Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012

[Image: "Lower Manhattan" (1999) by Lebbeus Woods, discussed extensively here].

Like many people, I was—and remain—devastated to have learned that architect Lebbeus Woods passed away last night, just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 34th Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus's own work.

I can't pretend to have been a confidant of his, let alone a professional colleague, but Lebbeus's influence over my own interest in architecture is impossible to exaggerate and his kindness and generosity as a friend to me here in New York City was an emotionally and professionally reassuring thing to receive—to a degree that I am perhaps only now fully realizing. I say this, of course, while referring to someone whose New Year's toast a few years ago to a room full of friends gathered down at his loft near the Financial District—in an otherwise anonymous building whose only remarkable feature, if I remember correctly, was that huge paintings by Lebbeus himself were hanging in the corridors—was that we should all have, as he phrased it, a "difficult New Year." That is, we should all look forward to, even seek out or purposefully engineer, a new year filled with the kinds of challenges Lebbeus felt, rightly or not, that we deserved to face, fight, and, in all cases, overcome—the genuine and endless difficulty of pursuing our own ideas and commitments, absurd goals no one else might share or even be interested in.

This was the New Year's wish of a true friend, in the sense of someone who believes in and trusts your capacity to become what you want to be, and someone who will help to engineer the circumstances under which that transformation might most productively occur.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

Lebbeus mentored and taught many, many people, and I am, by every measure, the least qualified of any of them to write about his influence; but learning that Lebbeus has passed away, and under such utterly surreal circumstances, with his own city—literally, the streets all around him—flooding in the darkness as the oceans rose up, compelled me to write something for him, or about him, or because of him, or to him. I have been fortunate enough, or perhaps determined, to live a life where I've met several of my heroes in person, and Lebbeus is—he will always be—exactly that, a titanic and strangely omnipresent figure for me whose work set off special effects he himself would be puzzled—even slightly embarrassed—to learn that I've attributed to him.

Speaking only for myself, Lebbeus is a canonical figure in the West—and I mean a West not of landed aristocrats, armies, and regal blood-lines but of travelers, heretics, outsiders, peripheral exploratory figures whose missives and maps from the edges of things always chip away at the doomed fortifications of the people who thought the world not only was ownable, but that it was theirs. Lebbeus Woods is the West. William S. Burroughs is the West. Giordano Bruno is the West. Audre Lorde is the West. William Blake is the West. For that matter, Albert Einstein, as Leb would probably agree, having designed an interstellar tomb for the man, is the West. Lebbeus Woods should be on the same sorts of lists as James Joyce or John Cage, a person as culturally relevant as he was scientifically suggestive, seething with ideas applicable to nearly every discipline.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

In any case, it isn't just the quality of Lebbeus's work—the incredible drawings, the elaborate models—or even the engaged intensity of his political writings, on architecture as politics pursued by other means or architecture as war, that will guarantee him a lasting, multi-disciplinary influence for generations to come. There is something much more interesting and fundamental to his work that has always attracted me, and it verges on mythology. It verges on theology, in fact.

Here, if I can be permitted a long aside, it all comes down to ground conditions—to the interruption, even the complete disappearance, of the ground plane, of firm terrestrial reference, of terra firma, of the Earth, of the very planet we think we stand on. Whether presented under the guise of the earthquake or of warfare or even of General Relativity, Lebbeus's work was constantly erasing the very surfaces we stood on—or, perhaps more accurately, he was always revealing that those dependable footholds we thought we had were never there to begin with. That we inhabit mobile terrain, a universe free of fixed points, devoid of gravity or centrality or even the ability to be trusted.

It is a world that can only be a World—that can only, and however temporarily, be internally coherent and hospitable—insofar as we construct something in it, something physical, linguistic, poetic, symbolic, resonant. Architectural.

[Image: "Einstein Tomb" by Lebbeus Woods].

Architecture, for Lebbeus, was a kind of counter-balance, a—I'm going to use the word—religious accounting for this lack of center elsewhere, this lack of world. It was a kind of factoring of the zero, to throw out a meaningless phrase: it was the realization that there is nothing on offer for us here, the realization that the instant we trust something it will be shaken loose in great convulsions of seismicity, that cities will fall—to war or to hurricanes—that subways will flood, that entire continents will be unmoored, split in two, terribly and irreversibly, as something maddeningly and wildly, in every possible sense outside of human knowledge, something older and immeasurable, violently shudders and wakes up, leaps again into the foreground and throws us from its back in order to walk on impatiently and destructively without us.

Something ancient and out of view will rapidly come back into focus and destroy all the cameras we use to film it. This is the premise of Lebbeus's earthquake, Lebbeus's terrestrial event outside measured comprehensibility, Lebbeus's state of war.

[Image: "Einstein Tomb" by Lebbeus Woods].

Because what I like about Lebbeus's work is its nearly insane honesty, its straight-ahead declaration that nothing—genuinely and absolutely nothing—is here to welcome us or accept us or say yes to us. That there is no solid or lasting ground to build anything on, let alone anything out there other than ourselves expecting us to build it.

Architecture is thus an act—a delirious and amazing act—of construction for no reason at all in the literal sense that architecture is outside rational calculation. That is, architecture—capital-A architecture, sure—must be seen, in this context, as something more than just supplying housing or emergency shelter; architecture becomes a nearly astronomical gesture, in the sense that architecture literally augments the planetary surface. Architecture increases (or decreases) a planet's base habitability. It adds something new to—or, rather, it complexifies—the mass and volume of the universe. It even adds time: B is separated from C by nothing, until you add a series of obstacles, lengthening the distance between them. That series of obstacles—that elongated and previously non-existent sequence of space-time—is architecture.

[Image: "Einstein Tomb" by Lebbeus Woods].

As Lebbeus himself once wrote, it is through architecture that humans realize new forms of spatial experience that would have been impossible under natural conditions—not in caves, not in forests, not even while out wandering through fog banks or deserts or into the frigid and monotonous vacuity of the Antarctic. Perhaps not even on the Earth. Architecture is a different kind of space altogether, offered, we could say, as a kind of post-terrestrial resistance against unstable ground, against the lack of a trustworthy planet. Against the lack of an inhabitable world.

Architecture, if you will, is a Wile E. Coyote moment where you look down and realize the universe is missing—that you are standing on empty air—so you construct for yourself a structure or space in which you might somehow attempt survival. Architecture is more than buildings. It is a spacesuit. It is a counter-planet—or maybe it is the only planet, always and ever a terraforming of this alien location we call the Earth.

In any case, it's the disappearance of the ground plane—and the complicated spatial hand-waving we engage in to make that disappearance make sense—that is so interesting to me in Lebbeus's work. When I say that Lebbeus Woods and James Joyce and William Blake and so on all belong on the same list, I mean it: because architecture is poetry is literature is myth. That is, it is equal to them and it is one of them. It is a way of explaining the human condition—whatever that is—spatially, not through stanzas or through novels or through song.

[Image: "Einstein Tomb" by Lebbeus Woods].

If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don't recommend it—you'd think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn't matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don't actually say anything.

Lebbeus will probably be missed for his formal inventiveness: buildings on stilts, massive seawalls, rotatable buildings that look like snowflakes. Deformed coasts anti-seismically jeweled with buildings. Tombs for Einstein falling through space.

[Image: "Einstein Tomb" by Lebbeus Woods].

But this would be to miss the motivating absence at the heart of all those explorations, which is that we don't yet know what the world is, what the Earth is—whether or not there even is a world or an Earth or a universe at all—and architecture is one of the arts of discovering an answer to this. Or inventing an answer to this, even flat-out fabricating an answer to this, meaning that architecture is more mythology than science. But there's nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that: it is exactly why architecture will always be more heroic even than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone's home.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and—as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers—neither should we.


Here are some old photos of mines and quarries, like antique views of the planet being disaggregated into rocks and waste heaps. Here, human civilization is nothing more than a thin lace of extraction camps and train tracks, blast patterns and crowbars, men sweating over landscapes they've learned to dismantle. Photos courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The first two are the Dolese & Shepard quarry in Hawthorne, Cook County, Illinois; no date given.

[Images: Dolese & Shepard quarry, Hawthorne, Illinois; no date given. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

The next two are the Colorado Yule Marble Company quarry in Gunnison County, Colorado; also no date given. Look closely and you'll see small buildings attached to the cliff face like monasteries, piered upward and buttressed by wood scaffolding. These are amazing vernacular structures, mundane but otherworldly, and the massive high-res version available at the U.S.G.S. website is worth a look. (Although, if you're into old industrial buildings, don't miss this sloped and mountainous tower in the woods, like something by Daniel Dociu).

Rails and stairways begin to appear embedded in the cliffs—

[Images: Colorado Yule Marble Company quarry, Gunnison County, Colorado; no date given. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

—which is nothing, really, compared to the descent seen in the next image, a series of ladders that backtrack down into the newly revealed depths of the Vermont Marble Company quarry in Tokeen, Alaska.

[Image: Vermont Marble Company quarry, Tokeen, Alaska; circa 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

On the upper edge of that same quarry, we see leveled platforms emerge with dark blots of equipment perched on them—

[Image: Vermont Marble Company quarry, Tokeen, Alaska; circa 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

—as men try to figure out how to take apart the landscape they stand on, reducing it to a raw geometry of cubes and blocks, measured shapes juxtaposed with the wilderness behind them.

[Images: Various quarrying scenes, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

It's all a strange scene of humans and machinery, working in collaboration to take apart the world.

[Images: The "lowest floor" of a Vermont Marble Company quarry, Alaska; 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

I'll end with two images I love—but not before pointing out that all of the above photographs were taken by a man named E.F. Burchard for the U.S. Geological Survey. From my (admittedly very brief) search, it appears that Burchard has all but escaped being documented or written about—at least in terms of popular history—yet his life and work seem ripe for, on one hand, a thesis project somewhere, in a history or photography department perhaps, exploring mines, railyards, quarries, and other sites of Herculean extraction infrastructure throughout the American west, from Chicago to Arizona, Colorado to Alaska, and the relationship between photography and national expansion; or, on the other, a popular biography of this photographer who always seemed present at the right time, anywhere humans began poking new holes in the planet or peeling up the surface of the world to find what lies beneath.

Until then, here are two non-E.F. Burchard photos, awesome dioramas of men at work against geology, like paintings by Fernand Léger. These are photos taken by W.H. Jackson, and they depict an interesting behind-the-scenes moment for American architecture.

[Image: Quarrying rock for the Mormon Tabernacle, Utah; 1872. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

From the U.S.G.S. caption: "Quarrying granite in Cottonwood Canyon, 17 miles south of Salt Lake City, for the Mormon Tabernacle. The ground is completely strewn with immense boulders and detached masses of granite, which have fallen down from the walls of the canyon on either side, some of which are from 30 to 40 feet square. All the quarrying is confined to splitting up these blocks. Salt Lake County, Utah. 1872."

You can find many more related photos at the U.S.G.S.'s "Mines, Mills, Quarries, Etc." collection, but it's the work of E.F. Burchard in particular that I find so interesting. It's like those great descriptions of geology and geological warfare from Book VI of John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Milton writes that things "Deep under ground" have been infernally unearthed, "materials dark and crude": "up they turned / Wide the celestial soil, and saw beneath / The originals of Nature in their crude / Conception ... / ... hidden veins digged up ... / ... of mineral and stone."

(Vaguely related: Venue's interview with photographer Edward Burtynsky, including some thoughts on his "Quarries" series of images).

Lower Manhattan National Park

[Image: Past Futures, Present, Futures at Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed by Leong Leong; photo by Naho Kubota].

A two-part exhibition called Past Futures, Present, Futures opened its second phase—Present, Futures—tonight at Storefront for Art and Architecture, exploring contemporary "reenactments" of classic architectural images, specifically showcasing new versions of "101 unrealized proposals for New York City, dating from its formation to today."

With exhibition design by Leong Leong, the resulting space is silvered, gleaming, and literally reflective, a curved maze of mirrored blinds.

[Images: Past Futures, Present, Futures at Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed by Leong Leong; photos by Naho Kubota].

Working in collaboration, John Becker and I were asked to "re-enact" Lebbeus Woods's 1999 image Lower Manhattan, with the rules specifying no more than 10 hours to work on the resulting version and no more than 400 words for the accompanying text.

We decided to be both straight-forward and tongue-in-cheek, proposing a Lower Manhattan National Park, a world of revealed canyons, caves, scenic plateaux, and, later, hiking trails, all brought to light—and newfound aridity—by monumental dams and seawalls built in the near future.

The image and text (exactly 400 words!) appear below—and the full exhibition, featuring new variant images by everyone from Candy Chang to Christian Kerrigan, BIG to dpr-barcelona, Margaret Bursa & Johan Hybschmann to Sean Lally, amongst dozens and dozens of others, is open through November 24.

[Image: Lower Manhattan National Park by John Becker and Geoff Manaugh].

Lower Manhattan National Park

In 2057, massive flood-control structures protecting New York City from the rising seas required a redirecting of the Hudson and East Rivers northeast, into Long Island Sound. The resulting dams—the construction of which triggered small earthquakes throughout New England—allowed for the draining of the old riverbed south and east of Manhattan, revealing the unearthly geological circumstances on which this archipelagic metropolis sits.

Following several years of scientific surveys into the mazelike gorges and intersecting cliffsides below—complex terrestrial forms previously buried by the waters and mud at the edge of the city—teams from the Army Corps of Engineers set about clearing the region from more than a hundred thousand years’ worth of silt and debris flowing down from the upper watershed. Even shipwrecks going back to the Colonial era were dredged, blasted, and removed—in some cases, the wrecks’ dried and re-kilned timber used to build houses elsewhere in the city.

The resulting reclaimed landscape of gorges, cataracts, caves, slopes, and arches was unlike anything seen in another city—as if the Grand Canyon had been discovered suddenly cleaving Shanghai in two. And thus a new National Park was swiftly declared: Lower Manhattan National Park, its name partially inspired by architect Lebbeus Woods, a New Yorker who explored the urban possibilities offered by damming the city’s rivers in a proposal back in 1999.

By 2076, the nation’s three-hundredth birthday, Lower Manhattan National Park was open to the public, encompassing hiking trails, campsites, interpretive routes, and modern visitors’ centers that unlocked the city’s depths for amateur exploration. For generations, bankers had no idea that, just off the fiscal cliff at the end of their well-known street, the Wall Street Gorges would soon loom, an extraordinary district of trails smelling vaguely of sea salt; or that, within walking distance of Chinatown, switchbacks would lead steeply down into the shadows of a marine void off the Lower East Side. There are the Hudson Caves; the Brooklyn Bridges (a nest of suspension bridges spanning boroughs); Governors Tower (formerly Governors Island); and, of course, the New Wall—the East River Dam itself—now an athletic attraction to people all over the world, lined with climbing routes and ornamental handholds.

New Yorkers once fearful of the rising waters of climate change now look down into vast canyons surrounding the city, lined with historic plaques explaining how this newest of National Parks was born.

Wall Mart

[Image: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

While digging around this morning through my embarrassingly disorganized hard drive, I found a project I'd saved a while back by Adrienne Lau, a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Lau came to New York City last spring on a research visit with the Bartlett's Unit 11, led by Smout Allen.

[Image: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

We actually hosted Lau and her fellow students for a public crit—and to give them personal workspace—at Studio-X NYC, after putting together a series of tours around the city, visiting sites of infrastructure (including the extraordinary Holland Tunnel vent structure and a ConEd steam generation plant).

[Image: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

In any case, with New York as her project's chosen location, Lau explored the spatial possibilities offered by informal street vending, eventually inverting, in her words, the concept of the floating market. Boat-like structures are, instead, routed through the sky via rails, lifts, and crossings bolted onto or otherwise suspended from the fronts of buildings.

As Lau describes it, "verticality links the street and midair" as "inverted boats trade with dangling pockets," pockets that hold everything from bouquets of cut flowers to morning newspapers, and "plug-in units with hoppers and platforms" skate above the street on wall-mounted tracks.

The economy of street—or river—vendors thus becomes an interconnected maze of vertically stratified carts and platforms, more like transportation systems found in old mines than something on the horizon for contemporary New York City.

[Images: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

With very few illustrated exceptions—

[Image: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

—it is a story told through models: highly detailed models using things such as cable nail clamps, cardboard silhouettes, coat hangers, tracing paper, and beads.

[Image: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

It could almost be a set for a stop-motion film about the future of urban distribution systems—perhaps yet more proof that architecture, creative writing, and film departments need to start collaborating ASAP, if only for the students to get an informative glimpse of how other industries operate.

[Images: From a student project by Adrienne Lau at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

For now, it's worth simply taking a look at Lau's retro-futurist vision of urban newsstands, bolt-on decking, and street life reinvigorated from above.

Cliff Nest

Reader Louis Schulz recently sent me a link to an incredible set of photos by Eric Valli, a French photographer and former cabinetmaker whose work has taken him all over the world visiting, among other places, the vertiginous and mind-bending world of "honey hunters" in the Himalayas.

However, Louis specifically drew my attention to the visual similarities between the so-called "Shadow Hunters" of underground Thailand and the work of architect Lebbeus Woods.

[Image: Photo by, and copyright, Eric Valli from "Shadow Hunters"].

"In the dark caves of Thailand," Valli explains, "generations of men have risked their lives to obtain a prized commodity—edible bird's nests, essential ingredients of a traditional Chinese soup."

[Image: Photo by, and copyright, Eric Valli from "Shadow Hunters"].

Reaching these nests—found deep within coastal and mountain caves—requires the construction and use of bamboo scaffolding, complicated and rickety architectures of ladders, cranes, attachments, and nearly invisible footholds through which the nest-hunters must paradoxically, in a sense, ascend into the already claustrophobic spaces underground.

[Image: Photo by, and copyright, Eric Valli from "Shadow Hunters"].

Lit only by torchlight, these nests lashed together by humans to reach the nests lashed together by birds are extraordinary and acrobatic constructions, well-compared, I think, to Lebbeus's work, suggesting a unique theatrical stage-set or stadium for seemingly impossible spatial athletics.

Contrast this, for instance, with the farmed equivalent of these wild caves, where bird's nest are basically grown to order inside windowless monoliths, what Nicola Twilley describes as "custom built concrete birds' nest factories... towering above traditional one-story structures and transforming the urban landscape" in Asian cities.
The internal design of these bird's nest farms—or swiftlet hotels, as they are sometimes called—is fascinating: the buildings are intended to mimic caves, with a carefully spaced matrix of wooden rafters replacing the ledges and crannies of a cave ceiling, and detailed attention paid to internal temperature, humidity, and even sound
In any case, how fantastic it would be to see a little pamphlet someday documenting these vernacular structures—subterranean nest-harvesting infrastructures from the mountain caves of Thailand—perhaps something from Princeton Architectural Press or a feature in Domus...

See Eric Valli's website for more.

(Thanks to Louis Schultz for the link).

Sleeping Astronaut Causes Earthquake on the Moon

[Image: NASA's lunar seismometer, via Wikipedia].

First of all, I know it's inaccurate to say there was an "earthquake" on the moon, but I'll use the phrase nonetheless.

In any case, I was delighted to read that the tax-funded Apollo 11 astronauts, upon landing on the surface of the moon, installed a seismometer "sensitive enough to detect Neil Armstrong's movements during sleep," in the words of Wikipedia. The movement of a dreaming astronaut recorded as a tectonic event in space.

From a project called the "Johnson Space Center Oral History Project"—specifically, an interview with Dr. Don Lind, released in May 2005:
This [instrument was] deployed about thirty feet from the Lunar Module, and during the first night on the Moon, the crew had gone back [into the Lunar Module]. They were sleeping before the takeoff the next morning. And the seismic station picked up something. They didn’t think it was a meteor impact at a distance. It was something really close. So the science team called the Mission Control Room and said, “Did some relief valve just go off, or did some mechanical [operation] go on in the Lunar Module?”

They went down the line and quizzed every single [controller]. The last one on these surveys was always the flight surgeon. When they got to him, he said, “Oh yes. Exactly at that moment, Neil turned over in the hammock.” That was registered on the seismometer thirty feet away out on the lunar surface. [That’s how sensitive it was.] That was very satisfying.
A sleeping astronaut causes earthquakes on the moon! There are few images as evocative as the idea of slumbering astronauts from another planet, huge and dreaming, unleashing waves of seismic activity across the celestial body they've landed on, like gods rolling over in their sleep.

Or, reversing this, as if you could perform a kind of dream analysis on sleeping astronauts by reading between the lines of inexplicable seismic disturbances. Seismic dream therapy applied to visitors from another world.

Memorial to a Buried Village

[Image: From the project "Resonance, memory" by Bo Li and Ge Men, students at ETH Zürich].

An interesting new project by Bo Li and Ge Men, students of architecture at ETH Zürich, proposes a kind of buried chandelier to memorialize lost villages in Switzerland—architecture destroyed by landslides, replaced by light.

[Image: A "long section" from "Resonance, memory" by Bo Li and Ge Men].

From the 2012 International VELUX Award, where this project won first place:
Inspired by the many hiking trips that the two students from China have enjoyed during their studies at ETHZ, the entry is based on the idea of a hypothetical mudflow in the Swiss Alps burying a village. The project works with columns of transparent thermoplastic planted into the earth as a metaphorical representation of the former village. Sunlight is being transmitted through the columns into the subterranean space, where they illuminate a poetic memory of the former rooms in the buried houses.
Visitors can thus walk around beneath the surface of the Earth, exploring buried rooms of light.

[Image: From "Resonance, memory" by Bo Li and Ge Men].

To a certain extent, the project brings to mind the odd memorial known as the Cretto di Burri, by artist Alberto Burri, in which an Italian village called Gibellina, destroyed by an earthquake in 1968, was replaced—or, rather, memorialized—by a field of poured concrete: "Burri covered the streets of Old Gibellina with concrete, preserving the layout of the blocks. Walking around his monument is unsettling. You’re not just standing on the gravestone of a city, but actually tracing the lines of its corpse."

In Bo Li and Ge Men's case, however, you not only can walk the plan of the old village, street by street and corner by corner, following the forest of "transparent thermoplastic" sticks that break the surface of the landslide to mark the positions of destroyed buildings; you can also do so from below, where glowing houses illuminate an artificial cavern carved into the landslide.

[Image: The plan of the old village, seen from above, from "Resonance, memory" by Bo Li and Ge Men].

I will admit, meanwhile, that when I first saw the image that opens this post, I actually thought it was a proposal to mark the remains of villages submerged by the construction of dams—deliberately flooded towns still known to reappear when droughts pull water levels to seasonal lows. You could thus dive down into murky lakes and reservoirs and see the shining cages of houses sacrificed by an earlier generation, a radiant architecture beneath the waves.

For a bit more information about the project, stop by the International VELUX Award showcase.

(Thanks to Luka Piskorec, the students' teacher, for the tip!)

Landscapes by Remote Control

One of many interesting things I've been reading this month is the new book by William J. Clancey, Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers.

[Image: Curiosity pokes its heavily instrumented "head" around the Red Planet; photo courtesy of NASA and U.S. taxpayers].

Clancey's look at the "robotic geologists" humans have sent to Mars over the past decade explores the strange phenomenon of science-at-a-distance, pursued, measured, recorded, and analyzed by human controllers located on another planet.

This is, in Clancey's words, "a unique human-robotic enterprise," by way of "teleoperated robots" or "telerobotic tools."

[Image: Curiosity looks back at the "Morse road" it has created; photo courtesy of NASA].

The book is very much academic—i.e. it is not a New Yorker-style profile of mission scientists in their lab at Pasadena—but it nonetheless reveals the bizarre methodological requirements of working on another planet through remotely controlled machine-surrogates. From altered sleep-patterns (to keep pace with the longer days on Mars) to darkened window shades (to enact on Earth the darkness of the Martian nightfall for rovers), the actual practices of the scientists come to the foreground of Clancey's study.

It is through these practices that the humans can engage with and control—or at least efficiently keep track of—these radically off-site prosthetic extensions, the rover now understood as "a mechanism that can be 'acted through,' an extended embodiment of the human eyes and hands of the people who control its actions from Earth."

It is a remotely operated surrogate sensory apparatus—organs without a body.

[Images: Curiosity on Mars; photos courtesy of NASA].

Yet, even as these deliberately chosen images show—images taken by me from NASA's website, not from Clancey's book—it is hard to resist what Clancey himself takes critical issue with, which is the personification of these "robot geologists" as they trundle around the Martian environment, peering at things, laser-zapping rocks, craning their heads—"heads"—around like ostriches and setting off across the landscape afresh, solar-recharged, every morning.

[Image: Curiosity on Mars; photo courtesy of NASA].

Emotionally identifying with the Mars rovers not only leads to the use of anatomical metaphors, such as those present in the previous sentence; it also, Clancey argues, clouds the notion of what it means to do science at all. "These inspirational descriptions have a place," he writes in the book's introduction, "but we must understand this new technology and articulate how it has worked so well if we are to know how to use and improve it." Overarching questions about how humans and robots might exchange their roles in this undertaking—whether it's the phrase "robot geologists" or a reversal of this situation with computer-guided "human tools" more like the astronauts in 2001—are, he writes, "technically and philosophically confused."

The obvious benefit of non-scientific attachment between humans and their charismatic machines is that it is exactly these identifications that catalyze public enthusiasm for extraordinarily expensive scientific expeditions. But debunking myths of robot charisma is only part of Clancey's purpose, as his book begins, instead, with a more or less anthropological study of the Earth-bound laboratory and the constantly changing teams of human beings within it, as they deploy and operate long-distance geologic tools, naming the terrain, mapping the landmarks, coordinating survey information, and chemically sensing the Martian landscape through surrogate "bodies" of complex instrumentation.

In other words, we might be busy anthropomorphizing machines, but the humans actually engaged with these off-world robotic tools are themselves realizing how they must adapt to the needs of the devices, to the tools' own scientific and sensory limits, and to what these instruments can and cannot do in as distant a location as Mars.

[Image: Curiosity on Mars; photo courtesy of NASA].

In any case, Clancey's book is worth checking out if this sort of thing interests you. However, it seems worth noting here briefly that this could also be put into the context of, say, art historian Barbara Maria Stafford's 2001 essay on "devices of wonder," or the interpretive machines and intermediary technical instruments that "not only constrain what it is possible to see but also determine what can be thought" by those who use them; as well as the idea, mentioned previously, of the "prosthetic imaginary," or "a more metaphorical notion of the 'prosthetic' as an extended tool that becomes a proxy, or a substitute for experience."