Calling All Agents

Here are some opportunities for writers, designers, and filmmakers, in case you're looking for ways to challenge yourself over the summer.

[Image: "Angels" (2006) by Ruairi Glynn, one of the co-organizers of Stories of Change].

1) Arup Foresight and the Bartlett School of Architecture have teamed up to gather what they call "responses to some of the world’s most pressing issues as featured in the publication, Drivers of Change. We would like you to tell us your Stories of Change." Original films, texts, and architectural designs are all eligible and welcome; the texts could even "be a poem, a letter, a blog-post, even a currated collection of tweets." Which is good news, but the deadline is approaching quickly: Friday, 24 June 2011. See the Stories of Change website for more.

2) For its new call for papers, the Bauhaus-Universität's Horizonte journal begins by quoting architect Raimund Abraham: "From earliest times," Abraham writes, "architecture has complied with that order of logical forms which is contained in the nature of each material. That is to say: each material can only be used within the limits imposed by its organic and technical possibilities." This fourth issue of the consistently well-designed journal explores the materiality of building: the issue thus "challenges the constraints and possibilities of architectural production, in order to reflect on the material and constructive methodologies of the present day." I imagine essays and even speculative fiction covering everything from genetically engineered building materials to 3D printers—to new types of brick to artisanal craftwork—would be of interest. Your deadline is 8 July 2011.

3) The Architectural League wants to give New York the Greatest Grid:
On the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York, the foundational document that established the Manhattan street plan from Houston Street to 155th Street, the Architectural League invites architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and other design professionals to use the Manhattan street grid as a catalyst for thinking about the present and future of New York. For two centuries, the Manhattan street grid has demonstrated an astonishing flexibility to accommodate the architectural gestures and urban planning theories of successive generations of architects, urban designers, private developers, and city officials. Given its capacity for reinvention, how might the Manhattan grid continue to adapt and respond to the challenges and opportunities—both large and small—that New York faces now and into the future?
Your deadline is 26 September 2011; see the competition website for much more information.

4) A new Advanced Architecture Contest has been announced, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Architecture and Hewlett Packard. The theme this year is "CITY-SENSE: Shaping our environment with real-time data." Aim to submit "a proposal capable of responding to emerging challenges in areas such as ecology, information technology, architecture, and urban planning, with the purpose of balancing the impact real-time data collection might have on sensor-driven cities." Read more at the Advanced Architecture Contest website; the deadline is 26 September 2011.

5) The California Architectural Foundation, in partnership with the Arid Lands Institute and the Academy for Emerging Professionals, has launched what it calls "an open ideas competition for retrofitting the American West." The Drylands Competition seeks new ways of "anticipating, mitigating, and adapting to projected impacts of climate change" and other "critical challenges" facing the region. These challenges include water scarcity, obsolete infrastructure, and even the growing gap between scientific knowledge and public policy. "Design teams are invited to generate progressive proposals that suggest to policy makers and the public creative alternatives for the American west, ideas that may be replicated throughout the world." Register by 15 November 2011; see their website for much more info.

6) Meanwhile, across the pond, the Architects Journal is seeking essays of up to 1,500 words, by writers under the age of 35, for their £1,000 AJ Writing Prize (the money will be split amongst all winners). The jury consists of Christine Murray, Alan Berman, Joseph Rykwert, and Mary Banham; you only have until 30 June 2011 to participate, so get cracking.

7) Finally, this one doesn't open till September 2011, but it sounds fascinating. Sponsored by Architecture for Humanity, [un]restricted access is "a design competition that will re-envision the future of decommissioned military space. This is an open invite to the global design and construction community to identify retired military installations in their own backyard, to collaborate with local stakeholders, and to reclaim these spaces for social, economic, and environmental good." As I say, thought, it doesn't launch until September, but keep your eyes on the [un]restricted access website for emerging info.

Urban Spelunking

[Image: The underground city of Derinkuyu, also mentioned in The BLDGBLOG Book].

I'm heading out of town on yet another summer trip, so I wanted to give any Coloradans out there a quick heads up that I'll be speaking on the subject of "urban spelunking" at this Friday's Mixed Taste event at the David Adjaye-designed Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

There will be two short, 20-minute lectures: one by myself, on the subject of the underground, from contemporary London and the Mole Man of Hackney to ancient Cappadocia and Moscow's Metro-2; the other lecture will be an unrelated talk by Chef Jorel Pierce on the subject of "blood sausage." As the Museum writes, these are "tag team lectures on unrelated topics." You can buy tickets here.

While I'm on the subject of Denver, Nicola Twilley from Edible Geography will also be speaking at the MCA this weekend; she'll be part of the Colorado Cocktail Project, a "two-day event where Colorado’s bartenders and distillers compete to create a signature state cocktail, made from Colorado spirits." You can get tickets for that here.

Discontinuous, contingent, and nontraditionally vulnerable

A recent article of mine for Domus, on the "critical foreign dependencies" list revealed last winter by Wikileaks, is now online, in case you missed it here, complete with some maps and infographics.

[Image: Map by, and courtesy of, Domus, "in homage to Buckminster Fuller’s famous Dymaxion projection, and showing the locations of 259 critical infrastructures"; see it folded up, courtesy of David M.A.].

Check it out if you get a chance—and thanks again to Domus for the opportunity to explore this topic.


[Image: Photo by Noah Vaughn].

Photographer Noah Vaughn has been busy documenting the city of Chicago and its midwestern environs, both in his own images and in screenshots taken from films set there.

[Image: Photo by Noah Vaughn].

Here is some of Vaughn's own work, from demolition sites and windowless buildings to humid forest roads behind gas stations. Check out his various websites for more—including the aforementioned Chicago Screenshots.

[Images: All photos by Noah Vaughn].

Thanks go to Alex Trevi for first pointing out Noah Vaughn's photos.

Waiting for the River

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

Waiting for the River is a 125-foot-long inhabitable bridge, complete with dormitories, outdoor eating areas, and a bathroom, built by Dutch art group Observatorium back in 2010. The project was constructed in anticipation of the newly cleaned and renaturalized Emscher River, whose waters will soon flow through the surrounding landscape.

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

As the artists themselves describe it: "In ten years time the river Emscher—now a sewer canal between dikes—will be a natural river again... Observatorium symbolizes the anticipation of better times and a better environment by building a covered bridge for a river that is not there yet. We invite people to wait 24 hours."

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

As the Art & Architecture Journal Press puts it, the project, made from reclaimed timbers, "sits over the waste land that will be the site of pastoral landscape in ten years time."

You could thus book a small bed in the dormitory and fall asleep, in anticipation of a future landscape to come.

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

It's a kind of temporally inverted High Line: a popular sight-seeing infrastructure constructed in advance of the very thing it's meant to help the public see.

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

It is the preparation of the landscape that becomes the spectacle, an otherwise unremarkable spread of fields and small thickets suddenly taking on a sign of impending—but still strangely unpredictable—transformation. Something is meant to happen here, some kind of terrestrial event; the structure exists because of this predicted shift in the earth.

But where exactly the braided meanderings of this future river will go—one that has yet to flow through, and thus format, the landscape—seems too difficult to anticipate. So this piece of architecture simply waits there, straddling what it presumes to be the currents of a future riverbed, its anticipatory landscape tourists fast asleep inside.

[Image: "Waiting for the River" by Observatorium].

The Observatorium's Andre Dekker will actually be speaking later today—Saturday, 18 June, at 4:30pm—at the Los Angeles Design Festival; hopefully he'll present a bit more about this project.

Manhattan Interzone

While we're on the subject of Domus #948, that issue also includes a short profile of Luc Sante's home book collection, including titles by Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and the Situationists. The article itself is by Gianluigi Ricuperati, a young writer who spoke long ago in the medieval days of Postopolis! New York and whose novel Il mio impero è nell'aria has recently been published in Italy.

[Image: Luc Sante in his home writing room; note the copy of Learning From Las Vegas. Photo by Yoo Jean Han, courtesy of Domus].

Back in 2007, meanwhile, in an interview with The Believer, Luc Sante suggested that New York "was a wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances, a sort of black pearl of world history, when New York City was at one and the same time both the apex of Western culture and the armpit of the Western world."
In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.
In Sante's book Kill All Your Darlings, he continues to riff on the city. There was, for instance, in Sante's terms, a fantasy New York, a canyon'd utopia taking shape in the gleam of postwar growth; but there was another, more everyday—a more used—New York.

"The New York I lived in, on the other hand, was rapidly regressing," he writes. "It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more; ailanthus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile."

"At that time," Sante suggests, "much of Manhattan felt depopulated even in daylight."

[Image: Otherwise unrelated to this post, photographer Marlis Momber explores an era in NYC when "entire blocks east of Avenue A consisted of little more than rubble-strewn lots"; photo by Michelle V. Agins for The New York Times].

A nonhuman dimension was thus free to move into the metropolis. It became a city "where on winter nights troops of feral dogs would arrive to bed down on the heating grates."
On Canal Street stood a five-story building empty of human tenants that had been taken over from top to bottom by pigeons. If you walked east on Houston Street from the Bowery on a summer night, the jungle growth of vacant blocks gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square.
"The tenements," Sante adds, "were aspects of the natural landscape, like caves or rock ledges, across which all of us—inhabitants, landlords, dope dealers, beat cops, tourists—flitted for a few seasons, like the pigeons and the cockroaches and the rats, barely registering as individuals in the ceaseless churning of generations."

This semi-feral city was less a topic of anthropology, we might say, than it was of natural history: an interzone of species, as well as human culture.

City Double

First there was the replica of Lyons, France, being built in Dubai; it would be a replicant city "of about 700 acres, roughly the size of the Latin Quarter of Paris," and it would "contain squares, restaurants, cafes and museums."

[Image: The original Hallstatt, Austria; photo courtesy of Der Spiegel].

Now, though, we learn that a Chinese firm has been "secretly" copying an entire UNESCO-listed village in Austria, called Hallstatt. Residents of the original town are "scandalized," Der Spiegel reports, by these "plans to replicate the village—including its famous lake—in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong."

After all, in addition to the uncanny experience of seeing your buildings, streets, sidewalks, and even trees repeated on the other side of the world, "creating an exact duplicate of a city may not be legal, according to Hans-Jörg Kaiser from Icomos Austria, the national board for monument preservation under UNESCO. 'The legal situation still needs to be examined,' he said. Building new structures based on photographs is legal, he explained, but owners must give their permission for them to be measured."

Indeed, Der Spiegel adds that "'spying' by Chinese architects would not have been conspicuous in Hallstatt, where there are up to 800,000 visitors each year who 'photograph everything and everyone,'" according to the town's mayor. This constant, everyday documentation—an archive of the quotidian, rivaling Ulysses—could thus be put to alternative use, not as a seed for nostalgia or as a collection of personal souvenirs, but as a means for generating construction diagrams.

Take a look at some photos of other Chinese duplication spaces, including the photo-friendly Thames Town, modeled after an English village ("when Thames Town was completed in 2006 not everyone was happy about it," we read. "One English woman complained that her fish and chips restaurant had been copied in exact detail").

(Link discovered via Peggy Nelson).

The Hit List

I'm thrilled to have two articles in the new issue of Domus, issue 948. One of those articles—on the list of "critical foreign dependencies" (page is very slow to load) released by Wikileaks in December 2010—is reproduced, below; the other is a short look at the Open Source Ecology movement.

Keep your eye out for a copy of the magazine, however, because the following text is accompanied by a fold-out world map, featuring many of the sites revealed by Wikileaks.

• • •

We might say with only slight exaggeration that the United States exists in its current state of economic and military well being due to a peripheral constellation of sites found all over the world. These far-flung locations—such as rare-earth mines, telecommunications hubs, and vaccine suppliers—are like geopolitical buttresses, as important for the internal operations of the United States as its own homeland security.

However, this overseas network is neither seamless nor even necessarily identifiable as such. Rather, it is aggressively and deliberately discontiguous, and rarely acknowledged in any detail. In a sense, it is a stealth geography, unaware of its own importance and too scattered ever to be interrupted at once.

That is what made the controversial release by Wikileaks, in December 2010, of a long list of key infrastructural sites deemed vital to the national security of the United States so interesting. The geographic constellation upon which the United States depends was suddenly laid bare, given names and locations, and exposed for all to see.

The particular diplomatic cable in question, originally sent by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to all overseas embassies in February 2009 and marked for eventual declassification only in January 2019, describes what it calls “critical foreign dependencies (critical infrastructure and key resources located abroad).” These “critical dependencies” are divided into eighteen sectors, including energy, agriculture, banking and finance, drinking water and water treatment systems, public health, nuclear reactors, and “critical manufacturing.” All of these locations, objects, or services, the cable explains, “if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States.” Indeed, there is no back up: several sites are highlighted as “irreplaceable.”

Specific locations range from the Straits of Malacca to a “battery-grade” manganese mine in Gabon, Africa, and from the Southern Cross undersea cable landing in Suva, Fiji, to a Danish manufacturer of smallpox vaccine. The list also singles out the Nadym Gas Pipeline Junction in Russia as “the most critical gas facility in the world.”

[Image: A manganese mine in Gabon, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica].

The list was first assembled as a way to extend the so-called National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP)—which focuses on domestic locations—with what the State Department calls its Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative (CFDI). The CFDI, still in a nascent stage—i.e. it consists, for now, in making lists—could potentially grow to include direct funding for overseas protection of these sites, effectively absorbing them into the oblique landscape of the United States.

Of course, the fear that someone might actually use this as a check list of vulnerable targets, either for military elimination or terrorist sabotage, seemed to dominate news coverage at the time of the cable’s release. While it is obvious that the cable could be taken advantage of for nefarious purposes—and that even articles such as this one only increase the likelihood of this someday occurring—it should also be clear that its release offers the public an overdue opportunity to discuss the spatial vulnerabilities of U.S. power and the geometry of globalization.

The sites described by the cable—Israeli ordnance manufacturers, Australian pharmaceutical corporations, Canadian hydroelectric dams, German rabies vaccine suppliers—form a geometry whose operators and employees are perhaps unaware that they define the outer limits of U.S. national security. Put another way, the flipside of a recognizable U.S. border is this unwitting constellation: a defensive perimeter or outsourced inside, whereby the contiguous nation-state becomes fragmented into a discontiguous network-state, its points never in direct physical contact. It is thus not a constitutional entity in any recognized sense, but a coordinated infrastructural ensemble that spans whole continents at a time.

[Image: The Robert-Bourassa generating station, part of the James Bay Project by Hydro Québec; photo courtesy of Hydro Québec].

But what is the political fate of this landscape; how does it transform our accepted notions of what constitutes state territory; what forms of governance are most appropriate for its protection; and under whose jurisdictional sovereignty should these sites then be held?

In identifying these outlying chinks in its armor, the United States has inadvertently made clear a spatial realization that the concept of the nation-state has changed so rapidly that nations themselves are having trouble keeping track of their own appendages.

Seen this way, it matters less what specific sites appear in the Wikileaks cable, and simply that these sites can be listed at all. A globally operating, planetary sovereign requires a new kind of geography: discontinuous, contingent, and nontraditionally vulnerable, hidden from public view until rare leaks such as these.

(Thanks to Domus for the opportunity to explore this topic).

The Subterraneans

In an article published back in 2008—but pointed out afresh by a new post on Friends of the Pleistocene, exploring the aquatic infrastructure of New York City—there is an extraordinary image.

New York's Rondout-West Branch Tunnel, we read—"45 miles long, 13.5 feet wide, up to 1,200 feet below ground and responsible for ferrying half of New York City’s water supply from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains," as the New York Times describes it—is leaking "some 20 million gallons each day."

[Image: "A 24-foot-long pressurized tank serves as living quarters for divers repairing a valve 700 feet below. They breathe a mixture of mostly helium." Photo by Alan Zale for The New York Times, courtesy of The New York Times].]

At one point, however, the city hired a crew of near-permanent deep-sea divers to fight these leaks: specifically, New York "enlisted six deep-sea divers who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank complete with showers, a television and a Nerf basketball hoop, breathing air that is 97.5 percent helium and 2.5 percent oxygen, so their high-pitched squeals are all but unintelligible."

This vision of alien vocals ringing out amongst a long-term diving crew living deep beneath the streets of the city is like something straight out of the B.P.R.D.

But, even without such fantastical overtones, the very idea that parts of the city are only inhabitable with the aid of bespoke manufactured atmospheres—in this case, a 24-foot-long tank of helium—suggests extreme new design directions for the future of urban infrastructure.

The rest of the article—as well as the Friends of the Pleistocene post that points to it—is worth reading in full.

(Earlier on Pruned: Deep-Sea Living in the Underground Tunnels of New York City).

A Can of Air, or: C.S.I. Duchamp

In 1919, artist Marcel Duchamp purchased a 50cc glass ampoule filled with Paris air as a souvenir for a friend; the sealed glass object was later exhibited as a readymade art piece called 50 cc of Paris Air.

[Image: Marcel Duchamp, 50 cc of Paris Air (1919), courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art].

For his 2008 "olfactory reconstruction of Philip Johnson's Glass House," architect and preservation theorist Jorge Otero-Pailos sought to create a perfume that would accurately reproduce the smell of the Glass House, complete with period leathers, the barest hint of then-trendy aftershaves, and the pervasive scent of cigar smoke from an era of heavy nicotine use.

This experimentally reproduced internal atmosphere could then be exhibited—that is, dispersed—or even bottled and sold as a kind of diaphanous historical artifact.

Elsewhere, historian David Gissen has proposed that an "indoor air archive" be developed. While writing his dissertation, Gissen writes, he "lamented the fact that we had no archive of indoor air, as we do for all other manner of indoor elements of the built environment—furniture, designed objects, fashion."
The specific content of the air of the interiors of the past is lost to us—its bio-physical make-up is gone; we really can’t study it with a full range of analytical methods. But I wondered... what if we archived our current indoor urban atmosphere for the historian of the future? (...) What if we made urban core samples of the air inside buildings and then stored them like we do with core samples from the North Pole or Antarctica?
All of these projects came to mind when reading last night about an ongoing murder trial in the U.S. state of Florida, where a 25-year old woman, named Casey Anthony, has been accused of killing her daughter.

Substantial weight has been placed on a bizarre, and by no means uncontroversial, piece of evidence: a "can of air" from the interior of Anthony's car, where the dead girl's corpse had allegedly been stored.

[Image: Empty tin can photographed by Sun Ladder, courtesy of Wikipedia].

To create this atmospheric artifact, forensic investigators used a syringe to extract air from a sealed can in which fabric samples from Anthony's car were held. That air was then tested against a database of controlled decomposition smells taken from the so-called Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (otherwise known as the "Outdoor Research Facility," where human bodies are left to decay in a series of carefully monitored spatial conditions, taking landscape architecture to new, gonzo heights).

There, off-gassing chemicals from these decomposing human corpses are themselves captured and stored inside "hoods" that have been mounted over the deteriorating remains; the resulting gaseous records are later archived in a nationally important database for forensic research and investigation.

In a nutshell, then, as Popular Science explains, the technique used in the Casey Anthony trial "involves trapping air—in this case, air from Casey Anthony’s car—in a can for later extraction in a laboratory, where it is put through tests for the telltale signs of human [de]composition."

I've often thought that Marcel Duchamp barely missed inventing the bottled water industry with his 50 cc of Paris Air project—suggesting, in the process, that the bottled water industry is, in fact, the world's largest and most wasteful network of readymade art objects—but who knew that Duchamp would also loosely anticipate the emerging field of internal atmospheric forensics, deployed as evidence in a U.S. murder case?

If the "can of air" from Casey Anthony's trial holds up in court, prepare to see controlled atmospheric sampling coming soon to a crime scene near you—and perhaps people like Jorge Otero-Pailos and David Gissen called upon as expert witnesses.

(Read more at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Bass Ganglia

[Image: E13 000625 by Alberto Tadiello; photo by Martino Margheri, courtesy of T293, Napoli].

Inspired by experimental Japanese sound weapons prototyped during World War II, Alberto Tadiello's E13 000625 (2010) mounts a bass cannon onto the wall of an art gallery, where it greets visitors with an alarming, vibratory blurt.

Régine Debatty calls it "the sound that hits you in the stomach."

[Image: E13 000625 by Alberto Tadiello; photo by Martino Margheri, courtesy of T293, Napoli].

The resulting object is quite stunning, both insect-like and strangely neurological—the black ganglia of a previously unknown acoustic lifeform—as if an organ had been separated from its body and pinned to the wall for scientific review.

Aside from this straight-forward interest in the piece, however, perhaps there are design suggestions here for a possible future of acoustic ornament: sonically active devices for nontraditional architectural space.

(Via Everyday Listening and we make money not art).

Earth Moves

For more than a month now, a "slow-motion landslide" near the New York/Vermont border has been dismantling a small town, day by day, square foot by square foot. The landslide is "oozing slowly," New York state geologist Andrew Kozlowski explains to National Public Radio, "no faster than three feet per day. But it's so big that scientists have been arriving from all over the country to study it."

[Image: Photo by Brian Mann/North Country Public Radio, courtesy of National Public Radio].

The entire landslide is 82 acres in extent—though there's not, in fact, enough data to know for certain "how wide this event is"—making it the largest landslide in New York's recorded history.

However, "gathering good data has been tricky, in part because the terrain is incredibly treacherous, with trees toppling and boulders kicking loose." It's the slow-motion landslide as future game environment, or Inception's dream-sector physics applied to the surface of the earth: for instance, when the rocks let loose, Kozlowski points out, "you hear a thumping, tumbling sound and you sort of look up and catch a glimpse and you hear them hitting tree trunks as they're moving downslope. And so you just try to get between a tree and where you think they're coming."

As the Albany Times Union adds, for one family, "the first clue that something was wrong came May 6, after [they] returned from a family visit to California."
While they were gone, a carpenter had added a laundry room near their bedroom, and Jim noticed the bedroom door would no longer shut properly. Then Charity saw a tree outside their bedroom window was tilting at a weird angle and a crack in the ground near a place under the deck where she kept gardening equipment.
The earth was out of joint. (See the Albany Times Union for more photographs, including a house that "has separated from its cement foundation due to a slow landslide.")

[Film: An otherwise unrelated time-lapse video of the Snake River Landslide in Wyoming, spotted via Pruned].

Here's NPR's summary:
In northern New York and Vermont, the disaster has developed slowly. Weeks of torrential rains have glutted Lake Champlain, flooding hundreds of miles of coastline. Now, in the mountain village of Keene Valley, N.Y., all that water has triggered a massive landslide that is slowly destroying a neighborhood.
In the forthcoming issue of Bracket, on the subject of "soft systems," Jared Winchester and Viktor Ramos propose a semi-mobile village of "landslide mitigation" structures. "The houses tether themselves to the slopes using soil-nailing technologies," the architects write, "then rotate, dip and pivot in response to slope movement. As the soil slips, the house slows down the process through its distortion." Images of their project will be available when Bracket hits the street later this year.

[Image: The "Retreating Village" by Smout Allen, from Augmented Landscapes].

The NPR piece is not without human tragedy, of course, as we learn that whole houses have been condemned, demolished, or otherwise emptied by their owners and left to collapse, uninsured, as the village is abandoned.

But is there, as Winchester and Ramos suggest, or as Smout Allen's "Retreating Village" project indicates, an architecture appropriate for these dynamic terrestrial conditions?

What sort of building would it be, in any case, like some wheeled arachnid or stilted earthship, that could ride the waves of a sliding planet, stretched, tested, and reconfigured from below by geotechnical shifts? Should such buildings have hulls or foundations—and would architects have more to learn more from seismic engineering or from shipbuilding? Would the structures be vehicles or buildings? Would a pilot's license be operationally required as a condition of this groundless dwelling?

More simply, what happens to architecture when solid earth becomes more like the ocean?

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Toward the city come hills).

Peripheral Porosity

Last week at the Political Equator 3 conference, which described itself as a "2-day cross-border event" occurring simultaneously in Tijuana and San Diego, something very interesting happened on an inner edge of North American nation-state geography.

[Image: The U.S./Mexico border photographed by Quilian Riano].

For one afternoon only, Mexico formally welcomed international border-crossers, coming south from the United States, into the country at a temporary checkpoint located at the mouth of an underground drain.

"This is the first time ever that Mexico designates a drain as an official port of entry," Oscar Romo, one of the conference co-organizers, explained to the Washington Post, "and it’s probably not going to happen again."

[Images: A temporarily official Mexican entry point, photographed by Quilian Riano].

"Travelers clutching passports snapped photos as they walked along the muddy culvert," the Washington Post continues. "One man switched on a head-mounted light as the group entered a dark 40-yard stretch that took them underground. Mexican officials at folding tables issued visas at the south end of the drain."

For this brief phase in international relations, then, the U.S./Mexico border formally included a strange, pop-up entry/exit point. A kind of embassy of the porous. Passport stamps from the experience must surely stand as some of the most unique in the world, like some variation on philatelic collecting. In fact, I'm led to wonder if a history of unusual, but officially recognized, border-crossings has ever been written, populated with examples from espionage, political asylum, wartime defection, extraterritorial immigration, enclaves/exclaves, civil dissolution, divided cities, and much more. There should be a narrative tour of this officially-stamped peripheral geography where lines are crossed—a ghostly international world of ambiguous nation-state terrains where sovereignty is both temporary and unclear, though the rituals of the state remain.

[Images: The U.S./Mexico border photographed by Quilian Riano].

Architect and designer Quilian Riano was on hand for the crossing, and these are his photographs reproduced here. By way of email, Riano described the physical terrain where they crossed beneath and through the border, remarking that the hydrological status of the land there "really makes you think about how arbitrary borders are."
On one side of the border there is an emphasis on surveillance while, on the other side, a series of systematic social, economic, and environmental policy failures have created a hazardous living condition for thousands of Tijuana's poorest. The failure, however, can be felt on both sides, as the watershed pushes the sediment and trash from the illegal settlements in Tijuana's Los Laureles Canyon directly across the border into the Tijuana River Estuary State Park. While politicians on both sides demagogue, the lack of communication and collaboration between the two nations leads to social and environmental catastrophe.
The border crossing itself thus aimed "to follow the path of the water, trying to understand the border through its ecological and social impacts," and opening, in the process, a negotiated pore in the outer edge of sovereign geography through which human beings, like imperial sweat, could flow.

[Images: Photos by Quilian Riano].

This particular border-crossing is, of course, now (officially) closed, and we shouldn't overlook the still very heavy police presence that this media-friendly moment entailed—as well as the fact that it only moved north to south. This temporary welcome mat faced one way.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel excited that the topology of the nation-state might yet continue to reveal these rough edges not as points of deflection but as ports of entry—that openly carnivalesque gates and fringe geographies through which adjacencies are encouraged, not denied, might spatially instigate a true age of neighbors.

[Images: Pointing past the nation-state; photo by Quilian Riano].

As the Political Equator 3 conference more practically suggests, the "peripheral communities and neighborhoods where new economies are emerging and new social, cultural and environmental configurations are taking place" could thus accelerate their vital role as "catalysts" for an overall calming of geography: a future recession in the tide of hardened borders that uncovers more and more such sites of interpenetration.

The Space of Preparation

Swiss artist Zimoun, previously covered here for his work with the acoustics of woodworms, has been producing a long series of installations involving immersive cardboard structures—both surfaces and spaces—sonically activated by embedded motors. The rain-like plinks and plonks that greet you as you encounter these installations isn't beautified or specially tuned; in any other context, it would simply appear to be industrial noise.

Watch this recently updated compilation video to hear them at work:

Here are installation shots from three of Zimoun's recent works—all of which use "prepared" motors, in the artist's description, like the prepared pianos of composer John Cage, a technique here applied to micromachinery. In a similar vein, it would be interesting to see work produced using "prepared" elevators, "prepared" doorways, or "prepared" architecture at all and any scales. Prepared bridges over rivers, prepared docks on the sea.

1) 200 prepared dc-motors, 2000 cardboard elements (2011)
[Images: From 200 prepared dc-motors (2011)].

2) 121 prepared dc-motors (2011)
[Images: From 121 prepared dc-motors (2011)].

3) 138 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes (2011)
[Images: From 138 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes (2011)].

See more at Zimoun's website.