Lightning Farm

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida's Lightning Research Group].

This past winter, I had the pleasure of traveling around south Florida with Smout Allen, Kyle Buchanan, and nearly two dozen students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Florida's variable terrains—of sink holes, swamps, and eroding beaches—and its Herculean infrastructure, from canals and freeways to theme parks and rocket facilities, served as the narrative backdrop for the many architectural projects ultimately produced by the class (in addition, of course, to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, the results of which we watched live from the bar of a tropical-themed hotel near Cape Canaveral, next door to Ron Jon).

While there were many, many interesting projects resulting from the trip, and from the Unit in general, there is one that I thought I'd post here, by student Farah Aliza Badaruddin, particularly for the quality of its drawings.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

Badaruddin's project explored the large-scale architectural implications of applying radical weather technologies to the task of landscape remediation, asking specifically if Cape Canaveral's highly contaminated ground water—polluted by a "viscous toxic goo" made from tens of thousands of pounds of rocket fuels, chemical plumes, solvents, and other industrial waste products over the decades—could be decontaminated through pyrolysis, using guided and controlled bursts of lightning.

In her own words, Badaruddin explains that the would test "the idea that lightning can be harnessed on-site to pyrolyse highly contaminated groundwater as an approach to remediate the polluted site."

These controlled and repetitive lightning strikes would also, in turn, help fertilize the soil, producing a kind of bio-electro-agricultural event of truly cosmic (or at least Miller-Ureyan) proportions.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida Lightning Research Group].

Her maps of the area—which she presents as if drawn in a Moleskine notebook—show the terrestrial borders of the proposal (although volumetric maps of the sky, showing the project's fully three-dimensional engagement with regional weather systems, would have been an equally, if not more, effective way of showing the project's spatial boundaries).

This raises the awesome question of how you should most accurately represent an architectural project whose central goal is to wield electrical influence on the atmosphere around it.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

In short, her design proposes a new infrastructure of "rocket-triggered lightning technology," assisted and supervised by a peripheral network of dirigibles—floating airships that "surround the site and serve as the observatory platform for a proposed lightning visitor centre and the weather research center."

The former was directly inspired by real-world lightning research equipment found at the University of Florida's Lightning Research Group.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida's Lightning Research Group].

Badaruddin's own rocket triggers would be used both to attract and "to provide direct lightning strikes to the proposed sites," thus pyrolizing the landscape and purifying both ground water and soil.

[Image: Aerial collage view of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

The result would be a lightning farm, a titanic landscape tuned to the sky, flashing with controlled lightning strikes as the ground conditions are gradually remediated—an unmoving, nearly permanent, artificial electrical storm like something out of Norse mythology, cleansing the earth of toxic chemicals and preparing the site for future reuse.

[Image: Collage of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

I should say that my own interest in these kinds of proposals is less in their future workability and more in what it means to see a technology taken out of context, picked apart for its spatial implications, and then re-scaled and transformed into a speculative work of landscape architecture. The value, in other words, is in re-thinking existing technologies by placing them at unexpected scales in unexpected conditions, simultaneously extracting an architectural proposal from that and perhaps catalyzing innovative new ways for the original technology itself to be redeveloped or used.

[Image: Farah Aliza Badaruddin].

It's not a question of whether or not something can be immediately realized or built; it's a question of how open-ended, fictional design proposals can change the way someone thinks about an entire field or class of technologies.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

But I'll let Badaruddin's own extraordinary visual skills tell the story. Most if not all of these images can be seen in a much larger size if you open the images in their own windows; they're well worth a closer look—

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

—including what amount to a short graphic novel telling the story of her proposed controlled-lightning landscape-decontamination facility.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

All in all, whether or not architecturally-controlled lightning storms will ever purify the land and water of south Florida, it's a wonderfully realized and highly imaginative project, and I hope Badaruddin finds more opportunities, post-Bartlett, to showcase and develop her skills.

Climate Change Archaeology

New archaeological discoveries continue to be made as glacial ice patches melt, revealing their previously unknown contents. Teams of archaeologists and historians have taken to wandering around newly exposed ground in locations as diverse as Norway, the Alps, and Glacier National Park.

Animal bones and cultural artifacts, including 3,000-year old woven bark baskets and old wooden tools, are most prevalent.

[Image: Courtesy Oppland County Council. Photo by Johan Wildhagen/Palookaville, via Archaeology].

"Prehistoric ice is melting and revealing artifacts and organic materials like wood, feather, and bone that have been frozen within the snow for thousands of years," Kevin Grange writes in National Parks magazine. "As temperatures continue to rise, researchers and Native people are racing to find these materials before they vanish."

"Enter the ice patch archaeologist," Grange continues. "These explorers don't sift through the dirt for artifacts—they prowl the retreating edges of ice patches and glaciers, searching for ancient tools, weapons, wood fragments, bones, and even animal dung. Glaciers move, sort, and grind material down, but ice patches—the result of windblown snow accumulating on alpine slopes—are unique for their ability to stay put and preserve anything frozen within them."

But there is a justified sense of urgency, as many of the organic materials begin to decay as soon as they're exposed; if they aren't found soon after being revealed, they might not be found at all.

The loss of cultural heritage as ice patches give up their archaeological goods was the subject of a 2011 letter to the editors of Nature Geoscience by Kathryn Molyneaux and Dave S. Reay. "In the central Asian Altai Mountains," Molyneaux and Reay write, "approximately 700 tombs have been preserved for 2,500 years by ice lenses or permafrost. They contain frozen mummies, wood, leather and textiles, which are very rarely preserved and can provide a unique insight into the culture of prehistoric societies in this region. As a result of increasing ground and surface temperatures over the past century, these tombs and their deposits are now within only a few degrees of melting."

Although I suppose this sounds like the set-up for a new supernatural thriller—in which ancient kings arise from the ice of Central Asia, stepping forth from their melting tombs—in reality, it often has tense emotional and political consequences.

[Image: A shot of the Golden Mountains of Altai UNESCO World Heritage Site by Gleb Raygorodetsky, courtesy of Our World 2.0].

Here, the authors refer to the rise of "rescue archaeology," where artifacts are rapidly and even haphazardly removed from an endangered site, in operations "carried out under less than ideal conditions with limited funding and a lack of long-term goals. For example," they add, "a coastal cemetery near Barrow, Alaska is eroding at rates of up to 20 [meters per year], because the sea ice that used to protect the coastline has receded. As a result, indigenous people’s remains that date back to the fourth century AD are being exposed at a rapid rate. At present, rescue work is carried out annually in an attempt to document, stabilize and relocate the cemetery material that is being washed away owing to high beach erosion."

In the Altai region itself, meanwhile, the exhumation of a "princess" led to "political unrest in the local shaman community," Molyneaux and Reay write. These disturbed and literally geopolitical circumstances are only set to grow.

[Image: Two shots from the Golden Mountains of Altai UNESCO World Heritage Site by Gleb Raygorodetsky, courtesy of Our World 2.0].

Writing for the somewhat unfortunately named publication Our World 2.0, Gleb Raygorodetsky reiterates the point that the changing ground conditions of the region that once so effectively "preserved the remains of the Altai’s ancestors in burial kurgans [or tombs] for thousands of years is disappearing, melting away because of steadily rising air and ground temperatures in the region. Climate change is literally melting away the cultural heritage of the Altai people, a rich and irreplaceable part of the global heritage."

It's worth noting that there have been some architectural proposals for helping to assist with the in-situ preservation of these frozen tombs. As Raygorodetsky writes, "UNESCO and Ghent University, along with their Russian partners, have been cataloguing the Altai’s frozen tombs to help develop conservation and preservation plans. Some of the proposed solutions include elaborate schemes to shade each individual tomb from direct sunlight to stabilize its temperature."

[Image: Diagram of the thermal effects of an Altai rock tomb or kurgan, from "Saving the Frozen Scythian Tombs of the Altai Mountains" by Jean Bourgeois, Alain De Wulf, Rudi Goossens and Wouter Gheyle].

Here, Raygorodetsky refers to a 2007 paper originally published in World Archaeology, called "Saving the Frozen Scythian Tombs of the Altai Mountains," where the possibility of constructing thermal shading devices to protect the tombs from melting is explored.

However, considering the visually intrusive nature of such shelters, not to mention the expense of construction and upkeep, the authors instead suggest what amounts to refrigerating the ground: proposing a solution that would involve "self-regulating seasonally acting cooling devices or thermosyphons. They act like refrigerators but without needing an external power source. By extracting heat from the ground and dissipating it into the air, they lower the ground temperature and prevent the degradation of permafrost."

As such, these would be not unlike the ground-refrigeration columns currently used to artificially englaciate the ground beneath the epic Beijing-Lhasa high-altitude, pressurized train in China & Tibet, or artificial glaciation as a form of architectural design.

[Image: Diagram of archaeological ground-refrigeration techniques, from "Saving the Frozen Scythian Tombs of the Altai Mountains" by Jean Bourgeois, Alain De Wulf, Rudi Goossens and Wouter Gheyle].

But perhaps precise cataloging of the exposed artifacts really is all that can be done in most locations.

In the most recent issue of Archaeology, journalist Andrew Curry tags along with a team of surveyors and archaeologists as they explore the Jotunheim Mountains of Norway.

As the ice fields recede due to changing temperatures, ancient artifacts, such as 3,400-year old leather shoes, are being uncovered more and more frequently, now found just sitting there on the rocks. Finding these and other soon-to-be-disturbed objects is, Curry writes, "an effort that combines high-tech mapping, glaciology, climate science, and history. When conditions are right, it's as simple as picking the past up off the ground."

[Image: Courtesy Espen Finstad/Oppland County Council. Photos by Johan Wildhagen/Palookaville and Andrew Curry, via Archaeology].

Growing beards and loaded down with survey gear, the archaeologists Curry traveled with hiked up into the mountains, following meltwater streams to the ice patches they came from. At one of their camps, sleeping inside "Everest-rated" tents, one of the scientists tells Curry of an experience from a prior year's survey work.

They had been ready to return home, the archaeologist explains, hiking carefully through a heavy fog, when they noticed a woven tunic and scattered leather goods lying on the rocks down at their feet.

Then the fog lifted and they saw the landscape around them, "littered with leather, textiles, wood, and animal dung"—artifacts everywhere—an archaeological site newly exposed from its frozen burial like a fully-stocked stage set dramatically revealed, dream-like, on all sides, an ancient open-air exhibition that had only recently been hidden from view.

(For more things locked in ice, suddenly revealed, see Ice Patch Archaeology earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Combat Preservation

[Image: A SWORDS unit firing; photo via National Defense Magazine].

A U.S. ground combat robot has been accessioned by the Smithsonian Institution to form part of a future museum display, National Defense Magazine reports. The robot, one of the first to be sent into live combat—specifically, into Iraq in 2007, where the machines were seen "roaming the streets... carrying guns"—is part of the SWORDS system, or "special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system."

While this should come as no surprise, considering the already exhaustive collections of arms and armor found in museums around the world, it's nonetheless interesting to watch as semi-autonomous combat machines become subject to the Q-Tip-wielding fragility of museum restoration techniques, which will no doubt seek to preserve these machines as if they were never meant to be altered or broken.

But it's also a slightly haunting conceptual moment in military history, as the earliest examples of armed ground devices less than a decade old now stand shrouded in the halls of national memory, like returned soldiers from a war no one wants to think about, encased alongside medieval knights holding onto their own swords well into the afterlife.

[Image: Knights at the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The news also makes it hard not to imagine a Museum of Military Robotics on the horizon somewhere, its displays filled with heavily armed sentinels standing there, polished and dormant, behind glass, sleeping artifacts that unstoppably emerged from cracks in the laws of war and the possibilities of sentient machinery.

Google Glass-wearing parents take their kids to the Tomb of the Unknown Robot, while algorithmically patterned bursts of artillery soar over the laser-leveled landscape, a former test range for ground drones.

Perhaps we'll even see 4-star generals someday buried with their favorite combat machines, like Viking conquerors, not lying next to loyal falcons or warhorses but SWORDS units and Raven drones.

(Spotted via @peterwsinger, whose book Wired For War offers a great introduction to the moral and legal dilemmas posed by combat robotics).

Offworld Metallurgy

[Image: Ancient Egyptian jewelry made from meteorites; photo courtesy of UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle].

X-ray analysis has found that "ancient Egyptian iron beads held at the UCL Petrie Museum were hammered from pieces of meteorites, rather than iron ore," Science Daily reports. "The objects, which trace their origins to outer space, also predate the emergence of iron smelting by two millennia."
By scanning the beads with beam of neutrons and gamma-rays, the team were able to reveal the unique texture and also high concentration of nickel, cobalt, phosphorus and germanium—which is only found in trace amounts in iron derived from ore—that is characteristics of meteoric iron, without having to attempt invasive analysis which could potentially damage these rare objects.
The "meteoric ore"—that, presumably, at least in some instances, had been seen falling from the sky like heavenly precipitation—was hammered and rolled into pieces of ceremonial jewelry to be worn like gifts from the sky.

This brings to mind the famed "space buddha" of last year: "An ancient Buddhist statue which was first recovered by a Nazi expedition in 1938 has been analyzed by a team of scientists," Science Daily wrote last summer, revealing "that the priceless statue was carved from an ataxite, a very rare class of iron meteorites."

[Image: Space buddha! Photo by Dr. Elmar Buchner, via Science Daily].

Or perhaps we could even look at some of the medals to be awarded at this year's Anti-Gay Games in Russia, which will contain fragments of the meteorite that exploded over that country earlier this year.

Fabricating objects from chunks of metal that have fallen from space—or humans artifacts emerging from astral wreckage scattered across the surface of the planet—is a pretty compelling design scenario, I have to say, and to read that some of humanity's "earliest known iron artifacts come from outer space" only adds a new, strange gleam to an already fascinating civilization.

However, we can only speculate what it might like in several generations' time if industrial super-projects like offworld mining and post-planetary extraction do, in fact, take off—if geochemical reserves on the moon, for instance, are harvested for use in terrestrial power stations, batteries, and other pieces of electrical infrastructure—to know that, in that power plant humming away quietly in the forest north of New York City, surrounded by old trees and cliffs on the riverside, pieces of the moon and captured asteroids are burning, becoming fuel and light for our cities. Our devices will glow with the light of alien worlds, rocks alchemically scorched and purified in huge ovens run by ConEd.

And, in 5,000 years, archaeologists will uncover the crumbled dust of other planets in our factories, still glistening amongst the ruins in which they burned, perhaps wondering what religious connotation the power system played for us, this shining network where we ritually incinerated the heavens, computational clouds run with unearthly fuels that, like the Egyptian jewelry this post started with, can "trace their origins to outer space."

Tensioned Suspension

[Image: "Cavity Mechanism #12 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

We've looked at the work of Bay Area sculptor Dan Grayber here before, but he's got a small show of new work opening up at Oakland's Johansson Projects gallery next month and it seems worth stopping by.

[Image: Another view of "Cavity Mechanism #12 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

Grayber describes his work as a study in "self-resolving problems," where highly-tensioned devices hold themselves aloft inside glass vitrines, as if floating in space, fighting their own weight while pushing relentlessly against the walls that contain them.

[Images: "Cavity Mechanism #9 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

Graybar uses an over-arching description for many of pieces seen here, writing, for example, that each piece is "a counterweight driven mechanism that wedges itself into the inside of a cavity (the glass dome in this case), suspending itself."

[Image: "Cavity Mechanism #11 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

They are as much displays of gravitational potential energy—like staged moments in some avant-garde machine-ballet whose only plot and purpose is to resist the pull of the earth—as they are "art objects."

[Images: "Cavity Mechanism #10 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

While the highly contained, desktop scale of each piece adds to the overall feel of pent-up force and concentration, it's hard not to want to see this guy working at Richard Serra-like proportions, scaled-up to the point of architecture.

[Image: "Display Case Mechanism #1" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

You walk into Madison Square Park in Manhattan only to see a giant steel mantis weighing five or six tons, painted in fluorescent construction orange, poised kite-like inside a polarized glass dome, holding boulders the size of Fiats, sprung, tensioned, and impossibly buoyant, as if somehow lighter than air.

[Image: "Cavity Mechanism #7 w/ Glass Dome" (2013) by Dan Grayber].

There is an artist's reception and opening on October 4, so mark your calendars ahead of time and stop in to meet the machines. More examples of his work can be seen here on BLDGBLOG or at the artist's own website.