Seismic Decentralization

[Image: Tokyo at night, courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory].

At the height of the Cold War, the sprawling, decentralized suburban landscape of the United States was seen by many military planners as a form of spatial self-defense. As historian David Krugler explains in This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War, "urban dispersal" was viewed as a defensive military tactic, one that would greatly increase the nation's chance of survival in the event of nuclear attack.

Specially formatted residential landscapes such as "cluster cities" were thus proposed, "each with a maximum population of 50,000." These smaller satellite cities would not only reshape the civilian landscape of the United States, they would make its citizens, its industrial base, and its infrastructure much harder to target.

"This might seem the stuff of Cold War science fiction," Krugler writes, "but after World War II, many urban and civil defense planners believed cluster cities, also called dispersal, should be the future of the American metropolis."
These planners, like the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, imagined atomic firestorms engulfing American cities and advocated preventive measures such as dispersal. Just one or two atomic bombs could level a concentrated metropolitan area, but cluster cities would suffer far less devastation: enemy bombers could strike some, but not all, key targets, allowing the unharmed cities to aid in recovery.
Krugler points out that this suburban dispersal was not always advised in the name of military strategy: "Many urban planners believed dispersal could spur slum clearance, diminish industrial pollution, and produce parks. Not only would dispersal shield America's cities, it would save them from problems of their own making."

However, the idea that urban dispersal might be useful only as a protective tactic against the horrors of aerial bombardment overlooks other threats, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

Earlier this week, Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan was advised "to decentralize Japan" out of fear of "Tokyo annihilation danger." Indeed, we read, the recent 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and partial nuclear meltdown at Fukushima together suggest that "the nation must reduce the role of its capital city to avert an even greater catastrophe."

Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University, explains: "I told the prime minister that nationwide dispersal is the first thing we need to do as we rebuild. We have no idea when the big one’s going to hit Tokyo, but when it does, it’s going to annihilate the entire country because everything is here." His conclusion: "The lesson we need to take away from this disaster is that we have to restructure Japan as an entire nation"—a seismic decentralization that relies as much on horizontal geography as on vertical building code. This could thus be "the nation’s biggest investment in urban planning in decades."

The idea that urban design might find a reinvigorated sense of national purpose in response to a threat in the ground itself is fascinating, of course, perhaps especially for someone who also lives in an earthquake zone. But the prospect of large-scale urban dispersal remaking the urban landscape of Japan—that Tokyo itself might actually be broken up into smaller subcities, and that future urban planning permission might be adjusted to enforce nationwide sprawl as a form of tectonic self-defense, from megacity to exurban lace—presents an explicit spatialization of Japanese earthquake policy that will be very interesting to track over the years to come.

(Spotted via @urbanphoto_blog).

Islands at the Speed of Light

A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading. Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.

These limits are described as "light propagation delays."

[Image: Global map of "optimal intermediate locations between trading centers," based on the earth's geometry and the speed of light, by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer].

It is thus in traders' direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the Earth's surface—a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture—to take advantage both of the planet's geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that "the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface" is thus economically justified, if not required.

Amazingly, their analysis—seen in the map, above—suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).

These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as "the past light cones" of distant trading centers—thus the paper's multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross's novel Accelerando). Erwin Schrödinger meets the Dow.

It's financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet's light-cone.

[Image: Diagrammatic explanation of a "light cone," courtesy of Wikipedia].

These points scattered along the earth's surface are described as "optimal intermediate locations between trading centers," each site "maximiz[ing] profit potential in a locally auditable manner."

Wissner-Gross and Freer then suggest that trading centers themselves could be moved to these nodal points: "we show that if such intermediate coordination nodes are themselves promoted to trading centers that can utilize local information, a novel econophysical effect arises wherein the propagation of security pricing information through a chain of such nodes is effectively slowed or stopped." An econophysical effect.

In the end, then, they more or less explicitly argue for the economic viability of building artificial islands and inhabitable seasteads—i.e. the "construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes"—out in the middle of the ocean somewhere as a way to profit from speed-of-light trades. Imagine, for a moment, the New York Stock Exchange moving out into the mid-Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores, onto a series of New Babylon-like platforms, run not by human traders but by Watson-esque artificially intelligent supercomputers housed in waterproof tombs, all calculating money at the speed of light.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image from NOAA featuring a geodetic satellite triangulation network].

"In summary," the authors write, "we have demonstrated that light propagation delays present new opportunities for statistical arbitrage at the planetary scale, and have calculated a representative map of locations from which to coordinate such relativistic statistical arbitrage among the world’s major securities exchanges. We furthermore have shown that for chains of trading centers along geodesics, the propagation of tradable information is effectively slowed or stopped by such arbitrage."
Historically, technologies for transportation and communication have resulted in the consolidation of financial markets. For example, in the nineteenth century, more than 200 stock exchanges were formed in the United States, but most were eliminated as the telegraph spread. The growth of electronic markets has led to further consolidation in recent years. Although there are advantages to centralization for many types of transactions, we have described a type of arbitrage that is just beginning to become relevant, and for which the trend is, surprisingly, in the direction of decentralization. In fact, our calculations suggest that this type of arbitrage may already be technologically feasible for the most distant pairs of exchanges, and may soon be feasible at the fastest relevant time scales for closer pairs.

Our results are both scientifically relevant because they identify an econophysical mechanism by which the propagation of tradable information can be slowed or stopped, and technologically significant, because they motivate the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface.
For more, read the original paper: PDF.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Color Code

[Image: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

Here's some eye-candy for a Tuesday evening: Arc en Ciel, a new building in Bordeaux, France—part residential, part office—by Bernard Buhler Architects, spotted via Architizer.

[Images: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

With a building as eye-catching as this one, it's quite difficult to imagine a rationale behind adding graphics to the exterior glass windows—like children's drawings, or some vague gesture toward "street art"—which looks both kitschy and unnecessary.

[Images: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

After all, the graphics-free windows look fantastic—but c'est la vie.

[Image: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

Successfully, to my mind—based entirely on a scan of some photographs on the internet—the colored exterior glass works not only to vivify the building's urban site but to bring a constantly changing series of hues, like a colored bar code, onto the interior walkways. I would love to see this place lit from within at night, a sight the available photographs don't offer.

[Images: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

Anyway, the building looks cool; that's about all I have to say. I will add, however, that I'm struck by how extraordinarily better the actual, constructed building is, compared to its rendering, seen below.

[Image: Arc en Ciel by Bernard Buhler Architects].

All the more evidence that rejecting (or embracing) a building's outward formal characteristics on the basis of renderings is not necessarily a good idea.

See many more images over at Architizer.

Forensic Geology

[Image: The "Trevisco pit," Cornwall, from which the kaolinite used in space shuttle tiles comes from; photo by Hugh Symonds].

Photographer Hugh Symonds recently got in touch with a series of images called Terra Amamus, or "dirt we like," in his translation, exploring mining operations in Cornwall.

"The granite moors of Cornwall," Symonds explains, "were formed around 300 million years ago. Geological and climatic evolution have created a soft, white, earthy mineral called kaolinite. The name is thought to be derived from China, Kao-Ling (High-Hill) in Jingdezhen, where pottery has been made for more than 1700 years. Study of the Chinese model in the late 18th century led to the discovery and establishment of a flourishing industry in Cornwall."

You could perhaps think of the resulting mines and quarries as a landscape falling somewhere between an act of industrial replication and 18th-century geological espionage.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As Symonds points out, kaolinite is actually "omni-present throughout our daily lives; in paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, kitchens, bathrooms, light bulbs, food additives, cars, roads and buildings. In an extraterrestrial, 'Icarian' twist, it is even present in the tiles made for the Space Shuttle."

Indeed, the photograph that opens this post shows us the so-called Trevisco pit. Its kaolinite is not only "particularly pure," Symonds notes; it is also "the oldest excavation in the Cornish complex."

Even better, it is the "quarry from which the clay used for the Space Shuttle tiles came from." This pit, then, is a negative space—a pockmark, a dent—in the Earth's surface out of which emerged—at least in part—a system of objects and trajectories known as NASA.

Of course, the idea that we could trace the geological origins of an object as complex as the Space Shuttle brings to mind Mammoth's earlier stab at what could be called a provisional geology of the iPhone. As Mammoth wrote, "Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it." These and other products—even Space Shuttles—are terrestrial objects. That is, they emerge from infrastructurally networked points of geological extraction.

[Images: Photos by Hugh Symonds].

In John McPhee's unfortunately titled book Encounters with the Archdruid, there is a memorable scene about precisely this idea: a provisional geology out of which our industrial system of objects has arisen.

"Most people don't think about pigments in paint," one of McPhee's interview subjects opines. "Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There's chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave's electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn't turn on a light or make ice without it." And then the real forensic geology begins:
The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin—it's still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things—planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups—once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy—our way of doing things. Oh, gad! I haven't even mentioned minerals like manganese and sulphur. You won't make steel without them. You can't make paper without sulphur...
We have rearranged the planet to form TVs and tin cans, producing objects from refined geology.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

What's fascinating here, however, is something I touched upon in my earlier reference to geological espionage. In other words, we take for granted the idea that we can know what minerals go into these everyday products—and, more specifically, that we can thus locate those minerals' earthly origins and, sooner or later, enter into commerce with them, producing our own counter-products, our own rival gizmos and competitive replacements.

I was thus astonished to read that, in fact, specifically in the case of silicon, this is not actually the case.

In geologist Michael Welland's excellent book Sand, often cited here, Welland explains that "electronics-grade silicon has to be at least 99.99999 percent pure—referred to in the trade as the 'seven nines'—and often it's more nines than that. In general, we are talking of one lonely atom of something that is not silicon among billions of silicon companions."

Here, a detective story begins—it's top secret geology!
A small number of companies around the world dominate the [microprocessor chip] technology and the [silicon] market, and while their literature and websites go into considerable and helpful detail on their products, the location and nature of the raw materials seem to be of "strategic value," and thus an industrial secret. I sought the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, which produces comprehensive annual reports on silica and silicon (as well as all other industrial minerals), noting that statistics pertaining to semiconductor-grade silicon were often excluded or "withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data."
Welland thus embarks upon an admittedly short but nonetheless fascinating investigation, hoping to de-cloud the proprietary geography of these mineral transnationals and find where this ultra-pure silicon really comes from. To make a long story short, he quickly narrows the search down to quartzite (which "can be well over 99 percent pure silica") mined specifically from a few river valleys in the Appalachians.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As it happens, though, we needn't go much further than the BBC to read about a town called Spruce Pine, "a modest, charmingly low-key town in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, [that] is at the heart of a global billion-dollar industry... The jewellery shops, highlighting local emeralds, sapphires and amethysts, hint at the riches. The mountains, however, contain something far more precious than gemstones: they are a source of high-purity quartz." And Spruce Pine is but one of many locations from which globally strategic flows of electronics-grade silicon are first mined and purified.

In any case, the geological origin of even Space Shuttle tiles is always fascinating to think about; but when you start adding things like industrial espionage, proprietary corporate landscapes, unmarked quarries in remote mountain valleys, classified mineral reserves, supercomputers, a roving photographer in the right place at the right time, an inquisitive geologist, and so on, you rapidly escalate from a sort of Economist-Lite blog post to the skeleton of an international thriller that would be a dream to read (and write—editors get in touch!).

And, of course, if you like the images seen here, check out the rest of Symond's Terra Amamus series.


[Image: By Gerry Judah].

Artist Gerry Judah's paintings are massively and aggressively three-dimensional, piling up, away, and out from the canvas to form linked cities, ruins, and debris-encrusted bridges, like reefs.

[Images: By Gerry Judah].

They are perhaps what a tectonic collaboration between Lebbeus Woods and Jackson Pollock might produce: blasted and collapsing landscapes so covered in white it's as if nuclear winter has set in.

[Image: By Gerry Judah].

As the short film included below makes clear, Judah embeds entire architectural models in each piece, affixing small constellations of buildings to the canvas before beginning a kind of archaeological onslaught: layering paint on top of paint, raining strata down for days to seal the landscape in place and make it ready for wall-mounting.

And then the paintings go up, sprawling and counter-gravitational, like ruins tattooed on the walls.

[Image: By Gerry Judah].

For more work—including pieces executed in red and black—see Judah's website (including his bio, which suggests larger architectural and theatrical influences).

(Thanks to Jim Rossignol for the tip!)

House Music

[Image: "Pass the Mic" by Sean Galbraith].

The company Airborne Sound has a near-infinite website on which you can listen to royalty-free sound effects for everyday scenarios like dishwashers, traffic noise, office ambiance, overhead helicopters, vacuum cleaners, elevator shafts, construction sites, and more.

The extreme specificity with which many of these sounds are cataloged—"Small metal military tin, empty, closing concisely," for instance, versus "Small metal military tin, empty, closing quickly and smartly," or even the encyclopedic varieties of sounds created by someone eating ice—often outdoes Borges.

"Magazine dropping and picking up from a table in a series in an indifferent manner." "Rain in the city nasal and heavy and constant with some thunder." "Room tone in a New York apartment on the tenth floor with window open and helicopters departing and traffic and AC." "Room tone in a large machine shop with fluorescent buzz and pipe hiss in a loop." "Construction site with junk sliding down a chute"—in case you like the sound of sliding your junk down a chute. "A homeless guy digs in a garbage bin with rain"—which apparently consists of "Alley, Rain, Homeless Guy." There are even hospital sounds: "Room tone in a radiology clinic with nurses and x-rays." "Crowd in New York City at Bellevue hospital lobby passing with voices."

But my original purpose in mentioning this was for the company's domestic sound effects, filed under Household. Why have a housemate when you can simply listen to endless loops of air-conditioning units, refrigerator hum, distant TV voices, pet sounds, keyboard clacking, footsteps over hardwood floors, and more? The specially curated Household Collection has it all (almost), including someone "handling a wallet," "peeling a rubber glove off," and "opening a bedroom door." There's also Household Collection 2.

Perhaps this could even offer a glimpse of some emerging new form of spatio-acoustic therapy: prescription sound effects for people dealing with loss or depression.

Or download the Kitchen Collection, including its own part 2, and make it sound like someone is cooking dinner in the background as you read a novel, home alone on a Saturday night, disappearing into a world of sonically reinforced self-isolation.

You can soundtrack your next dinner party with the sounds of another dinner party. You can work out to the sound of farm animals, cruise the streets of Los Angeles listening to someone clipping their toe nails, fall asleep to the relaxing tones of "flesh moves."

Find more at Airborne Sound (including an Airports and Train Stations pack and one exclusively for Subways and Els).

The Cloud Tent

[Images: "Artificial clouds" designed at Qatar University under the direction of Saud Abdul Ghani; images from a video hosted by the BBC].

"Artificial clouds" driven by solar-powered engines might be deployed at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to help keep the stadiums from overheating. Each cloud, as a short video hosted over at the BBC explains, "is constructed from an advanced, lightweight, and strong carbon-fiber material."
The interior of the cloud is injected with helium gas to make it float. The cloud hovers like a helicopter and is remotely controlled. In this way, the cloud hovers over the football ground, shielding it from direct sunlight and providing a favorable climatic environment. The cloud is also programmed to continuously change its shielding position according to the prevailing east-to-west path of the sun.
So much for roofs, then, if you can simply deploy artificial meteorological events in the form of robotic clouds at an estimated cost of $500,000 each...

[Images: "Artificial clouds" designed at Qatar University under the direction of Saud Abdul Ghani; images from a video hosted by the BBC].

After all, I suppose it makes sense that the next step in temporary event architecture will be a remote-controlled swarm of rearrangeable horizontal and vertical surfaces, forming ceilings, roofs, walls, floors, ramps, and stairways.

However, justifiable skepticism aside, there is something fantastically interesting in the suggestion that a regional architecture, whose formal and technical history includes several centuries' worth of portable tent design, would—and I exaggerate—leapfrog past the idea of stationary, permanent construction altogether and instead go for something like an on-demand spatial robotics, such as the "artificial clouds" seen here.

Are instantly deployable, remote-controlled sun shielding surfaces—unmanned aerial architecture, perhaps—a kind of unexpected next step in the evolution of tent design? Nomad caravans wander through the desert with strange, helium-filled wireless air pillows whirring quietly overhead. Perhaps they could even be Wifi hotspots. The ErgNet.

(Thanks to a tip from Wired's @rawfileblog. Earlier: Spatial Gameplay in Full-Court 3D).

Soundscape Ecology, or: An Archive Fever of the Ear

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Purdue College of Agriculture/Tom Campbell, via ScienceDaily].

Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University is hoping to start a new research discipline that he calls soundscape ecology; it will "use sound as a way to understand the ecological characteristics of a landscape," as ScienceDaily reports.

Sound, Pijanowski suggests, is a kind of ecological indicator: an audible symptom of other, sometimes literally invisible changes in a living network or ecosystem. Sound, for instance, can "be used to detect early changes in climate, weather patterns, the presence of pollution or other alterations to a landscape." As Pijanowski explains one example of this approach, "The dawn and dusk choruses of birds are very characteristic of a location. If the intensity or patterns of these choruses change, there is likely something causing that change. Ecologists have ignored how sound that emanates from an area can help determine what's happening to the ecosystem."

So far, unfortunately, it seems that a great flattening of the acoustic field has been the primary discovery: "One of the most significant findings was that as human impact in the landscape increases, the natural rhythms of sound created by the diverse wildlife population are replaced by low and constant human-produced noise." The great machine-drone of human life fills forests once ringing with birdsong.

Of course, this is at once slightly redundant—there is already acoustic ecology, for instance—and fantastically cool, throwing the door wide-open for future acoustic research (and institutional funding).

[Image: Sound artist Stephen Vitiello makes a field recording; photo by Turbulence].

However, one point of immediate limitation, I'd suggest, comes with Pijanowski's apparent focus on sounds produced by animals. Indeed, I'm reminded of an old essay by Francisco López, called "Environmental Sound Matter," from La Selva: Sound Environments From A Neotropical Rain Forest.

There, López seeks to remind listeners that "there is also a type of sound-producing biotic component, present in almost every environment, that is usually overlooked: plants." He then makes one of my favorite sonic observations of all time, which is that "what we call the sound of rain or wind we could better call the sound of plant leaves and branches." Quoting at length:
If our perspective of nature sounds were more focused on the environment as a whole, instead of on behavioral manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us, we could also deal with plant bioacoustics. Furthermore, a sound environment is not only the consequence of all its sound-producing components, but also of all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements. The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space.
So, add the sounds of plants, molds, and root networks, of soil itself and groundwater, of shifts in air pressure and humidity and even the underlying deep geologic structures that support all that living terrain in the first place, and an intensely interesting sonic portrait of terrestrial ecosystems takes shape, mutating through complex blurs and inflection points over time, its parts weaving in and out symphonically.

Again, this is functionally identical to acoustic ecology—with equal parts acoustic geology thrown in, perhaps—but it will nonetheless be interesting to see if a slight change of name (and some news buzz) results in more opportunities for funding and research.

[Image: Students from Field Studies 2010 (N.b. link auto-plays sound) explore London; photo by Marc Behrens, courtesy of The Wire].

On a slightly unrelated note, meanwhile, Britain's superlative music and sound art magazine The Wire reported on something called Field Studies 2010 in an issue published last autumn. Field Studies "provide[d] an environment for architects, artists and urbanists to explore the relationship between architecture and sound, and to 'see' sound not as a scientific, acoustic event, but as a sometimes inexplicable, poetic and place-specific phenomenon." In a sense, then, specifically in terms of the discipline described above, Field Studies was a kind of urbanized anti-soundscape-ecology: more emotional and poetic than scientifically diagnostic.

But one of the workshop leaders, Marc Behrens, makes the interesting point that there is "a tech version of Moore's Law," quote-unquote. "In other words, as recording devices get smaller, more sophisticated and cheaper, opportunities increase and the art of sonic field studies evolves accordingly."

This seems to resonate well with Pijanowski's work, that, as acoustic sensors and deployable sound-capture networks become easier and cheaper both to install and to monitor (which, of course, includes for surveillance purposes), we'll hear, at the very least, a massive quantitative increase in the amount of archived sonic information available for later study. An archive fever of the ear.

(Just FYI, there is a whole chapter on sound in The BLDGBLOG Book).

The Elephant's Foot

[Image: Parable of the elephant, illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai].

An article this past weekend in the New York Times introduced us to a man named Sergei A. Krasikov, caretaker for the concrete "sarcophagus" inside of which rest the remains of Chernobyl's stricken reactor.

The article is at once a sobering introduction to the inhuman spans of time across which matter remains radioactive—the author quips, for instance, that "The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning... But it doesn’t have an end," and that "one had to look at [Chernobyl] to understand the sheer tedium and exhaustion of dealing with the aftermath of a meltdown. It is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame." But, at the same time, it seems to suggest the framework for an expressionist short film: a Sam Beckett-like encounter with something perpetually out of reach, terrifyingly out of synch with those who wait for it and buried in pharaonic concrete.

Krasikov, a keeper of the sarcophagus, visits this site twelve times a month:
Among his tasks is to pump out radioactive liquid that has collected inside the burned-out reactor. This happens whenever it rains. The sarcophagus was built 25 years ago in a panic, as radiation streamed into populated areas after an explosion at the reactor, and now it is riddled with cracks.

Water cannot be allowed to touch the thing that is deep inside the reactor: about 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot. This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it.
This abstract "thing that is deep inside the reactor" is thus held outside of human contact, separated from experience by a provisional monument: the sarcophagus shell. Sheltered there, precisely because of its temporal excess, in a state of near-immortality—capable of interacting mutationally with living matter for up to a million years—the "thing" enters into a timeframe more appropriate for mythology.

Indeed, semiotician Thomas Sebeok once proposed the creation of an "atomic priesthood" whose responsibility, for thousands of years to come, would be to pass on information about sites of nuclear waste storage and contamination using a combination of myths, folklore, and annual rituals.

[Image: Sebeok's report].

In an April 1984 technical report called "Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia," Sebeok suggested that "information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend."

This "relay system" to last ten thousand years would thus be comparable to a priesthood—a Vatican of the elephant's foot, so to speak—a Cult of the Thing—using "whatever devices for enforcement are at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character."

These priests would thereby act as effective caretakers for whatever nuclear sarcophagi might yet be to come. (For more on this topic, watch for Volume magazine's forthcoming issue on "Aging," in which I have an essay about the long-term storage of nuclear waste).

[Image: Satellite photo of Fukushima Daiichi complex].

Finally, it's troubling to note—though I don't mean to suggest equality between this situation and Chernobyl—that Japan might yet need to "to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant" at Fukushima Daiichi "in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release."

If this does come to pass, of course, it will be architecturally temporary—for a situation in which the very idea of "permanence" takes on near-incomprehensible scale.

(Thanks to a tip from @_sealegs. Also, don't miss the earlier interview with Department of Energy geophysicist Abraham Van Luik).

Printable Insects and the Rise of the Architectural Superprinter

[Image: Courtesy of the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory].

Simulated insect wings have been 3D-printed by a research team at Cornell. The Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory explain that they are in the process of "developing a flapping-wing hovering insect using 3D printed wings and mechanical parts." See image, above.

"The use of 3D printing technology has greatly expanded the possibilities for wing design," they add, "allowing wing shapes to replicate those of real insects or virtually any other shape. It has also reduced the time of a wing design cycle to a matter of minutes."

[Image: Courtesy of the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory].

As Popular Science describes it, "Printing the translucently thin wings (constructed of a thin polyester film stretched on a carbon fiber frame) on a desktop printer allowed them not only to cut down on production time, but allows for much faster experimentation with different wing designs." Further, "the ability to experiment quickly and precisely with various wing shapes and constructions should also allow researchers to more closely mimic real insect wing designs and study the lift dynamics powering a variety of natural flying organisms."

Somewhat randomly, I might add that a functioning flute was 3D-printed late last year by MIT's Amit Zoran—whose research partner, Marcelo Coelho, spoke at Foodprint NYC in February 2010 about their joint proposal for a 3D food-printer to be called "Cornucopia."

I mention this here, though, because the rapidly increasing intricacy of 3D-printed systems and objects seems inevitably to be leading to a day when 3D-printers will be installed permanently inside buildings or construction sites, acting as 24-hour on-site repair personnel—for instance, on-the-spot plumbers and electricians.

That is, fed the right mix of copper, glass fiber, or high-density polyethylene, this architectural superprinter—like a brain installed at the core of the building, or up in an air-conditioned attic room somewhere, blinking in the darkness—will simply print into being all the wires, pipes, and cables that the building might need, even literally printing plumbing networks down into the exact place in which they would otherwise need to be installed. Insulation-printers. Roof-flashing printers. Stair-printers.

In any case, for a video of the Cornell 3D-printed insect wings in action, check out the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory.

(Vaguely related: The Road Printer).

Truth Windows

[Image: An Australian truth window, photographed by Peter Halasz, courtesy of Wikipedia].

"Truth windows" are false windows cut into the interior walls of buildings, used to reveal what lies within that wall and, thus—like something out of an architecturally themed remake of The Matrix—what the building you're standing in is really made from.

According to that well-known fast-research assistant Wikipedia, "truth windows" are "often used to show the walls are actually made from straw bales. A small section of a wall is left unplastered on the interior, and a frame is used to create a window which shows only straw, which makes up the inside of the wall."

The ideological implications of this—let alone philosophical ones—are quite extraordinary, as if we could simply scrape aside some paint and plaster and see, for once, the truth, the Real, the scaffolding, the code that makes and sustains the everyday worldly environment; though, I suppose, any attempt to over-literalize such a thing—even the portentous, Frodo Baggensian name of a "truth window"—would come out as, well... exactly like an architecturally themed remake of The Matrix (perhaps resembling the unwatchable film Dark City).

Though that's not to say that someone shouldn't try.

But "truth windows" aren't limited to architecture. Briefly, I remember as a kid being taken out to visit a farm somewhere in the University of Wisconsin system to see a so-called "cannulated cow," or a cow with a window in its side. As The Lantern describes this sectional phenomenon, "Basically, the animals have surgery performed upon them that creates a passageway in the side of the animal so researchers can perform readings on what takes place in the cow's rumen."

[Image: A cow window, photographed by "Dori," courtesy of Wikipedia].

Alternatively, I've long been intrigued with the idea of installing upside-down periscopes on the sidewalks of vertically dense cities such as New York City, London, Istanbul, or Jerusalem—even Washington D.C., where road construction recently revealed the laminated stratigraphy of older roads beneath Georgetown—allowing everyone to peer down into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers, buried rivers and streams, scanning back and forth through the foundations of missing or war-destroyed buildings, even zeroing in on lost ships.

Call it cannulated urbanism, perhaps, or archaeological "truth windows" installed like skylights in the ground.

(Thanks to Lauren Baier for the tip!)

Aerotropolis: An Interview with Greg Lindsay

In his book London Orbital, Iain Sinclair writes that Heathrow Airport—with its "inscrutable geometry," surrounded by "international hotels, storage facilities, [and] semi-private roads"—is utterly "detached from the shabby entropy" of London. Indeed, "Heathrow is its own city, a Vatican of the western suburbs."

If Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were to become its own country, its annual workforce and user base would make it "the twelfth most populous nation on Earth," as John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay explain in Aerotropolis; even today, it is the largest employer in the state of Georgia.

As J.G. Ballard once wrote, and as is quoted on the frontispiece of Aerotropolis:
    I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the 21st century. The great airports are already the suburbs of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis whose fauborgs are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional center, and will never need to gain access to its dark heart.
The remarkable claims of John Kasarda's and Greg Lindsay's new book are made evident by its subtitle: the aerotropolis, or airport-city, is nothing less than "the way we'll live next." It is a new kind of human settlement, they suggest, one that "represents the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities." Through a kind of spatial transubstantiation, the aerotropolis turns abstract economic flows—disembodied currents of raw capital—into the shining city form of tomorrow.

The world of the aerotropolis is a world of instant cities—urbanization-on-demand—where nations like China and Saudi Arabia can simply "roll out cities" one after the other. "Each will be built faster, better, and more cheaply than the ones that came before," Aerotropolis suggests: whole cities created by the warehousing demands of international shipping firms. In fact, they are "cities that shipping and handling built," Lindsay and Kasarda quip—urbanism in the age of Amazon Prime.

The world of the aerotropolis, then, is a world where "a metropolitan area's position in the airline network determine[s] its employment growth and not, as commonly supposed, the other way around." Or, as a representative from FedEx explains to Greg Lindsay, "Not every great city will be an aerotropolis, but those cities which are an aerotropolis will be great ones."

Surely, though, this kind of breathless rhetoric is a reliable sign of hype. What are the real political and economic conditions of the aerotropolis; what transformations might it undergo in an age of peak oil and climate change; and who, in the end, will actually live there and manage it? This latter question seems particularly urgent: does the aerotropolis represent the culmination of the city's slow depoliticization—an urban form without mayors or democracy—run instead by a managerial class of logistics professionals and CFOs?

Or do these very questions reveal a misconception about what the aerotropolis is and will be?

[Image: A plan of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, via Wikipedia].

To begin to answer these questions, and in preparation for a live interview that will take place in Los Angeles on Tuesday, April 5, at the A+D Museum, I spoke to Aerotropolis co-author Greg Lindsay about these and many other topics, from the aerotropolis itself to instant cities, the appeal of the urban realm for today's technology firms, and metropolitan futurism circa Le Corbusier. The resulting conversation, included below, shows Lindsay to be both frank and refreshingly candid about the book. He is also someone clearly excited to talk about the future of the city, aerotropolis or not: simply to transcribe this interview, I had to slow the audio file down to nearly 85% of its original speed just to unpack Lindsay's jet stream of ideas and references.

Consider this a teaser, then, for the event on April 5. Until that time, pick up a copy of Kasarda's and Lindsay's book to see what you think; and, if you get a chance, take a look at the second half of this conversation, during which the tables are turned and Lindsay interviews me for Work in Progress, the newsletter of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There, we discuss the role of the architect in a world of smart cities and instant urbanism, the fate of criticism in the context of architecture blogs, and where we might turn next for tomorrow's spatial ideas.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Let’s start with the most basic question of all: what is an aerotropolis?

Greg Lindsay: John Kasarda, of the University of North Carolina, came up with the idea twenty years ago—though, in researching the book, I found that word’s original appearance in print was actually in Rem Koolhaas’s Great Leap Forward, quoting a local Chinese official. Kasarda first heard it in China, as well.

In terms of vision, I think there are really two definitions of it, depending on which of the two authors you speak to—Kasarda or myself.

Kasarda’s notion of an aerotropolis is basically a city or a region planned around an airport. In his mind’s eye, everything is spatially divided by usage: hangars, cargo terminals, office parks, business hotels, six-lane highways, merchandise marts. There’s no real urban form at all. On one level, it’s like Edge City: the form is dictated by development money and the respective need for access to the airport at the center. But, on another, the design is glossed over or left out. In models and renderings, they never achieve a resolution above little white boxes.

He sees the aerotropolis purely in terms of time/cost equations. Density and design is secondary. A layperson would describe it as sprawl. It’s an urban vision without any real urbanity.

Then there’s my definition of it—and I think I take a broader view. I would describe the aerotropolis as any city that has a closer relationship to the air, and to other cities accessible through the air, than to its immediate hinterlands. It’s a city that was basically invented because of the necessities of air travel.

Dubai, to me, is a perfect example of that. Thirty years ago, of course, there was nothing there; Dubai had little oil and even fewer people. But, basically through sheer will, it used its airport and its airline, Emirates, to build itself into a hub. It transformed itself legally and regulatory-wise, and made itself the freezone of the Middle East—and the pleasure den, and all the things it’s become.

Dubai’s also interesting because it illustrates the grander vision of the book, which is that transportation always defines the shape and look of cities. Joel Garreau made this point twenty years ago, that cities are defined by the state of the art of transportation at the time. I think many of the cities we love today are classic railroad cities—such as New York, built around Grand Central Station, and Chicago, where the first skyscrapers sprang up across the street from the Illinois Central’s railyard.

But the idea now is: if you’re building a city from scratch in the middle of China or India, then you’re building it around an airport. The airport is the city’s economic reason for being. You’re trying to connect to a global economy, starting from zero.

Dubai is interesting in that regard. Nobody really understood what Dubai was about, or what they were trying to do there, but its plans make sense if you look at it from the perspective that there’s this theoretical population all dispersed across the Middle East and southeast Asia, and they’re all flying in to use the city in bits at a time.

The notion of the aerotropolis, then, is basically that air travel is what globalization looks like in urban form. It is about flows of people and goods and capital, and it implies that to be connected to a city on the far side of the world matters more than to be connected to your immediate region. The aerotropolis spatializes what people like Saskia Sassen have been writing about for twenty years in books like The Global City.

[Images: Dubai International Airport promotional images; vertical distortion is in the originals. Courtesy of the Dubai International Airport Media Center].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the political requirements for making an aerotropolis happen. On the level of regulation, zoning, and so on, what needs to occur for an aerotropolis to become realizable?

Lindsay: Well, I always say that we built our airports in the United States before we knew what they were for. We didn’t really understand the scale of future operations or the geographic footprint they would need, so we built them within footprints that were never going to be sustainable for the levels of traffic they would ultimately absorb.

So we ended up with places like LAX. One of the things I love noting is that, when LAX was first built, it was criticized because the field was seen as too far from downtown—whereas, today, you have an airport that’s basically landlocked on all sides, and has been for almost fifty years. This puts LAX and Los Angeles in an intractable situation, considering the economics of air travel, which require concentration for hubbing, for operational efficiency, for all of that. It’s in the best interests of an airline to concentrate in one place—and LAX is a place that just cannot expand.

The next stage is understanding the scale you need to operate on: you need to plan for a larger region. We talk about regional planning in the United States, but we do so little of it. We hardly even understand how economies cross what are almost arbitrary borders at this point, between counties and cities. I had difficulty finding reliable gross metropolitan product numbers, and Richard Florida had to go so far as to measure light pollution from space in one of his books.

In Los Angeles, because of the failure of Orange County to build a second airport, if you’re going to fly internationally, and if you’re basically anywhere from Malibu to the Mexico border, you’re going to pass through LAX—which is a hell of a catchment area and an incredible strain to put on one airport. That’s partly due to when Orange County tried to build an airport at the former El Toro Marine base and ended up in a bizarre civil war: you had the right-leaning NIMBY interests on the side of the environmentalists, and you had the Chamber of Commerce siding with the poor immigrants of Orange County, because they wanted the jobs. It made for this schizoid conflict.

To continue from a narrow American perspective, I think the examples of Memphis and Louisville are fascinating, where the sheer economic force of FedEx and UPS basically willed them into being.

Those cities used to be river-trading towns—cotton and tobacco, respectively—before they became basically southern rustbelt towns. But then, in the 1970s and 80s, they were reborn as company towns of FedEx and UPS. In a sense, their economics—for better or for worse, and that’s very much up for debate—are held hostage by our e-commerce habits: every time we press the one-click button on Amazon, it leads to this gigantic logistical mechanism which, in turn, has led to the creation of vast warehouse districts around the airports of these two cities.

One of the things I tried to touch on in the book is that even actions we think of as primarily virtual lead to the creation of gigantic physical systems and superstructures without us even knowing it.

[Images: Laser-guided FedEx hub urbanism at work; all images courtesy of FedEx. Meanwhile, it is about UPS—not FedEx—but John McPhee's essay "Out in the Sort" is a minor classic in what I might call the logistical humanities].

BLDGBLOG: In this context, you point out in the book that Kasarda “proposes building cities by corporations for corporations, guaranteeing their survival by tailoring them to clients’ specifications—beginning with the airport.” The city is not an expression of human culture, so to speak, but a kind of 3-dimensional graph of economic activity.

Lindsay: Yes, the aerotropolis—as Kasarda preaches it and as has been implemented in places like Dubai and elsewhere—is less about urbanity than repurposing the city as a “machine for living,” to quote Le Corbusier.

The aerotropolis is basically an economic engine. Planners are looking for ways to make these cities as frictionless as possible in terms of doing business—which means that, in places like Dubai, the tax-free zones and enclaves such as Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City and the Jebel Ali Free Zone can basically wage an economic war of all against all when it comes to competing cities. They were designed as weapons for fighting trade wars, and their charter—to be duty-free and hyper-efficient—reflects this. So it’s interesting in the sense that these cities are infrastructure-as-weaponry, which Rem Koolhaas wrote about in “The Generic City” [PDF]—“City X builds an airport to kill City Y.” They’re competing rather than complementing.

China’s cities, in particular, are building infrastructure not as a way to improve urban living across these larger regions, but basically so that they can do battle against one another for attention and investment.

BLDGBLOG: Sticking with Dubai, at one point you write: “High-functioning dictatorships such as Dubai’s don’t faze [Kasarda]. If anything, they’re the only ones who move fast enough.” This sounds quite ominous. In some ways, I’m reminded of recent architectural debates in which people seemed to side either with a revival of Jane Jacobs or with a revival of Robert Moses—where the latter camp claims that what we really need now is a kind of infrastructural dictator, someone who will get the job done, whether that’s high-speed rail or a new tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. But what are the political implications of the aerotropolis—and is a “high-functioning dictatorship” really the most appropriate form of government for such a city?

Lindsay: Well, it’s obvious if you look at the projects under way that a great many of them are being realized by authoritarian governments, whether that’s China or the Middle East monarchies.

Basically, the aerotropolis, or any kind of instant city project, seems to be enabled by autocracy. That’s the case whether you’re building an aerotropolis in Dubai or whether you’re building one in Beijing, or whether you’re building smart cities in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is building six “economic cities,” quote-unquote, which will double as aerotropoli. The Saudis are trying to revamp their whole air system, develop their national airline, and then also make these smart cites into job magnets, thinking that they could basically build a society from scratch.

It’s funny that you’d mention Robert Moses, though, because I didn’t even really think of him in the context of this book. It’s gone beyond the scale of Moses. Moses was a regional planner operating in what is ultimately a democratic government. But you have planners—in fact, you have technocrats—who are commissioning and building whole cities now. I think Robert Moses would be a fantastic figure today—because he would be a vast improvement over some of the secret decisions being made in China over what they’re going to build, where, and to what end.

This goes back to what I was saying about the war between cities. I was reading a description by Steven Cheung, a Chicago School economist who taught in Hong Kong. He presented a paper in Beijing in 2008 that was partially translated in Richard McGregor’s The Party, where he discusses the economic model that has driven China. His notion is that every city there is at total war with each other economically, in order to attract foreign investment. They’ll promise you everything, and they’ll move as fast as possible, and they’ll build whatever you need to make it happen. And that’s the same impulse behind the people who are building aerotropoli. You end up with a city like Chongqing, with 32 million people, where they’re building a massive new airport that will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for the millions of people who were displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

On some level, I think in America we don’t even understand the level and the pace of change that is happening in China, where, because of decisions made by central planners, millions of people are being urbanized—literally at the flip of a switch, because they’re simply changing their legal status from “rural” to “urban.” Suddenly, three million farmers turn into three million urbanites, and now you have to find jobs for them, and situate them, and do all these things.

For an autocrat, it’s easy to will that into existence—and the pleasures of doing so are well known. I mean, Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded has a whole section on “if only we could be China just for one day…”

In terms of the aerotropolis, maybe the most interesting developments will be in India. They intend to build, I don’t know, a hundred airports from scratch, and they are actively planning a few in the mold of Kasarda’s aerotropoli. And considering India is a democracy, it’s led to some massive political battles. They’re fighting over the land; they’re fighting over whether to build one above coalfields. It will be very interesting to see at what rapidity they can move forward with a true democratic process.

But I think the classic example in the book is in Thailand, where Kasarda has been a teacher and government advisor for years and where he sold his vision of the aerotropolis to Thaksin Shinawatra—who was then the elected prime minister but was almost universally considered an oligarch. People who were involved in that process are still unsure that Thaksin ever understood what Kasarda was trying to tell him, or whether Thaksin simply saw it as a land grab—a way to install his own family members in development companies and reap huge profits from it.

The flipside is Dubai. They screwed up a lot of things there but, through several generations of rulers now, they’ve understood that investing in infrastructure and investing in trade was the key to long-term success.

[Image: The now-erased runways of Denver's old Stapleton Airport; the airfield has since become a New Urbanist residential development. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation].

BLDGBLOG: A few times now, you’ve mentioned the prospect of a failed aerotropolis—or at least an aerotropolis that is incorrectly implemented. I’m really curious about that—about what might happen to an aerotropolis if the growth of air freight and business travel doesn’t actually pan out as expected. In the book, you do touch on things like climate change and peak oil—but is it short-sighted, in a way, to build cities specifically around one form of transportation, one that might someday prove inaccessible?

Lindsay: In terms of building a city around an airport, there’s a common misconception that we’ll be building homes right up to the fence of the airport. But the airports we build today are massive, and they have huge noise buffers around them, which isn’t the case at older airports. Denver’s old Stapleton Airport is a classic example of this, where people actually did live a couple hundred yards away from the runways, with all of the piercing noise. But when they built the new Denver International out beyond the city, it’s two miles from the runway to the border of the airport, and it floats on this sea of grass that nothing can ever get close to—though developers are trying.

So, even though you’ll have fast access to the airport, it’s not like you’re going to look across the street and see planes landing. Then again, I live in brownstone Brooklyn under a flight path, eight miles from LaGuardia, and, on rainy nights, it sounds like planes are about to land on my desk. It’s all relative.

As for peak oil and climate change, I devoted a whole chapter to them in the book. I believe wholeheartedly in peak oil—you simply cannot geometrically increase consumption of a finite resource—but I do believe that biofuels, likely harvested from micro-organism production platforms, can produce sustainable, replenishable jet fuel. The science is sound; the scale of production is what’s in question.

But even if you think climate change is inescapable, or that peak oil will do us in first, and even if you think that aviation will go away and that globalization will stop, for good or for bad—but probably for good—to me, the question is: Are you willing to bet the future on that?

Because what’s interesting to me is that, in China, India, and the Middle East—and anywhere else in the developing world whose cities have been cut out of globalization so far—they’re building these cities to connect themselves to the global economy, in which they intend to participate, if not someday to dominate.

The more unsettling question that I wanted to raise in this book—rather than just cheerlead for airport cities, as some critics have accused me of doing—is ask whether we need to do the same to keep pace. Do we need to build or re-build our cities to more efficiently process goods and people? Or will these places collapse under their own weight?

In China, the answer may be both. But this is the world we made—one-click shopping creating giant hubs in Louisville and Memphis—and this the world they’re making. It may end in disaster, or it could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty—and hurt our own economy further in the process.

These are questions I wanted to leave to the reader. The reasons autocracies are so eager to embrace an aerotropolis or an instant city is because they’re willing basically to throw money and people at the problem in an attempt to catch up to us in an incredibly rapid timeframe.

I was just reading the other day about Kangbashi, the “ghost city” of Ordos, China. It was built in five years flat for a million people. It’s interesting to me that they’re willing to work at this speed in an attempt to catch up, even regardless of the consequences.

[Image: A rendering of New Songdo City, courtesy of Kohn Peterson Fox].

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to discuss the idea of the “instant city” more generally. It’s an evergreen vision, in many ways, and an ideologically promiscuous one, appealing both to the 1960s architectural avant-gardes and to the overseas forward-operating bases of military planners. In your own work, you’ve covered things like the “City in a Box,” New Songdo City, and Russia’s “silicon forest” where cities are basically treated as products that you can buy—like customizing a BMW off a website and then hitting the purchase button. Where is this sort of instant urbanism going, and who or what is driving it?

Lindsay: The thread I see going through the book and the work I’ve been doing for Fast Company is the notion that the people who are planning cities today, and who have really gotten interested in urbanism over the last few years, are people who are neither architects nor planners. The city is experiencing a white-hot moment, and this is converging from a bunch of different areas.

You have the whole camp coming out of Richard Florida’s work, for example, who have gone through the economic effects of cities and the cultural spillover of knowledge and training—basically, the notion that cities are engines of creativity and engines of ideas and job skills. Harvard’s Edward Glaeser is deservedly enjoying his moment in the sun for his academic work around these issues. To him, the key economic actor of the future is the city.

Then you have the technology companies who have been piling in, led by IBM. This is what really led to the resurrection of the “smart city” a couple years ago, which is the notion that, coupled with the "internet of things"—assuming we reach a point of ubiquitous sensors and constant data flows—the city becomes the next computing paradigm. This has been discussed academically for decades, but now it might actually happen—or at least there’s a lot of money and corporate support behind it.

Then you get to the notion, again, of infrastructure—of Kasarda, of the aerotropolis, and of people who are building cities as competitive weapons.

Some of the most interesting things I like writing about are places like New Songdo City. Songdo is billed today as a smart, green aerotropolis, but it was invented by the Korean government at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund following the 1997-98 financial crisis, when the IMF bailed out Korea to the tune of $58 billion—which seems like nothing now. The IMF insisted the country open itself up to foreign direct investment. So its leaders decided to build a city for foreigners, and that led to finding an American—Stan Gale and his partners—to build a whole city from scratch off the coast of Korea. It was basically willed into existence by the necessity of paying back the IMF; that’s why Songdo was born.

Or there are the smart cities being planned. Masdar, for example, is supposed to be a smart eco-city. Masdar basically exists to be an incubator and an R&D park so that Abu Dhabi can dominate clean-tech technology. Again, this is basically the city as an economic weapon, not a utopian vision.

I find the people drawn to these projects equally fascinating. For example, Stan Gale is your classic story of American real-estate development. He’s a third-generation developer who got his own start in Orange County in the 1980s, and he witnessed the master planning and the financialization of real estate that began there; he then worked in New Jersey in the 1990s, where the market evolved into edge cities; and now here he is working at the global scale, trying to convince more Chinese mayors to help him build cities for them. He’s got a whole consortium of companies, like Cisco and United Technology Corporation—which, incidentally, builds more pieces of the city than I think anyone really knows. Otis Elevators, fuel-cells—all these things that you need for a project being built at the city scale.

Someone else I find equally fascinating is Paul Romer, the economist who’s pitching the idea of the charter city. I’d like to think he’ll win the Nobel Prize for the work he did in the 1990s on what’s been called New Growth theory, which described increasing returns to scale. Paul basically decided that the best way to raise people out of poverty—the best instrument—is to build a city from scratch and use it as a tool for developing skills, trade and everything else. And it appears that he’s actually now found a country willing to let him do it, in Honduras. This is a man who has absolutely no urban planning background. Urbanism to him is secondary—he cares, but he’ll leave it to the experts. The urbanism itself is not paramount to him.

It’s interesting to me that these outside elements—whether it’s a technology company or an economist or a developer—feel like the architecture and the urban planning is just—you know, we can get experts to do that for us. And it’ll be great. Architects like Kohn Peterson Fox, who are responsible for Songdo, rather than build a perfect city from scratch, basically borrow the best pieces of every city they can find to create a new city. And, you know, having been there a couple of times, I feel like it may actually work; I don’t know what the completed city will be like, but I feel like it’s working. Gale uses the phrase “city in a box,” which you mentioned, but they’re also saying things like “we’ve cracked the code of urbanism”—which is a hell of a statement to make. To think you’ve solved 9,000 years of urban practice and that you can just move on is quite dramatic.

So those are some of the things I find particularly interesting: that the city has become this nexus of interests for so many people, only it’s being made or stimulated by people who aren’t architects or urban planners.

[Image: Le Corbusier's infamous Plan Voisin, meant to replace the heart of Paris, France].

BLDGBLOG: It’s easy to see how all this can sound quite technocratic and dystopian—which makes it all the more interesting that you open the book with an unexpected pair of quotations. One is from Le Corbusier, the other from novelist J.G. Ballard. To anyone familiar with Ballard’s work, in particular, I might say, this seems like a strangely subversive gesture against the book's own premise; it's like opening a golf course community and saying you were inspired by Super-Cannes. Why did you choose these quotations, and what effect were you hoping they would have?

Lindsay: I’m so glad you brought that up. I’ve been curious what people would make of it. What I love about Ballard is the kind of dark irony of his work, which is something I find in Koolhaas’s writing as well. They know the future is slick and disposable, and they revel in modernity’s contradictions. They know how dark globalization’s undercurrents are, but go on despite—or even because of—them. The book reviewers who said the aerotropolis had “forgotten” a soul completely missed the point—these cities never had souls to begin with. That’s why I find them fascinating!

The Ballard and Le Corbusier quotes should be read as a flashing red light, signaling to the reader: Caution: Unreliable Narrator Ahead. You’ve been warned. Especially that Le Corbusier quote: anyone who knows anything about urbanism who encounters that quote should immediately have their guard up—which was my intention all along.

• • •

Thanks again to Greg Lindsay for having this conversation—including the second half, which you can read over at Work in Progress—and to Stephen Weil for all his help in setting this up.

Finally, I hope to see some of you in Los Angeles at the A+D Museum on April 5th, when Greg Lindsay and I will pick up this conversation in person. The event is free and open to the public, and it kicks off at 6pm.

Books Received

[Image: Proposal for the Stockholm Public Library by Olivier Charles].

The "Books Received" series on BLDGBLOG continues apace, with short descriptions of interesting—but not necessarily new–books that have passed through the home office here. In all cases, these are books about architecture, landscape, and the built environment, albeit in an extended sense, encompassing paleontology, marine biophysics, space archaeology, geopolitics, infrastructural anthropology, museology, how-to guides for architectural design, and more.

Note, however, that these lists will always include books that I have not read in full—and the present rundown is no exception.

I should also add that this particular list is horribly overdue; there are many, many books here that were sent to me six or seven months ago, and I've been inexcusably delinquent in posting about them. If you're the author or publisher of those particular titles, I apologize for the delay.

1) Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay (FSG).

2) The Docks by Bill Sharpsteen (University of California Press).

3) Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn (Viking).

4) On Roads: A Hidden History by Joe Moran (Profile Books).

Four books about infrastructure and the humans (and plastic ducks) who inhabit it, from airport-cities of the near future to the docks of Long Beach, and from accidents at sea supplying an unexpected way to trace global trade networks to a short history of the roads by which civilization is now defined.

Watch for BLDGBLOG's interview with Aerotropolis author Greg Lindsay coming up tomorrow morning, March 15, as well as a live interview with Lindsay at the A+D Museum in Los Angeles on April 5.

5) Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage edited by Ann Garrison Darrin and Beth Laura O'Leary (CRC Press).

The Handbook is an endlessly fascinating mega-collection (1,015+ pages!) of essays about the science of space archaeology: the study and preservation of artifacts and sites related to human space exploration, including "everything from launch pads to satellites to landers on Mars." Lost spacecraft, failed missions, "graveyard orbits," and the Apollo 11 landing site all make extended appearances in the book, interpreted as examples of the space-archaeological record. "For example," we read, "the location of one human footprint on the Moon in situ is an archaeological feature that defines one of the ultimate events of humankind and is a part of the physical and temporal record of all the engineering research and development that made it possible."

The book is full of amazing factoids—we learn, for example, that, "Surprisingly, the Viking 1 lander, which remains on Mars, is considered part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum," suggesting a distributed, inter-planetary museum of inaccessible earthly objects—and eye-popping new fields of study, such as "the role archaeologists might play in understanding the material culture of extraterrestrials or other intelligent species, once the physical evidence is scientifically verifiable." The book even describes a kind of computational archaeology, by which "the heritage created by robots in the form of their artificial intelligence" would be both studied and preserved.

6) Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas by Stefan Helmreich (University of California Press).

Alien Ocean is an anthropological study of oceanographers, marine biologists, genetic researchers, and the way that they perform research, not an oceanographic study in itself. But if the idea of following a Donna Haraway-like narrator around the California coast, visiting gene-research labs, riding down in submarines, and opining about the chemical possibilities of life on other planets, where strange maritime organisms might swim through the dark currents of "extraterrestrial seas," then you'll find Helmreich's book as hard to put down as I did.

7) The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz (Oxford University Press).

Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, is back with this book-length thought experiment: can the entire geological history of the planet be deduced from a single pebble? If so, what tools—what pieces of equipment and what scientific ideas—would you need at your disposal, and what might you find in the process?

8) The Alphabet and the Algorithm by Mario Carpo (MIT).

9) The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture by Pier Vittorio Aureli (MIT).

10) The Liberal Monument: Urban Design and the Late Modern Project by Alexander D'Hooge (Princeton Architectural Press).

MIT's "Writing Architecture" series continues with two new titles influenced by Peter Eisenman. In one, Mario Carpo explores mechanical reproduction, robotics, and the historical status of the architectural copy (see also the recent book Anachronic Renaissance for a fascinating discussion of architectural duplication). In the other, Pier Vittorio Aureli dives into the political, in its most literal sense: where architecture intervenes in, and actively confronts, the city, the polis. Here, Aureli draws an interesting distinction between "the political dimension of coexistence (the city)" and "the economic logic of social management (urbanization)."

Finally, Alexander D'Hooge uses this expanded publication of his Ph.D. thesis to propose "a series of civic complexes" built within "the existing, vast net of suburban sprawl" that surrounds the contemporary city, in order to introduce public space and institutional communality "in a territory otherwise devoid of it."

11) Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia by Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth, with a foreword by Lebbeus Woods (University of Pennsylvania Press).

12) Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown (ZONE Books).

13) A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann (Picador).

Three books about walls: architecture and urbanism used to separate and to neutralize the lives of a city's human residents, not to catalyze vibrant communities or to bring neighboring people together.

As Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth conclude in Divided Cities, "divided cities are not aberrations. Instead, they are the unlucky vanguard of a large and growing class of cities." Indeed, the authors add, "Evidence gleaned from the five cities examined here suggests that, given similar circumstances and pressures, any city could undergo a comparable metamorphosis," leading to the "dangerous, wasted spaces" of urban partition. The book includes several highly memorable images, including a sewage treatment system in the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus—a subterranean network "where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated." A waste-management engineer quips that "the city is divided above ground but unified below." It is a kind of infrastructural conjoined twin.

Wendy Brown—in what is ultimately a highly repetitive book that would have been more effective as an essay—suggests that the ongoing construction boom in border walls and other peripheral fortifications is actually a panicked response to the loss of power on behalf of the nation-state, not architectural proof that the nation-state has experienced a sovereign renaissance. "Thus," she writes, "walls generate what Heidegger termed a 'reassuring world picture' in a time increasingly lacking the horizons, containment, and security that humans have historically required for social and psychic integration and for political membership."

René Backmann's much more journalistic Wall in Palestine follows the cultural, economic, religious, and psychological effects of the Israeli border fence, as Backmann walks its complicated routes often cutting straight through previously thriving Palestinian villages.

14) A Landscape Manifesto by Diana Balmori (Yale University Press).

15) Above the Pavement—The Farm! Architecture & Agriculture at PF1 edited by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood (Princeton Architectural Press).

16) L.A. Under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property by Roger Sherman (University of Minnesota Press).

Exploring complex intersections where the city hits the land it's built upon and both are irrevocably transformed, these three books take notably different rhetorical tones. From Balmori's 25-point "manifesto" (#18: "Emerging landscapes are becoming brand-new actors on the political stage") to the hands-on field notes of Work AC's Public Farm 1, by way of Roger Sherman's real-estate-based spatial survey of Los Angeles and the various rights of land access and title that financially define the ground of the modern metropolis, each of these books offers surprising suggestions for formal projects and future research. Above the Pavement also benefits from a great design by Project Projects.

17) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott (Yale University Press).

18) Utopics: Systems and Landmarks edited by Simon Lamunière (JRP/Ringier).

19) Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation by Peter Sloterdijk (Columbia University Press).

20) Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict by Andrew Herscher (Stanford University Press).

These four books take an explicitly political approach to space and geography, including Peter Sloterdijk's suggestion that rage is an underappreciated force of political motivation, one that can be traced back to the mythological origins of the European psyche, and Simon Lamunière's edited catalog of utopian ideas and spaces.

James Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, meanwhile, is one of the most stimulating books I've read in the past six months. Scott writes about a region called "Zomia," which encompasses "virtually all the lands at altitudes above roughly three hundred meters all the way from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India and traversing five Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma) and four provinces of China (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and parts of Sichuan). It is an expanse of 2.5 million square kilometers containing about one hundred million minority peoples of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety."

Scott explores how certain agricultural practices go hand-in-hand with "state-making projects"—and, conversely, how different forms of food cultivation, land management, and foraging offer what Scott calls "escape value." That is, they allow for "state evasion": spatial and agricultural techniques for "steering clear of being politically captured" by an empire or nation-state. "Far from being 'left behind' by the progress of civilization in the valleys," Scott writes, "[the people of Zomia] have, over long periods of time, chosen to place themselves out of the reach of the state... There, they practiced what I will call escape agriculture: forms of cultivation designed to thwart state appropriation. Even their social structure could fairly be called escape social structure inasmuch as it was designed to aid dispersal and autonomy and to ward off political subordination."

Given time, I hope to post about Scott's book at greater length later this year; it is highly recommended.

21) Form+Code in Design, Art, and Architecture by Casey Reas, Chandler McWilliams, and LUST (Princeton Architectural Press).

22) Architectural Drawing by David Dernie (Laurence King Publishing).

23) Architectural Modelmaking by Nick Dunn (Laurence King Publishing).

All three of these books are useful overviews—even step-by-step guides—for creating architectural models and imagery, from the use of specific software packages to colored chalk, cardboard, and #2 lead. While Architectural Drawing and Architectural Modelmaking probably won't teach you anything you don't know already, it is nonetheless useful to have these around for flipping through, filled with visual ideas for how to approach a design project afresh.

24) Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner).

25) Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch (Ugly Duckling Presse).

26) Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture by Thomas Heise (Rutgers University Press).

27) Monsterpieces: Once Upon a Time... of the 2000s! by Aude-Line Duliere and Clara Wong (ORO Editions).

In what could pass as a kind of zoologically-themed children's book or architectural fairy tale—here, a good thing—Monsterpieces reimagines iconic buildings all over the world as everything but what those buildings were intended to be. A tour of monsters, spaceports, biomass plants, anaerobic hospitals, robo-arachnoid recycling centers, mutant spatial transformation, and more.

Thomas Heise, meanwhile, takes us down into the cultural underworld of the 20th-century literary metropolis, including "degenerate sex" and highly politicized urban race relations; Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch have assembled a series of dialogues framed by specific walks through the city, suggesting that friendship itself is a useful technique for maximizing the emotional effects of urban space; and Witold Rybczynski signs off on an ambitious new book, one that "summarizes what I have learned about city planning and urban development," as he describes it. "Is the city the result of design intentions, or of market forces, or a bit of both?" Rybczynski asks, in an armchair question typical of the Theory Lite in which he traffics. "These are the questions I explore in this book."

28) Visual Planning and the Picturesque by Nikolaus Pevsner (Getty Publications).

29) Limited Language: Rewriting Design by Colin Davies and Monika Parrinder (Birkhäuser).

30) A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley (Verso).

31) A Peripheral Moment: Experiments in Architectural Agency: Croatia 1990-2010 by Ivan Rupnik et al. (Actar).

32) Worldchanging 2.0 edited by Alex Steffen (Abrams).

From the architectural "ruins" of New Labour to the influence and role of the Picturesque in the history of British town planning, this cluster of five titles gives us architecture both as historical practice and as subject of critique. In Croatia, for instance, we read that "political instability and creative innovation" have worked with equal intensity to generate new, experimental building typologies, while Limited Language explores a variety of "hybrid media forms" through which design can or should be communicated.

Worldchanging 2.0 is more explicitly practical. This new, bright yellow edition is a thorough revision—even a total rewrite—of the first version, suggesting new directions for ecologically aware design practices, community collaborations, and the ground-up spatial improvement of 21st-century life.

33) BIG by Bjarke Ingels Group (Archilife).

34) Archipiélago de Arquitectura by Miguel Mesa et al. (Mesa Editores).

35) Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture edited by Pernilla Ohrstedt and Hayley Isaacs (Riverside Architectural Press).

36) Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region by Shaun O'Boyle (Penn State University Press).

Finally, I wanted to give a shout-out to four recent books I had the pleasure of directly contributing to. Those contributions run the gamut from a discussion of the spatial strategies of football (both FIFA and NFL) and what I describe as "live-action crystallography" in the work of Bjarke Ingels, to plate tectonics reconsidered as an extreme form of long-term landscape design in Archipiélago de Arquitectura (another beautifully designed publication by Mesa Editores).

In Shaun O'Boyle's photographs of the "modern ruins" of the Mid-Atlantic, meanwhile, including his explorations of Eastern State Penitentiary (an abandoned prison located mere blocks from where BLDGBLOG was born in Philadelphia), I ruminate on the psychological effects of architectural survival, when a seemingly doomed building or architectural type manages to live on for covert exploration by a new generation. Incidentally, O'Boyle's book has a funny backstory involving the website Metafilter. And, in a multiply-authored book published to coincide with last year's Venice Biennale, I take a look at the "synthetic geology" of architect Philip Beesley and his installation Hylozoic Ground.

If you happen to stumble upon any of these four last books, I'd love to know what you think of the essays.

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