Los Angeles is “less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.”
[Image: Underground seismic counterweights act as pendulums, designed to stabilize Los Angeles from below; from L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
Because of seismic instability, in other words, the city should be thought of in terms of depths and soundings, not as a horizontal urban surface but as a volumetric space churning with underground forces analogous to currents and tides.
This bathymetric approach to dry land came to mind again when reading last month that the land of Southern California, as shown by a recent GPS study, is undergoing “constant large-scale motion.”
It is more like a slow ocean than it is solid ground, torqued and agitating almost imperceptibly in real-time.
“Constant large-scale motion has been detected at the San Andreas Fault System in Southern California,” we read, “confirming movement previously predicted by models—but never before documented. The discovery will help researchers better understand the fault system, and its potential to produce the next big earthquake.”
This is true, of course, on a near-planetary scale, as plate tectonics are constantly pushing land masses into and away from one another like the slow and jagged shapes of an ice floe.
But the constant roiling motion of something meant to be solid is both scientifically fascinating and metaphorically rich—eliminating the very idea of being grounded or standing on firm ground—not to mention conceptually intriguing when put into the context of architectural design.
That is, if architecture is the design and fabrication of stationary structures, meant to be founded on solid ground, then this “constant large-scale motion” suggests that we should instead think of architecture, at least by analogy, more in terms of shipbuilding or even robotics. Architecture can thus be given an altogether different philosophical meaning, as a point of temporary orientation and solidity in a world of constant large-scale surges and flux.
Put another way, the ground we rely on has never been solid; it has always been an ocean, its motion too slow to perceive.
Called L.A. Recalculated, the project looks at Greater Los Angeles as a seismically active and heavily urbanized terrain punctuated by large-scale scientific instrumentation, from geophysics to astronomy. This is explained in more detail, below.
Between the drawings and the text, it’s something I’ve been very enthusiastic about for the past year or so, and I’m thrilled to finally see it published. I thus thought I’d include it here on the blog; a slightly edited version of the project as seen on MAS Context appears below.
Los Angeles is a city where natural history, aerospace research, astronomical observation, and the planetary sciences hold outsized urban influence. From the risk of catastrophic earthquakes to the region’s still operational oil fields, from its long history of military aviation to its complex relationship with migratory wildlife, Los Angeles is not just a twenty-first-century megacity.
Its ecological fragility combined with an unsettling lack of terrestrial stability mean that Los Angeles requires continual monitoring and study: from its buried creeks to its mountain summits, L.A. has been ornamented with scientific equipment, crowned with electromagnetic antennae, and ringed with seismic stations, transforming Los Angeles into an urban-scale research facility, a living device inhabited by millions of people on the continent’s westernmost edge.
L.A. Recalculated can be seen as a distributed cartographic drawing—part map, part plan, part section—that takes conceptual inspiration from the book OneFiveFour by Lebbeus Woods. There, Woods describes a hypothetical city shaped by the existential threat of mysterious seismic events surging through the ground below. In order to understand how this unstable ground might undermine the metropolis, the city has augmented itself on nearly every surface with “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments,” he writes, “measuring light, movement, force, change.”
In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux. Architecture becomes a means for giving shape to these existential investigations.
Twenty-first-century Los Angeles has inadvertently fulfilled Woods’s speculative vision. It is less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.
L.A. is also a graveyard of dead rocket yards and remnant physics experiments that once measured and established the speed of light using prisms, mirrors, and interferometers in the San Gabriel Mountains (an experiment now marked by historic plaques and concrete obelisks). Further, Los Angeles hosts both the Griffith and Mt. Wilson Observatories through which the region achieved an often overlooked but vital role in the history of global astronomy.
Seen through the lens of this expanded context, Los Angeles becomes an archipelago of scientific instruments often realized at the scale of urban infrastructure: densely inhabited, with one eye on the stars, sliding out of alignment with itself, and jostled from below with seismic tides.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
The surface of Los Angeles is both active and porous. A constant upwelling of liquid hydrocarbons and methane gas is everywhere met with technologies of capture, mitigation, and control. In our proposal, wheeled seismic creepmeters measure the movement of the Earth as part of an experimental lab monitoring potentially hazardous leaks of oil and tar underground.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
The speed of light was accurately measured for the first time just outside this city of sunshine and cinema. Using complex scientific instrumentation assembled from rotating hexagonal prisms, mirrors, and pulses of light, housed inside small, architecturally insignificant shacks in the mountains behind Los Angeles, one of the fundamental constants of the universe was cracked.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
In the heart of the city, atop the old neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, erased to make way for Dodger Stadium, we propose a series of 360º planetariums to be built. These spherical projections not only reconnect Los Angeles with the stars, constellations, and distant galaxies turning through a firmament its residents can now rarely see; they also allow simulated glimpses into the Earth’s interior, where the planet’s constantly rearranging tectonic plates promise a new landscape to come, a deeper world always in formation. The destroyed houses and streets of this lost neighborhood also reappear in the planetarium shows as a horizon line to remind visitors of the city’s recent past and possible future.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
As the city changes—its demography variable, its landscape forever on the move—so, too, do the constellations high above. These shifting heavens allow for an always-new celestial backdrop to take hold and influence the city. A complex architectural zodiac is developed to give a new narrative context for these emerging astral patterns.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
Seismic counterweights have long been used to help stabilize skyscrapers in earthquake zones. Usually found at the tops of towers, these dead weights sway back and forth during temblors like vast and silent bells. Here, a field of subterranean pendulums has been affixed beneath the city to sway—and counter-sway—with every quake, a kind of seismic anti-doomsday clock protecting the city from destruction.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
All of the oil, tar, and liquid asphalt seeping up through the surface of the city can be captured. In this image, slow fountains attuned to these percolating ground fluids gather and mix the deeper chemistry of Los Angeles in special pools and reservoirs.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
The endless jostling of the city, whether due to tectonic activity or to L.A.’s relentless cycles of demolition and construction, can be tapped as a new source of renewable energy. Vast flywheels convert seismic disturbance into future power, spinning beneath generation facilities built throughout the city’s sprawl. Los Angeles will draw power from the terrestrial events that once threatened it.
[Image: From L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
Through sites such as Griffith Observatory and the telescopes of Mt. Wilson, the history of Los Angeles is intimately connected to the rise of modern astronomy. The city’s widely maligned landscape of freeways and parking lots has been reinvigorated through the precise installation of gates, frames, and other architectural horizon lines, aligning the city with solstices, stars, and future constellations.
• • •
L.A. Recalculated was commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, with additional support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks to Sandra Youkhana, Harry Grocott, and Doug Miller.
Meanwhile, check out the closely related project, L.A.T.B.D.. Broadly speaking, L.A.T.B.D. consists of—among many other elements, including narrative fiction and elements of game design—3D models of the architectural scenarios described by L.A. Recalculated.
I wanted to give a quick heads up that a new collaborative exhibition will be opening to the public later today in the Doheny Memorial Library at USC here in Los Angeles, featuring work by myself and Smout Allen.
Called L.A.T.B.D., the project looks at diverse narrative, scientific, architectural, and landscape futures of Los Angeles. It is a city always yet to be determined—or L.A., T.B.D.
The exhibition actually comes at the very end of the 2015 USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, which I’ve had the honor of holding this year, the challenge of which was to use the archival holdings of USC as a springboard for looking forward toward whatever Los Angeles might become.
Like plotting a ballistic trajectory, if we know where L.A. has been—if we can see the ingredients of its past, from its prehuman landscapes to the 2012 procession of the Space Shuttle—can we determine where the city might be, 10, 20, 100 years from now?
The overall curatorial idea was that, hidden within USC’s impressive and seemingly endless archival holdings, there might be glimpses of an L.A. yet to come, and that a project such as this should find a way of bringing that future version of the city into focus.
However, not one for prediction or prescriptive visions of tomorrow, I wanted this to be far more open-ended than that. We thus developed several parallel lines of materials for the show.
One, of course, are a series of gorgeous models designed and fabricated by Smout Allen, showing various hypothetical scenarios for the future city. In one, huge pendulums have been installed beneath the streets to act as seismic counterweights, protecting the city from earthquakes.
In another, the titanic forces released by plate tectonics can be captured by a new kind of power station, converting those otherwise threatening movements of the earth into a source of renewable energy.
In yet another, the city’s freeway system has been converted into a kind of immersive astronomical device, to help train the eyes of this city of stars on an older and more important firmament above.
Another key part of the L.A.T.B.D. exhibition is an interactive text that allows visitors to, in a sense, choose their own future for the metropolis. This text combines a small-scale look at what sort of Los Angeles might yet greet our unborn descendants—complete with neighborhoods flooded by sea-level rise, widespread demographic shifts, and corrupt political machinations—with a subtext of noir or urban mystery.
Put another way, if this is a city known for its conspiracies and crimes—whether it’s Chinatown, O.J. Simpson, bank heists, or the novels of James Ellroy—can we use that same narrative register to explore the city’s future infrastructure?
[Images: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photos by Geoff Manaugh].
I started referring to this as a kind of architectural or infrastructural noir, and I’ve come to really like the phrase: the accompanying exhibition text is thus not at all what you’d expect to see in a typical gallery setting, but instead tells an endlessly branching “noir” about the next Los Angeles—by, in some ways, revealing what Los Angeles really was, all along.
[Image: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photo by Geoff Manaugh].
Finally, the exhibition includes a series of historical artifacts from the USC Libraries holdings, from old scientific reports to transportation policy papers, from obsolete urban predictions from the 1980s to board games set in a premodern L.A.
Here, working with designer David Mellen, we had a lot of fun, deliberately crossing and recrossing the line between fiction and reality: that is, not every artifact you see in the exhibition should be trusted, and things might not always be what they seem.
There’s much more to say about the exhibition, but I wanted to get a quick post up before the show opens later this afternoon. There is a reception tonight at 5:30pm in the library, or consider stopping by on Saturday, October 17, from noon to 1pm, to talk to myself and Smout Allen about the project. Saturday’s event is part of the “Archives Bazaar.”
L.A.T.B.D. was made possible by support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks are owed to Dean Catherine Quinlan; to Jeff Watson; to the USC Libraries staff; and to Harry Grocott, Doug Miller, and Sandra Youkhana.
Although I was unfortunately not able to be in London to attend the opening party, I was absolutely over the moon to get all these photographs, taken by Stonehouse Photographic. These show not only the models, but also the show’s enormous wall-sized photographs and various explanatory texts.
The work on display ranged from cast models of underground sand mines in Nottingham, based on laser-scanning data donated by the Nottingham Caves Survey, to an architectural model the size and shape of a pool table, its part precision 3D-printed for us by Williams, of Formula 1 race car fame. Williams—awesomely and generously—also collaborated with us in helping come up with a new, speculative use of their hybrid flywheel technology (more on this, below).
From the bizarre environmental-sensing instruments first seen back at the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art to landscape-scale devices printing new islands out of redistributed silt—a kind of dredge-jet printer spraying archipelagos along the length of the Severn—the scale and range of the objects on display is pretty thrilling to see.
I should quickly add that the exhibition is, by far and away, the work of Smout Allen, who burned candles at every end to get this all put together; despite being involved with the project, and working with the ideas all along, since last summer’s Venice Biennale, I am fundamentally an outside observer on all of this, simply admiring Smout Allen’s incredible tenacity and technical handiwork whilst throwing out the occasional idea for new projects and proposals.
In any case, a brief note on the collaboration with Williams: one of the proposed projects in the exhibition is a “flywheel reservoir” for the Isle of Sheppey.
This would be an energy-storage landscape—in effect, a giant, island-sized, semi-subterranean field of batteries—where excess electrical power generated by the gargantuan offshore field of wind turbines called the London Array would be held in reserve.
It was these little parts and models that were 3D-printed in alumide—a mix of nylon and aluminum dust—for us by engineers at Williams.
The very idea of a 3D-printed energy storage landscape on the British coast, disguised as an island, whirring inside with a garden of flywheels, makes my head spin, and a part of me would actually very much love to pursue feasibility studies to see if such a thing could potentially even be constructed someday: a back-up generator for the entire British electrical grid, saving up power from the London Array, brought to you by the same technology that helps power race cars.
Briefly, I was also interested to see that the little 3D-printed gears and pieces, when they first came out of the printer and had not yet been cleaned up or polished, looked remarkably—but inadvertently—like a project by the late LebbeusWoods.
Finally, thanks not only to Williams, but to the Architectural Association for hosting the exhibition (in particular, Vanessa Norwood for so enthusiastically making it happen); to the small but highly motivated group of former students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, who helped to fabricate some of the exhibition’s other models and to organize some the British Exploratory Land Archive’s earlier projects; to the Nottingham Caves Survey for generously donating a trove of laser-scanning data for us to use in one of the models, and to ScanLAB Projects for helping convert that laser data into realizable 3D form; to UCL for the financial support and facilities; to Stonehouse Photographic, who not only was on hand to document the opening soirée but who also produced the massive photos you see leaning against the walls in the images reproduced here; and—why not?—to Sir Peter Cook, one of my own architectural heroes, for stopping by the exhibition on its opening night to say hello.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
I am incredibly excited about the book, to be honest, and about the huge variety of content it features, including an original essay by Elizabeth Ellsworth & Jamie Kruse of Smudge Studio, a short piece of landscape fiction by Pushcart Prize-winning author Scott Geiger, and a readymade course outline—open for anyone looking to teach a course on oceanographic instrumentation—by Mammoth’s Rob Holmes.
These join reprints of classic texts by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, on the incipient fossilization of our cities 100 million years from now; a look at the perverse history of weather warfare and the possibility of planetary-scale climate manipulation by James Fleming; and a brilliant analysis of the Temple of Dendur, currently held deep in the controlled atmosphere of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its implications for architectural preservation elsewhere.
And even these are complemented by an urban hiking tour by the Center for Land Use Interpretation that takes you up into the hills of Los Angeles to visit check dams, debris basins, radio antennas, and cell phone towers, and a series of ultra-short stories set in a Chicago yet to come by Pruned‘s Alexander Trevi.
Extensive original interviews with the exhibiting architects and designers, and a long curator’s essay—describing the exhibition’s focus on the intermediary devices, instruments, and spatial machines that can fundamentally transform how human beings perceive and understand the landscapes around them—complete the book, in addition to hundreds of images, many maps, and an extensive use of metallic and fluorescent inks.
The book is currently only $17.97 on Amazon.com, as well, which seems like an almost unbelievable deal; now is an awesome time to buy a copy.
On a related note, I’m also happy to say simply, despite the painfully slow pace of posts here on the blog, going back at least the last six months or so, that many projects ticking away in the background are, at long last, coming to fruition, including Venue, and, now, the publication of Landscape Futures.
Landscape Futures both documents and continues an exhibition of the same name that ran for a bit more than six months at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, from August 2011 to February 2012. The exhibition was my first solo commission as a curator and by far the largest project I had worked on to that point. It was an incredible opportunity, and I remain hugely excited by the physical quality and conceptual breadth of the work produced by the show’s participating artists and architects.
Best of all, I was able to commission brand new work from many of the contributors, including giving historian David Gissen a new opportunity to explore his ideas—on preservation, technology, and the environmental regulation of everyday urban space—in a series of wall-sized prints; finding a new genre—a fictional travelogue from a future lithium boom—with The Living; and setting aside nearly an entire room, the centerpiece of the 2,500-square-foot exhibition, for an immensely complicated piece of functioning machinery (plus documentary photographs, posters, study-models, an entire bound book of research, and much else besides) by London-based architects Smout Allen.
Those works joined pre-existing projects by Mason White & Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, whose project “Next North/The Active Layer” explored the emerging architectural conditions presented by climate-changed terrains in the far north; Chris Woebken & Kenichi Okada, whose widely exhibited “Animal Superpowers” added a colorful note to the exhibition’s second room; and architect-adventurer Liam Young, who brought his “Specimens of Unnatural History” successfully through international customs to model the warped future ecosystem of a genetically-enhanced Galapagos.
But the book also expands on that core of both new and pre-existing work to include work by Rob Holmes, Alex Trevi (edited from their original appearance on Pruned), a travelogue through the lost lakes of the American West by Smudge Studio, a walking tour through the electromagnetic landscapes of Los Angeles by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and a new short story by Pushcart Prize-winning author Scott Geiger.
These, in turn, join reprints of texts highly influential for the overall Landscape Futures project, including a short history of climate control technologies and weather warfare by historian James Fleming, David Gissen‘s excellent overview of the atmospheric preservation of artifacts in museums in New York City (specifically, the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and a classic article—from BLDGBLOG’s perspective, at least—originally published in New Scientist back in 1998, where geologist Jan Zalasiewicz suggests a number of possibilities for the large-scale fossilization of entire urban landscapes in the Earth’s far future.
Even that’s not the end of the book, however, which is then further augmented by a long look, in the curator’s essay, at the various technical and metaphoric implications of the instruments, devices, and architectural inventions of the book’s subtitle, from robot-readable geotextiles and military surveillance technologies to the future of remote-sensing in archaeology, and moving between scales as divergent as plate-tectonic tomography, radio astronomical installations in the the polar north, and speculative laser-jamming objects designed by ScanLAB Projects.
To wrap it all up and connect the conceptual dots set loose across the book, detailed interviews with all of the exhibition’s participating artists, writers, and architects fill out the book’s long middle—and, in all cases, I can’t wait to get these out there, as they are all conversations that deserve continuation in other formats. The responses from David Gissen alone could fuel an entire graduate seminar.
The spreads and images you see here all come directly from the book.
Of course, the work itself also takes up a large section in the final third or so of the book; consisting mostly of photographs by Jamie Kingham and Dean Burton, these document the exhibition contents in their full, spatial context, including the double-height, naturally lit room in which the ceiling-mounted machinery of Smout Allen whirred away for six months. This is also where full-color spreads enter the book, offering a nice pop after all the pink that came before.
[Images: Installation shots from the Nevada Museum of Art, by Jamie Kingham and Dean Burton, including other views, from posters to renderings, from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].
Which brings us, finally, to the Landscape Futures Sourcebook, the final thirty or forty pages of the book, filled with the guest essays, travelogues, walking tours, photographs, a speculative future course brief by Rob Holmes of Mammoth, and the aforementioned short story by Scott Geiger.
Needless to say, I am absolutely thrilled with the incredible design work done by Everything-Type-Company—a new and rapidly rising design firm based in Brooklyn, founded by Kyle Blue and Geoff Halber—and I am also over the moon to think that this material will finally be out there for discussion elsewhere. It’s been a long, long time in the making.
In any case, shipping should begin later this month. Hopefully the above glimpses, and the huge list of people whose graphic, textual, or conceptual work is represented in the book, will entice you to support their effort with an order.
This will include, among many other projects, from studies of so-called “new socialist villages” in China to floating buildings in Amsterdam, to name but a few, the British Exploratory Land Archive (BELA) for which BLDGBLOG collaborated with architects Smout Allen in proposing a British version of the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles. BELA would thus survey, catalog, explore, tour, document, and archive in one location the huge variety of sites in Britain altered by and used by human beings, from industrial sites to deserted medieval villages, slag heaps to submarine bases, smuggler’s hideouts to traffic-simulation grounds. A few of these sites have already been documented in massive photographs now mounted at the RIBA, also featuring architectural instruments designed specifically for the BELA project and assembled over the summer in Hackney.
However, if you’re curious to know more and you happen to be in London on Thursday, 28 February, consider stopping by the Architectural Association to hear Smout Allen and I speak in more detail about the project. That talk is free and open the public, and it kicks off at 6pm; I believe architect Liam Young will be introducing things. Meanwhile, the aforementioned study of floating architecture in Amsterdam will be presented by its collaborative team—dRMM—at the RIBA on Tuesday night, 26 February, so make your calendars for that, as well (and check out the full calendar of related talks here).
Incredibly, there are more than 450 artificial caves excavated from the sandstone beneath the streets and buildings of Nottingham, England—including, legendarily, the old dungeon that once held Robin Hood—and not all of them are known even today, let alone mapped or studied. The city sits atop a labyrinth of human-carved spaces—some of them huge—and it will quite simply never be certain if archaeologists and historians have found them all.
[Images: Laser scans from the Nottingham Caves Survey show Castle Rock and the Mortimer’s Hole tunnel, including, in the bottom image, the Trip to Jerusalem Pub where we met archaeologist David Strange-Walker; images like this imply an exhilarating and almost psychedelic portrait of the city as invisibly connected behind the scenes by an umbilical network of caves and tunnels. Scans courtesy of the Nottingham Caves Survey].
“Even back in Saxon times, Nottingham was known for its caves,” local historian Tony Waltham writes in his helpful guide Sandstone Caves of Nottingham, “though the great majority of those which survive today were cut much more recently.” From malt kilns to pub cellars, “gentlemen’s lounges” to jails, and wells to cisterns, these caves form an almost entirely privately-owned lacework of voids beneath the city.
[Image: Map of only the known caves in Nottingham, and only in Nottingham’s city center; map by Tony Waltham, from Sandstone Caves of Nottingham].
As Waltham explains, “Nottingham has so many caves quite simply because the physical properties of the bedrock sandstone are ideal for its excavation.” The sandstone “is easily excavated with only hand tools, yet will safely stand as an unsupported arch of low profile.”
In a sense, Nottingham is the Cappadocia of the British Isles.
The purpose of the Nottingham Caves Survey, as their website explains, is “to assess the archaeological importance of Nottingham’s caves. Some are currently scheduled monuments and are of great local and national importance. Some are pub cellars and may seem less vital to the history of the City.”
Others, I was soon to learn, have been bricked off, taken apart, filled in, or forgotten.
“All caves that can be physically accessed will be surveyed with a 3D laser scanner,” the Survey adds, “producing a full measured record of the caves in three dimensions. This ‘point cloud’ of millions of individual survey points can be cut and sliced into plans and sections, ‘flown through’ in short videos, and examined in great detail on the web.”
[Video: One of very many laser-scan animations from the Nottingham Caves Survey].
While over in England a few weeks ago, I got in touch with archaeologist David Strange-Walker, the project’s manager, and arranged for a visit up to Nottingham to learn more about the project. Best of all, David very generously organized an entire day’s worth of explorations, going down into many of the city’s underground spaces in person with David himself as our guide. Joining me on the trip north from London was Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography; architect Mark Smout of Smout Allen and co-author of the fantastic Pamphlet Architecture installment, Augmented Landscapes; and Mark’s young son, Ellis.
[Image: Artificially enlarged pores in the sandstone; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We met the very likable and energetic David—who was dressed for a full day of activity, complete with a well-weathered backpack that we’d later learn contained hard hats and floodlights for each of us—outside Nottingham’s Trip to Jerusalem pub.
Rather than kicking off our visit with a pint, however, we simply walked inside to see how the pub had been partially built—that is, expanded through deliberate excavation—into the sandstone cliffside.
The building is thus more like a facade wrapped around and disguising the artificial caves behind it; walking in past the bar, for instance, you soon notice ventilation shafts and strange half-stairways, curved walls and unpredictable acoustics, as the “network of caves” that actually constitutes the pub interior begins to reveal itself.
My mind was already somewhat blown by this, though it was just the barest indication of extraordinary spatial experiences yet to come.
[Image: Examining sandstone with Dr. David Strange-Walker; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Wasting no time, we headed back outside, where afternoon rain showers had begun to blow in, and David introduced us to the sandstone cliff itself, pointing out both natural and artificially enlarged pores pockmarking the outside.
The sandstone formations or “rock units” beneath the city, as Tony Waltham explains, “were formed as flash flood sediments in desert basins during Triassic times, about 240 million years ago, when Britain was part of a hot and dry continental interior close to the equator. Subsequent eons of plate tectonic movements have brought Britain to its present position; and during the same time, the desert sediments have been buried, compressed and cemented to form moderately strong sedimentary rocks.”
The city is thus built atop a kind of frozen Sahara, deep into which we were about to go walking.
[Image: A gate in the cliff; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Outside here in the cliff face, small openings led within to medieval tunnels and stairs—including the infamous Mortimer’s Hole—that themselves curled up to the top of the plateau; doors in the rock further up from the Trip to Jerusalem opened onto what were now private shooting ranges, of all things; and, with a laugh, David pointed out shotcrete cosmetic work that had been applied to the outer stone surface.
[Image: Artificial shotcrete geology; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We headed from there—walking a brisk pace uphill into the town center—with David casually narrating the various basements, cellars, tunnels, and other urban perforations that lay under the buildings around us, as if we were traveling through town with a human x-ray machine for whom the city was an archaeologically rich cobweb of underground loops and dead-ends.
We soon ended up at the old jails of the Galleries of Justice. A well-known tourist destination, complete with costumed re-enactors, the building sits atop several levels of artificial caves that are well worth exploring.
We were joined at this point by the site’s director, who generously took time out of his schedule to lead us down into parts of the underground complex that are not normally open to the general public.
Heading downward—at first by elevator—we eventually unlocked a door, stepped into a tiny room beneath even the jail cells, crouching over so as not to bang our heads on the low ceiling, and we leaned against banded brick pillars that had been added to help support all the architecture groaning above us.
Avoiding each other’s flashlight beams, we listened as our two guides talked about the discovery—and, sadly, the willful reburial—of caves throughout central Nottingham.
[Image: Brick pillars below Nottingham; photo by BLDGBLOG].
We learned, for instance, that, elsewhere in the city, there had once been a vacuum shop with a cave beneath it; if I remember this story correctly, the shop’s owners had the habit of simply discarding broken and unsold vacuum cleaners into the cave, inadvertently creating a kind of museum of obsolete vacuum parts. Discontinued models sat in the darkness—a void full of vacuums—as the shop went out of business.
We heard, as well, about a nearby site where caves had been discovered beneath a bank during a recent process of renovation and expansion—but, fearing discovery of anything that might slow down the bank’s architectural plans, the caves were simply walled up and left unexplored. They’re thus still down there, underneath and behind the bank, their contents unknown, their extent unmapped—a fate, it seems, shared by many of the caves of Nottingham.
Rather than being greeted by the subterranean and historical wonder that such structures deserve—and I would argue that essentially all of subterranean Nottingham should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the caves are too often treated as little more than annoying construction setbacks or anomalous ground conditions, suitable only for bricking up, filling with concrete, or forgetting. If the public thinks about them at all, in seems, it is only long enough to consider them threats to building safety or negative influences on property value.
[Images: Learning about caves; photos by BLDGBLOG].
In any case, on our way out of the Galleries of Justice, we lifted up a ventilation grill in the floor and looked down into a small vertical shaft, too narrow and contorted even for Ellis to navigate, and we learned that there are urban legends that this particular shaft leads down to a larger room in which Robin Hood himself was once held… But we had only enough time to shine our flashlights down and wonder.
[Images: Ellis Smout looks for Robin Hood below; photos by BLDGBLOG].
From here, we headed over to our final tourist-y site of the day, which is the awesomely surreal City of Caves exhibition, located in Nottingham’s Broad Marsh shopping mall.
You literally take an escalator down into an indoor mall, where, amidst clothing outlets and food courts, there is an otherwise totally mundane sign pointing simply to “Caves.”
If you didn’t know about Nottingham’s extensive sub-city, this would surely be one of the most inexplicable way-finding messages in mall history.
Here, where we picked our copy of Tony Waltham’s Sandstone Caves of Nottingham pamphlet, from which I’ve been quoting, we learned quite a bit more about how the city has grown, how the caves themselves have often been uncovered (for example, during building expansions and renovations), and what role Nottingham’s underground spaces served during the Nazi bombings of WWII.
[Image: Beneath Broad Marsh shopping mall; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The specific underground complex beneath the shopping mall offers an interesting mix of old tanning operations and other semi-industrial, pre-modern work rooms, now overlapping with 20th-century living and basement spaces that were sliced open during the construction of the Broad Marsh mall.
[Images: Cave spaces beneath the Superstudio-like concrete grid of Nottingham’s Broad Marsh shopping Mall].
That these caves were preserved at all is testament to the power of local conservationists, as the historically rich and spatially intricate rooms and corridors would have been gutted and erased entirely during post-War reconstruction without their intervention.
As it now stands, the mall is perched above the caves on concrete pillars, with the effect that curious shoppers can wander down into the caves through an entrance that could just as easily lead to a local branch of Accessorize.
[Image: A well bucket in the caves beneath Broad Marsh; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Again, we were fortunate to be taken down into some off-limits areas, stepping over lights and electric wires and peering ahead into larger rooms not on the tourist route.
[Images: Lines of lights we switched on in one of the off-limits rooms below Broad Marsh; photo by BLDGBLOG].
This included stepping outside at one point to wander through an overgrown alleyway behind the mall. Small openings even back here stretched beneath and seemingly into the backs of shops; one doorway, a short scramble up a hill of weed-covered rubble, appeared to contain a half-collapsed spiral staircase installed inside a brick-lined sandstone opening.
[Image: A doorway to voids behind Broad Marsh Centre; photo by BLDGBLOG].
At this point, we began to joke about the ease with which it seemed you could plan a sort of speleological super-heist, breaking into shops from below, as an entire dimension of the city seemed to lie unwatched and unprotected.
Nottingham, it appeared, is a city of nothing but doors and openings, holes, pores, and connections, complexly layered knots of space coiling beneath one building after another, sometimes cutting all the way down to the water table.
Incredibly, the day only continued to build in interest, reaching near-impossible urban sights, from catacombs in the local graveyard to a mind-bending sand mine that whirled and looped around like smoke rings beneath an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood.
Leaving the mall behind, and maintaining a brisk pace, David took us further into the city, where our next stop was the Old Angel Inn, another pub with an extensive cellar of caves, in this case accessed through a deceptively workaday door next to an arcade game.
[Images: The Old Angel Inn (top), including the door inside the pub that leads down to the caves below; photos by Nicola Twilley].
Once again, it can hardly be exaggerated how easy it would be to visit or even live in Nottingham and have absolutely no idea that underground spaces such as this can be found almost anywhere. As Tony Waltham points out, “It would be a fair assumption that every building or site within the old city limits either has or had some form of cave beneath it. About 500 caves are now known, and this may be only half the total number that have been excavated under Nottingham.”
In any case, “Although the Old Angel is a ‘modern’ brick building,” as the Nottingham Caves Survey describes the pub on its website, “an investigation of the caves below reveals stone walls belonging to an earlier incarnation. It is likely that there were buildings on this site as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period. Whether the caves beneath are also this old cannot be demonstrated definitively.”
Typical, as well, for these types of pub caves, we found ventilation and delivery tunnels leading back up to the surface, and the walls themselves are lined with long benches, perfect for sitting below ground and, provided you have candles or a flashlight along with you, enjoying a smoke and a pint of beer. As Tony Waltham explains, pub cellars often include “perimeter thralls,” or “low ledges cut in the rock,” normally used for storing kegs and barrels of beer but quite easily repurposed for a quick sit-down.
But I sense I’m going on way too long about all this, especially because the two most memorable details of the entire day were yet to come.
Jumping forward a bit, we left the Old Angel and followed some twists and turns in the street to find ourselves standing outside a nightclub called Propaganda.
Here, David revealed that he has been working on what, in my opinion, will easily be one of the must-have apps of the year. In a nutshell, David has managed to make the subterranean 3D laser-scans of the Nottingham Caves Survey accessible by location, such that, holding up his iPod Touch, he demonstrated that you could, in effect, scan the courtyard we were standing in to see the caves, tunnels, stairways, cellars, vents, storage rooms, and more that lay hidden in the ground around us.
[Images: We test-drive the cave-spotting app; bottom photo by Nicola Twilley].
Ideally, once the Survey’s extensive catalog of 3D visualizations and laser point-clouds has been made available and the app is ready for public download, you will be able to walk through the city of Nottingham, smartphone in hand, revealing in all of their serpentine complexity the underground spaces of the city core.
For anyone who has ever dreamt of putting on x-ray glasses and using them to explore architectural space, this app promises to be a thrilling and vertiginous way to experience exactly that—peering right through the city to see its most ancient foundations.
[Video: A fly-through of the Propaganda Nightclub malting caves].
I, for one, can’t wait to see what David and the Nottingham Caves Survey do with the finished application and I eagerly await its public availability.
[Image: Mark Smout looks for caves in the sky; photo by Nicola Twilley].
I’ll wind up this already quite long post with just a few more highlights.
Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, north from the center of town along the Mansfield Road, contains, among other things, the collapsed remains of a sand mine. Three of the mine’s old entrances are now gated alcoves surrounded by graves, like something out of Dante. They “are the only surviving remnants of the mine,” Waltham writes in his pamphlet.
[Images: Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, where archaeologist David Strange-Walker explained the history of the local landscape].
However, an ambitious plan to carve sizable catacombs, inspired by Paris and Rome, through the sandstone beds of the ancient desert here resulted in the never-completed Catacomb Caves, “probably done in 1859-63,” Waltham suggests. These long arched tunnels, accessible through one of the gates described above, eventually lead to a radial terminus from which branch the unused proto-catacombs.
The air there is cloudy with sand—leading me, several days later, to experience a brief attack of hypochondria, worried about developing silicosis—the walls are graffiti’d, and years of trash are piled on the sides of the sandy floor (which has since taken on the characteristics of a dune sea in places, as 150 years of footfall and a collapsing ceiling have led to the appearance of drifts).
[Images: The Rock Cemetery catacomb gates].
What was so extraordinary here, among many other things, was that, for most of this walk through the catacombs, we were actually walking below the graves, meaning that people were buried above us in the earth. At the risk of overdoing it, this felt not unlike becoming aware of an altogether different type of constellation, with bodies and all the stories their lives could tell held above us in a terrestrial sky like legends and heroes, like Orion and Cassiopeia, as we looked up at the vaulted ceiling, flashlights in hand.
[Image: A door on the street—the black door with bars—leading down into a sand mine; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Serving as something of the ultimate proof that Nottingham is a city of overlooked doors that lead into the underworld, there were two locked doors—one of which (the black door, near the sidewalk) appears in the photo, above, another of which, on a street nearby, leads down into the Peel Street Caves—simply sitting there on the sidewalk that, if opened, will take you down into extensive and now defunct sand mines. David’s laser-scans of these for the Nottingham Caves Survey are absolutely gorgeous, as you can see, below.
For a variety of reasons, I am going to avoid being too specific about some of the details here, but, aside from that, I can only enthuse about the experience of donning our hard hats and heading down several flights of comparatively new concrete steps into a coiling and vast artificial cavern from the 19th century, one we spent nearly an hour exploring.
[Image: Nicola Twilley and Mark Smout head down into the sand mine; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Getting lost down there would be so absurdly easy that it is frightening even to contemplate, and, in case the group of us somehow got split up or our batteries ran out of juice, we joked about—if only we could remember them—the easy techniques for navigating a labyrinth offered in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.
[Image: Many of these way-finding signs are actually incorrect, David explained, and seem to have been painted as a kind of sick joke by someone several years ago; photos by BLDGBLOG].
Avoiding such a fate, however, we found graffiti and men’s and women’s latrines; we popped our heads through holes allowing glimpse of other levels; and we cracked our helmets loudly against the low and rough roof more times than I could count.
And even that doesn’t complete the day. From here, heading back out onto the street through a nondescript steel door, as if we had been doing nothing more than watching football in someone’s basement, we went on to eat pie and chips in a restaurant built partially into a cave; we walked back across town, returning to where we started, talking about the future and seemingly obvious possibility of Nottingham’s caves being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus saved from their all but inevitable destruction (it’s easy to imagine a future in which a tour like the one David gave us will be impossible for lack of caves to see); and we all said goodbye beneath an evening sky cleared of clouds as a late-day breeze began to cut through town.
[Image: Mark & Ellis Smout explore our final “underground” space of the day, the magnificent Park Tunnel; the banded strata clearly visible in the walls show how the tunnel was carved through the dunes of an ancient desert. Photo by BLDGBLOG].
David proved to be a heroic guide that day. His energy never flagged throughout the tour, and he never once appeared impatient with or exhausted by any of our often ridiculous questions—not to mention our tourists’ insistence on pausing every three or four steps to take photographs—and he remained always willing to stay underground far longer than he had originally planned, all this despite having never met any of us before in person and only communicating with me briefly via a flurry of emails the week before.
Meeting David left me far more convinced than I already was that the Nottingham Caves Survey fully deserves the financial support of individuals and institutions, so that it can complete its ambitious and historically valuable work of cataloging Nottingham’s underground spaces and making that knowledge freely accessible to the general public.
Weirdly, England has within its very heart a region deserving comparison to Turkish Cappadocia—yet very few people even seem to know that this subterranean world exists. There very well could be more than 1,000 artificial caves beneath the city, many of them fantastically elaborate, complete with fine carvings of lions and ornate stairwells, and it is actually somewhat disconcerting to think that people remain so globally unaware of Nottingham’s underground heritage.
(For further reading, don’t miss Nicola Twilley’s write-up of the tour on her own blog, Edible Geography; and Tony Waltham’s Sandstone Caves of Nottingham, cited extensively in this post, is worth a read if you can find a copy).
[Image: The British Exploratory Land Archive’s “capture blanket” in use on Hampstead Heath, London; photo by Mark Smout].
Smout Allen are the authors of Augmented Landscapes, easily one of my favorite installments in the Pamphlet Architecture series, as well as long-time instructors at the Bartlett School of Architecture—in fact, many of their students’ projects have been featured here on the blog over the last half-decade—and working with Mark and Laura on a project such as this has been fantastic.
Specifically, as part of the “Venice Takeaway” project curated by Vicky Richardson and Vanessa Norwood, Smout Allen and I have proposed what we call the British Exploratory Land Archive (or BELA).
The British Exploratory Land Archive is, in essence, a British version of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, albeit one defined as much by the use of unique instruments designed specifically for BELA as by its focus on sites of human land-use in the United Kingdom as by.
[Images: Going through the archives, maps, and files of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, including one of my favorite headlines of all time: “Emptiness welcomes entrepreneurs”; photos by Mark Smout].
In an essay for the Venice Takeaway book, we describe the inspiration, purpose, and future goals of the—still entirely hypothetical—British Exploratory Land Archive:
BELA is directly inspired by the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). It aims to unite the efforts of several existing bodies—English Heritage, Subterranea Britannica, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust and even the Department for Transport, among dozens of others—in a project of national landscape taxonomy that will combine catalogues created by distinct organisations into one omnivorous, searchable archive of human-altered landscapes in Britain… From military bases to abandoned factories, from bonded warehouses to national parks, by way of private gardens, council estates, scientific laboratories and large-scale pieces of urban infrastructure, BELA’s listings are intended to serve as something of an ultimate guide to both familiar and esoteric sites of human land use throughout the United Kingdom.
In the end, a fully functioning BELA would offer architects, designers, historians, academics, enthusiasts, and members of the general public a comprehensive list of UK sites that have been used, built, unbuilt, altered, augmented and otherwise transformed by human beings, aiming to reveal what we might call the spatial footprint of human civilization in the British Isles.
Thanks to the generosity of the Venice Takeaway organizers, with funding from the British Council, Mark Smout and I had the pleasure of traveling to Los Angeles back in April 2012 specifically to meet with Matthew Coolidge, Sarah Simons, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Even better, we were able to take Matt, Ben, and Aurora out on a daylong road-trip through gravel pits, dry lake beds, Cold War radar-testing facilities, airplane crash sites, logistics airfields, rail yards, abandoned military base housing complexes, and much more orbiting the endlessly interesting universe of Greater Los Angeles.
[Images: Exploring Greater Los Angeles with Matthew Coolidge, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang; photos by Mark Smout].
That trip was documented in a series of photographs, in a (very) short film, and in the essay mentioned above, all of which will be available for perusal at the UK pavilion for the duration of this year’s Biennale.
I’ll also include here a few diagrams depicting one the instruments Smout Allen and I devised as part of our land-investigation tools—making BELA a kind of second-cousin to Venue—with the real objects, including a portable explorer’s hut, also on display in Venice.
[Images: Assembly diagrams for the BELA “clinometer,” a speculative device “for the measurement of variable slopes on sites such as scrap yards, landfills, slag heaps and other industrial dumping grounds… functioning as an easily readable survey tool and as a unique design object that calls public attention to the process of measuring artificial landscapes”].
Taken together, these are what we call, in the essay, “prototypical future survey instruments and experimental site-identification beacons.” They are “both semi-scientific and speculative, portable and permanently anchored.”
From telescopes to Geiger counters, from contact microphones to weather satellites, the devices and scales with which we measure and describe the landscapes around us determine, to a large extent, what we are able to see. BELA will thus work to pioneer the design, fabrication and expeditionary deployment of new landscape survey tools—instruments and devices both functional and speculative that will aid in the sensory cataloguing and interpretive analysis of specific locations.
While the British Exploratory Land Archive is, for now, merely a proposition, I think Mark, Laura, and I are all equally keen to see something come of that proposition, perhaps someday even launching BELA as a real, functioning resource through which the various human-altered landscapes of Britain can be catalogued and studied.
For now, those of you able to visit Venice, Italy, before the end of the 2012 Biennale can see our instruments, photos, drawings, and texts as they currently exist, and, in the process, learn more about the possibilities for a British Exploratory Land Archive.
(Thanks to Sandra Youkhana for her invaluable help with the project, and to Matthew Coolidge, Sarah Simons, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang at the Center for Land Use Interpretation for hosting us back in April).
I’m heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.
[Image: The “Electric Aurora,” from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].
The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge’s study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator’s essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.
Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I’ll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, “an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies,” organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.
That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.