Ball Games: The Great Escape (1963)

[Image: The Great Escape from MGM].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, written as part of Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists.

Alongside The Dam Busters and The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape was shown on British TV at least once a month when I was growing up. It is such familiar, comforting fare that, in a 2006 poll, Britons voted The Great Escape their third choice for a film worth watching on Christmas Day (It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz were first and second choice, respectively).

A large part of its appeal, at least for me, lies in the Boy’s Own adventure-style spirit and Heath Robinson-esque ingenuity of the Allied POWs.

The movie begins with the most experienced and determined Allied escapologists arriving at the newly constructed, supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III. Its resistance to casual, opportunistic break outs is demonstrated in the first few minutes, as POWs unsuccessfully attempt to slip out hidden under tree branches, disguised as Russian laborers, and in the blind spots of the guard towers.

[Image: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

An altogether more rigorous approach is required, and, under the direction of Richard Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett, the entire camp is organized into a tunnel-digging machine, with a strict division of labor, assembly-line document- and clothing-production techniques, and a suite of redundant underground infrastructure (tunnels “Tom,” “Dick,” and the ultimately successful “Harry”).

As in A Man Escaped, breaking out requires “the strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren’t architecture”: powdered milk cans, socks, and bunk bed slats are transformed into tunnel ventilation pumps, supports, and trouser-mounted soil disposal devices.

And, as in Grand Illusion, there is a distinct sense that tunneling is a codified sport, bound to be played in prison camps. Certainly, the Allied POWs seem to be motivated as much by a boyish delight in outwitting the Germans through their own ingenuity and teamwork as by a sense of duty or passionate desire to return home. Stalag Luft III, in this view, is something like a game level, challenging seasoned players to apply their existing tunneling techniques in innovative new ways. (Intriguingly, the camp was used as the basis for Dulag IIIA in the first installment of Call of Duty).

If the design of prison camps and the sport of tunneling have co-evolved from World War I’s Grand Illusion to World War II’s Great Escape, then so, too, has the theater of war, from the defined battlefield of the trenches to a total war embedded into and dispersed throughout civilian landscapes.

The second half of The Great Escape, following the trajectories of those who successfully tunneled out of Stalag Luft III, reveals that, in fact, most of the European continent is a prison camp of sorts, booby-trapped with English-speaking Gestapo, and with its safe havens (Switzerland and Spain) ring-fenced with barbed wire and mountain ranges.

[Images: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

Finally, Steve McQueen, the “Cooler King,” provides future generations of filmmakers with an iconic image of the spatial and temporal experience of solitary confinement: a rubber ball, repetitively bounced off cell walls as if both defining and testing the limits those walls pose to free motion. From The Shining to The Simpsons to Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, the endlessly bouncing ball has since become visual shorthand, indicating that a character is trapped, whether their prison is mental, physical, or both.

(Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography).

The Self-Consuming Barbecue Pavilion

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, originally published on Edible Geography.

In a fantastic hybrid of edible architecture and temporary summer pavilion, architect Caroline O’Donnell has proposed Bloodline, a free-standing, self-consuming grilling shelter.

[Image: Sectional model through the preparation bench, Bloodline pavilion by Caroline O’Donnell; Bloodline is supported by the Akademie Schloss Solitude].

Bloodline is the outcome of O’Donnell’s 2007 fellowship and residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, a grant-making and residency institution housed in the late-Baroque “Solitude Castle” near Stuttgart in southern Germany.

Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, built Schloss Solitude in 1763 as a private pleasure house—a cross between a party castle, summer retreat, and hunting lodge. Solitude was intended to be more intimate and less formal than his royal palace at Ludwigsburg, like the Trianons were to Versailles.

[Image: Akademie Schloss Solitude, via Wikimedia].

Among the prerequisites for an eighteenth-century aristocrat to achieve relaxation were a natural setting and, perhaps more importantly, minimal interaction with the servant classes. However, since domestic service was still required (aristocratic relaxation did not encompass preparing, serving, and cleaning up after meals, for example), palace architects had to resort to an extremely elaborate set of spatial tricks and distortions to make the servers as invisible as possible. The original design for the Petit Trianon even included a mechanism for raising and lowering the dining table through the floor so that it could be set and cleared out of sight.

According to O’Donnell, “The guides at Schloss Solitude could not understand why I wanted to see the service spaces, and tried to convince me that they were not interesting. I kept telling them in bad German that I was an architect and therefore interested in uninteresting spaces, but that seemed to cause more confusion.”

[Image: The secret service spaces at Ludwigsburg (left) and Schloss Solitude (right)].

What she found, eventually, were a series of awkward and cramped service cupboards and passages, filling in the spaces around the formal, symmetrical rooms. They are the negative space of pure classical order; the banished evidence of domestic effort and bodily needs.

Interestingly, O’Donnell noticed that at Karl Eugen’s main palace, Ludwigsburg Castle, the formal rooms are arranged around the edge, concealing a rabbit warren of service spaces in the interior.

Meanwhile at Solitude, the reverse is true: the cupboards, closets, and service passages are banished to the edge, with the result that seven of the fourteen windows on the perfectly symmetrical south façade actually open onto these deformed, hidden spaces.

[Images: (top) The south-facing façade of Schloss Solitude, in which seven of its windows actually open onto service spaces, rather than public rooms; via. (bottom) The negative spaces into which domestic functions were banished at Schloss Solitude (left); many were used as fire-spaces (right)].

Among the domestic functions concealed in this way was fire maintenance: tiny fire-spaces were used for storing firewood and also enabled servants to stoke open fires while remaining behind the scenes.

O’Donnell explained that when she finally gained access to a fire-space, she noticed “the effects of this small-scale and contorted space on the body,” but she was most fascinated “by this idea of the fire-space as a window, through which the stooping servant had a rare window into the lives of his masters”—and, in some ways, a more complete or privileged understanding of the space of the palace as a whole.

[Image: Bloodline, showing the stacked grillholz cuboid exterior concealing the irregular interior].

So, back to the barbecue pavilion: O’Donnell’s Bloodline proposal would use 360 bags of grillholz (German barbecue wood sticks) as the cladding—enough for a summer season, or ninety barbecues at four bags per cook-out. As July fades into August, and then into September, the pavilion will gradually be dismantled: the architecture’s fiery function will lead it to literally consume itself from the outside in. This is an incredibly poetic literalization of the shelter’s function: architecture parlante at its finest.

The pavilion also plays on O’Donnell’s initial fascination with Solitude’s squished fire-spaces. Bloodline begins the summer as a perfect, platonic cube, but gradually grills itself down to an awkwardly shaped frame that mirrors a section through the original fire-space. In other words, through use, the mini-barbecue palace will reveal its contorted, service-space origins—a slow, season-long process of revelation.

[Image: The pavilion will begin the summer as a platonic cube before being eroded through repeated barbecuing to reveal its hidden fire-space form].

Like Solitude’s original fire-spaces, which servants had to bend down and crawl to enter, the Bloodline barbecue pavilion is only designed to fit one person. And, as in the originals, that one person—the servant or barbecuer-in-chief, depending on how you look at these things—has a unique, more omniscient view.

Ludwigsburg and Solitude castles are linked by Solitudeallee, each palace is also aligned on its own axis of symmetry. When O’Donnell looked at these lines in satellite view, it became clear that there was a third axis, emerging from the forest, which was missing a castle.

Ingeniously, O’Donnell’s proposed site for Bloodline means that our barbecuing hero, standing in front of the grill-window on the southwest-facing side of the pavilion, is the only person in their party who can see that they are actually inside the missing third castle.

[Image: Plotting the axes and intersections of Ludwigsburg and Solitude: O’Donnell explained that “only the forest is missing a castle”].

In other words, while their friends and family relax in the grounds outside the pavilion, eating sausages they haven’t had to prepare, “only the servant (or grill-master) will know the truth,” explains O’Donnell, “although they can sneak others in, to share the secret.”

[Images: (top) Renderings of Bloodline show the grill-window and entrance; (bottom) Bloodline interior, looking out toward the grill-window’s privileged view].

In terms of grilling experience, the barbecue pavilion that becomes a secret, personal castle seems second to none. “After that, the sausages are not my responsibility,” O’Donnell told me. “There are however custom spaces built into the pavilion on the west side for a fire-extinguisher and a fire-blanket, as well as a big vent on the east side that aligns with the prevailing wind and uses the stack-effect to ventilate the space naturally.”

A couple of thoughts immediately come to mind here: firstly, that this is the perfect Father’s Day gift. After all, doesn’t every red-blooded male secretly crave his own barbecue castle: a private space of solitude, unspoken power, and burger perfection? Lowe’s or Homebase could even stock build-your-own kits, for an extra DIY frisson.

[Image: (left) Inside Bloodline (the server has clearly snuck in a few friends); (right) Stacked grillholz will form the façade and the barbecue fuel. The wood sticks’ color even matches the ochre putty exterior of Schloss Solitude].

I’m also reminded, via a link that was (coincidentally?) sent to me separately by Caroline O’Donnell, of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham‘s theory that cooking is the root cause of human civilization. His basic idea is that the discovery of cooking allowed us to unlock many more calories in food, which gave us more energy for less effort, which in turn resulted in a massive increase in brain size in Homo sapiens (as compared to our primate ancestors).

[Images: Stages of consumption. At the end, all that will remain is the ash bench (bottom right), which O’Donnell plans to leave on site once the summer is over, “as a clue to the missing castle”].

That expanded brain of course led, eventually, to the flowering of the Baroque, in which rococo pleasure palaces were cleverly designed to hide any evidence of cooking facilities. O’Donnell’s pavilion gives cooking its due once again, as over the course of the summer Solitude’s missing third palace is revealed to be a a functional fire-space, rather than the abstracted perfection of a symmetrical cube. Barbecuing German day-trippers will thus be paying inadvertent homage to the role of fire in human civilization.

[Image: Some of O’Donnell’s incredibly complex cut files for fabrication].

Caroline O’Donnell is working with Akademie Schloss Solitude to secure funding for the pavilion: the hope is to install it during the summer of 2011. My thanks are due to her for an incredibly interesting conversation, and also to Nathan Friedman, who has been working on Bloodline with O’Donnell for the past few months.

(Note: This post, written by Nicola Twilley, was originally published on Edible Geography).

Romecore

[Image: A Greenland ice-core at the Hayden Planetarium; for further reading, visit the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory. Photo by Planet Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Crypta Balbi is a relatively recent, low-profile addition to Rome’s museum compendium. It’s billed variously—and confusingly—as a museum of archaeology, a museum of ancient Rome, and a museum of the Dark Ages. All of these descriptions are, in fact, cumulatively accurate, because the site is actually a city-block-sized core sample of Rome, threaded through with staircases, tunnels, and elevated walkways for visitors.

Crypta Balbi is located in an irregular pentagonal plot in the Campus Martius, an area that, unlike many regions in the ancient city, remained largely inhabited through the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Filippo Coarelli’s authoritative Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, the Campus Martius was originally supposed to be kept free of buildings altogether and “reserved for military and athletic exercises.” However, historian Suetonius describes the city’s gradual encroachment, explaining that: “During his reign Augustus often encouraged the leading men of Rome to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones.”

[Image: A satellite view of the city-block core sample, via Google Maps].

As a successful military general and favored member of Augustus‘s entourage, L. Cornelius Balbus the Younger stepped up to the plate, building a theater and attached crypta—a rectangular porticoed walkway where the theater’s scenery could be stored and around which the public might stroll, protected from the elements. Apparently, the Balbi Theater’s grand opening in 13 BC took place during one of the Tiber’s regular floods—meaning that it was, briefly, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the Theater and Crypta thrived, and they are depicted intact on a chunk of the Severan Forma Urbis, an amazing 60′-x-43′ incised marble map of the city created for public display in 203 AD.

Eventually, Rome’s earthquakes, fires, barbarian raids, and radical population shrinkage (from a million people in 367 AD to just 400,000 less than century later) combined with architectural re-use and the passage of time to take their toll. There isn’t much of the original Crypta left to see—a reconstructed stucco arch, and the massive travertine and tufa walls that now serve as foundations for modern houses in Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via dei Delfini.

[Image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Balbi Theater. For more on the Forma Urbis, visit the seemingly great but non-Mac-friendly Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae project].

However, layered above the Crypta’s original floor plan are traces of this city block’s shifting usage—a condensed narrative of Rome’s destruction, accretion, and evolution. It is this series of transformations and reuses of both the Crypta and the urban space it occupies, rather than the fragmentary ancient ruins, that the museum aims to make visible. Like a series of stills from an impossible time-lapse film, the visitor who descends to the basement or climbs to the third floor can see this awkward cuboid chunk of city ruined, reshaped, reused, and reoriented over two thousand years of urban history.

Equally amazing are the expansive historical detours prompted by even trace elements in the urban core sample. For example, as early as the time of Hadrian, a “monumental” public latrine was inserted into a section of the Crypta. From the quantity of copper coins that fell, and weren’t worth recovering, archaeologists have extrapolated the amount of coinage in circulation in Western Europe during the latrine’s life-span. (Astonishingly, it was only in the 19th century that small change was to be this common again in Western Europe).

[Image: Museum display panel diagramming five distinct road levels wandering across the Crypta’s ruins (apologies for the quick snapshot)].

Two centuries later and a few feet higher, two graves bear witness to a city in ruins between the 5th and 7th centuries, as the prohibition against burial within city walls lapsed, and the dead were buried singly in abandoned buildings or beside roads. Ironically, in a museum that preserves the urban structures of each era equally, during the medieval period the Crypta actually housed one of the city’s largest lime-kilns, where the marble inscriptions, statues, and building blocks of classical Rome were brought to be crushed and melted down into lime (a key ingredient in the cement needed to build the city’s new Christian architecture).

In the 1940s, the convent that had occupied the site for the past four hundred years was demolished for a planned new Mussolini-era construction, which thankfully never materialized. Finally, in the 1980s, the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma authorized the excavation of the abandoned city block; and, in 2002, the northwest corner was opened to the public, even as work continues on the rest of the site.

[Image: An interior view of the Crypta Balbi].

Aside from the execution, which is excellent, the very idea of a museum built into an urban core sample—a stratigraphic investigation of the shifting use of space over time—is incredibly exciting to me. Imagine a similar hollowing-out of urban space in Istanbul, Cairo, or Paris—residents as disoriented as tourists as they clamber through the hidden foundations and forms woven underneath and around their own city.

In New York, this might even be an idea whose time has come: as The New Yorker pointed out in December 2008, the expiration of a residential construction tax-abatement law encouraged builders to dig foundation trenches early, so as to secure better financing, but the subsequent recession has put many of these projects on hold, semi-permanently.

“What will become of the pits?” asks Nick Paumgarten, speculating that they could turn into “half-wild swimming holes, like the granite quarries of New England” or even “urban tar pits, entrapping and preserving in garbage and white brick dust the occasional unlucky passerby.” These are both attractive ideas, but with a little expenditure on zip-lines, elevated walkways, and interpretative signage, visitors could circulate around several millennia of Manhattan’s history, from the collision of the North African and American continental plates to the tangled evolution of New York’s water mains, via retreating glaciers and the housing bubble.

Meanwhile, back in Rome and less than a mile away from the Crypta, engineers have teamed up with the Soprintendenza to sink several new urban cores, this time in the guise of excavating the elevator and escalator shafts for a new subway line.

Angelo Bottini, director of the Soprintendenza, can hardly hide his excitement, telling the Wall Street Journal that, under usual circumstances, “We never get to dig in the center of Rome.” Sadly, it seems as though most of the finds will be documented and then destroyed, due to a shortage of museum space and the already astronomical construction costs (an estimated $375 million for one mile of track in the city center).

But how amazing would it be if the new subway station walkways and escalator shafts could themselves become Crypta Balbi-like museums of buried stratigraphy? Rome would be riddled with urban cores, awestruck tourists ascending and descending through sampled spatial histories across the city. Meanwhile the Sistine Chapel lies miraculously empty…

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Tree Museum, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

The Tree Museum

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Every tree is a living archive, its rings a record of rainfall, temperature, atmosphere, fire, volcanic eruption, and even solar activity. These arboreal archives together reach back in time over centuries, sometimes millennia. We can even map human history through them—and onto them—tracing famines, plagues, and the passing of our own lives.

[Image: A scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, where Novak points to the concentric rings of the redwood trunk and says, “Here I was born… and here I died”].

For artist Katie Holten, trees were thus the natural starting point for an oral history of a city street in the Bronx. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse, a four-mile-long boulevard that connects Manhattan to the parks of the Northern Bronx, Holten has created the Tree Museum: 100 specially-chosen trees between 138th Street and Mosholu Parkway, each of which has a story to tell if you dial the number at its base.

The museum opens today, June 21, with a parade and street fair: for those of us not in New York, a podcast and brochure will be available for download, and you also can view each of the tree locations on Google Maps.

[Image: Trees in the museum each have their own sidewalk marker, which gives their name and extension number].

Only a handful of the one hundred “story-trees” date from the Concourse’s construction, when an avenue of Norwegian maples was planted to shade carriages and pedestrians strolling along the broad boulevard. In an email conversation, Holten explained to BLDGBLOG that most of these original trees were moved to Pelham Bay Park when the B/D subway line was built in the early ’30s. Twelve of the surviving maples are joined in the Tree Museum by representatives of fifty-nine other tree species, from an Amur Corktree in Joyce Kilmer park to a Kentucky Coffeetree just south of Tremont Avenue.

In fact, each tree is carefully identified by its species name, in Spanish, English, and Latin, to draw museum visitors’ attention to their variety. Holten told me that, early on in her community outreach, she realized how important naming the trees would be when a teacher in a local school confessed, incredibly, that it was only after he heard about the Tree Museum idea that “he noticed the next time he was walking that there were different kinds of trees. Before that he’d thought they were just ‘trees’.”

[Image: A section of the Tree Museum map; a much larger version can be seen here].

The trees were chosen for their variety, Holten says, but also for “location, age, and connection to a particular person or story.” Holten acted as matchmaker, pairing trees with former and current Bronx residents, as well as scientists, authors, and activists who have worked in the area. Among the 100 participants are well-known former Bronxites DJ Jazzy Jay and Daniel Libeskind, students at the Bronx Writing Academy, and Jonathan Pywell, Bronx Senior Forester, who helped Holten identify all the trees (not an easy task in mid-winter). Each has used their tree as the starting point for a personal anecdote, snippet of neighborhood history, song, or even a digital sound recording.

Taken together, the tree stories are part shared history, part personal memory, part science lesson—they form what Holten describes as “the whole ecosystem of the street.”

[Image: A computer-generated image of Klaus Lackner’s prototype “synthetic tree,” which would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air; image courtesy of Columbia University].

In her email, Holten went into some detail describing the range of stories you can hear as you dial each tree’s extension, from the sound of a Puerto Rican tree frog (No.73, a Gingko) to a local preservationist describing how he fought to turn an abandoned lot into the park that now surrounds No. 100, a Cottonwood. From her email:

Klaus Lackner (professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy) tells the story of the carbon cycle and his attempt to create a “fake plastic tree,” or air extractor, that would suck the CO2 out of the air and convert it into something we can put in a safe place. Eric Sanderson (a landscape ecologist based at the Bronx Zoo, and author of Mannahatta) needed a really old, native tree to talk about projecting the landscape backwards. I gave him No. 9, a beautiful American Elm outside Cardinal Hayes High School.

At the northern end of the Concourse, at 206th St, there’s a huge chunk of rock between two buildings; it’s like the side of a cliff. I had to give the tree there, No. 95, to Sid Horenstein, a geologist who recently retired from the American Museum of Natural History. He’s able to use the rock outcrop to explain the story of what the Concourse lies above—it was built on a ridge and that’s one of the main reasons the street was constructed here, because it was elevated and offered spectacular views of the countryside all around.

And Tree No. 45, a Little Leaf Linden, has a story told by Patricia Foody, a 95-year-old Bronxite. She remembers her dad bringing her for a walk to the Concourse to visit his brother’s tree in just this location—it was one of the original maples, and many of them had plaques for soldiers who had died in World War I.

Some of the stories come from people who work with the trees directly: Jennifer Greenfeld, director of Street Tree Planting for the Parks and Recreation department, uses No. 66, a Chinese Elm, to provide an overview of street trees throughout New York City and the policy battles they sometimes cause. Barbara Barnes, a landscape architect also with the Parks department, puts her tree in the context of the historic street tree canopy project she’s working on, to replant Joyce Kilmer and Franz Sigel parks as they were originally laid out.

[Image: Eric Sanderson pointing at a map of the Bronx; photo by Katie Holten].

For other participants, the trees function as more of a backdrop for personal history and community activism. Sabrina Cardenales is the real-life model for the character Mercedes in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which documents extreme urban poverty in New York: both Sabrina and Adrian introduce themselves and read a passage from the book as part of the Tree Museum. Meanwhile, Majora Carter, an environmental justice activist and MacArthur fellow from the south Bronx, uses tree No. 6, a honey locust, to tell people: “You don’t have to leave your neighborhood to live in a better one, and trees are an important part of making that happen.”

The variety of voices and stories Holten describes accumulate into a sense that plenty of people really do care about these trees, this street, and the Bronx in general. They also act as a series of nudges to look at the urban landscape in a new light. The result is that the Tree Museum, at least in theory, will recreate some of the optimism of the Grand Concourse’s roots in the City Beautiful movement, while not glossing over the struggles and setbacks faced by the “Champs-Élysées of the Bronx” ever since.

[Image: The Bronx Grand Concourse, looking north from 161st Street; photo by Katie Holten].

As part of the Concourse’s centenary celebrations, the Bronx Museum and New York’s Design Trust For Public Space are running a competition called Intersections: Grand Concourse Beyond 100, to gather new proposals for regenerating the street. Although the call for entries period is now closed, Katie Holten has set up a community forum for the Tree Museum, and clearly hopes the project will prompt action, as well as reflection.

Holten explains her most basic hope, which is that the Museum will encourage people to start using and enjoying their shared public space again:

One hundred years ago the Concourse was built for people to stroll along, under the shade of the trees, but in 2009 it takes quite an effort to get people out for a walk—hopefully we’ll get them strolling! There are a number of individuals who I met because they are interested in trees, or in “green” issues, and we’ve tried to use the momentum of the Tree Museum to help them make differences. For example, Fernando Tirado (tree No. 88) is district manager for Bronx Community Board #7 and he’s been prompted to establish a “Greening the Concourse” project. He’s organizing summer internships for youth in the area: giving them a job and training, and at the same time actually greening the street.

Perhaps more importantly, Holten’s Tree Museum (which she describes as “practically invisible—it’s part of the urban fabric”) demonstrates an intriguing way to re-imagine the landscape: finding ways to make the hidden layers and connections of a street’s story visible (or audible) might ultimately be as, if not more, important than installing a new swing set in the park.

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

London Yields, Harvested

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

As Geoff mentioned last month, London’s Building Center hosted a daylong seminar at the end of May called London Yields: Getting Urban Agriculture off the Ground.

[Image: From London Yields: Urban Agriculture].

The speakers covered a lot of terrain—so, instead of a full recap of the event, the following list simply explores some of the broader ideas, responses, and questions about urban agriculture that stood out from the day’s presentations.

1. Becoming public policy
The event was introduced and moderated by David Barrie, a sustainable development consultant, who framed the day as a collective opportunity to brainstorm ways in which urban agriculture could be moved from mere “sustainable accessory” to become a standard practice of both everyday life and city design. Interestingly, Mark Brearley, Head of Design at Design for London (DfL) and the day’s first speaker, provided confirmation of Barrie’s diagnosis, confessing that food production was a recent add-on to many of their open space projects. Why? “Because people were asking us about it,” he said.

Brearley’s presentation was an overview of DfL’s hundreds of urban regeneration and infrastructure improvement projects; these are, in themselves, interesting but, in aggregate, somewhat exhausting. However, as an office of the London Development Agency, working on behalf of the Mayor of London, Brearley was able to provide a fascinating insight into some of the current institutional priorities that need to be satisfied before urban agriculture can become a standard part of London public policy. For example, DfL’s main interest in food production today is in terms of its “public engagement potential” and their primary stumbling block is how to measure the scaleability of local initiatives. Any London-based urban agriculture projects hoping for a mayoral blessing, take note!

2. Food is a design tool
The second speaker was Carolyn Steel, author of the excellent book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Hungry City traces how food has shaped both the city and its productive hinterland throughout history, from the Sumerian city of Ur to today’s London via the markets and gates of ancient Rome. Steel provides a wide-ranging historical look of food production, importation, regulation, and culture, before putting forward her own intriguing and potentially revolutionary proposition: what would happen if we consciously used food as a design tool to create a “sitopic” city? Steel’s coinage here, sitopia—from “sitos” (food) and “topos” (place)—is derived from her realization that “food shares with utopia the quality of being cross-disciplinary… capable of transforming not just landscapes, but political structures, public spaces, social relationships, [and] cities.” And because “food is necessary,” a sitopian city (unlike its utopian cousin) would remain tied to reality and of universal relevance.

The quotations above come from Steel’s book, however, rather than her lecture; twenty-five minutes was enough time to provide fascinating examples of food’s role in shaping cities and urban life, but, sadly, not enough to explain (let alone explore) further thoughts about food’s use as an urban planning tool. More to come soon, I hope, on this topic…

[Image: Ebenezer Howard’s original scheme for the Garden Cities of To-morrow shows a landscape reimagined in terms of food production and supply. As Carolyn Steel explains in her own book Hungry City, Howard’s plans relied on land reform that was never carried out, and the garden cities of today (Letchworth, Welwyn, etc.) are, as a result, little more than green dormitory suburbs].

3. Partnerships as infrastructure
Anna Terzi, who runs London Food Link’s small grants scheme for Sustain, was the day’s third speaker; she described one of their current projects, demonstrating how key insights from both Mark Brearley’s and Carolyn Steel’s talks might look in action.

Sustain (a nonprofit alliance for better food and farming) is currently poised to create borough-wide institutional change by partnering with Camden Council and Camden Primary Care Trust (part of the National Health Service). This alliance—with its intriguing implication that the National Health Service might be the one institution with the most to gain by promoting urban agriculture—speaks to the impact of creating new interest groups for locally grown food. By partnering with institutions responsible for dealing with established urban challenges—issues such as public health, economic growth, community engagement, waste, and environmental sustainability—groups like Sustain have the potential to take urban agriculture from decorative hobby to investment-worthy infrastructure.

The Camden partnership’s report (still in draft stage) aims to outline a relatively coherent and holistic food program for the borough—a plan that promises to use food to reshape at least this part of the city, in terms of promoting social enterprise, meeting infrastructure needs, and reducing health inequalities.

[Image: A lemon grown in Dulwich; photograph by Jonathan Gales (2008), ©Bohn & Viljoen Architects].

4. Mapping and visualization tools
The last two presentations of the day agreed that successfully producing food in the city requires a detailed resource inventory combined with effective promotion efforts. Mikey Tomkins, a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton, described systematically mapping the rooftops, grass patches, vertical faces, and vacant lots of Elephant & Castle—whereupon he discovered that 30% of the area’s food needs could be met through the cultivation of found space alone.

Architects Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen, creators of the uninspiringly named CPUL (Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes), emphasized the need to think about spare inventory in terms of population and three dimensionality (their Urban Agriculture Curtain filled a display window one floor above us). Their research techniques included the accumulation of census data and questionnaires combined with GPS mapping and site visits in order to analyze a landscape’s food production capacity.

Both Tomkins and Bohn & Viljoen also showed several projects intended to help people read the city in terms of food, using tools as diverse as “edible maps” of London and visual analyses of urban agriculture in Havana, to installations and public events, such as the Continuous Picnic. This was a day-long event, part of the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, that included an “Inverted Market” (bring your own locally grown fruit and vegetables to be admired, judged, and then prepared), as well lessons in “Community Composting”; a giant public picnic then spread throughout Russell Square and Montague Place, with connecting corridors between.

Meanwhile, for his Edible Maps series, an example of which appears below, Tomkins targets a new type of urban resident: the “food-flâneur,” who, map in hand, “could start to picture… the grassed areas around housing, the corners of parks, or the many flat rooftops of this quarter of Croydon spring into life with psychogeographic food.”

Another example of urban agriculture as an opportunity for community activation was Croydon Roof Divercity, Tomkins’s collaboration with AOC (previously discussed, along with other AOC projects, on BLDGBLOG here).

[Image: From Mikey Tomkins’s series of Edible Maps, this guide represents the area around Surrey Street car park, site of Croydon Roof Divercity, in terms of inventory and potential yield].

5. Easy, cheap, and somewhat under control
Both Anna Terzi and Bohn & Viljoen recognized the difficulty of maintaining urban agriculture projects, once the initial novelty has worn off. Bohn & Viljoen are currently working on a twelve-step program to prevent relapse, while Sustain are offering ongoing practical and financial support to new food growing spaces in London through their Capital Growth initiative.

Throughout the morning, David Barrie repeatedly registered his concern that urban agriculture needed to be economically viable, not just an upscale $64 Tomato lifestyle choice. Several of the presenters added a layer of nuance to Barrie’s formulation, noting that cheap food has simply had its costs externalized and hidden (Carolyn Steel) and that organizations like the New Economics Foundation are developing the much-needed tools to measure urban-agriculture-created value, such as increased community engagement and environmental sustainability, which is currently perceived as intangible and qualitative (Katrin Bohn). Mikey Tomkins argued against an economics-based one-size-fits-all approach to urban agriculture, explaining that the scale of a food growing project determines its possible benefits. Thus differentiated, food gardening generates educational and quality of life outcomes and should be measured accordingly, while market gardening creates recycling benefits, and urban agriculture can be evaluated in terms of yield.

Finally, the elephant in the room was the degree of coordination and regulation needed to transform London into a food-producing landscape. In an environment where, as Carolyn Steel said, the supermarkets where Londoners buy more than 80% of their groceries refused to participate in consultations with the Mayor’s London Food Strategy, it seems unlikely that sustainable food production and distribution will become the norm without legislative intervention.

In her book, Steel quotes Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who wrote: “You who control the transportation of food supplies are in charge, so to speak, of the city’s lifeline, of its very throat.” At the moment, Steel tells us, roughly 30 agrifood conglomerates—unelected, and with no responsibility other than to their shareholders—have almost unfettered control over London’s food supply. Until that changes, urban agriculture can’t help but remain “at the artwork stage”—an inspiring, attractive, and completely optional extra.

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

Watershed Down

[Image: Mike Bouchet’s Watershed being towed through Venice towards the Arsenale basin, against a backdrop of Italian palazzi].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The 2009 Venice Biennale opened this week with an unexpected and quite beautiful piece of performance art. Artist Mike Bouchet had built a one-to-one scale replica of a typical American surburban home that he planned to install on floating pontoons in the Venice Arsenale basin. He called the project Watershed.

David Birnbaum, the Biennale’s curator, told camera crews filming the installation that he thought the project “sounded a bit megalomaniac,” but the sight of the oversized house, clad in beige vinyl, flimsily bobbing up and down against a backdrop of palazzi and piazzi as it was towed through Venice’s canals, was breathtaking. It was an architectural icon of the American Dream revealed in all its formulaic absurdity.

Amazingly, then, one of the pontoons capsized, and the entire house sank to the bottom of the canal—an unintentional yet utterly perfect coda to the house’s own built-in commentary. Now, a fake generic American suburban home will add its ruins to the underwater archaeology of Venice.

[Image: Mike Bouchet’s Watershed goes down].

A two-minute video of the house’s journey, and eventual fate, can be seen in full on YouTube.

(Originally spotted on Flavorwire).

Mobile Street Furniture

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Over the past two weeks, in two separate cities, multiple sightings of IDEO-like user-generated adaptations have reframed the motorbike as an intriguing addition to the emerging category of street furniture.

[Image: Photo by Lucy Crosbie, used under a Creative Commons license].

The first example was spotted outside Richard Rogers’s Channel 4 building in London, where a cluster of bike couriers had put their feet up onto their bikes’ handlebars, tipping their helmets down over their faces, and allowing the seats to form a gently curved cradle for their spines. They thereby squeezed in a quick nap between jobs.

Then, last week, as the streets of Trastevere overflowed with Romans celebrating the Festa della Repubblica, an unlucky Vespa parked next to a bustling enoteca was claimed as a bar stool and drink stand by several different groups over the course of the evening.

In both cases, the bikes suddenly appeared remarkably well-designed for their off-menu functionality: the hammock-like seat cushion and broad, flat rear looked purpose-built for backs and beer, respectively. In fact, with just a few adaptations and some thoughtful urban planning, their potential as mobile street furniture could be taken to the next level.

Simple additions—such as a gently vibrating seat cushion to work out muscle knots while couriers are snoozing, or flip-out cup holders behind the seat of the Vespa—combined with reserved parking spots for motorbikes outside bars and popular brunch spots, would surely enhance city life.

Ambitious entrepreneurs could carve out a seasonal niche by deploying a fleet of specially customized motorbikes as on-demand mobile seating. Perhaps tourists visiting Rome for the day could even rent motorbikes in a shady side-street so as not to miss out on their expected siestas. And, particularly in London, where dedicated outdoor beer gardens—a losing proposition for at least three hundred days of the year, but the most desirable real-estate in the city on those few hot, sunny days—smart publicans would eagerly pay to rent a dozen Vespa bar stools for their clientele to enjoy.

In each case, the motorbikes would be gone by the time pedestrian and vehicle traffic started up again—their mobility ensuring that streets and sidewalks remain uncluttered at peak flow.

It would only be a matter of time before low-platform flat-bed trucks had rentable sofas installed in the back and were then parked at scenic overlooks, while empty lorries were re-purposed as hammock dormitories, circling airport terminals to snap up jet-lagged travelers intent on maximizing layover time. The first international Mobile Street Furniture Conference in Milan would be swiftly followed by the creation of an industry-sponsored urban planning lobbying arm, high-profile design contests, and premium membership schemes, allowing unlimited worldwide street furniture rental…

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

The Water Menu

[Image: The water selection at Claridge’s, curated by Renaud Grégoire, food and beverage director].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The concept of terroir has its origins in French winemaking, as a means to describe the effect of geographic origin on taste. As a shorthand marker for both provenance and flavor, and as a sign of its burgeoning conceptual popularity, it has spread to encompass Kobe beef, San Marzano tomatoes, and even single-plantation chocolate.

But can water have terroir? What about the influence of the earth on water?

In late 2007, Claridge’s (a luxury hotel in Mayfair, London) caused a minor stir by introducing a “Water Menu.” The list features more than thirty mineral waters from around the world, described in terms of their origin and suggested flavor pairings.

Leaving aside a few obvious issues (such as the environmental impact of bottled water and the sheer economic wastefulness of sending multiple varieties of it to one hotel in England), it is hard not to appreciate the poetry of three-line exotic water biographies.

Take Mahalo Deep Sea Water, at £20 for 71cl, which comes from “a freshwater iceberg that melted thousands of years ago and, being of different temperature and salinity to the sea water around it, sank to become a lake at the bottom of the ocean floor. The water has been collected through a 3000ft pipeline off the shores of Hawaii.” According to the Daily Mail, Mahalo has a “very rounded quality on the palate” and it “would be good with shellfish.”

[Image: The Daily Mail‘s taste test results].

Meanwhile, Danish Iskilde‘s “flinty, crisp style” apparently derives from the Jutland aquifer’s complicated geology, consisting of interlaced deposits of quartz sand, clay, gravel, and soil. The most expensive (and possibly the most exciting) water on the menu is 420 Volcanic from New Zealand. Sourced from the Tai Tapu spring, which bubbles up through more then 650 feet of rock at the bottom of an extinct volcano, it is apparently “extremely spritzy on the palate with a tangy mineral finish.”

Claridge’s has since been joined by the Four Seasons in Sydney, and, according to The Guardian, “a handful of five-star Los Angeles hotels now employ water sommeliers to advise on the best water accompaniment to spiced braised belly pork or fillet of brill with parmentier of truffled leek.”

This same Guardian article goes on to recount the origins of Elsenham Water, which is described as “absolutely pure” and “very earthy—almost muddy,” depending on who you ask. Elsenham was discovered almost accidentally by Michael Johnstone, a former jam manufacturer; it is filtered over a 10-year period, in a confined chalk aquifer, half a mile below his abandoned jam factory and a neighboring industrial-sealant plant. Now, staff in white coats and hair nets fill up to 1,000 bottles daily “from an acrylic tank connected to pipes running into a hole in the ground.” Each bottle, priced at £12 for 75cl, is then polished by hand before it leaves the building.

According to Michael Mascha, former wine critic and author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, “water is in a transition from being considered a commodity to being considered a product.”

There is an undeniable Wild West gold-rush type of excitement to the idea of drilling for water in geologically auspicious locations. However, Mascha’s comment also implies that we might even begin to see the engineering of gourmet water products.

Loop tap water in a closed pressurized system for twenty years, through thick beds of pure northern Italian dolomite, and enjoy the lightly acidic result with chicken and fish. Better yet, blend it with water forced through a mixture of Forez and Porphyroid granite chips sourced from southwest France, stacked in a warehouse outside London to mimic in situ geological formations, to add a citrusy top note reminscent of Badoit.

A final spritz of oxygen ensures a silky mouthfeel—combined with the right designer packaging—and the burgeoning ranks of water connoisseurs will be lining up at your industrial plant for a taste.

[Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

London Future Green

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

During a brief Tube journey earlier today, this image stood out against a backdrop of mobile phone advertisements, travel insurance offers, and posters for English-language schools.

[Image: “Above Ground” by Nils Norman, commissioned by Platform for Art for Transport for London; view it as a 2.6MB PDF].

Designed by artist and architect Nils Norman, this fantasy map traces the Piccadilly line’s route through an alternate London whose landmarks consist of utopian eco-fantasies (mushroom farms and geothermal energy platforms) alongside various post-war avant-garde architects’ unrealized projects for the city.

Mike Webb’s Sin Centre and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace sit next to the Westminster Bog and Wetland Chain, while Thomas Affleck Greeves’ Monument to Commemorate the Passing of the Good Old Days of Architecture nestles in the shadow of a dual purpose algae factory and housing tower not far from George Orwell’s Ministries of Love, Peace and Plenty. The result is an interesting juxtaposition of hypothetical projects designed as critique or provocation, and equally imaginary proposals rooted in a utopian impulse toward sustainability: Superstudio’s Continuous Monument is set alongside the North London Turbine Fields and the South Kensington Vegetable Oil Refinery.

It turns out that the map dates from summer 2007, and was part of a year-long celebration of the Piccadilly line’s centenary. Transport for London commissioned multiple public art projects to mark the occasion, under the curatorial title “Thin Cities”—a reference to Italo Calvino’s invisible city of Armilla, in which a “forest of pipes… rise[s] vertically where the houses should be and spread[s] out horizontally where the floors should be.” This striking description highlights the Tube’s structural centrality to London—even if Calvino’s “underground veins” carry water, not commuters or tourists.

Other projects from the series include the first ever whole-Tube wrap, as well as the calls of fifty-two different migratory species (one per week) broadcast every twenty minutes over the Knightsbridge station tannoy. Taken from the British Library’s sound archive, these included the clicks of a bottle-nosed dolphin and the honks of a Whooper swan—and they were each introduced by the official voice of the Tube, Emma Clarke.

All the Thin Cities projects are now archived online; they’re presented alongside photos and anecdotes from each station on the Piccadilly line, such as the best place to watch planes take off and land at Heathrow (hint: it’s a small footbridge outside Hatton Cross) and the fate of Alfie the cat (he was adopted by a Station Supervisor after 10 years’ independent living at Cockfosters).

[Check out Archinect‘s interview with Nils Norman for more. Also vaguely related: Just Add Water. Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

Atmospheric Intoxication

[Image: Photo by Jonathan Brown. Brown reviewed the launch on his blog, Around Britain with a Paunch, writing that he and his friends “mingled in the mist, like shadows on the set of Hamlet”].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

A former boutique storefront in London has become the temporary home for a pop-up bar with a twist: 2 Ganton Street is currently the U.K.’s “first walk in cocktail.” Created by Bompas & Parr (known for their earlier experiments with glow-in-the-dark jello and scratch & sniff cinema), the “Alcoholic Architecture” bar features giant limes, over-sized straws, and most importantly, a gin-and-tonic mist.

Lucky ticket-holders (the event has now sold out) are equipped with plastic jumpsuits and encouraged to “breathe responsibly” before stepping into an alcoholic fog for up to 40 minutes – long enough to inhale “a fairly strong drink,” according to Wired UK.

The Guardian noted that “as far as taste goes, this is the real deal,” with some mouthfuls of air “sweeter with tonic and others nicely gin-heavy.” Sam Bompas explained to Wired that they chose to vaporize gin and tonic (rather than, say, an appletini) because of its “nice smell, botanical flavours and freshness.” St. John Ambulance volunteers are on hand, though the only reported casualties so far seem to have been hairstyles – victims of “gin-frizz”. The Guardian concluded that, “With no sentient ice cubes able to confirm it, one can only assume that this is what the inside of a G and T feels like.”

[Image: Antony Gormley’s Blind Light, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London, ©Stephen White].

The project was inspired by Antony Gormley’s Blind Light, a fog box installed at the Hayward Gallery in 2007. Bompas & Parr, who describe their world as operating in “the space between food and architecture,” worked with the same company, JS Humidifiers, to adapt and install the ultrasonic humidifiers that create the thick, gin-based fog.

Though even typing “thick, gin-based fog” makes me feel a bit queasy, the experiment does seem to provide a perfect instantiation of London’s social history, the city’s prevailing damp, and its dense population. If the project is recreated elsewhere, perhaps local conditions will shape the installation: a freezing hail of neat vodka will form a layer of crystals on fur hoods and boots at a cavernous underground bar in Moscow; or a refreshing rum-and-coke mist will cool sunburned spring-breakers in the overcrowded hotel rooms of Daytona Beach.

[Image: JS Humidifiers].

Of course, the architectural manipulation of humidity is not limited to alcohol. As JS’s website boasts: “For precise control of humidity and temperature, extreme outputs, specialist construction for controlled environments or unusual control, whatever the requirement JS will design and manufacture a solution.” Existing clients for these bespoke humidification systems apparently include medical device manufacturing, offshore oil exploration, firearms production, specialist printing, pharmaceutical production and automotive manufacturing. It seems clear that custom atmosphere solutions are a product with endless applications: migrating from industry to art to retail, with the next step being high-end custom interior design for the very rich.

It can only be a matter of time before wealthy individuals are able to wake up to vaporized coffee, maintaining their multi-tasking edge by inhaling caffeine for that last half-hour of sleep, while the riders of Hollywood stars will routinely specify custom dressing rooms bathed in a fine mist of light-diffusing, age-defying elixirs.

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Water Menu, Dark Sky Park, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].