Tar Creek Supergrid

For his thesis project at the University of Toronto, Clint Langevin, in collaboration with Amy Norris, proposed "repurposing abandoned mines as renewable energy infrastructure in the U.S."

[Image: Inside the Picher, Oklahoma, supergrid, by Clint Langevin and Amy Norris].

The specific site for their project is the Tar Creek Lead and Zinc Mine in Picher, Oklahoma, which long-term BLDGBLOG readers might remember as the town at risk from cave-ins. As the Washington Post reported in 2007, "Trucks traveling along the highway are diverted around Picher for fear that the hollowed-out mines under the town would cause the streets to collapse under the weight of big rigs." The unlucky town was then gutted by a tornado in 2008.

Langevin's and Norris's work highlights the area's surreal, almost Cappadocian landscape: "Dozens of waste rock piles, some up to 13-storeys high," they write, "and contaminated ground and surface water are the legacy of mining operations in the area, which produced a significant portion of the lead used in the World Wars."

[Images: Photos of waste rock piles in Picher; (top) Jason Stair, (bottom) Moonlight Cocktail Photography. Photos via the architects].

The architects specifically propose "a structure that raises the solar energy infrastructure off the ground [and] creates the opportunity to host other activities on the site, as well as to remediate the polluted ground and waterways. The concrete structure, pre-fabricated using waste rock material from the site, is assembled in a modular fashion from a kit of parts that accommodates a variety of programs."

[Image: The "kit of parts"].

"Importantly," the architects add, "the hollow structure also acts as a conduit to carry water, energy, waste—all the infrastructure for human habitation—to all inhabited areas of the site."
The result is a three-tiered plan: the topmost layer is devoted to solar energy development and production: testing the latest solar technology and producing a surplus of energy for the site and its surroundings. This layer is also the starting point for water management on the site. Rainwater is collected as needed and transported through the structure to one of several treatment plants around the radial plan. The middle layer is the place of dwelling and exploration of the site. As the need for space grows, beams are added to create this inhabited layer: the beams act as a pedestrian and cycling circulation system, but also the infrastructure for dwelling and automated transit. Finally, the ground layer becomes a laboratory for bioremediation of the ground and water systems. Passive treatment of both the waste water from the site and of the acid mine drainage is coupled with a connected system of boardwalks to allow inhabitants and visitors to experience both the industrial inheritance of the site and the renewed hope for its future.
It's a bit of a Swiss Army knife—in the sense that it tries to solve everything and have a solution for every possible challenge—with the effect that the architects seem to under-emphasize the titanic supergrid that clearly defines the overall proposal. It's as if the proposal is so large—more landform building than architectural undertaking—that even the architects lose sight of it, focusing instead on individual systems in their description.

[Images: A wanderer above the sea of white cubes gazes at the Picher supergrid].

But inside this continuous and monumental space frame, whole communities could live—the "infrastructure for dwelling" and "pedestrian and cycling circulation system"—surrounded by a toxic geography for which the grid itself serves as both sublime filter and possible remedy.

[Images: More views inside the supergrid; second image is simply a detail from the first (view larger)].

The model for the project is pretty great, and I would love to see it in person: a cavernous grid envelopes the site's artificial topography, wrapping tailings piles and hills of waste rock, whilst treading lightly on ground too thin to hold the weight of architecture.

[Images: The model, by Clint Langevin and Amy Norris].

You can see more—including aerial maps and structural details, such as the placement of solar panels—at Langevin's and Norris's site.

Sea Caverns of Singapore

[Image: Singapore expands beneath the Pacific Ocean; via the BBC].

Singapore has embarked upon the excavation of an underground oil reserve, expanding the city's industrial port beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It is "no ordinary construction site," the BBC tells us, but an elaborate project of engineering and infrastructure currently underway "several hundred feet underground, below the seabed in Singapore."

There, workers are "laboring around the clock to carve out an enormous network of caverns that will eventually store vast amounts of oil."

[Images: Singapore expands beneath the Pacific Ocean; via the BBC].

More specifically, "Five oil storage caverns are being dug out under the seabed of Banyan Basin, off Jurong island, a series of mostly-reclaimed islands that house most of Singapore's petrochemical industry."

Artificial caverns built offshore from manmade islands?

The terrestrial mechanics of Singapore's existence are increasingly interesting, if ecologically problematic. As Pruned's recent look at the city's sand-importation economy shows, the island-nation exists through a near-ceaseless act of geological accumulation, piecing itself together and expanding from the inside out using deposits of earth taken from neighboring countries.

Singapore, Pruned writes, "has been reclaiming land from the sea since the mid-1960s, expanding its total land area by nearly 25% as a result. And it's still growing. With no hinterlands to supply it with natural resources, however, it has to import sand, the primary landfill material. But exactly where, the Singaporean government does not disclose. Its supply lines are not public information."

Earlier this year, we looked at the idea of forensic geology, whereby even a single piece of sand can be tracked back to its terrestrial origins. As that link explains, the source of electronics-grade silicon is often deliberately occluded from public documents, treated as an industrial trade secret. Here, though, it is not microchips but internationally recognized political territory that is being mined, traded, and assembled—a black economy without audit or receipts.

Singapore's off-the-books experiment in sovereign expansion—not through military conquest but through intelligent geotextiles, Herculean dredging projects, and, of course, new undersea caverns—is perhaps a kind of limit-case in how nation-states not only utilize natural resources but literally build themselves from the ground up (and down) as political acts of landscape architecture.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Artificial Caverns Expanding Beneath Chicago).

A Spatial History of Trapdoors

[Image: Poster for "The Queen of Chinatown" by Joseph Jarrow, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

Someone should write a short history of the trapdoor as spatial plot device in Broadway plays, literary fiction, Hollywood thrillers, and even dreams, CIA plots, Dungeons & Dragons modules, and more. How does the trapdoor, as an unexpected space of strategic perforation and architectural connection, serve both to move a plot forward and to give spatial form to characterization?

The "Queen of Chinatown" poster seen above, for instance, with its sprung floor collapsing beneath the weight of a hapless sailor, seems to promise an entire urban district—"Chinatown" as an Orientalist fantasy of inscrutable passageways and other devious spatial practices—illicitly Swiss-cheesed with unexpected wormholes. Chutes, pits, wells, and shafts are perhaps distributed throughout the neighborhood, we're led to imagine, giving the erstwhile "Queen" her strategic mastery of the area. Chinatown becomes a hive of "mysterious Chinese tunnels," a porous space guarded not through high fortress walls or even by watchmen or CCTV, but through a camouflaged network of surprise openings, like architectural sinkholes, that no one can predict and of which only one person knows the true extent.

The above poster, meanwhile, seems almost like an alternate-history version of Christopher Nolan's recent heist film, Inception: there are opium addicts slumbering in a warren of stacked bunkbeds in an off-the-books Chinatown dream academy, and there is a man—an anonymous investigative agent of the state—crashing through the floor into this world of broadly Asiatic decor. A multi-layered hive of architectural space seen sliced through in section, where trapdoors lead to further trapdoors. Inception as an 1890s heist caper, serialized on the popular stage.

[Image: A still from Inception, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In any case, a spatial history of trapdoors—in film, literature, myth, dreams, and theater—would make an amazing pamphlet or book, I think, and I would love to see such a thing someday, perhaps part of a larger series of pamphlets looking at other minor architectural typologies—like log flumes and National Park trail structures and hay mazes.

[Image: "Then let it be the kiss of death!" Courtesy of the Library of Congress].

The two posters reproduced here, both available through the Library of Congress, are at least one place to start.

Altered Landscape

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

I just received a copy of The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment, edited by Ann M. Wolfe, and it's well worth highlighting here.

The book primarily documents the "Altered Landscape" photography collection at the Nevada Museum of Art. Its images "show the phase of natural history that is sometimes called the anthropocene, when human alterations of the environment have begun to surpass natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes," in the words of art historian W.J.T. Mitchell. As Mitchell adds, these images are more complex than simple calls for environmental action: they paradoxically include "what I can only describe as the aesthetics of sublime melancholy that cannot avoid celebrating, even as it criticizes, the gargantuan scars and inscriptions that the human species is carving into the planet."

[Image: "Howl" (2007) by Amy Stein; from The Altered Landscape edited by Ann M. Wolfe].

Works by Terry Evans, David Maisel, Richard Misrach, Amy Stein, Edward Burtynsky, Michael Wolf, Kim Stringfellow, Emmet Gowin, Michael Light, Sharon Stewart, Toshio Shibata, Todd Hido, and dozens more fill the book, depicting California suburbs and deep desert weapons-testing facilities, oil pipelines, hydroelectric dams, and quarries; there are clearcut forests and solar plants, Arctic radar fields and National Park parking lots.

In "Howl" by Amy Stein, seen above, a wolf lost in the glare of light pollution breaks the silence of an abstract landscape, turning to the artificial astronomy of the municipal grid—its surrogate moons and constellations of streetlamps—to reorient itself in the snow. However, it's worth pointing out that the wolf is, in fact, stuffed: Stein's work simultaneously stages and documents what she calls "modern dioramas of our new natural history."

[Image: "Coolidge Dam, San Carlos, AZ" (1997) by Toshio Shibata; from The Altered Landscape edited by Ann M. Wolfe].

Short essays by the book's editor Ann M. Wolfe, Nevada Museum of Art director David B. Walker, W.J.T. Mitchell (as it happens, my former thesis advisor), writer/curator Lucy Lippard, and myself round out the book.

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment is published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name, which opens at the Nevada Museum of Art tomorrow, Saturday, September 24th.

Tunnel / Countertunnel

For a variety of reasons, I was recently looking at a May 2011 report from the Air Force Research Laboratory on "Robotics: Research and Development."

[Image: From an Air Force Research Laboratory presentation on "Robotics: Research and Development"].

There—amidst plans for unmanned robotic ground convoys and autonomous perimeter defense systems for future bases and cities, not to mention fleets of robotic bulldozers field-tested for use in mine-clearance operations—there was one slide about something called "counter tunnel robotics."

Being obsessed with all things underground, this immediately caught my eye—especially as this is a program whose goal is to "develop an unmanned system with the capability to access, traverse, navigate, map, survey, and disrupt operations in rough subterranean environments." A "miniature mapping payload" is under development, one that will allow for accurate cartographic surveys of complex underground spaces; but, because current methods "will not work in the more challenging (non-planar) tunnel environments," the Air Force explains, the new focus for R&D "will be on developing 3D mapping techniques using 3D sensors."

From last month's Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International—or AUVSI—conference in Washington D.C., where this technology was discussed in detail:
The [Counter Tunnel Robotics] system is an innovative all-terrain mobility platform capable of accessing tunnel systems through a small (8 inch) borehole and traversing adverse tunnel terrain including vertical obstacles up to 2ft in height and chasms up to 2ft in length. The system’s function is to provide a platform capable of carrying a small sensor package while navigating and overcoming terrain obstacles inside the tunnel. Counter tunnel technologies are needed to support intelligence gathering and safety of troops and personnel in unmapped and unknown tunnel environments. The system is the initial step in achieving a fully autonomous counter tunnel system.
A few things worth pointing out here include the mind-boggling image of "a fully autonomous counter tunnel system" operating on its own somewhere inside the earth's surface, like something out of a Jonathan Lethem novel, surely fueling the imaginations of scifi screenplay writers the world over—a planet infested with artificially intelligent tunneling machines. But it is also worth noting that these systems will very likely not be confined to use on—or in—the earth. In fact, autonomous tunnel-exploration robots will find a very hearty market for themselves exploring caves on the moon, on Mars, on asteroids, and perhaps elsewhere, in a fairly clear-cut example of military research finding a productive home for itself in other contexts.

However, I also want to mention how fascinating it is to see that the Air Force Research Laboratory is involved in this, as it actually penetrates the surface of the earth and is very much a project of the ground. It is a landscape project. But the implication here is that these autonomous spelunking units are perhaps seen as a new type of ordnance—that is, they are intelligent bombs that don't explode so much as explore. They are artillery and surveillance rolled into one. Imagine a bomb that doesn't destroy a building: instead, it drops into that building and proceeds to map every room and hallway.

But, much more interestingly, there is perhaps also an indication here that a conceptual revolution is underway within the Air Force, where the earth itself—geological space—is seen as merely a thicker version of the sky. That is, the ground is now seen by Air Force strategists as an abstract, three-dimensional space through which machines can operate, like planes in the sky, navigating past "terrain obstacles" like so much turbulence. In a sense, the inside of the earth becomes ontologically—and, certainly, technically—identical to the atmosphere: it is an undifferentiated space that can be traversed in all directions by the appropriate machinery.

Flying and tunneling thus become elided, revealed as one and the same activity; and the Air Force is understandably now in the business of the underground.

[Image: "A U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor Stealth Fighter Jet Executes A Maneuver Through A Cloud Of Vapor"—that is, it tunnels through the sky—"At The 42nd Naval Base Ventura County Air Show, April 1, 2007, Point Mugu, State of California, USA"; photo by Technical Sgt. Alex Koenig, United States Air Force; Courtesy of Defense Visual Information and the United States Department of Defense].

That, of course, or it was simply an issue of the wrong office receiving research funds for this, and, next fiscal quarter, the Army dutifully takes over...

(For a bit more on underground military activity, see this older post on BLDGBLOG).

On the Beach

I'm quite late hearing this for the first time, but I was thrilled to discover composer Pierre Sauvageot's Harmonic Fields project, a participatory landscape of wind-activated musical instruments temporarily installed on the beach near Birkrigg Common, Cumbria, England. The haphazard plinks, drum rolls, whistles and drones is often mesmerizingly beautiful, as the following video makes clear. It's a kind of weather plug-in, constructed as a sequence of very different movements in space.

It was intended as an actual sound trail—"a symphonic march for 1,000 aeolian instruments and moving audience," in the composer's words, quoted by the Guardian, and "it's important that it is not just a circuit of weird noises," he quickly adds. "The experience develops through individual movements."

From the Guardian:
You are introduced to the quarter-mile trail with a prelude for 300 Balinese wind chimes, followed by an adagio slalom of tuned bamboo pipes, which gives way to a reflective passage for suspended cellos and deckchairs and a pentatonic interlude of turbine-driven glockenspiels. It concludes, like a proper symphony, with a coda drawing together all the elements in a climax of either frenzied dissonance or a soft, extended diminuendo, depending on the weather conditions.
There is a hint that this might come to New York City, which would be a dream for at least this new east coast resident; and, even better, Sauvageot is described as a "true meteorological connoisseur," with an obsessive eye on wind systems and local weather around the planet, always looking for a new place to install his work. "The dry, warm sirocco of north Africa; the crisp, chilled chinook in the Rocky Mountains—I'd love to hear how they might sound," he tells the Guardian.

Personally, if Harmonic Fields does come to New York, I'd love to see it installed on or near my favorite buildings in the city, which are the subway and tunnel ventilation structures visible on the watery fringes of the archipelago—

[Image: The Holland Tunnel Land Ventilation Building].

—and sometimes in the heart of the city. After all, there are also weather systems artificially generated inside the earth by construction projects and large-scale pieces of urban infrastructure, whole subterranean climatologies of moving air that would not otherwise exist without the implanting hand of architecture, as if surgically grafted there. Atmospheric cut-and-cover. A weather reserve beneath the sidewalk.

In any case, the idea that a region's climate—its seasonal weather systems and thermal particularities—might become something more than mere background through a simple act of musicalization—that you could install Sauvageot orchestras in places all over the world to turn storms into symphonies—is amazingly suggestive for future design projects. From low-pressure systems in central Russia to the Santa Ana winds of suburban Los Angeles, architecture becomes a musical generator, an acoustic ornament activated by the sky.

Landform Building

[Image: From Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain, designed by Thumb Projects].

This evening, Saturday, September 17, down at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, Marc McQuade and Stan Allen will be celebrating the release of their recent book Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain, designed by Thumb Projects.

[Image: From Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain, designed by Thumb Projects].

The book is a sustained look at "the evolving relationship between architecture and landscape," with a specific focus on geomorphic megastructures—that is, buildings that look like mountains and other earth forms—vegetative ornament, including green roofs, and complex interpenetrations between architecture and the surface of the earth (semi-subterranean structures, structures penetrated by bedrock, and so forth).

You can see some shots of the book itself here—

[Images: From Landform Building: Architecture's New Terrain, designed by Thumb Projects; see more].

—and you'll learn much more about the publication at tonight's book launch. There, you'll hear from McQuade and Allen themselves, but also from Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Lucia Allais, Eric Sanderson, and Nina Katchadourian.

[Image: Landform Building launch at the BMW Guggenheim Lab].

I'm excited to be participating in this evening's event, as well, with a short, pecha kucha-style presentation, looking at everything from constructed hills in Rome to artificial glaciers, and from the particularly vertiginous paranoia of a manmade earth to Celtic myths of the Hollow Hills. The quasi-mystical appeal of ground-penetrating radar, muon detectors in the rain forest, and methane-ventilation technology used in landfill construction will all make brief appearances.

Things kick off at 6pm; here is a map. Hope to see some of you there!
The last few weeks have been a logistical nightmare, having found that the new apartment we'd been told we could move into by August 22 was, in fact, only ready a few days ago, which means—among other things—that instead of settling in here in New York, getting Studio-X NYC up and running again, and maintaining BLDGBLOG, I've been lost in a labyrinth of wastefully overpriced hotel rooms, rental cars, long drives back and forth between NY and the Philadelphia suburbs, and endless personal favors asked of my family there; and, even now that we are surrounded by boxes again in our own place, a month late, and things are theoretically back to normal, we're having absurd internet installation problems. So I'm beginning to feel that I'm cursed. Either way, expect intermittent posting—at best—over the next week or two here as things continue their glacially slow process of getting back on track.

The Shape of War

I'm excited to invite everyone to another evening at Studio-X NYC, with photographer Simon Norfolk and journalist Noah Shachtman, who will participate in two back-to-back live interviews discussing new spaces and technologies of conflict in the 21st century.

[Image: Photo by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

Long-term readers of BLDGBLOG will remember Simon Norfolk from his interview here on the site back in 2006.

[Image: Photo by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

Tuesday's conversation will revisit many of those same themes, but it will do so in the provocative context of Norfolk's newest project, a photographic tour of Afghanistan in the footsteps of photographer John Burke:
In October 2010, Simon Norfolk began a series of new photographs in Afghanistan, which takes its cue from the work of nineteenth-century British photographer John Burke. Norfolk’s photographs reimagine or respond to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. Conceived as a collaborative project with Burke across time, this new body of work is presented alongside Burke’s original portfolios.
We will take a look not only at the resulting photographs—a selection of which appear here—but at the often overlapping responsibilities of the photojournalist and the artist in documenting political events in conflict zones around the world.

[Image: Photo by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

As you can see in the photos reproduced here, Norfolk has an eye for complex stratigraphy: where US and UK basecamps overlap with Afghan townscapes, which in turn visually—and politically—repeat earlier scenes from a different era of misbegotten imperial adventures in Central Asia.

It is all simply "a cycle of imperial history," Norfolk suggests, one in which a "lack of historical perspective on the part of the West allows them to blunder back for the fourth time thinking that you can turn Afghans into western liberal democrats and feminists by bombing them." Norfolk doesn't mince words: "the prosecution of the war makes me furious," he explains in a long conversation hosted on his website.

[Images: Photos by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

Noah Shachtman's reputation as a journalist and editor has been firmly solidified over nearly a decade. Beginning with DefenseTech, a site Shachtman founded in 2003, and continuing with the current reign of Wired's Danger Room, Shachtman has been prolific, engaged, and highly active in helping to set the agenda for national defense coverage in the post-9/11 world.

[Images: Photos by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

We'll be asking Shachtman about everything from the limits of the battlefield—where war chaotically begins and unclearly ends—to new technologies of surveillance, and from the strategic requirements of a journalist covering today's sites of conflict to the possible urban futures Shachtman might detect in current military headlines.

[Images: Photos by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

I'm genuinely looking forward to this, and hope to see many of you there. The format will be as follows. From 6:30pm to shortly after 7pm, we will be engaging with Simon Norfolk in a live interview about his work; then, till roughly 7:40pm, we will be interviewing Noah Shachtman. These will be stand-alone interviews, conducted back-to-back.

The final stretch of the night, from 7:45 to 8:30pm or so, will be an open conversation with both Norfolk and Shachtman, featuring questions from anyone who might have them. This will allow us to discuss similarities and differences between their work, and to tease out other themes that might have been passed over in the individual interviews.

[Image: Photo by John Burke, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan by Simon Norfolk].

Unfortunately, I have to ask that you RSVP to studioxnyc [at] gmail [dot] com if you plan to attend. Otherwise, the event is free and open to the public.

You will find us at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610, in Manhattan. Here is a map.

[Images: Photos by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

Meanwhile, please feel free to go back through BLDGBLOG's interview with Simon Norfolk in full—it's one of my personal favorites on the site, and is a great read—and to click through Noah Shachtman's own website, including the overall resources of Danger Room.

[Image: Photo by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].

As Norfolk says in the BLDGBLOG interview, and which perhaps serves as a useful conceptual umbrella for the entire forthcoming evening:
All of the work that I’ve been doing over the last five years is about warfare and the way war makes the world we live in. War shapes and designs our society. The landscapes that I look at are created by warfare and conflict. This is particularly true in Europe. I went to the city of Cologne, for instance, and the city of Cologne was built by Charlemagne—but Cologne has the shape that it does today because of the abilities and non-abilities of a Lancaster Bomber. It comes from what a Lancaster can do and what a Lancaster can't do. What it cannot do is fly deep into Germany in the middle of the day and pinpoint-bomb a ball bearing factory. What it can do is fly to places that are quite near to England, that are five miles across, on a bend in the river, under moonlight, and then hit them with large amounts of H.E.. And if you do that, you end up with a city that looks like Cologne—the way the city's shaped.

So I started off in Afghanistan photographing literal battlefields—but I'm trying to stretch that idea of what a battlefield is. Because all the interesting money now—the new money, the exciting stuff—is about entirely new realms of warfare: inside cyberspace, inside parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Eavesdropping, intelligence, satellite warfare, imaging—this is where all the exciting stuff is going to happen in twenty years' time. So I wanted to stretch that idea of what a battleground could be. What is a landscape—a surface, an environment, a space—created by warfare?
I hope to see you at 6:30pm on Tuesday, September 13th.

[Image: Photo by Simon Norfolk, from Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan].