Way back in 1919, in their July 14th issue, Scientific American published an article on the discovery that trees can act "as nature's own wireless towers and antenna combined."
General George Owen Squire, the U.S. Army's Chief Signal Officer, made his "strange discovery," as SciAm phrases it, while sitting in "a little portable house erected in thick woods near the edge of the District of Columbia," listening to signals "received through an oak tree for an antenna." This realization, that "trees—all trees, of all kinds and all heights, growing anywhere—are nature's own wireless towers and antenna combined."
He called this "talking through the trees."
Indeed, subsequent tests proved that, "[w]ith the remarkably sensitive amplifiers now available, it was not only possible to receive signals from all the principle [sic] European stations through a tree, but it has developed beyond a theory and to a fact that a tree is as good as any man-made aerial, regardless of the size or extent of the latter, and better in the respect that it brings to the operator's ears far less static interference."
Why build a radio station, in a sense, when you could simply plant a forest and wire up its trees?
[Images: From George Owen Squire's British Patent Specification #149,917, via rexresearch].
So how does it work? Alas, you can't just plug your headphones into a tree trunk—but it's close. From Scientific American:
The method of getting the disturbances in potential from treetop to instrument is so simple as to be almost laughable. One climbs a tree to two-thirds of its height, drives a nail a couple of inches into the tree, hangs a wire therefrom, and attaches the wire to the receiving apparatus as if it were a regular lead-in from a lofty copper or aluminum aerial. Apparently some of the etheric disturbances passing from treetop to ground through the tree are diverted through the wire—and the thermionic tube most efficiently does the rest.
Although "40 nails apparently produce no clearer signals than half a dozen," one tree can nonetheless "serve as a receiving station for several sets, either connected in series with the same material or from separate terminals."
[Image: Researching the possibility that whole forests could be used as radio stations—broadcasting weather reports, news from the front lines of war, and much else besides—is described by Scientific American as performing "tree radio work." Image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].
In a patent filing called "British Patent Specification #149,917," Squire goes on to explore the somewhat mind-bending possibilities offered by "radio transmission and reception through the use of living vegetable organisms such as trees, plants, and the like." He writes:
I have recently discovered that living vegetable organisms generally are adapted for transmission and reception of radio or high frequency oscillations, whether damped or undamped, with the use of a suitable counterpoise. I have further discovered that such living organisms are adapted for respectively transmitting or receiving a plurality of separate trains of radio or high frequency oscillations simultaneously, in the communication of either or both telephonic or telegraphic messages.
This research—the field of "tree radio work"—has not disappeared or been forgotten.
[Image: A tree in the Panamanian rain forest wired up as a sending-receiving antenna; from IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].
In the January 1975 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, we read the test results of several gentleman who went down to the rain forests of the Panama Canal Zone to test "the performance of conventional whip antennas... compared with the performance of trees utilized as antennas in conjunction with hybrid electromagnetic antenna couplers."
The authors specifically cite Squire's work and quote him directly: "'It would seem that living vegetation may play a more important part in electrical phenomena than has been generally supposed... If, as indicated above in these experiments, the earth's surface is already generously provided with efficient antennae, which we have but to utilize for communications...' These words were written in 1904 by Major George 0. Squire, U.S. Army Signal Corps, in a report to the Department of War in connection with military maneuvers in the Pacific Division."
The authors of the IEEE Transactions report thus establish up a jungle-radio "Test Area" in a remote corner of Panama, complete with trees wired-up as dual senders & receivers. There, they think they've figured out what's occurring on a large scale, as signals propagate through the forest canopy, writing that we should consider "the jungle as a maze of aperture-coupled screen rooms. In the jungle case, the screens, in the form of vertical tree and fern trunks, and the horizontal forest canopy are of variable thickness, have variable shaped apertures, and are composed of diverse substances that contain mostly water."
[Image: Inside the Panamanian jungle-radio Test Zone; image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].
The design implication of all this is that an ideal radio-receiving forest could be planted and maintained, complete with spatially tuned "aperture-coupled screen rooms" (trees of specific branch-density planted at specific distances from one another) to allow for the successful broadcast of messages (and/or music) through the "living vegetable organisms" that Squire wrote about in his patent application.
What other creatures—such as birds, bats, wandering children, foxes, or owls—might make of such a landscape, planted not for aesthetic or even ecological reasons, but for the purpose of smoothly relaying foreign radio stations or encrypted spy communications, is bewildering to contemplate.
In any case, this truly alien vision of forests silently crackling inside with unexploited radio noise is incredible, implying the existence of undiscovered "broadcasts" of biological noise, humming trunk to trunk amongst groves of remote forests like arboreal whale song, inaudible to human ears, as well as suggesting a near-miraculous venue for future concerts, where music would be played not through wireless headsets or hidden speakers lodged in the woods but through the actual trees, music shimmering from root to canopy, filling trees branch and grain with symphonies, drones, rhythms, songs, sounds occasionally breaking through car radios as they speed past on roads nearby.
These two fantastic books form a nice, if coincidental, duo, looking at the early days of scientific cartography and the innovative devices and mathematical techniques that made modern mapping possible. In Rachel Hewitt's case—a book I found very hard to put down, up reading it till nearly 2am several nights in a row—we trace the origins of the UK's Ordnance Survey by way of the devices, tools, precision instruments, and imperialist geopolitical initiatives of the time.
Similarly, Marguerite Holloway introduces us to, among many other things, the first measured imposition of the Manhattan grid. I mentioned Holloway's book the other day here on BLDGBLOG, and am also very happy to have been asked to blurb it. Here's my description: "This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of 19th-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and 5th Avenue. Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city."
For anyone at all interested in cartography, these make an excellent and intellectually stimulating pair.
I've spoken highly of Robert Macfarlane's writing before, and will continue to do so. His Wild Places remains one of my favorite books of the last few years, and I was thus thrilled to hear of his newest: a series of long walks (and a boat ride) through the British landscape, from coastal mudflats to chalk hills and peat bogs, following various kinds of well-worn routes and paths, the "old ways" of his book's title. Macfarlane's writing can occasionally strain for rapture when, in fact, it is precisely the mundane—nondescript earthen paths and overlooked back woods—that makes his "journeys on foot" so compelling; but this is an otherwise minor flaw in a highly readable and worthwhile new book.
Meanwhile, Richard Mabey has written an almost impossibly captivating history of weeds, "nature's most unloved plants." Covering invasive species, overgrown bomb sites in WWII London, and abandoned buildings, and relating stories from medieval poetry and 21st-century agribusiness to botanical science fiction, Mabey's book is an awesome sweep through the world of out-of-place plant life.
These three books variously describe encounters with the alien wilderness of a new world. Kelly Enright's look at "the jungle in American imagination" reads a bit too much like a revised Ph.D. thesis, but its central premise is fascinating, looking not only at the complex differences between the meaning of a jungle and that of a rain forest, but exploring, as she phrases it, "some of the consequences of expanding an American image and ideology of wilderness beyond American shores," from Theodore Roosevelt to the early days of tropical anthropology.
Annette Kolodny's review of what can more or less be summarized as the Viking discovery of North America is incredibly rich. Quoting from the cover, Kolodny "offers a radically new interpretation of two medieval Icelandic tales, known as the Vinland Sagas. She contends that they are the first known European narratives about contact with North America." However, in addition to these tales of "first contact," Kolodny examines rock carvings in Maine and Canada, as well as Native American folktales, to try to geographically and historically locate the moment when Europeans first arrived in North America, sailing up the small coastal rivers and setting foot on foreign land. Kolodny convincingly demonstrates, in the process, that the Viking discovery of North America was more or less widely accepted by 19th-century historians, but that, she argues, following a large influx of Italian immigrants toward the end of that century and into the 20th, the national importance of Christopher Columbus—an Italian—began to grow. From this emerged, she shows, a kind of narrative contest in which rugged northerners from a stoic, military culture (the Norse) were pitted against royalist Catholic Mediterranean family men as the true cultural progenitors of the United States. It is also interesting here to note that Kolodny assigned these early Icelandic contact narratives to her English literature class, asking students "to consider the possibility that American literature really began in these early 'contact' narratives that constructed a so-called New World and its peoples through and for the contemporary cultural understandings of the European imagination."
I read Michael Grunwald's The Swamp under particular circumstances—traveling around Florida as part of Venue, along with SmoutAllen and a group of students from the Bartlett School of Architecture (photos of that trip can be seen here and here)—which might have added to its appeal. But, either way, I was riveted. Grunwald's book presents, in effect, all of Florida south of Orlando as a massive series of ecologically misguided—but, from an economic perspective, often highly successful—terraforming projects. Speaking only for myself, the book made it impossible not to notice waterworks everywhere, on all sides and at every scale: every canal, storm sewer, water retention basin, highway overpass, levee, reservoir, drainage ditch, coastal inlet, and flood gate, all parts of an artificially engineered peninsula that wants to—and should—be swamp. Environmentally sensitive without being a screed, and written at the pace of a good New Yorker article, The Swamp was easily one of my favorite discoveries this year, a book I'd place up there with Marc Reisner's classic Cadillac Desert; it deserves the comparison for, if nothing else, its clear-eyed refocusing of attention onto a region's hydrology and onto civilization's larger attempts to manage wild lands (and waters), from the Seminole Wars to George W. Bush. Grunwald also makes clear something that I had barely even considered before, which is that south Florida is actually one of the most recently settled regions of the United States, far younger than the new states of the American West. South Florida, in many senses, is an event that only just recently happened—and Grunwald shows both how and why.
Here are two new books, each connected to the work of landscape architect and Columbia GSAPP urban planner, Kate Orff.
The first is a split project with photographer Richard Misrach, looking both directly and indirectly at petrochemical infrastructure and the landscapes it passes through in the state of Louisiana. Misrach's photos open the book with nearly 100 pages' worth of views into the rapidly transforming nature of Louisiana's so-called Cancer Alley, "showcasing the immediate plight of embattled local communities and surrounding industries." Orff's work follows in the second half of the book with what she calls an "Ecological Atlas" of the same region, mapping what currently exists, more thoroughly annotating Misrach's photos, and proposing new interventions for ecologically remediating the spoiled landscapes of the region.
The second book is an edited collection of essays and proposals for New York's Gateway National Recreational Area. Gateway is a strange combination of protected lands and artificial dredgescapes, at the border between ocean and land at the very edge of New York City. Photographs by Laura McPhee join essays by Ethan Carr, Christopher Hawthorne, and others to suggest a new role for parks in American urban life, and a new type of park in general, one that is distributed over discontinuous parcels of marginal land and includes large expanses of active waters.
Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook was inspired by the revelation that a person can navigate the city of Hong Kong over great distances without ever leaving architecture behind, meandering through complex networks of internal space, from walkways and shopping malls to escalators and covered footbridges. Indeed, one can explore Hong Kong without really setting foot on the surface of the earth at all, making it a "city without ground." The resulting labyrinthine spatial condition—consisting of "seemingly inescapable and thoroughly disorienting sequences" that cut through, around, between, and under nominally separate megastructures—has led the book's authors to produce a series of visually dense maps dissecting the various routes a pedestrian can take through the city. A particular highlight comes toward the end, where they focus solely on the city's air-conditioning, suggesting a kind of thermal cartography of indoor space and implying that temperature control and even humidity are better metrics for evaluating the success of a given project than mere visual or aesthetic concerns.
Massimo Scolari's Oblique Drawing also pursues the idea that there are other, less well-explored methods for representing the built environment. Although I was disappointed to find that the chapters are, in effect, separate, not always related papers that happen to share a common interest in architectural representation, the book manages to tie together everything from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the military drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, from medieval Christian landscapes to Chinese painting techniques and the Tower of Babel. Scolari's book was also mentioned here on the blog last week in the context of architectural espionage.
I was actually given a copy of Bulwark & Bastion while out at the surreal and extremely remote site of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas of Florida, and I read it on the 2-hour boat ride back to Key West. No more than a stapled pamphlet, like something you'd make at Kinko's, it is, nonetheless, an extremely interesting look at built landscapes of warfare and defense. Unsurprisingly, it includes a history of walled cities and forts from Europe; but—and this topic alone deserves a full-length book from a publisher like Princeton Architectural Press—it discusses in detail the landscape defenses of the American Civil War, including massive brick citadels in Alabama, Maryland, South Carolina, and New York City. Star forts, bastions, casements, field works, and other geometries of assault and counter-attack are all illustrated and diagrammed, and they're followed by a glossary of architectural defensive terms. Thoroughly enjoyable, in particular for anyone interested in military history.
Many of you will know Nick Sowers from his blogging at Archinect, where he explored the niche field of military landscapes and sound recordings. Nick was a deserving recipient of UC-Berkeley's generous Branner Fellowship, which gave him the resources to travel the world for nearly a year, visiting overseas military bases, old battlefields, and urban fortresses from Japan and the South Pacific to Western Europe, including even the legendary Maunsell Towers in London's Thames Estuary. At all of these sites, he made field recordings. Nick and I first met, in fact, down in Sydney, Australia, as part of Urban Islands back in 2009. This self-published book tells the story of those travels, including sketches and models from Nick's own final thesis project at Berkeley, black & white photos from his long circumambulations of closed U.S. bases overseas, and a consistently interesting series of observations on the spatial implications of sound in landscape design. Weird visions of limestone caves being vibrated into existence by the tropical sonic booms of military aircraft give the book a dream-like feel as it comes to a close. Congrats to Nick not only for putting this book together, but for organizing such an interesting, planet-spanning trip in the first place.
Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger's Architecture for Astronauts has an accompanying website where we read that a "number of extra-terrestrial habitats have been occupied over the last 40 years of space exploration by varied users over long periods of time. This experience offers a fascinating field to investigate the relationship between the built environment and its users." Häuplik-Meusburger goes on to definite extra-terrestrial habitat as "the 'houses and vehicles' where people live and work beyond Earth: non-planetary habitats such as a spacecraft or space station; and planetary habitats such as a base or vehicle on the Moon or Mars. These building types are set up in environments different from the one on Earth and can be characterized as 'extreme environments.' Multiple requirements arise for the architecture and design of such a habitat." These requirements include different lines of sight, a shifted posture for humans in low-gravity, and different needs for visual clarity and even thermal insulation—a very different architecture, indeed. Her book is thus organized as an activity guide for thinking through things like sleep, food, and hygiene, and how architects can reimagine the spatial requirements of each for the "extreme environments" into which these houses and vehicles might go.
Christopher Schaberg's Textual Life of Airports looks at the airport as a new kind of cultural space, one with its own emerging literature and its own untold stories, including what he calls "the secret stories of airports—the disturbing, uncomfortable, or smoothed over tales that lie just beneath the surface of these sites." Citing Marc Augé and ambient music, the "airport screening complex" and Steven Spielberg, his book tries to clarify some of the "spatial ambivalence" travelers feel in an airport's interconnected spaces. In the context of Häuplik-Meusburger's book, one wonders what future literatures will emerge for the transitional sites of offworld infrastructure, the spaceports and gravity-free hotels that may or may not be forthcoming for the human future.
For Urban Maps, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn "use the term 'map' loosely to describe any form of representation that reveals unseen space, latent conditions or narratives in and of the city." Their examples come from Google Street View, the photographs of urban explorers, advertisements, contemporary film, surveillance, and the art world, to name but a few.
Using an awesome font called Warsaw Book/Poster, Belgrade, Formal/Informal zeroes in on "a city that was isolated on the European periphery, a city a long history that was as significant as it was turbulent," to find what parts of a metropolis with such locally specific circumstances have managed to stay more or less the same, through both war and economic estrangement, and what parts were fundamentally transformed by larger, pan-European events and processes. Further, within this, and as the book's title suggests, they break the city into formal and informal sectors, the generic and the specific. The book is extensively illustrated, and attractively designed by Ludovic Balland.
Katherine Rinne teaches architecture at the CCA in Oakland, though her online project on the waters of Rome is hosted by the University of Virginia. Her book, The Waters of Rome, coalesces much of that work into a detailed study of the city's hydrological infrastructures, from the ancient to the nearly modern, with a particular emphasis on the city in its Baroque age. Her approach is "largely topographic," she explains in the book's introduction, tying even the innermost fountains and waterworks to the landscapes of hills and rivers outside the city. As she writes, "Rome's fountains are so dazzling that it is easy for even dedicated to overlook the profound changes that their construction initiated in the social, cultural, and physical life of the city. The transformation was systematic and structural, reaching from ancient springs outside the city walls to include aqueducts, fountains, conduits, drains, sewers, streets, and the Tiber. Because of gravity, which dictated distribution, the water's flow was constrained or encouraged by the existing topography, which influenced in part how the water was displayed or made available for use, who controlled it and who was served by it, what it cost, and obligations that attached to the people who were allowed to access it." The book is a vital addition to any syllabus or library on hydraulic urbanism.
From a cluster analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists examined the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and collaboratively speculated on how to feed New York in the future. The free afternoon program included designers, policy-makers, flavor scientists, culinary historians, food retailers, and others, for a wide-ranging discussion of New York’s food systems, past and present, as well as opportunities to transform our edible landscape through technology, architecture, legislation, and education.
The pamphlet is self-published through Lulu, and all purchases help Nicola & Sarah throw more such events in the future. And, while we're on the subject of food, don't miss Sarah's own recent book, Urban Farms.
A forensic database of electrical sounds is thus being developed by UK police, according to the BBC. "For the last seven years, at the Metropolitan Police forensic lab in south London," we read, "audio specialists have been continuously recording the sound of mains electricity. It is an all pervasive hum that we normally cannot hear. But boost it a little, and a metallic and not very pleasant buzz fills the air."
Any digital recording made anywhere near an electrical power source, be it plug socket, light or pylon, will pick up this noise and it will be embedded throughout the audio.
This buzz is an annoyance for sound engineers trying to make the highest quality recordings. But for forensic experts, it has turned out to be an invaluable tool in the fight against crime.
Even with—or, in fact, because of—slight fluctuations in the level of local electric power, such recordings can reveal sonic traces of where and when they were recorded; these barely audible details act as "a digital watermark," the BBC explains, secret audio artifacts that put "a date and time stamp on the recording."
You can thus acoustically prove that someone was in a certain part of, say, London at a certain time of day, and that a given audio recording is thus genuine (or faked), due to the exact signature of what electrical networks in that part of the city had been doing at the time.
It's like cosmic microwave background radiation, an immersive soundtrack—a sea of acoustic metadata—hidden in the built environment, detectable electronically, droning all around us at a volume usually below human hearing.
Some of my favorite architectural images of all time come from a series of photos taken by Fred R. Conrad for the New York Times, showing the remains of an 18th-century ship that was uncovered in the muddy depths of the World Trade Center site, a kind of wooden fossil, splayed out and preserved like a rib cage, embedded in the foundations of New York City.
Although it's almost embarrassing to admit how much I think of this—hoping, I suppose, that some vast wooden fleet will someday be discovered beneath Manhattan, lying there in wait, disguised as basements, anchored quietly inside skyscrapers, masts mistaken for telephone poles, perhaps even slowly rocking with the tidal rise of groundwater and subterranean streams—it came to mind almost immediately while re-reading a short book by art historian Indra Kagis McEwen called Socrates' Ancestor.
Really more of an etymological analysis of spatial concepts inherited from ancient Greece, from the idea of khôra to the myth of Icarus, McEwen's book has at least two interesting moments, the first of which relates directly to ships.
"At one important point in its history," she writes, "Athens literally became a fleet of ships."
When Themistocles evacuated Athens in 481 B.C. in the face of the Persian threat, the entire city put out to sea, taking with it its archaion agalma [or cult statue] of Athena Polias. And when, according to Plutarch, a certain person said to Themistocles "that a man without a city had no business to advise men who still had cities of their own" Themistocles answered,
It is true thou wretch, that we have left behind us our houses and our city walls, not deeming it meet for the sake of such lifeless things to be in subjection; but we still have a city, the greatest in Hellas, our two hundred triremes.
That is, the city took to the waves, physically and literally abandoning solid ground—leaving the earth behind, we might say—to go mobile, en masse, cutting through the water like Armada from The Scar, novelist China Miéville's "flotilla of dwellings. A city built on old boat bones." In The Scar, Miéville envisions "many hundreds of ships lashed together, spread over almost a square mile of sea, and the city built on them... Tangled in ropes and moving wooden walkways, hundreds of vessels facing all directions rode the swells."
Incredibly, in the very origins of Western urbanism, this offworld—or at least offshore—scenario actually played itself out, with the evacuation and subsequent becoming-maritime of the entire city of Athens, Greece.
The whole city just picked up, left dry ground, and sailed off for the horizon.
Briefly, McEwen's book has at least one other detail worth mentioning here: a comparison between ancient shipbuilding techniques and weaving—or, as she says, "the way ancient shipwrights assembled their craft is clearly analogous to the technique of weaving. To edge-join planks with mortise-and-tenon joints is, essentially, to interlace pieces of wood."
In the shipyard, planks laid in one direction were fastened to other planks by tenons that penetrated, or interlaced, the planks at right angles in order to bind them together. Similarly, on a loom, the warp threads (analogous to planks) extended in one direction are bound together by weft threads (analogous to tenons and pegs) traveling orthogonally, which interpenetrate the warp threads at right angles to make the cloth.
McEwen weaves this together with Vitruvius's descriptions of the very first buildings, where, in Vitruvius's own words, "first, with upright forked props and twigs put between, they wove their walls." That is, they "wove their walls" with wood—making some of the Western world's earliest architectural structures, as McEwen summarizes, both the product of and identical with "an upright Greek loom."
That is, they were textiles—as were ancient Greek ships. Like floating pieces of oversized clothing woven together from fallen forests.
I feel compelled to mention here that some of the most advanced techniques in architectural fabrication today involve, as it happens, a return to looms, or the 3D-weaving of architectural parts and spaces using, in some cases, technologies—such as carbon fiber weaving—borrowed from the automobile industry (as seen in the eye-popping video embedded above).
In any case, it is quite a heady thing to consider all this at once: vast looms at the southern tip of Manhattan, weaving in real-time an interlocking lacework of carbon fiber ship-buildings that depart immediately for the rising seas of the north Atlantic.
The city reveals its inner logic is not that of a grid but of a fleet—not landlocked buildings but patient ships—as silent streets peer out at the sea with longing.
[Image: A carved sandstone model of the incredible walled fortress-city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, found where else but within the walled fortress-city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; photo by BLDGBLOG].
In his new book Oblique Drawing, architectural historian Massimo Scolari refers in a footnote to a story that I have to assume is familiar to many readers, but one that was new to me, connecting architectural models to acts of espionage.
"A significant example [of this connection] is reported by Vasari in the case of the siege of Florence of 1529," Scolari explains.
During the night, Tribolo and an assistant secretly built an accurate relief model in cork, several meters wide, of the city and its fortifications. It was smuggled out of the besieged city in various pieces concealed inside bales of wool. This allowed the pope, aided by Baldassarre Peruzzi, to direct operations from a distance.
"Although the relief was made in the style of a pictorial view," Scolari adds, "it was considered evidence of espionage."
This cork model, meanwhile, conjures images from some as-yet-unwritten novel in which small, seemingly discontinuous models of a city are made in cork and then set floating down the river out of town; guards seeing the models float past simply assume some toymaker's cart has overturned upstream or that a careless woodshop has tossed its inventory into the river.
But these models are acts of war, to be assembled into a complete model later, and the spatial details they reveal are the vulnerabilities of the city.
[Image: Model of Jaisalmer; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Elsewhere, Scolari refers to other connections between spatial representations of the city and the possible military implications of those representations, once they reach their intended audience. He describes, for instance, "painter-spies who depicted the enemy's fortresses," under the guise of a leisurely aesthetic pursuit, and even Goethe once being forced to watched powerlessly as "local authorities" in Malcesine, Italy, "tore up the drawing he had made for his own pleasure of an abandoned castle." After all, they reasoned, it might have been a fortifications study, or what we might call structural espionage disguised as sketching.
Among many things here, what's interesting about all this—aside from the dizzying variety of possibilities that arise when thinking about a kind of alternative history of the architectural model as a tool for heists, espionage, assassination, and urban warfare—is that this feared dual-use of architectural images is still alive and well today. We need look no further, for instance, than to often-illegitimate photography bans inside government buildings (or subways), or limits on cameras inside retail stores, or, in the case of my trip to India earlier this year from which the above photos come, a ban on taking photographs from a boat of the Mumbai harbor and even a nationwide ban on aerial photography that was only lifted back in 2004.
In all cases, images depicting architecture are seen not as representationally innocent parts of architectural history but, we might say, as warfare by other means. Indeed, one could easily imagine an entire wing of a spy museum somewhere consisting of nothing but declassified architectural models made with whatever raw materials were available at hand, assembled for no other purpose than to undercut the very spaces they aim to depict.
At the end of her forthcoming book The Measure of Manhattan, author Marguerite Holloway refers to the impossibility of precisely locating, using today's GPS technology, the bolt left behind by surveyor John Randel, her book's subject, back in 1811 as he staked out Manhattan's future grid.
Being on the road right now, I don't have my copy of Holloway's book with me, so I won't be able to quote her book directly; instead, I will rely on the New York Times for some brief context. Randel spent "10 years staking out and marking the intersections from First Street to 155th Street with 1,549 three-foot-high marble monuments and, when the ground was too rocky, with 98 iron bolts secured by lead. (He had to resurvey 30 miles after vandals or disgruntled property owners removed the markers.)"
Manhattan at that time was thus, however briefly, a kind of game board or field of acupuncture points—a ghost grid, in advance of the city it surveyed—with thousands of monuments and bolts pinning down the spots where streets and intersections would soon appear.
Holloway's concluding point, however, is that even something as real and tangible as Randel's iron bolts, anchored by lead into solid bedrock, nonetheless remain extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to map with objective accuracy. The earth slips outside of our satellites and survey systems, even if only by a fraction of a centimeter, always just beyond the promise of perfect measuring.
[Image: The grid arrives before the streets it surveys].
I thought of this recently when two quick stories popped up on my radar:
1) Down in Ecuador, a country named after the Equator that passes through it, a monument dividing the northern and southern hemispheres is, as it happens, in the wrong place:
Those who visit the Middle of the World, a government-owned park that pays tribute to the Equator, are not drawn by the trinket shops or cafes offering roasted guinea pig. They want to stand on a yellow line painted on the ground here that is said to be precisely at Earth’s midpoint—0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.
Except that it is not.
The Equator is hundreds of feet to the north.
According to one person there, the ground conditions at the actual Equator are not stable enough to hold a monument nor to welcome the huge crowds that regularly arrive to see it; according to someone else, however, the monument's original builders "believed they were placing the monument in the correct spot, except that measuring techniques at the time were not as accurate as they are today, so they were off by a few hundred feet."
This is why a private counter-monument has been built, supposedly on the real Equator, in a place called Inti-ñan: "just a two-minute drive from the Middle of the World, at a small, privately owned site called Inti-ñan, there is a sign on a gate saying that its location is 'calculated with GPS' to be exactly at 0 latitude." However, as we glimpsed with the help of Marguerite Holloway, commercially available GPS is not as precise as most people believe it to be, and it is subject to its own asynchronies and drifts. (For those of you interested in the political implications of inaccurate mapping technologies, amongst other things, be sure to keep a look out for Laura Kurgan's Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics this coming spring).
As such, we read, even nominally accurate GPS readings at Inti-ñan actually "varied depending on how devices were calibrated. That, [a local guide] said, was why, on this occasion, a visitor's GPS held over the line of bricks that Inti-ñan uses to mark its claim to equatorial exactitude showed that it was still several yards to the south of where it ought to be."
Passing their GPS receivers over the monument like dowsing rods or geodetic ghost detectors, these tourists of the world-system would thus realize, again and again, that they both were and were not standing in the wrong place, both arriving at and never quite reaching their destination.
In a recent piece for the Guardian, Frances Stonor Saunders explains that "the south pole doesn't stay still."
It drifts at a rate of about 10 metres a year, and because of the Earth's axial tilt... it also wobbles. Every New Year's Day, the pole's marker is moved to indicate its new position, though in the time it takes to drive the marker into the ice-pack the pole has already shifted slightly.
In fact, Saunders points out, "There are other poles on Antarctica, and they too move around, pursued by scientists with their markers."
There's the pole of inaccessibility, for the greatest distance from a coast; the cold pole, for the most frigid place; the pole of variability, for the spot with the greatest range in atmospheric pressure. The most (upwardly) mobile is the south magnetic pole, which has moved over 500 miles north-west since its discovery by members of Shackleton's Nimrod expedition more than a century ago.
All these lines and tropics, equators and poles, passing back and forth over the fallible monuments that mark them, as entire planet-spanning systems of measurement and location miss their marks by inches, feet, kilometers, degrees, momentarily accurate but almost always wrong.
The New York Times this morning profiles a plant pathologist at Washington State University named Gary Chastagner, who "heads one of the nation’s half-dozen Christmas tree research labs." These labs include institutions such as WSU-Puyallup (producing "research-based information that creates a high-quality Christmas tree product for consumers"), New Mexico State University ("screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species"), NC State (whose research includes "support on agritourism aspects of Christmas tree farms," as well as a related Christmas Tree Genetics Program), and many more.
While I realize there is absolutely no connection here, and that this is purely and only an example of conceptual confusion, I will admit that there was initially something of an odd thrill in reading about "Christmas Tree Genetics," as two ideas briefly and incorrectly overlapped: the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation (or the belief that the body and blood of Christ appears, literally, in physical form here on Earth, through the transformation of everyday materials such as bread and wine... and Christmas trees?) and the European-druidic worship of various tree species, thus implying, as if from some strange theo-botanical forestry program, the genetic modification and/or enhancement over time of new holy tree species, with iconic and sacramental trans-subtantial holiday forests cultivated on research farms throughout the United States.
In any case, this national Christmas tree research program includes apparently extreme steps that almost seem to justify such an otherwise misbegotten interpretation, including "the largest and most sophisticated of operations," as described by the New York Times, where scientists "harvest almost a million trees a year from an 8,500-acre plantation and remove them by helicopter" for analysis elsewhere, and a brief experiment that tested "whether you can successfully hydrate a Christmas tree with an IV drip," like some arboreal patient seeking hospice from an ecosystem that betrayed it. You could probably soon get an M.S. in Christmas Tree Science.
The goal is to develop new and improved tree species for both indoor and outdoor display during the holiday season, and, along the way, to create a tree that can last weeks—even months—in a post-mortem state without shedding its needles.
These ever more clean and tidy trees can thus pop-up in houses, retail displays, shopping malls, outdoor plazas, and Catholic high schools around the world, forming new "migratory forests," in the words of architect Sam Jacob, that take up residence—but not root—in our cities once a year before retreating, in wait, for the next season.
This vision of a pop-up forest—an instant indoor ecosystem of genetically perfected, not-quite-trans-substantial tree species—brings to mind a different kind of pop-up forest, one that I wrote about for the most recent "year in ideas" issue of Wired UK.
That all too brief piece looks ahead to an age of "insurgent shrublands," disturbed landscapes, and other "fast-emerging but short-lived ecosystems in an era of nonlinear climate change." It refers to work by, amongst others, Natalie Boelman and Kevin Griffin, who are currently pursuing otherwise unrelated work at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and science writer Andrew Revkin; and it covers a variety of ideas, from the changing soundscapes of the Arctic as the rapidly defrosting polar north fills up with new, invasive bird songs, to the increased likelihood of tree-branch collapse as certain species—such as oak—grow much faster in polluted urban atmospheres.
In this context, the idea of a "pop-up forest" takes on a different, altogether less celebratory meaning.
On the 90th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut's tomb, an "authorized facsimile of the burial chamber" has been created, complete "with sarcophagus, sarcophagus lid and the missing fragment from the south wall."
The resulting duplicate, created with the help of high-res cameras and lasers, is "an exact facsimile of the burial chamber," one that is now "being sent to Cairo by The Ministry of Tourism of Egypt."
This act of architectural replication-at-a-distance has been described in a fascinating booklet—from which these quotations come—just released by the Factum Foundation as an extreme act of conservation, "a new initiative to safeguard this and other [Egyptian] tombs... through the application of new recording technologies and the creation of exact facsimiles of tombs that are either closed to the public for conservation reasons or are in need of closure to preserve them for future generations."
Assembling the back-up tomb took place further south, in Luxor, requiring a step-by-step process. Laser-equipped conservationists first had "to digitize the tombs, archive and transform the data and then re-materialize the information in three dimensions at a scale of 1:1."
The booklet both describes and visually documents the time and attention that went into everything from milling minute details into polyurethane sheets to printing full-color replica wall images onto "a thin flexible ink-jet ground backed with an acrylic gesso and then an elastic acrylic support... built in seven layers [that are then] rolled onto a slightly textured silicon mold" that serves as the artificial tomb walls.
Even that skips the thousands of hours devoted purely to laser-scanning.
[Image: One of the scanning set-ups used to "record" the tombs, courtesy of the Factum Foundation].
Taken all together, this has proven, the Foundation explains, "that it is possible, through the use of digital technology, to record the surfaces and structure of the tombs in astonishing detail and reproduce it physically in three dimensions without significant loss of information."
Interestingly, we read that this was "done under a licence to the University of Basel," which implies the very real possibility that unlicensed duplicate rooms might also someday be produced—that is, pirate interiors ripped or printed from the original data set, like building-scale "physibles," a kind of infringed architecture of object torrents taking shape as inhabitable rooms.
However, equally interesting is something else the project documentation mentions: that every historical monument—every tomb, artifact, or even outdoor space—comes with "specific recording challenges," and these challenges include things like humidity, temperature, and dust. This, then, further implies that the resulting "exact replicas" could very well include what we would, in other contexts, refer to as render glitches, or simply representational mistakes built into the final product due to flaws of accuracy in the equipment used to produce it.
As such, given enough time, a huge budget, and lots of interns, we could perhaps expect to see a series of these "exact" copies gradually diverge more and more—a detail here, a detail there—from the original reference space, a chain of inexact repetitions and flawed surrogates that eventually come to define their own architecture, with, we can imagine, no recognizable original in sight.
This story of King Tut's duplicate tomb brings to mind—amongst other things, including multiple complete replicas of the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux—a collection of 3D-printed cuneiform texts at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab.
For that project, professors Hod Lipson and David I. Owen "had the idea of implementing 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to create physical replicas of the tablets [using ZCorp powder-based ink-jet printers] that look and feel almost exactly like the originals."
[Image: 3D-printed replicant cuneiform tablets by Hod Lipson and David Owen at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab].
The idea is that, with the right networks of scanners and printers, as well as curatorial access to museum collections around the world, perhaps we might be able to reproduce, more or less at will, otherwise unique historical objects. We could download ancient stone tools, for instance, print out a quick wall fragment to use in a lecture, or sew together expertly aged carpets and clothes.
Why go to a museum at all, then, when you can simply buy the right printhead?
The nature of how we might encounter historical objects in an era of near-exact 3D recording technologies—that is, that such objects might not be encountered at all, having long ago been replaced by "authorized facsimiles"—returns, in many ways, to an earlier mode of object conservation and inheritance.
In their book Anachronic Renaissance, for instance, Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood write of what they call a long "chain of effective substitutions" or "effective surrogates for lost originals" that nonetheless reached the value and status of an icon in medieval Europe. "[O]ne might know that [these objects] were fabricated in the present or in the recent past," Nagel and Wood write, "but at the same time value them and use them as if they were very old things." They call this seeing in "substitutional terms":
To perceive an artifact in substitutional terms was to understand it as belonging to more than one historical moment simultaneously. The artifact was connected to its unknowable point of origin by an unreconstructible chain of replicas.
These replicas—for example, painted panels, statuettes, and even architectural models—could thus still hold the aura, if you will, of a timeless past, the weight of true history, not simply that of a souvenir, despite being nothing more than references and echoes of what often turned out to be very different originals.
King Tut's facsimile tomb, meanwhile, is an interesting variation on this idea of substitutional thinking, a decoy spatial antiquity that could very well outlive the place it was meant to help preserve.
Those banana-ripening rooms alone deserve an exclamation point, as Edible Geography's write-up of an earlier such trip—albeit to a facility here in New York—makes clear. In Nicola's highly-recommended exploration of what she calls the "vast, distributed artificial winter that has reshaped our entire food system" and that "remains," she says, "for the most part, unmapped," we read that banana-ripening rooms are "a specialized architecture of pressurized, temperature- and atmosphere-controlled rooms that, contrary to logical expectation, require heavy-duty refrigeration." As such, they are a kind of spatio-thermal fantasy straight out of the work of architect Philippe Rahm.
Until the 1950s, Los Angeles County was the top agricultural county in the United States; now, it has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation. With the Los Angeles Food Policy Council approaching its second birthday, the timing is perfect for a truly cross-disciplinary discussion that explores the past, present, and future of food and the city. Foodprint L.A. panelists will explore the forces that have shaped the Angeleno foodscape—from taco trucks to the world's largest Frito factory and the eviction of South Central Farm—and speculate on how to feed Los Angeles in the future.
As usual, this installment of Foodprint features four panels: Feast, Famine, and Other Scenarios (moderated by Alexis Madrigal); Edible Archaeology (moderated by Sarah Rich); Culinary Cartography (moderated by Nicola Twilley); and Zoning Diet (moderated by myself, of all people).
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my editors, employers, publishers, friends, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated.