I finally had a chance to read John McPhee's book La Place de la Concorde Suisse
, his somewhat off-puttingly titled 1984 look at the Swiss military and its elaborately engineered landscape defenses.
[Image: Swiss mountain pass, via Google Image Search].
To make a long story short, McPhee describes two things: how Switzerland requires military service from every able-bodied male Swiss citizen—a model later emulated and expanded by Israel—and how the Swiss military has, in effect, wired the entire country to blow in the event of foreign invasion. To keep enemy armies out, bridges will be dynamited and, whenever possible, deliberately collapsed onto other roads and bridges below; hills have been weaponized to be activated as valley-sweeping artificial landslides; mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters; and much more.
First, a quick look at the system of self-demolition that is literally built into the Swiss national infrastructure:
To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage.
Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide.
The impending self-demolition of the country is "routinely practiced," McPhee writes. "Often, in such assignments, the civilian engineer who created the bridge will, in his capacity as a military officer, be given the task of planning its destruction."
But this is where a weirdly fascinating, George Dante-esque artifice
begins. After all, McPhee writes
, why would Switzerland want anyone to know where the dynamite is wired, where the cannons are hidden, which bridges will blow, or where to find the Army's top secret mountain hideaways and resupply shelters? But if you look closely, you start to see things.
Through locked gates you see corridors in the sides of mountains—going on and on into the rock, with alight in the ceiling every five meters and far too many to count... Riding around Switzerland with these matters in mind—seeing little driveways that blank out in mountain walls, cavern entrances like dark spots under mountainside railroads and winding corniches, portals in various forms of lithic disguise—you can find it difficult not to imagine that almost anything is a military deception, masking a hidden installation.
Indeed, at one point McPhee jokes that his local guide in Switzerland "tends to treat the army itself as if it were a military secret."
[Image: Swiss bridge, photographed by Aaron Plewke].
McPhee points to small moments of "fake stonework, concealing the artillery behind [them]," that dot Switzerland's Alpine geology, little doors that will pop open to reveal internal cannons that will then blast the country's roads to smithereens. Later, passing under a mountain bridge, McPhee notices "small steel doors in one pier" hinting that the bridge "was ready to blow. It had been superceded, however, by an even higher bridge, which leaped through the sky above—a part of the new road to Simplon. In an extreme emergency, the midspan of the new bridge would no doubt drop on the old one."
It's a strange kind of national infrastructure, one that is at its most rigorously functional—one that truly fulfills its promises—when in a state of cascading self-imposed collapse.
I could easily over-quote my way to the end of my internet service here, but it's a story worth reading. There are, for instance, hidden bomb shelters everywhere in an extraordinary application of dual-use construction
. "All over Switzerland," according to McPhee, "in relatively spacious and quiet towns, are sophisticated underground parking garages with automatic machines that offer tickets like tongues and imply a level of commerce that is somewhere else. In a nuclear emergency, huge doors would slide closed with the town's population inside."
[Image: Switzerland's Gotthard Tunnel, via genevalunch.com].
Describing titanic underground fortresses—"networks of tunnels, caverns, bunkers, and surface installations, each spread through many tens of square miles"—McPhee briefly relates the story of a military reconnaissance mission on which he was able to tag along, involving a hydroelectric power station built inside
a mountain, accessible by ladders and stairs; the battalion tasked with climbing down into it thus learns "that if a company of soldiers had to do it they could climb the mountain on the inside."
In any case, the book
's vision of the Alps as a massively constructed—or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified—terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.
[Image: Around Mono Lake, photo by BLDGBLOG].
The last week has been pretty slow here as we get Venue
up and running; but there are some new posts over at the Venue website that I think are worth checking out.
One is a brief, image-heavy round-up from an amazing flight I took last week with photographer Michael Light
in his two-seater, fiber-glass aircraft around the shore of Mono Lake, California
. A full-length interview with Light is forthcoming, as well.
The other is an interview with photographer Edward Burtynksy
, who we had the pleasure of meeting last week at the Nevada Museum of Art for Venue's inaugural interview. Among discussions of Burtynsky's most recent series
—which just opened at the Nevada Museum of Art—and the ongoing Water
project, we asked Burtynsky about the more technical side of his work, including the deployment of drones in photographing otherwise inaccessible sites, and the somewhat puzzled reactions his work has received from people working in the industries he photographs.
Check those out if you get a chance, and new posts will also appear here on BLDGBLOG soon.
[Image: A "disposal cell," also visible on Google Maps, courtesy of CLUI].
It's always welcome news around here when a new exhibition opens up at the Center for Land Use Interpretation
—even though, in this case, it displaces the excellent historical look at U.S. federal surveying with the Initial Points: Anchors of America's Grid
On display now is Perpetual Architecture
, which explores "uranium disposal cells in the southwest," constructed "primarily to contain radioactive contamination from decommissioned uranium mills and processing sites. They are time capsules, of sorts, designed to take their toxic contents, undisturbed, as far into the future as possible." More info, including visiting hours and location, is available at the CLUI
Meanwhile, those of you interested in this sort of thing might enjoy BLDGBLOG's earlier interview with Abraham van Luik
, a geoscientist with the U.S. Department of Energy who described in great detail the process by which sites are chosen for the task of isolating nuclear waste over geological timescales.
I'm excited to be launching a new project called Venue
, a 16-month collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art
's Center for Art + Environment and Future Plural
, the small publishing and curatorial group I'm a part of with Nicola Twilley
We kick things off this Friday, June 8, with a launch event at the Nevada Museum of Art in downtown Reno, from 6-8pm; if you're near Reno, consider stopping by!
[Image: The tools and props of surveying; courtesy of the USGS].
In brief, Venue
is equal parts surveying expedition and forward-operating landscape research base, a DIY interview booth and media rig that will pop up at sites across North America through September 2013.
and I will be traveling on and off, in a series of discontinuous trips, over the next 16 months, visiting a variety of sites including infrastructural landmarks, science labs, factories, film sets, archaeological excavations, art installations, university departments, design firms, National Parks, urban farms, corporate offices, studios, town halls, and other locations across North America, where we'll both record and broadcast original interviews, tours, and site visits. From architects to scientists and novelists to mayors, from police officers to civil engineers and athletes to artists, Venue
’s interview archive will form a cumulative, participatory, and media-rich core sample of the greater North American landscape.
[Image: Understanding landscapes by way of strange devices; courtesy of the USGS].
While there will no doubt be regular updates here on BLDGBLOG, you can follow along, both online and off, by reading our latest dispatches
, suggesting sites and people we should visit
, and keeping an eye on our schedule
(or signing up for our mailing list
) to find out when we will be bringing Venue
to a neighborhood near you. In addition, our best content will be syndicated on a dedicated channel online by The Atlantic
, so keep your eye out for our first interviews or site visits—photos, short films, MP3s—as our travels get underway.
[Image: The Venue tripods, universal mounts for interchangeable devices; designed by Chris Woebken].
There's a lot more information available about the project at the Venue website
—including some early images depicting the incredible array of devices
designed for us by Chris Woebken
, a gorgeous hand-made interview box custom-fabricated for Venue
, and the "Descriptive Camera
" that we'll have on the first leg of our trip—so by all means stop by and see the ideas
behind the project, from conceptual inspiration taken from historical survey expeditions
to Ant Farm's Media Van
[Image: The Venue box takes shape, custom-designed by Semigood].
And hopefully somewhere down the line, we can meet many of you in person.
[Image: The Buncefield explosion, via the BBC].
In one of the more interesting landscape design stories I've read this year, New Scientist
reported back in March that the massive, December 2005 explosion at a fuel-storage depot called Buncefield
in England, might have been strongly assisted by the site's landscaping.
"A few years ago no one would have predicted that a row of trees and shrubs could make the difference between a serious fire and a catastrophic explosion," the magazine suggests. But now, it's becoming a reasonably accepted notion that the physical layout of the Buncefield site's plantlife—from the "shrubs and small trees" down to their individual "twigs and branches"—can work to contain and concentrate, and, worse, add explosive surface area to what would otherwise have simply been a gas leak.
Indeed, the ongoing investigation at Buncefield "might change the way storage depots, refineries and pipelines are designed, and how the sites are landscaped
[emphasis added]. Along with conventional safety features like sensors and alarms, site operators may have to rethink the way that trees, hedges and shrubs are positioned." Investigators have concluded that "even structures on nearby commercial developments could help to accelerate a flame," meaning that, in the design of any landscape, from industrial parks to corporate lawns, there is a previously unknown capacity for detonation.
What's incredible about this—if proven true—is that the potentially explosive landscaping of sites such as Buncefield might suggest, according to New Scientist
, new geometries or diagrammatic possibilities for the design of jet engines, in particular "a novel aircraft propulsion system called a pulse detonation engine." The garden as jet engine!
Putting this into the context of other landscape typologies, such as ritual gardens or sacred groves
—as if we might someday have orchards that churn and pulse with controlled coils of fire, like the engine of some vast arboreal machine—makes this terrifying topographical phenomenon seem all the more mythic and extraordinary.
(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Star Garden).
[Image: The Mole Man's house in Hackney, via Wikipedia].
As most anyone who's seen me give a talk over the past few years will know, I have a tendency to over-enthuse about the DIY subterranean excavations of William Lyttle, aka the Mole Man of Hackney
Lyttle—who once quipped that "tunneling is something that should be talked about without panicking"—became internationally known for the expansive network of tunnels he dug under his East London house. The tunnels eventually became so numerous that the sidewalk in front of his house collapsed, neighbors began to joke that Lyttle might soon "come tunnelling up through the kitchen floor," and, as a surveyor ominously relayed to an English court, "there is movement in the ground."
From the Guardian
, originally reported back in 2006:
No one knows how far the the network of burrows underneath 75-year-old William Lyttle's house stretch. But according to the council, which used ultrasound scanners to ascertain the extent of the problem, almost half a century of nibbling dirt with a shovel and homemade pulley has hollowed out a web of tunnels and caverns, some 8m (26ft) deep, spreading up to 20m in every direction from his house.
What did he store down there? After Lyttle was forced from the house for safety reasons, inspectors discovered "skiploads of junk including the wrecks of four Renault 4 cars, a boat, scrap metal, old baths, fridges and dozens of TV sets
stashed in the tunnels."
But now the late Mole Man's home is for sale
[Image: An earlier Mole Man: Tunnel-Digging as a Hobby].
Alas, "most of the tunnels have been filled in
" with concrete, and the house itself is all but certain to be torn down by its future owner, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, some strange museum of subterranea could open up there, in some parallel world, complete with guided tours of the excavations below and how-to evening classes exploring the future of amateur home excavation. Curatorial residencies are offered every summer, and underground tent cities pop-up beneath the surface of the capital city, lit by candles or klieg lights, spreading out a bit more each season.
Briefly, I'm reminded of a scene from Georges Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual
, in which a character named Emilio Grifalconi discovers "the remains of a table" that he hopes to salvage for use in his own home. "Its oval top, wonderfully inlaid with mother-of-pearl, was exceptionally well preserved," Perec explains, "but its base, a massive, spindle-shaped column of grained wood, turned out to be completely worm-eaten. The worms had done their work in covert, subterranean fashion, creating innumerable ducts and microscopic channels now filled with pulverized wood. No sign of this insidious labor showed on the surface."
Grifalconi soon realizes that "the only way of preserving the original base—hollowed out as it was, it could no longer suport the weight of the top—was to reinforce it from within; so once he had completely emptied the canals of the their wood dust by suction, he set about injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber. The operation was successful; but it quickly became apparent that, even thus strengthened, the base was too weak"—and the table would thus have to be discarded.
At which point, Grifalconi has an idea: he begins "dissolving what was left of the original wood" in the table's base in order to "disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms' life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obsinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries."
Somewhere beneath a new building in East London, then, some handful of years from now, the Mole Man's "fabulous arborescence" will still be down there, a vast and twisting concrete object preserved in all its tentacular sprawl, like some unacknowledged tribute to Rachel Whiteread
: a buried and elephantine sculpture that shows up on radar scans of the neighborhood, recording for all posterity "the endless progressions" of Lyttle's eccentric and mysterious life.
(Via @SubBrit. Earlier adventures in real estate on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church,).
[Image: An exemplary "Observation Post Tree" via the Australian War Memorial].
The "O.P. Tree" was an Observation Post Tree deployed during World War I. Its "goal," as author Hanna Rose Shell explains in Hide and Seek
, her newly published history of the relationship between camouflage and photography, "was to craft a mimetic representation of a tree—and not just any tree, but a particular tree at a specific site" on the European battlefield.
The design, fabrication, and, perhaps most interestingly, installation of this artificial plant form had a fascinating and somewhat Truman Show
To develop the O.P. Tree, Royal Engineers representatives selected, measured, and photographed the original tree, in situ, extensively. The ideal tree was dead; often it was bomb blasted. The photographs and sketches were brought back to the workshop, where artists constructed an artificial tree of hollow steel cylinders, but containing an internal scaffolding for reinforcement, to allow a sniper or observer to ascend within the structure. Then, under the cover of night, the team cut down the authentic tree and dug a hole in the place of its roots, in which they placed the O.P. Tree. When the sun rose over the field, what looked like a tree was a tree no longer; rather, it was an exquisitely crafted hunting blind, maximizing personal concealment and observational capacity simultaneously.
You can see photographs, read about the construction of replicant bark, and even learn that some of the trees were internally upholstered—like wartime superfurniture
—as snipers sometimes relied on cushions to assist with long periods of sitting, over at the Australian War Memorial
[Image: O.P. Trees].
But there's something almost comedically paranoid about the idea that, upon waking up tomorrow morning, a tree—or rock or, for that matter, a whole hillside—has been surreptitiously replaced by an artificial surrogate, an exactly designed stand-in or double, in a ruse about which you otherwise remain unaware. It happens again—and again, perhaps for an entire season—before one day you finally stumble upon incontrovertible evidence that the entire forest through which you hike every weekend has been filled with incredibly precise, hollow representations of trees through which someone appears to be spying on you.
(For those of you interested in where the state of fake trees and other artificial landforms is today, consider watching this video of George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations, present his firm's work at Studio-X NYC).
[Image: A riverboat library in Bangladesh; image courtesy of the Gates Foundation].
Many, many books have arrived at the home office here since the last, shockingly distant installment
of Books Received
, and I'm thus once again woefully behind in tallying up all the titles that have come my way. Accordingly, there are still many more write-ups to come, but it will be next month, after some upcoming travels, before I get to those other books.
Meanwhile, as has always been the case with Books Received
posts, I have not read all of the books linked here and not all of them are necessarily new. However, in all cases, these are included for the interest of their approach or subject matter, and the following list should easily give just about anyone at least one good book to read over the coming summer.
1) City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age
by P.D. Smith (Bloomsbury) — P.D. Smith's voluminous look at the history of urbanism stretches from the Sumerians to the 2012 London Olympics, from Tenochtitlán to Dubai, from the Code of Hammurabi to J.G. Ballard, and from the Italian Renaissance to the urban ruins of nuclear war. Smith has organized his book like a travel guide, albeit not for a particular metropolis but for the city
in and of itself. Chapters are thus divided into overarching categories such as "arrival," "where to stay," "getting around," and more, and while the result can sometimes conflate otherwise quite different urban phenomena found in disparate cities around the world, that slight sense that things are starting to blur is evened out by Smith's eye for detail in the stories and anecdotes he relates, particularly in the book's many boxed texts and sidebars. Migration, food security, global tourism, natural disasters, economic expansion, and war: these are all perennial influences on urban form—and urban futures—and Smith works hard to show their role in shaping the life of what he calls "the ape that shapes [its] environment, the city builders." City
comes out in the United States in June 2012.
2) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet
by Andrew Blum (Ecco) — I had the pleasure of receiving periodic email updates from author Andrew Blum as he traveled to the unmarked buildings and coastal warehouses—amongst many other sites—that enable, store, and protect what we broadly refer to as the internet. The resulting book, released earlier this week, tells the story of those travels: it is Blum's field guide to the physical infrastructure of contemporary data, tracking the internet's actual geography, the sites where the switches are kept and the servers are cooled, where the cables come out of the sea and relay onward, deeper into cities and suburbs, into office and apartments like the one from which I'm posting this. "The Internet couldn't just be everywhere," Blum writes, questioning ethereal metaphors like "the cloud" or the abstract "tubes" of the book's title. "But then where was it? If I followed the wire, where would it lead? What would that place look like? Why were they there? I decided to visit the Internet." In one particularly memorable description, Blum quips that he "had begun to notice that the Internet had a smell, an odd but distinctive mix of industrial-strength air conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors," as if even the most amorphous realms of data have their own peculiar body odor. This body—the "tubes" of the internet—leads Blum from underground London to the middle of nowhere in central Oregon, from downtown Milwaukee to locked rooms in Amsterdam, on the trail of the "pulses of light" that give the internet physical and geographic form.
3) The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads
by Robert A. Kaster (University of Chicago Press) — As Kaster's book claims on its opening page, "No road in Europe has been so heavily traveled, by so many different people, with so many different aims, over so many generations." The Appian Way, which cuts broadly southeast from the old city walls of Rome, gives Kaster—a Classicist at Princeton
—a long and meandering geography on which to base this otherwise concise, almost pamphlet-length look at the Italian landscape and how it has evolved over the past two millennia. From marshes and town centers to incongruously 21st-century wind farms where the ancient road all but disappears into gravel-strewn ruins, by way of endless crumbling tombs that will be familiar to any fan of Piranesi
, Kaster's book describes the sites, monuments, churches, cemeteries, and more that give readers an opportunity to explore the historical—usually archaeological—context for this legendary piece of transportation infrastructure. The Appian Way
is part of the "Culture Trails
" series from the University of Chicago Press.
4) Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong
by Gordon Mathews (University of Chicago Press) — Mathews offers a kind of anthropological critique of globalization in the guise of architectural reportage, telling the story of Chungking Mansions, "a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district," and using close descriptions of everyday life in the complex to build a cross-section of the global economy. "A remarkably motley group of people call the building home," we read in the book's own description: "Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet."
5) Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect
by Robert J. Sampson (University of Chicago Press) — Sampson's very academic book—less narrative than statistical and analytic, and keenly based in empirical research—weighs the importance of community in defining, empowering, and uniting the city of Chicago, neighborhood by neighborhood.
6) New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham
by Steven H. Jaffe (Basic Books) — Jaffe has written an incredibly interesting military history of New York City, beginning well before it was either New York or a city. Jaffe's detailed accounts of early colonial battles and Revolutionary battlegrounds reveal the, to me, surprising number and topographic diversity of combat sites that dot the greater New York landscape. In the process, he offers little-known historical anecdotes—for instance, not only that Wall Street is so named after the defensive wall once constructed there, from one side of the island to the other, but that the wall was the first example of debt-financed urban infrastructure in what were then Dutch colonies. Jaffe's look at a military urbanism peculiar to New York, from the 1600s to WWII to the security bollards of post-9/11 NYC, has proven hard to put down.
7) The Insurgent Barricade
by Mark Traugott (University of California Press) — Traugott's history of the barricade as a uniquely successful "technique of insurrection" is, first and foremost, a look at the spatial politics of the built environment. These politics operate in at least two primary, and clearly oppositional, ways, Traugott suggests. The first is the deliberate mis-use or counter-use of the city, transforming it into something that, through improvisatory re-design, can be express the political demands of an otherwise overlooked constituency. This is the production of barricades, which interfere with and strategically realign the internal movements of the city. The other side of this story, however, is the purposeful and systematic alteration of a city's fabric precisely so that its everyday spaces cannot be used as outlets for political expression. In the latter example, streets can be widened or public spaces closely surveilled; in the former, makeshift tools and ad hoc materials, from cobblestones to wheelbarrows, can be transformed at a moment's notice into walls that clog the city's arteries and bring its streets to a halt. Traugott shows how all this has played out over more than four centuries of European urban history, also looking at what future spatial possibilities exist, on both sides of the barricade, for the political life of the metropolis.
8) Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
by Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf) — Fortey is easily one of my favorite natural history writers, and his Earth: An Intimate History
remains high on my list of recommended books. With this new book, Fortey takes on the question of survival—or super
-survival—in creatures whose wildly successful evolutionary paths mean they have had a disproportionately deep effect on whole ecosystems still thriving today. This is "life’s history told not through the fossil record but through the stories of organisms that have survived, almost unchanged, throughout time," in the book's own words. The horseshoe crabs and velvet worms of the title are only two of the most-cited creatures in Fortey's unsurprisingly enjoyable book.
9) The Prehistory of Home
by Jerry D. Moore (University of California Press) — Moore starts things off with the unfortunate claim that "various animals build shelters, but only humans build homes," an unprovable statement that belongs on the sadly endless pile of false comparisons made about humans and animals. Indeed, only four pages later, Moore himself writes that "we [humans] have been building homes longer than we have been Homo sapiens
," which can literally only be true if animals—that is, non-humans or non-Homo sapiens
—can, after all, build homes, not just shelters, and have been doing so all along. In any case, this minor but by no means inconsequential quibble shouldn't hold you back from enjoying Moore's engaging history of the home—that is, the symbolically rich personal shelter—which he takes on a wide and exciting run from hand-woven walls and mud floors on the coast of Peru all the way to maximum security prisons, from Mesopotamian walled cities to gated suburbs, and from bachelor pads to underground "dwellings" built for the recently deceased in globally diverse burial practices. Part archaeological survey dating back, as Moore explains, to before humans were Human, and part speculative treatise as to why humans have an emotional need for homes at all, Moore's book spans hundreds of thousands of years and nearly every continent.
10) The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World
by Robert McGhee (Oxford University Press) — McGhee, an archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, "paints a vivid portrait of Viking farmers, entrepreneurial Inuit, and Western explorers" in their encounter with, and long-term settling of, the Arctic. Though the book has been out for several years, it just crossed my desk and I look forward to jumping in over the summer.
11) Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains
by Keith Heyer Meldahl (University of California Press) — Meldahl's book is, in its own words, "a 1000-mile-long field trip back through more than 100 million years of deep time to explore America’s most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes." Those landscapes are the western plateaus, mountains, and deserts of the southwestern United States, a region whose terrain now verges on the over-exposed—hardly a season goes by without a new book on the subject—but, as Meldahl suggests, "geology is stranger than fiction," and the book he's built around that statement is a worthwhile read.
12) American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light
by Daniel Freund (University of Chicago Press) — Freund's book is a delightfully idiosyncratic look at the "quest for natural light" in American culture, from the earliest use of tanning beds as a kind of surrogate sun to the mainstream acceptance of "light therapy" as a cure for Seasonal-Affective Disorder, and from the marketing of climate tourism to the development of specialty lighting rigs for use in industrial food preparation. Freund explains in his introduction that the book was motivated by three otherwise unrelated historical figures—Akhenatan, Vitruvius, and Linnaeus—all of whom represent for Freund "the universality of sunlight as a subject for consideration." The results are this unique look at the confluence of personal health, urban design, and near-religious popular beliefs about the purifying power of sunlight over roughly 150 years of American culture.
13) Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor
by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster) — Hellwarth relates the surprisingly overlooked story of U.S. Navy "saturation divers" and the international oceanographers whose research helped to pioneer the construction of deepsea equipment and large-scale architectural environments that almost made living on the ocean floor an everyday reality. Equal parts tropical retro-futurism, complete with scenes of Jacques Cousteau assembling his Conshelf habitats
in the Mediterranean Sea, and high-tech adventure story populated by military super-athletes and entrepreneurial gear manufacturers few of us even knew existed—including surreal high-pressure diving experiments involving presumably quite bewildered farm animals—Hellwarth's book tells the true history of what have been (and what might still be) for human inhabitation of the oceans. Best of all, it's almost entirely set in a quasi-utopian underwater world, like Archigram
crossed with The Abyss
14) American Urban Form: A Representative History
by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore (MIT Press) — Warner and Whittemore have produced an illustrated historical survey of U.S. urbanism, with short chapters ranging from "the city's seventeenth-century beginnings" on the Atlantic coast to "the federally supported city" of the 1950s, ending with a somewhat obligatory overview of the "global city" and its suburban fringe. The book is a great introduction to the processes that have influenced and restrained urban development in the United States for more than three centuries, but it focuses more on presenting a coherent narrative—often reading more like a special issue of The Economist
—as opposed to developing an original or otherwise surprising new interpretation of American urban form.
15) The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways
by David M. Solzman (University of Chicago Press) — Re-released in its current, second edition back in 2006, Solzman's book will no doubt already be familiar to many readers of BLDGBLOG, but his history of the Chicago River, its ecological context and industrial re-engineering, complete with a hands-on guide for anyone who might want to explore it, was new to me.
16) Pyongyang: Architectural and Cultural Guide
edited by Philipp Meuser (DOM Publishers) — In print for less than three months, Meuser's guide is already something of a cult classic in architectural circles, offering as it does a photographic and textual survey of the gonzo dictatorial postmodernism of Pyongyang, North Korea. A genuinely fascinating look at the political symbology of a capital city—Stefano Boeri's memorable description of Pyongyang as a "rogue city
" comes to mind—this slipcased, two-volume set offers "photographs and descriptions" in one book, including brief lessons on Pyongyang's overall urban organization, and, in the other, what Meuser calls "background and comments." These latter categories include—incredibly—excerpts from an architectural pamphlet written by the late Kim Jong-Il, who explains to his readers that, among other things, "architects are creative workers and operations officers," spatially gifted functionaries of the State. Many of the photographs found in each volume can unfortunately resemble washed-out tourist postcards, and the buildings themselves are often striking for their super-ornamental, propagandistic absurdity—in a city whose natural setting makes it look oddly like Memphis
—but to mock the city so easily and dismissively would be to miss the guide's more interesting insight, which is that Pyongyang is, in fact, a remarkably assembled collection of processional spaces and monumental object-buildings, aesthetically arranged in a kind of 3-dimensional essay extolling the wonders of uncontested state power.
17) How to Make a Japanese House
by Catherine Nuijsink (NAi Publishers) — Although architecture blogs have perfected the art of Japanese house fatigue over the past few years—in which it seems like a central server somewhere has been auto-feeding photos of small Japanese houses to the same design blogs over and over again every week—Nuijsink's book is, refreshingly, a more substantive exploration of 21st-century domestic space in Japan, complete with one-on-one architectural interviews and occasional floor plans. Many of the projects you will already have seen online, but, given the breadth of context here, some great photographs, and three framing "monologues" written by architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Taro Igarashi, and Jun Aoki, it more than justifies its publication.
18) Dash 5: The Urban Enclave
edited and produced by Delft Architectural Studies on Housing (NAi Publishers) — Dash
—not quite a magazine, more of a subscription book series—continued last autumn with this look at the "urban enclave," which the editors have framed as an often progressively intended urban mega-project. These developments, both privately and publicly funded, can create what one of the book's essays calls "a city-within-the-city" or a city "made up of miniature utopias": social developments and architectural forms that appear, at first glance, to be entirely disconnected from one another but that, the authors argue, actually invigorate the city through these clear and obvious contrasts. The enclave offers—in fact, it does not let you avoid—"the proximity and the accessibility of 'the other.'" Agree or disagree, it's another well-produced issue in the ongoing Dash
series, including an interesting look at Oswald Mathias Ungers's notion of Grossform
by historian Lara Schrijver, author of Radical Games
19) Toward A Minor Architecture
by Jill Stoner (MIT Press) — Stoner's book looks to "dissect and dismantle prevalent architectural mythologies," and to do so through a turn toward fiction—but the result is an often somewhat timid and unnecessarily academic entry in what should be a very rich conversation. Stoner relies too much on citations from the usual suspects found in your, mine, and everyone else's thesis papers from the 1990s (Deleuze & Guattari, Walter Benjamin, Leibniz, Sigmund Freud, Italo Calvino, and even the now sadly over-exposed J.G. Ballard). But, having said that, it's hard not to find pleasure in a book that takes, well, J.G. Ballard, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and more—even the Berlin Wall—as fuel for a descriptive expansion of architecture into various other genres and media.
20) Care of Wooden Floors
by Will Wiles (Amazon) — Many of you will recognize Will Wiles from his work as deputy editor of ICON
magazine or his excellent though infrequent blog Spillway
, but here he turns to fiction in a debut novel that tells the story of a man slowly going mad whilst house-sitting for a friend in Eastern Europe. From the book's own description: "A British copywriter house-sits at his composer friend Oskar’s ultra-modern apartment in a glum Eastern European city. The instructions are simple: Feed the cats, don’t touch the piano, and make sure nothing damages the priceless wooden floors. Content for the first time in ages, he accidentally spills some wine. The apartment and the narrator’s sanity gradually fall apart in this unusual and satisfying novel." The book has already been released in the UK, where it's been receiving good reviews as a dark-humored "disaster novel," but it's not due out in the States until later this year, when it will become part of the first crop of books published directly and exclusively by Amazon.com.
21) Blueprints of the Afterlife
by Ryan Boudinet (Grove Press) — Boudinet's "bracingly weird new novel
" has been receiving high praise and enviable comparisons for the author's style, including to such writers as Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, and Neal Stephenson, as Blueprints of the Afterlife
picks up considerable buzz in the scifi/speculative fiction world. Fans of odd settings and spatial details will presumably appreciate the book's "sentient glacier" or its "full-scale replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound." I'm looking forward to reading this while traveling over the next few weeks.
22) Joe Golem and the Drowning City
by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (St. Martin's Press) — It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Mike Mignola's work
, and his novelistic collaborations with Christopher Golden have so far been great, if not quite as gripping as Mignola's own early Hellboy
tales. Joe Golem
tells the story of a flooded Manhattan, or, in the book's own words: "In 1925, earthquakes and a rising sea level left Lower Manhattan submerged under more than thirty feet of water, so that its residents began to call it the Drowning City. Those unwilling to abandon their homes created a new life on streets turned to canals and in buildings whose first three stories were underwater." The results, set 50 years after the flooding, are somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Central European urban folklore, featuring occasional black and white drawings by Mignola.
(Earlier Books Received: March 2009, May 2009, May 2010, December 2010, and March 2011).