete disappearance, of the ground plane, of firm terrestrial reference, of terra firma, of the Earth, of the very planet we think we stand on. Whether presented under the guise of the earthquake or of warfare or even of General Relativity, Lebbeus’s work was constantly erasing the very surfaces we stood on—or, perhaps more accurately, he was always revealing that those dependable footholds we thought we had were never there to begin with. That we inhabit mobile terrain, a universe free of fixed points, devoid of gravity or centrality or even the ability to be trusted.

It is a world that can only be a World—that can only, and however temporarily, be internally coherent and hospitable—insofar as we construct something in it, something physical, linguistic, poetic, symbolic, resonant. Architectural.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Architecture, for Lebbeus, was a kind of counter-balance, a—I’m going to use the word—religious accounting for this lack of center elsewhere, this lack of world. It was a kind of factoring of the zero, to throw out a meaningless phrase: it was the realization that there is nothing on offer for us here, the realization that the instant we trust something it will be shaken loose in great convulsions of seismicity, that cities will fall—to war or to hurricanes—that subways will flood, that entire continents will be unmoored, split in two, terribly and irreversibly, as something maddeningly and wildly, in every possible sense outside of human knowledge, something older and immeasurable, violently shudders and wakes up, leaps again into the foreground and throws us from its back in order to walk on impatiently and destructively without us.

Something ancient and out of view will rapidly come back into focus and destroy all the cameras we use to film it. This is the premise of Lebbeus’s earthquake, Lebbeus’s terrestrial event outside measured comprehensibility, Lebbeus’s state of war.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Because what I like about Lebbeus’s work is its nearly insane honesty, its straight-ahead declaration that nothing—genuinely and absolutely nothing—is here to welcome us or accept us or say yes to us. That there is no solid or lasting ground to build anything on, let alone anything out there other than ourselves expecting us to build it.

Architecture is thus an act—a delirious and amazing act—of construction for no reason at all in the literal sense that architecture is outside rational calculation. That is, architecture—capital-A architecture, sure—must be seen, in this context, as something more than just supplying housing or emergency shelter; architecture becomes a nearly astronomical gesture, in the sense that architecture literally augments the planetary surface. Architecture increases (or decreases) a planet’s base habitability. It adds something new to—or, rather, it complexifies—the mass and volume of the universe. It even adds time: B is separated from C by nothing, until you add a series of obstacles, lengthening the distance between them. That series of obstacles—that elongated and previously non-existent sequence of space-time—is architecture.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

As Lebbeus himself once wrote, it is through architecture that humans realize new forms of spatial experience that would have been impossible under natural conditions—not in caves, not in forests, not even while out wandering through fog banks or deserts or into the frigid and monotonous vacuity of the Antarctic. Perhaps not even on the Earth. Architecture is a different kind of space altogether, offered, we could say, as a kind of post-terrestrial resistance against unstable ground, against the lack of a trustworthy planet. Against the lack of an inhabitable world.

Architecture, if you will, is a Wile E. Coyote moment where you look down and realize the universe is missing—that you are standing on empty air—so you construct for yourself a structure or space in which you might somehow attempt survival. Architecture is more than buildings. It is a spacesuit. It is a counter-planet—or maybe it is the only planet, always and ever a terraforming of this alien location we call the Earth.

In any case, it’s the disappearance of the ground plane—and the complicated spatial hand-waving we engage in to make that disappearance make sense—that is so interesting to me in Lebbeus’s work. When I say that Lebbeus Woods and James Joyce and William Blake and so on all belong on the same list, I mean it: because architecture is poetry is literature is myth. That is, it is equal to them and it is one of them. It is a way of explaining the human condition—whatever that is—spatially, not through stanzas or through novels or through song.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don’t recommend it—you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything.

Lebbeus will probably be missed for his formal inventiveness: buildings on stilts, massive seawalls, rotatable buildings that look like snowflakes. Deformed coasts anti-seismically jeweled with buildings. Tombs for Einstein falling through space.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

But this would be to miss the motivating absence at the heart of all those explorations, which is that we don’t yet know what the world is, what the Earth is—whether or not there even is a world or an Earth or a universe at all—and architecture is one of the arts of discovering an answer to this. Or inventing an answer to this, even flat-out fabricating an answer to this, meaning that architecture is more mythology than science. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that: it is exactly why architecture will always be more heroic even than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone’s home.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and—as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers—neither should we.

Star Wheel Horizon

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

After posting a project by Jimenez Lai back in January, Lebbeus Woods got in touch with an earlier project of his own, called Horizon Houses (2000).

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

In his own words, the Horizon Houses are “are spatial structures that turn, or are turned, either continuously (the Wheel House) or from/to fixed positions (the Star and Block Houses).

They are structures experimenting with our perception of spatial transformations, accomplished without any material changes to the structures themselves. In these projects, my concern was the question of space. The engineering questions of how to turn the houses could be answered by conventional mechanical means—cranes and the like—but these seem clumsy and inelegant. The mechanical solution may lie in the idea of self-propelling structures, using hydraulics. But of more immediate concern: how would the changing spaces impact the ways we might inhabit them?

These self-transforming, perpetually off-kilter structures would, in a sense, contain their future horizon lines within them, as they rotate through various, competing orientations, both always and never completely grounded.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

Each house in the series thus simultaneously explores the visual nature—and spatial effect—of the horizon line and the vertical force of gravity that makes that horizon possible.

As Woods phrases it, “Gravity is constantly at work on the materials of architecture, trying to pull them to the earth’s center of gravity. An important consequence is that this action establishes the horizon.” However, he adds, “in the absence of gravity there is no horizon, for example, for astronauts in space. It is from this understanding that Ernst Mach developed his theory of inertia frames, which influenced Albert Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity”—but, that, Woods says, “is another story.”

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Star House, seen immediately above and below, was what brought Woods to comment on the earlier post about Jimenez Lai; but the other “ensemble variations,” as Woods describe them, while departing formally from the initial comparison with Lai’s own project, deserve equal attention here.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The circular form of the Wheel House, for instance, literalizes the stationary-but-mobile aspect of the project.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

It also compels the house always to be on the verge of moving again, unlike the jagged, semi-mountainous points of the Block and Star Houses.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Block Houses appear to be in a state of barely stabilized wreckage following an otherwise unmentioned seismic event—which is fitting, as the rest of Woods’s descriptive text (available on his website) offers seismicity as a key force and generative parameter for the project. If the earth itself moves, what sort of architecture might embrace and even thrive on that motion, rather than—unsuccessfully—attempt to resist a loss of foundation?

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

To say that these buildings thus exist in a state of ongoing catastrophe would be to fixate on and over-emphasize their instability, whereas it would be more productive to recognize that each house rides out a subtle and unique negotiation of the planet—where “the planet” is treated less as a physical fact and more as a gravitational reference point, an abstract frame of influence within which certain architectural forms can take shape.

In other words, the urges and pulls of gravity might nudge each house this way and that—it might even pull them over into a radically new orientation—but the architecture remains both optically sensible against its new horizon line and, more importantly, inhabitable.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

Taken together, this family of forms could thus roll, wander, and collapse indefinitely through the gravitational fields that command them.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

For a bit more text related to the project, see Woods’s own website.

Space Jack

[Image: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai, via Archinect].

Archinect is currently featuring a project called “White Elephant (Privately Soft)” by Jimenez Lai.

Lai describes it as “a building inside a building,” falling “somewhere between super-furniture and a small house.” It’s a flippable object, able to be tilted and set on any side. It tumbles, in the architect’s words, its cowhide-padded interior offering a place to sit in any orientation.

[Images: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai].

I’m basically just posting this here as eye-candy, but there is something awesomely compelling about the notion of super-furniture: hypertrophied spatial objects that are more like portable rooms, perfectly inhabiting the otherwise inexact and under-explored midspace between architecture and a bed or couch, between a house and the ergonomic equipment that fills out.

In fact, the sight of this thing looming all alone in an empty room makes it seem more powerful than it really is, I’d suggest, as it appears, in many ways, to invalidate the walls around it. In other words, why use the walls at all—why even furnish your own apartment—when you can just drop two or three of these white elephants inside it, perhaps lit from within, completing the space with their bulk? Your “bedroom” becomes spatially and materially coextensive with the bed itself.

[Images: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai].

It’s a thus a kind of instant room you throw into your house, like spatial jacks, an inhabitable in-between, or burrow space, that both divides the place it sits within and defines an interior of its own.

[Images: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai].

There are more photographs on Archinect showing the spatial object being flipped, as the following, truncated sequence demonstrates—

[Images: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai].

—and Lai’s diagrams reveal the variety of facets the project requires.

[Images: “White Elephant” diagrammed, by Jimenez Lai].

But it would also be interesting, given more time, to see many more spatial variations on the same basic idea, but also to explore the effect of different materials, finishes, and colors. Imagine building out a family of these objects the way you might build a BMW or specify a Mini Cooper. You select the geometry, the interior, the upholstery—maybe even small, medium, or large—and soon enough your very own piece of super-furniture arrives, ready for assembly.

[Images: “White Elephant” by Jimenez Lai].

See more at Archinect.

Documents, Maps, and Files of a Fictional Architecture

[Image: The Nesin Map by Protocol Architecture].

One of the more interesting student projects I’ve seen in a long time used a “document-based” approach to architecture to fabricate an entire fictional world—one in which top secret underground research labs, militarized bacteria, artificial earthquakes, and much more were all found conspiring beneath the streets of Berlin, Baghdad, and Istanbul.

A group project by three students at Columbia’s GSAPPYuval Borochov, Lisa Ekle, and Danil Nagy, under the guidance of professor Ed KellerProtocol Architecture was pitched as a team that “investigates potentials for future design through the creation and analysis of hyper-fictional documents. These document sets create evidence for future scenarios that string together a specific history of political, social, and technological developments.” As such, Protocol’s work becomes less architectural than it is archival:

By focusing on the space of the document, we can avoid simplistic predictions of the future while creating a database of potential evidence which can be analyzed and interpreted by a wider audience of designers.

The resulting fictional archives—or “fabricated histories,” as the architects describe them—allowed the group to question “the role that fact and evidence plays in how we perceive our own history and our place as designers within it.”

[Image: The Nesin Map (detail) by Protocol Architecture].

As Yuval Borochov explained to me in an email: “Protocol Architecture is a forum for investigations that challenge the traditional design process and situate every project in its own tangential line of history. We found that… the design opportunities within the plot holes of history are quite liberating. You know, I read a statement by Rem Koolhaas, in a book of his conversation with Peter Eisenman, where he explains his attempts to become the ‘architect as journalist.’ I think Protocol Architecture is akin to this mode of operation. Perhaps architects as historiographers.”

Their semester’s worth of work was remarkably varied—and mind-bogglingly prolific—and it can all be explored on their website. However, I want to focus here on three aspects of their document-based approach: The Rühmann Notebook, The Nesin Map, and The Wilbert Contracts.

Before I go much further, though, I have to say that I genuinely think this approach—and the resulting work—bears comparison to books by writers like China Miéville or Franz Kafka, even filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, for whomever might find those coordinates intriguing. These fictional documents frame entirely self-contained imaginary worlds, and each one of these ideas deserves radical expansion elsewhere, in forms beyond architectural design; as such, they seem at least as appropriate for discussing with a literary agent as they are with the dean of an architecture school.

[Image: The Rühmann Notebook by Protocol Architecture].

The Rühmann Notebook
The first part of Protocol Architecture’s project, the so-called Rühmann Notebook, was produced, we’re told, in early 2002 when Berliner Martina Rühmann “documented her observations of a linear pathway across former East Berlin. The path connected the Berlin Wall in the north to the wall in the south, cutting across the site of the former Palace of the Republic.”

What Rühmann’s mapping project allowed her to discover was a linear network of “small but prominent science research centers” beneath the surface of the city.

It was believed that the hidden route (subsequently discovered and documented by Rühmann) was used for communication and transfer of scientific documents and material in the 1970s and 1980s between the East and West, a time when West German scientists were making significant early discoveries in the fields of microbiology and nanotechnology.

The story here has shades of Lebbeus Woods—for instance, Woods’s ingenious proposal for a film called Underground Berlin. That film revolves around a disillusioned architect, a missing twin brother, neo-Nazi activities in the divided city of Berlin, metallic underground tunnels connecting east to west, and “a top-secret underground research station rumored to be somewhere beneath the very center of Berlin.” There are even rogue planetary scientists investigating “tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth.”

In any case, Rühmann’s labs, we learn, were studying bacterial technologies—specifically the use of Bacillus Pasteurii, “a bacteria with adhesive qualities… to stabilize ground in earthquake-prone cities,” and Shewanella, “a bacteria capable of naturally producing electrically conductive nano-tube filaments, now able to produce nano-electric devices.” The architectural implications of these bacterial species begin to loom large in the overall narrative. (If you like the sound of this, by the way, don’t miss Magnus Larsson’s work, featured here on BLDGBLOG in April 2009, or our earlier look at geobatteries).

The locations of these underground biotechnological seismology research labs are what we see documented in the The Rühmann Notebook. The “notebook” itself consists of photos and notes collaged inside a Moleskine.

[Image: Istanbul’s Galata Tower, as depicted on ephemera related to The Nesin Map by Protocol Architecture].

The Nesin Map
We now move from Berlin to Istanbul, where The Nesin Map documents a seemingly unrelated network of “concealed buildings” in the city:

Harem Nesin, a Turkish journalist for the Istanbul newspaper Dünya Gazetesi, began photographing concealed buildings in Istanbul sometime in 2017 for his personal records. The buildings captured by Nesin had recently been destroyed by a fire or evacuated due to some other instability of the structure, and were later covered by scaffolding, tarps, or screens. Nesin correlated his collection of photographs to a map of Istanbul, indicating the location of each abandoned building. Through the mapped locations Nesin discovered a triangular geometric pattern across a portion of the city on the European side, from the Golden Horn to the Bosphorus. Nesin used the Galata Tower as a place to survey the buildings in question, indicated by his collage of aerial photographs taken from the Tower. Additionally, in his observations Nesin recorded the means of concealment (tarp, wood, fence, screen) and the address for each structure.

First of all, this is an amazing set-up for a story, somewhere between Borgesian urban paranoia and Debordian psychogeography; and, second, the map itself is very, very cool. Here are the two images of it again.

[Images: The Nesin Map by Protocol Architecture].

So what did Nesin discover as he correlated his data and began to map it all out? A diagrid of “injection points” located at geologically precise points around Istanbul: “Harem Nesin’s map reveals strategic locations used by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality as injection points for Bacillus Pasteurii, a microbe able to transform sand into sandstone by depositing calcite (calcium carbonate) throughout the granules, fusing them together.”

The authorities, in other words, were earthquake-proofing the city from below, in “the first application of the bacteria, which had been under development since the mid 1970s through joint research between Germany and the US.”

The Wilbert Contracts
Finally, to Baghdad. The The Wilbert Contracts are a series of files tracing the work of John Wilbert and Co., a quasi-military subcontractor working on a project for Monsanto “between the years 2028 and 2031” in Iraq. Monsanto’s SoilStone® initiative used soil-stabilization biotechnologies to replace concrete walls with more flexible barriers, such as elastic membranes and bacterially-activated sand (i.e. SoilStone®).

[Images: The Wilbert Contracts by Protocol Architecture].

We learn, however, that “linear connections can be perceived” between the multiple sites at which Wilbert and Co. used this technology—indeed, “certain documents from the US Army which are still classified imply that underground tunnel systems were dug between 2028 and 2030.”

It is further inferred, the architects explain, that “pre-programmed nano-bots” were being used in the project as construction machines, selectively injecting Bacillus Pasteurii bacteria into the sands. This technique thus created a semi-mobile, makeshift system of subterranean spaces through which the US military could move. The Army is down there, in other words, stabilizing classified tunnels beneath the streets.

[Images: From Berlin 2050 by Protocol Architecture].

In the end, after a fascinating internal design competition that I simply don’t have the time to cover here—with a jury that included Reza Negarestani of Cyclonopedia fame and Jamie Kruse of smudge studio, among many others, and with entries that ranged from sentient clouds of nano-flies to stabilized earthquakes as a form of urban planning—the group assembled all of their ideas into a proposal for underground spaces in Berlin. These final proposals, however, as well-rendered as they are, simply don’t hold the imaginative appeal for me that the earlier studio material all but burns with.

And that’s the rub: at the end of the day, most architecture students—unsurprisingly—think they have to take this stuff, put it all together, and produce something clearly definable as a building. But the research, in many cases, is more worthy of attention (and well worth the time it takes to produce it). In other words, the research—the preliminary material, the periphery, the narrative excess, the unwanted fringe—is very often most provocative before it becomes a building, when that inchoate mass of possible future projects, storylines, techniques, and more offers a million alternative directions in which we have yet to go.

[Image: The Wilbert Contracts by Protocol Architecture].

I only say this here because it is extraordinarily exciting to see a project like this, that out-fictionalizes the contemporary novel and even puts much of Hollywood to shame—to realize, once again, that architecture students routinely trade in ideas that could reinvigorate the film industry and the publishing industry, which is all the more important if the world of private commissions and construction firms remains unresponsive or financially out of reach. The Nesin Map alone, given a screenwriter and a dialogue coach, could supply the plot of a film or a thousand comic books—and rogue concrete mixtures put to use by nefarious underground militaries in Baghdad is an idea that could be optioned right now for release in summer 2013. HBO should produce this immediately.

My point is not that architecture students should somehow be expected to stop doing the very thing they are in school for—i.e. to learn how artificial enclosures are designed and constructed. I just mean that they should never overlook the interest of their own preliminary ideas, notes, sketches, and scenarios. After all, with just a well-timed email or elevator pitch, all of that stuff—all those bulletin boards, browser tabs, sketchbooks, notes from late-night conversations, site maps, and more—needn’t become just more crap to get filed away in your parents’ house somewhere, but could actually be turned into the seed of a film, novel, game, or comic book in another cultural field entirely.

Don’t give up on your ideas—and don’t overlook the value of something simply because it can’t be turned into a building.

Check out Protocol Architecture’s work in their own words—and with many more images—over on their website. And consider supporting the trio by purchasing their book on Lulu.

(Thanks to Ed Keller for inviting me to see Protocol Architecture’s work as a guest critic).

Sound engines, astral cenotaph, polar infranet

[Image: New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, photographed (and beautifully renovated) by Rieder Smart Elements].

I owe a huge thanks to everyone who came out on Saturday for the event in New York City – in particular, the speakers who added so much to the proceedings. Karen Van Lengen, Jace Clayton, Richard Mosse, Mason White, Patrick McGrath, and Lebbeus Woods all brought enthusiasm and interest to their participation, and Joseph Grima and the staff at Storefront for Art and Architecture were phenomenally generous, patient, and organized with their time – and likely to break-out huge spreads of Syrian food at a moment’s notice. Alan Rapp, editor of The BLDGBLOG Book, was also on hand to offer some incredibly appreciated, and economically quite timely, thoughts on publishing, blogs, architectural speculation, and more.
It was also great simply to see so many old friends, going back nearly a decade and a half, and finally to meet people whose work I’ve written about on BLDGBLOG, in Dwell, and in publications elsewhere.
From future car engines sound-designed by DJ /rupture to a tomb for Albert Einstein, via childhoods lived in the shadows of psychiatric institutions, student “sound lounges,” photographic surveys of remote air disasters, and infrastructural ice floes, it was a gigantic Saturday, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
So thanks for coming out, thanks for participating, and thanks for saying hello!


[Image: The Mobile Fabrication Unit by Gramazio & Kohler, soon to be building at Storefront for Art and Architecture].

Some things to read on a Monday afternoon:

—Architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG dominates the stage at TED. I was able to walk around BIG’s recently completed Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen the other week, as part of an amazing drive around what felt like all of Denmark with Johan Hybschmann and Nicola Twilley. The building’s now-famous parking garage, we suggested only half-jokingly, would make an amazing venue for an architecture conference: its terraced parking decks overlook and focus upon a kind of inadvertent auditorium. Drive-in films, drive-in lectures, drive-in pirate radio concerts – it’s too fantastic a space not to try.

—Lebbeus Woods offers a glimpse of a film he outlined, designed, and later co-wrote with Olive Brown, called Underground Berlin. It involves a disillusioned architect, a missing twin brother, neo-Nazi activities in the divided city, metallic underground tunnels connecting east to west, and “a top-secret underground research station rumored to be somewhere beneath the very center of Berlin.” There are even rogue planetary scientists investigating “the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth.” Woods’s graphic presentation of the idea is incredible, and absolutely worth a very long look.

—Meanwhile, farmers in the UK have been asked “to implement measures which would reverse the UK-wide decline in skylark numbers.” This means shaving small rectangular plots into the midst of productive cropland, because “rectangular uncropped patches in cereal fields allow skylarks to forage when crops become too dense for them.” We will prepare our landscapes for other species.

—Is your iPod maxing out the U.S. electrical grid? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: New Scientist looks at how to short-circuit the grid altogether – and would-be saboteurs the world over are still taking furious notes. Alternatively, just follow the fantastic On The Grid series by Adam Ryder and Brian Rosa to see where the electrical network really goes.

New Scientist also scanned beneath the south polar glaciers to find “Antarctica’s hidden plumbing” – and, as it happens, “the continent’s secret water network is far more dynamic than we thought.”

—Ruairi Glynn’s new book, Digital Architecture: Passages Through Hinterlands is now out; it documents Glynn’s related exhibition.

—Moving online, New York’s Architectural League has redesigned its website – joining the Canadian Centre for Architecture, who also redesigned their own site earlier this summer.

—Back in England, the BBC reports that pigs are being used “to help restore” parts of Worcestershire’s historic Wyre Forest. This comes at the same time that Cairo has realized that its absurd slaughter of every pig in the city last spring in order to guard against swine flu has led to an extraordinary garbage crisis. “The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste,” the New York Times reports. “Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.” Meanwhile, Edible Geography points our attention to the fascinating labyrinth of subsidiary products made from the bodies of dead pigs; welcome to “Pig Futures.”

—On io9 Matt Jones suggests that “the city is a battlesuit for surviving the future,” and he cites Archigram, Kevin Slavin, Dan Hill, Warren Ellis, the architecture of sci-fi, William Gibson, and much more to make his point. Speaking of Warren Ellis, Icon magazine recently published a long conversation between Warren, Francois Roche, and myself; you can check it out on Flickr.

—Were artificial hills, henges, and monumental earthworks a kind of “prehistoric sat nav” installed across the British landscape? And does this same question seem to be asked at least once every few years?

—The 2009 Solar Decathlon approaches.

—Gramazio & Kohler’s Mobile Fabrication Unit will arrive soon at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. Between October 5 and October 27, it will be busy assembling “the first temporary public installation to be built on site by an industrial robot in New York.” Then, however, on Halloween, it will become possessed by incomprehensible forces from the Precambrian depths of the city, and, in a horrifying night of thunderous brickwork, it will wall off the island of Manhattan forever…

Mayan Muons and Unmapped Rooms

[Image: “Guatemala Tikal D8006” by youngrobv].

Easily one of the most interesting things I’ve read in quite a while is how a team of particle physicists from UT-Austin plan on using repurposed muon detectors to see inside Mayan archaeological ruins.
In the new issue of Archaeology, Samir S. Patel describes how “an almost featureless aluminum cylinder 5 feet in diameter” that spends its time “silently counting cosmic flotsam called muons” – “ghost particles” that ceaselessly rain down from space – will be installed in the jungles of Belize.
There, these machines will map the otherwise unexplored internal spaces of what the scientists call a “jungle-covered mound.”
In other words, an ancient building that now appears simply to be part of the natural landscape – a constructed terrain – will be opened up to viewing for the first time since it was reclaimed by rain forest.
It’s non-invasive archaeology by way of deep space.

[Images: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

From the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group website:

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:

A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Referring to a muon detector already at work on the campus of UT-Austin, Patel writes: “The detector sees in every direction, so it also records muon shadows from the adjacent university buildings, and can even identify empty corridors. Silently, with little tending, it takes a monumental x-ray of the world around it.”
“The resulting image,” he adds, “will be almost directly analogous to a medical CAT-scan.”

[Image: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Install one of these things in New York City and see what you find: moving blurs of elevators and passing trucks amidst the strange, skeletal frameworks of skyscrapers that stand behind it all in a labyrinthine mesh.

[Image: A diagram of how it all works; from this PDF by Roy Schwitters].

Patel goes on to relate the surreal story of physicist Luis Alvarez, who used muons “to scan the inside of an ancient structure” – in this case, Khafre’s pyramid at Giza. “Working with Egyptian scientists in the late 1960s,” we read, “he gained access to the Belzoni chamber, a humid vault deep under the pyramid.”
Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, “Alvarez’s team set up a muon detector called a spark chamber, which included 30 tons of of iron sheeting, in the underground room.”
Foreign physicists building iron rooms beneath the pyramids! To search for secret chambers based on the evidence of cosmic particles.

[Image: An illustrated depiction of Luis Alvarez’s feat; view larger!].

Indeed, we read:

Suspicion of the research team ran high – here was a group of Americans with high-tech electronics beneath one of Egypt’s most cherished monuments. “We had flashing lights behind panels – it looked like a sci-fi thing from Star Trek,” says Lauren Yazolino, the engineer who designed the detector’s electronics.

Alvarez’s iron room beneath the monolithic geometry of the pyramid – it’s like a project by Lebbeus Woods, by way of Boullée – apparently took one year to perform its muon-detection work.
One day, then, the team took a long look at the data – wherein Yazolino “spotted an anomaly, a region of the pyramid that stopped fewer muons than expected, suggesting a void.”
There were still undiscovered rooms inside the structure.

[Image: Wiring up the muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Excitingly, when Roy Schwitters sets up his muon detector next to the tree-covered mounds of the Mayan city of La Milpa, he should get his results back in less than six months. Sitting there like a strange battery, the detector’s ultra-long-term abstract photography of the jungle hillsides vaguely reminds me of the technically avant-garde photographic work of Aaron Rose.
Rose has pioneered all sorts of strange lenses and unexpected chemical developers as he takes long-term exposures of Manhattan.
New York becomes less a city than a kind of impenetrable wall of built space.

[Images: Four photographs by Aaron Rose. View slightly larger].

Again, then, I’m curious what it’d be like to install one of these muon detectors in Manhattan: the shivering hives of space it might detect, as delivery trucks shake the bridges and elevators move up and down inside distant high-rises. What would someone like Aaron Rose be able to do with a muon detector?
Are muon detectors the future of urban art photography?
Perhaps it could even be a strange new piece of public art: a dozen muon detectors are installed in Union Square for six months. They’re behind fences, and look sinister; conspiratorialists leave long comments on architecture blogs suggesting that the muon detectors might not really be what they seem…
But the resulting images, after six months of Manhattan muon detection, are turned over as a gift to the city; they are hung in massive prints inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Egyptian wing, and Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers the keynote address.
Or perhaps a muon detector could be installed atop London’s fourth plinth:

The Fourth Plinth is in the north-west of Trafalgar Square, in central London. Built in 1841, it was originally intended for an equestrian statue but was empty for many years. It is now the location for specially commissioned art works.

For six months, a shadowy muon detector will stand there, above the heads of passing tourists, detecting strange and labyrinthine hollows beneath government buildings where sprawling complexes from WWII spiral out of sight below ground.
Or perhaps muon detectors could even be installed along the European coast to discover things like the buried neolithic village of Skara Brae or those infamous Nazi bunkers “that lay hidden for more than 50 years” before being uncovered by the sea. As the Daily Mail reported earlier this month:

Three Nazi bunkers on a beach have been uncovered by violent storms off the Danish coast, providing a store of material for history buffs and military archaeologists.

The bunkers were found in practically the same condition as they were on the day the last Nazi soldiers left them, down to the tobacco in one trooper’s pipe and a half-finished bottle of schnapps.

So what else might be down there under the soil and the sands…?
I’m imagining mobile teams of archaeologists sleeping in unnamed instant cities in the jungles and far deserts of the world, with storms swirling over their heads, running tests on gigantic black cylinders – muon detectors, all – that stand there like Kubrickian monoliths, recording invisible flashes of energy from space to find ancient burial sites and old buildings underground.

[Images: Tikal, photographed by n8agrin: top/bottom].

Perhaps all the forests and deserts of the world should be peppered with muon detectors – revealing archaeological anomalies and unexpected spaces in the ground all around us.
Architecture students could be involved: installing muon detectors outside Dubai high-rises and then competing to see who can most accurately interpret the floorplan data.

[Images: “Sobrevolando Tikal, Guatemala,” photographed by Eddie von der Becke].

Till one day, ten years from now, an astronaut crazed with emotional loneliness, riding through space with his muon detector, begins misinterpreting all of the data. He concludes – in a live radio transmission broadcast home to stunned mission control supervisors – that his space station has secret rooms – undiscovered rooms – that keep popping up somehow in the shadows…
More to the point, meanwhile, you can read a few more things about Roy Schwitters over at MSNBC – and, of course, at the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group homepage.

Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999; view larger].

Lebbeus Woods is one of the first architects I knew by name – not Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, but Lebbeus Woods – and it was Woods’s own technically baroque sketches and models, of buildings that could very well be machines (and vice versa), that gave me an early glimpse of what architecture could really be about.

Woods’s work is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence proclaiming that the architectural imagination, freed from constraints of finance and buildability, should be uncompromising, always. One should imagine entirely new structures, spaces without walls, radically reconstructing the outermost possibilities of the built environment.

If need be, we should re-think the very planet we stand on.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, radically reconstructed, 1994].

Of course, Woods is usually considered the avant-garde of the avant-garde, someone for whom architecture and science fiction – or urban planning and exhilarating, uncontained speculation – are all but one and the same. His work is experimental architecture in its most powerful, and politically provocative, sense.

Genres cross; fiction becomes reflection; archaeology becomes an unpredictable form of projective technology; and even the Earth itself gains an air of the non-terrestrial.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, DMZ, 1988].

One project by Woods, in particular, captured my imagination – and, to this day, it just floors me. I love this thing. In 1980, Woods proposed a tomb for Albert Einstein – the so-called Einstein Tomb (collected here) – inspired by Boullée’s famous Cenotaph for Newton.

But Woods’s proposal wasn’t some paltry gravestone or intricate mausoleum in hewn granite: it was an asymmetrical space station traveling on the gravitational warp and weft of infinite emptiness, passing through clouds of mutational radiation, riding electromagnetic currents into the void.

The Einstein Tomb struck me as such an ingenious solution to an otherwise unremarkable problem – how to build a tomb for an historically titanic mathematician and physicist – that I’ve known who Lebbeus Woods is ever since.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, the city and the faults it sits on, from the San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

So when the opportunity came to talk to Lebbeus about one image that he produced nearly a decade ago, I continued with the questions; the result is this interview, which happily coincides with the launch of Lebbeus’s own website – his first – at That site contains projects, writings, studio reports, and some external links, and it’s worth bookmarking for later exploration.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, 1994; view larger].

In the following Q&A, then, Woods talks to BLDGBLOG about the geology of Manhattan; the reconstruction of urban warzones; politics, walls, and cooperative building projects in the future-perfect tense; and the networked forces of his most recent installations.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, could you explain the origins of the Lower Manhattan image?

Lebbeus Woods: This was one of those occasions when I got a request from a magazine – which is very rare. In 1999, Abitare was making a special issue on New York City, and they invited a number of architects – like Steven Holl, Rafael Viñoly, and, oh god, I don’t recall. Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Michael Sorkin. Myself. They invited us to make some sort of comment about New York. So I wrote a piece – probably 1000 words, 800 words – and I made the drawing.

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth. Let’s not forget that buildings sit on the Earth.

I wanted to suggest that maybe lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet. So, in the drawing, you see that the East River and the Hudson are both dammed. They’re purposefully drained, as it were. The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999, in case you missed it; view larger].

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself. I think that comes across in the drawing. It’s not geologically correct, I’m sure, but the idea is there.

There are a couple of other interesting features which I’ll just mention. One is that the only bridge I show is the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t show the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, for instance. That’s just gone. And I don’t show the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge, which are the other two bridges on the East River. On the Hudson side, it was interesting, because I looked carefully at the drawings – which I based on an aerial photograph of Manhattan, obviously – and the World Trade Center… something’s going on there. Of course, this was in 1999, and I’m not a prophet and I don’t think that I have any particular telepathic or clairvoyant abilities [laughs], but obviously the World Trade Center has been somehow diminished, and there are things floating in the Hudson next to it. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind – it was already several years ago – except that some kind of transformation was going to happen there.

BLDGBLOG: That’s actually one of the things I like so much about your work: you re-imagine cities and buildings and whole landscapes as if they have undergone some sort of potentially catastrophic transformation – be it a war or an earthquake, etc. – but you don’t respond to those transformations by designing, say, new prefab refugee shelters or more durable tents. You respond with what I’ll call science fiction: a completely new order of things – a new way of organizing and thinking about space. You posit something radically different than what was there before. It’s exciting.

Woods: Well, I think that, for instance, in Sarajevo, I was trying to speculate on how the war could be turned around, into something that people could build the new Sarajevo on. It wasn’t about cleaning up the mess or fixing up the damage; it was more about a transformation in the society and the politics and the economics through architecture. I mean, it was a scenario – and, I suppose, that was the kind of movie aspect to it. It was a “what if?”

I think there’s not enough of that thinking today in relation to cities that have been faced with sudden and dramatic – even violent – transformations, either because of natural or human causes. But we need to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move. No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented. It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do. But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction. Of course, being an architect, I’m very interested in the specifics of that direction – you know, not just a verbal description but: this is what it might look like.

So that was the approach in Sarajevo – as well as in this drawing of Lower Manhattan, as I called it.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods. Future structures of the Korean demilitarized zone (1988) juxtaposed with two views of the architectonic tip of some vast flooded machine-building, from Icebergs (1991)].

BLDGBLOG: Part of that comes from recognizing architecture as its own kind of genre. In other words, architecture has the ability, rivaling literature, to imagine and propose new, alternative routes out of the present moment. So architecture isn’t just buildings, it’s a system of entirely re-imagining the world through new plans and scenarios.

Woods: Well, let me just back up and say that architecture is a multi-disciplinary field, by definition. But, as a multi-disciplinary field, our ideas have to be comprehensive; we can’t just say: “I’ve got a new type of column that I think will be great for the future of architecture.”

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Woods: Maybe it will be great – but it’s not enough. I think architects – at least those inclined to understand the multi-disciplinarity and the comprehensive nature of their field – have to visualize something that embraces all these political, economic, and social changes. As well as the technological. As well as the spatial.

But we’re living in a very odd time for the field. There’s a kind of lack of discourse about these larger issues. People are hunkered down, looking for jobs, trying to get a building. It’s a low point. I don’t think it will stay that way. I don’t think that architects themselves will allow that. After all, it’s architects who create the field of architecture; it’s not society, it’s not clients, it’s not governments. I mean, we architects are the ones who define what the field is about, right?

So if there’s a dearth of that kind of thinking at the moment, it’s because architects have retreated – and I’m sure a coming generation is going to say: hey, this retreat is not good. We’ve got to imagine more broadly. We have to have a more comprehensive vision of what the future is.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, The Wall Game].

BLDGBLOG: In your own work – and I’m thinking here of the Korean DMZ project or the Israeli wall-game – this “more comprehensive vision” of the future also involves rethinking political structures. Engaging in society not just spatially, but politically. Many of the buildings that you’ve proposed are more than just buildings, in other words; they’re actually new forms of political organization.

Woods: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the making of buildings is a huge investment of resources of various kinds. Financial, as well as material, and intellectual, and emotional resources of a whole group of people get involved in a particular building project. And any time you get a group, you’re talking about politics. To me politics means one thing: How do you change your situation? What is the mechanism by which you change your life? That’s politics. That’s the political question. It’s about negotiation, or it’s about revolution, or it’s about terrorism, or it’s about careful step-by-step planning – all of this is political in nature. It’s about how people, when they get together, agree to change their situation.

As I wrote some years back, architecture is a political act, by nature. It has to do with the relationships between people and how they decide to change their conditions of living. And architecture is a prime instrument of making that change – because it has to do with building the environment they live in, and the relationships that exist in that environment.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Siteline Vienna, 1998].

BLDGBLOG: There’s also the incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once complete, will actually change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture – could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them.

Woods: I love that. I love the way you put it, and I totally agree with it. I think, you know, architecture should not just be something that follows up on events but be a leader of events. That’s what you’re saying: That by implementing an architectural action, you actually are making a transformation in the social fabric and in the political fabric. Architecture becomes an instigator; it becomes an initiator.

That, of course, is what I’ve always promoted – but it’s the most difficult thing for people to do. Architects say: well, it’s my client, they won’t let me do this. Or: I have to do what my client wants. That’s why I don’t have any clients! [laughter] It’s true.

Because at least I can put the ideas out there and somehow it might seep through, or filter through, to another level.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, Nine Reconstructed Boxes].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, it seems like a lot of the work you’ve been doing for the past few years – in Vienna, especially – has been a kind of architecture without walls. It’s almost pure space. In other words, instead of walls and floors and recognizable structures, you’ve been producing networks and forces and tangles and clusters – an abstract space of energy and directions. Is that an accurate way of looking at your recent work – and, if so, is this a purely aesthetic exploration, or is this architecture without walls meant to symbolize or communicate a larger political message?

Woods: Well, look – if you go back through my projects over the years, probably the least present aspect is the idea of property lines. There are certainly boundaries – spatial boundaries – because, without them, you can’t create space. But the idea of fencing off, or of compartmentalizing – or the capitalist ideal of private property – has been absent from my work over the last few years.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods. A drawing of tectonic faults and other subsurface tensions, from his San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

I think in my more recent work, certainly, there are still boundaries. There are still edges. But they are much more porous, and the property lines… [laughs] are even less, should we say, defined or desired.

So the more recent work – like in Vienna, as you mentioned – is harder for people to grasp. Back in the early 90s I was confronting particular situations, and I was doing it in a kind of scenario way. I made realistic-looking drawings of places – of situations – but now I’ve moved into a purely architectonic mode. I think people probably scratch their heads a little bit and say: well, what is this? But I’m glad you grasp it – and I hope my comments clarify at least my aspirations.

Probably the political implication of that is something about being open – encouraging what I call the lateral movement and not the vertical movement of politics. It’s the definition of a space through a set of approximations or a set of vibrations or a set of energy fluctuations – and that has everything to do with living in the present.

All of those lines are in flux. They’re in movement, as we ourselves develop and change.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, System Wien, 2005].

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge thanks to Lebbeus Woods, not only for having this conversation but for proving over and over again that architecture can and should always be a form of radical reconstruction, unafraid to take on buildings, cities, worlds – whole planets.

For more images, meanwhile, including much larger versions of all the ones that appear here, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s Lebbeus Woods Flickr set. Also consider stopping by Subtopia for an enthusiastic recap of Lebbeus’s appearance at Postopolis! last Spring; and by City of Sound for Dan Hill’s synopsis of the same event.