[Image: "The northernmost, barren reaches" of Beijing's 6th Ring Road. From Wikipedia].
In a recent interview with Ballardian.com, British author Iain Sinclair mentions that he hopes to begin a project called Beijing Orbital:
New Scientist reports that the cooling towers of nuclear power plants "could be evolutionary hotspots for new respiratory diseases."
It's architecture as a stimulus for Darwinian novelty.
[Image: Didcot power station; from Wikipedia].
The "warm, wet conditions" inside the towers have been found to host "several previously unknown strains of bacteria, including some that were similar to Legionella pneumophila, the cause of legionnaires' disease." The scientist behind this discovery warns that cooling towers are thus a source of pathogenic "aerosols" – invisible germ-clouds blowing out from their architectural origins to infect the lungs of animals nearby.
This nuclear landscape of concrete hyperboloids belching steam, and virulent microbes, into the sky should therefore "be monitored for emerging pathogens." Super-germs. Radioactive pneumonia.
Sci-fi novelists, heads up: a new plot beckons.
Between 1963 and 1965, the U.S Army Permafrost Tunnel was dug "entirely within frozen ground on the north slope of Hill 456 near Fox, Alaska."
"Initial research" at the site "focused on developing new mining and tunneling methods for building underground facilities and foundations in permafrost. Special emphasis was given to tunnel behavior in permafrost, including deformation, natural air flow, feasible types of ventilation and thermal regime."
The tunnel is now maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory – whose work "includes an amazing array of topic areas, including engineering and technology in cold regions, seismic-acoustic physics, tools for military combat and survival in cold weather, and many others."
If you're hoping to explore the place in person, however, beware that the tunnel's structure "requires a freezer unit" in order to survive the Alaskan summer – lest the whole place spontaneously liquify...
Meanwhile, soon to be discovered: a whole city of post-military ice caves, carved throughout the Alaskan peninsula and populated entirely by sightless humanoids – who are victims of an Army gene experiment gone awry.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson as a hot-headed spelunker who discovers his own father living nude in the deepest tunnel. "Enough is enough!" Jackson yells. "I have had it with my motherfuckin' father living in this motherfuckin' cave!"
In an old (1938) issue of Modern Mechanix, we read how an unnamed "French engineer" once proposed, "as a solution to the problem of locating an airport in the heart of any big city, a design for a long orientable runway, which would be mounted on circular tracks atop tall buildings." This megalithic, concrete, aerospatial earth machine would "orient" itself along specific air routes, hurling planes aloft over the rooftops of the city.
Though Modern Mechanix tags the idea with both "aviation" and "impractical," clearly the editors have not read this fascinatingly absurd, and much less practical, conspiracy theory about Denver International Airport.
"What on earth is going on at Denver International Airport?" the website asks. "Or should we be asking what is going on UNDERGROUND there?" According to the conspiracist's own "guerrilla" reportage:
• There is a lot of "secret society" symbology at the airport, an AWFUL lot in fact
• The symbolism apparent in the layout of the new Denver airport, some feel, says that it may be a control center for world control
In any case, another (much more fascinating) article about urban airports of the future came out last month in Fast Company. There we read about the "rise of the aerotropolis":
Kasarda points out that an "invisible plexus of air-cargo networks" allows globalization to function. This is space as re-defined by corporate proximity, international accessibility, and cargo transport logistics:
Instead, we read, Hong Kong is now "premising its entire world-trade strategy on the primacy of the airport." Indeed, there is already "a mini-city stationed on a nearby island for [the airport's] 45,000 workers" – not to mention SkyCity, "a complex of office towers, convention centers, and hotels" for visiting CEOs and their consultant-class co-travelers.
In Beijing, "construction has begun on Beijing Capital Airport City, a $12 billion master-planned city of 400,000, and a massive airport expansion is coming to the city of Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta. Thirty-three miles to the south of Seoul, New Songdo City, billed as the most ambitious privately financed project in history, is taking shape in the Yellow Sea: The metropolis of 350,000 people, many of them expatriates living and working on-site for multinationals, is being built on a man-made peninsula the size of Boston."
[Images: New Songdo City; courtesy Kohn Pederson Fox. New Songdo City was covered a long time ago on BLDGBLOG at the very end of this post].
Dubai, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Suvarnabhumi – the latter an airport-city in Thailand "slated to become a self-contained province governed by the prime minister himself" – everywhere, we're led to believe, will soon turn in to an aerotropolis. It is the next phase of urban anthropological history.
This new land use model, after all, is where we will find the "hotels, merchandise marts, [and] convention centers," the "free-trade zones, factories, warehouses, and logistics hubs," the "giant clusters of apartment towers and bungalows," within which expat middle managers and their armies of business process consultants will both work and dwell. It is a heroic landscape through which the aero-globalized networks of world trade now pass – a new, post-urban "ecosystem" consisting entirey of "warehouses, trucking firms, factories, and offices," all "laboring in the shadow of the airport."
And if my phrase heroic landscape sounds hyperbolic, Fast Company refers to these aerotropoli as nothing less than "the regional outposts of titans."
Finally, the article returns to Kasarda:
What future Odyssey might be written in this archipelago of aerotropoli? From airport to airport, flying round the world, never seeming to leave one place... thus never arriving.
The Ulyssesian dilemma, or: self-exile in an age of aeromodernism.
(Thanks to Divided Societies for pointing out the Modern Mechanix link; and to things magazine, where the aerotropolis article was originally spotted. More aero-dystopian links can be found at Brand Avenue, meanwhile, and one of John Kasarda's own papers on the rise of aerotropoli can be read here).
[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].
In the current issue of Cabinet Magazine, Jackie Dee Grom introduces us to ventifacts, or "geologic formations shaped by the forces of wind."
Jackie was a member of the 2004 National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research project in Antarctica, during which she took beautiful photographs of ventifactual geology – three of which were reproduced in Cabinet. (These are my own scans).
"The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica," she writes, "are home to one of the most extreme environments in the world – a polar desert blasted by ferocious winds, deprived of all but minimal rain, and beset by a mean annual temperature of negative twenty degrees Celsius." It is there, in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, that "gravity-driven winds pour off the high polar plateau, attaining speeds of up to two hundred kilometers per hour. In the grip of these aeolian forces, sand and small pebbles hurl through the air, smashing into the volcanic rocks that have fallen from the valley walls, slowly prying individual crystals from their hold, and sculpting natural masterworks over thousands of years. The multi-directional winds in this eerie and isolated wasteland create ventifacts of an exceptional nature, gouged with pits and decorated with flowing flutes and arching curves."
[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].
In his recent book Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent, landscape theorist and travel writer of extreme natural environments William Fox describes similar such ventifacts as having been "completely hollowed out by the wind into fantastic eggshell-thin shapes." The "cavernous weathering" of multi-directional Antarctic winds – as fast as hurricanes, and filled with geologic debris – can "reduce a granite boulder the size of a couch into sand within 100,000 years."
A part of me, however, can't help but re-imagine these weird and violent geologies as musical instruments in the making. You hear them before you see them, as they scream with polar tempests.
A common theme on BLDGBLOG is the idea that natural landscapes could be transformed over time into monumental sound-generation machines. I've often thought it would be well worth the effort, for instance, if – in the same way that Rome has hundreds of free public fountains to fill the water bottles of thirsty tourists – London could introduce a series of audio listening posts: iPod-friendly masts anchored like totem poles throughout the city, in Trafalgar Square, Newington Green, the nave of St. Pancras Old Church, outside the Millennium Dome. You show up with your headphones, plug them in – and the groaning, amplified, melancholic howl of church foundations and over-used roadways – the city's subterranean soundtrack, reverbed twenty-four hours a day through contact mics into the headsets of greater London – greets you in tectonic surround-sound. London Orbital, soundtracking itself in automotive drones that last whole seasons at a time.
In any case, looking at photos of ventifacts I'm led to wonder if the entirety of Antarctica could slowly erode over millions of years into a musical instrument the size of a continent. The entire Transantarctic Range carved into flutes and oboes, frigid columns of air blasting like Biblical trumpets – earth tubas – into the sky. The B-flat Range. Somewhere between a Futurist noise-symphony and a Rube Goldberg device made of well-layered bedrock.
Where the design of musical instruments and landscape architecture collide.
[Image: From a truly spectacular collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].
Flocks of birds in Patagonia hear the valleys rumble, choked and vibrating with every inland storm, atonal chords blaring like fog horns for a thousand of miles. Valve Mountains. Global wind systems change, coiling through hundreds of miles of ventifactual canyons and coming out the other end, turned round upon themselves, playing that Antarctic instrument till it's eroded beneath the sea.
In his ultimately disappointing but still wildly imaginative novella, At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft writes about a small Antarctic expeditionary team that stumbles upon an alien city deep in the continent's most remote glacial valleys. It is a city "of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws." Its largest structures are "sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks." Even better, "[a]ll of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism."
More relevant to this post, of course, Lovecraft describes how the continent's "barren" and "grotesque" landscape – as unearthly as it is inhuman – interacted with the polar wind:
[Image: Again, from the fantastic collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].
[Related (and quite similar) posts: Super Reef and London Instrument – plus many more in the archive... And for something else that's also howling an eternal B-flat: "Astronomers in England have discovered a singing black hole in a distant cluster of galaxies. In the process of listening in, the team of astronomers not only heard the lowest sound waves from an object in the Universe ever detected by humans" – but they've discovered that it's singing, yes, B-flat].
[Image: USGS Map of southern California earthquakes; huge version also available].
In less than one month, BLDGBLOG will have picked up and moved itself to sunny Los Angeles, land of freeways and plate tectonics, Philip K. Dick and gang warfare, bikinis and Jurassic technology; city of tar pits and the porn industry, Joshua trees and desert gardens, Scientology and cinema – and so on. Mike Davis. The Italian Job. Anonymity and desert apocalypse. Watts Towers.
In any case, if anyone out there reads BLDGBLOG – any advice on where to live, what to do, who to know...? Better yet, are you in the real estate business and you just happen to have the perfect 2-bedroom apartment, with office space, eagerly waiting to be rented in the ideal neighborhood – and it's so secret that even Curbed LA doesn't know about it yet? For that matter, are you preparing to leave the country for several months and you live in Beverly Hills and you need an architecturally enthusiastic man and his delightful wife to water your plants till you get back? And use your pool for you and save the dinner plates from earthquakes...? Or perhaps you are newly stricken with the philanthropy bug, so you want to donate a well-lit room with bookshelves in which BLDGBLOG can upload itself in the off-hours, meditating on Californian socio-spatiality?
[Image: Octopus L.A. For the more satellite-inclined, check out Visible Earth's 3.1MB image of Los Angeles from space. Soon you'll see BLDGBLOG driving around somewhere].
If so – or if you just know a good bar to regularize, or you want to organize deep desert geology hikes, or you want to put together a talk20-like event – leave a comment or be in touch or do neither, but keep reading BLDGBLOG knowing that we'll soon be neighbors.
Until that western arrival comes, posting will continue apace – although you may see a lot more Quick list-style posts as general busy-ness seems to be increasing by the day.
[Image: One more image, this time of the Netherlands (again, courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory). "Along the southern coast of the Netherlands," EO explains, "sediment-laden rivers have created a massive delta of islands and waterways in the gaps between the coastal dunes." Also available in a visually-stunning 3.2MB version. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Delta force].
[Image: "PlanetSpace's Silver Dart spacecraft could one day launch space tourists into orbit from a Nova Scotia spaceport and land 45 minutes later in Sydney, Australia." New Scientist Space].
Canada's first spaceport will soon be under construction – privately owned and operated: "The province of Nova Scotia has signed an agreement setting aside 300 acres of government-owned land for US-Canadian private space firm PlanetSpace to construct a rocket launching facility." The company "hopes to develop a space tourism business, ferrying customers into space in suborbital and eventually orbital flights. The first suborbital launch should occur "by late 2008 or early 2009."
[Image: PlanetSpace's "suborbital crew vehicle." New Scientist Space].
"As for environmental concerns, Geoff Sheerin, CEO of PlanetSpace, says the company has chosen to use ethyl alcohol fuel for its rockets because it is environmentally friendly. 'Our fuel comes from corn,' Sheering told New Scientist. 'Even if it gets in the water, it dissipates very quickly with no damage to the environment. It's a green rocket, so to speak.'"
Speaking of green, you can now unpack a park over at Inhabitat: "It's a mobile trailer that unfolds into an elevated park replete with a fire circle and wildflowers."
[Image: Untitled (Caravan 2) by Kevin van Braak. Via Inhabitat].
I've ordered 149,000 of them. I am starting a fiefdom in the Yucatan.
Meanwhile, "Hollywood-style" security systems are now ready for installation in your very own home; they won't protect you, but they will use eye-catching red lasers meandering back and forth across the room in unpredictable patterns to make your house look really cool (and thus worth breaking into). More here.
Then there's the inadvertant pruning effects of hurricanes Rita and Katrina – or the hurricane as landscape architect: "The Chinese tallow tree is invading the US Gulf coast forests, replacing the region's native hardwoods. The tree's advance is a direct consequence of the ecological disruption caused by hurricanes Rita and Katrina." For a variety of reasons, I was fascinated to read that the tallow tree is "an ornamental species introduced by Benjamin Franklin in 1772." It can "quickly grow to 10 metres and is resilient to many pests." Whoops.
[Image: Sound mirrors, England, from this site].
The Athanasius Kircher Society revisits England's sound mirrors: wartime acoustic reflectors used to amplify the sounds of distant Nazi aircraft. For a bit more on the sadly derelict structures, see earlier on BLDGBLOG – or visit The Sound Mirrors Project.
Your inner earth-catastrophist should be sweating with glee: "More than half of the world's major forests will be lost if global temperatures rise by an average of 3ºC or more by the end of the century," the Guardian reports. "Extreme floods, forest fires and droughts will also become more common over the next 200 years as global temperatures rise." That's in addition to the Guardian's earlier prediction that "floods, malaria, shark attacks, sweltering summers and worsening drought" will all become more common. Shark attacks? It seems higher temperatures "will confuse wildlife." The Guardian continues, warning elsewhere that the UK will soon become a "tinderbox" in which whole peatlands may go up in flames, radically accelerating climate change due to the rapid release of stored carbon.
With climate change on the brain, it's never too late to take another look at Land+Living's February 2006 article about sustainable car parks in Los Angeles – including some wonderfully misguided comments at the end. The actual project under question is a proposal for re-landscaping the surface parking lots of L.A., using, for instance, embedded solar power generators and permeable paving.
[Image: From Land+Living].
Finally, the Museum of Ephemerata, in Austin, TX, has released their Illustrated Retrospective of Machines (available as a PDF).
[Image: From Scott Webel's and Jen Hirt's Museum of Ephemerata].
The Retrospective, originally intended as a guide to the Museum's now-closed machines show, gleefully participates in that under-appreciated genre of the guide to temporary collections of objects. Walter Benjamin would be proud.
From the text: "Everywhere around us the Machines clank, whir, and buzz, producing ultra-modern objects alongside archaic effluvia, vast landfills of trash – and vast, trashed landscapes. Inside two centuries, they have infiltrated every social nook and bodily cranny. They service and are serviced... What is this massive force in natural history? Just what are the Machines?" Read further and learn about the Moonlight Towers, Orgone Accumulators and Dreamachines, and even a replica UFO – then drive to Texas and visit the museum in person.
One more thing: speaking of machines, spherical micro-robots may one day explore Mars: "The micro-robots could land on the surface of another planet arranged in a capsule like eggs in a carton. Or they could be dropped onto the planet by a balloon floating above the surface. They would move by rolling and bouncing, powered by artificial muscles that alter their overall shape."
[Image: Spherical micro-robots. From New Scientist Space].
The robots "would each be a few centimetres in diameter, about 100 grams in weight, and would be able to jump about 1.5 metres in a single bound, travelling 50 kilometres over their lifetimes." They would be particularly useful in extraterrestrial spelunking: "the micro-robots could position themselves to enable communications from deep within a cave. Each one would act as a relay, passing messages back to a central unit. Fifty micro-robots lined up in this manner could theoretically explore a cavern a kilometre deep."
We should therefore send them to Titan, one of Saturn's moons – because it "may be riddled with caves... presumably carved out by the methane rain that is thought to fall on Titan."
"Plug up the Hudson river at both ends of Manhattan... divert that body of water into the Harlem river so that it might flow out into the East river and down to the Atlantic ocean... pump out the water from the area of the Hudson which has been dammed off… fill in that space... ultimately connecting the Island of Manhattan with the mainland of New Jersey... and you have the world’s eighth wonder – the reconstruction of Manhattan!"
No, it's not Pruned's Alex Trevi – yesterday's Yahoo! Pick of the Day – talking in his sleep; it's an old jewel of an urban plan by Norman Sper, re-discovered several months ago by Modern Mechanix.
Sper intended for the Hudson in-fill "to solve New York City’s traffic and housing problems, which are threatening to devour the city’s civilization like a Frankenstein monster" – and this was in 1934.
Manhattan would no longer be an island.
Sper's ideas went "still further. No use waiting, he says, until the entire area is filled in before starting underground improvements. Build your tunnels, conduits, mail and automobile tubes, and other subterranean passages indispensable to comfort in the biggest city in the universe as you go along. Do it in the process of filling the basin left by the drawing off of the water."
Quoting at length:
(Via designboom, via Coudal).
[Image: From Real Estate – 100 Aerial Drawings by Heman Chong].
For his project Real Estate – 100 Aerial Drawings, artist Heman Chong "collected satellite pictures of Singapore." He then "traced out" one hundred buildings "from a bird's-eye view" (or satellite's-eye view), mounting the images in red on white to match the colors of Singapore's flag.
The result is architectural form abstracted from its terrestrial setting, turned into nothing but shape. Each image even vaguely resembles some alien craft out of Space Invaders – a game whose title is an apt metaphor for real estate development as such.
[Images: From Real Estate – 100 Aerial Drawings by Heman Chong].
Japanese sound artist Toru Yamanaka then composed five really nice little soundtracks for the project's website; each soundtrack loops after roughly a minute (or so), and the first three, in my opinion, are the best. Melancholic machine-drones and urban noise intersecting.
The buildings range from structural archipelagos scattered across large urban sites –
[Image: From Real Estate – 100 Aerial Drawings by Heman Chong].
– to perfectly Euclidean shapes; some even look like corporate logos –
[Image: From Real Estate – 100 Aerial Drawings by Heman Chong].
– emblazoned on the planet, as if some firm would design their HQ specifically to be viewed by satellite. Future facades, in the age of Google Earth.
(A brief interview with Heman Chong here; and thanks to Melissa for the tip!)
[Image: freezone, by Stanza. According to the project brief, "each unit allows for peace and quiet inside an information free zone." It's "the holiday destination of the future." You can't be spammed, virused, phoned, emailed, tracked – aside from the fact that your location is rather public – or RFID'd, etc. You could be RPG'd on the other hand... It's secession from the dataworld, via utopian architecture. More projects, including velodrone, where traffic jams "trigger audio visual light displays of generative music." (Spotted at WMMNA)].
[Images: Raytheon's flying antenna-blimp (via Defense Tech), and an "11.2-kilometer tunnel [being dug] through a mountain more than 2,400 meters high in Central Ecuador"/ENR].
Raytheon is working on "a radar antenna that spans the length of a football field." Even better, it flies: "The airship, remaining essentially motionless, could hover for long periods above the jet stream at altitudes of 65,000 to 70,000 feet, with the antenna transmitting on UHF and X-band."
Going in the opposite direction, a German firm is drilling one of the deepest tunnels in the world – though it is also one of the highest. The tunnel is simultaneously "under more than 900 meters of earth" and "more than 2,400 meters high," passing through the mountains of central Ecuador. As Engineering News-Record reports, the geology is immensely complicated there and the tunnel has already collapsed twice; it is part of a much larger hydroelectric power scheme for the Ecuadorian Andes.
Fascinatingly, to secure loose rubble inside the tunnel – including cracks in the walls and ceiling – the project engineers "inject" the mountain "with resins and foam to consolidate the mass and stabilize it.”
So what new veins of weird geology will Andean hikers stumble upon in a few ten million years...?
[Image: The tunnel's route/ENR].
Another tunnel back in the news is NYC's City Tunnel No. 3, explored several months ago on BLDGBLOG, and photographed beautifully by Stanley Greenberg.
[Image: City Tunnel no. 3; photo by Sewell Chan/New York Times].
Meanwhile, Japan is working on a 30-year weather forecast via the Earth Simulator – not an Amsterdam-based performance artist but one of the world's fastest supercomputers. The Earth Simulator "occupies a warehouse the size of four tennis courts in Tokyo," and scientists want to use it "to map the routes taken by typhoons, heatwaves and droughts, and potentially spare millions from death and disease."
Then there's this near-perfectly arranged photograph – of GWB speaking on an empty airport tarmac – which rewards sustained analysis. The transnationally geometric infrastructure of power:
[Image: From the NYTimes – though I now can't find the article].
On the other hand, here is the geometry of war:
[Image: A geometrical town survey; courtesy Museum of the History of Science. (Via)].
Finally, as this was meant to be a quick list... 1) The earth's volcanoes are singing: "High-powered computers are being used to convert seismic readings from Mount Etna in Sicily and Tungurahua in Ecuador into audible rumbles, roars, beeps, and even piano music. The technique, known as 'sonification', is used to help people detect patterns in complex data." 2) The United States is being genetically en-golf-coursed by "creeping bentgrass," a genetically-modified grass immune to commercial pesticides; it was designed to make golf courses easier to maintain and more lush underfoot. Now it will destroy you. 3) The unexpectedly impressive landscape architecture firm EDAW wants the Los Angeles River to include "a Class I bicycle path in and along the Arroyo Seco Channel between the communities of Highland Park and Cypress Park." EDAW's Gulf Coast Mapping Study is also well worth a look (here's a PDF).
[Image: "The red areas, including New Orleans, lie less than four feet above sea level and could be threatened by storm surges, flooding , and rising sea levels." Courtesy EDAW].
4) This is great – Dennis Dollens uses "Bio-observation and Software Growth as an approach to conceptualize and demonstrate growing architectural elements such as canopies and columns." Via WorldChanging. 5) This is ridiculous.
(Earlier: Quick list 1).
For a variety of reasons, I found myself re-reading an interview I published on Archinect a few months ago with photographer David Maisel – and I really am so enamored with Maisel's work, and so interested in almost everything he has to say, that I thought I'd just post a quick reminder here for anyone who may have missed the interview when it first went up. At the very least, the images are stunning – but Maisel himself is also a thoughtful, funny, remarkably perceptive guy, so the interview itself, I think, justifies a second look.
Here, then, are some teasers, including images and quoted excerpts. If your interest is piqued: here's the actual interview.
[Image: David Maisel, from The Lake Project].
Maisel is perhaps best-known for his aerial photographs of Owens Lake, California. As cinephiles will no doubt remember, Owens Lake was drained in the early 20th century to water the lawns of suburban Los Angeles (a notorious act of hydrological theft that found its way into American mythology through Roman Polanski's film Chinatown). Owens Lake is now a Dantean wasteland, one of the most toxic sites in North America:
From the interview:
[Images: David Maisel, from The Lake Project].
The rest of our conversation covers Californian hydropolitics, the line between architecture and photography, "replicant" landscapes, the dusty fate of human remains, Iceland, The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Mars rovers, 9/11, and the aesthetic power of sterility.
(Note: To read more about Ballard's The Drowned World, see BLDGBLOG's first post of 2006: Silt).
[Image: Kazys Varnelis].
In July 2006, Columbia University announced that Kazys Varnelis would both found and direct a new Network Architecture Lab – or NetLab – at the school. The NetLab will be part of Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and it will open its doors only a few weeks from now, in September 2006.
For the past five years, Varnelis has worked with Robert Sumrell as AUDC, a "non-profit architectural collective" that "specializes in research as a form of practice." He has also taught at SCI-Arc; been a founding faculty member at the University of Limerick's new School of Architecture; and served as a research fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication.
Combining the intellectual energy of AUDC with the institutional resources of a university setting, the Network Architecture Lab will act, according to its recent press release, as:
Specifically, the Network Architecture Lab investigates the impact of computation and communications on architecture and urbanism. What opportunities do programming, telematics, and new media offer architecture? How does the network city affect the building?
BLDGBLOG: For the last decade you’ve been teaching and working amidst two very different urban geographies: on the one hand, there’s the acentric, automotive sprawl of greater Los Angeles; on the other, the pub-saturated city core of Limerick, Ireland. To what extent have these geographic and spatial juxtapositions influenced your research interests?
Varnelis: Of course, the conditions I’ve lived in have influenced my work. Until moving to Los Angeles, I had studied at Cornell, for instance, where my focus was 1970s architecture. I couldn’t help but become interested in the posturban condition given my move to Los Angeles.
As for the difference between L.A. and Limerick, perversely, the condition you describe is actually reversed. Los Angeles is done sprawling and is increasingly densifying, while Ireland is in the midst of an explosion in sprawl the likes of which the country’s never seen. One-third of the Republic’s housing has been built since 1990. It must be what Orange County, circa 1970, was like, McMansions popping up all over the place. If the US has the myth of a cabin on the frontier, the Irish have the myth of a farmhouse in the emerald country. Moreover, with the exception of Dublin and its phenomenal growth, the Irish seem to subscribe to the idea that city and town cores are to be abandoned for houses in the countryside. It’s very much an “Ecology of Fear.” Limerick City, for example, is called Stab City and shunned, while the area around it fills with nightmarish housing estates and shopping centers for the bourgeoisie. The Irish now drive more per capita than Americans do – and they’re graced with some of the worst congestion and pollution in Europe as a result. It’s remarkable how the country is just repeating the mistakes the US made so many years ago.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is demonstrating what the future of this condition will be: a Tokyo-like horizontal sprawl that is nevertheless hyperdense, incredibly expensive, and – being thoroughly privatized – extremely difficult to intervene into.
[Image: Tract housing in suburban Ireland; Kazys Varnelis].
BLDGBLOG: Of course, you’re now leaving L.A. for New York.
Varnelis: That’s right. To be sure, the move is partly opportunistic. Columbia University has given me an incredible opportunity to found the Network Architecture Lab, a research center for investigating the impact of recent changes in telecommunications and computation on architecture and urbanism. Such opportunities don’t appear everyday, and it’s hard to imagine being able to find the institutional support for such a lab in L.A., where discussion seems to be fixated on formal issues.
At the same time, though, there is a political weight to the move east. It seems more sane, not to mention sustainable, to base myself in the greater New York area than to buy a house in L.A. While L.A. is always evolving, the things that really interest me here have concluded: the urban recovery is done, the mad building boom is at its end, and the city is on the tipping point toward a long period of stasis. My sense is that New York – and the northeastern seaboard as a whole – now offers a more interesting urban condition. A few years ago, a lot of people were moving to L.A. from New York; but, now, many of the most interesting people I’ve worked with are heading in the other direction. This suggests to me that a kind of generational project has ended here, that something has concluded, and that the new projects and opportunities are opening up in New York.
One point worth noting is that I’ll be living in a town in New Jersey, which is as far from Penn Station as Park Slope is – but it's more intriguing… not to mention more affordable. This spooks many New Yorkers, particularly my friends in Brooklyn; but that, to me, seems all the more reason to go, to continue exploring the field urbanism of the region.
BLDGBLOG: Could you elaborate a bit on your press release, then, and explain what exactly you’ll be doing in New York? What’s the background for the Network Architecture Lab, for instance, and with whom at Columbia will you be working?
Varnelis: Under Mark Wigley’s deanship a new way of thinking about the role of the architecture school has emerged at Columbia. A number of labs are being developed there to serve as an interface between the school and the rest of the world – places where the school can undertake projects involving people both inside and outside the school, where a new kind of experimentation can develop.
This is a natural model of research in other fields – such as engineering and science – and it’s not merely an academic fashion: architectural offices are increasingly undertaking research of their own – into culture, into technology, into ecological questions, into materials, into form. At Columbia, the research labs address these issues, and the department has filled each one with the most interesting staff in the world. Now people can go out and do experiments that play a role within the architecture school – but they can also reach outside the school, for funding or grants, and pursue projects that are within the school’s larger mission.
BLDGBLOG: In your press release, you mention using both film and text as modes of architectural analysis – but what genres do you think you and your students will be working in? Are you talking about producing narrative films, in other words, or just elaborate site fly-throughs? For that matter, are you talking about having your students write academic papers – or asking them to write short novels?
Varnelis: As far as film production goes, I think it’d be more interesting to think of the documentary as a model for the kind of film-making we want to pursue – elaborate site fly-throughs don’t really don’t interest me. As far as fictionalized film goes, we might produce a few things like the more radical or visionary work that Superstudio and Archizoom did. But I doubt any films we’d want to spend our energy on will be concerned with fiction, per se; our interests are more in reality and nonfiction, which are strange enough as it is. That’s why documentaries are so attractive to me – because, in many ways, they’re far stranger than anything Hollywood could dream up.
As far as the rest of these genres and media are concerned, we’re interested in operating across multiple medias and materials, depending on the logic of individual research projects. It will be constantly active and in process. One way of looking at it is that we’re just inventorying various genres – and we won’t limit ourselves to something like film. If film works as a model, then we’ll do film; but we’ll use any genre as we see fit.
For instance, our very first project, starting this September, will be a year-long look at the work of the Architecture Machine Group, or ARCMac. The direct precursor to MIT’s Media Lab, ARCMac was founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1968 as part of MIT’s architecture program. Negroponte was first interested in how computers might be able to help architects make more intelligent architectural decisions – but the result, for Negroponte, was actually a move beyond architecture. Initially, he wanted to have non-architects making architecture – and he was very directly influenced by Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects – and, later, he became more interested in reshaping the man-machine interface. For instance, ARCMac did a project called Put That There, and it was really the first spatial metaphor for organizing computer data – as in literally, “Let’s put that there… Let’s move this…” Which is how the Finder works today. The desktop metaphor, according to the various developers of the Macintosh, really came out of the Architecture Machine Group’s work.
At the same time, though, the NetLab will be working with the Institute for the Future of the Book – which is where our idea for doing a project on the Architecture Machine Group first came from. The Institute is a Williamsburg-based publishing lab, composed of writers, researchers, and designers. It’s spearheaded by Bob Stein, who led the development of the Criterion Collection of DVDs, and, as founder of the Voyager Company, produced the earliest CD-ROM titles. The goal, then, is to create a new form of media that we’re calling the Networked Book. It’s a multimedia book, if you will, that can evolve on the internet and grow over time. We’re now hoping to get the original players involved, and to get commentary in there. The project won’t be just the voice of one author but the voices of many, and it won’t be just one form of text but, rather, all sorts of media. We don’t really know where it will go, in fact, but that’s part of the project: to let the material take us; to examine the past, present, and future of the computer interface; and to do something that’s really bold. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re doing [laughter] – it’s that we have a wide variety of options.
[Image: "BlockWorld," by the Architecture Machine Group].
BLDGBLOG: How do the computer interface and the coding of software and so on affect the teaching and practice of architectural design?
Varnelis: I think that one of the problems architectural education now has is a lack of understanding of the importance of code. Building code and computer algorithms are not actually that dissimilar. This kind of architectural scripting is lacking in most schools, and it could be a tremendously powerful thing if you incorporated it into the curriculum.
Of course, the idea of architectural code is also a question of logistics. For instance, the NetLab is also doing a studio to analyze spatial logistics in the larger New York metropolitan area. With the rise of the internet, ever more sophisticated forms of logistics are being put to use by very large, very powerful organizations – Amazon, FedEx, UPS, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. We’re asking: what are telecommunications doing to buildings and cities? Manhattan is a very interesting place to study that question because, as you can imagine, moving materials through space and time in such an incredibly compressed environment is really, really interesting. Of course, the same thing could be said of the entire northeastern megalopolis. So we’re going to be running a studio on the role of logistics – how do you load a space, or organize a space, and what kind of activities might you prescribe for that space – and, as with all NetLab projects, we’re intending for this to lead to a publication.
BLDGBLOG: Will that entail actual site visits to exurban warehouses in New Jersey, and how they relate to Manhattan geography?
Varnelis: That’s the hope. Warehouses are very easy to find – but much harder to access.
BLDGBLOG: Speaking of logistics, Wal-Mart has suddenly and – at least to me – unexpectedly become a kind of one-man cartographic avant-garde. In other words, Wal-Mart’s attempt to track all its goods in real-time – streamlining delivery, stocking shelves, tallying merchandise – has led to literally classified techniques for understanding economic geography: algorithms and radio technologies and so on. Which means that we’re at this rather strange moment when Wal-Mart, of all things, has become the most sophisticated modeler of data sets outside of, say, the NSA or DARPA – and yet it’s all to sell bath towels and non-stick pans. What do you make of Wal-Mart’s sudden ascension to the heights of geography, and how has Wal-Mart’s use of radio-frequency ID chips (RFIDs) facilitated this mastery of commercial space-time?
Varnelis: One of the things that’s both amazing and kind of frightening about RFIDs is that they remain with you long after you leave the store. There’s no reason why RFIDs couldn’t already be the subject of incredibly sophisticated, long-term forms of tracking – or why, if you enter Wal-Mart already wearing clothes tagged with RFIDs, you couldn’t be greeted with highly specific and individualized forms of product information. Let’s say Geoff walks in, and he’s already bought two t-shirts and a pair of pants: from the RFIDs still embedded in his clothing, the store will know exactly who he is, even what he might be shopping for.
BLDGBLOG: The store will know you better than you know yourself.
Varnelis: Well, you can imagine many more of these Minority Report-like situations arising from the use of RFIDs. What’s striking is how little outcry there has been. Certainly, there have been some calls for legislation, but on the whole we have just given ourselves up to RFIDs. The focus of AUDC's project Blue Monday is our desire to give up control. It’s not enough to say that power emanates top-down: we give it the right to do so. Which has barely been explored...
BLDGBLOG: As your reference to Minority Report suggests, however, fiction is clearly not obsolete – at the very least, it can be strategically useful as a means for modeling future situations. Could you talk a bit more about the particular appeal documentary nonfiction has for you, and how that genre can be used to explore architecture and urban space?
Varnelis: Reality is ever more perverse and ever more fascinating. Proportionally, more and more people are reading nonfiction today. The documentary, which, twenty years ago, was this kind of weird, unpopular genre that was maybe only shown on PBS, is now being watched by millions of people. Whether that’s March of the Penguins or the Al Gore movie or, for that matter, a reality TV show, there’s a kind of obsession with reality now, an obsession with finding new ways to represent and document existing conditions. It’s a counterpart to the culture of political surveillance: working with the fact of being watched everyday becomes one of the quickest available routes toward cultural participation.
Fiction just seems to be adrift. Where fiction does thrive, it’s in video games – and those aren’t so much fiction as alternate realities. In either case, the world is bizarre enough. The new content we are seeking is already out there. That’s why, if the aspiration of so many architects during the last quarter of the twentieth century was to produce an architectural novel, with AUDC we’ve been working on producing the architectural documentary, or reality show. Right now we’re captivated by the proposition that reality is the strangest thing we can think of. Sixteen years ago, a friend of mine went to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and I have yet to see an architectural project that rivals that. Or Quartzsite, Arizona, for that matter – or the Berlin Wall. The reality of our world is already so amazing. We’ve started to research conditions that are so strange we found we can’t stop investigating them.
[Image: Quartzsite, Arizona; Kazys Varnelis. See also Polar Inertia].
BLDGBLOG: To bolster your point about reality outpacing the novelistic imagination, there’s always the Baltimore train tunnel fire – an event that cut off internet access for countries as far away as Africa, making very clear how the supposedly ethereal presence of digital space is deeply rooted in the material world. Could you discuss how techno-utopian fantasies – of an immaterial, digital future made entirely from information – are contradicted by the real, physical fragility of satellites, wires, and fiber-optic cables?
Varnelis: There is a definite fragility to digital infrastructure. If terrorism truly wanted to make a dent in a country’s economy, it would be relatively easy to take out a few structures and cripple both data and voice traffic throughout the country, even internationally.
It’s become clear that the converse is also true, however: that the intense centralization of networking infrastructure makes it all too easy to track and control internet traffic. Over a decade ago, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified The Californian Ideology as a dominant strain in thinking about networking technology. Drawing on counterculture individualism and misunderstanding the basic structure of the internet, they suggested that the supposedly distributed nature of the internet would give nearly-unlimited freedom to the individual – and they consequently endorsed a libertarian approach to the internet, even to politics in general. But this is what I’ve been saying in my work on telecoms all along: the Californian Ideology is incredibly naïve. By adopting a laissez-faire attitude, we’ve failed to realize how tight the noose has gotten as government and industry collude to create unprecedented forms of control.
That anyone could have gotten worked up about Watergate seems comical and quaint in an era in which all of our online activities and all of our telephone conversations are being forwarded to the NSA for data mining.
BLDGBLOG: Changing the subject a bit, what you’ve called “horizontality,” or “the postmetropolitan urban condition” – in other words, urban sprawl – seriously challenges our ability to define, map, or even locate a “city,” let alone a city center. To what extent does this limitless horizontalization of urban growth involve architecture – or is it all just a question of logistics, divorced entirely from issues of architectural aesthetics and form?
Varnelis: There’s little to say about the culture of horizontality that Andrea Branzi didn’t say over thirty years ago. It’s remarkable how much the essay that accompanied Archizoom's No-Stop-City really presaged our contemporary condition – not to mention Jameson’s theories of postmodernism, which were at least decade later. Any architect or urbanist should look at Branzi’s work if she or he hasn’t already done so. Branzi observed how the city was essentially a graph of capital accumulation. The skyline literally made visible the operations of capital.
If you are a utopian modernist, the prognosis isn’t great. Architecture is the last thing horizontality needs. Take a look at the world headquarters for top corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Wal-Mart or Home Depot. They are anonymous, even invisible. The logistics of flow in and out of the big box – which, again, Branzi presaged so clearly in No-Stop-City – is a problem of programming, not architecture. It’s all about queuing and flow control, the same kind of problems that chip designers have to deal with. And, of course, if you see the big box from above, it’s just a giant microchip.
Like Branzi, I’m interested in the potential of the architect as programmer, who may make a building from time to time as a means of testing situations, but who may also use the fantastic education that architects get to do something else entirely. I’m much more interested in the kind of architecture that OMA does – projects that set out to intervene into situations and thereby test them – than I am in the stuff that, say, Frank Gehry produces.
BLDGBLOG: From your work in locative media, it seems possible to conclude that a publicly shared urban world of macro-geographic landmarks is being replaced by a privatized micro-geography of individual, object-based routes and narratives. In other words, you won’t understand the city based on large-scale points of reference, but because your cell phone is beeping: it’s telling you that some friends once ate at that restaurant over there, or that this is where you once went out for drinks three years ago. So everyone will exist within private geographies, detached from common points of reference. You could say that location and geography are becoming dispersed – and that dispersed along with them will be cultural centers like museums and so on. Why go to MOMA, in other words, if you can visit Rhizome.org…? What will this do to the notion of a democratically viable public sphere?
Varnelis: I would say that this is precisely the kind of thing that AUDC has been investigating. The biggest change to our relationship with cities is going to be in the ever-greater adoption of mobile technology. Locative media will surely become more widespread in the next decade, changing our relationship with space by overlaying information onto our surroundings. Imagine if you can find out if a restaurant is really good before you go into it. You can already do this to some extent with Vindigo, but this will only increase in the near future.
Further, museums are already taking steps toward becoming dispersed entities. For now, this takes the form of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Dia’s various projects throughout the country, or the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s American Land Museum; but I think you’re right: we’re going to see more diffuse kinds of museum projects in the future. When you go to a museum, you’re already outfitted with an audio device that triggers a narrative based on location. Why shouldn’t the museum be this device? To be sure, not every museum will disappear, but it seems likely that someone will have vast success with museum-like narratives on handheld devices.
At the same time, however, I would caution against thinking that this is some new and frightening division between the public – which is usually theorized as good – versus the private, which is usually seen as atomized and isolated and bad. This new digital geography is not a reversal of the public sphere; it’s just a mutation. The “public” simply doesn’t exist the way it used to. If you look at “the public” – even when it consists of fragmented demographics – there are still greatly shared experiences by various clusters of individuals. People who live in a post-suburban world, the world of pools and patios, share a lot of interests with other people who consume the same things, read similar publications, or reject certain kinds of brands and accept other brands, or who have certain preferences in all sorts of ways, from sex to art to automobiles. It’s almost frightening to see how much is determined for you by the cluster you’re in. There’s a fascinating book called The Clustered World by Michael J. Weiss that talks about this. The company that does this analysis, Claritas, has a website where they break down American consumers into, I think, 48 distinct clusters – and they’re really dead-on. Another way of looking at it is, okay, we’ve had the breakdown of human society into these clusters, but these clusters are increasingly connected across huge geographical distances. And a group in, say, Dupont Circle will be connected to a group in Lakeview, or to a group in London Soho. These groups are dispersed, but they’re connected telematically – those are real links – whereas you might go just five miles away and feel totally alienated. It’s a different group or cluster. So it’s hard for me to buy into the argument that we need to endlessly lament the end of the public sphere – when different kinds of human relations are clearly coming into being.
The NetLab’s core work will be about that investigation: looking into how contemporary urbanism creates the individual of today.
[Image: Kazys Varnelis].