Potsdamer Sea

[Image: From Kiessling’s Grosser Verkehrs-Plan von Berlin (1920).]

It’s funny to be back in Berlin, a city where I once thought I’d spend the rest of my life, first arriving here as a backpacker in 1998 and temporarily moving in with a woman 14 years older than me, who practiced Kabbalah and had twin dogs and who, when seeing that I had bought myself a portable typewriter because I was going through a William Burroughs phase, blessed it one night in her apartment near the synagogue in a ceremony with some sort of bronze sword. It’s almost literally unbelievable how long ago that was. More years have passed since I spent time in Berlin—supposedly to study German for grad school, but in reality organized entirely around going to Tresor—than I had been alive at the time.

Because I’m here again on a reporting trip, I was speaking yesterday evening with a former geophysicist who, when the Berlin Wall came down, found work doing site-remediation studies and heritage-mapping projects on land beneath the old path of the Wall. He was tasked with looking for environmental damage and unexploded ordnance, but also for older foundations and lost buildings, earlier versions of Berlin that might pose a structural threat to the city’s future or that needed to be recorded for cultural posterity.

Ironically, in a phase of my life I rarely think about, I wrote my graduate thesis on almost exactly this topic, focused specifically on Potsdamer Platz—once divided by the Wall—and the role of architectural drawings in communicating historical context. When I was first here, in 1998 into early 1999, Potsdamer Platz was still a titanic hole in the ground, an abyss flooded with groundwater, melted snow, and rain, a kind of maelström you could walk over on pedestrian bridges, where engineering firms were busy stabilizing the earth for what would become today’s corporate office parks.

As I told the former geophysicist last night, I remember hearing at the time that there were people down there, SCUBA diving in the floodwaters, performing geotechnical studies or welding rebar or looking for WWII bombs, I had no idea, but, whatever it was, their very existence took on an outsized imaginative role in my experience of the city. Berlin, destroyed by war, divided by architecture, where people SCUBA dive through an artificial sea at its broken center. It felt like a mandala, a cosmic diagram, with this inverted Mt. Meru at its heart, not an infinite mountain but a bottomless pit.

What was so interesting to me about Berlin at the time was that it felt like a triple-exposure photograph, the city’s future overlaid atop everything else in a Piranesian haze of unbuilt architecture, whole neighborhoods yet to be constructed, everything still possible, out of focus somehow. It was incoherent in an exhilaratingly literal sense. In Potsdamer Platz, what you thought was the surface of the Earth was actually a bridge; you were not standing on the Earth at all, or at least not on earth. It was the Anthropocene in miniature, a kind of masquerade, architecture pretending to be geology.

The more that was built, however, the more Berlin seemed to lose this inchoate appeal. The only people with the power to control the rebuilding process seemed to be automobile consortiums and international hotel groups, office-strategy consultants not wizards and ghosts or backpacking writers. Perhaps the city still feels like that to other people now—unfinished, splintered, jagged in a temporal sense, excitingly so, a city with its future still taking shape in the waves of an underground sea—but it seems to me that Berlin’s blur has been misfocused.

In any case, with the caveat that I am in Berlin this week for a very specific research project, so many people I’ve met have pointed to the fall of the Wall as an explosive moment for geophysical surveys in the East. Engineers were hired by the dozen to map, scan, and survey damaged ground left behind by a collapsed imperialist Empire, and the residues of history, its chemical spills and lost foundations, its military bunkers and archaeological remains, needed to be recorded. The ground itself was a subject of study, an historical medium. On top of that, new freeways were being built and expanded, heading east into Poland—and this, too, required geophysical surveys. The future of the region was, briefly, accessible only after looking down. The gateway to the future was terrestrial, a question of gravel and sand, forgotten basements and fallen walls.

The SCUBA divers of the Potsdamer Sea now feel like mascots of that time, dream figures submerged in the waves of a future their work enabled, swimming through historical murk with limited visibility and, air tanks draining, limited time. Their pit was soon filled, the hole annihilated, and the surface of the Earth—which was actually architecture—returned with amnesia.

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.

Molten Roads and Airbursts

[Image: Max Ernst, “Landscape with a view of the lake and chimeras” (1940), via Archive.]

While we’re on the subject of astronomical events leaving traces in our everyday world, here’s another story, this one from November: “an airburst over the Atacama Desert 12,000 years ago melted the ground into glass,” according to new research aimed at explaining why “twisted chunks of black and green glass” lie scattered all over Chile.

The airburst—likely an exploding comet—“probably generated strong winds that flung the glass as it formed,” giving the glass an unusual “folded look.” This “folded look” suggests that “the glass had been thrown around and rolled. It was basically kneaded like bread.”

Given that this was only 12,000 years ago, it’s not impossible that some of it was witnessed by human beings; either way, the immediate aftermath would have been astonishing to behold, a 50-mile line of molten sand, warped and roiling like the sea, forming spheres and waves, freezing and shattering, a road of glass disappearing with an eerie glow over the desert horizon.

In fact, imagine such an event occurring in, say, the Middle East around the same time, thus forming the basis for bizarre future folklore, legendarily strange Biblical scenes, tales of molten glass roads appearing in a flash from the sky.

(Max Ernst painting included here purely for illustrative effect. Circumstantially relevant: Brainglass.)

Home Star

This was all over the news back in October, but I am a sucker for stories like this, in which seeds of cosmic revelation are found hidden inside everyday materials, especially when those materials are architectural in form.

In this case, it was “the imprint of a rare solar storm” that left traces in the rings of trees cut into logs by Vikings and used to build cabins 1,000 years ago on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

The wood grain itself was an archive of solar radiance, a warped record of the heavens: “scientists using a new type of dating technique and taking a long-ago solar storm as their reference point have established that the settlement [known as L’Anse aux Meadows] was occupied in AD 1021—all by examining tree rings.”

[Image: Wood analyzed in the study described here; image by Petra Doeve, via The New York Times.]

While there is obviously more to say about the science behind this discovery—all of which you can read here—what interests me is simply the idea that astral events, cosmic storms, stellar weather, electromagnetic pulses from space, whatever you want to imagine, leave traces all around us. That in the depths of our buildings, in our walls and floors, even in the wooden dowels of mass-produced furniture, there can be evidence of immensely powerful and beautiful things, and I would like to remember to look for that again. It’s been a miserable couple of years.

[Image: Reverse of “Saint Jerome” (1494), Albrecht Dürer, courtesy National Gallery, London.]

In any case, just a few weeks before this news broke, Lapham’s Quarterly published a short piece, promoting a new episode of their podcast, with some unexpected relevance here. The following quote is a little ungainly taken out of context, but here you go: “‘Hidden round the back of Albrecht Dürer’s St. Jerome of 1494, one of his first paintings… is this enormous star,’ Philip Hoare writes in Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World. ‘You would have seen it only if you knew its secret: the galactic event going on, on the other side. Radiating orange-red rays, careering through the perpetual night. A thing of darkness created in light.’”

Hidden on the backs of famous paintings, in the beams of our attics, in the timbers of ancient homes, are galactic events, black stars, things more interesting than this world, burning, and I suppose depression is what happens when you no longer think it’s possible to find such details. When they become inaccessible to you, or when you believe the world’s supply of revelation has been permanently depleted.

(Related: Glitches in Spacetime, Frozen into the Built Environment, Astronomical imprints: forensics of the sun, and Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms.)

It’s been an unremittingly bleak year, a situation I almost certainly made worse for myself by drifting further and further away from a daily writing routine, but I figured I should open up the villain’s lair here and post again briefly, even if only to offer proof of life. So, hello! Hope you had a more rewarding year than I did, and that we all enjoy a better 2022.

Looming Matter With Light

“When light collides with other light, it can transform into particles of matter,” science writer Corey S. Powell posted on Twitter the other day. He was referring to recent evidence from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider that “pairs of electrons and positrons—particles of matter and antimatter—can be created directly by colliding very energetic photons.” In other words, the “conversion of energetic light into matter” might be physically achievable: you can create matter with light.

I am in no position to comment on the science of this beyond the sheer poetry of the description; if you want to learn more about the actual experiment, I’d strongly advise going to the source material, not to BLDGBLOG. But so many metaphors come to mind here—precipitation and snow; depositional 3D printing; shining looms of light, bringing matter into the cosmos.

Imagine an industrial printing facility of the far future whose only input is light. Factories of weird mirrored rooms where objects flash into existence one at a time, in a new manufacturing process extruding matter from illumination.

In any case, I was also reminded of a piece published in Nature back in 2011: “Moving mirrors make light from nothing.”

The hypothesis there was that a single mirror “moving through a vacuum at nearly the speed of light” could, through something called the Casimir force, actually generate photons—the mirror could create light. This was apparently given experimental support when “a shower of microwave photons [was] shaken loose from the vacuum” by a highly sensitive superconducting device known as a SQUID.

The scientist behind that experiment now “hopes to see a moving piece of metal generate detectable light from the vacuum,” as if farming light from nothingness, coaxing photons into appearing like seeds, shaking them loose from the void.

Mirrors moving through darkness at the speed of light can create light—the sheer poetry of this is just astonishing to me, like a statement from the Gnostic Gospels.

Anyway, now put these two experiments together: use a moving mirror to pull light from darkness, then collide that light back into itself to generate matter. You could design a kind of internal combustion engine made of moving mirrors, turning darkness into light into matter.

Again, though, read the original articles if you prefer science over speculation.

Until Proven Safe

[Image: Dressed in 21st-century personal protective equipment (PPE), I am standing next to Dr. Luigi Bertinato, wearing period plague doctor gear from the time of the Black Death, inside the library of the Querini Stampalia, Venice. Photo by Nicola Twilley.]

Long-time readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to hear of my interest in quarantine, a topic I’ve been posting and lecturing about since at least 2009. The Landscapes of Quarantine exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture, curated with Nicola Twilley back in 2010, was the beginning of a much larger project that we eventually returned to, several years ago, for a book on the subject.

Originally titled—and sold to our editor as—The Coming Quarantine, we had to change the book’s name when COVID-19 hit. Surreally, we ended up finishing a book about quarantine while in a state of medical detention—indeed, at one point late last spring, more than half the world’s human population was in some state of quarantine or lockdown.

Our book’s hypothesis and prediction was, in fact, that we would all be quarantining more in the future, not less, relying on this seemingly medieval tool of spatial isolation to protect ourselves from emerging diseases for which we had no natural immunity, no available vaccination, and no cure. Why quarantine? It is the use of space and time to overcome uncertainty, creating a buffer between ourselves and a potentially infectious other until that suspected threat can be proven safe.

[Image: An arch inside the abandoned lazaretto, or quarantine hospital, on Manoel Island, Malta; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine—the book we have been traveling for, reporting, and working on since summer 2016—finally comes out tomorrow, July 20th. I am unbelievably excited about this book, for millions of reasons. On one level, it combines so many of the long-running interests here on this blog, from quarantine itself to architectural ruins, mythology & horror, science fiction, space exploration, the Army Corps of Engineers, agricultural landscapes, strange animal diseases, extraordinary engineering controls, the ethical dangers of smart homes, even nuclear waste.

Having posted little to nothing about this book over the past few years—indeed, having posted almost nothing about COVID-19—it’s also immensely relieving to finally release this thing into the world.

[Image: Inside the lazaretto at Ancona, Italy; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

Some highlights that I think would appeal to BLDGBLOG readers include Nicky’s and my travelogue around the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas, exploring ruined lazarettos in the footsteps of 18th-century British prison reformer—and quarantine critic—John Howard. We climbed locked fences into ruins on Malta, took a night ship across the Adriatic to disembark near the extraordinary pentagonal lazaretto in Ancona, and we got to tour the then-closed Lazzaretto Nuovo in Venice, Italy, with the local man intent on preserving it. (His original plan, he admitted, was to turn the island into a martial arts dojo.)

In other parts of the book, we sit down with the head of the Disinfected Mail Study Circle, based in North London. That group collects rare pieces of mail sent to and from sites of quarantine; like characters in a Thomas Pynchon novel, their postal archaeology has revealed previously forgotten outbreaks and odd geopolitical details about the formation of international borders.

We also visited the first federal quarantine facility, then under construction, in the United States in more than a hundred years, mere months before COVID-19, and we spoke with the former head of the Army Corps of Engineers about plans for retrofitting hotels, convention centers, and stadiums, as well as the prospect of pop-up home quarantine kits in the near-future. We visited the Ebola high-level isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London—where Nicky climbed inside.

[Image: Nicola Twilley inside the high-level isolation unit’s Trexler Ebola system; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

In the latter half of the book—primarily dedicated to nonhuman quarantine, or quarantine applied to the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms, capped off by a look at “planetary protection” and the risk of alien microbes—we were able to see a brand-new high-level animal-disease research lab in the middle of U.S. cattle country. This is the nation’s replacement for the aging facility on Plum Island, subject of countless conspiracy theories.

Elsewhere, we went deep into WIPP—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, to see nuclear waste being buried and isolated from the Earth’s biosphere for a federally-mandated time periods of at least 100,000 years. We got to see the Apollo moon rocks and learn about the history of lunar quarantine, and even sat down with two of NASA’s Planetary Protection Officers—and their counterpart at the European Space Agency—to discuss the quarantine challenge of bringing Mars geology back to Earth. Along the way, we got to see Perseverance, the Mars rover, before its long (and successful) journey to Mars.

[Image: Walking inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a salt mine 2,150 feet below the surface of the Earth, where the United States is permanently burying nuclear waste; photo by Nicola Twilley.]

Reporting the book also led us to a series of high-level pandemic simulations over the course of several years—all the way up to the incredible experience of sitting in on a simulation in October 2019, the premise of which was a global outbreak of a novel coronavirus. As we sat there, listening to government figures role-play what they would do, the very earliest cases of COVID-19 were likely circulating in China, undetected.

We also look at the limits of mathematical modeling, the encroachment of algorithms and Big Data into the future of quarantine, and the dystopian potential of involuntary medical isolation automatically enforced by today’s smart homes.

And, through all of that, one of our biggest coups, I think, was recording hours of interviews with the head of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine, visiting him in his office at the CDC and recording anguished, on-the-record discussions during the Trump Administration about the nation’s COVID-19 response.

A great way to get a flavor of the book would be to check out excerpts published in WIRED and The Guardian—and, tomorrow morning, The Atlantic—or to listen to the Gastropod episode we did on quarantine, agriculture, and threats to the world’s chocolate supply.

[Image: Until Proven Safe, with a cover design by Alex Merto.]

If you’re tempted, you can order a copy from Bookshop, Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookshop, etc. etc.

Note: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon and Bookshop from which I might draw a small percentage of any book sales.

House on the Border

There’s a great detail in a recent news story about cross-border smuggling in a small northern township, where upstate New York meets Quebec. Some homes in Dundee straddle the international border between the U.S. and Canada (recalling the marbled, enclave-rich border town of Baarle-Hertog or even Derby Line, Vermont).

In a report about a man arrested for gun-running, Radio-Canada refers to this man’s house as a “maison sur la frontière,” or house on the border: “located on Beaver Road, the house can be found in both Canada and the United States” (translating from French).

Indeed, although I cannot guarantee this is the right place, you can see a structure on Google Maps at the end of Beaver Road (Chemin Beaver) that sits astride the international border.

[Image: Via Google Maps.]

“Due to the presence of several such properties in Dundee,” the article continues, “this special location makes this municipality a historically recognized location for contraband, especially alcohol smuggling during the Prohibition era. It is therefore not new that properties along the border in this area have come under increased surveillance by the RCMP, which keeps an eye on real estate transactions and activities in the area.”

You take something in through the American side and just slide it across into Canada, crossing the border silently in the comfort of your own home.

As designer Daniel Benneworth-Gray joked on Twitter, residents could simply put everything on Lazy Susans “in case there’s a raid”: rotating furniture spun from one jurisdiction to the next in a house full of cross-border cupboards, compartments, and shelves, all connected to wheels, ropes, and pulleys, the whole place a kind of pinball machine through which illegal objects continually leave and re-enter the country.

Impact Gardening

Impact gardening” is the evocative term used to describe surface disturbance—and potential biological effects—caused by the crashing of extraterrestrial objects into planetary bodies.

[Image: The surface of Europa, including “the kind of areas churned by impact gardening.”]

These impacts can “churn” or, in effect, plow the surface, exposing previously buried materials to solar radiation—which, in turn, can break down and even sterilize any life thriving there—but it can also push potential organic matter “downward, where it could mix with the subsurface,” almost like planting seeds, according to a short feature published today by NASA.

“If we hope to find pristine, chemical biosignatures,” planetary researcher Emily Costello explained to NASA, “we will have to look below the zone where impacts have been gardening.”

Distant planetary landscapes, gardened by impacts.

Read more over at NASA—I’m honestly just posting this for the poetry of the phrase impact gardening

(Somewhat related: Life on the Subsurface: An Interview with Penny Boston.)

Fractalize Me

The genes that cause Romanesco, a kind of cauliflower, to grow in a fractal pattern have been identified. Researchers were subsequently able to manipulate one of those genes and get it to function inside another plant—thale cress—producing fractal blooms.

The language used to describe this is interesting in its own right—a vocabulary of memory, transience, perturbation, and abandoned flowering.

In the words of the researchers’ abstract, “we found that curd self-similarity arises because the meristems fail to form flowers but keep the ‘memory’ of their transient passage in a floral state. Additional mutations affecting meristem growth can induce the production of conical structures reminiscent of the conspicuous fractal Romanesco shape. This study reveals how fractal-like forms may emerge from the combination of key, defined perturbations of floral developmental programs and growth dynamics.”

It’s the fact that this gene appears to function in other plants, though, that is blowing my mind. Give this technique another ten or twenty years, and the resulting experiments—and the subsequent landscapes—seem endless, from gardens of infinitely self-similar roses and orchids to forests populated by bubbling forms of fractal pines, roiling oaks, and ivies.

Until, of course, the gene inevitably escapes, going mobile, infecting insects and animals, producing confused anatomies in fractal landscapes, like minor creatures in a Jeff VanderMeer novel, before breaching the human genome, and oracular multicephalous children are born, their bodies transitioning through monstrosities of self-reminiscence and new limbs, mythological, infinitely incomplete, cursed with endless becoming.

In any case, read more over at ScienceNews, and check out the actual paper at Science.

Feathered Friends

After the previous post, I was interested to see a short piece over at The New Yorker about basically the same idea—of spotting invasive species in the backgrounds of films and television shows, but, there, applied much more broadly to art history.

The article, by Rebecca Mead, looks at the unexpected presence of a cockatoo in an image by Italian Renaissance-era painter Andrea Mantegna, as the bird’s “native habitat is restricted to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines.” How did it get to 15th-century Italy—and more specifically, Mead asks, “what did the bird’s presence reveal about the connections between an Italian city and distant forests that lay beyond the world known to Europeans?”

[Image: A cockatoo in the background of Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” (1496), via Wikimedia.]

It’s a fun read, and includes a final archival detail I’ll mention briefly—I am particularly obsessed with rare finds in archives, to be honest, and this is a good one. It turns out that Mantegna’s painting was not the first depiction of a cockatoo in European art history. Instead, a manuscript hidden away in a Vatican library included an even earlier representation, made in the mid-1200s. Art history as forensic ecology.

Little creatures popping up in paintings and films, in engravings and TV shows, their presence there indicating larger tides of trade or climate change, acting as a strange barometer of the natural world.

(Related: Check the Sonic.)