By indirections

[Image: Matthew Cusick, The Course of Empire (Mixmaster II), 2006. Mixed media and maps on prepared panel; courtesy Lisa Dent Gallery. Photo by Wilfred J. Jones].

“Matthew Cusick’s maps lead nowhere,” Artkrush warns. His newest works depict “a series of Texas highways traversing allegorical landscapes” – a geography described by Cusick’s gallerist as “layered with animal migration paths, trading posts, and railroad depots.”
The above work, along with two other highway paintings, is on display now at the Lisa Dent Gallery in San Francisco.

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

Wounded architectures shine

[Image: Bullet Lights, by Edwin Gardner].

Thanks to Bryan Finoki, I’ve discovered Bullet Lights, a proposal by Edwin Gardner.
Throughout Beirut, we read, there are uncountable thousands of bullet holes, small punctures in the walls of the city; these are architectural signs of “past violence, conflict and war.”
The idea behind Bullet Lights, then, is to reverse “the meaning and experience” of the city’s wounded walls by flooding them with light from within: the shells of old buildings, damaged by war, become chandeliers – Gardner’s “unexpected poetic moments of beauty.”
It is through damage that the buildings can shine.
There’s an old Coil song, called Titan Arch, that includes the line: “His wounds are shining” – which would be completely irrelevant to this post were it not for the fact that: 1) I’ve sometimes imagined scars – the healed remnants of wounding – as a kind of earthly astronomy, injurious constellations burning new white windows through the skin; and 2) that’s exactly what Gardner’s buildings would do for Beirut: they’re scarred, showing that the wounded have a brighter light within.

(Other trips through Beirut on BLDGBLOG: Future Beirut and beirut.bldg).

Quick list 6

[Image: By Julia Hasting, from the New York Times].

In a multiply authored recap of the best and worst ideas of 2006, we find the so-called ambient walkman, designed by Noah Vawter, a graduate student at MIT.
The ambient walkman “consists of two headphones with transparent earpieces, each equipped with a microphone and a speaker”:

The microphones sample the background noise in the immediate vicinity – wind blowing through the trees, traffic, a cellphone conversation. Then, with the help of a small digital signal-processing chip, the headphones make music from these sounds. For instance, percussive sounds like footsteps and coughs are sequenced into a stuttering pattern, and all the noises are tuned so that they fuse into a coherent, slowly changing set of harmonies.

This apparently amplifies users’ interest in their surroundings by encouraging direct sonic engagement. According to the project’s own website, for instance, the walkman’s users start “to play with objects around them, sing to themselves, and wander toward tempting sound sources.”
So they start acting the Teletubbies
Elsewhere in the same annual review, David Haskell – executive director of the Forum for Urban Design – observes that big urbanism is back. In fact, he writes, “cities are once again planning with grandiosity… with large-scale redevelopment projects sprouting nationwide.” Read the rest of his article for specific examples.
Shifting gears – though proving Haskell’s point, in some ways – the Times then zeroes in on “urban shrinkage.” In the specific instance of Youngstown, Ohio, we read, urban shrinkage is a “strategy [that] calls for razing derelict buildings, eventually cutting off the sewage and electric services to fully abandoned tracts of the city and transforming vacant lots into pocket parks.”
If one overlooks the “pocket parks,” in other words, the strategy sounds remarkably like urban warfare.

[Image: Youngstown, Ohio. Belinda Lanks has written about the town’s “comprehensive plan” to “eliminate redundant infrastructure and capture key parcels to create large open green spaces,” in Metropolis, where the above photo also originates].

Of course, these steps will also retro-fit the city for its gradually shrinking – in the numeric sense – population: “The city and county are now turning abandoned lots over to neighboring landowners and excusing back taxes on the land, provided that they act as stewards of the open spaces. The city has also placed a moratorium on the (often haphazard) construction of new dwellings financed by low-income-housing tax credits and encouraged the rehabilitation of existing homes.”
So, by reducing the quantity of urban dead zones within the city, Youngstown will theoretically replace unused voidspace with well-planted parks and pedestrian neighborhoods. Which means that, from my perspective, it’s a good idea whether it works or not.
For equally good (and bad) ideas chosen by the NYTimes, see a few more links at Archinect; for more on Youngstown’s shrinkage, see this older post on Brand Avenue.

(Earlier: Quick list 5, et cetera).

The Invent-a-Micronation Contest Continues

There is still one more week to invent your own micronation – and win a free copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations in the process.
So: in 100 words or less, what, where, how, who, why, when, etc., would your micronation be…? To date, we’ve been approached by a group who “will dig a trench and fill it with ourselves”; we’ve been pitched a “politically autonomous” National Sex Garden; we’ve been introduced to a world of street barricades, built in disused quarters of the world’s cities; we’ve brushed shoulders with the “Sovereign Dictatorship of MOB”; and so on. You don’t actually have to realize your nation, by the way; you can just talk about it. And the more architecturally interesting your idea is, the better.
Illustrations are both acceptable and encouraged.
If you need micronational tips, examples, criteria, etc., see BLDGBLOG’s recent interview with Simon Sellars, one of the Lonely Planet guide’s co-authors – or take a look at Wikipedia’s entry on micronations. Or check out the Helicopter Archipelago.
Then submit to me via email
The winner – chosen more or less on the whim of BLDGBLOG – will receive a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations to read and obsess over, and their idea will appear on BLDGBLOG.
Get cracking!
You have till Friday, December 15th, 2006.

The London Tornadium

There’s been a tornado in NW London: “At least six people were injured and hundreds left homeless when the tornado swept through Kensal Rise at around 11am, tearing the roofs and walls off houses. Eyewitnesses said it lasted for up to 40 seconds; one man said he heard a sound ‘like standing behind a jetliner’.”

It was a “genuine twister.”

[Images: From the Daily Mail].

Although tornadoes of this kind are surprisingly frequent in the UK, the event should be taken, The Guardian suggests, as a “warning that such weather events are likely to increase in frequency because of global warming.”

For instance:

In July last year, a tornado in Birmingham damaged 1,000 buildings, causing millions of pounds of damage, while a tornado was reported just off Brighton, on the Sussex coast, this October. A mini tornado swept through the village of Bowstreet in Ceredigion, west Wales, last Tuesday. Terence Meaden, the deputy head of the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, said the UK has the highest number of reported tornadoes for its land area of any country in the world… He added that the UK was especially susceptible to tornados because of its position on the Atlantic seaboard, where polar air from the north pole meets tropical air from the equator.

In which case, I suggest they build the London Tornadium: an architectural tornado-attractor. Combining urban design; arched viaducts; smooth, valved walls; steel pipes; and complex internal cavitation like a conch shell, the Tornadium will be a kind of urban-architectural sky-trumpet built for the cancellation of storms.

Warm winds and water vapor from the tropics will hit Arctic fronts outside Ireland, then move down toward the city… where the Tornadium, located perfectly at the vertex of converging streets, will suck all storms toward it, defusing their energy (and perhaps acting as a wind-power factory).
Anti-storm architecture. Or pro-storm architecture, for that matter.

What, after all, is the impact of urban design on meteorology?

And could a perfectly engineered great wall of high rises outside the city – each structure a honeycomb of valved passages – prevent all storms from reaching London…?

(See also Aurora Britannica, in which a superstadium full of ring magnets is proposed as a means to trap the Northern Lights in central London).

River Visions of a Midwestern Manhattan

[Image: Floating homes].

The reliably excellent Brand Avenue reported last month that “business leaders” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “are proposing a massive change to that city’s riverfront: a series of new islands covered with public parks and plazas, residential high-rises, and retail arcades, all made possible by the construction of a massive new dam just upstream.”
The project, built upon the alluvial bends of the Arkansas River, will cost nearly $800 million.

[Image: Aerial view of the Channels].

Referred to as the Tulsa Channels, the scheme is meant “to propel the Tulsa region past its competitors,” stunning them all with unapologetic geotechnical ambition. For instance, the whole thing “begins with an impounding dam at the 23rd street bridge.” This, in turn, “creates a 12.3-mile lake north to Sand Springs.”
At that point:

A 40-acre, man-made island located between the 11th and 23rd street bridges, itself connected by two bridges to the east bank, rises up from the water and anchors the project. The man-made land mass features low- and high-rise residences to the north and south, separated by navigable canals from the public zone.

The whole thing may even help underwrite its own construction costs through the future sale of electricity. Indeed: “Plans call for the project to generate excess energy from hydro, solar and wind power that can be sold back to the power grid for profit.”
It’s not just a suburb, it’s a machine.

[Image: The Tulsa Channels. Two views of a very Manhattan-like model].

Designed by Vancouver-based architects Bing Thom, the Tulsa Channels takes its place alongside another of that firm’s more hydrologically inclined landscape projects: the Trinity River Vision. This is “a master plan for the Trinity River and major tributaries” in Fort Worth, Texas.

[Image: The Trinity River Vision by Bing Thom. The project “will enable up to 10,000 new homes to be constructed in the area (…) once flood protection is in place and levees are removed to open up the land” – as well as once a “new bypass channel and its related dam and isolation gates” have been constructed].

Brand Avenue – whose original post I’ve more or less repeated, step by step, in its entirety here (sorry!) – points out that these projects bear much in common with yet another riverine plan: this time for a series of manmade islands off the Mississippi coast of St. Louis, as reported by the Forum for Urban Design.

(Note: While you’re reading Brand Avenue, check out their post on the container city).

Lunar urbanism 8

Upon relaying today’s news that the United States plans to build a permanent base on the moon, the BBC decided to give us a short, visual history of variously imagined moon bases, as drawn by unnamed artists.

In the article itself, we learn that NASA thinks “the best approach is to develop a solar-powered moon base and to locate it near one of the poles of the moon – such as the Shackleton Crater near the South Pole.” There, the base “will serve as a science centre and possible stepping stone for manned missions to Mars.” It will also serve as an off-world prison for the – wait –
Of course, a permanent lunar base will have the added benefit of “expand[ing] Earth’s economic sphere” – something the Russians already seem to have realized.
I’m just waiting to see their first postage stamp. And their flag. And the first moon-born baby – who will grow up to lead a death cult in the deserts of western China. And then the first moon war…
Before the big day when BLDGBLOG wins a three-month residency for lunacy in architectural research…

(See also Lunar urbanism 7 and so on).

Bamiyan erasure

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Victory arch built by the Northern Alliance at the entrance to a local commander’s HQ in Bamiyan. The empty niche housed the smaller of the two Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.” From Afghanistan: Chronotopia.]

Just a quick note to say that I’ve added two images to last week’s interview with Simon Norfolk – which you should definitely read if you get a chance (it’s very long). The new images include this photograph, above, which centers on one of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan.

(Thanks, Simon!)

Terrestrial weaponization

[Image: From a simulation of nuclear bunker buster technology, produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists].

Defense Tech introduces us to the “earthquake array,” a “focused underground shockwave that amounts to an artificial earthquake.” This “artificial earthquake” will be put to use by the Air Force, of all people (not the Earth Force?), in order to annihilate underground targets.

Intriguingly, the shockwave will cause all regional tunnels, bunkers, mines, sewers, nightclubs, basement TV rooms, commercial show caves, etc., to collapse – which means that the bomb is actually a kind of landscape weapon, de-caving the earth from within.

“The secret,” we read, “is in effectively combining 20 separate explosions into a coherent pulse.”

More interesting than explosives, however, would be the phenomenal amount of patience and long-term thinking required to execute a slightly different plan: seeing that the future rise of a distant empire is all but historically inevitable, you and a crack team of undercover geotechnical engineers go deep into what will soon be enemy territory – even if not for another 500 years – and you install several hundred acres of massive vibrating plates a thousand feet below ground. You hook them up to something – perhaps a geothermal well – and then you landscape the hell out of the place.

No one will know you were there.

Then 500 years goes by, at which point that distant empire is now your biggest rival – and that means your moment has come. Your weapon is ready. You activate the earth-plates.

Within seconds, a shuddering manmade tectonic groan of undeclared, anti-architectural, vibrational warfare levels their whole civilization. Your plan works.

It’s the earthquake array, as it really should be. Terrestrial weaponization. Earth War I.

(For quite similar thoughts, involving James Bond, see BLDGBLOG’s guide to tectonic warfare).

Science Fiction and the City

In case you missed, or miss, BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with novelist Jeff VanderMeer, you can now read it in print…

The full interview – complete, I believe, with artist John Coulthart‘s excellent bookplates – was just published in the new issue of 032c, an arts/culture/politics magazine produced in the groundless, post-historical urban spaceship of Berlin.
The theme of the issue is “Life in the Long Shadow of War” – which, judging from the cover, appears to have something to do with European women suggestively eating peeled fruit… Other contributors include Thomas Pynchon, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas.

So what does Mr. VanderMeer have to say in this interview? An excerpt:

As a novelist who is uninterested in replicating “reality” but who is interested in plausibility and verisimilitude, I look for the organizing principles of real cities and for the kinds of bizarre juxtapositions that occur within them. Then I take what I need to be consistent with whatever fantastical city I’m creating. For example, there is a layering effect in many great cities. You don’t just see one style or period of architecture. You might also see planning in one section of a city and utter chaos in another. The lesson behind seeing a modern skyscraper next to a 17th-century cathedral is one that many fabulists do not internalize and, as a result, their settings are too homogenous.

Of course, that kind of layering will work for some readers – and other readers will want continuity. Even if they live in a place like that – a baroque, layered, very busy, confused place – even if, say, they’re holding the novel as they walk down the street in London [laughter] – they just don’t get it. So you have to be careful how you do that.

And if you happen to be in Moscow, there will be an invitation-only party for the magazine’s release on December 7th; and, in Beijing, another such party will be held on December 12th.
If you want an invitation, I assume you just email 032c.