The Psychiatric Infrastructure of the City

A few years ago, the Boston Globe looked at what we might call the psychiatric impact of that city's Big Dig project. The Big Dig was a massively expensive urban engineering project that put Boston's Central Artery underground, freeing up space on the earth's surface for parks and businesses.

The project, however, was plagued with cost over-runs, engineering difficulties, and the periodic collapse of public support (even the periodic collapse of the ceiling).

From the Globe:
    In the short term, mental health experts say, tempers may flare as the public deals with the logistical inconvenience of detours, lingering uncertainty about the safety of the tunnels, and mounting cynicism about the project. (...) And there may be long-term effects as well – ones that could subtly reshape the city's identity.
What interests me here is not the obvious fact that bad traffic might cause tempers to flare, but the idea that people might develop historically unique psychiatric conditions because of a work of public infrastructure under construction somewhere in their city.

A new tunnel, say, is being dug between Manhattan and New Jersey, and moods in the city begin to darken. Psychiatrists notice a strange surge in patients; people come in complaining of nightmares of forced reunion, being in the same room again with an annoying relative they thought they'd left behind long ago. Homeowners wake at 3am each night, convinced someone's trying to break into the basement. The whole island is ill at ease.

And it's all because of that new tunnel getting closer and closer to completion.

Or, say, a new flood barrier is under construction outside London – a gleaming wall of metal that will rise from the tidal murk. Would it change the dreams of city residents? Would this distant piece of hydro-infrastructure affect how Londoners feel about their city – or about themselves? A new confidence. Dreams of survival. Psychoanalysts report that no one dreams of drowning anymore.

On one level here, the answers are both uninteresting and obvious: of course, these sorts of projects would affect the dreams, thoughts, and nightmares of a city's residents – after all, those new landmarks would be a part of the world these people live within.

But a less obvious, or less easily tracked, impact might be postulated here – that, say, a new bridge between San Francisco and Oakland might subtly change how San Franciscans think about their peninsular city, and that this only becomes obvious in retrospect, when someone notices that prescription rates have changed or the divorce rate has plummeted: it was the psychiatric implication of a new bridge that did it.

Put another way, if a new highway can have a measurable, and easily detected, impact on a city's economic health and administrative well-being, then could a new highway – or bridge, or tunnel, or flood wall, or, for that matter, sewage treatment plant – have a detectable impact on the city's mental health? After all, these sorts of massive public works "may carry a psychological burden," the Boston Globe wrote back in 2006.

It's the psychiatric infrastructure of the city.

(Thanks to Josh Glenn, Eric Fredericksen, and the Hermenautic Circle for the Boston Globe link).

15 Lombard Street

[Image: The cover and a spread from 15 Lombard St. by Janice Kerbel].

15 Lombard St. is a book by artist Janice Kerbel, published back in 2000. It presents itself as "a rigorously researched masterplan of how to rob a particular bank in the City of London."
    By observing the daily routine in and around the bank, Kerbel reveals the most detailed security measures such as: the exact route and time of money transportation; the location of CCTV cameras in and around the bank along with precise floor plans that mark the building's blind spots.

    Kerbel's meticulous plans include every possible detail required to commit the perfect crime.
The book was pointed out to me by Sans façon in relation to an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG about the city re-seen as a labyrinth of possible robberies and heists that have yet to be committed – a geography of tunnels yet to be dug and vaults yet to be emptied.

But is there a literary genre of the crime plan? An attack or robbery outlined in its every detail. Is this fiction, or some new form of illicit literature, detailing speculative and unrealized crimes hidden in the city around us? Is robbing a building just another type of architectural analysis? Or does one put such a thing into the category of counter-geography – a minor cartography, a rogue map? Or perhaps radical cartography, as the saying now goes? Would there be an impulse toward censorship here?

There's a fascinating series of interviews waiting to be done here with people who work in building security – how a building is deliberately built to anticipate later actions. Or, should we say: how a building is built to contain the impulse toward certain, more radical uses.

When the burglars get to this door, they'll become frustrated and will try to break through the nearby window, instead – so we must reinforce this window and put a camera nearby.

The building has within it certain very specific possible crimes, the way this house contained a "puzzle." I'm reminded of the famous Bernard Tschumi line, and I'm paraphrasing: Sometimes to fully appreciate a work of architecture you have to commit a crime.

Architectural space becomes something like an anticipatory narrative – the exact size and shape of a future heist, nullified. It outlines future crimes the way a highway outlines routes.

(Thanks again to Sans façon for the tip!)

The Atlas of All Possible Bank Robberies

[Image: From The Bank Job].

It occurred to me that you could make a map—a whole book of maps—detailing all possible routes of bank robbery within the underground foundations of a city. What basements to tunnel through, what walls to be hammered down: you make a labyrinth of well-placed incisions and the city is yours. Perforated from below by robbers, it rips to pieces. The city is a maze of unrealized break-ins.

A whole new literary genre could result. Booker Prizes are awarded. You describe, in extraordinary detail, down to timetables and distances, down to personnel and the equipment they would use, how all the banks in your city might someday be robbed. Every issue of The New Yorker, for instance, includes a short, 600-word essay about breaking into a different bank somewhere in Manhattan, one by one, in every neighborhood. Ideas, plans, possibilities. Scenarios. Time Out London does the same.

It soon becomes a topic of regular conversation at dinner parties; parents lull their kids to sleep describing imaginary bank robberies, tales of theft and architectural transgression. Buildings are something to be broken into, the parents whisper. It's what buildings have inside that's your goal.

Mysterious Chinese Tunnels

[Image: The brick-arched entryway to a "mysterious Chinese tunnel" in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

72 years ago, a man named William Zimmerman sat down to tell a story about "mysterious Chinese tunnels" to the U.S. government. That interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers' Project, and it can be read online in a series of typewritten documents hosted by the Library of Congress.
Zimmerman claims that "mysterious" tunnels honeycombed the ground beneath the city of Tacoma, Washington. These would soon become known as "Shanghai tunnels," because city dwellers were allegedly kidnapped via these underground routes – which always led west to the docks – only to be shipped off to Shanghai, an impossibly other world across the ocean. There, they'd be sold into slavery.

[Image: The cover page for one of many U.S. government documents called "Mysterious Chinese Tunnels"].

Subterranean space here clearly exists within an interesting overlap of projections: fantasies of race, exoticism, and simply subconscious fear of the underworld. White Europeans had expanded west all the way to the Pacific Ocean – only to find themselves standing in a swamp, on earthquake-prone ground, with a "mysterious" race of Chinese dock workers tunneling toward them through the earth, looking for victims... It's like a geography purpose-built for H.P. Lovecraft, or something straight out of the work of Jeff VanderMeer: down in the foundations of your city is a mysterious network of rooms, excavated by another race, through which unidentified strangers move at night, threatening to abduct you.
It's urban historical anthropology by way of Jean Cocteau – or Sigmund Freud.

[Image: Another "mysterious Chinese tunnel" in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

In any case, because "construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad required large numbers of railroad laborers," Zimmerman's tale begins, "many Chinese coolies" had to be smuggled into the "rapidly growing city of Tacoma." They "arrive[d] mysteriously," he says, "smuggled in on ships, and even Indian canoes, from British Columbia."
At that point:
    Several opium joints were known to be operating in Tacoma. And there was no question in the minds of many people that the narcotic was smuggled in through tunnels from their dens to cleverly hidden exits near the waterfront. They were also convinced that the tunnels were dug by Chinese, either as a personal enterprise or at the behest of white men of the underworld, as no white workmen would burrow the devious mole-like passageways and keep their labors secret.
Zimmerman adds that the Chinese "were forcibly expelled from Tacoma in 1885, but ever [sic] so often the story of the Chinese tunnels bobs up whenever workmen come across them in excavation work."
It's even rumored here in the BLDGBLOG offices that a mere 5% of the original tunnels have so far been discovered – until a graduate student in anthropology from the nearby University comes across a clue in an old government document, leading her to a small, bricked-over window near a drain in the downtown fish market... Directed by Gore Verbinski.

[Image: Entries to Tacoma's mysterious Chinese underworld? Photo by Stephen Cysewski (via)].

Meanwhile, that same year – 1936 – a 39-year old man named V.W. Jenkins sat down with a representative of the Federal Writers' Project, and he had this story to tell:
    In the spring of 1935 when the City Light Department was placing electric power conduits under ground, workmen digging a trench in the alley between Pacific Avenue and 'A' Street at a point about 75 feet south of 7th Street, just back of the State Hotel, crosscut an old tunnel about ten feet below the surface of the ground. This tunnel was about three feet wide by five feet high, and tended in a southwesterly direction under the State Hotel, and in the opposite direction southeasterly toward Commencement Bay. I entered the tunnel and walked about 40 or 50 feet in each direction from the opening which we had encountered. There it went under the hotel the tunnel dipped sharply to pass under the concrete footings of the rear wall, proving that the tunnel was dug after the hotel had been built. In the other direction the tunnel had a sharp turn to the left, and after several feet, a gradual curve to the right, so that it was again tending in the same direction as at the opening. About 50 feet from the opening on the Bay side the tunnel began to dip and in another ten feet began to decline very sharply so that it would have been necessary to use a rope to descend safely on the met slippery floor. The brow of the bluff overlooking the waterfront is but a short distance from this point, explaining the need for the rapid downward slope, although it is probable that farther on there is a turn, either right or left, and that the tunnel was dug at an easier grade before emerging at a lower level.
Jenkins then offers this bizarrely wonderful explanation for what else might have formed those tunnels:
    Some persons contend that these openings found in the vicinity of Tacoma were caused by trees buried in the glacial age, and after decaying, left the openings in the glacial drift. If this is the true explanation for the tunnel I have described, then the tree that made it must have been a giant that grow such in the shape of a corkscrew.
Of course, there are also "Shanghai tunnels" beneath Portland, Oregon. "All along the Portland waterfront," we read, "...'Shanghai Tunnels' ran beneath the city, allowing a hidden world to exist. These 'catacombs' connected to the many saloons, brothels, gambling parlors, and opium dens, which drew great numbers of men and became ideal places for the shanghaiers to find their victims. The catacombs, which 'snaked' their way beneath the streets of what we now call Old Town, Skidmore Fountain, and Chinatown, helped to create an infamous history that became 'cloaked' in myth, superstition, and fear."
That same site describes the actual process of Shanghai'ing:
    The victims were held captive in small brick cells or makeshift wood and tin prisons until they were sold to the sea captains. A sea captain who needed additional men to fill his crew notified the shanghaiiers that he was ready to set sail in the early-morning hours, and would purchase the men for $50 to $55 a head. 'Knock-out drops' were then slipped into the confined victim's food or water.

    Unconscious, they were then taken through a network of tunnels that 'snaked' their way under the city all the way to the waterfront. They were placed aboard ships and didn't awake until many hours later, after they had 'crossed the bar' into the Pacific Ocean. It took many of these men as long as two full voyages – that's six years – to get back to Portland.
It all sounds like some prehistoric narrative of the afterlife – a shaman's tale: you're blacked out and led through mysterious tunnels inside the earth's surface, only to wake up surrounded by the oceanic, on your way to another world.
This site offers quite a lot of history of the Tacoma tunnels, and ten minutes of Googling will reveal at least a dozen blog posts and assorted minor newspaper articles about the phenomenon; but there's something particularly intriguing about an official oral history, conducted by the U.S. government itself, in which tales of subterranean geography are revealed.
It's like a form of national psychoanalysis, where each session takes the form of geographic speculation.
More practically, such interviews are a fantastic premise for a short novel or film.

[Image: Photo by Michael Cook. "Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace"].

Briefly, though, I'm also reminded of BLDGBLOG's interview with Michael Cook, posted last summer. Cook is an urban explorer based in Toronto.
Toward the end of that interview, I asked Cook "if there's some huge, mythic system out there that you've heard about but haven't visited yet" – some long-rumored underworld that might only be speculation.
Cook replies:
    I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

    You know, these legends are really... there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.
(With huge thanks to Alexis Madrigal, who sent me a link to the Tacoma tunnels last summer).

landscape.mp3: An Interview with Smout Allen

[Image: Sketches by Smout Allen].

I've uploaded an edited MP3 from BLDGBLOG's interview with Mark Smout and Laura Allen, recorded two weeks ago in London at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
We discuss everything from active vs. passive landscapes to mudflats, river deltas, and the architectural form of managed retreat on the British coast; from the design implications of climate change to artificially refrigerated Chinese tundra in Tibet; from Smout Allen's educational work with Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture to their work as documented in the excellent and highly recommended Pamphlet Architecture book Augmented Landscapes.

[Images: Sketches by Smout Allen; these images are also briefly explored in the forthcoming BLDGBLOG Book].

The MP3 comes in at about 37 minutes. If you have any thoughts, let me know! I'd love to discuss this further.
Special thanks go out to Mark Smout and Laura Allen themselves, and to Joseph Grima and the Storefront for Art and Architecture for hosting the event.

Spaces, Repeating: An Interview with Tom McCarthy

[Image: Tom McCarthy and Remainder].

I've uploaded an MP3 from BLDGBLOG's interview with novelist Tom McCarthy, recorded on the 4th of July at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in London. We cover a range of topics, from memory and architecture to trauma and the spatial nature of repetition, via Italo Calvino, Marcel Proust, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William Burroughs – plus a bit of James Joyce – during a long talk about McCarthy's novel Remainder (previously described here).
The file is available for download at this link; if you've never used Megaupload before, just enter the letters that you see, wait 30-40 seconds as per the instructions, and then knock yourself out.
Of course, I'd love to discuss this discussion further, so if you have any thoughts, please feel free to chime in.
Thanks again to Tom McCarthy for coming out for the conversation, and to Joseph Grima and the Storefront for Art and Architecture for hosting it.

Chemical Nature

[Images: Poison ivy, resplendent in high-CO2 environments. Photos by Steve Legato for The New York Times].

One of the oft-repeated myths of the present day is that climate change cannot possibly be bad for the living environment; plants will simply thrive in the increased levels of atmospheric CO2. After all, some people call it pollution while others call it life, right?
Well, it turns out that at least one plant unfortunately does like all that carbon dioxide: poison ivy is not only thriving, it is growing more virulent.
The New York Times today reports that "Researchers at Duke University who studied the weed between 1999 and 2004 in a controlled forest area near Chapel Hill, N.C., where high levels of CO2 are pumped into test plots, found that poison ivy not only grew more vigorously, but also produced a more toxic form of urushiol, the resin that causes its rash."
First, let me briefly say that I've actually been to that forest. I once lived, and went to college, in the area, and I had friends who'd developed fascinating conspiracy theories about all those strange devices pumping something – some kind of invisible gas – into the forest... It was all very X-Files.
Second, the article goes on to interview a local horticulturist who now makes a living killing poison ivy. However, he quietly expresses hope that Americans will someday "discover some use for the plant," referring to poison ivy as a kind of overlooked decorative resource. "In China and Japan," he says, "they made lacquer out of their resin plants, so they understand and value it... Whereas we just see it as that darn weed over there."
Of course, it's interesting to project a direct relationship here between the amount of lacquered furniture being produced in the United States and the intensity of global climate change – that as the latter goes up, so does the former – but such speculation would miss a more interesting point, which is that climate change will not only alter the atmospheric composition of the planet, it will alter the chemical nature of the life that's able to thrive on it.


In response to the previous post, a reader kindly pointed me to the fascinating town of Baarle-Hertog, Belgium.
Baarle-Hertog borders the Netherlands – but, because of its unique history of political division, the town is sort of marbled with competing national loyalties. In other words, pockets of the town are Dutch; most of the town is Belgian. You can thus wander from country to country on an afternoon stroll, as if island-hopping between sovereignties.
Check out the town map.

[Image: The strange, island-like spaces of micro-sovereignty within the town of Baarle-Hertog; a few more maps can be seen here, and you can read more in this two-page article].

Being in a bit of a rush at the moment, I'll simply have to quote Wikipedia:
    Baarle-Hertog is noted for its complicated borders with Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. In total it consists of 24 separate pieces of land. Apart from the main piece (called Zondereigen) located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are twenty Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other pieces on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also seven Dutch exclaves within the Belgian exclaves. Six of them are located in the largest one and a seventh in the second-largest one. An eighth Dutch exclave lies in Zondereigen.

    The border is so complicated that there are some houses that are divided between the two countries. There was a time when according to Dutch laws restaurants had to close earlier. For some restaurants on the border it meant that the clients simply had to change their tables to the Belgian side.
Sarah Laitner, at the Financial Times, adds that "women are able to choose the nationality of their child depending on the location of the room in which they give birth."
Another website, apparently drawing from the Michelin Guide to the Netherlands, explains the origins of Baarle-Hertog's bizarre geography: it can all be traced back to the 12th century, it seems, when the town was first divided. The northern half of the town became part of the Barony of Breda (later home to the Nassau family), and the southern half went to the Duke of Brabant (Hertog means Duke in Dutch).
But that same website also mentions this:
    The municipality limits are very complicated. Nowadays, each municipality has its city hall, church, police, school and post office. The houses of the two nationalities are totally mixed. They are identified by the shield bearing their number: the national flag is included on it.
I hate to refer to Thomas Pynchon twice, in back-to-back blog posts, but there something's remarkably Pynchon-esque about this final detail.
In any case, also check out this site for more historical information.
While we're on the subject of micro-sovereignties, though, be sure to check out Neutral Moresnet, a tiny, politically independent non-state formed around a zinc mining operation in eastern Belgium. There's also Cospaia, "a small former republic in Italy" which "unexpectedly gained independence in 1440" after Pope Eugene IV sold the land it stood on. "By error," we read, "a small strip of land went unmentioned in the sale treaty, and its inhabitants promptly declared themselves independent."
The Free State Bottleneck, Åland Islands, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are all also worth checking out.
Finally, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out BLDGBLOG's earlier interview with Simon Sellars, co-author of The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations.

(With huge thanks to Scott Gosnell, Christopher, Claus Moser, and Blinde Schildpad for the tips!)

The Akwizgran Discrepancy

In a subscriber-only article published back in 2001 by the London Review of Books, author Neal Ascherson describes "the Akwizgran Discrepancy."
There "may or may not have been," he writes, "something called the 'Akwizgran Discrepancy'." It's now just "a forgotten thread of diplomatic folklore."

Before we get there, though – and before I sidetrack myself pointing out that "diplomatic folklore" would be an amazingly interesting literary sub-genre – Ascherson's paper is about the fluid nature of "international space." He focuses particularly on the changing natures of both terrain and sovereignty – and how the definition of one always affects the definition of the other.
Ascherson's geography is, for the most part, European; he discusses nation-states from the early 20th century through to the end of the Cold War. During that time, we read, there were a number of "less durable spaces" – for instance, the "parallel but unlicensed institutions" of Solidarity-era Poland. He points out that, "in the early 20th century, there were a number of spaces which were not absolutely unpopulated but whose allocation to empires or nation-states was undecided."
From an imperial standpoint, these unofficially recognized lands and institutions – mostly rural and almost always located near borders – represented "a dangerous breach in space." They were "intercellular spaces," we're told, and they functioned more like "gaps, crevices, interstices, [and] oversights" within much larger systems of sovereign power.
In fact, these "unlicensed" spaces "appear whenever some new international system attempts to demarcate everything sharply, menacingly and in a hurry."
At one point, then, Ascherson refers to the Akwizgran Discrepancy. Quoting at length:
    ...when the new Kingdom of Belgium emerged in 1831 – much to the annoyance of the Congress Powers who had imposed the Vienna settlement on Europe after 1815 – there had been a demarcation error at the point where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands met. Somewhere between Aachen and Verviers, there existed a tiny triangular space, big enough to contain a house, a patch of field and a few fruit trees, which belonged to nobody. (...) I have never been able to find the Discrepancy, which probably never existed. But the thought of it is dear to people.
There is something seemingly timeless in such a fantasy. In the face of sovereignty you propose a space of no sovereignty, a Permanent Autonomous Zone which is not in itself a state, it is simply a space unclaimed by other states.
In this particular Discrepancy, though, that space is "big enough to contain a house" – a detail which is surely dear to libertarian homesteaders everywhere. How exciting it would be to realize one day that your little house, on its plot of land in Manhattan, is actually outside the control of all existing nation-states. You owe taxes to no one. In fact, they owe back-taxes to you.
You live inside a Discrepancy.
It's like something out of Thomas Pynchon.
Your house is an Embassy for Utopia, so to speak, an anti-state from nowhere under no one's jurisdiction. Your patron saint is Captain Nemo, who is cousins with Homer's Nobody.
So is the Akwizgran Discrepancy real – or just something made up in Ascherson's article? (Try Googling it).
I suppose I'd say that that's beside the point – that the real point is that the Akwizgran Discrepancy, in many ways, is the only place that is real; it is the exception to sovereignty upon which claims to sovereignty are based. It is the remainder, the outside, the infinitely necessary unclaimed surplus upon which the legitimacy of nation-states has always been premised: discrepancies are the space that is yet to be conquered. Yet to be absorbed. They exemplify the lack of control that governments claim to protect you against, even as they give you a kind of strange attractor for political fantasies: they are an escape-valve to self-rule.
Discrepancies are autonomous spaces of liberation to some – mere Lebensraum to others.

Three London Photos

[Image: BLDGBLOG speaks with Geoff Shearcroft (right) from The Agents of Change; photo by John Ng].

John Ng has sent in some photos that he took last week during the event at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in London. You can see now that we were all sitting inside a kind of miniature putting green – actually part of an architectural model by the Bjarke Ingels Group – which made me think that perhaps all architectural interviews should take place on miniature putting greens: you rent a miniature golf course for the day and host a second Postopolis! there, open to all.

[Images: Interviewing Smout Allen (top) and Alex Haw (bottom); photos by John Ng].

Thanks again to the speakers, meanwhile, and to John for sending in the photographs. We'll hopefully have all – or at least some – of the recordings online soon, as well. And if you were there and have more photos to share, please feel free to send them in!

Super Sucker

[Image: The Super Sucker in action].

A vacuum has been developed that can suck invasive seaweed off of coral reefs. The machine is called the Super Sucker:
    To create the Super Sucker, biologists modified a system designed for gold dredging. Seaweed from reefs is sucked up and dumped onto mesh sorting tables on a barge. Native organisms inadvertently vacuumed are removed and returned to the reef and the seaweed is eventually used by farmers as fertiliser.
Now we just need a job board where you can apply for the position of Reef Sucker: you fly around the world vacuuming weeds off reefs. You drink a lot of coffee and get up at 5am, and you dream of moray eels.
So will they develop a special, dry land version of this thing for cleaning the ornaments of Gothic cathedrals? A huge vacuum chamber beneath the streets of Rome that you can tap into with hoses in order to suck all the dust from the city.
Or perhaps a special type of handheld saw, or modified sander, will be made to go along with the Sucker – the Sander and the Sucker – so you can sculpt coral reefs through precise cuts and abrasions. The Great Barrier Reef becomes rather Bauhaus in appearance. And the reefs of south Florida – well, those now look like something from the Amsterdam School. South Pacific atolls are carved into rings of underwater statuary.
So much for the natural.
The world is more interesting when it's all been Sucked & Sawed™.

Earthquakes in the Sky

Back in March, Pruned posted a short video of a Japanese earthquake van – a video which I'll embed here for ease of reference:

If you don't know what a 9.0 earthquake really feels like – and, thus, how to stay safe when one hits – then you can just build a mechanical representation of a 9.0 earthquake, a kind of robotic stand-in for the earth's surface – call it RoboHeidegger® – and let the public step in for a ride.
You've got yourself an educational experience – and an interesting small business model, at the same time.
But maybe you don't need a van like this to simulate earthquakes; maybe there are other ways of experiencing seismicity that geologists have so far overlooked.
It occurred to me last week while flying over Canada that turbulence is a kind of unappreciated seismic resource. For instance, our plane hit a strange quilt of winds – an atmospheric event, like an earthquake in the sky – over the Canadian Arctic and so the plane began to lurch, rattle, drop, and slightly tilt, and this went on for several minutes.
To quote Wikipedia, we hit "invisible bodies of air which are moving vertically at many different speeds."
As far as I can tell, then, those "invisible bodies of air" are a permanent part of the sky geography of the Canadian Arctic; like a mountain range on land, these curling, rising, marbling, and sifting winds move invisibly through Arctic airspace like a permanent feature of aerial terrain, ready to rock passing airplanes.

In any case, it seemed like aerial turbulence might be a very good analogy for the structural motions of earthquakes.
In fact, you could install some sort of in-flight dashboard – with a BLDGBLOG Seismology Plug-In™ – that tells you, in real time, as you experience aerial turbulence, how that turbulence would register on the Richter Scale. I think people would be shocked to realize that they have very likely experienced a 6.0 earthquake in the sky – only it was called turbulence and they were sitting inside an airplane.
3.0s and 4.0s would be so common as to be coextensive with air travel.
So you take geology students up on an airplane in a thunderstorm – and they'd soon understand what an 8.5 feels like. Or a 7.2, and so on.
Of course, a few questions arise – such as how accurate this analogy really is, and whether I have any idea what I'm talking about. But I also wonder, if this does hold, whether airplane design has anything to teach engineers who work in seismic zones. Should the foundation of a Tokyo high-rise, or a single-family home in Los Angeles, be designed more like an airplane fuselage?
And could the exact same thing be said for ships at sea – that certain large waves, or certain stretches of choppy water, are like a 6.0 earthquake – and could this also extend, then, to particularly bumpy stretches of road – that, at 35mph this road is a 4.0 earthquake, but at 75mph it's a 9.3 – and could the same even be true for railroad travel and bumpy subways?
Could you deliberately build roads – with bumps and holes and bad paving – to simulate certain types of earthquakes? You then drive on these roads at certain, specific speeds, taking notes with Caltech geologists.
In which case, perhaps a car chassis would offer an intriguing structural analogue for future home designs in seismic areas...?
All these earthquake analogues – experiences awaiting their Richter Scale – constantly surrounding us.

Building Users Union

If everyone who used buildings were to form a union, how might they go on strike? They could demand faster escalators, better lobbies, wider halls – and they could boycott the buildings they work in. After all, if everyone got together and declared themselves the Building Users Union – We are the users of buildings, they say, and here is our list of demands – how might the built environment be forced to change? In other words, if architects can unionize – a big if – then why not the people who use their buildings?
Can an audience go on strike?
The users of buildings march on Washington – on Whitehall, on the UN – demanding action, and the strike goes on for years. People are soon camping in the streets, sleeping in makeshift tent cities, and refusing to enter architecture until their demands are met. The world of interiors is lost to them. Children are born in parks; schools are founded beside undammed rivers; religious services take place in wooded groves.
Architects are beside themselves. They live alone inside distant high-rises, opening windows here and there, wondering where everyone has gone.


[Image: The future Zoo de Vincennes by TN PLUS Landscape Architects, with additional architecture by Beckmann N'Thepe].

A few months ago we took a look at plans for a new zoo in Vincennes, France, being developed by landscape architects TN PLUS. I've since been in touch with the firm, who have sent in more images of the proposed landscape. I thought I'd post them here, then, even as I also refer everyone back to the earlier post.

[Image: The Zoo de Vincennes by TN PLUS Landscape Architects].

I have to register my fascination again, however, with the idea that zoos actually represent a kind of spatial hieroglyphics through which humans communicate – or, more accurately, miscommunicate – with other species.
That is, zoos are decoy environments that refer to absent landscapes elsewhere. If this act of reference is read, or interpreted correctly, by the non-human species for whom the landscape has been constructed, then you have a successful zoo. One could perhaps even argue here that there is a grammar – even a deep structure – to the landscape architecture of zoos.
Zoos, in this way of thinking, are at least partially subject to a rhetorical analysis: do they express what they are intended to communicate – and how has this meaning been produced?
Landscape architecture becomes an act not just of stylized geography, or aesthetically shaped terrain, but of communication across species lines.

[Images: The Zoo de Vincennes by TN PLUS Landscape Architects].

Of course, this can also be inverted: are these landscapes really meant to be read, understood, and interpreted by what we broadly refer to as "animals," or are these landscapes simply projections of our own inner fantasies of the wild? Or should I say The Wild?
While this latter scenario sounds much more likely to be the case – humans, like a broken cinema, always live inside their own projections – nonetheless, the non-human communicational possibilities of landscape architecture will continue to fascinate me.

[Image: The Zoo de Vincennes by TN PLUS Landscape Architects].

In fact, briefly, I'm reminded of two things:
    1) Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates initiative, in which small homes for animals are constructed to house the native, pre-human population of urban landscapes around the world. Haeg explains that he "creates dwellings for animals," and that these "prototype Animal Estates will be established in a variety of environments. (...) Each will be designed to attract and welcome a particular animal back into an environment that has been dominated by humans. The design for each estate will be developed with a local specialist on that particular animal."

    2) Temple Grandin, who could perhaps be described as an autistic animal theorist. Grandin has been campaigning for the re-design of slaughterhouse environments in order that they be less terrifying for animals; but what's particularly interesting about her campaign is that – if I've understood this correctly – she has extrapolated from her own subjective experiences of autism in order to model how animals might experience slaughterhouse architecture. Human autism here becomes strangely elided with animal subjectivity. Grandin has thus developed an entire phenomenological architecture that takes advantage of natural animal behaviors – circling, herding, grouping, and so on – by spatializing these behaviors into the built environment. Animal movements trace out spatial parameters that the architecture itself later takes. The animals are thus doing what they would have been doing "naturally" as they enter the spinning blades...
In any case, I don't at all mean to imply that zoos and slaughterhouses are somehow identical environments; I do mean to imply, however, that each environment, seen as a particular type of landscape, has been spatially organized around animal subjectivity and, more importantly – and, for me, substantially more interesting – around non-verbal communication with other species.
To put even more of an academic spin on this, zoos are speech acts.

[Image: The Zoo de Vincennes by TN PLUS Landscape Architects].

But I've said much the same before; check out the earlier post for more.

Cinema City

[Image: From London After the Rain].

onedotzero is hosting a film event this Saturday in London, promising "futuristic visions of London" and "surreal urban worlds." Screenings will include Ben Marzys's short film London After the Rain, produced for Nic Clear's Unit 15 at The Bartlett, previously mentioned here.
The event costs £8.60, and things kick off around 8:45pm at Southbank.

Chinese Air Bars

In a short post on MadRegale, Wired correspondent Alexis Madrigal suggests that we should open a series of "Chinese air bars" so that people around the world can temporarily experience what it's like to breathe the polluted city air of China.

[Image: The "air" in Beijing on June 20, 2008, with the summer Olympics less than two months away. Photo by James Fallows].

China, home to some of the most polluted cities in the world, could thus capitalize on its newest export: vials of urban atmosphere. They'll simply export the sky.
They do it already, in any case, with huge oily clouds of industrial particulates blowing halfway around the world to land as dust on the streets of California; this way they'd just make a little money from it. Athletes training for this summer's Olympics could order it by the tankful.
It'd be like bottled water – or like Marcel Duchamp's Paris Air, in which a 50cc phial of Paris air was exhibited as a readymade art object.
Take something; bottle it; bring it to market.
Leading me to wonder: if Marcel Duchamp had lived in a different historical era, would he perhaps have invented bottled water?
It'd be interesting, though, to open not only a Chinese air bar, but a Haitian air bar, and a Paris air bar, and an LA air bar – a whole series of air bars – or just one huge air bar in which all of these airs are served.
You could have even air flights: with a weird plastic mask attached to your face, staring deeply into the eyes of your date, you'd breathe in a succession of the rarest airs: Guangzhou followed by Cape Town followed by Rome is a particularly strong sequence. It brings out certain scents.
You could even wrap these up into complex, synesthetic packages – call it Café Synesthesia, and you'd appear on the evening news. While eating skirt steak you breathe packaged air from Sacramento. When you sip your wine, the air supply switches to a light southern Italian blend. Pasta dishes go well with air from the mountains of Colombia – and, in fifty years' time, you can read Dave Eggers's books while breathing air from San Francisco stored in 2008. It's vintage. Stored under ideal conditions in steel tanks.
Or listen to Mozart while inhaling air from the streets of Vienna.
It's the rise of the boutique air industry.
Cultural air archaeology.
Air harvesters – the preferred summer job for backpackers in 2050AD – are sent out to capture the sky in vast balloons. Air farms. The balloons are then kept in quarantine at international airports where stunned customs workers, earning minimum wage, look up at bulbous forms swaying inside hangars in semi-darkness.
The balloons are labeled: Singapore, Marrakech, São Paulo.
Next week your friends come round for a fish dinner – but it's not complete till you seal off the room, twist a valve in the corner... and the air of central Tokyo wafts silently around you.
You've never eaten anything so good in your life.
Air rooms. Café Breathe.
Either way, Chinese air bars are just the start.

Agent of Change

Geoff Shearcroft, of The Agents of Change, will be coming round tomorrow at 11:30am to speak at the Storefront for Art and Architecture's Pop Up branch here in London.
I first found Shearcroft's work – and, thus, The Agents of Change – through a book called Fantasy Architecture: 1500-2036. There, Shearcroft's image of a mouse with a suburban house growing out of its back – as if grafted there, or perhaps cloned – was a tongue in cheek glimpse of what Shearcroft called, in a 2001 paper for the Royal College of Art, "the new biology of architecture."

[Image: "Grow Your Own" by Geoff Shearcroft].

The Agents of Change themselves have a huge array of noteworthy projects – including Monsanto New Garden City, in which it was asked: what would happen if global agri-business giant Monsanto were to purchase the London borough of Hackney...? What if they then turned it into an Agricultural Action Zone (AAZ)?
"Costly infrastructural components are replaced with a self-sufficient ecology of grass roads, localised rainwater collection, organic solar films and biological compost systems," the architects suggest. The economically depressed borough would present "new growing opportunities," thus "liberating the ground's agricultural potential."
There's also a project known as Roof Divercity in which all the roofs of Croydon are activated as new social, economic, and agricultural spaces for the borough's residents.

[Images: Roof Divercity by The Agents of Change].

Meanwhile, the AOC's recent proposal for the Birnbeck Island competition is also fantastic, involving a very colorful village and a sort of artificially amplified mountain form on a pier in the west of England.
It's geology meets housing, offshore.

[Images: From the Birnbeck Island and Birnbeck Village proposals by The Agents of Change].

More germane to this year's London Festival of Architecture, The Agents of Change also designed The Lift, a temporary pavilion which they describe as "a new Parliament."

[Image: The Lift by The Agents of Change].

In any case, I could go on and on, uploading images of their work all day.
Shearcroft will be speaking at the Pop Up Storefront tomorrow at 11:30am – so come by to hear what he has to say.


Another interviewee at tomorrow's event is Simon Bradley, editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and author of St Pancras, one of the titles in Mary Beard's ongoing Wonders of the World series.

[Image: Simon Bradley and St Pancras].

The book is fantastically interesting, even for an American reader, like myself, who doesn't have regular contact with the structure; the building, it turns out, is full of built-in eccentricities, and its existence as part of a much larger Victorian rail network is significant of remarkable social – and even dietary – changes elsewhere.
The internal spacing of the train shed, for instance, is based around a rather unique structural module: the dimensions of a barrel of Bass Ale. Bradley explains that William Henry Barlow, the 19th-century consulting engineer for Midland Railway,
    dispensed with the normal mid-Victorian structural system of brick piers and arches in favour of even ranks of some eight hundred uniform cast-iron columns. These supported a grid of two thousand wrought-iron girders, which in turn underlay the iron plates on which the tracks and platforms rested. The spacing of the columns at centres just over 14 feet apart was calculated to match the plans of the beer warehouses of Burton-upon-Trent, where the same figure derived from a multiple of the standard local cask. And so, in Barlow's words, 'the length of a beer barrel became the unit of measure upon which all the arrangements of this floor were based'.
This, in turn, has structural implications at other points within St. Pancras, ramifying these Burtonian measurements throughout the station's archways.
There are loads of other points to bring up here but I'll have to resist, as 1) I'm working on a larger article about St. Pancras in which these other points will be explored, and 2) I'll be speaking to Bradley tomorrow live at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in South Kensington, in a joint interview with Mary Beard, editor of the Wonders of the World series, at 10am.

Time Control

Tomorrow at 2pm I'll be interviewing novelist Tom McCarthy at the Storefront for Art and Architecture here in London. McCarthy's excellent book Remainder – which just last month won the fourth annual Believer Book Award – is about a man in London who is hit on the head by "something falling from the sky."
He thus goes into a coma; he is involved in a lawsuit upon waking; he's awarded £8.5 million in damages. This all takes place in the first few pages.

[Image: Tom McCarthy and Remainder].

The rest of the book is about the narrator's attempt to figure out what exactly to do with all that money – as well as how he can recreate, to a hilariously precise extent, a building in which he might (or might not) have once lived.
What happens is that he's struck by a moment of déjà vu while in the bathroom at a friend's party, and so he realizes, with a sense of overwhelming purpose bordering on religious epiphany, that he must use his new-found funds to reconstruct the exact circumstances of the moment to which that déjà vu referred. If he can't remember everything about that déjà vu in its entirety, in other words – well, then, he'll just physically recreate it. It's a "forensic procedure."
After all, he's got £8.5 million. What else is he going to do?
To facilitate this projective act of mnemonic reconstruction, he first gets in touch with real estate agents. In Chapter 5 – a chapter which should be required material in certain architectural design courses – we read:
    I spoke to three different estate agents. The first two didn't understand what I was saying. They offered to show me flats – really nice flats, ones in converted warehouses beside the Thames, with open plans and mezzanines and spiral staircases and balconies and loading doors and old crane arms and other such unusual features.
    "It's not unusual features that I'm after," I tried to explain. "It's particular ones. I want a certain pattern on the staircase – a black pattern on white marble or imitation marble. And I need there to be a courtyard."
    "We can certainly try to accommodate these preferences," this one said.
    "These are not preferences," I replied. "These are absolute requirements. (...) And it's not one property I'm after," I informed her. "It's the whole lot. There must be certain neighbors, like this old woman who lives below me, and a pianist two floors below her, and..."
Getting nowhere with the agents of already-existing London real estate, he turns to the services of a firm called Time Control. Time Control can make things happen – very precise things.
He soon meets up with Nazrul Ram Vyas, a representative of the firm.
    "I have a large project in mind," I said, "and wanted to enlist your help." "Enlist" was good. I felt pleased with myself.
    "Okay," said Naz. "What type of project?"
    "I want to buy a building, a particular type of building, and decorate and furnish it in a particular way. I have precise requirements, right down to the smallest detail. I want to hire people to live in it, and perform tasks that I will designate. They need to perform these exactly as I say, and when I ask them to. I shall most probably require the building opposite as well, and most probably need it to be modified. Certain actions must take place at that location too, exactly as and when I shall require them to take place. I need the project to be set up, staffed and coordinated, and I'd like to start as soon as possible."
    "Excellent," Naz said, straight off. He didn't miss a single beat. I felt a surge inside my chest, a tingling.
They later discuss what some of these hired residents will do.
    "What tasks would you like them to perform?"
    "There'll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me," I said. "Her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly. Her kitchen must face outwards to the courtyard, the back courtyard onto which my own kitchen and bathroom will face too. The smell of liver must waft upwards. She'll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I'll work out and assign to her."
    "Understood," said Naz. "Who's next?"
In any case, to make a long story short, the narrator goes on to audition actors – or re-enactors – and to become increasingly unhinged. Weird chains of events extending well outside the original architectural structure are acted out – including a robbery – and re-enactors are soon hired to re-enact earlier actions by the first group of re-enactors. The whole thing takes on the feel of a nomadic and vaguely schizophrenic opera troupe on the loose in Greater London, performing scenes from a life that never really happened, under the illusion that they're helping an eccentric millionaire to get his lost memories back.
Three quick questions, then:
    1) On the most basic level, how different are some of the narrator's requests from the precise, arcane, and well-practiced moves of 19th-century butlers and other house attendants? In other words, what appears to be mania in a person hit on the head by an unidentified piece of technology falling from the sky is seen as tradition, class structure, and ritualistic social role in the lives of others.

    2) What on earth would it have been like to work for someone like the legendarily eccentric Howard Hughes, who had not £8.5 million to spend on strange projects but literally billions? Or, more interestingly, from the standpoint of a novelist, what other, far more ambitious demands could Hughes have made of his staff? I'm tempted to pitch a novella in which Howard Hughes has sent a small team of actors deep into the Andes where they are required to build a house just like his own, to change their names to Howard for exactly one year, and to act out forgotten moments from his own past on a precisely worked out schedule. There are bells, alarms, and inspections. Until one of them gets fed up...

    3) There was an interesting article in The New Yorker several months ago about the use of immersive, 3D simulations of war scenes from Iraq to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers. The general idea was that, by confronting, over and over again, the very thing that once traumatized you, you could nullify its long-term psychological effects. But what if these immersive simulations didn't have to take place on computer screens inside military labs? Perhaps a returning soldier – the son of a refrigeration billionaire – will take matters into his own hands on a large estate in South Dakota, building vast stage sets... Remainder 2: Return to Basra.
So I'll be speaking with Tom McCarthy tomorrow, July 4th, at 2pm, in South Kensington. Feel free to stop by!