Magnetic Landscape Architecture

[Image: R. Fu, via ScienceNews].

Although I seem to be on a roll with linking to ScienceNews stories, this is too amazing to pass up: “People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.”

The magnetic fields were likely created by lightning strikes.

This is incredible: “Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures—which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more—were then carved at those spots.”

It’s like a geological farm for the secondary effects of lightning. A lightning farm for real!

The mind boggles at the thought of magnetic landscape architecture, or magnetic masonry in ancient stonework, or even huge sculptures invisibly adhering to one another through magnetic forces, giving the appearance of magic.

Imagine a valley of exposed bedrock and boulders, its unusually high iron content making the rocks there attractive to lightning. Over tens of thousands of lightning strikes, the valley becomes partially magnetized, resulting in bizarre geological anomalies mistaken for the actions of a spirit world: small pebbles roll uphill, for example, or larger rocks inexplicably clump together in structurally precarious agglomerations. Stones perhaps hover an inch or two off the ground, pulled upward toward magnetic overhangs, or rocks visibly assemble themselves into small cairns, clicking into place one atop the other.

As you step into the valley, the only sound you hear is a trembling in the gravel ahead, as if the rocks are jostling for position. Your jewelry begins to float, pulling away from your wrists and chest.

Anyway, read more at ScienceNews.

(Also, watch for my friend Eva Barbarossa’s book on magnets coming out this fall.)

Lightning Farm

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group].

This past winter, I had the pleasure of traveling around south Florida with Smout Allen, Kyle Buchanan, and nearly two dozen students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Florida’s variable terrains—of sink holes, swamps, and eroding beaches—and its Herculean infrastructure, from canals and freeways to theme parks and rocket facilities, served as the narrative backdrop for the many architectural projects ultimately produced by the class (in addition, of course, to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, the results of which we watched live from the bar of a tropical-themed hotel near Cape Canaveral, next door to Ron Jon).

While there were many, many interesting projects resulting from the trip, and from the Unit in general, there is one that I thought I’d post here, by student Farah Aliza Badaruddin, particularly for the quality of its drawings.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

Badaruddin’s project explored the large-scale architectural implications of applying radical weather technologies to the task of landscape remediation, asking specifically if Cape Canaveral’s highly contaminated ground water—polluted by a “viscous toxic goo” made from tens of thousands of pounds of rocket fuels, chemical plumes, solvents, and other industrial waste products over the decades—could be decontaminated through pyrolysis, using guided and controlled bursts of lightning.

In her own words, Badaruddin explains that the would test “the idea that lightning can be harnessed on-site to pyrolyse highly contaminated groundwater as an approach to remediate the polluted site.”

These controlled and repetitive lightning strikes would also, in turn, help fertilize the soil, producing a kind of bio-electro-agricultural event of truly cosmic (or at least Miller-Ureyan) proportions.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida Lightning Research Group].

Her maps of the area—which she presents as if drawn in a Moleskine notebook—show the terrestrial borders of the proposal (although volumetric maps of the sky, showing the project’s fully three-dimensional engagement with regional weather systems, would have been an equally, if not more, effective way of showing the project’s spatial boundaries).

This raises the awesome question of how you should most accurately represent an architectural project whose central goal is to wield electrical influence on the atmosphere around it.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

In short, her design proposes a new infrastructure of “rocket-triggered lightning technology,” assisted and supervised by a peripheral network of dirigibles—floating airships that “surround the site and serve as the observatory platform for a proposed lightning visitor centre and the weather research center.”

The former was directly inspired by real-world lightning research equipment found at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group].

Badaruddin’s own rocket triggers would be used both to attract and “to provide direct lightning strikes to the proposed sites,” thus pyrolizing the landscape and purifying both ground water and soil.

[Image: Aerial collage view of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

The result would be a lightning farm, a titanic landscape tuned to the sky, flashing with controlled lightning strikes as the ground conditions are gradually remediated—an unmoving, nearly permanent, artificial electrical storm like something out of Norse mythology, cleansing the earth of toxic chemicals and preparing the site for future reuse.

[Image: Collage of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

I should say that my own interest in these kinds of proposals is less in their future workability and more in what it means to see a technology taken out of context, picked apart for its spatial implications, and then re-scaled and transformed into a speculative work of landscape architecture. The value, in other words, is in re-thinking existing technologies by placing them at unexpected scales in unexpected conditions, simultaneously extracting an architectural proposal from that and perhaps catalyzing innovative new ways for the original technology itself to be redeveloped or used.

[Image: Farah Aliza Badaruddin].

It’s not a question of whether or not something can be immediately realized or built; it’s a question of how open-ended, fictional design proposals can change the way someone thinks about an entire field or class of technologies.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

But I’ll let Badaruddin’s own extraordinary visual skills tell the story. Most if not all of these images can be seen in a much larger size if you open the images in their own windows; they’re well worth a closer look—

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

—including what amount to a short graphic novel telling the story of her proposed controlled-lightning landscape-decontamination facility.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

All in all, whether or not architecturally-controlled lightning storms will ever purify the land and water of south Florida, it’s a wonderfully realized and highly imaginative project, and I hope Badaruddin finds more opportunities, post-Bartlett, to showcase and develop her skills.