Flywheel Landscapes, Energy Reserves, 3D-Printed Urban Caves, and the British Exploratory Land Archive

Last week, over at the Architectural Association in London, a new exhibition opened, continuing the work of the British Exploratory Land Archive, an ongoing collaboration between myself and architects Mark Smout & Laura Allen of Smout Allen.

Although I was unfortunately not able to be in London to attend the opening party, I was absolutely over the moon to get all these photographs, taken by Stonehouse Photographic. These show not only the models, but also the show's enormous wall-sized photographs and various explanatory texts.

The work on display ranged from cast models of underground sand mines in Nottingham, based on laser-scanning data donated by the Nottingham Caves Survey, to an architectural model the size and shape of a pool table, its part precision 3D-printed for us by Williams, of Formula 1 race car fame. Williams—awesomely and generously—also collaborated with us in helping come up with a new, speculative use of their hybrid flywheel technology (more on this, below).

I just thought I’d post the photos here, although I would encourage you to read the much longer write-up posted last week.

From the bizarre environmental-sensing instruments first seen back at the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art to landscape-scale devices printing new islands out of redistributed silt—a kind of dredge-jet printer spraying archipelagos along the length of the Severn—the scale and range of the objects on display is pretty thrilling to see.

I should quickly add that the exhibition is, by far and away, the work of Smout Allen, who burned candles at every end to get this all put together; despite being involved with the project, and working with the ideas all along, since last summer’s Venice Biennale, I am fundamentally an outside observer on all of this, simply admiring Smout Allen’s incredible tenacity and technical handiwork whilst throwing out the occasional idea for new projects and proposals.

In any case, a brief note on the collaboration with Williams: one of the proposed projects in the exhibition is a “flywheel reservoir” for the Isle of Sheppey.

This would be an energy-storage landscape—in effect, a giant, island-sized, semi-subterranean field of batteries—where excess electrical power generated by the gargantuan offshore field of wind turbines called the London Array would be held in reserve.

This island of half-buried spinning machines included tiny motor parts and models based on Williams’ own hybrid flywheel technology, normally used in Formula 1 race cars.

It was these little parts and models that were 3D-printed in alumide—a mix of nylon and aluminum dust—for us by engineers at Williams.

The very idea of a 3D-printed energy storage landscape on the British coast, disguised as an island, whirring inside with a garden of flywheels, makes my head spin, and a part of me would actually very much love to pursue feasibility studies to see if such a thing could potentially even be constructed someday: a back-up generator for the entire British electrical grid, saving up power from the London Array, brought to you by the same technology that helps power race cars.

Briefly, I was also interested to see that the little 3D-printed gears and pieces, when they first came out of the printer and had not yet been cleaned up or polished, looked remarkably—but inadvertently—like a project by the late Lebbeus Woods.

Finally, thanks not only to Williams, but to the Architectural Association for hosting the exhibition (in particular, Vanessa Norwood for so enthusiastically making it happen); to the small but highly motivated group of former students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, who helped to fabricate some of the exhibition’s other models and to organize some the British Exploratory Land Archive's earlier projects; to the Nottingham Caves Survey for generously donating a trove of laser-scanning data for us to use in one of the models, and to ScanLAB Projects for helping convert that laser data into realizable 3D form; to UCL for the financial support and facilities; to Stonehouse Photographic, who not only was on hand to document the opening soirée but who also produced the massive photos you see leaning against the walls in the images reproduced here; and—why not?—to Sir Peter Cook, one of my own architectural heroes, for stopping by the exhibition on its opening night to say hello.

The exhibition is open until December 14 at the Architectural Association. Read more about the project here and, in particular, including many more photographs, here.

The Drowned

[Image: "Two Buildings Riverside Heights" by Louis Helbig].

I posted these photos on Gizmodo the other week, but I wanted to throw them up here, as well: a series of wildly evocative aerial photographs by Louis Helbig, for a project called Sunken Villages.

Helbig has been documenting flooded villages and industrial structures losted to the water along the artificially engineered St. Lawrence Seaway, a borderland hydrological project smack in the international margin between Canada and the United States.

[Images: "Lot 3317 E. Campbell Property" (top) and "Downtown Aultsville" (bottom) by Louis Helbig].

As Helbig explains on the wonderfully organized and detailed project website:
July 1, 1958, is remembered as Inundation Day in the region near Cornwall, Ontario. At 08:00 a controlled explosion tore open a cofferdam and four days later an area that had been home to 7,500 people disappeared under the waves of Lake St. Lawrence, part of the newly created St. Lawrence Seaway.

On the Canadian side, twelve communities, some dating back to the 1700s, were affected. Following the old King’s Highway No. 2, upstream: Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Sheeks Island, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point and Aultsville were entirely destroyed; Iroquis was demolished and moved a mile to continue on in name; and, about half of Morrisburg–including its waterfront and most of its business district and main street–were levelled.

On the American side in St Lawrence County, the community of Croil’s Island disappeared and, along Highway 37B, Louisville Landing and Richards Landing ceased to exist, and parts of Waddington were dismantled.

On both sides, large rural tracts and property, farms, cottages, and entire islands were flooded. Sacred sites were obliterated and the historic battlefield of Crysler’s farm–where in November 1813 Redcoats, local militia and Mohawk warriors staved off a larger American force intent on sacking Montreal—disappeared.

With the communities went their infrastructure. Some buildings were moved and some graves exhumed. Roads, railways, and bridges were left to be buried along with the previous system of locks and canals. All else was levelled, razed to the foundations, cut to the stumps, burned and bulldozed.
But easily one of the most awesome moments in Helbig's write-up is when he points out the inadvertent photographic side-effects of the zebra mussel: the "zebra mussel—an unintended consequence of the Seaway—has clarified the water making [the structures] visible once more."

In other words, an aquatic infestation has allowed the ruins of old houses and towns to become visible in the murk, drawing back a silty curtain for aerial photographers and recreational boaters—as if we could reveal the presence of drowned things by seeding the waterways of the world with clarifying organisms, filtering water-logged sites of the past for future view.

[Image: "Downtown Altsville East to West" by Louis Helbig].

Old locks and canals rest below the surface of the riverway like dreams. Walls of lost houses are still legible in plan. Entire streets and town cores lie amidst the sediment, steadily fossilizing.

[Image: "Bar with Octagonal Silo" by Louis Helbig].

Click through to the Sunken Villages website for much more context and history, including interviews with local residents pushed out by the rising waters.

Meanwhile, the project was on display at the Marianne van Silfhout Gallery until November 2—but here's to hoping Helbig's project will travel, and find a gallery elsewhere interested in picking it up.

(Originally spotted via @urbanphoto_blog, easily one of the best architecture and urbanism feeds on Twitter. A different, earlier version of this appeared on Gizmodo).

(waves, says hello, disappears again)

[Image: Collage by Michael Hession, based on this image from the Library of Congress].

The last few weeks have been extremely busy, and there's been no real time to post here on BLDGBLOG; so many interesting stories have come and gone, so many ideas to discuss and write about here, but I've primarily been working full-throttle in my new role as Editor-in-Chief of Gizmodo, where I've joined an amazing team tasked with continuing the site's transition away from pure tech news and gadget reviews to include the worlds of architecture, urbanism, and design.

Gizmodo, of course, has always had an expansive view on technology's role in popular culture, so this is more of a shift in emphasis than a wholesale change in direction. But what I'm most interested in exploring there are technology's spatial implications, of which architectural structures are only one example, whether it's mechanized landscapes or inhabitable machines, infrastructures or megastructures, materials science or immaterial new electromagnetic sensors used by police (and the vernacular techniques for evading them). Any sufficiently large technology is indistinguishable from a landscape, we might say; any sufficiently ubiquitous machine indistinguishable from a city.

[Image: Inside a wind tunnel, courtesy of NASA, via Gizmodo].

In any case, I will be very busy for the foreseeable future in my new role—but we've published some really fantastic features there over the past few weeks alone, and I thought I'd throw up a quick post to give BLDGBLOG readers a taste of what's to come. Here's a solid list for a long day's perusal:
Gizmodo was part of the first media tour since the 1980s of Hart Island, the largest mass grave site in the United States, run by the Department of Corrections on the outer maritime edge of New York City.

—"Capture houses" are entire decoy apartments and homes—furnished, lit, and run like actual residences—that, in reality, are elaborate traps for capturing burglars.

—The lost cow tunnels of New York City are no longer an urban myth: Nicola Twilley dug up blueprints for Gizmodo.

—The Los Angeles Aqueduct's 100-year anniversary just rolled by and, with it, an historic reenactment of the moment the city's floodgates were opened.

—New Yorkers receive junk mail from the future, thanks to designers Chris Woebken and Elliott P. Montgomery.

—"3D painting" creates working machine parts from directed aerosol layering—in effect, spray-painting objects into existence.

—A South Carolina archaeologist, citing Star Trek: The Next Generation as an influence, has scanned Linear B so that machines can help catalog the ancient past.

—The future of disaster recovery is a constellation of semi-autonomous robots swarming over avalanches and ruined cities to find survivors.

—An incredible "tangible interface" roils like the surface of a mechanical sea, reproducing any object you place within view of its sensors.

—We were on hand to see "Bertha," the largest-diameter tunneling machine in the world, start spinning its way into the underworld of Seattle.
[Image: Bertha, a tunneling jaeger, undergoes assembly, courtesy of WSDOT, via Gizmodo].
—We learned what life is like on the job of a New York City archaeologist, digging up water mains, old bottles, and the foundation walls of lost prisons.

—Take a look at these chains 3D-printed from ice and igloos algorithmically constructed by architectural robots.

—This herky-jerky rock-climbing robot from NASA could someday conquer the glaciers, cliffs, caves, and mountains of alien worlds.

—Cheese made from human bacteria, cultivated into tomorrow's sci-fi brie.

—Cold War weapons that terrified U.S. military intelligence.

—New techniques for turning nuclear waste into glass.

—And another tour of the Brooklyn super-factory producing modules for what will be the tallest prefab tower in the United States, right here in New York City.
Enjoy! Meanwhile, I'll see you on the internet, here, there, and elsewhere, though the frequency of posting here will now be closer to just 2 or 3 times a month.