Rebooting Massachusetts

[Image: From Redraw, Reboot by Ryan Sullivan].

Designer Ryan Sullivan recently got in touch with Redraw, Reboot, a series of new maps for the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

[Image: From Redraw, Reboot by Ryan Sullivan].

Sullivan's maps "explore new boundaries for municipalities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," he explained. "They range from a John Wesley Powell-inspired watershed map to a Voronoi-driven Dunkin' Donuts township map."

[Images: From Redraw, Reboot by Ryan Sullivan].

The project began with a series of questions: What if the official internal boundaries of Massachusetts were entirely erased? "How would we redraw them? And how could new municipal boundaries better align government with our needs today?"
Many of Massachusetts’ town lines were based on geographic features; forgotten disputes among parishes; long-dead landowners’ property lines; and, yes, craven political gamesmanship—this is, after all, the state that invented the gerrymander. Now, as the Commonwealth contends with the politics of congressional redistricting, we realize how arbitrary many of these designations are.
Of course, Sullivan's suggested replacements are less serious political proposals than whimsical parameters for a surreal new state to come—its jurisdictions defined, for instance, by doughnut consumption—but if we are to redesign the political units through which contemporary governance functions, I suppose you have to start somewhere.

In any case, the images seen here are just a glimpse; they were all originally published in and commissioned by ArchitectureBoston.

Twisty little passages

Churchyards and private farmlands throughout the German state of Bavaria are perforated from below by "more than 700 curious tunnel networks" whose "purpose remains a mystery."

[Image: Photograph by Ben Behnke courtesy of Der Spiegel].

As Der Spiegel reports, "The tunnel entrances are sometimes located in the kitchens of old farmhouses, near churches and cemeteries or in the middle of a forest. The atmosphere inside is dark and oppressive, much as it would be inside an animal den."

Although the subterranean networks are considered an "extremely unusual ancient phenomenon," other "small underground labyrinths have been found across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, but no one knows why they were built."

[Image: Diagram courtesy of Der Spiegel].

Small might actually understate the case: indeed, "the tunnels are often only 20 to 50 meters long. The larger passageways are big enough so that people can walk through them in a hunched position, but some tunnels are so small that explorers have to get down on all fours. The tiniest passageways, known as "Schlupfe" ("slips"), are barely 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter."

[Image: Photographs by Ben Behnke courtesy of Der Spiegel].

I'm particularly fascinated by examples of these tunnels being found on what is now private property. For instance, a family named the Greithanners, "from the town of Glonn near Munich, are the owners of a strange subterranean landmark. A labyrinth of vaults known as an Erdstall runs underneath their property. It is at least 25 meters (82 feet) long and likely stems from the Middle Ages." I'm genuinely curious what the legal status of such discoveries might be. If, for instance, you discover someday that your house sits atop hundreds of feet of artificially excavated underground space from the Middle Ages, do your property taxes go up—or down, due to the structural inconvenience of owning land hollowed out from below?

[Image: Reasons to be cheerful; photo by Ben Behnke, courtesy of Der Spiegel].

In any case, Der Spiegel goes on to explain how local archaeologists (who, in order to avoid underground suffocation, once "blew air into a tunnel with a 'reversible vacuum cleaner'") have teamed up with engineers to explore these spaces—including a man named Nikolaus Arndt, who earlier in his career helped to build the Great Man-Made River of Libya. For now, the tunnels' original purpose still remains unclear:
The vaults could not have served a practical purpose, as dwellings or to store food, for example, if only because the tunnels are so inconveniently narrow in places. Besides, some fill up with water in the winter. Also, the lack of evidence of feces indicates that they were not used to house livestock.

There is not a single written record of the construction of an Erdstall dating from the medieval period. "The tunnels were completely hushed up," says [Dieter Ahlborn, leader of the Working Group for Erdstall Research].

Archeologists have also been surprised to find that the tunnels are almost completely empty and appear to be swept clean, as if they were abodes for the spirits. One gallery contained an iron plowshare, while heavy millstones were found in three others. Virtually nothing else has turned up in the vaults.
The rest of the occasionally bizarre article—one of the locals, for instance, says that sitting alone inside an Erdstall makes him "feel like a Hopi Indian"—is worth reading, though any hope that these tunnels might someday be found to rival the discovery of Derinkuyu should, alas, be put aside. Read more at Der Spiegel.

(Thanks to Derek Upham for the tip!)

Bird's Eye View

The last time we heard from photographer Gerco de Ruijter, he was photographing tree farms from above using fishing poles and kites; now he's back, having explored the biological edges of aerial photography by sending a pigeon aloft with a small video camera to perform a kind of animal surveillance of the urban landscape far below.

As Michel Banabila, who composed the music for de Ruijter's film, explains, "the exhibition Loslaten (Letting Go) is showing two linear video shots made with a small video camera attached to a pigeon. The pigeon is flying over the city of Delft and flies home, following the A13 highway towards Rotterdam." The bird thus reveals its own geography: tracking artificial landmarks of human infrastructure—the A13—and piecing together its own optical environment in the process.

