Fire-Walking New York City

[Image: Combustible City by Common Room].

The New York-based group Common Room will soon be publishing and displaying in their space a series of walks around the city, walks that, in their words, "demonstrate, at four different spatial scales, the agency of combustion in shaping the city’s architecture, infrastructure and imaginary [sic]."

Devised and authored by Adam Bobbette, the tours will include sites and experiences such as walking "the perimeter of the great fire of 1835," exploring the "former sites of fire towers in Manhattan," and more:
Additionally, the tours recount the history of the fireproof building, the epistemological relationships between panoramas, hot air balloons and fire towers, the changing shape of water in the city, and the hyperreality of prevention. Together, these tours reveal another city nested within New York City, a city in plain view but rarely considered; this city is constituted by and through the management and care for its own inherent fragility, this city is named Combustible City.
I'm reminded of a recent book on my wishlist for the summer: Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World by Greg Bankoff, which describes itself as "the first truly global study of urban conflagration." Bankoff "shows how fire has shaped cities throughout the modern world, from Europe to the imperial colonies, major trade entrepôts, and non-European capitals, right up to such present-day megacities as Lagos and Jakarta. Urban fire may hinder commerce or even spur it; it may break down or reinforce barriers of race, class, and ethnicity; it may serve as a pretext for state violence or provide an opportunity for displays of state benevolence. As this volume demonstrates, the many and varied attempts to master, marginalize, or manipulate fire can turn a natural and human hazard into a highly useful social and political tool."

Bobbette's fire walks of New York City will be on display at Common Room from July 16-August 16, and I believe more information will be available soon on their website.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: The Fires. Thanks to Carlos Solis for the tip!)

Fields of the Future

Peter Brewer, an ocean chemist at Monterey, is working on what Nature Climate Change calls an "underwater aquarium."

[Image: A diagram of Peter Brewer's "underwater aquarium," via Nature Climate Change].

It is, Brewer explains, "a 10m-long flume with an experimental chamber that sits on a patch of sea floor containing animals whose response to ocean acidification is to be tested."

Brewer's artificial chemical microclimate—a partially enclosed carbon dioxide bloom—is framed by an architecture of buoyant bricks and mixing fans. "At present, it is on the sea floor about 850m below the ocean surface and 25km offshore," he adds.

The use of this technically enhanced architectural device to test undersea creatures—with its M.C. Escher-like logic of an aquarium surrounded by water—brings to mind other experiments for spatially probing the limits of life, including modified-atmosphere aviaries or even the Duke Forest, a forest-within-the-forest dotted with carbon dioxide-emitting masts.

[The "Aspen FACE," or Northern Forest Ecosystem Experiment].

The Northern Forest Ecosystem Experiment in Wisconsin, pictured above, is another example of using spatial tools to frame and demarcate an augmented ecosystem.

Further, there is an interestingly asynchronous quality to these experimental terrains: in each case, they are technically enhanced landscapes for the production of a speculative future biome, these and other "fields of the future" simulating what regions of the earth might be like in 50-100 years' time.

Urban Target Complex National Monument

[Image: Yodaville, via Google Maps].

Yodaville is a fake city in the Arizona desert used for bombing runs by the U.S. Air Force. Writing for Air & Space Magazine back in 2009, Ed Darack wrote that, while tagging along on a training mission, he noticed "a small town in the distance—which, as we got closer, proved to have some pretty big buildings, some of them four stories high."
As towns go, this one is relatively new, having sprung up in 1999. But nobody lives there. And the buildings are all made of stacked shipping containers. Formally known as Urban Target Complex (R-2301-West), the Marines know it as “Yodaville” (named after the call sign of Major Floyd Usry, who first envisioned the complex).
As one instructor tells Darack, "The urban layout is actually very similar to the terrain in many villages in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Urban Target Complex, or UTC, was soon "lit up with red tracer rounds and bright yellow and white rocket streaks," till it "looked like it was barely able to keep standing":
The artillery and mortars started firing, troops advanced toward the target complex, and aircraft of all types—carefully controlled by students on the mountain top—mounted one attack run after another. At one point so much smoke and dust filled the air above the “enemy” that nothing could be seen of the target—just one of the real-world problems the students had to learn to cope with that day.
In a recent article for the Tate, writer Matthew Flintham explores "the idea of landscape as an extension of the military imagination." Referring specifically to the UK, he adds that what he perceives as a contemporary "lack of artistic engagement with the activities of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is perhaps principally due to the relative segregation of defence personnel, land and airspace from the civil domain."

Flintham points out—again, referring to the UK—that "today’s MoD has its own vast training estate with numerous barracks and an enormous stock of housing, all of which are detached from public scrutiny. The public are prevented from accessing many areas of the defence estate for two reasons: the extreme danger of live weapons and hazardous activities (and related issues of potential litigation), and the restrictions on privileged, strategic or commercial information in the interests of national security." This has the effect that these sorts of military landscapes not only fall outside critical scrutiny—and also remain, with very few exceptions, all but invisible to architectural critique—but that their only real role in the public imagination is entirely speculative, often based solely on rumor and verging on conspiracy.

While Flintham thus calls for a more active artistic engagement with military landscapes, exploring what he calls the "military-pastoral complex," I would echo that with a related suggestion that spaces such as Yodaville belong on the architectural itinerary of today's design writers, critics, and students.

Given the mitigation of the very obvious problems Flintham himself points out—such as site contamination, unexploded ordnance, and national security leaks—it would be thrilling to see a new kind of "fortifications tour," one that might bring these sorts of facilities into the public experience.

[Image: Photo by Richard Misrach, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, from Bravo 20].

An interesting possibility for this sort of national refocusing on military landscapes comes from artists Richard and Myriam Misrach. The Misrachs have proposed a "Bravo 20 National Park"—that is, "turning the blasted range into a National Park of bombing," as the Center for Land Use Interpretation phrases it. "When the Navy’s use of Bravo 20 was up for Congressional review in 1999," CLUI continues, "Misrach made one more heroic, quixotic, and failed attempt to get his proposal seriously considered. Instead, the Navy has increased its use of Bravo 20, and the four other ranges around Fallon, and has been authorized to expand their terrestrial holdings in the area by over 100,000 acres."

So what, for instance, might something like a Yodaville National Park, or Urban Target Complex National Monument, look like? How would it be managed, touristed, explored, mapped, and understood? What sorts of trails and interpretive centers might it host? Alternatively, in much the same way that the Unabomber's cabin is currently on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C., could Yodaville somehow, someday, become part of a distributed collection of sites owned and operated by the Smithsonian, the National Building Museum, or, for that matter, UNESCO, in the latter case with Arizona's simulated battlegrounds joining Greek temples as world heritage sites?

In any case, bringing spaces of military simulation into the architectural discussion, and reading about Yodaville in, say, Architectural Record instead of—or in addition to—Air & Space Magazine, would help to demystify the many, otherwise off-limits, landscapes produced (and, of course, destroyed) by military activity. Better, this would reveal even the cloudiest of federal lands as spatial projects, nationally important places that—again, given declassification and appropriate environmental remediation—might hold unexpected insights for design practitioners, let alone for critics, the public, and national historians.

(Thanks to Mark Simpkins for the Tate link).