Over and Out

[Video: A kind of deltaic 3D printer, printing variable landscapes into existence, from Riparian Rap].

I thought I'd end the year with this quick video of some riverine landscape modeling exercises built through the constant back and forth washes and cross-flows of a self-resurfacing deltaic 3D-printer—and then I'll see you in 2011.

(Video spotted via @clasticdetritus).

Paris Onion

[Image: Photo by Dsankt].

Dsankt of Sleepy City has posted a long and absurdly interesting write-up of his explorations over the years through the Paris Metro system, long after its doors have officially been closed.

"As we haven't walked every section of tunnel nor checked every door," he points out, "and considering the evolving nature of the system and the city it supports there is and will always be more to see, find and experience in the metro. This is in no way a definitive list, nor even a checklist for future explorers to use in their adventures in the metro, since discovering your own places is substantially more rewarding and something we should always pursue."

[Image: Photo by Dsankt].

From "enormous vent systems" and the "abandoned platforms of an active station" to hand-drawn napkin maps and the "driverless robotrains of line 14," it's part adventure narrative, part infrastructural history, party underground photo-freakout—and, it's worth reading in full.

Blue Tape

[Image: Los Angeles seen from the 51st floor of City National Plaza, 13 December 2010].

This past week brought the autumn term to an end here in Los Angeles. For two days, students from the USC School of Architecture participated in an experimental final review called "Blue Tape," named after the blue painters' tape that the students were required to use in mounting their boards. The technique didn't quite stick with all projects, however, as students were given often very confined spaces—their boards thus overlapping—or irregular surfaces on which they were meant to display.

"Blue Tape" took place in the otherwise empty interior of a former corporate law office on the 50th and 51st floors of City National Plaza, in downtown Los Angeles. It was an open review, meaning that friends, family, critics, faculty, staff, administrators, fellow students, confidants, significant others, complete strangers, visitors, and the odd building-maintenance crew could wander around, from room to room and corridor to corridor, for hours at at time and check out student work. A reception, overlooking the nighttime intersecting grids and bulging topographies of the city outside, capped it all off.

[Images: Downtown Los Angeles at sunset on 13 December 2010].

Archinect's Orhan Ayyüce, who participated as a kind of roving juror at "Blue Tape," including for my own students, writes that, amidst all the reviews he'd done in the past two weeks, "this was the most special one in terms of providing a populated spectacle and a picture of a large beehive-like platform of youthful power."

The novelty of the arrangement certainly contributed to this sensation. For two evenings in December, the post-recessional emptiness of a downtown corporate office space, with its 1970s wall decorations, flickering fluorescent bulbs, and worn carpets, framed an almost explicitly theatrical staging of architectural wish-fulfilment: a new generation could freely project its own ideas for future cities and building types, under the panoramic spell of a delirious implication, that these cavernous board rooms and floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering views from mountain to sea and back again, might someday house their own design practices. As Orhan phrased it, with what I sense is slight irony, "USC: the world is yours." However misleading this setting thus might actually have been, it was an enticing carrot to chase.

[Image: Los Angeles at sunset from the 51st floor of City National Plaza on Monday, 13 December 2010].

On the other hand, should something like "Blue Tape" become a regular institution for USC, I can see the format—and the location—losing much of its imaginative power after only a few repetitions. Further, it wasn't all carrot: there were many sticks. Requiring students to transport often massive and easily damaged display boards on the Los Angeles bus network or, alternatively, to pay, without the possibility of reimbursement, truly exorbitant parking fees to attend their own final reviews, and to push such a time-intensive experience so far off USC's main campus during the same week as final exams, thus compelling many students to leave "Blue Tape" in the middle of everyone else's presentations, missing out on the intended camaraderie of the day in order to rush back to campus alone and turn in their final papers, is also surely something you can demand only a limited number of times.

As such, faced both with these limits and these opportunities, the students did a fantastic job, their patience and perseverance perhaps exceeding the organizational foresight of the faculty. The beehive of youthful power that Orhan diagnosed is alive and well.

[Image: "Cinema City" projects at the USC School of Architecture's "Blue Tape" review].

Below, I've included some photos taken of my own students presenting their work for a class I called "Cinema City." As I wrote in the previous post, that studio asked students to consider the architectural future of the movie-going experience. In other words, if today's increasingly fragmented audiences are just as likely to watch films on their iPhones or tablet computers—not to mention through all-you-can-watch DVD subscription services on home TVs—as they are at the local shopping mall, then what architectural effects might these emerging consumer practices and distribution technologies soon have?

If cinemas, for instance, like libraries, face an uncertain social and economic future, what lies beyond the multiplex and the iPad, on the other side of IMAX and at-home on-demand? If the building type now known as the cinema is forced to mutate, what might it become and how could architects today preemptively steer its future design? What spaces or scenarios can architects imagine that might transform—and re-inspire public interest in—going out to watch movies in public? Further, how might these new spaces influence and interact with the design of the city itself—and possibly even how films are produced?

We read everything from histories of Baroque city planning and theatrical stage-set design, via books like The City of Collective Memory and Margaret Wertheim's "history of space from Dante to the internet," and we looked at photo essays of ruined cinemas as well as architectural histories of American movie theater design. Perhaps the most exciting part of the class, however, was simply watching the daily news for examples—taken from the immediate present—of cinematic experiences that radically rethink the traditional movie theater: new screen and projection technologies, new distribution plans hypothesized for Netflix, new types of movie-centric social gatherings in cities and rural villages around the world.

[Images: Students enrolled in "Cinema City" at the USC School of Architecture present their work].

Amongst much other work produced over the course of the semester, the resulting projects specifically presented at "Blue Tape" ran the gamut from repurposed lifeguard stations on the beaches of Santa Monica, transformed into luxury film-cabin rentals and outdoor screening rooms (by student Arthur Page); a series of "film pavilions" for the Santa Monica Mountains, featuring strikingly imaginative uses of hologram-projection technologies and subterranean sound-amplifiers to create truly novel spaces for contextually appropriate films (Jennifer Choi); a cinema designed as if Facebook were the client, with interactive media walls, open terraces for people-watching, and intensely social, rearrangeable interiors, asking the awesomely provocative question of how the various functions of Facebook—from commenting to liking to friending—could be architecturally spatialized in a future multiplex (Anran He); a "film garden" of irregularly angled walls, open courtyards, and enclosed spaces situated on a conjoined archipelago of traffic islands near Beverly Center (Heli Zhang); an outdoor food & film festival imagined for Gourmet.com, with moving screens and survey-determined parking spots for food & projection trucks (Judson Hornfeck); a "cloud tower" of monumental, orchid-like film-viewing pods looming over the streets of Hollywood from a centralized, elevator-filled stalk (Jiejun Li); a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" cinema installed inside a multilevel constellation of renovated cargo containers in an old warehouse near the L.A. River (Mike Chou); a private house on Sunset Boulevard built for a reclusive film fanatic—the building would be an "otakutopia," as the project was called—filled with innumerable wall-mounted optical devices, including wearable periscopes and a kind of lens-cannon on the roof, allowing the eccentric homeowner never to be far from his beloved screen-based media, his house an inhabitable telescope (Yu-Quan Chen); and the QR cinema of the robot future, with films made by machines for machines, as described in the previous post (Jonathan Rennie).

Our guest critics that day were also hugely helpful: Christian Chaudhari, Julian Bleecker, Lisa Little, Darien Williams, and Orhan Ayyüce all contributed to what I thought was a great five-hour conversation about cinema's still undetermined architectural future.

Finally, you can see slightly larger versions of the above photographs in this Flickr set.

QR Cinema, or: Machines Making Films For Machines

One of my students this fall—Jonathan Rennie, at the USC School of Architecture—has had his final project featured on Near Future Laboratory; the post is written by Julian Bleecker, who served as a guest critic for Jonathan's review.

[Image: From a project by Jonathan Rennie, produced at the USC School of Architecture].

Bleecker writes that the work is "one of those architecture projects that plays at the far end of the spectrum of architecture’s inherent speculative nature." Specifically, Bleecker summarizes, the project works as "a sneak preview for a future of cinema, proposing a continuous cinema that is freed from both the spatial confines of the movie house and the literary expectations of narrative—told by and to non-human machines."

[Image: From a project by Jonathan Rennie, produced at the USC School of Architecture].

You can read Bleecker's post for more information—but I should explain that the course itself, called "Cinema City," asked students to consider the architectural future of screen-based media. In other words, if today's consumers are just as likely to watch films on their iPhones or home computers—not to mention TVs—as they are at the local shopping mall, then what architectural effects might these emerging audience practices and distribution technologies soon have?

More specifically, in an age of tablet computers and all-you-can-watch DVDs, we asked how architects could influence or even explicitly re-design the social future of the movie-going experience. If cinemas, for instance, like libraries, face an uncertain social and economic future, what lies beyond the multiplex and the iPad, on the other side of IMAX and at-home on-demand? What spaces or scenarios can architects imagine that might transform—and re-inspire public interest in—going out to watch movies in public? Further, how might these spaces influence and interact with the design of the city itself—and possibly even how films are produced?

It's worth pointing out, as well, that Jonathan's project was a particularly abstract response to the design brief—indeed, it was the only project in the class that did not, in the end, propose a specific new type of building, space, or public spectacle. Instead, it relied on a series of fictional scenarios through which Jonathan could explore a future world in which, as Bleecker writes, architects begin "embedding machine-readable (or maybe only-for-machine) texts in physical structures."

The project thus sought to illustrate a situation where the future of cinema is not for humans at all, but is instead for ever-more intelligent machine systems that have developed an admittedly quite whimsical way to communicate with one another. These included container-stacking structures in the Los Angeles harbor and the orbiting satellite systems that surveil them from above.

[Image: From a project by Jonathan Rennie, produced at the USC School of Architecture].

The very idea of cinema being nothing but a series of moving images projected onto a flat surface would thus be replaced, Jonathan's project suggests, by machine-readable QR codes that embed digital information in the landscape.

Cars strategically parked atop open-air garages; cargo containers precisely stacked at coastal sea terminals; patterns harvested into agricultural fields by automated harvesting equipment; even thermal gradients caused by the urban heat island effect could all become a future "cinema" of QR codes through which machines talk to other species of machines.

[Image: From a project by Jonathan Rennie, produced at the USC School of Architecture].

As Bleecker writes:
Over time, as they see the same films over and over again and become bored, [the machines] begin to look for QR codes elsewhere, perhaps interpreting barcode-like structures in the landscape at different wavelengths—for instance an infrared foliage rendering may appear to contain QR codes. They seek out new films in this way, perhaps even instructing terrestrial machines, such as the cranes at loading docks or tractors in large farm fields, to construct new QR codes containing new [films] and stories.
Insert clever references to SkyNet here...

Urban Archaeology of Collisions in the Sky

[Image: Photo by Allyn Baum for The New York Times].

In a short but otherwise quite remarkable article in today's New York Times, we read about the barely visible traces of a plane crash that occurred 40 years ago in the skies above Park Slope, Brooklyn. As the article explains, there is "little to indicate that the corner of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, bore violent witness to the worst air disaster at the time."

"If you look closely, though, there are signs—not wounds from that harrowing day so much as faded scars."

For the most part, these wounds from the sky take architectural form. They are urban archaeologies of airborne collision—the tragic encounter of a plane with the city—recorded in material detail:
    At 126 Sterling, where a 25-foot section of the plane’s right wing knifed through a peach-brick four-story apartment complex, the building still stands, but its bunting-patterned tin cornice is gone; the two matching buildings to the right still have theirs. The first dozen courses of brick below the rebuilt roof don’t match the rest. They are shinier, lighter: newer.
Meanwhile, nearby on 7th Avenue, "at the back of the brownstone at No. 20 that caught fire, a second-floor window was never replaced and has been bricked over. Titus Montalvo, who has lived on the ground floor for nearly 40 years, said that a former landlord warned him he might find fingers while digging in the garden."

There are even what the article refers to as "crash relics"—rusted pieces of wings—still standing in people's back gardens like scenes from some new Catholicism of fallen machinery, as rewritten by J.G. Ballard.

But there is something almost giddy in the implication that, if only we could perform a rigorous-enough architectural forensics on the surface of the city—revealing traces of disaster hidden in ornamental cornices and bricked-up windows—then otherwise lost events could be both memorialized and reconstructed. Even the smallest mark on a building's facade becomes a monument to forgotten histories.

Weather Warfare

[Image: From Elements of War by Kalypso Media].

A forthcoming game called Elements of War takes weaponized weather-control as its central theme, "where armies manipulate the forces of nature to rain down destruction on their foes or gain a tactical advantage by transforming the battlefield with hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes."

It is set in the United States in a period "after a secret military weather control experiment sets in motion a near-complete global climate collapse," featuring "unconventional units" fighting "for control of fearsome weather-based weapons, granting them the power to use tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, torrential rains and other forces of nature as weapons of war."

[Image: From Elements of War by Kalypso Media].

The game comes out in February 2011, so I haven't played it and am basing this solely on a recent press release; I thus can't vouch for its actual execution or gameplay.

Nonetheless, I'm intrigued to see how the game's "six weather-based weapons," allowing players to "dominate and transform the battlefield with tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and other elements of war, impacting supply lines, slowing troop movements and devastating the enemy," work out.

[Image: From Elements of War by Kalypso Media].

The game promises "realistic destruction physics," and I would hope that the weapons themselves—there is apparently an internal game list of what the designers call "'What If' Weaponry"—are actually interesting, and not just repurposed tanks, their cannons firing storms, or rifles shooting electrically-active lightning rounds or something similar.

In fact, the possibilities for genuinely reinvented tools of weather-warfare become pretty delirious after a point, whether it's something as basic as shoulder-fired devices packed with microtornadic winds or whole fields sown with air-pressure bombs that generate inland hurricanes upon timed detonation.

Long-term seismic-resonance grenades; liquefaction earth-storms; Instant Glacier™ humidity-solidification traps; stationary magnetosphere-deflection architecture.

[Image: A "rain-making machine" via Modern Mechanix].

In an article I often cite here, originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, weather historian James Fleming explains that, as early as World War II, "some in the military had already recognized the potential uses of weather modification, and the subject has remained on military minds ever since. In the 1940s, General George C. Kenney, commander of the Strategic Air Command, declared, 'The nation which first learns to plot the paths of air masses accurately and learns to control the time and place of precipitation will dominate the globe.'"

Fleming continues:
    Howard T. Orville, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weather adviser, published an influential 1954 article in Collier’s that included a variety of scenarios for using weather as a weapon of warfare. Planes would drop hundreds of balloons containing seeding crystals into the jet stream. Downstream, when the fuses on the balloons exploded, the crystals would fall into the clouds, initiating rain and miring enemy operations. The Army Ordnance Corps was investigating another technique: loading silver iodide and carbon dioxide into 50-caliber tracer bullets that pilots could fire into clouds. A more insidious technique would strike at an adversary’s food supply by seeding clouds to rob them of moisture before they reached enemy agricultural areas. Speculative and wildly optimistic ideas such as these from official sources, together with threats that the Soviets were aggressively pursuing weather control, triggered what Newsweek called “a weather race with the Russians,” and helped fuel the rapid expansion of meteorological research in all areas, including the creation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which was established in 1960.
Many of these climatological strategies ultimately came together in the form of Operation Popeye, during the Vietnam War. As Fleming explains, "Operating out of Udorn Air Base, Thailand, without the knowledge of the Thai government or almost anyone else, but with the full and enthusiastic support of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, the Air Weather Service flew more than 2,600 cloud seeding sorties and expended 47,000 silver iodide flares over a period of approximately five years at an annual cost of some $3.6 million."

In any case, I could go on and on about weaponized climatology; for now, it seems no surprise that weather-weapons would be making their way as offensive tools into new computer games.

(Via Jim Rossignol; earlier on BLDGBLOG: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation).

Future Food Through Future Funding

[Image: An augmented-eating apparatus from "Foragers" by Dunne & Raby].

For a project called "Foragers," design duo Dunne & Raby—who spoke last month at Thrilling Wonder Stories 2—sought a design-based solution to the urgent problem of future food supplies. "The world is running out of food–we need to produce 70% more food in the next 40 years according to the UN. Yet we continue to over-populate the planet, use up resources and ignore all the warning signs," the designers warn. "It is completely unsustainable."

Their eventual proposal was not a new type of grain, however, or a more effective cookstove. After all, they point out, "we have not really embraced the power to modify ourselves. What if we could extract nutritional value from non-human foods using a combination of synthetic biology and new digestive devices inspired by digestive systems of other mammals, birds, fish and insects?"

Dunne & Raby thus suggested the wholesale genetic alteration of the human digestive tract, in tandem with the design and adoption of new technical instruments for obtaining food from the larger environment. The human body could thereafter metabolize a highly diverse range of nutrients, from tree branches to algae-filled pond water.

But is this the direction that future food-system design and research should be going?

Nicola Twilley, author of Edible Geography and Food Editor for GOOD, is hosting an interesting question this week as part of the ongoing Glass House Conversations about this very topic. "The design of food has the potential to reshape the world," Nicola writes, "let alone what we eat for dinner."
    Food—the substance itself, as well as its methods of production and consumption—has always been the subject of tinkering and design. The color of carrots, the shape of silverware, and the layout of supermarkets are all products of human ingenuity applied to the business of nourishment. Today, food is being redesigned more fundamentally and at a faster pace than ever before. This process is taking place in a wide variety of different contexts, with very different goals in mind, from corporate food technologists re-shaping salt crystals to maintain palatability while combating heart disease, to synaesthetic experiences designed by artist-entrepreneurs such as Marije Vogelzang.
Which leads to the week's question: "In an era when food justice, food security, climate change, and obesity are such pressing issues, should there be public funding for food design R&D, and, if so, who should be receiving it?"

Should the designed future of food, and food systems more generally, be left to private corporations, to public institutions, to university labs, to individual entrepreneurs, to speculative design firms, or to some unexpected combination of all of the above? Further, what specific lines of design exploration should be explored when it comes to the global food supply, whether it's genetic modification or new forms of preservation? Finally, how should these advances in food be best funded and pursued?

The forum will remain open until 8pm EST on Friday, December 17; be sure to join in, as it should be a good conversation.

Books Received: Climate Futures List

A rash of recent books about the geographic implications of climate change have crossed my desk. In this themed supplement to BLDGBLOG's ongoing Books Received series, I thought I'd group them together into one related list.

[Image: Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal].

What many of the books described in this post have in common—aside from their shared interest in what a climatically different earth will mean for the future of human civilization—is their use of short, fictionalized narratives set in specific future years or geographic regions as a way of illustrating larger points.

These narrative scenarios—diagnostic estimates of where we will be at some projected later date—come with chapter titles such as "Russia, 2019," "China, 2042," "Miami Beached," and "Holland 2.0 Depolderized." Among the various spatial and geopolitical side-effects of climate change outlined by these authors are a coming depopulation of the American Southwest; a massive demographic move north toward newly temperate Arctic settlements, economically spearheaded by the extraction industry and an invigorated global sea trade; border wars between an authoritarian Russia and a civil war-wracked China; and entire floating cities colonizing the waters of the north Atlantic as Holland aims to give up its terrestrial anchorage altogether, becoming truly a nation at sea.

"Will Manhattan Flood?" asks Matthew E. Kahn in his Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. What will Greenland look like in the year 2215, with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 1300 parts per million, according to Peter Ward's The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps? Will a "New North" rise as the Arctic de-ices and today's economic powerhouses, from Los Angeles to Shanghai, stagnate under killer droughts, coastal floods, and heat waves, as Laurence C. Smith suggests in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future?

[Image: Modeling sea-level rise in Florida, courtesy of Penn State].

However, climate change is only one of the world-altering forces under discussion in each of these six books. Demography, oil scarcity, natural resources, public hygiene, and accelerating globalization all play roles, to different extents, in these authors' thinking. In one case, in particular—Float!: Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change, the most practical book described here—new construction technologies, with immediate implications for architectural design, also take center stage.

In all cases, though, these books offer further evidence of an irresistible popular urge to discuss the future, and to do so through what can very broadly described as fiction. The recent speculative tone taken by much of today's architecture writing is only part of this trend; from "design fiction" to speculative foreign policy blogs, and from "the world without us" to future food, a compulsion to understand what might happen to human civilization, in both the near and distant future, using fictional scenarios and speculative hypotheses seems to be at a high point of trans-disciplinary appeal.

As Heidi Cullen writes in The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, there is something inherently difficult in comprehending the scale of climate change—what effects it might have, what systems it might interrupt or ruin. She thus imports lessons from cognitive psychology to understand what it is about climate change that keeps it so widely misinterpreted (though a hefty dose of media criticism, I'd argue, is far more apropos). It is interesting, then, in light of the apparent incomprehensibility of climate change, that fictional scenarios have become so popular a means of explaining and illustrating what Cullen calls our "climate-changed planet."

This emerging narrative portraiture of climate change—exemplified by most of the books under discussion here, whether they present us with Atlanta running out of freshwater, frantic Chinese troops diverting rivers on the border with India, or a governmentally-abandoned Miami given over to anarchism and mass flooding—offers an imperfect but highly effective way of making a multi-dimensional problem understandable.

After all, if stories are an effective means of communicating culturally valuable information—if stories are pedagogically useful—then why not tell more stories about future climate change—indeed, why not tell more stories about architecture and buildings and emerging technologies and the spaces of tomorrow's geopolitics?

Perhaps this is why so much of architecture writing today, both on blogs and elsewhere, so willfully crosses over into science fiction: if architecture literally is the design and proposal of a different world—one that might exist tomorrow, next year, next decade—then it is conceptually coextensive with the genre of scifi.

The current speculative turn in architecture writing is thus both unsurprising and highly appropriate to its subject matter—something worth bearing in mind by anyone hoping to find a larger audience for architectural critique.

[Image: "London as Venice" by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones, based on a photo by Jason Hawkes (part of an image series well-critiqued by the Guardian)].

An obvious problem with these preceding statements, however, is that we might quickly find ourselves relying on fiction to present scientific ideas to a popular audience; in turn, this risks producing a public educated not by scientists themselves but by misleading plotlines and useless blockbusters, such as The Day After Tomorrow and State of Fear, where incorrect popular representations of scientific data become mistaken for reports of verified fact.

In a way, one of the books cited in the following short list unwittingly demonstrates this very risk; Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats would certainly work to stimulate a morally animated conversation with your friends over coffee or drinks, but there is something about its militarized fantasies of Arctic tent cities and Asian governments collapsing in civil free-fall that can't help but come across as over-excitable, opening the door to disbelief for cynics and providing ammunition for extreme political views.

Indeed, I'd argue, the extent to which contemporary political fantasies are being narratively projected onto the looming world of runaway climate change has yet to be fully analyzed. For instance, climate change will cause the European Union to disband, we read in one book cited here, leaving Britain an agriculturally self-sufficient (though under-employed) island-state of dense, pedestrian-friendly urban cores; the U.S. will close its foreign military bases en masse, bringing its troops home to concentrate on large-scale infrastructural improvements, such as urban seawalls, as the middle class moves to high-altitude safety in the Rocky Mountains where it will live much closer to nature; Africa, already suffering from political corruption and epidemic disease, will fail entirely, undergoing a horrific population crash; and China will implode, leaving the global north in control of world resources once again.

It is important to note that all of these scenarios represent explicit political goals for different groups located at different points on the political spectrum. Perversely, disastrous climate change scenarios actually offer certain societal forces a sense of future relief—however misguided or short-term that relief may be.

Elsewhere, I've written about what I call climate change escapism—or liberation hydrology—which is the idea that climate change, and its attendant rewriting of the world's geography through floods, is being turned into a kind of one-stop shop, like the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, for people who long for radical escape from today's terrestrial status quo but who can find no effective political means for rallying those they see as forming a united constituency. Climate change thus becomes a kind of a deus ex machina—a light at the end of the tunnel for those who hope to see the world stood abruptly on its head.

Indeed, we might ask here: what do we want from climate change? What world do we secretly hope climate change will create—and what details of this world can we glimpse in today's speculative descriptions of the future? What explicit moral lessons do we hope climate change will teach our fellow human beings?

[Image: "London-on-Sea" by Practical Action].

Of course, the six books listed below are by no means the only ones worth reading on these topics; in fact, the emerging genre of what I'll call climate futures is an absolutely fascinating one, and these books should be seen as a useful starting place. I would add, for instance, that Charles Emmerson's recent Future History of the Arctic clearly belongs on this list—however, I covered it in an earlier installment of Books Received. Further, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris is a commendably concise and highly readable introduction to what global climate change might bring, and Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change has become something of a minor classic in this emerging field.

So, without further ado, here are six new books about climate futures.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith (Dutton). Smith's book is a virtuoso example of what I would call political science fiction, extrapolating from existing trends in demography, natural-resource depletion, globalization, and climate change to see what will happen to the eight nations of the Arctic Rim—what Smith alternately calls the New North and the Northern Rim. "I loosely define this 'New North,'" Smith writes, "as all land and oceans lying 45º N latitude or higher currently held by the United States, Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia."

I should point out that the book's cover art depicts downtown Los Angeles being over-run by the cracked earth of a featureless desert, as clear an indication as any that Smith's New North will benefit from negative—indeed, sometimes catastrophic—effects elsewhere.

In an article-slash-book-excerpt published last month in the Wall Street Journal, Smith wrote: "Imagine the Arctic in 2050 as a frigid version of Nevada—an empty landscape dotted with gleaming boom towns. Gas pipelines fan across the tundra, fueling fast-growing cities to the south like Calgary and Moscow, the coveted destinations for millions of global immigrants. It's a busy web for global commerce, as the world's ships advance each summer as the seasonal sea ice retreats, or even briefly disappears." Further:
    If Florida coasts become uninsurable and California enters a long-term drought, might people consider moving to Minnesota or Alberta? Will Spaniards eye Sweden? Might Russia one day, its population falling and needful of immigrants, decide a smarter alternative to resurrecting old Soviet plans for a 1,600-mile Siberia-Aral canal is to simply invite former Kazakh and Uzbek cotton farmers to abandon their dusty fields and resettle Siberia, to work in the gas fields?
Being an unapologetic fan of rhetorical questions—will speculative Arctic infrastructure projects be, in the early 2010s, what floating architecture was to the mid-2000s?—the overall approach of Smith's book maintains a strong appeal for me throughout. The final chapter, in which, as Smith writes, we "step out of the comfort zone" into more open speculation, caps the book off nicely.

The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps by Peter D. Ward (Basic Books). Ward, a paleontologist, has produced a disturbing overview of how terrestrial ecosystems might be fundamentally changed as sea levels rise—and rise, and rise. Ward has the benefit of calling upon data taken from extremely distant phases of the earth's history, almost all of which becomes highly alarming when transposed to the present and near-future earth. "This book is based on the fact that the earth has flooded before," he writes, including phases in which seas rose globally at rates of up to 15 feet per century.

Ward successfully communicates the fact that the stakes of climate change are urgent and huge. Indeed, he writes, "The most extreme estimate suggests that within the next century we will reach the level [of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] that existed in the Eocene Epoch of about 55 million to 34 million years ago, when carbon dioxide was about 800 to 1,000 ppm. This might be the last stop before a chain of mechanisms leads to wholesale oceanic changes that are not good for oxygen-loving life." That is, a cascade of terrestrial side-effects and uncontrollable feedback loops could very well begin, ultimately extinguishing all oxygen-breathing organisms and kickstarting a new phase of life on earth. Whatever those future creatures might be, they will live, as Ward has written in another book, under the specter of a "green sky." Brief fictional scenarios—including future bands of human "breeding pairs" wandering through flooded landscapes—pepper Ward's book.

The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen (Harper). Cullen's book is the one title listed here with which I am least familiar, having read only the opening chapter. But it, too, is organized by region and time frame: the Great Barrier Reef, California's Central Valley, the Sahel in Africa, Bangladesh, New York City, and so on. The shared references to these and other locations in almost all contemporary books on climate change suggests an emerging geography of hotspots—a kind of climate change tourism in which authors visit locations of projected extreme weather events before those storms arrive. Cullen's book "re-frightened" Stephen Colbert, for whatever that's worth; I only wish I had had more time to read it before assembling this list.

Float!: Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change by Koen Olthuis and David Keuning (Frame). When David Keuning sent me a review copy of this book he joked that "offshore architecture has been relatively depleted of its novelty over the last few years"—an accurate statement, as images of floating buildings bring back strong memories of the architectural blogosphere circa 2005.

However, Keuning and Olthuis needn't be worried about depleting the reader's interest. A remarkably stimulating read, Float! falls somewhere between design textbook, aquatic manifesto, and environmental exhortation to explore architecture's offshore future. Water-based urban redesign; public transportation over aquatic roadways; floating barge-farms (as well as floating prisons); maneuverable bridges; entire artificial archipelagoes: none of these are new ideas, but seeing them all in one place, in a crisply designed hardback, is an undeniable pleasure.

The book is occasionally hamstrung by its own optimism, claiming, for instance, that "Once a floating building has left its location, there will be nothing left to remind people of its former presence," an environmentally ambitious goal, to be sure, but, without a clear focus on maritime waste management (from sewage to rubbish to excess fuel) such statements simply seem self-congratulatory. Having said that, Float! is an excellent resource for any design studio or seminar looking at the future of floating structures in an age of flooding cities.

Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew E. Kahn (Basic Books). Kahn's book is at once hopeful—that cities will energetically reconfigure themselves to function smoothly in a decarbonized global economy—and cautionary, warning that whole regions of the world might soon become uninhabitable.

Kahn's early distinction between New York City and Salt Lake City—the former considered high-risk, due to coastal flooding and extreme weather events, the latter an example of what Kahn calls "safe cities"—is useful for understanding the overall, somewhat armchair tone of the book. Climatopolis is not hugely rigorous in its exploration of what makes a city "climate-safe," and it overestimates the descriptive value of using "Al Gore" as a personality type, seeming to cite the politician at least once every few pages, but if your interests are more Planetizen than Popular Science, this is a useful overview of the urban effects of climate change over disparate cities and regions.

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats by Gwynne Dyer (Oneworld Publications). Dyer writes that his awareness of climate change was kicked off by two things: "One was the realization that the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply." The other "was a dawning awareness that, in a number of the great powers, climate-change scenarios are already playing a large and increasing role in the military planning process." Putting two and two together, Dyer has hypothesized, based on a close reading of military documents outlining climate-change contingency plans, what he calls climate wars: wars over food, water, territory, and unrealistic lifestyle guarantees.

Dyer's book utilizes the most explicitly fictionalized approach of all the books under discussion here—to the extent that I would perhaps have urged him literally to write a novel—and he is very quick to admit that the outcome of his various, geographically widespread scenarios often contradict one another. For those of you with a taste for the apocalypse, or at least a voyeuristic interest in extreme survivalism, this is a good one. For those of you not looking for what is effectively a military-themed science fiction novel in journalistic form, you would do better with one of the titles listed above.

(Other Books Received: March 2009, May 2009, and May 2010).


[Image: "London-on-Sea" by Practical Action].

Practical Action, a UK-based charity group, has done a quick edit to the London Tube map to show how things might look in an era of catastrophic sea-level rise.

As much as I like such a simple gesture, though, for me, one of the most effective urban sea-level-rise awareness projects is still Chris Bodle's Watermarks Project.

(Via Londonist and @poundforpound).

Manhattan El Dorado

[Image: The New York Federal Reserve Bank; photo by Friends of the Pleistocene].

I have linked to the ongoing series of "Geologic City Reports" released every few weeks by the excellent blog Friends of the Pleistocene—which, having launched back in January, receives my vote for Best New Blog of 2010—but the newest installment, #9, is worth singling out. In it, F.O.P. tour the gold reserve vaults of Manhattan.

The New York Federal Reserve bank "is a place where humans have encased geology within geology. They’ve unfolded and refolded stratifications of limestone, sandstone, iron and gold so they could put the gold on the inside—where it can be hyper-protected because of its high, human-assigned value." Think of it as a kind of metallurgical Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

The authors go on to describe the actual, physical sale of gold bars as "a human-scale chess game playing out in the basement of New York with elemental geology as the pawns."

While you're at it, "Geologic City Reports" 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are all worth reading, as well.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: City of Gold).

Crystal Furnace in Space

[Image: The crystal growth furnace; courtesy of NASA].

This isn't news, but my days are made fractionally better by the knowledge that there is a "crystal growth furnace" birthing new geological forms in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

[Image: Another view of the crystal growth furnace; courtesy of NASA].

"The Zeolite Crystal Growth (ZCG) furnace, which was derived from earlier shuttle models," NASA explains, "can grow zeolites, zeotype titanosilicate materials, ferroelectrics, and silver halides—all materials of commercial interest. The unit consists of a cylinder-shaped furnace, the Improved Zeolite Electronic Control System (IZECS), which includes a touchpad and data display as well as autoclaves. Two precursor growth solutions are placed into each autoclave, which mix during their stay in the furnace."

In the end, though, this research comes down to fossil fuels: "Zeolites form the backbone of the chemical processes industry, and virtually all the world's gasoline is produced or upgraded using zeolites. Industry wants to improve zeolite crystals so that more gasoline can be produced from a barrel of oil, making the industry more efficient and thus reducing America's dependence on foreign oil."

[Image: Terrestrial and nonterrestrial zeolites compared, courtesy of NASA].

First, "the furnace heats up and crystals start to form, or nucleate," monitored only occasionally by the crew, while a "payload team on the ground" watches these crystals, like something out of a Charles Stross novel, "via download telemetry." Otherwise, "with the exception of loading the autoclaves into the furnace and turning the switch on, the crystal growth experiment operations are unattended by the crew."

Rare and unattended postgeological forms take shape in engines quietly aflame in space, new hearths for future astronauts, like William Blake gone Ballardian in earth orbit, cultivating crystal trays, supervised telemetrically by an audience far below.

[Image: More comparative space crystallography, courtesy of NASA].

In fact, there was an article seven years ago in New Scientist about cosmonauts running plasma-crystal experiments aboard the International Space Station, studying a type of matter that is atomically parked somewhere between liquid and solid: "Although the consistency of the [plasma] crystals is something like a viscous fluid, their internal structures closely resemble the atomic lattices seen in conventional solids."

But what's particularly interesting is that "one of the cosmonauts was so intrigued" by this strange new material form that "he decided to do extra experiments in his private sleep time"—a statement phrased perhaps deliberately vaguely, as if the writer was unable to resist this exquisite vision of obsessive-compulsive cosmonauts so intent on building crystals in space that they have found a way to do so even while dreaming.

Air Hive

[Image: From "Microclimates" by PostlerFerguson].

These air-cooling hives made from "3D-printed sand" and designed by PostlerFerguson have been rendered a bit too glossily for my taste, but I love the idea: each unit has "a complex internal structure whose large internal surface area efficiently conditions air passing through it by evaporative cooling. Each cooling tower is made from 3D-printed sand using technology developed by D-Shape."

[Images: From "Microclimates" by PostlerFerguson].

The designers refer to the work as "not just an installation, but a building language that can be reused again and again to create new public spaces." Roads, piazzas, buildings, halls, rooms, architectural ornament—adding non-electrical air-cooling technology to the built environment on a huge variety of scales and conjuring up images of 3D-printed sandstone ornamental cornices on buildings being used to cool urban streetscapes.

[Image: From "Microclimates" by PostlerFerguson].

In some ways, purely on the level of material similarities, this might remind readers of the work of Magnus Larsson, featured here last summer, in which it was proposed that landscape-scale architectural forms in the African desert could be "printed" into existence via bacterial-injection machines (read the original proposal for more information).

[Images: From "Microclimates" by PostlerFerguson].

But the very different aesthetic here, and the functional purpose of using hives of 3D-printed sand as a way of generating thermally advantageous microclimates in the city, offers an interesting direction for the surprising popularity today of architectural projects involving stabilized sand.

(Spotted via Dezeen).

Decolonizing Architecture

I've been delinquent in mentioning a talk by Eyal Weizman scheduled to take place later this afternoon, over at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. A related exhibition called Decolonizing Architecture—co-curated by Weizman—opens to the public on Tuesday, December 7.
    Decolonizing Architecture is a project initiated by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in 2007. Set up as a studio/residency program in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and recently re-established as the Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency (DAAR), they engage spatial research and theory, taking the conflict over Palestine as their main case study. Decolonizing Architecture seeks to use spatial practice as a form of political intervention and narration. Their practice continuously engages a complex set of architectural problems centered around one of the most difficult dilemmas of political practice: how to act both propositionally and critically within an environment in which the political force field, as complex as it may be, is so dramatically skewed.
I will be posting again about the exhibition next month; for now, I want to get the word out in the nick of time for those of you who able to attend today's talk.