The pigeon's technical repurposing here—an animal turned instrument of surveillance—resembles the increasingly ubiquitous throwable UAVs designed by companies like AeroVironment: small-scale, easily deployed, aerodynamically sophisticated, biomorphic landscape photography. As if the Ansel Adams of the future will not use a tripod at all, but will instead release demilitarized machine-flocks of animalistic throw-drones into the skies of spectacular landscapes around the world.

[Images: The Raven throw-drone by AeroVironment, photos courtesy of the U.S. military via Wikipedia].

But what I've written so far overlooks a more obvious point, which is that de Ruijter's work reveals as much about the pigeon holding the camera as it does about the urban forms passing by in a blur below. The pigeon here offers its own kind of autobiography, documenting its own passage through the landscape as it produces this ersatz documentary.

Several years ago, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) hosted a small exhibition called On the Farm: Live Stock Footage by Livestock. "In this exhibit," CLUI wrote, "farm animals show us their point of view through wireless video cameras installed temporarily on their heads and necks by virtuoso animal and plant videographer Sam Easterson. Easterson’s technology enables a cow, a pig, a goat, a chicken, a sheep, and a horse to guide us around their world; what they look at, what catches their attention, how they move through space, and how they relate to one another, on the farm." More broadly, Easterson's project sought "to create the world’s largest library of video footage that has been captured from the perspective of animals, plants and the environments they inhabit. The company creates its video footage by outfitting wild animal and plants with ‘helmet-mounted’ video cameras. It also installs micro video cameras deep inside animal and plant habitats."

Speaking only for myself, however, the results were unwatchable: the footage—bouncing around constantly and never focusing on one single thing, then blurring left and right before colliding with the ground only to slide off trembling around the pasture some more—was literally nauseating and I found myself having to continually look away, as if blinking. Was there something about seeing the world from the perspective of an animal that can make a human sick? Admittedly, the anamorphic stutter-step of de Ruijter's pigeon film invokes a not dissimilar reaction. (I should add that I believe I was watching Easterman's pig footage).

[Images: An installation shot from On the Farm: Live Stock Footage by Livestock at CLUI].

Taking a different view—looking at animals on film, as opposed to animals filming—the L.A. Times recently looked at the popular phenomenon of "animal webcams," trying to understand their human appeal:
From amateur setups near backyard bird nests to elaborate video systems chronicling the daily activities of sharks and polar bears, live webcams of animals show us birth, romance, skullduggery and death — animals behaving like animals 24/7. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles are particularly popular, but with a little searching, you can watch the day-to-day goings-on of squirrels, meerkats, bears and even chickens. (For you doubters out there, chickens lead lives of endless drama and amusement. Trust me.).
The article's author, a biologist, warns against too easily interpreting this growing archive of animal footage: "If we convince ourselves that animals reflect our own feelings—nothing more, nothing less—we are cheated of discovering what other species are really like, and we run the risk of homogenizing them into one giant beastly human reflection. What's more, we often impose our biases on animals, assuming that what we see is what humans do. And then we miss things."

What, then, can we learn not only about the anonymous pigeon filmmaker let go into the world by Gerco de Ruijter, but about our own urban environment as seen through the pigeon's surrogate eyes? Perhaps nothing at all, to be honest—but expanding the possibilities for authorship, and giving animals the ability to contribute directly, through film, to a larger project of urban documentation, is a thrilling proposition.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: On the Grid. Animal webcam story found via @pruned. See also the now famous "monkey self-portrait"—as well as the old 1980s film Beastmaster—a kind of Krull Lite™—for its own "throwable drone": a telepathic falcon named Sharak).

L.A. Stunt School

[Image: From L.A. Stunt School (2007) by Catrina Stewart].

In 2007, Catrina Stewart, then a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, proposed a stunt school for the city of Los Angeles, complete with ramps, explosions, and airborne students flying on ankle cables over spun webs of emergency netting.

Its premise was simple: to take the most extreme of extreme stunts and give them architectural form, to turn them into repeatable spatial events, and to make the whole thing a campus of accidents deftly avoided at the very last instant. Such a facility would need elaborate platforms for launching you (and your car or motorcycle) skyward; fake glass windows for crashing through; barrels to burn; walls to knock over; rubble to worm you way free from; operating rooms and burn wards for attempts gone sadly wrong; and, of course, cinemas and lecture halls for planning and reviewing a hard day's work.

"L.A. Stunt School was to be a place where actors came to learn and train to simulate fights, car crashes, flying, fire, explosions, etc.," Stewart explains. "It is sited on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, towering over the suburbs on stilts to allow the water to rise and fall without affecting the function of the building. The drawings represent the spaces, but also function to convey the images of a city full of bright lights and ecstatic energy."

[Image: From L.A. Stunt School (2007) by Catrina Stewart].

Stewart's explanatory notes for the project are worth reading in full, as she goes on to caution against the idea that architecture should be content to limit itself to speculative work—to so-called paper architecture—notoriously, a Bartlett specialty. The L.A. Stunt School, in particular, she writes, "is largely hypothetical because it is built upon the premise of seduction rather than following the strict rules of construction. Conceptual architecture exists as a means for experimentation and offers inspiration—a different, more playful approach for future constructed architectural projects." However, her criticism continues, at the end of the day architects "must not forget that if ideas cannot be realized, we cannot improve the lives of those who inhabit the spaces we design. After all, this is why the practice of architecture was invented."

