[Image: Michael Heizer’s rock; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I audited a class about Archigram taught by Annette Fierro at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of many things I remember from the class was a description of how the Centre Pompidou, a building designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, was constructed.
Apparently, in order for the building to be assembled, huge pieces of structure had to be rolled through the streets in the middle of the night, long after traffic had died down and after almost everyone had gone to sleep.
Whole boulevards and intersections were closed to make way for the passage of these massive objects, as if the ribs and thigh bones of some colossal creature were being painstakingly assembled in a distant neighborhood, in the dark. The building began as a distributed network of large, chaperoned objects.
You can imagine Parisian insomniacs of the late 1970s, wandering the streets before—lo!—these oversized, monumental spans moving at a crawl through the city would come into view. It would have been as if Paris itself had somehow been caught dreaming new buildings into existence at 2am.
The Space Shuttle in front of a doughnut shop; photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti, courtesy Los Angeles Times].
This same sort of awe at the mis-fit between an object’s size and its urban context arose a few years ago when a somewhat underwhelming art project by Michael Heizer was hauled, street by street, to LACMA; and it then happened again when the Space Shuttle made its slow way through Los Angeles back in October 2012.
I remember talking to architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne around that time, and he compared the Shuttle’s 2mph roll through the city to a Roman Triumph, as if Angelenos were celebrating an imperial event of extra-planetary importance, this grand object—this throne room—being paraded out in public for all to see.
It’s worth recalling how Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described the Triumph in an old interview with BLDGBLOG. “Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism,” she explained:
The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after—but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.
Moving the Space Shuttle—or, for that matter, Heizer’s rock—gave not just Los Angeles but the entire United States an unexpected “way of thinking about itself,” in Beard’s terms, not just of the city’s historical relationship with the U.S. space program but of the country’s larger, and not necessarily perpetual, impulse to explore beyond the planet.
[Image: The Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles; photo by Andrew Khouri, courtesy Los Angeles Times].
These sorts of mega-objects, transported at great expense across urban infrastructure, are what the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has described as “big things on the move.”
CLUI suggests that Heizer’s rock was “a bit like a religious procession, with acolytes in hard hats and safety-vest vestments walking alongside the sacred monolith, all lit up and flashing.” When the Space Shuttle hit the street, however, “Much was said about the irony of a craft that had circled the earth 4,700 times at speeds up to 17,000mph taking three days to get through L.A. traffic.”
As CLUI points out, Heizer’s rock and NASA’s Shuttle were both dwarfed by the actual largest “superload” to move through L.A.’s nighttime streets.
This third object “had little in the way of promotion,” they write; “in fact, the owners of it were hoping it would pass through the city as unnoticed as possible,” despite being “the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever pass through the streets of Los Angeles.”
The cargo was a steam generator from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the coast just south of Orange County, which was being hauled to a disposal site in Utah, 830 miles away.
Though it was junk, it was radioactive, so cutting it into smaller pieces would just generate more contaminated material. A custom superload truck was made, with a total weight for the truck and load totaling 1.6 million pounds. The generator was covered in thick paint so pieces would not flake off.
To be absolutely sure of its safety, “armed guards stayed with the truck all the time, especially when it was parked for the day by the side of the road and the rest of the crew were sleeping in motels.”
I mention all this after some photos were published this week in the Northwest Evening Mail, featuring huge, shrink-wrapped parts of a British Astute-class nuclear submarine being transported through the city of Barrow.
[Image: A shrink-wrapped section of a nuclear submarine; photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].
The newspaper warned that, while the “superstructure” made its sectioned way through the city, “car parking will be restricted.”
[Image: Photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].
In a sense, though, the sight of this dissected weapon of war is more artistic than an art project. A dream-like sequence of shrink-wrapped superstructures, abstract and white, channeling Christo or perhaps even the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, inches forward street by street, shutting down secondary roads and sidewalks while waiting to be assembled in an eventual future shape, somewhere further down the road.
(Spotted via @CovertShores).