Bridges are Acoustic Information

Sound artist Rutger Zuydervelt and designer Gerco Hiddink have teamed up to organize a new audio project called Bridges.

[Image: From Bridges].

The project asked a group of eight well-known improvisational musicians to "react" to four Dutch bridges (or, more accurately, to field recordings made on, under, and near those bridges). The project is thus as much about musical improv as it is about infrastructural acoustics—a structural ecology of sound vibrantly humming in the spaces around us.

[Images: From Bridges].

As The Wire explains in a short article about the project, Zuydervelt and Hiddink "paired the eight musicians not to play together, but to react separately to the field recordings, which he then mixed together with the primary field recordings."

The resulting sound works have just been released, and can be previewed here.

[Image: Album design by Gerco Hiddink for Bridges].

As it happens, there's a surprisingly strong artistic interest in turning bridges into sound.

A few years ago, for instance, a project called "Singing Bridges" made the news. It was "a sonic sculpture, playing the cables of stay-cabled and suspension bridges as musical instruments," and the artist behind it—Jodi Rose—wrote that she aimed to "amplify and record the sound of bridge cables around the world."

Artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, meanwhile, explored the acoustics of an urban bridge with their project "Harmonic Bridge" (which I had the pleasure of hearing during its run at MASS MoCA). That project, as the museum explained it, produced a roiling "eddy of sound in the midst of intersecting streams of traffic. Cars pass by heading north or south on Marshall Street and east or west on the Route 2 bridge, but this linear motion is counterpoised by a rolling, humming C as calming as the rhythm of ocean waves."

More broadly, the artists add, "The bridge becomes an instrument played by the city revealing hidden harmonies within the built environment."

[Image: "Harmonic Bridge" by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, courtesy of MASS MoCA].

Releasing drone-bursts, buzzes, rumbles, and bells, bridges are the ignored instruments of the city, strongly suggesting that the urban context so often prized by architects and designers should also include an awareness of that region's acoustics—a neighborhood zoned for singing bridges and harmonic roads, given rhythm by the thumping and amplified tectonics of the subways. The bridge becomes an Aeolian harp—infrastructure gone acoustic—its formal sonic properties activated by the turbulent motions of the environment around it.

(Environmental sounds elsewhere: Dancing About Architecture).

Green Man

[Image: An unrelated photo by BLDGBLOG].

The other day I mentioned a poem by John Balaban, taken from his book Locusts at the Edge of Summer, which I discovered again during Hurricane Irene; but there's another poem in there with an incredible image that seems worth posting here.

In it, Balaban describes how villagers growing rice during the Vietnam War—where Balaban, a conscientious objector, served with the International Volunteer Corps—stumble upon an extraordinary feature in the landscape:
Beyond the last treeline on the horizon
beyond the coconut palms and eucalyptus
out in the moon-zone puckered by bombs
the dead earth where no one ventures,
the boys found it, foolish boys
riding buffaloes in craterlands
where at night bombs thump and ghosts howl.
A green patch on the raw earth.
This "green patch" has an usual shape, however. Balaban continues:
In that dead place the weeds had formed a man
where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh
and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
No scrap remained; not even a buckle
survived the monsoons, just a green creature,
a viny man, supine, with posies for eyes,
butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue.
And the sight of this "green creature" proves too fertile, unforgettable, haunting all the villagers who've seen it:
Now when huddled asleep together
the farmers hear a rustly footfall
as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.
Out of the darkness, convinced by the life they give to the land around them that they might not yet be dead, the missing-in-action pull themselves from the tangle of the earth and rise and walk again.

Studio-X NYC

I am thrilled to say that I have moved east to New York City, leaving California after five unforgettable and productive years, to take on a new role as co-director, with Nicola Twilley, of Studio-X NYC at Columbia University. We both think this is an amazing opportunity to reengineer what it means to discuss cities today, and Nicola and I are committed to pursuing this goal in as wide-ranging and open a way as possible.

