[Image: Airbus A380, photographed by Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse for Getty Images, via the New York Times].
Marc Newson's "retro-futurist" interior design for the new A380 super-jumbo airplane, to be run by Qantas, was the subject of an interesting article in the New York Times writes this morning.
Newson's "design language" for the airplane, we read, "is defined less by what the passengers see than by how they feel." One example of this is "the L.E.D.’s that illuminate the cabin":
They are programmed to wash the interior with colors that change subtly throughout the flight. Each shade is selected to create the ideal mood for a particular activity, like sleeping, waking or eating, regardless of time zone.
“Designing an aircraft is like creating a mini-world,” Mr. Newson said. “You’re putting people in a confined environment and controlling how they’ll feel with the oxygen, humidity and everything they touch and see. It all has an effect.”
Reading this instantly brought to mind a few things – including, somewhat obviously, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, here transformed into a total environment sent aloft into the sky. Perhaps equally unsurprising, I was also reminded of Norman Foster's infamous choice of the Boeing 747 as his favorite building of the 20th century.
Are airplanes the future of architecture, after all?
Somewhat more obscurely, however, I thought of the dream academy of Konstantin Melnikov – Melnikov's so-called "Sonata of Sleep." As the Winter 2007/2008 issue of Cabinet magazine described Melnikov's bizarre architectural invention:
At either end of the long buildings were to be situated control booths, where technicians would command instruments to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air pressure, as well as to waft salubrious scents and "rarefied condensed air" through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Specialists working "according to scientific facts" would transmit from the control centre a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. The rustle of leaves, the cooing of nightingales, or the soft murmur of waves would instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis. Should these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.
In many ways, this Willy Wonka-like vision of synaesthetic architecture could be realized in the guise of international airplane travel, Newson inadvertently suggests. Lulled by strange colored lights and slowly changing sounds, passengers can be sent to sleep – or woken up – at the will of the pilot, who assumes a new, psychotropic role. It's an Esalen Institute in the sky.
1) What would an airplane designed by Jonathan Ive look like? Or if Mies van der Rohe had been hired to rethink the internal spaces of American Airlines? I feel like entire, speculative, university-level design courses could be organized around such lines of thought; they could be sponsored by Richard Branson. So does Newson's success – or, who knows, failure – in designing the Qantas A380 imply that our era needs a new Raymond Loewy? Or will climate change and high oil prices ultimately extinguish this temporary airborne niche in the field of architectural design?
2) Less relevantly, should airports look like the airplanes that depart from them? You walk from one tubular environment into another, and you sit in identical seats, served by similarly uniformed stewards – only the room you're now in suddenly accelerates, taking you up into the sky... Perhaps the interior design of airports and airplanes should be unified – made continuous – so, after too many drinks one night, waiting to depart from Dallas-Ft. Worth, you realize that you might be sitting in the airplane already... You demand to get off; hijinks ensue.
3) What were the test-environments for this airplane like? Did Newson have entire fake airplane hulls constructed somewhere, inside of which entire fake rooms and galleys could be installed – and what was it like to spend time inside that simulated airplane of the future?
4) Could you purchase one of Newson's perfectly molded bathrooms, receive it by delivery a week later, and then hook it up somewhere inside your own grounded house? I remember hearing once that the Spice Girls liked the mattresses that they slept on so much when they came through Philadelphia and stayed in the Four Seasons they that they simply bought the beds upon check-out. So could you fill out a form at the end of your trans-Pacific, San Francisco-Sydney flight, and say, sure, I'll buy two bathrooms and a couchette... deliver them to my house in Marin County? A whole subsidiary industry begins: you send experimental interiors into the skies of the world, aboard international business flights, hoping to sell a few rooms to your well-served, half-drunk passengers. What would happen if you could buy rooms from inside any building you've ever visited? Surely every interior could be given a price tag?
[Image: An etching by Daniel Stojkovich called Tower of Babel 2, exhibited as part of Top Arts 2007 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia].
I was clicking around on a local university's engineering school homepage yesterday morning when I misunderstood the way the page had been organized. For a second I thought that Comparative Literature had been re-classified as a sub-field, or specialty research group, within the university's engineering school – and so I had to wonder what exactly those students might be reading. Aside from technical manuals, what might be the comparative literature of engineering? Before I realized that I'd simply misread the list of links, I thought that perhaps there should be a comparative literature of construction sites: famous monuments, tombs, bridges, houses, and cities throughout history, together with the thoughts of the people who built them. You collect the oral histories of construction workers all over the world, only identifying what building they were working on in the footnotes; what emerges is a kind of architectural hivework with no clear purpose or outline taking shape all over the planet, with towers and stadiums and whole urban neighborhoods assembled in a fog of exhaustion and low-grade injury. You then go back through all of literature, from the Bible to the Upanishads to The Odyssey to The New York Times, culling long quotations about construction sites. The private houses of emperors; the pyramids; recollections of the construction of jungle temples; mountain lookouts in a time of war; Victorian train lines; Dubai. In fact, I'm reminded of the excellent book Dart by Alice Oswald in which conversations with people living along the river Dart have been combined into a single, long-running commentary about the riverine landscape; only here it would be a kind of Dart of architecture: thousands and thousands of construction workers and site engineers and geotechnicians and consultant elevator repair servicepersons all speaking about the act of putting architecture together in space. Epic poems of building assembly. I do wonder, meanwhile, if the temporary micro-culture of the construction site has been adequately documented by architectural historians. Industrial yards have certainly had their day, from documentaries about WWII dockworkers to historical surveys of Solidarity; and construction sites have obviously long been a focus for painters and photographers. But have literature and history given the attention due to sites of architectural assembly? Do we need a Construction Site Reader – the comparative literature of massive construction sites?
Over on Wired this weekend I read about a game called Fracture, by LucasArts, which features "terrain deformation" as a central factor in gameplay. Fracture is "a game centered on the wanton reformation of land masses," Wired reports; the author then goes on to introduce us to the game's "terrain deformation mechanics."
"Every player is equipped with a tool called an Entrencher," we read. The Entrencher "gives them the ability to raise or lower most surfaces at will," including the surface of the earth itself:
Gone are the days of studying a level, and simply memorizing sniper positions and the fastest routes. Resourceful players will be digging trenches, raising their own cover and manipulating level elements to fortify their positions... fundamentally altering the way levels are played.
Which means what, exactly?
Can't find a way across that slime pit? Raise the ground underneath it. You can also terrain-jump by leaping as you raise the ground beneath your feet, launching yourself into the air.
"The rule of thumb," the article adds, "is that if you can walk on it, you can probably alter it." Using weapons like the Tectonic Grenade, you can reshape the planet. Quoting from the official Fracture website:
The ER23-N Tectonic Grenade sets off localized shockwaves when detonated, causing small, concentrated earthquakes that raise the immediate terrain around the point of impact. The weapon is extremely useful for shaping the terrain and providing cover.
There's also a Spike Grenade. As LucasArts explains, "Tectonic scientists discovered that lava tubes lying dormant deep below the surface of the earth could be stimulated to eject a pyroclastic column." These columns can "be used as a 'natural elevator' of sorts, allowing a soldier to access hard to reach high elevation areas."
[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, by LucasArts, showing a pyroclastic elevator at work].
There are even Subterranean Torpedoes that burrow into the planet and create landforms on the surface far away.
Of course, the idea that an instantaneous and semi-magmatic reshaping of the earth's surface might have military implications is an interesting one – and probably not far from technological realization. I've written about the weaponizationof the earth's surface before, but Fracture seems to illustrate the concept in a refreshingly accessible way. However, there are many historical precedents for the idea of politicized terrain creation, and these deserve at least a passing mention here. I'm thinking, in particular, of David Blackbourn's recent book The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. The "making" in Blackbourn's subtitle is meant literally, as the book looks at coastal reshaping, bog- and marsh-draining, and other projects of imperial hydrology; these were the activities through which the territory of Germany itself was physically shaped. It was terrain deformation: a militarized reshaping of the earth's surface under orders from Frederick the Great. Frederick sought to transform the lands of northern Germany – then called Prussia – in order to create more space to rule. In his book, Blackbourn describes what these imperial "hydro-technicians" actually did:
The task of filling in the squares on Frederick's grids remained. That meant ditching and diking the future fields, constructing sluices, uprooting the old vegetation and planting willows by the new drainage canals, preparing the still heavy, intractable soil, building paths and bridges, houses, farms, and schools, all the while maintaining the new defenses against the water.
These "new defenses" have since been so naturalized that we mistake them for a pre-existing terrain upon which modern Germany was founded – but they were and are constructed landforms, a "brave new world of dikes, ditches, windmills, fields, and meadows." These were lands created through military intervention in order to host a particular form of political governance. In this context, then, Fracture would seem to be simply an accelerated - or what Sanford Kwinter might call an "adrenalated" – version of this tactical landscaping.
Meanwhile, a commenter over on Wired points out that there are conceptual similarities between Fracture and another game called Celestial Impact. In Celestial Impact, "the landscape is fully deformable in all directions." "Build and dig your way around the landscape in various strategic ways," we read, ways that are "not limited to destruction":
[T]he players also have the ability to add terrain to the landscape in the middle of combat using a special tool called Dirtgun. With the Dirtgun, players can add or remove terrain during combat as they see fit, simply by aiming and firing the dirtgun. Depending on the chosen action, this will either add or remove a chunk of dirt from the landscape. So as the teams are battling, the landscape receives vast changes opening up for various tactical approaches each team can use.
When your weapons are set on build-mode, the game's creators explain, "the Dirtgun adds terrain in the form of a pre-selected shape in front of the player. The shapes could be a simple cube, a part of a bridge or even a defensive wall." In many ways, this sounds like a weaponized version of Behrokh Khoshnevis's building-printer – subject of one of the earliest posts on BLDGBLOG – here remade as a kind of propulsive instant-concrete mixer retrofit for imperial military campaigns. As Discover described Khoshnevis's machine back in 2005, "a robotically controlled nozzle squeezes a ribbon of concrete onto a wooden plank. Every two minutes and 14 seconds, the nozzle completes a circuit, topping the previous ribbon with a fresh one. Thus a five-foot-long wall rises – a wall built without human intervention." Now make an accelerated, portable, and fully weaponized version of this thing, put it in a videogame, and you've got something a bit like Celestial Impact. Here are some screenshots.
Finally, I couldn't help but think here of architect Vicente Guallart. Guallart's work consistently seeks to introduce new geological forms into the built infrastructure of the city – artificial mountains, for instance, and "new topographies" through which a city might expand.
I suppose one question here might be: what would a videogame look like as designed by Vicente Guallart? Would it look like Fracture? If Vicente Guallart and Behrokh Khoshnevis teamed up, would they have created Celestial Impact? But a more interesting, and wide-ranging, question is whether designing videogame environments is not something of a missed opportunity for today's architecture studios. After all, how might architects relay complex ideas about space, landscape, and the design of new terrains if they were to stop using academic essays and even project renderings and turn instead to videogames? It seems like you can take your ideas about terrain deformation and instant landscapes and nomadic geology and you can license it to LucasArts, knowing that tens of thousands of people will soon be interacting with your ideas all over the world; or you can just pin some images up on the wall of an architecture class, make no money at all, and be forced to get a job rendering buildings for Frank Gehry. So would more people understand Rem Koolhaas's thoughts on cities if he stopped writing 1000-page books and started designing videogames – games set in some strange quasi-Asiatic desert world of Koolhaasian urbanism? Or do all of these questions simply mistake popularity for engaged comprehension? The larger issue, though, is whether or not architecture, increasingly popular as a kind of Dubai-inspired freakshow (rotating skyscrapers! solar-powered floating hotels!), is nonetheless not reaching the audience it needs.
If architects and architecture writers continue to use outmoded – I might even say totally irrelevant – forms of publication, such as $20/copy university-sponsored magazines and huge books purchased by no one but college librarians, then surely they can expect only people currently enrolled in academic programs even to be aware of what they're talking about, let alone to be enthusiastic about it or appreciative of the implications. $100 hardcover books do absolutely nothing to increase architecture's audience. So what would happen if architects tried videogames?
In any case, terrain deformation, dirtguns set on build-mode, and other forms of militarized landscape creation – these seem like good enough reasons to me to add gaming consoles to a design syllabus near you.
[Image: A seismic map of the mid-Atlantic, via PhysOrg.com].
What's interesting here, though, is not some disaster film scenario in which the city is shuddered into a rubble of broken bricks and glass, but the fact that the land around Manhattan is actually an "intricate labyrinth of old faults, sutures and zones of weakness caused by past collisions and rifting," as PhysOrg.com describes it. Amazingly, for anyone who has ever studied architecture, they even describe "unseen but potentially powerful structures whose layout and dynamics are only now coming clearer." Gilles Deleuze must be rolling in his grave. In a long excerpt, worth reading in full for its structural exploration of the land surrounding New York City, we read:
One major previously known feature, the Ramapo Seismic Zone, runs from eastern Pennsylvania to the mid-Hudson Valley, passing within a mile or two northwest of Indian Point. The researchers found that this system is not so much a single fracture as a braid of smaller ones, where quakes emanate from a set of still ill-defined faults. East and south of the Ramapo zone – and possibly more significant in terms of hazard – is a set of nearly parallel northwest-southeast faults. These include Manhattan's 125th Street fault, which seems to have generated two small 1981 quakes, and could have been the source of the big 1737 quake; the Dyckman Street fault, which carried a magnitude 2 in 1989; the Mosholu Parkway fault; and the Dobbs Ferry fault in suburban Westchester, which generated the largest recent shock, a surprising magnitude 4.1, in 1985.
The 125th Street fault? The Dyckman Street fault? The Dobbs Ferry fault? It was already clear that the built geography of Manhattan has been thoroughly determined by tectonic prehistory, but what future faults might yet be discovered down there – an Empire State fault, a St. Mark's Bookshop fault (with huge diagonal fissures extending infinitely down from the Critical Theory section), a Lower East Side fault whose all but imperceptible nighttime groaning gives new ideas to poets? And shouldn't these faults be added to Google Maps? Some of these underground structures were actually discovered during excavation work for new subways and water tunnels beneath the city, when digging crews came across sudden breaks in the rock seeming to slice off to nowhere. But if these "ill-defined" interruptions, as PhysOrg.com describes them, in the foundational security of New York City lead anywhere, it is to a "braid of smaller [faults]" that filigrees throughout the area. The whole eastern seaboard around Manhattan becomes a puzzlework of forgotten microcontinents – and someday, again, that puzzle might start to move.
Easily one of the most interesting things I've read in quite a while is how a team of particle physicists from UT-Austin plan on using repurposed muon detectors to see inside Mayan archaeological ruins. In the new issue of Archaeology, Samir S. Patel describes how "an almost featureless aluminum cylinder 5 feet in diameter" that spends its time "silently counting cosmic flotsam called muons" – "ghost particles" that ceaselessly rain down from space – will be installed in the jungles of Belize. There, these machines will map the otherwise unexplored internal spaces of what the scientists call a "jungle-covered mound." In other words, an ancient building that now appears simply to be part of the natural landscape – a constructed terrain – will be opened up to viewing for the first time since it was reclaimed by rain forest. It's non-invasive archaeology by way of deep space.
The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.
Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:
A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.
Referring to a muon detector already at work on the campus of UT-Austin, Patel writes: "The detector sees in every direction, so it also records muon shadows from the adjacent university buildings, and can even identify empty corridors. Silently, with little tending, it takes a monumental x-ray of the world around it." "The resulting image," he adds, "will be almost directly analogous to a medical CAT-scan."
Install one of these things in New York City and see what you find: moving blurs of elevators and passing trucks amidst the strange, skeletal frameworks of skyscrapers that stand behind it all in a labyrinthine mesh.
[Image: A diagram of how it all works; from this PDF by Roy Schwitters].
Patel goes on to relate the surreal story of physicist Luis Alvarez, who used muons "to scan the inside of an ancient structure" – in this case, Khafre's pyramid at Giza. "Working with Egyptian scientists in the late 1960s," we read, "he gained access to the Belzoni chamber, a humid vault deep under the pyramid." Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, "Alvarez's team set up a muon detector called a spark chamber, which included 30 tons of of iron sheeting, in the underground room." Foreign physicists building iron rooms beneath the pyramids! To search for secret chambers based on the evidence of cosmic particles.
[Image: An illustrated depiction of Luis Alvarez's feat; view larger!].
Indeed, we read:
Suspicion of the research team ran high – here was a group of Americans with high-tech electronics beneath one of Egypt's most cherished monuments. "We had flashing lights behind panels – it looked like a sci-fi thing from Star Trek," says Lauren Yazolino, the engineer who designed the detector's electronics.
Alvarez's iron room beneath the monolithic geometry of the pyramid – it's like a project by LebbeusWoods, by way of Boullée – apparently took one year to perform its muon-detection work. One day, then, the team took a long look at the data – wherein Yazolino "spotted an anomaly, a region of the pyramid that stopped fewer muons than expected, suggesting a void." There were still undiscovered rooms inside the structure.
Excitingly, when Roy Schwitters sets up his muon detector next to the tree-covered mounds of the Mayan city of La Milpa, he should get his results back in less than six months. Sitting there like a strange battery, the detector's ultra-long-term abstract photography of the jungle hillsides vaguely reminds me of the technically avant-garde photographic work of Aaron Rose. Rose has pioneered all sorts of strange lenses and unexpected chemical developers as he takes long-term exposures of Manhattan. New York becomes less a city than a kind of impenetrable wall of built space.
Again, then, I'm curious what it'd be like to install one of these muon detectors in Manhattan: the shivering hives of space it might detect, as delivery trucks shake the bridges and elevators move up and down inside distant high-rises. What would someone like Aaron Rose be able to do with a muon detector? Are muon detectors the future of urban art photography? Perhaps it could even be a strange new piece of public art: a dozen muon detectors are installed in Union Square for six months. They're behind fences, and look sinister; conspiratorialists leave long comments on architecture blogs suggesting that the muon detectors might not really be what they seem... But the resulting images, after six months of Manhattan muon detection, are turned over as a gift to the city; they are hung in massive prints inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Egyptian wing, and Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers the keynote address. Or perhaps a muon detector could be installed atop London's fourth plinth:
The Fourth Plinth is in the north-west of Trafalgar Square, in central London. Built in 1841, it was originally intended for an equestrian statue but was empty for many years. It is now the location for specially commissioned art works.
For six months, a shadowy muon detector will stand there, above the heads of passing tourists, detecting strange and labyrinthine hollows beneath government buildings where sprawling complexes from WWII spiral out of sight below ground. Or perhaps muon detectors could even be installed along the European coast to discover things like the buried neolithic village of Skara Brae or those infamous Nazi bunkers "that lay hidden for more than 50 years" before being uncovered by the sea. As the Daily Mail reported earlier this month:
Three Nazi bunkers on a beach have been uncovered by violent storms off the Danish coast, providing a store of material for history buffs and military archaeologists.
The bunkers were found in practically the same condition as they were on the day the last Nazi soldiers left them, down to the tobacco in one trooper's pipe and a half-finished bottle of schnapps.
So what else might be down there under the soil and the sands...? I'm imagining mobile teams of archaeologists sleeping in unnamed instant cities in the jungles and far deserts of the world, with storms swirling over their heads, running tests on gigantic black cylinders – muon detectors, all – that stand there like Kubrickian monoliths, recording invisible flashes of energy from space to find ancient burial sites and old buildings underground.
Perhaps all the forests and deserts of the world should be peppered with muon detectors – revealing archaeological anomalies and unexpected spaces in the ground all around us. Architecture students could be involved: installing muon detectors outside Dubai high-rises and then competing to see who can most accurately interpret the floorplan data.
Till one day, ten years from now, an astronaut crazed with emotional loneliness, riding through space with his muon detector, begins misinterpreting all of the data. He concludes – in a live radio transmission broadcast home to stunned mission control supervisors – that his space station has secret rooms – undiscovered rooms – that keep popping up somehow in the shadows... More to the point, meanwhile, you can read a few more things about Roy Schwitters over at MSNBC – and, of course, at the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group homepage.
The Milky Way is made up of thousands of "substructures such as streams." These "streams" are really clumps of stars – moving at a shared velocity, in a shared direction – that were "ripped" from other galaxies, "most likely small galaxies that were pulled in to create the Milky Way." Streams at the center of the galaxy are thus the oldest, as "you probably build a galaxy up from the inside out." Indeed, the sky is criss-crossed with rivers that flow from the remains of structures unspooling elsewhere.
It was reported last week that an "underground city" had been discovered beneath the streets of Leavenworth, Kansas. "Some Leavenworth residents have been unknowingly walking around above an underground city," we read, "and no one seems to know who created it or why."
Windows, doors and narrow paths beneath a title company at South Fourth and Delaware streets lead to storefronts stretching several city blocks and perhaps beyond. There are also several vaults around town. Some of have them been used for breweries... Some speculate the underground town was created in the 1800s and could have been used during slavery or for fugitives.
I have to admit, though, especially after looking at the slideshow, that referring to this alternately as an "underground town" and an "underground city" seems like quite an overstatement of the case; it looks more like a few connected basements at most. But how are you going to get people's attention if all you've discovered is a few empty rooms beneath Main Street...?
There's a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book's introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below. I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves. After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.
Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders. There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as "the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite," Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, "and the hospital is concerned that they're now basically corroding."
So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that's made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they're literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.
In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one. He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark. Maisel's photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It's expensive, but well worth checking out. The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.
In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”
Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.
Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.
The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.
The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.
Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.
Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.
Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.
Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.
Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.
A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.
Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.
Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.
David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.
Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.
In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?
After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.
It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.
Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.
There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.
Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.
To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.
At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.
Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.
[Image: An inflatable church on the beaches of Sardinia; via the BBC].
Inflatable infrastructure for churchgoers has arrived on the sandy beaches of Sardinia, as a bouncy chapel has been installed for Christians on holiday. "Using compressed air it takes only five minutes to inflate," the Times reports, and it "comes complete with an altar, an apse and a confessional." Inflatable mosques and temples will be next. An inflatable sacred grove for druids.
The size of your church is directly affected by how much money you can raise – because the only pumps strong enough to inflate the whole structure cost $50,000 or more. Once you get that far, though, you realize there are still more rooms and radiating chapels to inflate... but it takes an even larger – and far more expensive – air pump. Yet, even then, you find more – nearly impossible to inflate – rooms hidden away inside the structure.
"Who made this thing?" you ask one day, quietly, not wanting to draw attention to yourself; and you learn that there is a Holy Lab of Consecrated Inflatables housed in an unmarked room in the Vatican attics – attics the size of basketball courts – where priests trained in the art of shaping warm air read apocryphal texts on the breath of God, stitching vast sheets of polyethylene together to form Gothic geometries. It's rumored that the largest inflatable ever created is being designed by the monks of Mount Athos; it will require a small nuclear power plant to fill properly. Bombproof churches will be erected throughout Syria in what becomes known as the Inflatable Crusade. In particularly expensive models, assembled by private firms in the Netherlands, inflatable priests will pop out of hidden compartments in the floor when you twist small valves, triggering a recording of Agnus Dei. Children clap, endless cupolas unfold into the sky, and the real services of the evening begin.
Last week, The New York Times took readers to an isolated house called Clingstone, built by a Philadelphian named J.S. Lovering Wharton on a rock in the waters of Rhode Island.
Working with an artist, William Trost Richards, Mr. Wharton designed a shingle-style house of picture windows, with 23 rooms on three stories radiating off a vast central hall; its plan is less a blueprint than a diagram of arrows indicating sightlines.
He built it like a mill, Mr. Wood said, with wide planking, sturdy oak beams, diagonal sheathing and an odd flourish: an interior cladding of shingles...
The process of renovating the house, abandoned since the 1940s, was formidable, and the weather can be rough; we read, for instance, that "untethered doors at Clingstone are quickly smashed by the wind."
"This house is always going to have rough edges,” says current resident Henry Wood, an architect.
The house, an act of near-constant maintenance, is now on its way to being green:
Today, solar panels heat the water, and a wind turbine on the roof generates electricity. Rainwater is collected in a 3,000-gallon cistern, then filtered, treated and pumped through the house for cleaning purposes. (Mr. Wood claims it is safe enough to drink, “but my children don’t trust me so we don’t,” he said.) After years of using an activated seawater system that draws in seawater, then treats and filters the waste before releasing it back into the ocean, Clingstone now has the latest generation of composting toilets.
For the time being, Clingstone is the only structure on the island, watching through picture windows as Atlantic storms roll in.
The slideshow, with images by Erik Jacobs, is worth checking out.
Meanwhile, over at Deputy Dog we were introduced to the rotating architecture of the Villa Girasole, a house in Italy that rotates on massing internal roller bearings and exposed tracks paved into the landscape.
The house, by engineer Angelo Invernizzi, "last rotated in 2002," we read in Chad Randl's new book Revolving Architecture, where many more photographs of the building appear. Randl writes:
Invernizzi and his design team used the villa project as a laboratory for trying out modern materials, from reinforced concrete to fiber-cement wall boards. In keeping with the project's experimental nature, a considerable amount of adaptation and refinement accompanied construction. On the exterior walls Invernizzi substituted aluminum sheet for the original cement finish when cracks appeared after the first trial rotations. As the foundation settled and the rotating mechanism was tested, small cracks also developed along the interior plaster walls of the moving part. Invernizzi concealed the damage by finishing the walls with a canvas covering...
Randl points out that the "layout and form of the moving section are well suited to rotation." Further, the house's occupants could "control rotation using a panel (with three buttons: forward, backward, and stop) in the foyer of the moving part."
You can read more about the house's "rotational machinery" in Randl's book.
I wonder, though, if an interesting children's novel couldn't someday be written about a family who goes off on holiday for the summer in the mountains of Italy, renting a dust-covered and slightly eccentric old house. The young boy or girl, who is left alone all day, for whatever reason the novelist comes up with, finds a small panel one day in the house's towering attics.
Those strange paths in the garden, you see, aren't just paths, they're tracks – and this house doesn't just rotate it travels large distances...
In any case, in a bit of unrelated news, hurricanes of liquid iron have been raging at the earth's core for more than 300 million years, simulations suggest. These "subterranean cyclones" have been spinning for the most part below Asia, perhaps explaining the core's seismic asymmetry.
[Image: A new Los Angeles park, rendered by EDAW; spotted at Inhabitat].
Earlier this summer, EDAW released images from its intern design program wherein a new park atop a buried freeway for Los Angeles was the featured subject of discussion. Park 101, as they call it, would be the resulting swatch of artificial land created by covering up the 101 Hollywood freeway. EDAW describes its own plan as "a visionary, and realistic, urban design solution to cap... a relatively small area straddling the 101 freeway, situated in an existing maze of roadways." It will be "an iconic urban park in the heart of downtown Los Angeles... re-visioning the existing infrastructure that supports and encircles the core of the city – freeways, channelized rivers, streets, and public transit."
Considering that L.A. needs very seriously to consider pedestrianization plans, at a huge variety of scales across the whole city, this seems like as good a place as any to begin.
In fact, BLDGBLOG here proposes something like a Pasadena-to-Pacific walking trail: a purpose-built pedestrian boulevard – car-free its whole length, except perhaps for access to emergency services – leading from the beaches of Santa Monica all the way to the foothills of Pasadena, via Griffith Park, encompassing de-paved sections of major cross-city thoroughfares.
A north-south axis would be soon to follow – and the whole thing could perhaps then hook up with the Pacific Crest Trail.
Speaking of L.A., in response to the previous post, artist Sean Dockray sent in these unexplained images, apparently derived from "freeway loop detector data" on the perpetually clogged 405. We've covered Dockray's work before; in this case, Dockray also drops hints about "a radio station that would be nothing but a reading of [traffic] incidents around [Los Angeles] county (w background music)."
So what do these subtly morphing diagrams really mean?
Finally, Pruned was Alps-bound last week with this look at Gazex, an "explosively effective" anti-avalanche technology embedded in the snow-covered mountainsides.
According to the company's own website, "Gazex explodes an oxygen/propane gas mixture in specifically designed exploder tubes located at the top end of risk zones. The exploders are connected to gas storage tanks with capacities high enough to operate for the whole season without re-filling."
The company boasts that it is the "world leader in remote avalanche prevention control systems."
Clearly, though, it would not be hard to re-purpose this technology, installing hundreds – thousands – of these things in the mountains, anticipating warfare... and then hurling avalanches down upon the heads of invading armies.
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my friends, editors, employers, publishers, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated. More.