The Rounds

[Image: The defused Koblenz bomb is lifted to safety].

1) The German city of Koblenz was partially evacuated over the weekend so that two still active WWII-era bombs—including one weighing 1.8 tons—could be defused. The bombs “were discovered when water levels fell because of a prolonged dry spell,” the BBC reports. As it happens, “600 tons of old munitions from two world wars [are] discovered every year” in Germany, with this perhaps being one of the few examples of discovery-by-drought.

2) Elsewhere, drought in parts of Europe has become so extreme that Switzerland’s ski resorts have no snow. “The autumn has been the driest on record in the country.”

3) Over in Texas, meanwhile, a record-setting drought has lent an archaeological air to the region’s weather. “The historic drought that has devastated crops and forced millions of Texans in small towns and large cities to abide by mandatory water restrictions,” the New York Times explains, “has had at least one benefit: As lake levels have dropped around the state, objects of all kinds that had been submerged for years, decades and even centuries are being revealed.” Human skulls, tombstones, the bodies of suicide victims, and even “a piece of debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia” have been found in “roughly 200 previously unreported archaeological sites resulting from lowered lake levels.” The chairman of a local historical commission quips that “everybody hates the drought, but I needed the drought.” “I knew it was there,” he adds, referring to a cemetery for freed slaves that has been revealed by the receding waters. The image is remarkable: a whole state of archaeologists, landowners, and historians waiting patiently on the shores of shrinking lakes for some forgotten landscape or artifact to be revealed.

[Image: Part of the Space Shuttle Columbia; photo courtesy of the Nacogdoches Police Department via the New York Times].

4) Politics by geography: “There are no guard towers, or Checkpoint Charlies, or even walls. But scores of American cities, counties and metropolitan areas are being divided again—splitting apart families, neighbors and, most important, voters with similar interests and needs—as states engage in the once-a-decade process of drawing the lines of new Congressional districts.” However, “when urban and metropolitan areas are broken up and combined with rural areas, mayors say, fewer voices are left to vigorously push an urban or metropolitan agenda in Washington.” And so cities are underserved by the political process. This latter point is perhaps reminiscent of an earlier discussion here on BLDGBLOG: Minor landscapes and the geography of American political campaigns.

5) “Imagine a lush forest: silent but for the chirping of birds flying through a dense canopy overhead, and damp, aromatic earth underfoot. Now picture a mountain of incinerated trash, 12 million tons of what was once a toxic heap of rotting fish and vegetables, old clothes, broken furniture, diapers and all manner of discarded items.” This describes a new project by architect Tadao Ando called the Sea Forest. The Sea Forest “will transform 88 hectares of reclaimed land, a 30-meter deep mound of alternating layers of landfill, into a dense forest of nearly half a million trees” in Tokyo Bay. Ando adds that it is also an experiment in climate-engineering, or weather control as the future of urban design: “not only will [the forest] become a refreshing retreat for stressed out city workers, it will also create a cool ocean breeze to sweep through the capital and cool its sweaty denizens in summer.”

[Images: Spreads from Project Japan, courtesy of Taschen].

6) The new book Project Japan by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist is an incredible document, in both physical and intellectual terms. The design, by Irma Boom, is gorgeous, and the contents—consisting of long, illustrated interviews with such figures as Arata Isozaki, Kenzo Tange’s Tange Lab, Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and many others, scattered amongst historical imagery and present-day site photos—offer a fascinating oral history of the Metabolist movement. As Koolhaas sums it up, Metabolism offered “a manifesto for the total transformation of the country” based on three specific principles. Still quoting Koolhaas:

a) The archipelago has run out of space: mostly mountainous, the surfaces fit for settlement are subdivided in microscopic, centuries old patchworks of ownership
b) Earthquakes and tsunamis make all construction precarious; urban concentrations such as Tokyo and Osaka are susceptible to potentially devastating wipeouts [ed. note: cf. today’s calls for a “back-up Tokyo“]
c) Modern technology and design offer possibilities for transcending Japan’s structural weakness, but only if they are mobilized systematically, almost militaristically, searching for solutions in every direction: on the land, on the sea, in the air…

Architecture thus becomes the literal geopolitical extension of the state, constructing new territory—such as floating forests and artificial islands—over which to govern. It’s a kind of proactive gerrymandering, we might say: not redesigning the district map, but constructing new districts. In any case, I recommend the book.

7) Cities in the jungle:

a) “Forgoing the plan to build independent floating cities away from chafing laws, some libertarians—led by Milton Friedman’s grandson, no less—have found something better: desperate countries willing to allow the founding of autonomous libertarian cities within their borders.”
b) “The inventor of the concept of cities with special laws designed to spur the lagging economies of failing states talks about the latest attempts by the Free Cities Institute to found a charter city in Central America.”
c) “The newest—and nicest—road in Myanmar is, paradoxically, one of the emptiest as well: Only a handful of cars travel along the desolate four-lane highway to nowhere, or so it seems. But in fact, it leads to Naypyitaw, a new city in one of the world’s poorest countries, carved out of the jungle and built from scratch by an aging, autocratic leader who then moved the nation’s seat of government there, lock, stock and barrel.”

[Images: Photos by Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of NPR].

8) Quantum geology: “A pair of diamond crystals has been linked by quantum entanglement.” This is, as Nature describes it, “a weirdly connected quantum state… [in which] both crystals were simultaneously vibrating and not vibrating.” It’s extraordinary to think about the possibility of much larger-scale quantum entanglement, for instance planet-scale mineral deposits vibrating in tune with one another, like the so-called “diamond planet” discovered earlier this year.

9) Galactic GPS: Autonomous spacecraft could someday navigate the universe based on directional information taken from pulsars. “Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that are observable as variable celestial sources of electromagnetic radiation. Their periodic signals have timing stabilities comparable to atomic clocks and provide characteristic temporal signatures that can be used as natural navigation beacons, quite similar to the use of GPS satellites for navigation on Earth.”

10) I meant to link this months ago: an office complex in Santa Monica uses trained falcons to ward off other birds. It’s called “falconry-based bird abatement.” In a weird sort of bird-building cyborg assembly, the falcons are kept “tethered to 10-pound blocks” on the edge of an artificial lake in order “to keep them from flying off and landing in harm’s way in the congested area around 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard.” The falcons are even “equipped with tiny transmitters” in case “they get disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings of Santa Monica. But they always respond to [the trainer’s] call when it’s time to take up their positions around the courtyard pond.” It gets weirder: “They spend their nights in large perch boxes in the Water Garden’s subterranean parking garage.” Perhaps all buildings should come with living bird-ornaments…

11) …or robots. By now, you’ve no doubt read that “robotic prison wardens” are set “to patrol [a] South Korean prison.” According to the BBC, “the machines will monitor inmates for abnormal behavior.” What could possibly go wrong?

12) Or we could combine animals and robots in the name of urban safety: “Insect Cyborgs May Become First Responders.” According to ScienceDaily, tiny “cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment” could be mounted directly on the backs of insects, and “we could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”

[Image: An “insect cyborg” via ScienceDaily].

13) A former U.S. military base in Iraq has been turned into a surreal new hotel where “guests are greeted by a jumble of concrete blocks, sand bags and barbed wire—the hotel’s front gate.” The hotel “relies on hundreds of American military residential trailers, known as CHUs, from the acronym for containerized housing unit. They had once accommodated guards.” Now, however, hoteliers have “installed indoor plumbing in some, creating the guest rooms.” On the other hand, the New York Times adds, “besides the few upgrades to the trailers, the prison remains unaltered and eerily empty, the wind whistling through the old guard towers.” Trailers go for roughly $190 a night.

[Image: Photo by Andrea Bruce for the New York Times].

14) There is a growing incidence of archaeological looting in the U.S. led by meth addicts. According to a recent study, “since meth labs are often found in isolated areas, just like archaeological sites, geographical coincidence may explain the complaints. Meth addicts are known for repetitive behavior and may find digging at sites soothing.” This would make an interesting premise for a film: desperate meth heads excavating unmarked burial mounds in the middle of the night, loading up their trucks under the moon.

15) Finally, for now, were the first human architects actually Neanderthals? “Neandertals are stumping for bragging rights as the first builders of mammoth-bone structures, an accomplishment usually attributed to Stone Age people. Humanity’s extinct cousins constructed a large, ring-shaped enclosure out of 116 mammoth bones and tusks at least 44,000 years ago in West Asia,” ScienceNews reports. “The bone edifice, which encircles a 40-square-meter area in which mammoths and other animals were butchered, cooked and eaten, served either to keep out cold winds or as a base for a wooden building.” Elsewhere: Who was the Archigram of mammoth bones?

(Some links via Archinect, @nicolatwilley, @namhenderson, and elsewhere. Previously: Quick Links 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1).

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