[Images: Spatial formats for events at Studio-X NYC, from the recent Studio-X Guide to Liberating New Forms of Conversation].

Speaking for both Nicola and myself, one of the most invigorating aspects of all this is the ability to work with people in radically different fields and professions—from policing to public health, archaeology to architecture, literature to film, international finance to amateur sports, subway engineers to sidewalk eccentrics, mayoral candidates to venture capitalists—all of whom have a perspective on, and vested interests in, how cities function. Nicola and I thus anticipate a surge of new collaborations, friends, and, of course, critics—and we hope to see many of you in person, at any number of our forthcoming meetings, events, exhibitions, tours, film fests, book launches, panel discussions, and more.

In the very near term, we have a few things scheduled. Kicking off a new series of conversations that we call Live Interviews @ Studio-X—or LI@SX—we will be hosting a public conversation with Deborah Estrin at 12:30pm on Thursday, September 1st.

Deborah is director of the Center for Embedded Network Sensing at UCLA. She will be discussing her work with self-monitoring applications, participatory sensing campaigns for community data projects, and citizen science, as well as larger issues of surveillance, privacy, and information filtering in the digital city.

The live interview format will take the form of an informal, one-on-one conversation—moderated in this case by Nicola Twilley—which the public is invited both to attend and to join. For those of you unable to be there in person, the LI@SX series will be recorded for posterity, webcast whenever possible, and eventually transcribed and published online.

[Images: Liam Young installs "Specimens of Unnatural History" at the Nevada Museum of Art; photos by Jamie Kingman].

Later that same evening—at 6pm, Thursday, September 1st—we will be hosting a Landscape Futures Night School with London-based architect Liam Young. This is an experiment with a different format: the Night School is a more interactive exploration of ideas, by definition hosted in the evenings, taking the form of everything from lectures and slideshows to design challenges and debates. The Night School series will be flexibly themed and very different each time it's run.

Liam Young is co-founder (with Darryl Chen) of the design collective and futures think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today, as well as leader (with Kate Davies) of the Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio based at the Architectural Association (newly returned from a summer expedition to Chernobyl and Baikonur). Liam will be joining us to introduce some of his Specimens of Unnatural History, recently installed as part of the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

Following Liam's presentation of his work, I'll be engaging with him in a public conversation, whiteboard brainstorm, and armchair journey around the world, exploring fieldwork as a form of research, the role of the sketchbook, the importance of narrative in architectural design, and the architect as investigative traveler. Expect to hear about everything from Australian kangaroo culls and the control of invasive species to conflict metals, the open-pit gold mine as designed landscape, and the difficulties of piloting a boat up the Congo.

The Landscape Futures Night School kicks off at 6:00pm; however, you must RSVP if you would like to attend: studioxnyc AT gmail DOT com.

[Images: Spreads from Geologic City by Smudge Studio].

Next week, meanwhile, we will be hosting a launch party for Smudge Studio's new pamphlet, Geologic City, a look at the rocky underpinnings of New York, both temporary & abstract (gold reserves, fiber optics, magnetic strips on subway cards) and massively real (bedrock, landslides, urban mineralogy). Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio—co-authors of the blog Friends of the Pleistocene—will guide attendees through the pamphlet, as well as through the deep time of the city, utilizing Studio-X NYC's 16th-floor windows overlooking southwestern Manhattan and the Hudson River to point out specific sites of geological influence on New York itself.

Jamie and Liz will be joined by Meg Studer, a designer and cartographer with a sustained interest in ecological systems, who has recently mapped the road-salt industry. The installations will remain in Studio-X NYC for two weeks, open to the public.

[Images: Salt maps by Meg Studer].

Also on our schedule for the near future is an evening with photographer Simon Norfolk, whose work should be familiar to long-term readers of this site; BLDGBLOG's 2006 interview with Simon is still one of my personal favorites, and is well worth reading in full. Simon will be engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with Noah Shachtman—editor of Wired's excellent blog Danger Room—and this will kick off a longer series of events themed around conflict and the city: urban military action, urban violence, urban police technology, urban warfare, divided cities, and much more. (While he's in town, don't miss Simon's lecture at the School of the Visual Arts on Wednesday, September 14).

The rest of the autumn promises a huge array of exhibitions, events, and public meetings—design charrettes, walking tours, all-day interviews, film fests, panel discussions, standalone lectures, slideshows, night schools, and more. To whet your appetite, our schedule is currently shaping up with a distributed film festival, exploring bank heists and prison breaks as architectural phenomena, co-organized with Filmmaker Magazine; a series of literary launches hosted in collaboration with GQ and Farrar, Straus and Giroux; live conversations with Benjamin Bratton, Luis Callejas, Christian Parenti, Janette Kim, Chris Woebken, Bernard Tschumi, and Sam Jacob, among many others; and much else beside, including ongoing collaborations with the GSAPP's own stellar faculty.

In any case, I'll be reporting back regularly about goings-on at Studio-X NYC—though you can also follow us on Twitter for updates and urban links—and keep your eyes out for the launch of a new cities blog, published by the Studio-X global network, later this fall. And, now that Landscape Futures is finally open in Reno and our move to the east coast is nearing completion, I will be back to posting on BLDGBLOG at a more normal pace next week.

Polygon Sublime

[Image: Via Jim Rossignol/Big Robot].

"Having stripped everything out of game two, except the terrain," game developer Jim Rossignol recently tweeted, "we again are left with a geometric painterliness. I am actually happy just wandering around these spaces, discovering extraordinary formations and unexpected floating mesas."

Fake Lake

[Image: A satellite view of the corporate water feature become roadway hazard thanks to a landscaping crew in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania].

Out in the suburbs, where we've temporarily taken up shop on our way to New York City, the damage of Hurricane Irene has mostly been limited to large fallen branches on wooded roads, with the necessary but unexpected orange cones, caution tape, wrongway turns, and over-hill detours associated with such minor obstacles.

Is there an oral history of road detours—the friends met, the appointments missed, the geographies discovered—and, if not, should one be written?

But I was thrilled by the oddly Ballardian experience today of driving around on a spectacular and cloudless post-storm evening to see that two landscapers working overtime had begun to pump the flooded excess from an artificial corporate lake—a kind of ornamental moat surrounding an office complex in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania—directly onto the street.

Cars were braking and swerving out of their lanes as the roadway flooded, and this doubly-fake water feature visibly bloated, engulfing two lanes of traffic, even as the artificial lake from whence it came seemed to recede, deflating back to preplanned limits amidst the sculpted hills and parking lots.

Urban Hurricane

[Image: Photo by Chris Woebken, from his Flickr account].

I'm sitting out the winds of Hurricane Irene in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where the basement of this house is starting to flood, a siren is going off somewhere, and the power has flickered off—and on, and off, and on—for the last hour, though the full brunt of the storm has yet to hit.

But everything I own is in a creekside storage depot in Queens, as we wait to move into our new place next week; I'm thus finding it hard to fall asleep thinking of the fact that we've moved back to the east coast just in time, potentially, to have everything ruined and swept away into an industrial canal in New York City. But that's the way things go.
   [Image: Photo by Chris Woebken, from his Flickr account].

In any case, artist Chris Woebken, with whom I've had the pleasure of working as part of the Landscape Futures exhibition over in Reno, has been posting some photos today, showing New York City on lockdown, with plywood walls appearing in what once were windows and new facades popping up in a flash atop old storefronts.

Extreme weather brings its own architectural ornament, a whole family of plug-in and bolt-on designs that would otherwise have lain dormant as everyday materials, sleeping on the shelves of Home Depot.

The photos in this post are by Chris Woebken, and are taken from his Flickr account.
   [Image: Photo by Chris Woebken, from his Flickr account].

But being back out in the suburbs of my teenage years—and hurriedly evacuating the family basement—also means that I've stumbled upon a bunch of old books, and it seems vaguely appropriate to quote a brief excerpt from a poem by John Balaban.

Balaban treats the impending weather above him as a kind of aerial organism, a gargantuan meteorology of displaced marine life passing ominously through the sky:
Toward dawn, two nimbus clouds drifted in,
the larger—trailing down tendrils of rain
like a Portuguese man-o'-war—began to pulse
with lightning, brightening its belly like a huge lantern,
arcing a jagged streak
to ignite the smaller cloud.
Pulsing and flaring, striking each other,
dragging the earth with rain,
they drifted off over the mountains.
All about them the sky was clear.
The storm is a memorable presence, entering lives and leaving again, both animate and terrible.

Farmland World

[Image: "Farmland World" by Design With Company (Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks)].

One of the runners-up for the recent Animal Architecture Awards is also one of my favorites from the competition: "Farmland World" by Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks of the Chicago-based Design With Company.

The project is an ironic investigation of how humans relate to farm animals—more specifically, how the ongoing spatial separation between humans and the animals they rely on for food and other forms of agricultural work can make animals seem to be nothing more than utilitarian machines.

[Image: From "Farmland World" by Design With Company; view larger].

In the architects' words:
The everyday life of the average American is almost completely disconnected from the land and animals that support them. Even farmers perform their duties primarily through automated mechanisms that remove them from the subject of their industry. The constructed distance between the human “us” and the animal “others” is increasing to the point that distinctions between machines and animals look blurry purely from distanced detachment. From our removed perspective, the extreme demand for cheap food production and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon) or anthropomorphic projections to entertain and decorate (tea-cup terrier). As we relate to animals and machines similarly, where each begins to exhibit characteristics of the other, their converging trajectories point to an impending crisis at their collision.
Farmland World makes the human-animal encounter spectacular, proposing an absurdly over-the-top farm animal theme park—a "human/machine/animal hybrid adventure-land."

[Image: From "Farmland World" by Design With Company].

Farmland World "is a chain of agro-tourist resorts sprinkled across the American Midwestern countryside":
Part theme park and part working farm, guests arrive to the resort via train and stay as part of 1-day, 3-day or 5-day experience packages. Capitalizing on both recent governmental investments in high-speed rail infrastructure and the plentiful subsidies for farming, the network of resorts combine crowd-sourced farm labor with eco-tainment.
"As train-loads of itinerant fantasy farmers arrive," Newmeyer and Hicks drily write, "they are herded to the Grazing Coliseum to receive their complimentary overalls. From there, the adventure begins."

[Image: From "Farmland World" by Design With Company; view larger].

Foregrounding the idea that humans have increasingly come to confuse animals with machines, Farmland World is populated by robots, rides, and representations.

Inflatable mega-pigs and hollow, roving "cow combines" act as "robotic performers," in the designers' words. Animal replicants, these false creatures "extend the tradition of machines using and mimicking animals for moving, operating, branding and processing food crops."

[Image: From "Farmland World" by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

Meanwhile, the architect adds, "temporary farm excursionists"—paying visitors—"work, sowing and harvesting fields, becoming part of the herd. Farmland World embraces this hybrid human-animal-machine relationship, reinvigorating the rural landscape."

[Images: The robotic super-cows of "Farmland World" by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

As you can see in the project's overall guide, there are a whole series of these giant robot animals. A "chicken planter" stands beside a mechanical "sheep baaaler," which, in turn, is neighbors with a pig plow and a mechanical horse that spreads real horse manure from its techno-derriere. Think of it as Westworld in an age of vast industrial farming—a livestock Disneyland.

[Image: From "Farmland World" by Design With Company; view larger].

On the project plan, you'll also see such places as "Beeville" and "Veggie Row," the latter promising an internally-animated range of machine-plants sprouting from beds of artificial soil.

Having gone to elementary school in a small town in rural Wisconsin, I vividly remember being taken to see farm animals over at UW-Madison, including one that had had a window surgically implanted into its side; you could actually watch the cow, in section, digesting its food.

To go from this—a bovine proto-cyborg—to Design With Company's beautifully rendered "Farmland World" doesn't actually seem like such a stretch.

In any case, congratulations to Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks for placing as second runner-up in the Animal Architecture Awards; for more, see the Animal Architecture website as well as this earlier post today on BLDGBLOG.

Animals in the Optoelectronic Metropolis

[Image: LEVEL 1 from "Theriomorphous Cyborg" by Simone Ferracina].

Last week, while I was lost in the process of moving east from Los Angeles to New York City, the Animal Architecture Awards were announced, a design competition for which I was proud to serve on the jury.

I'll be posting at least two of the projects here, starting with what was ultimately the competition winner: a project called "Theriomorphous Cyborg" by Simone Ferracina.

[Image: LEVEL 2 from "Theriomorphous Cyborg" by Simone Ferracina].

Ferracina's project takes "a bewildering non-human gaze and the mysterious worlds it may engender" as its starting point, effectively plugging human beings into animal technologies, devices of transformative spatial cognition.

"Set in a near-future environment teeming with locative media, sensors and portable devices and co-constructed by virtual objects and information overlays," Ferracina writes, "the project aims to establish and activate new relations between human cyborgs and their 'sentient' environment. The animal Umwelt becomes a metaphor for designing and opening up new perceptual realities and fields of experience—and reach previously invisible worlds."

[Image: LEVELS 3-4 from "Theriomorphous Cyborg" by Simone Ferracina].

In this sense the project is similar in spirit to "Animal Superpowers" by Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada—now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art as part of Landscape Futures—but it is also not strictly speaking architectural.

Concerned more with space itself—that is, with the spatiality of sensing: how animal bodies perceive, navigate, and interactively change their environments—the augmented sensory overlays of "Theriomorphous Cyborg" nonetheless instigate transformations in the urban terrains within which they function.

The project is designed as a game, complete with different sensory "levels." Quoting at length:
Inspired by migratory birds and their ability to perceive the Earth’s magnetism, LEVEL 1 superimposes the participant’s field of vision with an additional signal consisting of directional color patterns. The gamer learns to navigate space according to his/her own magnetic compass. LEVEL 2 overlays synchronous retinal signals with asynchronous digital recordings, thus causing time to appear fluid and heterogeneous. Upon reaching LEVEL 3, all direct visual reception is shut off. Participants engage their surroundings relying entirely on the broadcast of cyborgian "eyes"—a network of hacked CCTV cameras activated by proximity. LEVEL 4 explores communication between the human and animal kingdoms, and Ernst Haeckel’s notion that language is the discriminating factor between them. A voice-changing device—the mouther—transforms the gamer's utterances into incomprehensible animal sounds, preventing him/her from normal human interaction. LEVEL 5 changes the player’s appearance with theriomorphic features dependent on random sets of alternative geographies. LEVEL 6 mixes the consummatory cycles of gamers and bees. Optoelectronic devices paired with recognition technology mask billboards and signs with images of flowers, thus neutralizing their imposed top-down message. LEVEL 7 augments objects with electronic hairs, quills, scales, tails and feathers based on readings of atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and temperature.
And this game is potentially infinite. As Ferracina writes, "Hundreds of potential levels follow, each representing both a pause in the self-absorbed routine of everyday survival and a window into the partial objectivities of human and animal 'others.' Rather than describing a progression culminating in the player’s victory and the software’s apparent defeat, the game folds continuously back upon itself, weaving new dynamic relations—new feedback loops—between living beings and their post-natural environments."

[Image: LEVELS 5, 6, and 7 from "Theriomorphous Cyborg" by Simone Ferracina].

It's a compelling, and highly provocative project; congratulations to Simone Ferracina for taking first prize.

The Cloud

[Images: Assembling "Surface Tension" by Smout Allen, a room-sized kinetic device, hydrological model, and terrain computer commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art for Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions].