Starfish City

[Image: A Starfish site, like a pyromaniac's version of Archigram, via the St. Margaret's Community Website; view larger].

A few other things that will probably come up this evening at the Architectural Association, in the context of the British Exploratory Land Archive project, are the so-called "Starfish sites" of World War II Britain. Starfish sites "were large-scale night-time decoys created during The Blitz to simulate burning British cities."

[Image: A Starfish site burning, via the St. Margaret's Community Website; view larger].

Their nickname, "Starfish," comes from the initials they were given by their designer, Colonel John Turner, for "Special Fire" sites or "SF."

As English Heritage explains, in their list of "airfield bombing decoys," these misleading proto-cities were "operated by lighting a series of controlled fires during an air raid to replicate an urban area targeted by bombs." They would thus be set ablaze to lead German pilots further astray, as the bombers would, at least in theory, fly several miles off-course to obliterate nothing but empty fields camouflaged as urban cores.

They were like optical distant cousins of the camouflaged factories of Southern California during World War II.

Being in a hotel without my books, and thus relying entirely on the infallible historical resource of Wikipedia for the following quotation, the Starfish sites "consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town. By the end of the war there were 237 decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country."

[Image: Zooming-in on the Starfish site, seen above; image via the St. Margaret's Community Website].

The specific system of visual camouflage used at the sites consisted of various special effects, including "fire baskets," "glow boxes," reflecting pools, and long trenches that could be set alight in a controlled sequence so as to replicate the streets and buildings of particular towns—1:1 urban models built almost entirely with light.

In fact, in some cases, these dissimulating light shows for visiting Germans were subtractively augmented, we might say, with entire lakes being "drained during the war to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft."

Operational "instructions" for turning on—that is, setting ablaze—"Minor Starfish sites" can be read, courtesy of the Arborfield Local History Society, where we also learn how such sites were meant to be decommissioned after the war. Disconcertingly, despite the presence of literally tons of "explosive boiling oil" and other highly flammable liquid fuel, often simply lying about in open trenches, we read that "sites should be de-requisitioned and cleared of obstructions quickly in order to hand the land back to agriculture etc., as soon as possible."

The remarkable photos posted here—depicting a kind of pyromaniac's version of Archigram, a temporary circus of flame bolted together from scaffolding—come from the St. Margaret's Community Website, where a bit more information is available.

In any case, if you're around London this evening, Starfish sites, aerial archaeology, and many other noteworthy features of the British landscape will be mentioned—albeit in passing—during our lecture at the Architectural Association. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood...

(Thanks to Laura Allen for first pointing me to Starfish sites).

Ice Age Aerial

[Image: Photo: The "cemetery and church at Teampull Eion, Isle of Lewis," courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland].

One of many things I was excited to discover while working on the British Exploratory Land Archive project, and while getting ready for tonight's lecture at the Architectural Association, is the "Scotland's Landscapes" collection of aerial archaeology photographs from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

[Image: (top) The "remains of White Castle Fort"; (bottom) the "remains of the Northshield Rings." Photos courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland].

"As the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded," we read, "Scotland's earliest ancestors ventured northwards, exploring a wild, fertile territory. Nomadic hunter-gatherers at first, they made the decision to stay for good—to farm and to build. From that moment on, people began to write their story firmly into the fabric of the landscape." Indeed, today, "every inch of Scotland—whether remote hilltop, fertile floodplain, or storm-lashed coastline—has been shaped, changed and moulded by its people."

[Image: Photo: The (modernday) "Fife Earth Project at St. Ninian's Open Cast Site," courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland].

Quoting at length:
The landscapes they lived on were remarkable in their diversity. Vast forests of pine and birch ran through one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges—once as high as the Himalayas but over millennia scoured and compressed by sheets of ice a mile thick. On hundreds of islands around a saw-edged coastline, communities flourished, linked to each other and the wider world by the sea, the transport superhighway of ancient times.
Many of the resulting settlements have the appearance of inland islands, isolated shapes and ringed perimeters still visible from the air.

[Image: Photo: The "remains of the lazy beds and enclosures at Muidhe on the Isle of Skye," courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland].

In any case, here are some of the photos—just a random selection of eye-candy for a Thursday afternoon.

[Images: Aerial view of Lochindorb Castle, courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland].

Meanwhile, these and many other photos are available in a new book by James Crawford, called Scotland's Landscapes: The National Collection of Aerial Photography, and you can see more online here.

Floating Cities and Site Surveys

[Image: Photo by Mark Smout of a photo by Mark Smout, for the British Exploratory Land Archive].

I'm delighted to say that work originally produced for the British Pavilion at last summer's Venice Biennale will go on display this week at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, beginning tomorrow, 26 February.

This will include, among many other projects, from studies of so-called "new socialist villages" in China to floating buildings in Amsterdam, to name but a few, the British Exploratory Land Archive (BELA) for which BLDGBLOG collaborated with architects Smout Allen in proposing a British version of the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles. BELA would thus survey, catalog, explore, tour, document, and archive in one location the huge variety of sites in Britain altered by and used by human beings, from industrial sites to deserted medieval villages, slag heaps to submarine bases, smuggler's hideouts to traffic-simulation grounds. A few of these sites have already been documented in massive photographs now mounted at the RIBA, also featuring architectural instruments designed specifically for the BELA project and assembled over the summer in Hackney.

[Image: From the British Exploratory Land Archive].

However, if you're curious to know more and you happen to be in London on Thursday, 28 February, consider stopping by the Architectural Association to hear Smout Allen and I speak in more detail about the project. That talk is free and open the public, and it kicks off at 6pm; I believe architect Liam Young will be introducing things. Meanwhile, the aforementioned study of floating architecture in Amsterdam will be presented by its collaborative team—dRMM—at the RIBA on Tuesday night, 26 February, so make your calendars for that, as well (and check out the full calendar of related talks here).

The RIBA is at 66 Portland Place and the AA is in Bedford Square.

The Fifth Wall

[Image: Green screen; image via Geek Magazine].

Earlier this week, Petro Vlahos, described by the BBC as "the pioneer of blue- and green-screen systems" in cinema, passed away. Vlahos's highly specific recoloring of certain surfaces in the everyday built environment allowed "filmmakers to superimpose actors and other objects against separately filmed backgrounds"; they are walls that aren't really there:
He called his invention the colour-difference travelling matte scheme. Like pre-existing blue-screen techniques it involves filming a scene against an aquamarine blue-coloured background. This is used to generate a matte—which is transparent wherever the blue-colour features on the original film, and opaque elsewhere. This can then be used to superimpose a separately filmed scene or visual effects to create a composite.
Special effects, animated actors, entire sets and spaces that weren't physically present during filming: these aquamarine-colored surfaces are almost conjuring windows through which other environments can be optically inserted into filmed representations of the present moment.

These sorts of walls and surfaces are not architecture, we might say, but pure spatial effects, a kind of representational sleight of hand through which the boundaries and contents of a location can be infinitely expanded. There is no "building," then, to put this in Matrix-speak; there are only spatial implications. Green screen architecture, here, would simply be a visual space-holder through which to substitute other environments entirely: a kind of permanent, physically real special effect that, in the end, is just a coat of paint.

It's interesting, in this interpretation, that "green screens" or a rough optical equivalent are not more commonly utilized in architectural or interior design—even if only as an ironic gesture toward the possibility that, say, a group of friends taking photographs in your living room, with its weird green wall on one side, or in the lobby of that hotel, with its green screen backdrop, might somehow be able to insert into the resulting photographs otherwise non-present spatial realities, as if they had been photographed in front of a Stargate or a Holodeck, a window creaking open between worlds.

In fact, this was exactly the strange feeling I had when living just two buildings away from a green screen lot in Los Angeles, as if the painted green surface there, looming over the empty lot on our street corner, was standing sentinel, patiently awaiting new worlds to appear, all the while being nothing more than a wall of green plywood.

Optical Calibration Targets

[Image: "Three tri-bar targets remaining at Cuddeback Lake... the flat surfaces are peeling, crumbling and sprouting, producing dimensionality, and relief." Photo by and courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation].

"There are dozens of aerial photo calibration targets across the USA," the Center for Land Use Interpretation reports, "curious land-based two-dimensional optical artifacts used for the development of aerial photography and aircraft. They were made mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, though some apparently later than that, and many are still in use, though their history is obscure."

These symbols—like I-Ching trigrams for machines—are used as "a platform to test, calibrate, and focus aerial cameras traveling at different speeds and altitudes," CLUI explains, similar to "an eye chart at the optometrist, where the smallest group of bars that can be resolved marks the limit of the resolution for the optical instrument that is being used."

[Image: A tri-bar array at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; via CLUI].

Formally speaking, the targets could be compared to mis-painted concrete parking lots in the middle of the nowhere, using "sets of parallel and perpendicular bars duplicated at 15 or so different sizes." This "configuration is sometimes referred to as a 5:1 aspect Tri-bar Array, and follows a similar relative scale as a common resolution test chart known as the 1951 USAF Resolving Power Test Target, conforming to milspec MIL-STD-150A. This test pattern is still widely used to determine the resolving power of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, and scanners."

[Image: A "standard tri-bar test pattern on the Photo Resolution Range at Edwards that has been greatly expanded," CLUI writes; via CLUI].

CLUI points out that the history and location of the tri-bar patterns corresponds to the rise of high-altitude "flying cameras" developed during the Cold War—i.e. spy planes whose purpose was not to deliver ordnance to the far side of the world but simply to take detailed photographs.

[Image: An "especially exotic" expanded tri-bar array at Fort Huachuca, Arizona; via CLUI].

Further, "the largest concentration of calibration targets in one place is on the grounds of Edwards Air Force Base" in California, "in an area referred to as the photo resolution range, where 15 calibration targets run for 20 miles across the southeast side of the base in a line, so multiple targets can be photographed in one pass. There is some variation in the size and shape of the targets at Edwards, suggesting updates and modifications for specific programs. A number of the targets there also have aircraft hulks next to them, added to provide additional, realistic subjects for testing cameras."

A quick scan of Google Maps locates the photo resolution range relatively easily; broadly speaking, just go up to the right and down to the left from, say, this point and you'll find the targets.

[Image: Calibration targets from the photo resolution range, Edwards Air Force Base; from Google Maps].

Although I am truly fascinated by what sorts of optical landmarks might yet be developed for field-testing the optical capabilities of drones, as if the world might soon be peppered with opthalmic infrastructure for self-training autonomous machines, it is also quite intriguing to realize that these calibration targets are, in effect, ruins, obsolete sensory hold-overs from an earlier age of film-based cameras and less-powerful lenses. Calibrating nothing, they are now just curious emblems of a previous generation of surveillance technology, robot-readable hieroglyphs whose machines have all moved on.

(Via the Studio-X NYC Tumblr).

Fault Wall

With my eyes on all things fault-related these days, as we're now in the third week of the San Andreas Fault National Park studio up at Columbia, I was interested in a brief moment from poet Simon Armitage's new memoir, Walking Home.

[Image: Hadrian's Wall (not the wall described below) on the Whin Sill, via Wikipedia].

While hiking with a friend across a geological formation called the Whin Sill, in the northern Pennines, Armitage learns something extraordinary:
Stopping to appreciate a high and long dry-stone wall that bisects two valleys, [his fellow hiker] Chris explains how the shape, size, colour and consistency of the stones begins to change along its course, a consequence of wall-builders using the nearest available material while quarrying across a fault-line, so the wall becomes a kind of cross-section of the bedrock below us, and a timeline also, and after a few minutes of looking I almost convince myself that I can see the difference.
Whether or not this is even geologically true—and Armitage himself seems hesitant to accept the insight—the idea that fissures in the earth can be made visible in architecture is an implication worth contemplating, as if human spatial constructions, or, more importantly, the materials from which they're made, can act as signs or perhaps symptoms for long-dead titanic events of incredible force and violence otherwise invisible inside the planet.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Rock Type

[Image: Recording a landscape; photo courtesy of Jan Magne Gjerde, via Past Horizons Archaeology].

Last winter, Past Horizons Archaeology ran some remarkable photos from a site in NW Russia, close to the border with Norway, where more than a thousands petroglyphs have been discovered carved into the horizontal surface of the local bedrock.

Most of the site had been buried under 5,000 years' worth of mud, soil, and plant roots, and was only recently cleared by Jan Magne Gjerde, who otherwise works as a project manager at Norway's Tromsø University Museum.

[Image: The team looks down at the earth they will soon record; photo courtesy of Jan Magne Gjerde, via Past Horizons Archaeology].

"In the summer of 2005," we read, "Gjerde drove more than 1000 kilometres east to Lake Kanozero," where the glyphs are located.

"Together with Russian colleagues he discovered what he calls some of the world’s oldest animated cartoons." The glyphs, in other words, constituted a narrative—in this case, of a bear hunt. The sprawling series of images depict "a hunter who is heading uphill on skis and tracking a bear. The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps—and plunges his spear into the bear."

Indeed, "The figures depicted in the Lake Kanozero rock carvings include moose, boats, whales, humans, harpoon lines, beavers and all kinds of other ordinary and extraordinary images and scenes from the distant past."

[Image: The petroglyphs; photo courtesy of Jan Magne Gjerde, via Past Horizons Archaeology].

Interestingly, though, "Boats represent one of the most popular motifs in the rock art of Kanozero; they form 16% of all figures," historians E.M. Kolpakov and V.Y. Shumkin explain in a paper published in Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia.

[Image: Boat glyphs from Lake Kanozero, courtesy of Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia].

In addition to the obvious interest of the site itself, though, the ensuing method of documentation is pretty awesome: Jan Magne Gjerde and his team camped out for ten days and traced all of the petroglyphs with chalk, covered the whole thing with huge plastic sheets, and then traced onto the sheets with felt-tip pen the graphic storyboards seen on the rocks below. This could then "be brought back home and properly photographed and documented." [Image: The petroglyphs and their tracing paper; photo courtesy of Jan Magne Gjerde, via Past Horizons Archaeology].

It should be published as a graphic novel! The world's oldest comic book.

Meanwhile, as part of the ongoing Venue project—which has slowly been accumulating posts, for those of you who haven't checked in for a while—we have been visiting a number of petroglyph sites out west in the United States, including images of animal hunts and atlatl-throwing etched into the rocks outside Las Vegas, of all places, and Utah's famous "Newspaper Rock," a kind of literary pilgrimage site, or monument to narrative media.

But these sorts of sites also always make me think that we cannot be far away from having easily deployable, personally affordable, field-rugged 3D milling machines capable of carving petroglyphs of our own into hard rocks anywhere in the world. Set up a Petroglyph National Sacrifice Zone or a Petroglyph Park on private rocky land somewhere in the Peak District or the mountains northeast of Yuma and build up the scaffolding for your inscription robot -slash- writing machine, and a future mythology of rock glyphs might emerge, carved two inches deep in solid granite.

[Image: Field scaffolding set up to study rock art in Egypt; photo ©RMAH, Brussels, courtesy of YaleNews].

Literature becomes a place you visit, a rock-carving district of canyons and massifs tattooed with bands and sprays of plots and character arcs. Shelled, self-repairing robots chisel all day and night, GPS-stabilized and surrounded by clouds of rock dust. Goggled supervisors—librarians of geology partially deafened by chisels—wander the site, preparing themselves to someday lead tours through this labyrinth of glyphs and words.

Caustic Engineering

New milling techniques applied to glass and plexiglass panels could be used to "create windows that are also cryptic projectors, summoning ghostly images from sunlight."

[Image: A piece of milled plexiglass acting as a projecting lens; via the Computer Graphics and Geometry Lab at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne].

They do so by "taking control of a seemingly chaotic optical phenomena known as caustics," in the words of New Scientist. Mark Pauly and Philippe Bompas have been experimenting with so-called "caustic engineering," combining Pauly's background in computational geometry and Bompas's interest in manipulating otherwise "unintentional light shows produced by the reflection and refraction of light from curved mirrors or glass structures." Indeed, Bompas's work has a somewhat Neoplatonic overtone, as it involves "working backwards from a pattern of light to deduce the structure needed to create it."

Working together, Pauly and Bompas—not Bompas and Parr—set out to fabricate "a large, transparent plate capable of generating a high-resolution image when a light was shone through it," and they "chose to make the plate in perspex, which is easier to shape than glass." You can see it in the image included in this post.

The architectural implications are obvious, and are brought to the fore by the New Scientist article from which I'm quoting. For instance: "Now [Pauly and Bompas] hope that the technique will be used in architectural design, to create windows that mould sunlight and throw images or patterns onto walls or floors," which, if timed, milled, and manipulated just right, could produce a slowly animated sequence of images being projected by an otherwise empty window during different times of day. After all, "it should be possible to create a transparent plate containing several overlayed caustics that become visible as an animation as the light source moves."

One piece of glass, infinitely dense with visual imagery, a kind of dream-prism casting slow two-hour films across the floor as the day goes by.

[Image: Reflections off glass or other polished surfaces could be controlled—that is, manipulated into producing recognizable images or specific shapes—by way of "caustic engineering"; Creative Commons photo by Flickr user passer-by].

This can work not only with light passing through milled transparent surfaces but with light bouncing off complexly shaped reflective surfaces—something the article describes as pieces of metal that look like "the mildly dented bodywork of a car" (i.e. parametric formalism in architecture today) creating recognizable images in the weird sprays of light they produce.

Curve a building just right with the daily passage of the sun, placing caustic windows at key moments so that their reflections or projections overlap like edits, and your building is now a cinema: an optical landmark with content, in the narrative life of the city. Buskers offer optional soundtracks. Reflection festivals arise on sidewalks. Milled glass objects play filmloops in the sun.

Soft Launch

The long-awaited second installment of Bracket, a co-publication of Archinect, InfraNet Lab, and ACTAR, is finally here. The new issue is themed around "soft systems" in architecture and landscape design, or "systems, networks and technologies that are responsive, adaptable, scalable, non-linear, and multivalent," as the editors describe it. The resulting soft-systems issue was edited by Lola Sheppard and Neeraj Bhatia of InfraNet Lab, with guest input from Benjamin Bratton, Julia Czerniak, Jeffrey Inaba, Philippe Rahm, Charles Renfro, and myself.

This month, Bracket will be hosting no fewer than three launch parties for the issue: Thursday, February 7th, at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge, Ontario, at 11am; Sunday, February 17th, at Architecture Center Houston, with presentations by Neeraj Bhatia, Scott Colman, Ned Dodington, and Christopher Hight; and this Friday, February 8th, at Studio-X NYC in Manhattan, kicking off at 6:30pm, with short presentations by Neeraj Bhatia, Fionn Byrne, Michael Chen, Leigha Dennis, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, Chris Perry, and a few brief comments of my own about the guest-editorial process. The Studio-X event is free and open to the public, and takes place at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610; information about the other events can be found through the links, above.

Read more about the Bracket editorial project at their website.