Charles Jencks will join Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland, and Sam Jacob of FAT on Monday, October 31st, at the Architectural Association, celebrating Halloween with a discussion of "radical postmodernism" and launching their new, co-edited issue of AD.
That issue "marks the resurgence of a critical architecture that engages in a far-reaching way with issues of taste, space, character and ornament. Bridging high and low cultures," the editors explain, radical postmodernism "immerses itself in the age of information, embracing meaning and communication, embroiling itself in the dirty politics of taste by drawing ideas from beyond the narrow confines of architecture. It is a multi-dimensional, amorphous category, which is heavily influenced by contemporary art, cultural theory, modern literature and everyday life."
The event is free and open to the public, and kicks off at 6pm.
Toxic chemicals leaking from an old wastewater treatment plant in Alabama have unexpectedly led to the discovery of a 1,700-year old "pre-historic village" buried in the ground nearby. Chemicals "have seeped into the ground surrounding the old plant," according to a local news station, so "the soil needs to be removed and taken to a toxic waste facility."
However, a survey of the contaminated site soon revealed that the ground also contained extremely well-preserved artifacts "from a village that once thrived" there. "Lo and behold," the head excavator remarked to the news show: "we found a massive late-middle Woodland period village."
It's not hard to imagine someone another 1,700 years from now accidentally discovering the forgotten city of, say, New York—or Chicago, or Bangkok, swallowed by mud—after a chemical leak at a nearby factory: radioactive liquids drain down through the topsoil, flowing around buried walls and ruins, forming iridescent pools on floors in basements—slow and toxic streams tracing the shapes of old stairways, lighting a path for future excavation and descent. Like giving the earth a radiopharmaceutical, you fire up a ground-scanning machine, trace the pollution underground, and, lo and behold, the dark outlines of buried cities start to glow.
[Images: Dye-tracing cave systems; note that the chemical used is supposedly non-toxic].
In fact, I'm reminded of dye-tracing techniques used for mapping otherwise impenetrable or overly complex cave systems. In James Tabor's wildly uneven 2010 book Blind Descent, for instance, we read about legendary caver Alexander Klimchouk, who set about dye-tracing caves on the Arabika Massif, including Krubera Cave, currently the deepest known cave in the world.
"In 1984 and 1985," Tabor explains, "[Klimchouk] poured fluorescein dye into several caves, including Krubera, high on the Arabika. Traces of that dye later flowed out of springs on the shore of the Black Sea far below. More traces tinged the water 400 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea, miles offshore," indicating genuinely—in fact, record-breakingly—huge dimensions for the overall system of caves.
[Images: Dye-tracing caves].
But even the most remote, fictional possibility that future spelunking archaeologists might someday map lost cities—London, Moscow, Beijing, Rome—by using dye-tracing packs to illuminate that underground world of collapsed halls and buried rooms is extraordinary. Cartographers in mountaineering gear and helmet-mounted floodlights descend into the New York subway system in 5,161 A.D., following luminescent trails of fluorescein dye, crawling, walking, rappelling into the underworld on the trail of shining rivers as subterranean ruins begin to shine.
[Image: "Meelas Yadee" (2005-2006) by Lamya Gargash].
Nettle's newest album, El Resplandor: The Shining in Dubai, released last month by Sub Rosa, comes with an awesome premise: it is a speculative soundtrack for an unmade remake of Stanley Kubrick's film, The Shining, set in a mothballed luxury hotel in Dubai. It is sonic architecture fiction.
Less a horror film, however, than its predecessor, Nettle's version seems instead to offer a melancholy audio glimpse of a world in decline: the album's family lost in circumstances far too large—and too alienating, too foreign—to comprehend fully, unraveling alone in the hotel's empty rooms and hallways.
[Image: "Fatima's Kitchen Cupboard" (2005-2006) by Lamya Gargash].
El Resplandor's liner notes feature these photographs by Lamya Gargash, depicting extravagantly furnished rooms in afternoon darkness, empty kitchens, halls, and ruined stairways in the UAE.
As the artist herself explains, many of the houses seen here "are recently vacant, whereas others have been deserted for a long time. There were some houses that still had people living in them when I started my project; the families residing there were preparing to move to newer homes." Many more images from the series can be found here.
[Images: (top) "Blue Purple Chair" (2005-2006) and (bottom) "The Staircase" (2005-2006) by Lamya Gargash].
Jace Clayton and Lindsay Cuff of Nettle will be at Thrilling Wonder Stories 3 on Friday afternoon, October 28th, to talk about the album, the entirety of which will be streamed throughout the day.
[Image: "Mona Lisa" (2005-2006) by Lamya Gargash].
Stop by if you're in the area, not only to learn more about the concept behind the album—after all, there's something highly compelling about the idea of a speculative soundtrack for an unmade remake (perhaps this could be the first soundtrack optioned by Hollywood for a film it later serves to score)—but also about the technical set-up used by the band during studio production and live sets. Nettle's more sonically aggressive earlier work, Build a Fort, Set that On Fire, is also worth a listen in the meantime.
On one hand, these events take the form of an extended look into the role of architectural spaces—including real buildings, but also film sets, computer game environments, and spatial simulations—in propelling, staging, catalyzing, or otherwise framing narrative storylines. This requires speaking not only to architects, but to novelists, game developers, screenwriters, film set designers, and even Hollywood directors to discuss their own particular requirements for, and relationships to, the built environment—but also to ask, more specifically, how the spaces they design, describe, feature, or build affect the development of narrative.
This is the cultural dimension of the event—the "wonder stories."
On the other hand, Thrilling Wonder Stories has also looked both to science and science fiction as resources of ideas that might play spatial roles in future design projects—where I use the word spatial, not architectural, very deliberately, so as not to limit this to a discussion of buildings. This means bringing in robot makers and biologists, geologists and geneticists, not to ask them about architecture but simply to learn about their work. The point, in other words, is not to extract architectural ideas from their research—as if fully formed building programs could somehow be pulled from a presentation about synthetic organisms—but simply to add to the overall mix of scientific (and science fictional) ideas available for reference in future design conversations.
This is the "thrilling wonder" side of the series.
This year, we're trying out an ambitious new format. Not only are we teaming up with Popular Science magazine as our media partner and co-organizer—so watch for content on popsci.com in the lead up to and during the event—but we are leading two simultaneous events: one at the Architectural Association in London, the other across the pond at Studio-X NYC.
Bioengineer of in-vitro edible muscle protein and CEO of Zymotech Enterprises
Science writer and open-source biologist, focusing on bacterial genomics
The events in New York will be moderated by myself, Studio-X NYC co-director Nicola Twilley, and PopSci senior associate editor Ryan Bradley. In both locations, events are free and open to the public; however, if you plan on attending the Studio-X NYC event, please register as limited space will be available. Here's a map.
[Image: The "plastic" extruded by New England's Colletes inaequalis bees; photo by Debbie Chachra].
Finally, if you can't make it in person, consider following Thrilling Wonder Stories on Twitter—and keep your eye out at the end of summer 2012, for the Thrilling Wonder Stories book, published by the Architectural Association.
The GroundBot system by Swedish firm Rotundus is a remote-controlled, all-weather polycarbonate sphere that "can trundle through snow, mud and sand as it supplies a live feed via a pair of cameras," Wired UK explains. "Its operator sees the image in 3D on a screen."
It apparently comes with knobby treads or without.
The sphere is currently "undergoing trials" with the Swedish Defense Forces for use "in airports and other locations in need of surveillance," but the system also has potential applications in urban mapping, remote terrain exploration, and even post-disaster search and rescue. While the GroundBot can only reach speeds a bit more than 6mph—which means it won't be breaking any speed records, and it certainly won't be hard to outrun—the idea that failed criminals of the future might be seen sprinting away from swarms of autonomous black spheres the size of car tires is quite extraordinary.
[Images: The GroundBot system by Rotundus on patrol].
The camera "captures an image at the highest point of flight—when it is hardly moving." It "takes full spherical panoramas, requires no preparation and images are taken instantaneously. It can capture scenes with many moving objects without producing ghosting artifacts and creates unique images." You can see it at work in this video:
Pfeil explains in detail:
Our camera uses 36 fixed-focus 2 megapixel mobile phone camera modules. The camera modules are mounted in a robust, 3D-printed, ball-shaped enclosure that is padded with foam and handles just like a ball. Our camera contains an accelerometer which we use to measure launch acceleration. Integration lets us predict rise time to the highest point, where we trigger the exposure. After catching the ball camera, pictures are downloaded in seconds using USB and automatically shown in our spherical panoramic viewer. This lets users interactively explore a full representation of the captured environment.
It's easy enough to imagine such a thing being mass-produced and taken up by the Lomo crowd; but it seems equally likely that such a technology could be put to use aiding military operations in urbanized terrain, with otherwise disoriented squad leaders tossing "robust" optical grenades up above dividing walls and blocked streets to see what lies beyond.
Either way, a throwable camera strong enough to withstand bad weather and strong bounces—and able to store hundreds of images—sounds like an amazing way to start documenting the urban landscape. In fact, the very idea that a "photograph" would thus correspond to a spherical sampling of all the objects and events in a given area adds an intriguing spatial dimension to the act of creating images. It's a kind of reverse-firework: rather than release light into the sky, it steals traces of the light it finds there.
In just a few hours here at Studio-X NYC—an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank run by Columbia's GSAPP—we'll be hosting a live interview with Ilona Gaynor. Gaynor is a London-based concept artist, filmmaker, and multimedia designer, as well as the most recent recipient of the Ridley Scott Associates award, where she currently serves as artist-in-residence.
As Gaynor explains it, her work "largely consists of artificially constructed spaces, systems and atmospheres navigated through fictional scenarios," her intention being "to intensify, fantasize and aestheticize the darker, invisible reaches of political, economical and technological progress. Grounded in rigorous research, consultation and collaboration," she continues, "my aim is to reveal these worlds by exploring the imaginary limits within them both as critique and speculative pleasure."
Her most recent short film, Everything Ends In Chaos, embedded at the start of this post, presents "a mixed-media collection of objects, narrative texts and films that reveal the intricate trajectories of an artificially designed and reverse engineered Black Swan event." A Black Swan, in Gaynor's telling of it, based on the economic work of NassimNicholas Taleb, is the idea that humans "are collectively and individually blind to uncertainty, and therefore often unaware of the impact that singular events can have on [their] lives: economically, historically and scientifically, until after their occurrence." Her film is thus an attempt to "reverse-engineer" such an event, piecing together chaos from order; the film's backstory, which is unfortunately quite hard to detect from the imagery alone, involves an elaborate kidnapping plot, stolen jewels force-fed to doves (which then escape from their cage and fly away), and an actuarial committee in charge of insuring against this event.
In another work, nature—that is, non-human lifeforms, especially plants—has become so expensive and, thus, so out of reach for everyday workers—in Gaynor's future, for example, a single Ficus tree costs £450,000—that indulging in any interaction with the natural world becomes an experience of "unapologetic decadence." That film, 120 Seconds of Future, is embedded below:
Gaynor kicks things off at 7pm tonight—Wednesday, 12 October—to be followed by an open Q&A. We'll be at Studio-X NYC, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610. Here's a map.
Unfortunately, I have to ask that you RSVP, if possible, to studioxnyc at gmail dot com—but I hope to see some of you there!
[Image: The Blue Angels create their own cloud systems over the San Francisco Bay; view larger].
My week in San Francisco, now at an end, coincided with Fleet Week—and, thus, the arrival of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy's "Flight Demonstration Squad." While the often overwhelming noise of the Blue Angels—rattling whole buildings at a time and setting off car alarms—is extremely polarizing, both acoustically and politically, I continued to have incredibly interesting, albeit very brief, conversations about them, extending beyond mere love or hate.
After a friend of mine drove into town for a meeting, he described to me how the individual planes—high-speed military jets flying often disconcertingly low over the city in geometrically complex configurations—would disappear behind one of San Francisco's many hills... only to pop out behind a different hill altogether, visibly out of synch with the Doppler'd roar of its passage (which seemed to echo hilltop to hilltop across the Bay).
But then another identical jet—or was it the same?—would appear behind a different hill, or it would come circling up from another direction entirely, and it began to feel, my friend explained, as if he had inadvertently driven into the middle of a kind of quantum event, with the same—or was it?—airplane appearing and disappearing, over and over again, reappearing and swooping back from different angles, all the while mis-timed with its own acoustic side-effects.
It was, we might say, not performance art but performance physics: an immersive, urban-scale demonstration of quantum dislocation, one object—or multiple?—and multiple objects—or just one?—constantly out of self-synch in a single setting. It was not the military-industry complex but airborne physics: the skies of San Francisco temporarily modeling an inter-dimensional event.
During the two-day "blogging workshop" that I led this past weekend at the San Francisco Art Institute, one of the participants—artist Alex Shepard—noted that the passage of the Blue Angels had been setting off car alarms all over the city. But, he added, the locations of the car alarms always—of course—coincided with the physical passage of the airplanes, following around right behind them; so, he suggested, you could actually reconstruct the aerial trajectories of the planes through entirely indirect means, using nothing but AAA data and SFPD noise complaints.
These street-level data, collated with enough ambition and accuracy, could thus be seen as a kind of fossil record for the Blue Angels' weekend performance: a distributed motion-capture device parked throughout the peninsular city. The planes, in other words, left more traces than just artificial clouds: they mapped their own passage through car alarms.
In twenty years' time, then, forensic historians could reconstruct the skies of Fleet Week 2011 using nothing but data from parked cars.
Because we met up for a blogging workshop, the students at the SFAI and I began to talk about other media for literary self-expression—beyond paper and digital screens—and we briefly got onto the subject of skywriting. A Geico ad had been spotted earlier in the day, one of them pointed out, drifting from the back of a skywriting plane, as if in competition with the more abstract cloud shapes produced by the Blue Angels (who, seemingly seduced by San Francisco, took to drawing hearts in the sky).
That led us to the subject of J.G. Ballard's short story, "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D," in which a small Pacific island—if I remember the story correctly—serves as the setting of a peculiar cultural contest: the advanced cultivation of artificial clouds, using kites and small by-planes.
From there, we got onto the premise of Roberto Bolaño's novella Distant Star. There, Bolaño tells the story of Carlos Wieder, a poet who—to quote the Daily Telegraph, as I am ironically on board an airplane right now, flying over central Wyoming, and thus do not have access to my copy of the book—"wears the uniform of the Chilean air force and pilots an old Messerschmitt—with which he writes stirring poetic phrases in the sky. The generals and their wives think these aerial stunts are wonderfully entertaining, but Wieder's professed ambition is to inaugurate a new, populist poetry of "barbarism", which abandons old literatures and flies into the glorious future."
The idea of blogging in the sky through the medium of artificial weather—chemically produced, aerodynamic clouds draping the city in a haze of literary climatology—thus presented at least one more alternative way of looking at the highly polarizing urban presence of the Blue Angels.
On the way over to the west coast last week, I read Universal Foam: Exploring the Science of Nature's Most Mysterious Substance by Sidney Perkowitz. Amongst references to "applied foam science," "computational foam" studies, and even a "power-producing sonoluminescent foam" that might someday be used to generate electricity for the national grid, there were two ideas for future infrastructure that seem worth repeating here.
While discussing the buffering quality foam can offer as protection against explosions, Perkowitz points out the logical next step in the neutralization of land mines: he writes, roughly 11 years ago, that "a quick-hardening rigid polyurethane foam is being tested at Sandia"—already manufacturers of a successful "decontamination foam"—"for use in nullifying mines on land or in water by buffering soldiers and equipment against their explosive force, or to lay down a safe ribbon for vehicles to travel."
This "safe ribbon" is, of course, a road—a road made entirely of foam, laid down over active land mines so as to protect vehicles against detonation from below. A whole new class of transportation infrastructure arises: unexplodable foam roads fanning out across military landscapes; instant roads-in-a-can, like shaving cream, that you spray over dangerous terrain; even foam bridges spanning rivers and caves.
Whether or not we'll see roads-in-a-can coming soon to a Home Depot or city works department near you, however, I'd be shocked not to see foam-road weapons in a computer game shortly—foamed infrastructure brought to you in a flash as new roads and bridges bubble out and harden over otherwise inaccessible terrain. Post-geologic weaponized foam activities.
Later in the book, Perkowitz refers to "the possibility that foam could extinguish the twenty-year old Percy Coal Mine fire in Pennsylvania," as well as to "the use of an acidic foam to destroy asbestos installed in buildings by simply spraying it on." In both cases, you would fill a closed space with foam, which would thus go to work extinguishing underground fires or chemically dissolving asbestos.
However, this segues directly into a brief exploration of the geotechnical implications of quick-hardening foam. Chemist Paul Kittle, Perkowitz explains, "worked out a way to cover garbage landfills with foam" back in the 1980s. Quoting at length:
A significant portion of a landfill is occupied by plain dirt, which according to EPA guidelines must be piled six inches deep every night to cover that day's trash. Kittle came up with an environmentally benign shaving cream-like foam that would adhere even to steep slopes and would not blow away. The foam stopped rats and bugs, and prevented odors from rising. But unlike dirt, it dissipated after thirty-six hours, no longer taking up room when it was no longer needed under newer trash. For this reason, says Kittle, using his foam could save up to 15 percent of landfill space.
Geotechnical foams are now used in places like the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles, using equipment manufactured by Rusmar Foam; Rusmar offers foams of various durations, from 12 hours to 180 days, and with scents such as Vanilla and Wintergreen. Best of all, their product is called "Soil Equivalent Foam"—it is an earth-surrogate, a replicant geology.
But this leaves Perkowitz with what he calls "an image to relish": Perkowitz closes that section of his book imagining "the huge track vehicle Kittle designed, patiently spreading liquid foam to cover acres of garbage made partly of indestructible foamed plastic peanuts, coffee cups, and McDonald's clamshells." Inside a plastic earth, in other words, we simply find more plastics, in an artificial geology sealed with geotechnical foam. Literally what on earth might future geologists think?
A very large boulder is on its way to Los Angeles, we read in the New York Times this morning: a 340-ton rock on a journey moving "through the heart of one of the most congested urban centers in the country: nine nights at six miles an hour, through 120 miles of roads, highways, bridges, overpasses, overhead wires, alarmingly low-hanging traffic lights and sharp turns."
The rock is going there for an installation by artist Michael Heizer, called "Levitated Mass," and it was "dynamited out of a hillside" 60 miles from Los Angeles.
[Image: The rock in question; photo by Monica Almeida, courtesy of the The New York Times].
"The effort, nearly five years in the planning (though Mr. Heizer has been making sketches of it as far back as the late 1960s), feels nothing short of a military movement: an incursion through a bewildering thicket of state, city and county regulations and a region with a notoriously difficult street grid," Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times.
In fact, the rock's specific route never relied on one path through that "bewildering thicket," but has been constantly updated and changed; as Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Heizer's rock will be displayed, points out, "the State of California is always reviewing the state of its bridges and roads. So a route plan that would have worked a couple of days ago doesn’t work today."
This has the effect of doubling the distance covered: "Door to door," Nagourney writes, "the distance is 60 miles, though the actual drive is going to be closer to 120 miles, as engineers plot a route that can accommodate the huge size of what is known as the Prime Mover, and one that steers clear of low bridges and wires. Any route must have stopover spots to park the rock as it waits for night."
The museum's $10 million boulder-displacement project has, of course, faced some public criticism—but Govan has a response for that: "we are putting more people to work here in L.A. than Obama," he quips. This includes "teams of workers... deployed to lift telephone and power lines, swing traffic lights to the side and lay down steel plates on suspect patches of roads or bridges."
I remember once reading once about the construction of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which required an elaborate ballet of shutting down whole streets and intersections in the middle of the night, when traffic would already be low, to truck massive girders and beams in past the mansard roofs and streetside cafes of a sleeping city. The building was first a distributed network of large, chaperoned objects, taking shape load by load, before it briefly served as a gleaming sign of the architectural future.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, thieves have dismantled and stolen an entire steel bridge near Pittsburgh. "Pennsylvania State Police are looking for a steel bridge worth an estimated $100,000 that was dismantled and taken from a rural area in Lawrence County," we read. "Police said they believe a torch was used to cut apart the bridge, which measured 50 feet by 20 feet, near Covert's Crossing in North Beaver Township."
If you see the bridge—or its parts—moving slowly down a remote Appalachian road somewhere, I'm sure the police would appreciate a heads up.
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my editors, employers, publishers, friends, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated.