Graphic Inferno

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun, via Annex Galleries].

Artist Rico Lebrun once remarked that he was interested in “changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured,” aiming to depict “mineral and spiritual splendor.”

[Image: “Figures in Black & White” (ca. 1961) by Rico Lebrun, via Mutual Art].

Originally from Naples, Italy, where he painted murals, Lebrun brought a macabre sense of body horror to classic myths and religious illustrations. Think of him as a kind of Italian-American version of Francis Bacon.

Lebrun has been described as “one of the most unjustly neglected artists of the postwar era… Lebrun’s last major exhibition was in 1967 and it was hastily thrown together. He has never had [a] critically curated retrospective that locates his art in its time and place, and neither has he had a scholarly monograph to take the measure of his career.”

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun, this is “Canto XXV—Circle Eight: Bolgia of the Thieves; their penance was to be changed from humans into snakes.” Via University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee].

What I find so interesting in Lebrun’s work is how sculptural and bloated anatomical forms become worlds unto themselves, divorced from their contexts. They are humid, planetary, often trapped in monstrous pregnancies or what could pass for ritualized medical events. Lebrun depicts Hell as a place of limitless metastasis and uncontrolled mutation.

[Image: Rico Lebrun, “Untitled” (1956), via Artnet].

In other images, broken skeletons seem to emerge from the wrong skin, people lump over one another as if grafted together in molten surgery, and limbs are splayed wide, almost pornographically, in tumbled piles of flesh.

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun].

His most notable projects—including illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, scenes of the Crucifixion, and a project focused on the Holocaust—all explored grotesque exaggerations of the human form, seeming to fuse multiple figures into one, even hybridizing animal bodies with the isolated suffering of people broken and betrayed by the world around them.

[Image: From Rico Lebrun, Paintings and Drawings of the Crucifixion].

Serpents wrap around and consume doomed humans; writhing bodies seem frozen into stone atop tombs.

“Some are bloody,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, describing his drawings for Dante’s Inferno, “and horrifying as the cantos in the Inferno are; there is no other way to depict terror as Dante describes it, without turning the whole thing into an assembly of sedately arranged figures having a picnic in a dark place…”

[Images: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun].

According to translator John Ciardi, “it is only Rico Lebrun who succeeds in giving me a graphic Inferno… Hell is not a Gothic cave, nor is it a festival of dance rhythms, nor is it a series of monkish miniatures. It is a concept.”

Lebrun died in 1964.

Wood from the Witch House

[Image: Via LASSCO].

This is amazing: shortly after writing an earlier post, I found this anecdote from an architectural salvage company in England called LASSCO. It’s like the beginning of a blockbuster film. A customer came in one weekend looking for “an oak beam for his fireplace lintel.” As LASSCO explains, the company tries to keep “a selection of them in stock—salvaged, prepped up and ready to sell. It was only when placing one of the beams aside we happened to put it down with daylight glancing along its length and we spotted that it held a secret. It was covered in apotropaic markings.”

Apotropaic markings, or protection marks, are basically magic symbols thought to ward off evil influences and keep malevolent fates at bay—and they are more common in traditional architectural practice than you might think. LASSCO even recommends checking your own house for them.

“If you live in a timber-framed house dating back earlier than the eighteenth century,” they advise, “look out for scratchings on the bressumer beam, sometimes only very lightly inscribed at the top corners of the fireplace, like the scratching of a cat. Look for a repeated ‘W’—thought to be a double ‘V’ for ‘Virgo Virginum’. Look for daisy wheels—a circular device with petals, or runic symbols—a ‘P’ incorporating a cross, or a ‘W’ incorporating a ‘P’. Look for two verticals with a ‘Saltire’ cross between them—a motif also much used on iron door latches and bolts and wrought iron firedogs.”

What an incredible setup for a horror film or novella: an architectural salvage firm uncovers strange ritual markings on pieces of timber in their inventory, and the macabre knock-on effects this might have as these bits of weird wood are incorporated into someone else’s home.

Alas, LASSCO’s tale is from 2013 and the oak beam has since been sold.

Arch History

[Image: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

A project I noted while serving as one of many, many design jurors this year for the Architizer A+Awards used a spiraling outdoor corridor of arches in the United Arab Emirates to tell the history of the Islamic arch.

[Image: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

The Hong Kong-based team behind the project, Daydreamers Design, explained that they organized the arches into ten typologies, then arrayed those into a much larger sequence, “in historical order.”

[Images: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

In other words, as you meander down the hallway, you also move forward—or backward—through arch history.

[Images: Spiral Arches by Daydreamers Design].

For what it’s worth, I’d love to see something similar done with Western design orders, or even cathedral buttresses.

In any case, the project did not win any A+Awards, but it remains noteworthy, nonetheless. Watch a short video of the project, below.

The Coming Amnesia

[Image: Galaxy M101; full image credits].

In a talk delivered in Amsterdam a few years ago, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds outlined an unnerving future scenario for the universe, something he had also recently used as the premise of a short story (collected here).

As the universe expands over hundreds of billions of years, Reynolds explained, there will be a point, in the very far future, at which all galaxies will be so far apart that they will no longer be visible from one another.

Upon reaching that moment, it will no longer be possible to understand the universe’s history—or perhaps even that it had one—as all evidence of a broader cosmos outside of one’s own galaxy will have forever disappeared. Cosmology itself will be impossible.

In such a radically expanded future universe, Reynolds continued, some of the most basic insights offered by today’s astronomy will be unavailable. After all, he points out, “you can’t measure the redshift of galaxies if you can’t see galaxies. And if you can’t see galaxies, how do you even know that the universe is expanding? How would you ever determine that the universe had had an origin?”

There would be no reason to theorize that other galaxies had ever existed in the first place. The universe, in effect, will have disappeared over its own horizon, into a state of irreversible amnesia.

[Image: The Tarantula Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

It was an interesting talk that I had the pleasure to catch in person, and, for those interested, it includes Reynolds’s explanation of how he shaped this idea into a short story.

More to the point, however, Reynolds was originally inspired by an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 called “The End of Cosmology?” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

That article’s sub-head suggests what’s at stake: “An accelerating universe,” we read, “wipes out traces of its own origins.”

[Image: A “Wolf–Rayet star… in the constellation of Carina (The Keel),” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

As Krauss and Scherrer point out in their provocative essay, “We may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

“What will the scientists of the future see as they peer into the skies 100 billion years from now?” they ask. “Without telescopes, they will see pretty much what we see today: the stars of our galaxy… The big difference will occur when these future scientists build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies outside our own. They won’t see any! The nearby galaxies will have merged with the Milky Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all the other galaxies will be long gone, having escaped beyond the event horizon.”

This won’t only mean fewer luminous objects to see in space; it will mean that, “as a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the expanding universe will become irreproducible.”

[Image: The “interacting galaxies” of Arp 273, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

The authors go on to explain that even the chemical composition of this future universe will no longer allow for its history to be deduced, including the Big Bang.

“Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics,” they write, “will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.”

In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.”

[Image: “The Christianized constellation St. Sylvester (a.k.a. Bootes), from the 1627 edition of Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are many interesting things here, including the somewhat existentially horrifying possibility that any intelligent creatures alive in that distant era will have no way to know what is happening to them, where things came from, even where they currently are (an empty space? a dream?), or why.

Informed cosmology will, by necessity, be replaced with religious speculation—with myths, poetry, and folklore.

[Image: 12th-century astrolabe; from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

It is worth asking, however briefly and with multiple grains of salt, if something similar has perhaps already occurred in the universe we think we know today—if something has not already disappeared beyond the horizon of cosmic amnesia—making even our most well-structured, observation-based theories obsolete. For example, could even the widely accepted conclusion that there was a Big Bang be just an ironic side-effect of having lost some other form of cosmic evidence that long ago slipped eternally away from view?

