Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Last autumn, I had the pleasure of speaking with architects Michael Maltzan and Jessica Varner for the new book No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

That conversation was then included in the book itself, alongside conversations about the city with such artists, architects, and writers as Catherine Opie, Matthew Coolidge, Mirko Zardini, Edward Soja, Charles Jencks, Qingyun Ma, Sarah Whiting, James Flanigan, and Charles Waldheim. It will surprise no one to read that my interview is the least interesting of the bunch, but it's an honor even to have been invited to sit down as a blogger amidst that line-up.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Overall, the book represents a series of interesting decisions: it doesn't document Michael Maltzan's work—though, with several recently completed, high-profile projects, including Playa Vista Park, Maltzan could easily could have spent the book's 200+ pages discussing nothing but his own productions (in fact, Maltzan's buildings are absent from the publication).

Instead, the book instead features newly commissioned photographs of greater Los Angeles by the ubiquitous Iwan Baan; further, Michael's and Jessica's introductory texts are not about the firm's recent buildings but are about those buildings' urban context. It is about the conditions in which those buildings are spatially possible.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

In many ways, then, the book is astonishingly extroverted. It's a book by an architecture office about the city it works in, not a book documenting that firm's work; and, as such, it serves as an impressive attempt to understand and analyze the city through themed conversations with other people, in a continuous stream of partially overlapping dialogues, instead of through ex tempore essayistic reflections by the architects or dry academic essays.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Iwan Baan's photos also capture the incredible diversity of spatial formats that exist in Los Angeles—including camouflaged oil rigs on residential hillsides—and the range of anthropological subtypes that support them, down to fully-clothed toy dogs and their terrycloth-clad owners.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

In an excerpt from Maltzan's introduction to the book published today over at Places, Maltzan writes that the city's "relentless growth has never paused long enough to coalesce into a stable identity."
Los Angeles and the surrounding regions have grown steadily since the founding of the original pueblo, but the period immediately after World War II defined the current super-region. During this time, the economy accelerated, and Los Angeles became a national and international force. Today, innovation and development define the metropolis as the region multiplies exponentially, moment by moment, changing into an unprecedented and complex expansive field. The region continues to defy available techniques and terms in modernism's dictionary of the city.
This latter point is a major subtheme in the interviews that follow: exactly what is it that makes Los Angeles a city, not simply a "large congregation of architecture," in Ole Bouman's words. As Bouman warns, "If you don’t distinguish between those two—if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture—then you make a very big mistake. First of all, I think it’s necessary for architectural criticism, in that sense, to find the right words for these very complicated processes, to distinguish between two processes or forms that, at first sight, appear the same, but that are, in reality, very different."

At the end of his introductory notes, Maltzan remarks that "we have reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies" to a place like Los Angeles.

"Perhaps it is not a city," he suggests. Perhaps something at least temporarily indescribable has occurred here.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

You can read Maltzan's essay in full over at Places; or I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of the book as a way of encouraging this kind of discursive engagement with the city—what Varner describes in her introduction as a set of outward-looking, nested narratives "which then fold back onto themselves" from conversation to conversation, and will only continue to develop "as the city advances forward."

[Image: From No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

The book also comes with a small fold-out poster, one side of which you can see here.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Agitation, Power, Space: An Interview with Ole Bouman).

Landscape Futures Super-Trip

I'm heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.

[Image: The Very Large Array].

This will be an amazing trip! Our stops include the "world’s largest collection of optical telescopes," including the great hypotenuse of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, outside Tucson; the Very Large Array in west-central New Mexico; the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, aka the "lunar greenhouse," where "researchers are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown without soil on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival"; the surreal encrustations of the Salton Sea, a site that, in the words of Kim Stringfellow, "provides an excellent example of the the growing overlap of humanmade and natural environments, and as such highlights the complex issues facing the management of ecosystems today"; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, with its automated scanning systems used for "robotic searches for variable stars and exoplanets" in the night sky, and its gamma-ray reflectors and "blazar lightcurves" flashing nearby; the Grand Canyon; Red Rocks, outside Sedona; the hermetic interiorities of Biosphere 2; White Sands National Monument and the Trinity Site marker, with its so-called bomb glass; the giant aircraft "boneyard" at the Pima Air & Space Museum; and, last but not least, the unbelievably fascinating Lunar Laser-ranging Experiment at Apache Point, New Mexico, where they shoot lasers at prismatic retroreflectors on the moon, testing theories of gravitation, arriving there by way of the nearby Dunn Solar Telescope.

[Image: The "Electric Aurora," from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].

The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge's study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator's essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.

That book documents a forthcoming exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, featuring work by David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White & Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken, and Liam Young.

Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I'll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, "an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies," organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.

That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, Landscape Futures Super-Dialogue, and Landscape Futures Super-Media).


1) London Topological
The Escapist is a film that offers little in the way of plot or characterization, but it often excels at setting. It tells the story of a London prison break, an architectural premise that first springs to mind for the film's protagonist—played by Brian Cox—after a process of what we might call spatial hermeneutics.

He notices, for instance, that, when the dryers in the prison laundry slow to the end of their cycle, a slight whistling sound can still be heard in the background—because the ventilation shafts that draw excess heat from the machines are connected to... to what, he's not exactly sure. But it's a clear indication that there is an outside world beyond the prison's walls.

[Images: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

Later, he notes a dripping water pipe—and, thus, by implication, the outside infrastructure it's connected to.

Of course, this is the nature of all prison break stories: you watch the structures around you for weaknesses, then you maneuver your way through built space against the grain that's been laid out for you. It is plan/counterplan, section/antisection.

[Image: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

In a shot that is admittedly somewhat contrived, given its anomalous appearance in the film, this is made explicit: we see the prison break in a cutaway, the set becoming a diagram of itself as they squirm further into the underground spaces outside their erstwhile jail.

Which brings us to the single most interesting, overriding spatial fact of the film: the prison, we're led to believe, is so nestled into the infrastructure of London, so radically adjacent to the city, that poking holes through the walls and air ducts leads directly to the basements of that annihilatingly grey metropolis.

In fact, it doesn't give much away to point out that their escape, when it actually occurs, is by way of perforations: they knock small holes in walls and floors, peel up floor grates, unscrew locks, and open otherwise unintended connections amongst disparate rooms and corridors, sites never meant to be joined. And then they leave the prison underground.

[Image: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

They are in London, after all, where every building is like a heart transplant, hooked up and sutured to the secret pipes of the city. Every building is sewn and grafted to the networks surrounding it, like architectural conjoined twins who remain unaware of one another until somebody starts digging.

[Images: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

We watch the escapists pass from sewers to underground rivers to the actual Underground itself, whose train-infested tunnels they encounter first by walking down the monumental staircase of an abandoned station—more Macchu Picchu than, say, Charles Holden

[Images: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

—stumbling through dust, abandoned WWII gas masks, and old sweaters, trying to locate themselves by way of an obsolete map.

[Image: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

And so they advance by the light of flames through arches and steel doors—

[Images: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

—until other, more threatening lights find them, instead.

[Images: From The Escapist directed by Rupert Wyatt, courtesy of IFC Films].

2) Hollow Earth
After watching the movie I was reminded of a class called "Underground," taught nine years ago by the late professor Paul Hirst at the London Consortium. The Consortium describes itself as "a unique collaboration between the Architectural Association, Birkbeck College, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Science Museum and TATE."

Hirst pitched his class as an exploration of spatial metaphors: "Underground is also a metaphor for the unconscious," Hirst wrote, "a symbolic site for hidden and uncontrollable psychic forces. This cultural, psychic and metaphorical legacy affects our relation to apparently utilitarian underground structures and activities, such as cellars, graves, mines, tunnels and tubes."

These "cellars, graves, mines, tunnels and tubes" become less real locations, in other words, than narrative symbols, deployed by storytellers not for their spatial utility—not because the story has to go underground—but for their interpretive flexibility.

3) Underground Berlin
This comes at the same time that Princeton Architectural Press has reissued Lebbeus Woods's OneFiveFour, a book originally published in 1989 (and, because of the book's subject matter, it's worth noting that 1989 was the year the Berlin Wall was dismantled).

[Image: From "Underground Berlin" by Lebbeus Woods, taken from the recently republished OneFiveFour].

In that book, Woods both describes and draws a series of projects set in what we might call a speculative sister-city of Berlin. Called "Centricity," it is a metropolis populated with titanic physical devices: "oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change. Tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes."

[Image: From "Underground Berlin" by Lebbeus Woods].

Woods then brings us to his own version of Berlin: what he calls "Underground Berlin," implying, in the process, that there was not just an East Berlin and a West Berlin but an Upper and a Lower fragmentation of the metropolis. (Here, I'm reminded of a sewage worker quoted in the recent book Divided Cities: referring to his work in Nicosia, Cyprus, where he maintains a subterranean network in which "all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated," the man jokes that "the city is divided above ground but unified below.")

Underground Berlin, Woods explains, "is a city beneath a city. It is organized as a secret community of resistance to the occupying political powers above and follows existing U-Bahn subway lines."

At this point, the book takes on a kind of terrestrial mysticism. We read, for instance, that there is "something below even more compelling and powerful, something generating effects more powerful than all those from above, more powerful and immediate than history, than culture, than political conflict: the intricate fabric of forces active within the planetary mass of the Earth itself."

These are "geomechanical forces," Woods says, and they "issue from deep within the earth—gravitational, electromagnetic, and seismic forces that come to shape the forms and relationships comprising life in the underground city itself."

[Image: From "Underground Berlin" by Lebbeus Woods].

The city itself is a device, we learn, built to register and respond to the planet's unseen geomechanical shifts. "From the subtly vibrating planetary mass of earth come seismic forces that move the inverted towers and bridges in equally subtle vibrations," Woods explains. "Like musical instruments, they vibrate and shift in diverse frequencies, in resonance with the earth and also with one another."

The buildings are, in effect, "kinetic instruments that measure the earth's inner dynamics," scientific instruments built on an inhabitable scale:
The structures absorb a portion of the mechanical energies and electromagnetic energies received from the earth to realign themselves with the subsurface geometry of rock strata and faults in order to stay tuned with energies flowing along geological lines.
And this extends all the way down to individual pieces of furniture: "each object—chair, table, cloth, examining apparatus, structure—is an instrument."

As a result, the city is a geomechanical orchestra, resistant to mere plan and section, requiring documentation in sound and narrative, as well as image; its "continuous civic space is a great diaphragm resonating with the dissonant or consonant 'music' of the entire network."

[Image: The city as telluric gyroscope; from "Underground Berlin" by Lebbeus Woods].

Briefly, I'll mention that my own first visit to Berlin, in the winter of 1998, was during a period when Potsdamer Platz was still under construction and the massive foundation pits that temporarily defined that part of the city were left wide open to the elements.

Walking through Potsdamer Platz—an historically symbolic center for the city and a former dead zone during the era of the Wall—thus became an amazingly post-terrestrial experience, in the specific sense that you left the surface of the earth behind in order to stroll, instead, across massively cantilevered platforms that served to extend the local roads—which thus weren't really roads but bridges—across the width and breadth of those titanic excavations. You could actually look down, over protective fencing on the edges either side of the sidewalk, into the rebar-filled emptiness you were striding over, feeling the platforms—that seemed as thin as eggshells—vibrate with the passing thunder of trucks and buses.

Further, those voids were filled to not inconsiderable depth with both rain and groundwater, which meant that there were many days during which construction personnel were actually scuba-diving inside the planet—inside the city, inside divided urban history—performing underwater construction in the partially submerged foundations of "Underground Berlin." As if, beneath the city, we would discover not a beach but the oceanic.

The evacuated core of the city thus began to feel more like some massive new installation by Anselm Kiefer—a kind of inverted Mount Meru—a physical realization of what should have been metaphors: cosmic floods, historical evisceration, and the architectural rebirth of an urban species.

4) Mine/Countermine
This idea—that, within the ground itself, a unified political resistance takes shape—brings to mind a pamphlet I read last fall, after a series of interesting conversations with my research assistant at USC, Jonathan Rennie. One day, Jon and I got onto the subject of underground warfare—I no longer remember why—and we stumbled upon Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins, part of the commendable Shire Archaeology series of pamphlets.

[Image: Scanned from Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins].

Wiggins's text is short—less than 60 pages—and worth the read. "Siege warfare, the attack and defense of fortified places, has been a feature of human conflict since the dawn of history," he begins. However, "the work of direct approach," as Wiggins calls it, as if mis-citing Hamlet ("By indirections, find directions in," we might say), is often not the best way to achieve victory. The alternative?

Go underground.

[Image: Illustration by Chevalier Follard (1727); scanned from Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins].

"Every wall has a foundation," Wiggins writes, "and, if that foundation is removed by undermining or 'sapping,' the wall itself will sink, split, shatter or collapse, depending on how the work is carried out. Digging was an alternative way of opening up the defenses of a fortified site to make possible a frontal assault, and this method did not rely on an array of large and expensive wall-breaking artillery." The "undermining of walls" by so-called "underwallers" was thus a military tactic. An anti-architecture. Excavation as weapon.

[Image: Calculating subterranean attack-trigonometry; scanned from Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins].

After all, "even the strongest wall was vulnerable to unseen attack from miners burrowing somewhere deep in the earth."
The specialists in this area were those men who made a living from mines in which metal ores or other minerals were excavated via shafts and tunnels for commercial purposes, often at depths far below the surface. Miners had expertise in the digging and shoring of tunnels that other civilians could not match, and it is a feature of siege warfare through the ages that the undermining of defenses was invariably attempted by men who were already miners by trade.
But this then, of course, worked both ways: you could tunnel outward from your own citadel in order to literally undermine your attackers—through what Wiggins calls "destructive subsidence"—in order to intercept their tunnels midway.

This was countermining.

[Image: Scanned from Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins].

When two tunnels met in the mud, rock, and darkness, the ensuing events "could be remarkable" for their brutality, Wiggins writes, "frequently resulting in hand-to-hand combat when opposing tunnels broke into each other, and the outcome of a particular siege could be determined by events played out far below the surface."

But how would you know that miners are approaching—and, even if you did know, how would you determine exactly where they might be?

At Caen, France, for instance, in 1417, the defenders "used vibrations on bowls of water"—like something out of Jurassic Park—"to help detect the English mines." There was also a "prefabricated countermine system" designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger; it "included lower chambers (pozzi), from which galleries could be extended as required." And there was a "mine-detection device," designed by Gabriele Tadidi da Martinengo for the defenders of Rhodes, "consisting of a stressed parchment diaphragm on to which small bells were mounted, which tinkled in response to any subterranean vibration." (Indeed, the Turks apparently had "an 'addiction' to great feats of mining," a contemporary military observer claims.) Much later, during World War I, there was something called the "geophone," a subterranean "listening device" for in-earth acoustic surveillance of approaching miners.

Finally, though, the only foolproof way to protect your castle or city from miners was to surround it with a moat: "water provided the only absolute guarantee of protection from mining," Wiggins points out.

[Image: From Mémoires d'Artillerie by Pierre Surirey de Saint-Rémy (1702); scanned from Siege Mines and Underground Warfare by Kenneth Wiggins].

In any case, I could go on and on with anecdotes—such as the fact that "men with civilian mining experience in the London Underground scheme" were put to work during WWI digging offensive mines along the battle front—but it's best simply to go read Wiggins's book.

5) The Tunnels of Cu Chi
Last week, at Julia Lupton's Design Fictions event, hosted down at UC-Irvine, I was asked during the Q&A if learning about all things underground—from sinkholes to WWII bunkers—can inspire a kind of terrestrial paranoia: fear that, any second now, the surface of the earth might collapse beneath our feet, revealing a world for which we have no real maps nor guiding concepts.

While, on one level, I would actually say that that's exactly why the underground is interesting—and that, speaking only for myself, this existential precariousness should evoke exhilaration, not fear—the actual answer I gave was to tell the story of the tunnels of Cu Chi.

[Images: A camouflaged door in the earth swings open; photos by Kevyn, via Wikipedia].

This is another story that benefits from being told over the course of an entire book, but I will give you the short version. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. constructed a forward-operating base in the jungle, in an area called Cu Chi.

Unfortunately for them, they built the base on top of an extensive network of underground tunnels through which the North Vietnamese Army would run munitions and humanitarian supplies; in which entire subterranean hospitals (one soldier had his punctured intestines repaired using "nylon threads taken from enemy parachutes") and complexly ventilated dormitories were maintained; and out of which attacks on U.S. troops were organized with near impunity. Rigged with booby traps—including hand grenades and boxes full of scorpions—and constructed on multiple underground levels, separated by camouflaged trapdoors, these linked complexes stretched for whole kilometers at a time.

[Image: The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate].

As Tom Mangold and John Penycate explain in their often riveting book The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America's "Tunnel Rats" in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam:
The underground tunnels of Cu Chi were the most complex part of a network that—at the height of the Vietnam War in the mid sixties—stretched from the gates of Saigon to the border with Cambodia (today, Ho Chi Minh City and Kampuchea). There were hundreds of kilometers of tunnels connecting villages, districts, and even provinces. They held living areas, storage depots, ordnance factories, hospitals, headquarters, and almost every other facility that was necessary to the pursuit of the war by South Vietnam's Communists and that could be accommodated below ground.
"In the end," a former major in the North Vietnamese Army explains, "there were main communications tunnels, secret tunnels, false tunnels. The more the Americans tried to drive us away from our land, the more we burrowed into it."

The authors memorably refer to this subterranean battleground as "the theater of the earth."

The so-called "tunnel warfare" that ensued is the subject of Mangold's and Penycate's book, including the variously weaponized devices and contraptions used by U.S. troops to discover, map, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate these tunnels.

For instance, there was something called the "mighty mite": U.S. troops "used a specially adapted commercial air blower called the 'mighty mite' to blow smoke down the tunnels, and then watched carefully to see where the smoke came out of the ground so that they could begin a rough plot of where the tunnels spread." The U.S. then developed an ineffective Tunnel Exploration Kit; TELACS, a "Tunnel Explorer, Locator and Communications System"; something rather ominously referred to as "the Tunnel Weapon"; extreme earth-moving equipment refitted with steel blades so massive they "could splinter trees of up to three feet in diameter"; an "earthquake bomb"; and an entire inter-military training initiative called the Tunnels, Mines, and Booby-Traps School (oh, to see a speculative collaboration between that School and the Bartlett!).

Of course, this aggressive ingenuity worked both ways; one particularly interesting example of Vietnamese tunnel construction involved a hollowed-out tree whose trunk led directly down into the tunnel networks below, like some sort of botanical chimney. A sniper could thus take shots from the leafy, topmost branches of a tree, only then to disappear, sliding down a climbing rope, into the theater of the earth below.

Through camouflage, the landscape itself became both bewildering shield and offensive weapon.

In any case, with all of the cases cited here, going underground means entering a space of unexpected affiliation: a crosswise architecture of circuits and countertopology.
[Image: by Eugene Andolsek, via but does it float].

The past month has been as close to a textbook example of overcommitment as I can think of, which has resulted in a pretty slow posting schedule here on the blog; who knows if anyone else has noticed. The rest of May will presumably be just as glacial, I'm afraid, but I'll be back to posting in the next few days!
Blogger was down for nearly 24 hours yesterday, and seems to have erased some recent posts and comments. Anyone else out there having trouble with Blogger? Or with deleted posts?

Update: Blogger will be restoring missing posts, including, I hope, yesterday's look at Utopia Forever. Thanks to Clement Wan and Robert Seddon for the tip.

Update 2: The Utopia Forever post is now back up, and I will see about restoring lost comments.

Beyond the restrictions of the factual

If you're in Berlin this evening, Thursday, 12 May, Gestalten will be hosting a release party for Utopia Forever: Visions of Architecture and Urbanism, edited by Lukas Feireiss.

The book includes essays by Dan Wood & Amale Andraos of WORKac, Darryl Chen of Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, Matthias Böttger & Ludwig Engel of raumtaktik, Ulf Hackauf from The Why Factory, and Lukas Feireiss himself; I also contributed a short "Utopia Generator" game that readers can play (bring your own six-sided die).

[Images: From Utopia Forever].

From the book:
Utopia Forever is a collection of current projects and concepts from architecture, city planning, urbanism, and art that point beyond the restrictions of the factual to unleash the potential of creative visions. In contrast to the largely ideal-theoretic approaches of the past, today’s utopias take the necessity for societal changes into account. The projects in this book explore how current challenges for architecture, mobility, and energy as well as the logistics of food consumption and waste removal can be met.
The book is more or less an apotheosis of the well-rendered and the unbuilt, not a sustained exploration of what constitutes social change, but its selection of projects—including concept art, student models, artificial mountains, flooded cities, houses on stilts, supergrids, verticalized landfills, private islands, living clocks, robotic agriculture, and more—is strong.

There are also many projects that you might have seen here on BLDGBLOG, including Taylor Medlin's extraordinary thesis project from UC-Berkeley, Protocol Architecture's counterfeit maps from Columbia's GSAPP, David Benqué's "Fabulous Fabbers," Anthony Lau's "Flooded London," Magnus Larsson's "Dune," and several more. It's nice to see those reproduced outside the amnesiac world of the web, where anything featured more than two years ago is ancient history.

[Images: From Utopia Forever].

Of course, there are also a handful of projects in the book that fall squarely into the camp of random squiggles that look like Venus fly traps—or like the towering vertebrae of impossible animals, or like unusable clumps of pink kudzu—for no apparent programmatic reason, showing that images that could pass for rave flyers from the 1990s can still be taken as formally advanced architectural utopias, divorced from questions of political critique. As if a nightmare of leafy metallic squid drifting through New York streets would somehow solve questions of human rights or civic participation.

But perhaps utopia won't arrive, money-shot in hand; perhaps utopia will be the same flawed and imperfect city you already live in, but simply governed by a more equitable constitution. Perhaps we need more collaborations between architecture and political science departments, even if to work out nothing more basic than where the design of urban space ends and humanist activism begins—and how these can be more effectively made into one, utopian pursuit.

These latter examples don't weigh the book down, on the other hand; they are perhaps just necessary counter-examples, showing where utopian spatiality can go wrong: lens-flared images implying falsely that, if only our roofs could grow green peppers or if our houses looked like trees, we'd also achieve gender equality and political free-expression.

In any case, all of this would be interesting to discuss at greater length with the featured architects, artists, and writers in this visually compelling book, and tonight's party in Berlin seems like as good an occasion as any to start the discussion; check out Gestalten's website for more details.

Art + Environment, Landscape Futures, and a Million Reasons to Visit Reno

[Image: From Modeling the Universe by Linda Fleming, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

The Nevada Museum of Art's Center for Art + Environment—which, three years after its founding, "remains the only research institute in the world devoted to the subject of creative interactions with natural, built, and virtual environments"—is hosting its second Art + Environment Conference this year.

The line-up is incredible. From 29 September-1 October, at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, expect to hear from Edward Burtynksy (whose extraordinary Oil series will be on display at the museum in 2012), Chris Jordan, Amy Franceschini, Fritz Haeg, Jorge Pardo, Alexander Rose of the Long Now Foundation, Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison, Leo Villareal, William L. Fox, and nearly two dozen others, including a panel featuring architects Liam Young, from Tomorrow's Thoughts Today, and Mark Smout & Laura Allen, authors of Pamphlet Architecture #28: Augmented Landscapes, moderated by none other than Bruce Sterling.

Expect to hear about such topics as "Designing for Longevity," "Designing the Wild and Cultivating the City," "Designing Architectures for Environmental Change," "Farming in the Future," and "Altering the Landscape," among many others, including an announcement from Nicola Twilley and I about a major cultural and landscape research project we will be undertaking together in 2012.

The Museum has also recently announced a discounted student rate for conference tickets, so definitely consider attending; Reno is presumably not a city you would otherwise find yourself passing through on a regular basis, but it's not a bad drive up from San Francisco, Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles, and there will be tons to see and do.

Also on display at the Nevada Museum of Art during the conference, for instance, will be a massive show called The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment, whose gorgeous, full-color catalog published by Rizzoli and featuring contributions by Lucy Lippard and W.J.T. Mitchell, will also be available at the Conference.

[Image: The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment edited by Ann M. Wolfe].

You can then walk down the hall to see Fog Garden: The Architecture of Water. Quoting at length:
People have been using dew from fog as a source of drinking water for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists in Chile and elsewhere began measuring the moisture content of clouds and designing structures to collect it.

During the last five years, several groups of architects have been testing small models of fog collectors in the Atacama Desert, a place where it has not rained in recorded history, and fog is the only source of moisture.

Working with the Atacama Desert Center and students from the Catholic University in Santiago, architect Rodrigo Pérez de Arce is overseeing the creation of models for a large-scale complex of structures, the Fog Garden, that would collect enough water to both support a garden and satisfy the needs of a nearby village. This exhibition is the first time these structures have been displayed, and along with sample building materials and documentation, form an archive that is important to artists, architects, and scientists.
And then onward from there to see Shirin Neshat's film Passage

[Images: From Passage by Shirin Neshat, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

—before stopping in to see Linda Fleming's awesomely intricate "models of the universe."

[Image: From Modeling the Universe by Linda Fleming, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

And that's barely half of what will be on display during the conference.

You'll also be able to see Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation by Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison; that will consist of "a 30-foot-long map of the mountain range, topographical sketches of its seventeen principal watersheds, and aerial photographs of sites in the Truckee and Yuba watersheds."

Australia’s Murray River, a "series of sustainable design solutions" exploring "overlaps and adjacencies between architecture and landscape" by conference presenter Richard Black, will also be on display nearby.

Not last—as there will be several smaller exhibitions up, as well—and, I hope, also not least, is Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions. Landscape Futures features work by a group of absolute all-stars, as far as I'm concerned:
—David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang from The Living
—Mark Smout & Laura Allen from Smout Allen
David Gissen
—Mason White & Lola Sheppard from Lateral Office & InfraNet Lab
Chris Woebken
Liam Young
[Image: "Electric Aurora" by Liam Young, from Specimens of Unnatural History].

I am especially honored to be the curator of this exhibition, able to have commissioned new work from many of the exhibitors, and to be the editor of a forthcoming book that will document the exhibition in full, including last winter's Landscape Futures Super-Workshop. That book will feature several outside contributions, and is being designed by Atley G. Kasky of, among other things, but does it float.

I will be writing more about both the exhibition and the book soon, but keep it on your radar, if it sounds like something that might be of interest.

[Image: From The Active Layer by Lateral Office; photo by Michelle Litvin].

In any case, there are a million reasons to attend the Center for Art + Environment Conference this year, as I hope the above post makes clear; consider getting a group of friends or colleagues together to spend the weekend up in Reno, a city you might not otherwise be visiting any time soon (and where you can wear bald eagle t-shirts with abandon and gamble till the sun comes up—not to mention visit the National Bowling Stadium), and dive into an incredible range of exhibitions, talks, and programs.

Further, if you're a student or educator, also think about the possibility of bringing a whole class to attend; between the conference participants and the museum's exhibitions, think of it as a weekend super-workshop for art, architecture, and the global environment.

Read more at the conference website.