Luminous Dreamlight

I spent part of the weekend down in Orange County, looking at birds, then the better part of an hour scrolling around on Google Maps, trying to figure out where we’d been all day.

[Image: Courtesy Google Maps.]

In the process, I noticed some incredible street names. I love this development, for example, with its absurdist, greeting-card geography: you can meet someone at the corner of Luminous and Dreamlight, or rendezvous with your Romeo on the thin spit of land where Silhouette meets Balcony.

The same development has streets called Symphony, Pageantry, and Ambiance—and don’t miss “Momento” [sic]. Nearby is a street called Heather Mist.

I live on Yacht Defender; please leave my packages at the front door.

[Image: Courtesy Google Maps.]

As you can probably tell, I have nothing particularly interesting to say about this; I’m just marveling at suburban naming conventions. I’m reminded of when we moved back to L.A. a few years ago and we were looking for paint colors, finding shades like “Online,” “Software,” and “Cyberspace.” A paint called “Download.”

A beautiful new house on Firmware Update, painted entirely in Autocomplete. Spellcheck Lane, painted in a color called Ducking.

[Image: Courtesy Google Maps.]

In any case, Orange County is actually a fascinating, Ballardian landscape of freeways built for no apparent reason other than to connect one grocery store to the next as fast as possible, residential subdivisions forming interrupted crystal-tiling patterns, migratory bird species flying over car parks, and vaguely named corporate research centers on the rims of artificial reservoirs.

Anecdotally, it has always seemed to me that fans of J.G. Ballard—or ostensible fans of J.G. Ballard—are suspiciously quick in condemning the very landscapes where so many of Ballard’s best stories take place, the suburban business parks, toll motorways, and heavily-policed private infrastructures of real estate developments outside London, in the south of France, or here in Orange County, where subdivisions seem named after the very animals whose ecosystems were destroyed during construction.

But, I mean, come on—where else should a J.G. Ballard fan read Concrete Island or Super-Cannes than in a $3 million rented home on Gentle Breeze, pulling monthly paychecks from ambiguously-defined consultant-engineering gigs, studying schematic diagrams for water-treatment plants at your kitchen table, all while driving a leased luxury car?

One such engineering firm, based near the developments described here, describes its expertise as tackling “earth-related problems” on “earth-related projects.” Earth-related problems. There should be a DSM-5 entry for that.

[Image: Courtesy Google Maps.]

Anyway, all future Ballard conventions should take place in landscapes like this—enormous rented homes impossible to climate-control, overlooking electric-SUV dealerships constructed atop former egret nesting grounds—at the metaphorical intersection of Luminous and Dreamlight.

Terrestrial Astronomy

[Image: “The Empty Quarter (Nevada)” (2021), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

I’m thrilled to have some map collages in the latest issue of the Yale Review.

[Image: “Groundwater Grids (North Dakota)” (2020), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

I started making these during lockdown, as part of a larger (and, to be honest, now doomed-feeling) graphic novel project using public domain U.S. Geological Survey maps as the main material.

[Images: “Keys II (Florida)” (2020) and “Keys I (Florida)” (2020), collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey; the source maps for these are particularly interesting, because they utilize satellite photography.]

The images in this post include a few collages not published in the Yale Review, but click through for the full issue’s broad selection of poetry, essays, fiction, and more.

[Images: “Morse Landscape II (Louisiana)” and “Morse Landscape I (Louisiana)” (2021), collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

And huge, huge thanks to Eugenia Bell for the editorial interest!

[Images: Various collages by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey.]

If you’re looking for someone to design a book cover or album cover or event poster, hit me up.

[Image: “Terrestrial Astronomy (Nevada)” (2021), collage by Geoff Manaugh, using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey; it’s a pedestrian observation, but inverting the color scheme of geological maps makes them look like maps of stars.]

The Deep

[Image: Binnewater Kilns, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

While I was over in New York State last fall, reporting both the “witch houses” piece for The New Yorker and the Middletown High School piece for The Guardian, I stopped off in the town of Rosendale, enticed there by several things I noticed on Google Maps.

[Image: The Rosendale Trestle, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

First was what turned out to be a satirical reference to something called the Geo Refrigeration Crevice, which, even on its own, sounded worth a side-trip. But, in the exact same area, there were also photos of an incredible-looking railway bridge converted to a hiking path that I wanted to walk across; there were these gorgeous, ruined kilns built into the hillside; and there were supposedly huge caves.

How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?

[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.

I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.

Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.

[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.

[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.

[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.

On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.

[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.

[Image: Cement world; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…

[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by BLDGBLOG.]

…before continuing on again to find my car.

Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.

There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!

[Image: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

It turns out this door leads down into the massive document-storage caverns of Iron Mountain located nearby, a company whose subterranean archive fever was documented in The New Yorker several years ago (albeit referring to a slightly different location of the firm). I would guess that this is the approximate location of that door.

This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”

Void Shaft Electricity

[Image: An engraving of mining, from Diderot’s Encyclopedia.]

A Scottish firm called Gravitricity wants to turn abandoned mine shafts into gravity-driven, underground electrical batteries. Power could be generated and stored, the Guardian reported back in late 2019, “by hoisting and dropping 12,000-ton weights—half the weight of the Statue of Liberty—down disused mine shafts.”

By timing these drops with regional energy demand, Gravitricity’s repurposed mines could act as “breakthrough underground energy-storage systems,” a company spokesperson explains in a video hosted on their site.

“Gravitricity said its system effectively stores energy by using electric winches to hoist the weights to the top of the shaft when there is plenty of renewable energy available, then dropping the weights hundreds of meters down vertical shafts to generate electricity when needed,” the Guardian continues.

[Image: From the Gravitricity website.]

In Subterranea: The Magazine for Subterranea Britannica, where I initially read about this plan, some of the proposal’s inherent design limitations are made clear. “What would be required for the Gravitricity scheme,” SubBrit suggests, “would be very deep, wide, and perhaps brick-lined shafts clear of ladderways, air ducts, cables and the like. On what sort of surface the weights might land, time and time again, is another consideration.”

Of course, this suggests that such shafts could also be deliberately designed and excavated as purpose-built battery-voids stretching down hundreds—thousands—of meters into the Earth, a not-impossible architectural undertaking. Repurposed domestic wells, using smaller weights, could also potentially work for single-home electrical generation, etc. etc.

So here’s to a new generation of proposals for how to perfect such a scheme, proposals that should be awarded bonus points if the resulting gigantic underground cylinders might also function as seismic invisibility cloaks (or “huge arrays of precisely drilled holes and trenches in the ground”).

Secret Telephone Buildings

“In harmony with its residential location,” we read in a paper called “Radio Relay and Other Special Buildings,” originally published in the Spring 1950 issue of Bell Telephone Magazine, “this building serves nevertheless as a voice-frequency repeater and coaxial main station.” An empty suburban house, inhabited only by machines and spectral voices.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Transformer Houses.)

Norwegian Dream Tunnels

Almost exactly five years ago, I was in the Norwegian town of Tromsø to speak at a conference called “Future North,” part of the annual Arctic Frontiers event.

One of the most interesting parts of my visit—and I do not say this to downplay the conference, but to indicate my enthusiasm for infrastructure—was this odd bit of traffic design: to get back and forth from Tromsø to its local airport by car, you have to pass through a sprawling underground tunnel network, complete with at least one subterranean roundabout carved into the roots of the mountain, a journey that, for someone newly arrived and jet-lagged like myself, seemed surreally endless (it probably took three minutes).

At the end of the journey, though, it gets stranger: you pop out of the ground floor of an otherwise nondescript building and turn directly onto a normal town road, passing through an opening that looks like an entrance to an underground parking garage.

These images, taken from Google Street View, show that building from the Tromsø side, peering into the mountain depths within. (Here is the tunnel entrance on Google Maps.)

While we’re on the subject of Norwegian tunnels, however, it would be a mistake not to mention the Lærdal Tunnel, allegedly “the longest road tunnel in the world.”

The tunnel is so long that, to address potential adverse effects on human neurology, it includes artificial caverns lit to invoke the Homeric glow of dawn.

[Image: The Lærdal Tunnel, photo by Patrick Reijnders, via Wikipedia.]

From Wikipedia:

The design of the tunnel takes into consideration the mental strain on drivers, so the tunnel is divided into four sections, separated by three large mountain caves at 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) intervals. While the main tunnel has white lights, the caves have blue lighting with yellow lights at the fringes to give an impression of sunrise. The caves are meant to break the routine, providing a refreshing view and allowing drivers to take a short rest. The caverns are also used as turnaround points and for break areas to help lift claustrophobia during a 20-minute drive through the tunnel. In the tunnel, there is a sign on every kilometer indicating how many kilometers have already been covered, and also how many kilometers there are still to go. To keep drivers from being inattentive or falling asleep, each lane is supplied with a loud rumble strip towards the centre.

As another site mentions, “Since 1990, research has been carried out to study driver behavior in long road tunnels.” Of course, one wonders how extreme this research has gotten, perhaps suggesting a new story by Nick Arvin or J.G. Ballard. (The construction of the tunnel is also fascinating, involving lasers, GPS satellites, and computer-controlled drilling platforms.)

Tunnels that mimic sunrise, built to accommodate human neurology using artificial stars as reference points, emerging from the ground-floors of buildings in coastal towns.

Dream tunnels, perhaps just one floor beneath your apartment, leading deep into the mountains beyond.

(If you just can’t get enough Norwegian road tunnels, check out Kiln, previously on BLDGBLOG.)

The Atlas of Natural Regions

[Image: “Saint-Valentin, Champagne berrichonne (Centre-Val-de-Loire), 2019, by Eric Tabuchi].

I’ve been enjoying the Instagram account of photographer Eric Tabuchi for quite a while now. Tabuchi is working on an ambitious ten-year photographic project, kicked off in 2017, that he calls The Atlas of Natural Regions, basically a catalog of spatial conditions found throughout France.

The project “aims to create a photographic archive offering a broad overview of the diversity of the buildings, but also the landscapes, that make up the French territory,” Tabuchi explains. “Ultimately, 50 shots will be taken in each of France’s natural regions, geographical and cultural entities that are simple to grasp by their size (a few tens of kilometers).”

It will include 25,000 photographs when it’s done—and I am already excited to see the final exhibition or book when it’s complete. So far, there have been flooded quarries, sports complexes, and emergency training towers, industrial ruins, coastal bunkers, and surreal scenes that resemble something designed by Simon Stålenhag.

Tabuchi’s Instagram account is well worth following, and you can also support his work by purchasing a print.

Metropolitan Accomplice

[Image: Photo by Jonas Roosens/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of the Guardian].

You might have seen the news that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.

“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.

The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.

A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.

Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.

The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.

I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.

[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].

Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.

Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

La vie minérale

[Image: Photo by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne].

A new exhibition featuring photos, videos, and sound installations by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne looks at life underground in Helsinki, Finland.

“Imagine a city with more than 400 underground facilities, tunnels that span over hundreds of kilometres and 10 million cubic meters of space carved into old Precambrian bedrock,” they write. These spaces serve as “athletic training sites, energy distribution networks, globalized data centers, archival chambers, a buried church or undisclosed military facilities,” to name only a few of their everyday uses.

The exhibition is up until June 17th, in Québec City. Read more at l’Œil de Poisson.

The Surface of a Terrestrial Sea

[Image: A sinkhole in Wink, Texas, surrounded by oil extraction and wastewater injection infrastructure].

A story I meant to include in my link round-up yesterday is this news item about a “large swath” of active oil well sites in Texas “heaving and sinking at alarming rates.”

In other words, previously solid ground has been turned into a slow-moving terrestrial sea.

“Radar satellite images show significant movement of the ground across a 4000-square-mile area—in one place as much as 40 inches over the past two-and-a-half years,” Phys.org reports. The land is tidal, surging and rolling with artificially induced deformation.

“This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement,” one of the researchers explains.

[Image: Infrastructure near Wink, Texas].

What’s particularly fascinating about this is why it’s alleged to be happening in the first place: a jumbled, chaotic, quasi-architectural mess of boreholes, abandoned pipework, and other artificial pores has begun churning beneath the surface of things and causing slow-motion land collapse.

For example, “The rapid sinking is most likely caused by water leaking through abandoned wells into the Salado formation and dissolving salt layers, threatening possible ground collapse.” Or a nearby region “where significant subsidence from fresh water flowing through cracked well casings, corroded steel pipes and unplugged abandoned wells has been widely reported.”

This utterly weird, anthropocenic assemblage—or should I say anthroposcenic—has also changed the terrain in other ways. Water leaking into an underground salt formation has “created voids,” for example, which have “caused the ground to sink and water to rise from the subsurface, including creating Boehmer Lake, which didn’t exist before 2003.” It’s like upward-falling rain.

The site brings to mind the work of Lebbeus Woods: jammed-up subterranean infrastructure, in a sprawling knot of abandoned and semi-functional machinery, causing the solid earth to behave more like the sea.

Read more at Phys.org.

How The City Uses Algorithms

New York City has announced the “Automated Decision Systems Task Force which will explore how New York City uses algorithms.” This makes New York “the first city in the country bringing our best technology and policy minds together to understand how algorithms affect the daily lives of our constituents. Whether the city has made a decision about school placements, criminal justice, or the provision of social services, this unprecedented legislation gets us one step closer to making algorithms accountable, transparent, and free of potential bias.”

(Spotted via Kate Crawford.)