Remember that these future astronomers will not know anything is missing. They will merrily forge ahead with their own complicated, internally convincing new theories and tests. It is not out of the question, then, to ask if we might be in a similarly ignorant situation.

In any case, what kinds of future devices and instruments might be invented to measure or explore a cosmic scenario such as this? What explanations and narratives would such devices be trying to prove?

[Image: “Woodcut illustration depicting the 7th day of Creation, from a page of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Note the Aristotelian cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, below, with God and His retinue of angels looking down on His creation from above.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

Science writer Sarah Scoles looked at this same dilemma last year for PBS, interviewing astronomer Avi Loeb.

Scoles was able to find a small glimmer of light in this infinite future darkness, however: Loeb believes that there might actually be a way out of this universal amnesia.

“The center of our galaxy keeps ejecting stars at high enough speeds that they can exit the galaxy,” Loeb says. The intense and dynamic gravity near the black hole ejects them into space, where they will glide away forever like radiating rocket ships. The same thing should happen a trillion years from now.

“These stars that leave the galaxy will be carried away by the same cosmic acceleration,” Loeb says. Future astronomers can monitor them as they depart. They will see stars leave, become alone in extragalactic space, and begin rushing faster and faster toward nothingness. It would look like magic. But if those future people dig into that strangeness, they will catch a glimpse of the true nature of the universe.

There might yet be hope for cosmological discovery, in the other words, encoded in the trajectories of these bizarre, fleeing stars.

[Images: (top) “An illustration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, from the 1579 edition of Piccolomini’s De la Sfera del Mondo.” (bottom) “An illustration (influenced by Peurbach’s Theoricae Planetarum Novae) explaining the retrograde motion of an outer planet in the sky, from the 1647 Leiden edition of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera.” Images and captions from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are at least two reasons why I have been thinking about this today. One was the publication of an article by Dennis Overbye earlier this week about the rate of the universe’s expansion.

“There is a crisis brewing in the cosmos,” Overbye writes, “or perhaps in the community of cosmologists. The universe seems to be expanding too fast, some astronomers say.”

Indeed, the universe might be more “virulent and controversial” than currently believed, he explains, caught-up in the long process of simply tearing itself apart.

[Image: A “starburst galaxy” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

One implication of this finding, Overbye adds, “is that the most popular version of dark energy—known as the cosmological constant, invented by Einstein 100 years ago and then rejected as a blunder—might have to be replaced in the cosmological model by a more virulent and controversial form known as phantom energy, which could cause the universe to eventually expand so fast that even atoms would be torn apart in a Big Rip billions of years from now.”

In the process, perhaps the far-future dark ages envisioned by Krauss and Scherrer will thus arrive a billion or two years earlier than expected.

[Image: Engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri].

The second thing that made me think of this, however, was a short essay called “Dante in Orbit,” originally published in 1963, that a friend sent to me last night. It is about stars, constellations, and the possibility of determining astronomical time in The Divine Comedy.

In that paper, Frederick A. Stebbins writes that Dante “seems far removed from the space age; yet we find him concerned with problems of astronomy that had no practical importance until man went into orbit. He had occasion to deal with local time, elapsed time, and the International Date Line. His solutions appear to be correct.”

Stebbins goes on to describe “numerous astronomical references in [Dante’s] chief work, The Divine Comedy”—albeit doing so in a way that remains unconvincing. He suggests, for example, that Dante’s descriptions of constellations, sunrises, full moons, and more will allow an astute reader to measure exactly how much time was meant to have passed in his mythic story, and even that Dante himself had somehow been aware of differential, or relativistic, time differences between far-flung locations. (Recall, on the other hand, that Dante’s work has been discussed elsewhere for its possible insights into physics.)

[Image: Diagrams from “Dante in Orbit” (1963) by Frederick A. Stebbins].

But what’s interesting about this is not whether or not Stebbins was correct in his conclusions. What’s interesting is the very idea that a medieval cosmology might have been soft-wired, so to speak, into Dante’s poetic universe and that the stars and constellations he referred to would have had clear narrative significance for contemporary readers. It was part of their era’s shared understanding of how the world was structured.

Now, though, imagine some new Dante of a hundred billion years from now—some new Divine Comedy published in a trillion years—and how it might come to grips with the universal isolation and darkness of Krauss and Scherrer. What cycles of time might be perceived in the lonely, shining bulk of the Milky Way, a dying glow with no neighbor; what shared folklore about the growing darkness might be communicated to readers who don’t know, who cannot know, how incorrect their model of the cosmos truly is?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the Dante paper).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

“The entire city can be considered as one large house”

venice[Image: “St. Mark’s Place, with campanile, Venice, Italy,” via the Library of Congress].

Following a number of recent events for A Burglar’s Guide to the City—discussing, among other things, the often less than clear legal lines between interiors and exteriors, between public space and private—I’ve been asked about the Jewish practice of the eruv.

An eruv, in very broad strokes, is a clearly defined space outside the walls of the private home, often marked by something as thin as a wire, inside of which observant Jews are permitted to carry certain items on Shabbat, a day on which carrying objects is otherwise normally prohibited.

As Chabad describes the eruv, “Practically, it is forbidden to carry something, such as a tallit bag or a prayer book from one’s home along the street and to a synagogue or to push a baby carriage from home to a synagogue, or to another home, on Shabbat.”

However, “It became obvious even in ancient times, that on Shabbat, as on other days, there are certain things people wish to carry. People also want to get together with their friends after synagogue and take things with them—including their babies. They want to get together to learn, to socialize and to be a community.”

While, today, “it is an obvious impracticality to build walls throughout portions of cities, crossing over or through streets and walkways, in order to place one’s home and synagogue within the same ‘private’ domain,” you can instead institute an eruv: staking out a kind of shared private space, or a public “interior,” as it were. The eruv, Chabad continues, is “a technical enclosure which surrounds both private and hitherto public domains,” and it “is usually large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving one’s domain.”

In fact, the space of the eruv can absorb truly huge amounts of an existing city, despite the fact that many people will not even know it exists, let alone that they have crossed over into it, that they are “inside” something.

So the question I’ve been posed—although I will defer to more learned colleagues for an informed and accurate answer—is: what does the eruv do to concepts of burglary, if everything taking place inside it, even if technically “outside,” is considered an interior private space? In other words, can any crime committed inside an eruv be considered an act of burglary?

These questions reminded me, in fact, of a commenter named Federico Sanna, who recently pointed out here on the blog that the city of Venice has instituted a new regime for public space in the city by recognizing the entirety of Venice as an eruv.

Reading this with the messy help of Google Translate, the Venetian mayor has signed a law “attesting that the entire city can be considered as one large ‘house,’” or eruv, extending domesticity to the entire metropolis. This eruv will exist for five years, after which, presumably, it will be renewed.

As Sanna points out in his comment, “It must be said: Venice is the place that invented the Ghetto. And this is the 500th anniversary of that event. Venice is the first city to ever constrain Jews in one tiny portion of its urban space–another act that generated architecture, making buildings grow higher and higher to accomodate the growing Jewish population. It is significant, then, if not altogether timely, that it’s Venice that makes this symbolic move of inclusiveness for the first time.”

What effect—if any—this might have on the legal recognition of burglary remains, for me, an interesting question.

The Politics of Land Use

USC geographer Travis Longcore on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation: “When the occupiers blithely talk of putting the land ‘to use’ again (as if scientific research, recreation, hunting, fishing, education, and all manner of public access were not ‘use’), the CNN reporter mindlessly repeats the trope, implying that the occupiers have a legitimate demand in wanting to work the land, as if it were some sort of de Tocquevillian tragedy that one of the most productive migratory bird stopover sites on the Pacific flyway was not being overrun with cattle by the ranchers from Utah. No, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not need to be worked, and CNN should have reporters that know better than to take the claim at face value.”

Sukkah City

[Image: Sukkah City as it could be].

Joshua Foer, co-founder of Atlas Obscura and author of the forthcoming book Moonwalking with Einstein, has put together an awesome design competition called “Sukkah City.”

A sukkah is a temporary architectural structure with Biblical origins; it is “an ephemeral, elemental shelter, erected for one week each fall,” Foer writes, “in which it is customary to share meals, entertain, sleep, and rejoice. Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture.” The modern-day sukkah is thus both nostalgia and reenactment, substitution and performance (to put it in terms explored by the recent book Anachronic Renaissance).

With this historical background, you can imagine that the brief includes some very particular constraints, design limits that should prove oddly exhilarating to anyone willing to take them on:

The basic constraints seem simple: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic materials through which one can see the stars. Yet a deep dialogue of historical texts intricately refines and interprets these constraints—arguing, for example, for a 27 x 27 x 38-inch minimum volume; for a maximum height of 30 feet; for walls that cannot sway more than one handbreadth; for a mineral and botanical menagerie of construction materials; and even, in one famous instance, whether it is kosher to adaptively reuse a recently deceased elephant as a wall. (It is.) The paradoxical effect of these constraints is to produce a building that is at once new and old, timely and timeless, mobile and stable, open and enclosed, homey and uncanny, comfortable and critical.

The idea of there being a long-running interpretive tradition associated with this specific but highly abstract architectural structure is amazing to me: an oral tradition, or architectural midrash, spanning centuries, through which even the most basic parameters—and thus the building’s most wild, soaring, and structurally unexpected instantiations, its walls made from dead elephants, its roof a meshed hole through which to spy on stars—can be determined.

More from the brief:

Sukkah City: New York City” will re-imagine this ancient phenomenon, develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists will be selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics to be constructed in a visionary village in Union Square Park from September 19-21, 2010.
One structure will be chosen by New Yorkers to stand and delight throughout the week-long festival of Sukkot as the Official Sukkah of New York City. The process and results of the competition, along with construction documentation and critical essays, will be published in the forthcoming book Sukkah City: Radically Temporary Architecture for the Next Three Thousand Years.

You must register by July 1, and your design proposal will be due by August 1. I’m a bit biased here, but the jury includes some heavyweights, including Paul Goldberger, Ron Arad, Natalie Jeremijenko, Steven Heller, Maira Kalman, Thom Mayne, Ada Tolle, Thomas de Monchaux (co-coordinator of Sukkah City), and many others. I can’t wait to see what comes in, and I’d strongly encourage all sorts of approaches to this, from sprawling plastic plant forms to blocks of plug-in modularity, from a showerhead that 3D-prints the building below it to DIY assemblages of found materials. The collaged image, above, shows how formally interesting some of this could get.

And anyone is able to join in—as Foer writes, “If you’re an architect, designer, artist, engineer, backyard builder, or just someone with a clever idea, I hope you’ll consider entering.”

Pop-Up Forests and Experimental Christmas Trees

The New York Times this morning profiles a plant pathologist at Washington State University named Gary Chastagner, who “heads one of the nation’s half-dozen Christmas tree research labs.” These labs include institutions such as WSU-Puyallup (producing “research-based information that creates a high-quality Christmas tree product for consumers”), New Mexico State University (“screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species”), NC State (whose research includes “support on agritourism aspects of Christmas tree farms,” as well as a related Christmas Tree Genetics Program), and many more.

[Images: Photos by Randy Harris for the New York Times, courtesy of the New York Times].

While I realize there is absolutely no connection here, and that this is purely and only an example of conceptual confusion, I will admit that there was initially something of an odd thrill in reading about “Christmas Tree Genetics,” as two ideas briefly and incorrectly overlapped: the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation (or the belief that the body and blood of Christ appears, literally, in physical form here on Earth, through the transformation of everyday materials such as bread and wine… and Christmas trees?) and the European-druidic worship of various tree species, thus implying, as if from some strange theo-botanical forestry program, the genetic modification and/or enhancement over time of new holy tree species, with iconic and sacramental trans-subtantial holiday forests cultivated on research farms throughout the United States.

In any case, this national Christmas tree research program includes apparently extreme steps that almost seem to justify such an otherwise misbegotten interpretation, including “the largest and most sophisticated of operations,” as described by the New York Times, where scientists “harvest almost a million trees a year from an 8,500-acre plantation and remove them by helicopter” for analysis elsewhere, and a brief experiment that tested “whether you can successfully hydrate a Christmas tree with an IV drip,” like some arboreal patient seeking hospice from an ecosystem that betrayed it. You could probably soon get an M.S. in Christmas Tree Science.

The goal is to develop new and improved tree species for both indoor and outdoor display during the holiday season, and, along the way, to create a tree that can last weeks—even months—in a post-mortem state without shedding its needles.

These ever more clean and tidy trees can thus pop-up in houses, retail displays, shopping malls, outdoor plazas, and Catholic high schools around the world, forming new “migratory forests” that take up residence—but not root—in our cities once a year before retreating, in wait, for the next season.

This vision of a pop-up forest—an instant indoor ecosystem of genetically perfected, not-quite-trans-substantial tree species—brings to mind a different kind of pop-up forest, one that I wrote about for the most recent “year in ideas” issue of Wired UK.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

That all too brief piece looks ahead to an age of “insurgent shrublands,” disturbed landscapes, and other “fast-emerging but short-lived ecosystems in an era of nonlinear climate change.” It refers to work by, amongst others, Natalie Boelman and Kevin Griffin, who are currently pursuing otherwise unrelated work at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and science writer Andrew Revkin; and it covers a variety of ideas, from the changing soundscapes of the Arctic as the rapidly defrosting polar north fills up with new, invasive bird songs, to the increased likelihood of tree-branch collapse as certain species—such as oak—grow much faster in polluted urban atmospheres.

In this context, the idea of a “pop-up forest” takes on a different, altogether less celebratory meaning.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

You can read the piece—as well as one by Ferris Jabr on electricity-generating bacteria and a short article by Jeremy Kingsley on open-source construction—here.

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.

Our Lady of the Rocks


[Image: Via montenegro.com].

Somehow this morning I ended up reading about an artificial island and devotional chapel constructed in Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor.

“In 1452,” we read at montenegro.com, “two sailors from Perast happened by a small rock jutting out of the bay after a long day at sea and discovered a picture of the Virgin Mary perched upon the stone.” Thus began a process of dumping more stones into the bay in order to expand this lonely, seemingly blessed rock—as well as loading the hulls of old fishing boats with stones in order to sink them beneath the waves, adding to the island’s growing landmass.

Eventually, in 1630, a small chapel was constructed atop this strange half-geological, half-shipbuilt assemblage.


[Image: Via Skyscraper City].

Throwing stones into the bay and, in the process, incrementally expanding the island’s surface area, has apparently become a local religious tradition: “The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is alive even nowadays. Every year on the sunset of July 22, an event called fašinada, when local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island, takes place.”

The idea that devotional rock-throwing has become an art of creating new terrain, generation after generation, rock after rock, pebble after pebble, is stunning to me. Perhaps in a thousand years, a whole archipelago of churches will exist there, standing atop a waterlogged maze of old pleasure boats and fishing ships, the mainland hills and valleys nearby denuded of loose stones altogether. Inadvertently, then, this is as much a museum of local geology—a catalog of rocks—as it is a churchyard.

In fact, it doesn’t seem inaccurate to view this as a vernacular version of Vicente Guallart‘s interest in architecturally constructing new hills and coastlines based on a logical study of the geometry of rocks.

Here, the slow creation of new inhabitable terrain simply takes place in the guise of an annual religious festival—pilgrims assembling islands with every arm’s throw.