Horizon Repair

[Image: Window by Susanna Battin, courtesy of the artist].

If you're out driving in Los Angeles this coming Friday, December 2, consider using the second lane from the left, heading south on I-15 immediately after the 91 Freeway interchange and before the East Ontario exit: artist Susanna Battin's new work, Window, will be on display on a digital billboard overlooking the highway, and will be best viewed from that lane. There, "Los Angeles freeway commuters [will] briefly witness the billboard transform into a window," Battin explains, in "an attempt to repair the visually severed mountain range" beyond. Battin's elevated digital image also accounts for "thirteen of San Bernardino’s varying smog conditions," so the overlap will hopefully work by blending in with the local weather.

Here's a map of where to be.

Meanwhile, I'm curious if you could achieve something vaguely similar, but without the digital billboard—something like the optical effects of Felice Varini, but applied at a particular curve in the freeway, using different overlapping space frames partially installed on different rooftops, or various painted outlines distributed across other billboards and facades. They would all lock together for a brief and fleeting instant, from one very specific angle, perhaps even too fast to notice, and thus "repair" the surrounding landscape. I suppose, in some mythical world where insurance liability is not an issue, Felice Varini, Susanna Battin, and Caltrans could team up to make the California highway system itself into a massive and perceptually instantaneous optical installation, visible in full effect only at certain exact velocities and angles.

In any case, if you see the installation, and don't risk crashing your car, consider taking a picture and sending it in; I'd love to see if this works.

The Limits of Preservation

[Images: From Minescape by Brett Van Ort].

The Minescape project by Los Angeles-based photographer Brett Van Ort looks at the ironic effects of landmines on the preservation of natural landscapes, placing woods, meadows, and even remote country roads off-limits, fatally tainted terrains given back to animals and vegetation.

[Images: From Minescape by Brett Van Ort].

"Left over munitions and landmines from the wars in the early 1990s still litter the countryside in Bosnia," Van Ort explains.
According to BHMAC (the Mine Action Committee for Bosnia and Herzegovina), just over 3.5% of the land area of the country is still contaminated by landmines. Many of the deminers in the field believe roughly 10% of the country can still be deemed a landmine area. They also feel that nowhere in the countryside is safe, as they may clear one area but a torrential downpour may unearth landmines upstream or upriver; consequently, these unearthed landmines find their way into vicinities that were deemed safe weeks, months or even years ago.
While visiting the landscapes himself, Van Ort adds, "some people told me not to walk into nature at all."

[Images: From Minescape by Brett Van Ort].

The photographs seen here juxtapose shots of natural landscapes considered safe—that is, free of landmines—with portraits of the mines once buried there.

"The viewers of these photographs," Van Ort suggests, "should ask themselves: which of these landscapes would they feel comfortable walking into?"

[Images: From Minescape by Brett Van Ort].

The project closes with a particularly dark observation: "I see the idea of hand-placed landmines protecting the natural setting and allowing the environment to regenerate itself as an ironic twist on our inability to conserve and see into the future."

[Images: From Minescape by Brett Van Ort].

More photos from the series—including a taxonomy of artificial limbs necessitated by encounters with the landmines—are available on Van Ort's website.

(Thanks to Jon Rennie for the tip! See also the DMZ Peace Park Project).

Brick Swarm

[Image: From "Flight Assembled Architecture" by Gramazio & Kohler].

Semi-autonomous flying robots programmed by Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler "will lift, transport and assemble 1500 polystyrene foam bricks" next month—starting 2 December 2011—at the FRAC Center in France. The result, they hope, will be a "3.5 meter wide structure."

[Image: From "Flight Assembled Architecture" by Gramazio & Kohler].

According to the architects, this will serve as an experimental test-run for the construction of a hypothetical future megastructure—presumably requiring full-scale, autonomous, GPS-stabilized helicopters. However, I'd think that even a small insectile swarm of robot bricklayers piecing together a new low-rise condominium somewhere—its walls slowly materializing out of a cloud of rotors and drones—would be just as compelling.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Flying Robotic Construction Cloud and Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture).

Detection Landscapes

[Images: Botanical photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt].

I've been going through a lot of old files and papers recently, and I thus found a short piece I clipped from New Scientist five years ago. I absolutely love stories like this, and I swoon a little bit when I read them; it turns out that "plants growing over old sites of human habitation have a different chemistry from their neighbors, and these differences can reveal the location of buried ruins."

The brief article goes on to tell the story of two archaeologists, who, in collecting plants in Greenland, made the chemical discovery: "Some of their samples were unusually rich in nitrogen-15, and subsequent digs revealed that these plants had been growing above long-abandoned Norse farmsteads."

The idea that your garden could be more like an indicator landscape for lost archaeological sites—that, below the flowers, informing their very chemistry, perhaps even subtly altering their shapes and colors, are the traces of abandoned architecture—is absolutely unbelievable.

[Images: More extraordinary photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt].

So why not develop a new type of flower in some gene lab somewhere, a designed species that reacts spectacularly to the elevated presence of nitrogen-15 from ruined settlements? Ruin Flowers® by Monsanto acting as deserted medieval village detection-landscapes, as thale cress does for mines.

You plant these flowers or trees or vineyards—future archaeological wine—and you wait three seasons for the traces to develop. Now imagine a modified tree that can only grow directly above ruined houses. Imagine an entire forest of these trees, curling and knurled to form floorplans, shaping out streets and alleyways, rooms instead of orchards and halls instead of groves. Now imagine the city beneath that forest becoming visible as the woods slowly spread, articulating whole lost neighborhoods over time.

[Image: Summer in a city by Jacek Yerka].

Genetically-modified plantlife used as non-invasive archaeological research tools would, at the very least, add a strange practicality to summer gardening activities, in the process turning whole surface landscapes into an unexpected new kind of data visualization program.

It's the earth's surface as browser for what waits undetected below.

(Blossfeldt images found via but does it float).

Aerial Sheriff

[Image: A U.S. Predator drone, photographed by Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force via Wikipedia].

The Send Equipment for National Defense Act, sponsored by Texas Representative Ted Poe, would "require that 10 percent of certain equipment returned from Iraq—like Humvees, night-vision equipment and unmanned aerial surveillance craft—be made available to state and local agencies for border-security operations."

Poe denies that this would militarize the border, as reported by the New York Times; but John Cook, mayor of the border city of El Paso, strongly disagrees, suggesting that only "a whole lot of ignorance" could inspire the plan. Cook points out that "moving war zone equipment to the border would send the wrong signal to Mexico and potentially damage the robust symbiotic economic relationship between the two countries."

This comes at the same time that Miller-McCune warns that "armed police drones"—or weaponized UAVs—might soon be flying through a sky near you. While Miller-McCune focuses specifically on the sheriff of Montgomery County, Texas, it's worth pointing out that so-called Leptron Avengers—"battery-operated helicopters designed to take high-resolution video and photos and that can be equipped with night-vision cameras or thermal-imaging equipment"—have also been requested by the Texas city of Arlington, perhaps making Texas—alongside such places as Syria, North Korea, and China—the go-to site today for witnessing civilian adaptations of military surveillance technology.

[Image: The ShadowHawk unmanned police helicopter by Vanguard Defense Industries, via Miller-McCune].

The current version of this equipment, called the ShadowHawk, "won’t carry weapons," we're told, but "the drone’s manufacturer, Vanguard Defense Industries, boasts that it’s strong enough to carry a shotgun or even a grenade launcher." The firm itself adds that the "ShadowHawk can maintain aerial surveillance of an area (i.e. house, vehicle, person, etc.) at 700 feet without being heard or seen unlike full sized aircraft. Imagine the advantage provided to an entry team in the following scenarios: high risk warrant, hostage rescue, domestic violence, etc."

Mechanized urban surveillance is hardly news. Indeed, the currently existing network of CCTV cameras already installed in cities all over the world is equally "unmanned," in an exactly comparable sense; they are fixed-point drones. One could thus make an argument that the ShadowHawk is simply a camera with wings: you have a camera outside CVS or Tesco, ergo you have a camera in the sky above the city. It's easy to see how "mission creep," as Miller-McCune calls it, could occur.

Or compare this, for instance, to plans aflight in the UK, where police "are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the 'routine' monitoring of antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance." This will take the form of unmanned airships hovering over the English capital, as if simulating the barrage balloons of World War II.

[Image: Barrage balloons above London, courtesy of Wikipedia].

The drones "are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground," and they will be launched "in time for the 2012 Olympics." (An Afghanistan-based version of this program is described as follows: "This fall, there’ll be a new supercomputer in Afghanistan. It’ll be floating 20,000 feet above the warzone, aboard a giant spy blimp that watches and listens to everything for miles around.")

[Images: From an October 2009 presentation by Major General Blair Hansen to the U.S. Strategic Command and Defense Intelligence Agency].

Briefly, I'm reminded of the opening scene from Christopher Dickey's book Securing the City, in which a helicopter that falls somewhere between aerial war machine and advanced Hollywood film equipment is breathlessly unveiled: "The winter air is cold and the light hard-edged as the unmarked New York City Police Department helicopter meanders through the winds above the five boroughs," we read.
It is a state-of-the-art crime-fighting, terror-busting, order-keeping techno toy, with its enormous lens that can magnify any scene on the streets almost one thousand times, then double that digitally; that can watch a crime in progress from miles away, can look in windows, can sense the body heat of people on rooftops or running along sidewalks, can track beepers slipped under cars, can do so very many things that the man in the helmet watching the screens and moving the images with the joystick in his lap, NYPD Detective David Zschau, is often a little bit at a loss for words. "It really is an amazing tool," he keeps saying.
This technology—whose unlimited vision seems so mind-boggling as to cause aphasia in those who encounter it—should inspire as much moral and political discomfort as an unmanned version of the same helicopter; in other words, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this very kind of spy equipment already exists and has already been deployed. That is, the unnerving implication that we are being watched from above by undetectable robots should not let us forget that being watched from above by human pilots is just as invasive.

In any case, the ShadowHawk, described above, can also be put to use in fire and rescue situations, able to track down "heat sources and cut through the smoke and haze with it’s Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) or SWIR"—short wave infrared—cameras. Indeed, the company points out that "the vast capabilities of the ShadowHawk are ideal for mitigating and handling disasters whether natural or manmade. From locating victims, serving as an airborne communications relay point or conducting damage assessment, the ShadowHawk will significantly expand response capabilities." In light of this, it is foolish to reject, universally and in principle, the very idea of unmanned systems operating in non-military environments; but it's equally foolish to welcome them without a simultaneous demand for strong regulation and oversight.

To be honest, though, it seems only a matter of time before armed police drones are a reality in the United States, and it would thus be great to see a long discussion of the legality—or, at the very least, the societal implications—of such equipment, before we are faced with a scenario none of us adequately understand. For instance, is there a law course somewhere examining the rights and implications of autonomous urban police technologies? Combine this with a look at repurposed military hardware used in patrolling national borders, and the syllabus from such a course would be well worth exploring in detail.

(In addition to the London example, cited above, another rebuke to the moral self-congratulation of the Miller-McCune piece comes from Northern Ireland, where the use of unmanned aerial systems in urban policing might soon take the form of "mini drones" used "to combat crime and the dissident republican threat"—in other words, autonomous police drones are by no means limited to cities in the United States).

Debt Cemetery

Spanish cities are "buckling under bills for empty swimming pools, shuttered sports facilities and unpopular vacation complexes," according to Miller-McCune. Their economies are "saddled with thousands of publicly funded construction projects made in the starrier moments of a mid-2000s property boom. While in the United States, the real estate crash has hit private homeowners hardest, in Spain it was the city governments that gorged themselves, committing to massive projects on the assumption that taxes, like home prices, would always rise."

These public over-commitments include the long-empty and seemingly perpetually unfinished Castellon Airport, where "the only proof that [it] is an airport at all, or will be anytime soon, are dozens of bright blue road signs that claim so along the nearby highway." But is this "15-year effort to build an airport without planes," as the magazine describes it, "a case of epically bad public administration that helps us understand the crisis Europe is facing? Or was it a crime—a case of corruption—that puts Europe’s crisis in a far harsher light?"

Of course, these infrastructural examples should be seen alongside Peter Eisenman's City of Culture of Galicia, which was "born in the Spain of excess and is opening during an economic collapse, as a sort of monument to [the] construction bubble." Eisenman's highly over-budget project is "a cemetery for money," as one critic memorably describes it.


[Image: Men of Good Fortune, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, by Richard Mosse (2011)].

Photographer Richard Mosse, whom long-time readers might recognize from his two interviews here on BLDGBLOG, will be celebrating a new show tonight, Thursday, November 17th, at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City.

[Image: Lava Floe, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, by Richard Mosse (2011)].

Richard will be showing new work from his Infra series, taken on a series of trips to the Congo, visiting tribal reconciliation gatherings, deserted battlefields, UN-administered aid camps, active war zones, and remote mountain villages in the extraordinary rolling landscape.

[Images: (top to bottom) Flower of the Mountain, House Of Cards V, and Come Out (1966) II, all by Richard Mosse, North Kivu, Eastern Congo (2011)].

From the gallery description:
For centuries, the Congo has compelled and defied the Western imagination. Richard Mosse brings to this subject the use of a discontinued military surveillance technology, a type of color infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome. Originally developed for camouflage detection, this aerial reconnaissance film registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light, rendering the green landscape in vivid hues of lavender, crimson, and hot pink.
However, infrared film "also found civilian uses among cartographers, agronomists, hydrologists, and archaeologists," the gallery adds, "to reveal subtle changes in the landscape"—and it was in this capacity that Richard first picked up on the conceptual power of the technique.

He began visiting the Congo, using infrared film to document the line between the living and the dead in the war-torn landscape, as living vegetation when exposed on this film appears in blood-like shades of burgundy, pink, and violet, and artificial materials—from army uniforms to discarded weapons—fall flat, appearing nearly black & white like blurs and specters in the terrain.

[Images: (top) Nowhere To Run, South Kivu, Eastern Congo (2010); (bottom) Taking Tiger Mountain, North Kivu, Eastern Congo (2011), by Richard Mosse].

However, does the surreal transformation of the landscape here make the reality they depict seem that much more dreamlike and politically unreachable—as if we've stumbled upon some strange and very alien race of warriors living amidst military hardware and forests the color of chewing gum, like strandees in a spectacular videogame, where pure white clouds hover above an earth the color of merlot?

Or is that part of a deliberate strategy, a comment on the seemingly impossible task of representing African conflict? Put another way, what specific interpretive role does the filmstock itself play in this scenario?

[Image: Blue Mask, Lake Kivu, Eastern Congo (2010) by Richard Mosse].

In any case, stop by the Jack Shainman Gallery tonight to talk to the artist and see the work at full scale.

Pole Farm

[Image: Photo by Alissa Walker of Gelatobaby].

An overlooked urban land-use typology is the telephone pole farm, used for honing the climbing skills of telephone-repair personnel, as seen here in a photograph from Los Angeles by Alissa Walker. Along these lines, it might be interesting to explore a training facility for tree-trimming crews—a test-forest populated by genetically-modified trees grown for the complexity of their branches.

(Via Pruned and @nicolatwilley).

Project Ice Shield

[Image: "L.A. Ice" by Victor Hadjikyriacou, produced for Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, part of last year's Landscape Futures Super-Workshop].

The city of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, will attempt to keep itself cool over the summer by way of a kind of artificial glacier.

According to the Guardian, this "geoengineering trial" will try to "'store' freezing winter temperatures in a giant block of ice that will help to cool and water the city as it slowly melts during the summer." Project directors "hope the process will reduce energy demand from air conditioners and regulate drinking water and irrigation supplies." The cool air will presumably be pumped through the city via a continuous and monumental network of ducts.

So how will it work?
The project aims to artificially create "naleds"—ultra-thick slabs of ice that occur naturally in far northern climes when rivers or springs push through cracks in the surface to seep outwards during the day and then add an extra layer of ice during the night. Unlike regular ice formation on lakes—which only gets to a metre in thickness before it insulates the water below—naleds continue expanding for as long as there is enough water pressure to penetrate the surface. Many are more than seven metres thick, which means they melt much later than regular ice.
Fascinatingly, naleds have already been used as foundations for infrastructural projects elsewhere; in North Korea, for instance, the Guardian reports, the military has utilized naleds "to build river crossings for tanks during the winter and Russia has used them as drilling platforms."

The specific architectural technique of the ice bridge can be explored in this helpful PDF from the Alaska Division of Forestry. Quoting at great length, here are the skills you need to bridge remote rivers with artificially augmented ice packs, should such a scenario ever befall you or your loved ones. These are "guidelines for ice-bridge construction":
The ideal site has the following characteristics: deep, narrow, slow flow in a single straight channel with gradual approaches to the ice; no tributary streams, creeks or lakes immediately upstream; and it is located near an existing road network. The site should also be free of warm springs and sand bars and not subject to major snow drifting. Being downstream of riffles/rapids may be conducive to supercooling and frazil ice formation that might accelerate ic e formation and growth at the bridge site. (...) Once natural ice cover has progressed across the channel thick enough to bear the weight of personnel and light equipment, existing snow cover is removed to accelerate ice growth at the bottom of the ice sheet. Variation exists in whether snow is removed or just compacted. Snow removal is recommended on upstream and downstream sides of the road for a distance of 23-30 meters (75-100 feet) as well as on the road itself. Subsequent to ice growth in response to snow removal, surface flooding is recommended to build up ice thickness on the road surface. (...) Lateral barriers of snow, logs or boards are used to contain floodwater on the road surface. Water should be applied by layering, allowing full freezing of previous water applications before the next. Conflicting recommendations exist as to whether brush or logs should be incorporated into the ice. One study did document the increase in ice strength after incorporating geo-grid material during the ice buildup process. A regular regime of ice drilling and monitoring of ice thickness is recommended.
If you want something a little more hi-tech, on the other hand, the U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center has slowly been amassing insight into the construction of ice roads and ice bridges.

[Image: "A water truck passes over the ice road spreading a thin layer of water to thicken the ice so it can support heavy equipment transport"; photo courtesy of the U.S. Army].

"Building an ice bridge/road takes a lot of time, hard work and favorable weather conditions," the Army reports. "The water must be frozen down to the riverbed, which requires breaking the ice down to the bottom and allowing it to freeze from the bottom up. The Engineers had to pump thousands of gallons of water onto the bridge/road to get the ice thick enough to support heavy equipment, while at the same time smoothing it out so vehicles could drive across it easily." The engineers involved in this particular story "established an ice bridge/road that was 28 inches thick in the beginning of January. With work scheduled to continue through the end of February, the engineers will add another 2.5 inches of ice every day."

And, as it happens, these experimental ice bridges grown by military personnel in the Arctic, like something out of Norse mythology, are a regular occurrence every winter.

[Image: "Soldiers from the 6th Engineer Battalion, Fort Richardson, Alaska, clear water lines during construction of an ice bridge at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center at Fort Greely, Alaska, Jan. 12, 2011." Photo by Sgt. Trish McMurphy, U.S. Army Alaska Public Affairs Office].

This year, for instance, the story repeated itself:
The engineers built field-expedient water tanks, berms of snow and crushed ice, to keep the water in designated areas for freezing. They move about 70,000 gallons of water per day using a gas-powered water pump and water lines. Once the bridge is capable of holding the weight, they will use 5,000 gallon water trucks to help speed up the process by delivering water faster than the pump.
The frames and techniques used for building with frozen water, then, are very similar to those used when dealing with concrete; in either case, it is the architecture of hardened liquids.

All told, the resulting ice bridge "will [be] slightly longer than a mile. It will be 24 inches thick and 75 feet wide. The bridge will grow and expand naturally with the weather changes, requiring some personnel to stay longer to maintain it." There are custodians of artificial ice forms and instant cities built from snow at the top of the world.

In any case, the massive ice block used to cool Ulan Bator—I almost forgot what this post is about—will presumably undergo the initial stages of sculpting and augmentation quite soon, as the true cold of winter sets in; we'll have to wait till next summer to see if it's successful.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Artificial Glaciers 101).

Unnatural History

[Image: Liam Young flying self-illuminated drone quadcopters in Holland for a celebratory nighttime crowd].

Architect Liam Young of Tomorrow's Thoughts Today is apparently speaking in only a few hours at the CCA in San Francisco. Be sure to check it out, if you're anywhere nearby; Liam will be discussing everything from his specimens of unnatural history to future machine-species and the mythological potential of urban infrastructure. The show starts at 7pm, and is free and open to the public.

State of Air

[Image: Via China Digital Times].

China's leaders are "largely insulated" from the everyday air breathed in the country's notoriously polluted urban environments. "As it turns out," the New York Times reports, "the homes and offices of many top leaders are filtered by high-end devices, at least according to a Chinese company, the Broad Group, which has been promoting its air-purifying machines in advertisements that highlight their ubiquity in places where many officials work and live."

"Creating clean, healthy air for our national leaders is a blessing to the people," the Broad Group claims.

[Image: Via China Digital Times].

While it's neither shocking nor even particularly interesting to note that those who can afford it will install air purifiers in their homes and offices, the implication that the Chinese government—who are probably "purposely obscuring the extent of the nation’s air pollution," the Times suggests, and who already eat from their own separate, organic food supply—is in the process of atmospherically seceding from the rest of the nation is extraordinary.

I'm reminded of NBA star Gilbert Arenas, who, as reported here a billion years ago, once "hired a company to reduce the oxygen content in his house" so that he could "train under high-altitude conditions similar to those in Colorado." The creation of a special atmosphere breathed only by Chinese officials could just as easily be achieved by way of architecture, framing all politburo meetings, all official residences, and all fortified state vehicles with plane-like airlocks and breathing masks.

In what could be thought of as the architecturalization of Piney from Sons of Anarchy, a government-run space would always be known for its ornamental breathing apparatus—a prosthetic atmosphere—as if scuba-diving through the murk of everyday life around them.

[Image: An artificial meteorology hovers over China; via China Digital Times].

In a specifically spatial sense—that is, not political or ideological—it would seem that architects like Philippe Rahm are the future of Chinese architecture: designing for the control and manipulation of internal atmospheres, and evaluating the success or failure of a given space through such criteria as air pressure, humidity, and the thermal movement of air.

Or, to bring politics back into the argument, as historian David Gissen wrote several years ago in the Journal of Architectural Education, "Powerful spatial relationships emerge with the heating, cooling, and ventilation of space that connect urban spaces and other social aggregates in a complex social, political, and economic network. Understanding the complexity of these relationships requires reinterpreting the literature on environmental technological systems with literature drawn from urban geography and urban environmental studies."

Here, though, we clearly see the value of also adding literature on the politics of this atmospheric phenomenon—the spatial politics of governmentally regulated and maintained spaces of filtered air—as if, again, we might someday recognize a space of Chinese state sovereignty not through such things as armed security teams or surveillance cameras, but through the quality of the air being breathed there. In fact, the spatial relationship between governmentality and the atmosphere only becomes more extraordinary when we put this in the context of Chinese attempts at weather control during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Perhaps the future of state sovereignty, then, is no longer about the terrestrial control of territory—i.e. land—but about, in a very literal sense, who controls the air. The notion of air power takes on a whole new meaning here.

In any case, I was also intrigued to learn this morning that you can follow Beijing's air on Twitter.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)