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, open-air 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 by your apartment, leading deep into the mountains beyond.

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

After the Clouds

[Image: A cloudless day in the Alabama Hills of California; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Earth could lose all its clouds according to a feasible runaway greenhouse scenario, modeled by scientists at Caltech.

“Clouds currently cover about two-thirds of the planet at any moment,” Natalie Wolchover writes for Quanta. “But computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control.”

Or, she warns, as if channeling J. G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, “think of crocodiles swimming in the Arctic.”

Submarine Psychiatry

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photograph of a submarine, via Vice].

Something I’ve always loved about the architectural novels of J. G. Ballard—his excellent but under-rated Super-Cannes, the classic High-Rise, even, to an infrastructural extent, Concrete Island and Crash—is their suggestion that Modernism had produced a built environment so psychologically novel that humans did not fully understand how to inhabit it.

Ballard recasts residential towers on the edge of the city, for example, as fundamentally alienating, often inhumanly so, as if those structures’ bewildered new residents are encountering not a thoughtfully designed building but the spatial effects of an algorithm, a code stuck auto-suggesting new floors, supermarkets, and parking lots when any sane designer would long ago have put down the drafting pen.

Ballard’s novels suggest that these buildings should perhaps have come with a user’s guide, even a live-in psychiatrist for helping residents adapt to the otherwise unaccommodating, semi-psychotic emptiness of an un-ornamented Modern interior, a soothing Virgil for all those cavernous lobbies and late-night motorways.

Briefly, I might add that, in today’s age of questioning what it is that algorithms really want—for example, critiquing why social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and, especially, YouTube recommend what they do—we are essentially repeating the same questions Ballard asked about modern urban planning and architectural design. Do we really want these spaces being foisted on us by a design ideology—a cultural algorithm—and, much more interestingly, Ballard asked, are we psychologically prepared for them when they arrive?

Perhaps Ballard’s characters sent reeling by the elevator banks of endless high-rise apartment complexes are not all that different from someone being red-pilled by YouTube autoplay recommendations today: they are both confronting something designed to fulfill the ideological needs of a rationality gone awry. Seen this way, Le Corbusier could be compared to a YouTube engineer too enthralled by the inhuman power of his own design algorithm to ask whether it was recommending the right thing (cf. Patrik Schumacher).

In any case, I mention all this because one fascinating—and real—example of psychiatrists tasked with evaluating a new spatial environment for its effects on human beings comes not from architecture but from the early days of the long-mission nuclear submarine. We might say that, while J. G. Ballard himself remained on land and in the cities, the true Ballardian environment was offshore and heavily militarized, a hermetically sealed psychological experiment prowling the ocean depths.

Papers such as “Human Adjustment to an Exotic Environment: The Nuclear Submarine,” “An Experience in Submarine Psychiatry,” and “Psychiatry and the Nuclear Submarine,” all published in the late 1960s, suggested that humans might well be undone by an encounter with an environment of their own making—perhaps an early foreshadowing of how we will greet the Anthropocene.

Much of this, of course, was aimed at ensuring that we only sent the most stable and qualified personnel out to sea in a confined environment for prolonged periods of time with intercontinental missiles at their disposal, so as to avoid erratic or petulant individuals from starting a nuclear war.

But the prospect that humans might have constructed something they themselves are unable to tolerate psychologically was an explicit secondary theme of that research.

In one more recent work, looking back at several decades’ worth of pathological behaviors observed in submarine personnel—among other things—crew members were described as hiding in ever-smaller places at the outermost periphery of a submerged vessel, curled up against the hull as if seeking solace there, even examples of “hypnotic phenomena” and other slowly emerging neuroses.

There is obviously more to say about all of this, but what interests me the most here is the prospect that we are underestimating the psychological power of architectural design—and that J. G. Ballard was unusually sharp at highlighting what happens to a person when they are not prepared to inhabit a new kind of spatial environment.

Whether it’s the potential loneliness of an American suburb, a high-rise overlooking London, or, for that matter, a nuclear submarine, it is an intriguing topic to explore in future fiction, perhaps some strange literary hybrid of J. G. Ballard and Tom Clancy in which the psychological effects of military isolation are explored in more depth.

(Related: Psychology at Depth.)

Parking For Gold: On the Frontlines with America’s Best Valet Parkers

[Image: Valets stretch at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

When I first heard about the National Valet Olympics, I knew it was something I’d want to see someday. The nation’s best valet parkers gathering together in a parking lot somewhere—in Chicago, in Miami Beach, in Palm Springs—to wage spatial warfare against one another, battling head-to-head over who has the best parking technique? It sounded like something J.G. Ballard would come up with while playing Settlers of Catan.

[Image: Getting ready for the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The very idea that there could be an organized event for competitive valet parking was fascinating to me, an unexpected variation on a peculiarly American narrative of the upstart athlete, the self-taught Natural.

The games evoked images of men and women in small towns throughout the United States dragging themselves out of bed before dawn to practice three-point turns and parallel parking in under-lit lots, of kids growing up trading sports cards featuring portraits of valet parkers, of autographed posters hanging on the walls of rental car facilities drawing consumers’ attention to these legends of American emptiness.

Who among us can master the modern lot, its open geometry, its clean lines, its spatial potential? Why be LeBron James when you can be the world’s best valet parker?

[Image: Advanced Parking Concepts valets stretch their legs at the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Olympics were as much as about a niche athletic pursuit as they were about everyday transportation infrastructure, I thought, and I had my calendar marked for more than a year leading up to the 2017 games.

[Image: Packing trunks at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

I was finally able to attend the Olympics in person for The Atlantic, and the resulting article just went up online.

Held in Palm Springs, the games introduced me to a valet who grew up in a Syrian refugee camp, as well as one who volunteers with the California Army National Guard; I heard the story of a regional manager who once SCUBA-dived through a flooded parking lot outside New York in order to check on clients’ cars, and I followed one team in particular, Advanced Parking Concepts (APC) from Verona, New Jersey, on their most recent attempt to win it all. Taking the games seriously, APC got into combat shape by running wind sprints up the same New Jersey hill where Herschel Walker once trained.

[Image: The stage is set at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

If this sounds even remotely interesting—transportation infrastructure as a venue for personal athletic achievement—then consider reading the article in full over at The Atlantic, and, if you’re a valet parker, please be in touch! I heard so many good stories while writing this article, and I’d love to hear more.

[Image: APC valets huddle during the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Ghost of Cognition Past, or Thinking Like An Algorithm

[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]

One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.

Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.

In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.

In addition, a writer of fiction might stage an otherwise straightforward storyline in an unexpected setting, in order to reveal something new about both. It’s a hard-boiled detective thriller—set on an international space station. It’s a heist film—set at the bottom of the sea. It’s a procedural missing-person mystery—set on a remote military base in Afghanistan.

Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.

I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.

[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]

In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.

To use an entirely fictional example of what this means, let’s imagine that, following a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, millions of people begin Googling “Pokémon Go Ewan McGregor.” In the emerging YouTube media ecology that Bridle documents, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would immediately make a Pokémon Go video featuring Ewan McGregor both to satisfy this peculiar cultural urge and to profit from the anticipated traffic.

Content-generation through keyword mixing is “a whole dark art unto itself,” Bridle suggests. As a particular keyword or hashtag begins to trend, “content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration.” Imagine Ewan McGregor playing Pokémon Go, forever.

What’s unusual here, however, and what Bridle specifically highlights in his essay, is that this creative process is becoming automated: machine-learning algorithms are taking note of trending keyword searches or popular hashtag combinations, then recommending the production of content to match those otherwise arbitrary sets. For Bridle, the results verge on the incomprehensible—less Big Data, say, than Big Dada.

This is by no means new. Recall the origin of House of Cards on Netflix. Netflix learned from its massive trove of consumer data that its customers liked, among other things, David Fincher films, political thrillers, and the actor Kevin Spacey. As David Carr explained for the New York Times back in 2013, this suggested the outline of a possible series: “With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”

In other words, House of Cards was produced because it matched a data set, an example of “keyword/hashtag association” becoming video.

The question here would be: what if, instead of a human producer, a machine-learning algorithm had been tasked with analyzing Netflix consumer data and generating an idea for a new TV show? What if that recommendation algorithm didn’t quite understand which combinations would be good or worth watching? It’s not hard to imagine an unwatchably surreal, even uncanny television show resulting from this, something that seems to make more sense as a data-collection exercise than as a coherent plot—yet Bridle suggests that this is exactly what’s happening in the world of children’s videos online.

[Image: From Metropolis].

In some of these videos, Bridle explains, keyword-based programming might mean something as basic as altering a few words in a script, then having actors playfully act out those new scenarios. Actors might incorporate new toys, new types of candy, or even a particular child’s name: “Matt” on a “donkey” at “the zoo” becomes “Matt” on a “horse” at “the zoo” becomes “Carla” on a “horse” at “home.” Each variant keyword combination then results in its own short video, and each of these videos can be monetized. Future such recombinations are infinite.

In an age of easily produced digital animations, Bridle adds, these sorts of keyword micro-variants can be produced both extremely quickly and very nearly automatically. Some YouTube producers have even eliminated “human actors” altogether, he writes, “to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos.”

Bridle notes with worry that it is nearly impossible here “to parse out the gap between human and machine.”

Going further, he suggests that the automated production of new videos based on popular search terms has resulted in scenes so troubling that children should not be exposed to them—but, interestingly, Bridle’s reaction here seems to be based on those videos’ content. That is, the videos feature animated characters appearing without heads, or kids being buried alive in sandboxes, or even the painful sounds of babies crying.

What I think is unsettling here is slightly different, on the other hand. The content, in my opinion, is simply strange: a kind of low-rent surrealism for kids, David Lynch-lite for toddlers. For thousands of years, western folktales have featured cannibals, incest, haunted houses, even John Carpenter-like biological transformations, from woman to tree, or from man to pig and back again. Children burn to death on chariots in the sky or sons fall from atmospheric heights into the sea. These myths seem more nightmarish—on the level of content—than some of Bridle’s chosen YouTube videos.

Instead, I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.

Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.

[Image: Replicants in Blade Runner].

One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”

In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.

It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.

Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this—who “thinks” like this—would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.

So, to return to this post’s beginning, one of the thrills of thinking like a writer, so to speak, is precisely in how it encourages one to bring together things that might not otherwise belong on the same page, and to work toward understanding why these apparently unrelated subjects might secretly be connected.

But what is thinking like an algorithm?

It will be interesting to see if algorithmically assembled material can still offer the sort of interpretive challenge posed by narrative writing, or if the only appropriate response to the kinds of content Bridle describes will be passive resignation, indifference, knowing that a data set somewhere produced a series of keywords and that the story before you goes no deeper than that. So you simply watch the next video. And the next. And the next.

Crash Ballet

I had a surprisingly interesting conversation with the guy cutting my hair the other day. It turned out he had studied dance in college, but, roughly fifteen years ago, had been forced to find other work as both age and a nagging injury took their toll.

He mentioned various forms of movement therapy that exist for coping with, and even reversing, these sorts of injuries, which led to a conversation about styles of dance that might have been specifically invented not as art but as medicine, as a means of physical convalescence for aging performers, even choreographic styles devised for performance by injured dancers.

My barber then referred to a particular type of movement—whose name I can’t remember—that was all about using the body’s skeleton, rather than its musculature, for standing up and down, as well as something about spreading energy into the floor, not resisting gravity, etc., but the way he described it reminded me of studies I had read that suggested drunk people are often less injured in car crashes than their sober counterparts because their bodies don’t resist the movement. They are simply flung along with the motion of the vehicle. Sober people should thus learn not to clench up and go rigid if they’re about to be in a car accident; they should instead loosen up and, in effect, go with the flow.

Note, of course, that this is not scientific advice; I was speculating with someone in a barber shop.

Nevertheless, we went on to discuss the fact that car accidents are so common in American culture today that it would not be out of the question to devise some sort of movement-preparation course for kids to study in gym class—like tai chi for car wrecks—to help them safely interact with crashing vehicles. A kind of preparatory crash ballet.

Would this be more interesting or fun than dodgeball, or floor hockey, or whatever else it is that kids do in gym class these days? Teach kids how to be flung through windshields, how to roll out of collapsing houses in an earthquake, how to jump from burning buildings, or other survival techniques for the everyday catastrophes that might exist for all of us, hiding just around the corner.

No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Kiln

[Image: Via Tunnel Business Magazine].

The abandoned Runehamar road tunnel on the southwest coast of Norway has been redesigned and given new life as a site for the experimental burning of trucks, cargo, and other vehicular structures in order to learn how subterranean road fires can best be extinguished.

It’s a kind of Nordic funeral pyre built not for the bodies of kings but for the products of the automotive industry, an underground bonfire of simulated car wrecks that seems more like something you’d see in the fiction of J.G. Ballard.

The overall structure has been modified to serve as a closely-controlled thermal environment—more a furnace than a piece of transportation infrastructure—complete with an array of instruments and sensors, and a system of sprinklers and ventilation fans that let observers try out novel methods of fire suppression.

In a sense, this is what might happen if someone like architect Philippe Rahm was given a limited budget and hired to design experimental subterranean road infrastructure, with his work’s focus on the thermal behavior of spaces and other non-visual dimensions of the built environment.

The Norwegian Public Roads Association explains why all this is necessary:

There is a need for more detailed knowledge on how and why various semi-trailer cargos burn so strongly and why they spread so quickly. The high heat exposure from the semi-trailers to the tunnel linings also needs more focus. The only reasonable way of finding an answer to these questions is to carry out systematic large scale experiments that can provide a better basis for the design of technical systems in road tunnels.

There’s more to write about the tunnel, I’m sure, and there is a bit more detail in the original post on Gizmodo—including, for those of you curious, this PDF that comes complete with structural and thermal diagrams of the burning apparatus.

But I suppose I’m more interested in the sheer strangeness of an old road tunnel being transformed into a venue for controlled thermal events. It is ritualistic, repetitive, and pyromaniacal, as if vitamin-D-deprived engineers in lab coats have been endlessly sacrificing sacred cargo for some infernal mountain, an altar for automotive transubstantiation, where unknown driving objects are reduced to ash and studied, again and again, filmed and re-watched—until the next fire, when the sprinklers fill up again and the vents, like a buried engine, begin to roar.

(Via Gizmodo).

Weather Architects of the Year 2050 A.D.

[Image: “Whirlpool” (1973) by Dennis Oppenheim].

Artist Dennis Oppenheim’s “Whirlpool” project, from the summer of 1973, sought to create an artificial tornado on the bed of a dry desert lake in Southern California. It was intended as a “3/4 mile by 4 mile schemata of tornado,” the above image explains, “traced in [the] sky using standard white smoke discharge from aircraft.”

As the Telegraph describes it:

Employing one of [Oppenheim’s] characteristic quasi-scientific methods, the piece was created by issuing radio instructions to an aircraft which discharged a liquid nitrogen vapor trail. The aircraft began by flying in revolutions measuring three quarters of a mile in diameter. Subsequently the pilot was instructed to repeat this manoeuver but, with each revolution, he was made to reduce the size of the diameter of the circle and lose height—and it is no mean feat controlling a plane according to these specifications. The operation had to be repeated three times before the desired whirlpool effect was achieved.

In a short story called “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D,” J.G. Ballard envisions a tropical atoll where the residents have learned to “sculpt” clouds in the sky, listening to Wagner over loud speakers and using specially engineered gliders and flying techniques.

“Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D,” Ballard writes, “we would carve seahorses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film stars, lizards and exotic birds. As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.”

They are part aesthetic object, part weather system.

[Image: “Column” by Anthony McCall, courtesy of Creative Review].

Both of these came to mind this weekend when I read that artist Anthony McCall is planning to create something called “Column” in Liverpool, to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics. It will be “a spinning column of cloud a mile high,” as Creative Review describes it, “visible across the North West region throughout the Olympic year.”

Made of cloud and mist, this “swirling micro-climate” will be “created by gently rotating the water on the surface of the Mersey and then adding heat which will make it lift into the air like a water spout or dust devil.”

We’ll have to see how it actually works out, of course, but the idea that cities might soon deploy large-scale specialty weather-effects—that is, permanent climatological megastructures—instead of, say, Taj Mahals or Guggenheim Bilbaos as a way of differentiating themselves from their urban competition is a compelling one.

The future weather-architects of 2050 A.D. In-house climatologists spinning noctilucent clouds above Manhattan.

A Catholicism of Fallen Machinery

[Image: Photo by Allyn Baum for The New York Times].

In a short but otherwise quite remarkable article in today’s New York Times, we read about the barely visible traces of a plane crash that occurred 40 years ago in the skies above Park Slope, Brooklyn. As the article explains, there is “little to indicate that the corner of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, bore violent witness to the worst air disaster at the time.”

“If you look closely, though, there are signs—not wounds from that harrowing day so much as faded scars.”

For the most part, these wounds from the sky take architectural form. They are urban archaeologies of airborne collision—the tragic encounter of a plane with the city—recorded in material detail:

At 126 Sterling, where a 25-foot section of the plane’s right wing knifed through a peach-brick four-story apartment complex, the building still stands, but its bunting-patterned tin cornice is gone; the two matching buildings to the right still have theirs. The first dozen courses of brick below the rebuilt roof don’t match the rest. They are shinier, lighter: newer.

Meanwhile, nearby on 7th Avenue, “at the back of the brownstone at No. 20 that caught fire, a second-floor window was never replaced and has been bricked over. Titus Montalvo, who has lived on the ground floor for nearly 40 years, said that a former landlord warned him he might find fingers while digging in the garden.”

There are even what the article refers to as “crash relics”—rusted pieces of wings—still standing in people’s back gardens like scenes from some new Catholicism of fallen machinery, as rewritten by J.G. Ballard.

But there is something almost giddy in the implication that, if only we could perform a rigorous-enough architectural forensics on the surface of the city—revealing traces of disaster hidden in ornamental cornices and bricked-up windows—then otherwise lost events could be both memorialized and reconstructed. Even the smallest mark on a building’s facade becomes a monument to forgotten histories.