Personally, I would say that one should not be led to think that a project lacks pedagogical merit simply because it comes with an unusual design brief or narrative; in other words, it doesn't matter if your project is a rural house for the elderly or a magical mountain complex for human-angel hybrids, what matters is that you, as a student or practicing architect, are able to communicate—in whatever form is most relevant—the spatial potential of this proposed built environment. As a brief experiment, take any classic project by Mies van der Rohe—or Paul Rudolph or Zaha Hadid—and recaption all the images with ridiculous things, like "time travel room," or "hospital for mechanical insects," or "astral CCTV compound," and the strength of the architecture itself (one hopes) will still be visible beneath these rhetorical flourishes. Now imagine the opposite, that your instructor or client has ordered you and your colleagues to design a "hospital for mechanical insects" or an "astral CCTV compound," and you can see that you needn't abandon any pretense toward real buildability simply by taking on a speculative, even openly nonsensical, brief.

My point is simply that Stewart is right to question the educational value of an architecture course that seems more heavily invested in narrative than it is in engineering or even in HVAC. But the most narratively straight-forward projects in the world can also be the most badly realized; and the most speculative architect in the world can also be the most technically skilled. After all, if you can't produce decent sections or plans or animations or models or construction diagrams, then it isn't the speculative nature of the project you're working on that's the problem; and even if your project is intensely speculative, it doesn't mean you must produce incoherent sections or plans or models or construction diagrams, etc.

What matters is that you know why you are engaged in architectural practice in the first place, and that you then work in such a way as to open up more of those specific opportunities—whether speculative or real, self-indulgent or humanitarian. As such, Stewart's project description is a refreshing, albeit brief, statement of disinterest in seeing architecture become stuck as nothing but conceptually thrilling special effects on a computer screen or gallery wall. And her L.A. Stunt School is awesome.

(Spotted via the non-Archidose related Archidose Tumblr).

Death and Marriage, Weather and Birds

[Image: Artist Jae Rhim Lee models her "mushroom death suit"; photo by James Duncan Davidson/TED].

Some quick links for a Wednesday evening:

—Artist Jae Rhim Lee has designed a "mushroom death suit," a posthumous garment impregnated with mushroom spores that will consume the corpse eventually wearing it. As she explains her inspiration, "by trying to preserve the body we poison the living" through the use of formaldehyde as an embalming tool; her suit thus offers "a new way of thinking about death," to put it mildly. Read a short interview with the artist over at New Scientist. While we're on the subject of formaldehyde, meanwhile, don't forget that billionaire David Koch of Koch brothers fame, bankrollers of the Tea Party, owns the paper firm Georgia Pacific, one of the nation's largest producers of formaldehyde. More to the point, for years Koch had successfully lobbied for formaldehyde not to be listed as a carcinogen, despite all medical evidence to the contrary, because your and your family's health stands in the way of profitable business expansion. As Koch's Tea Party knows all too well, using governmental regulation to protect U.S. citizens from being industrially poisoned is not a sign of patriotism, let alone of wisdom or responsibility; it is proof that you obstruct the righteous tide of personal freedom.

—A music critic for the New York Times attends a game at Yankee Stadium—and critiques the sounds he hears there, referring to the new arena as "a comfortable and acoustically lively new concert hall." What would happen, he asks himself, "if I treated a game as a kind of outdoor musical piece?" And what if everyday public sounds could be subject to music—that is, to audio—criticism?

—Speaking of New York City, 30 July 2011 will see the widespread arrival of a new architectural typology: the pop-up wedding chapel.
Some couples may be married in a chapel made of three-dimensional plywood letters arranged in a circle. Others could find themselves in one composed of interlocking pipes connected with plastic zip ties. Certainly, the couples who marry inside such structures intend to form unions far more permanent than the sites where they will exchange vows.
A design competition sponsored by Architizer and The Knot—a competition which unfortunately ends only 24 hours from now—asks architects "to submit designs for one of two temporary structures to be erected for the day-long ceremony." Your chapel must:
Be no taller than 10'-0" above ground
Be no larger than 8'-0" x 8'-0"
Be non-denominational
Be able to fit 5 people comfortably (1 officiant, 2 witnesses, 2 people getting married)
Be able to withstand windy conditions in the park, and possibly provide rain protection
Be able to be installed and de-installed within 2 hours
Be light enough to install without the need for mechanical assistance (no cranes or forklifts)
Be recyclable if possible [N.b. Why "if possible"? Make it recyclable!]
Not infringe on the paved surface below (no stakes!)
Adhere to NYC building codes
Celebrate the city of NY and the historic passage of the marriage equality act
So get to it! And congratulations to everyone finally able to marry—and congratulations to New York for taking a stand for love.

[Image: Mount Everest, via Wikipedia].

—Is Mount Everest as tall as Nepal says it is? The Chinese don't think so; they "have argued [that the mountain] should be measured by its rock height. Nepal said it should be measured by its snow height—which is four meters higher." So which is it? Nepal has responded by organizing "a new survey of Mount Everest to end the 'confusion' over the exact height," the BBC reports, adding that "stations will be set up at three different locations using the global positioning system, and the task of measuring the peak would take two years."

—A 39-story skyscraper in Seoul had to be abandoned temporarily after it started "to shake violently for 10 minutes" in the middle of the afternoon, for no apparent reason. Turns out, it was all because of a Tae Bo class: "It just happens to be that the vibration set up by the Tae Bo exercises coincided with the resonance frequency unique to the building," an engineer explains. "When an external vibration hits the resonance frequency of a certain object, the vibration is amplified and causes excess shaking even from slight movement." See the San Francisco Chronicle for more.

—The Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick by photographer Chris Arnade.

Cave diseases!

[Image: Painting by Andre Sokolov from Drifting on Alien Winds: Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds, courtesy of Springer].

—And I forgot to link this back in May, only to rediscover it in my bookmarks this morning: Drifting on Alien Winds: Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds. The fascinating book from which that is excerpted "explores the bizarre weather of alien worlds," tracking "scientific discoveries from spacecraft, observatories, and laboratories [that] reveal the mysteries of weather across the Solar System." As the book's author, Michael Carroll, enthusiastically writes:
In fact, the weather on other worlds is terrifying, inspiring, and baffling. Lightning bolts sizzle through Jupiter’s atmosphere, powerful enough to run a small town for days. Hydrocarbon showers fall on Saturn’s moon Titan, and sulfuric acid rains down on Venus. Snows drift from carbon dioxide clouds on Mars and methane ice crystal hazes on Neptune, where blue storms the size of Earth come and go in a matter of months.
Download this 4.3mb PDF to sample the book's contents.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the pigeons link and to Nate Berg for the Tae Bo earthquake link).

The house of mechanical animals

The new film Convento documents work by Christiaan Zwanikken, an artist who preserves and literally reanimates dead animals using recycled motor parts and pumps rescued from scrapyards. He then "breeds these new species in a 400-year old monastery in Portugal," which his family has been restoring for the past 25 years.

[Image: A still from Convento].

As Film Threat describes the process, dead creatures found around the grounds are "turned into new beings" by Zwanikken—for instance, the film shows "a chattering bird skull extended on a metal rotating pole," and later there are "rabbit skulls on the end of two servos that twist and turn and then unexpectedly bash together, as if they were fighting in the afterlife." Elsewhere, a "metallic ant sits in an outdoor walkway, head twisting and listening for its next prey," and all of this is amidst "some of the most beautiful backgrounds you can imagine," with the monastery perched on a cliffside over a nearby river.

In fact, the film is made unusually compelling precisely by its setting: a monastery (where everyday life was once run like clockwork), a site of moral and religious significance now repurposed to house monstrous animals resurrected as machines.

Not all of the creatures just stand there, however, demonstrating their own ingenuity: Zwanikken has also built an elaborate mechanical donkey that walks around in circles, hauling up buckets of water from the monastery's well. Indeed, the film's director, Jarred Alterman, explains why the donkey was his favorite thing to film:
Hundreds of years ago, donkeys were essential creatures for farming. The donkey had to be blindfolded, and it walked in a circle for 12 hours a day, pulling up water from a 15-meter-deep well, probably exhausted from heat. It's incredible that Christiaan was able to understand the sensitivity and the history and create a mechanical animal that made reference to the importance of the animal, and create an artwork at the same time. It's more about the animals than it is about robots.
Zwanikken himself elaborates on how these creatures are made:
I like the idea of recycling, so I collect a lot of materials from dumps. But the crucial parts—motors, gears and bearings—I try to buy new so they can be easily replaced. I use servo motors, hydraulics, pneumatics, stepper motors, electromagnetic devices, propellers, water pumps, combustion engines—basically anything that can be used to create movement. To control them, I use microcontrollers, tons of basic stamps, animatronic software, PCs, remote control and custom-built electronics. I salvage a lot of electronic parts from other machines. Most of the creations are stand-alone and have their own little brain that I program. The more complex pieces are interactive and have motion sensors, radar or ultrasonic sensors.
They are part of what Popular Science calls, in an unrelated context, a "new robotic phylogenesis."

In some ways, I'm reminded of Liam Young's Specimens of Unnatural History.

[Image: From Specimens of Unnatural History by Liam Young].

Young has written that, "as we stalk the strange and unfamiliar landscapes of robotics, biotechnology and ubiquitous computing, we are beginning to encounter a new form of engineered nature that we are not yet able to categorize." His taxidermied hybrids thus populate these landscapes, arriving somewhere between technical objects—invented not evolved—and wondrous new organisms, monstrous yet beautiful in their singularity.

Perhaps this is the next nature we all face: reclusive inventors releasing newly assembled drone-animals into forests, lakes, and hunting grounds around the world—as spectacular as they are unearthly—and your children's children will wake each morning to the dawn chorus of precisely engineered winged machines, exquisite mockeries of birds our generation will be the last to know.

(Liam Young's Specimens of Unnatural History will be on display as part of "Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions" at the Nevada Museum of Art, opening 13 August 2011. For a thinly related old post, see The House of Memory and Automata. Convento spotted via Filmmaker Magazine).

The Weather Bank

A slideshow over at National Geographic features this image by photographer Ian Wood, showing, in the magazine's own words, "what might be called extreme Inca landscaping."

[Image: The weather bowl at Moray, Peru; photo by Ian Wood/Alamy, courtesy of National Geographic].

"Three enormous pits, each with beautifully curved sides that staircase down like the interiors of titanic flowerpots have been carved out of the earth to depths of up to 100 feet and more," the magazine adds. They are like Indian stepwells—only they concentrate thermal gradients—and this affects the local weather: "Air temperatures between the top and bottom layers can differ by more than 20 degrees, which has led some researchers to theorize that Moray was an Inca agricultural site where experiments on crops were conducted."

It's a site of experimental agriculture fueled by an act of microclimatic terrain deformation.

So does this mean that the weather at Moray should be subject not only to meteorological analysis, but to archaeological interpretation? The site you're excavating seamlessly continues into the sky above it, turning the weather itself into an historic artifact—a whole new spin on paleotempestology.

But is the weather created by an historic site also part of that historic site? If so, should ancient microclimates such as these be subject to material preservation? Put another way, if there were a Museum of Ancient Microclimates, how would you design it and what would the visitor experience be?

Imagine a whole constellation of these oversized weather pits, meanwhile, distributed throughout the Andes, all interacting with and augmenting one another, producing continent-scale storm systems—and imagine being hit by a summer downpour, or sitting calmly throughout the winter as blizzards rage just one valley over, knowing that the atmospheric events around you are really long-lasting cultural gifts of the people who lived there centuries before. Weather designed by your ancestors still rages around you today.

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Superficially, I'm reminded of the hexagonal "water storage banks" of Sietch Nevada, a speculative design by the San Francisco-based firm MATSYS. While the resemblance doesn't go much beyond form, this comparison lets us borrow MATSYS's idea of a water bank and, thus, reinterpret the Incan site at Moray as a kind of weather bank, storing temperatures and headwinds year round. It is a space to store climates in.

Extrapolating wildly from this, if the rise of the Himalayas radically altered the earth's climate by changing weather patterns for thousands of miles in all directions, then perhaps we can imagine a scenario in which a network of artificial pits in the Andes begins to affect the jet stream, plunging Australia into drought and pushing rain far north into Mexico—and that, in turns out, is those pits' very purpose, having been excavated by scientifically advanced, self-styled weather warriors more than 600 years ago for reasons still unclear today. Groups of elders would get together in the dark, sitting around their pits in tight circles as the winds picked up, burning incense, singing tales, hurling storms like artillery into the central Pacific.

(Thanks to Marilyn Terrell for the heads up!)

Geopolitical Redesign, or: A Bridge Between Europe and Africa

[Image: A cable car connects Europe and Africa, by Fabio Tozzoli and Eliana Salazar, Bologna (Italy); via Domus].

Back in May, the revitalized Domus magazine asked to see "your ideas for a connection between Africa and Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar," suggesting in the process that the best results might be a "Bridge? Tunnel? Cablecar? Dam? Metropolis? Market? Power plant? Museum? Icon? Prison? Park? Airport?"

Perhaps all (or none) of the above.

[Image: Walking alone through the precarious geopolitical space between Europa and Africa, by Gabriele Garavaglia (Italy); via Domus].

Of course, viewed simply on the level of geography, this is no ordinary crossing. As Domus points out, "a tunnel would have to overcome engineering challenges far greater than those faced by the Eurotunnel's designers: the water is exponentially deeper (nearly 1 km at the shortest point across the strait, compared with just 70 metres in the English Channel)." A bridge wouldn't be much better, as any such proposal "must take into account the presence of heavy east-west marine traffic, and its piers must be able to withstand ship collisions and high winds." On the other hand, "an underwater 'mountain' exists at the center of the strait's narrowest section," and this "could be used to divide the bridge's span in two"—but, unfortunately, "the location of the crossing coincides with an active fault of the African and the Eurasian tectonic plates."

Even this, though, is well before the harrowing reality of a trans-Mediterranean crossing has been politically improved for so many of those who attempt to make it. Indeed, as one response suggests, there are "a lot of things to think about before building a massive bridge between two different worlds"—indeed, "dialogue is the solution" to international relations around the Mediterranean Sea, not some Herculean piece of half-baked infrastructure.

No matter how you look at it, then, it seems an architectural connection between the continents is not only difficult, it is perhaps impossible.

[Image: The Eurafrican maritime border as "geostrategic platform," by Gabriel Esteban Duque, Juan Miguel Gómez, Maria Isabel González, Medellín (Colombia); via Domus].

However, that's exactly the kind of challenge that design increasingly thrives on, and over the past two months an extraordinary collection of postcards has been arriving at the Domus offices in Milan, responding to this call for ideas. These potential continental connections have fallen into a few dozen categories, including:
21 Islands and archipelagos
10 Ship chains
6 Bridge-cities
6 Red Sea [Biblical partings-of-the-water]
5 Bridges suspended with air ballons
4 Tensile structures
4 Funiculars
4 Tightropes
3 Rainbows
3 Markets
3 Airships
2 Underwater bridges
2 Roller coasters
2 Tunnels
1 No bridge
1 Geoengineering
1 Shopping mall
1 Zebra crossing
1 New continent
1 Swimming Pool
And this still doesn't tally the full run of ideas coming in from all over the world (in fact, you have till 19 July to submit your own). A suite of 300 different responses will be on display starting at 7pm, Thursday, 21 July 2011—with free drinks—at the Gopher Hole in London. See the Gopher Hole's website for more info.

[Image: Europe and Africa perhaps sarcastically joined by a bridge of colored balloons, by Pat and Luca Architecture, Melbourne (Australia); via Domus].

One entry in particular, seen here for the first time courtesy of Domus, seems worthy of comment: a new international currency designed by architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG. 100 samples of Bjarke's new infrastructurally-themed currency will be printed on banknote paper and given out at the event, so it's worth stopping by if for no other reason than to collect counterfeit money designed by one of today's most widely recognized architects.

[Images: The 1,000 Afro note by Bjarke Ingels].

These are the 1,000 EURO note and the 1,000 AFRO note.

[Images: A new 1,000 Euro note by Bjarke Ingels].

As BIG explains:
BIG has designed a 1000 EURO bill and a corresponding 1000 AFRO bill as a first proposal for a United African Currency—the AFRO.
The two bills portray the proposed connection across the Gibraltar Strait linking Europe and Africa. The bridge is conceived as an inhabited overpass uniting Euro-African typologies—such as Firenze’s Ponte Vecchio and Le Corbusier's Obus Plan for Algiers—into an intercontinental hybrid of city and infrastructure. The investment in concrete and steel doubles as load-bearing structure for living and working spaces for the many immigrants anticipated over the next decades, and will help establish the bridge itself as a bicontinental city in its own right.
The EURO bill draws on the current design template, emphasizing architecture as the common denominator between the various European cultures.
The AFRO combines great African landmarks—in this case, the bridge—with great African people of recent history who have contributed significantly to making a free united Africa a possibility.
Briefly, I'm reminded of a student project from 2008 called Our New Capitol, by Bryan Boyer. For that project, Boyer asked what sort of congressional meetinghouse would be most appropriate for U.S. governance in the 21st century, but also what that country's currency should look like.

[Image: From Our New Capitol by Bryan Boyer].

Or, of course, there is the famous Dutch architecture coin by Stani Michiel:

[Image: Speculative numismatics by Stani Michiel].

The idea that a nation—or an inter-nation, as it were, formed by a crossing between Europe and Africa—deserves its most representationally accurate currency is a compelling one, as is the idea that architects and designers could start issuing their own banknotes as geopolitical provocations, simply to see what happens next.

Of course, if we're going to take this experiment seriously, then we should perhaps ask why it is worth including one of Bjarke's own earlier buildings on the notes—as you'll see, above, the 1,000 EURO features the VM Houses, designed by Bjarke Ingels and Julien De Smedt—although this is fairly obviously a joke. And, further, I would love to see a 500, 100, 50, etc., AFRO note, simply to rest assured that the architect doesn't really believe this bridge is the single "great African landmark" worthy of monetary representation.

But, putting those criticisms aside, BIG's money is a useful launching point for wondering aloud what we could do, as architects, designers, writers, artists, and more, to rethink the accoutrements of the nation-state, from passports to parking tickets, and thus how we might reconsider, down to the smallest details, how the State, writ large, is understood and presented.

That is, how can we redesign the geopolitical ephemera through which nation-states currently recognize each other, and how might these sorts of peripheral—even frivolous—interventions inspire real constitutional change elsewhere? To put this in spatial terms: what is the architecture of the post-nation-state? And what sorts of infrastructure might the future of governance require? (See, for example, Pier Vittorio Aureli's Brussels: A Manifesto Towards the Capital of Europe for a provocative look at how urban design can help to implement a transnational system of governance such as the European Union).

Altering the order of emphasis here, perhaps it is time to prioritize the wholesale redesign of nation-states as a central problem for the 21st century, whether that means redrawing international (or intranational) borders around natural resources, such as this alternative map of the western U.S. produced by John Wesley Powell—

[Image: A hydrocentric alternative to today's western geopolitical boundaries by John Wesley Powell; see the excellent book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for more on Powell].

—in which the outer limits of U.S. states are determined not by human demographics but by watersheds. Or perhaps we should more aggressively rethink the future of governance and national validity through such things as literary works—through novels like Paul Auster's Man in the Dark, Rupert Thomsen's Divided Kingdom, or Anna North's America Pacifica—or even through games, such as the underwhelming and jingoistic Homefront.

More to the point, could we use Domus's Project Heracles to open the door to other, equally radical possibilities for geopolitical redesign; where do these possibilities now most urgently exist (Israel/Palestine? the Bering Strait? the U.S./Mexico border?); and what is the most useful way for architects and designers to catalyze new forms of human governance?

Do we start with counterfeit money or do we build new geographies altogether?

In any case, be sure to stop by the opening party at the Gopher Hole in London on Thursday night—and keep your eye out for Bjarke Ingels's new cash.

Insurrectionary Memory

[Image: From a press pack released last month by Factory Fifteen].

This is just a quick note that I've updated an older post, embedding a short film called Robots of Brixton by Kibwe X-Kalibre Tavares of Factory Fifteen, whose work that post describes. Check it out if you get a chance.

Ruin Index

Welsh soldiers are currently documenting abandoned neighborhoods in the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus, photographing a region that "stretches across the entire breadth of the island, covering 134 square miles." Their ultimate goal is "to catalog everything in the area of the city that is part of a buffer zone established by the UN to end the fighting." Quoting the soldier in charge:
"The people had to leave their homes and shops pretty quickly, leaving everything behind. There’s children’s clothing, boxes of unused shoes. Of course, all this stuff still belongs to the people who left it."
Some of the things lying in vacant blocks also include brand new cars made in 1974 that have been left in hollow shopping centres.
"There’s a Toyota Corolla 1974 which has 38 miles on the clock," said [Corporal Kelvin Roberts]. "When you open the doors you get hit with a fresh smell of untouched leather and the plastic wrapping remains on the inside of the doors. It’s a bit spooky."
Jace Clayton—aka DJ /rupture—wrote a great piece about the often surreal life of the international DJ, which kicks off with a visit to this very place:
I sat beside the pool talking to our host, trying to figure out why we were there. Down the coast, thirty miles away in the haze, a tall cluster of glass-and-steel buildings hugged the shore. “What’s that city?” I asked. It looked like Miami. “Varosha,” she said. Completely evacuated in the 1974 conflict. A ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus. The only people there were UN patrol units and kids from either side who entered the prohibited zone to live out a J.G. Ballard fantasy of decadent parties in abandoned seaside resorts.
Of course, this is also the same city where, in the recent book Divided Cities, we read about a subterranean network "where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated." A casually post-political waste-management engineer jokes that "the city is divided above ground but unified below." It is a kind of infrastructural conjoined twin.

Will the Welsh soldiers also document the sewers?

(Thanks to John Maas for the tip).
Those of you in the UK on 19 July can take a "smell walk of Sheffield’s University Quarter followed by a presentation on the role of smell in urban design." You'll learn about "the unique qualities offered by smell to placemaking; contemporary experiences of odors in town and cities; [and] design issues and tools relating to smell." Read more at Urban Design Group. Meanwhile, for some background on comparative urban odorology, check out the work of Sissel Tolaas.

Interpretation-Based Spatiality

[Image: A collage of various buildings by Robert Scarano, from photos by Gabrielle Plucknette for the New York Times].

After reading today that a New York appeals court has upheld a ban on architect Robert Scarano, preventing him from practicing in the city, I found this fascinating anecdote published a few months ago about one of the tactics Scarano has used to get his developments cleared by the Department of Buildings. Quoting the New York Times at length:
It’s the summer of 2008. A young couple decides to buy an 800-square-foot apartment in a new condo building on the gentrifying outer edge of a fashionable Brooklyn neighborhood. The buyers go to close on the place, and as they’re signing away half a million dollars, the building’s developer, keeping a wary eye on the hovering lawyers, leans over and whispers something. There’s a second bathroom in the apartment, he says, one that does not appear on the floor plan—its doorway is concealed behind an inconspicuous layer of drywall. At first, the buyers think the developer is kidding. This is before the crash, near the peak of the market, and no one’s giving away a square inch. But the developer says no, he’s dead serious, just look. So a few days after they buy the place, the couple takes a sledgehammer to their wall.
Like something out of House of Leaves—or a kind of architectural Advent calendar, in which various walls are knocked down at specific times of the year to reveal whole new rooms and corridors behind them—the building contained more space than its own exterior had indicated.

Later, the article's author goes on to attend a party in another of Scarano's buildings: "'There’s a secret room,' [the party's host] told me, conspiratorially. Up on the mezzanine level, next to a pair of D.J.’s turntables, he knocked on a wall. It sounded hollow."

I have to admit that this totally blows my mind. Imagine another room within that room whose doorway is also sealed behind drywall—and then other rooms within that room, and further corridors and stairs and entrances. Tap, tap, tap—you navigate by sound, knocking deeper and deeper into an architectural world you only reveal by means of careful deconstruction. Amidst this labyrinth of drywalled rooms, you realize the true extent of your property, which extends so far beyond what you originally thought was your building that you end up, at one point, standing in another zip code.

[Image: The underground city of Derinkuyu].

In a way, I'm reminded of the massive underground city of Derinkuyu, which, as Alan Weisman explains in The World Without Us, was discovered entirely by accident:
No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn't discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he'd never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people—and much remains to be excavated. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network. Many still use the tunnels of this ancient subway as cellar storerooms.
In any case, for Scarano it was not always about literally hiding extra rooms inside a building; it was often just a matter of using certain words—like basement—instead of others—like cellar—to hide his intentions. For instance, "Scarano tried to build a two-story addition to the roof of [an] old warehouse by transferring floor area from the building’s lowest level, which he planned to convert to parking, to the top of the roof. But the zoning code distinguished between a basement (which is partly above ground, defined as habitable, and therefore counted toward the floor-area ratio) and a cellar (which is underground and uninhabitable). Opponents accused Scarano of trying to finesse the difference, and eventually the Department of Buildings declared the space a cellar. New height limits have been established in the neighborhood, and the partly built addition is coming down."

Or this: Scarano "adapted the zoning rules that applied to warehouse conversions. Under certain circumstances, the code classified loft mezzanines as storage space, not floor area, and Scarano assured developers their new building plans could slip through this loophole."

It's hermeneutics—as if the spatial expansion of whole neighborhoods is really just a graph of certain words used in different contexts. As if vocabulary itself materializes, precipitating out as alternative spatial futures for the city. Indeed, the New York Times writes, "in Scarano’s view, the city’s code was a Talmudic document, open to endless avenues of interpretation. Through a variety of arcane strategies, he could literally pull additional real estate out of the air."

I've long been a fan of David Knight and Finn Williams, two London architects with an encyclopedic knowledge of that city's building permissions and zoning codes (I highly recommend their book SUB-PLAN: A Guide to Permitted Development, as well as Knight's recent guest post on Strange Harvest). The following image, taken from that book, is just one example of the type of interpretation-based spatiality so often abused by Scarano.

[Image: From SUB-PLAN: A Guide to Permitted Development by David Knight and Finn Williams].

Whether or not hiding entire rooms behind drywall is part of London's "permitted development" is something we'll have to ask Knight and Williams.

(Thanks to a tip from Nicola Twilley).

Gotham Sans

[Image: The Dark Knight Rises, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Paul Owen of the Guardian today attempts a thorough critique of director Christopher Nolan's most recent films, by way of nothing more than the new poster for The Dark Knight Rises, due out in summer 2012.

The poster presents us with "an empty city totally devoid of people," Owen writes, which suggests to him a film that will be at once "claustrophobic, joyless, and derivative"—and he adds the third term as if in delayed realization that the first two, despite themselves, can often frame a compelling drama (many morality tales are precisely claustrophobic and joyless, which is where their effective power lies). But, in this way of thinking, the poster's highly architectural glimpse of a "city literally falling to pieces," as Owen describes it, is indication that the film itself will also shudder and fail under Nolan's unfounded narrative ambitions, as if depopulated streets accidentally reveal the director's inability to portray human complexity.

Is Owen right to deduce from a single piece of visual art the internal collapse of a film whose release is still more than one year away? And does this foreshortened view of a ruined metropolis—"an empty city totally devoid of people" with "rubble crumbling from the roofs"—rightly imply a story equally vacated of human interest?

Either way, it's nice to see a short piece of virtuoso art interpretation, inspired by an image of buildings.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Dream-Sector Physics and Inception Space and Shining Path).

Situationist Drawing Device

[Image: The "Situationist Drawing Device" by Ji Soo Han and Paul Ornsby].

The "Situationist Drawing Device" is a backpack-sized mechanism for recording the experience of landscape. Designed by Ji Soo Han and Paul Ornsby, and operating by way of mirrors, the Device "records a journey taken in an altered state of perception through drawing." It is an "intermediary and interpretative tool," the designers add, one that stands between the human body and the landscape it exists within and explores.

It is spatial equipment—an optical exoskeleton. Navigational clothing.

[Images: The "Situationist Drawing Device" by Ji Soo Han and Paul Ornsby].

This video shows it at work:

"As each eye retina receives different images, both conditions blur into one and simultaneously alternate—phasing in and out over the other," the designers write. "This blurring effect, as known as retinal rivalry, creates a new perception of the site. The device was initially adapted from the pseudoscope (Greek, false view) which is a binocular instrument that reverses depth perception. The idea of reversing left and right eye vision was adapted to reverse forward and backward vision."

You advance by looking backward, walking into layered optical phantoms of the place you've left behind. It is both mnemonic and projective.

[Images: The "Situationist Drawing Device" by Ji Soo Han and Paul Ornsby].

The key detail, though, is that the backpack also registers, through drawing, your experience of wearing it; a small, Iron Man-like disc (see opening image) on the user's back serves both to house and to produce those vaguely seismological sketches. It is a mystical drawing pad for upstart Situationists.

[Images: The "Situationist Drawing Device" by Ji Soo Han and Paul Ornsby].

The device later inspired Han to design a project called the "Scrap Metal Refinery," a few images of which appear here.

[Images: The "Scrap Metal Refinery" by Ji Soo Han].

That proposes a bridge that would stride across its own curved shadows and reflections, which are meant to be seen as a form of spatial notation, the structure registering itself in the landscape.

[Images: The "Scrap Metal Refinery" by Ji Soo Han].

For my money, the device is the stronger of the two projects, recalling the introductory essay written by CJ Lim for an edited collection of student work produced at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Devices: A Manual of Architectural + Spatial Machines. Quoting at length:
Devices have shared a long and complex history with architecture. The machines of Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci were devised in times of peace and war for both the construction and destruction of the built form. Today, kinetic intelligent systems are incorporated into building facades for environmental and aesthetic control. The device, however, has simultaneously followed a parallel trajectory—the Victorians invented a proliferation of devices, often ingenious, rarely of much practical use; Heath Robinson's contraptions displayed the absurd length to which devices were invented to satisfy our convenience and curiosity; his illustrations, sometimes carrying satirical and political overtones, are best remembered for their humor. Similarly, many of today's devices no longer perform quotidian practical tasks but are the results of artistic endeavor and are housed in galleries and museums.
The "Situationist Drawing Device" is what happens when an unironic Vitruvian sensibility is crossed with the willful absurdity of Situationist urban exploration, by way of mirrors and pens: an unfeasibly complicated piece of clothing through which the experience of built space is memorably upended.

Read a bit more at Ji Soo Han's website.