In the distant summer of 2002, I worked for a few months at Foster + Partners in London, tasked with helping to archive Foster's old sketchbooks, hand-drawings, and miscellaneous other materials documenting dozens of different architectural projects over the past few decades.
On a relatively slow afternoon, I was given the job of sorting through some old cupboards full of videocassettes—VHS tapes hoarded more or less randomly, sometimes even without labels, in a small room on the upper floor of the office.
Amongst taped interviews from Foster's various TV appearances, foreign media documentaries about the office's international work, and other bits of A/V ephemera, there were a handful of tapes that consisted of nothing but surveillance footage shot inside the old Wembley Stadium.
It was impossible to know what the tapes—unlabeled and shoved in the back of the cupboard—actually documented, but the strange visual language of CCTV is such that something always seems about to happen. There is a strange urgency to surveillance footage, despite its slow, almost glacial pace: a feeling of intense, often dreadful anticipation. A crime, an attack, an explosion or fire is, it seems, terrifyingly imminent.
Unsure of what I was actually watching for, it began to feel a bit sinister: had there been an attack or even a murder in the old Wembley Stadium, prior to Foster + Partners' new design at the site, and, for whatever reason, Foster held on to security tapes of the incident? Was I about to see a stabbing or a brawl, a small riot in the corridors?
More abstractly, could an architect somehow develop an attachment, a dark and unhealthy fascination, with crimes that had occurred inside a structure he or she designed—or, in this case, in a building he or she would ultimately demolish and replace?
It felt as if I was watching police evidence, sitting there, alone on a summer afternoon, waiting nervously for the depicted crime to begin.
The relationship not just between architecture and crime, but between architects and crime began to captivate me.
Of course, it didn't take long to realize what was really happening, which was altogether less exciting but nevertheless just as fascinating: these unlabeled security tapes hidden in a cupboard at Foster + Partners hadn't captured a crime, riot, or any other real form of suspicious activity.
Rather, the tapes had been saved in the office archive as an unusual form of architectural research: surveillance footage of people milling about near the bathrooms or walking around in small groups through the cavernous back-spaces of the old Wembley stadium would help to show how the public really used the space.
I was watching video surveillance being put to use as a form of building analysis—security tapes as a form of spatial anthropology.
[Image: Unrelated surveillance footage].
Obsessed by this, and with surveillance in general, I went on to write an entire (unpublished) novel about surveillance in London, as well as to see the security industry—those who watch the city—as always inadvertently performing a second function.
Could security teams and surveillance cameras in fact be a privileged site for viewing, studying, and interpreting urban activity? Is architecture somehow more interesting when viewed through CCTV?
To no small extent, that strange summertime task thirteen years ago went on to inform my next book, A Burglar's Guide to the City, which comes out in October.
The book explores how criminals tactically misuse the built environment, with a strong counter-focus on how figures of authority—police helicopter crews, FBI Special Agents, museum security supervisors, and architects—see the city in a very literal sense.
This includes the specialty optical equipment used during night flights over the metropolis, the surveillance gear that is often deployed inside large or complex architectural structures to record "suspicious" activity, and how even the numbering systems used for different neighborhoods can affect the ability of the police to interrupt crimes that might be occurring there.
I'll be talking about all of this stuff (and quite a bit more, including the sociological urban films of William H. Whyte, the disturbing thrill of watching real-life CCTV footage—such as the utterly strange Elisa Lam tape—and what's really happening inside CCTV control rooms) this coming Friday night, May 8, as part of "a series about spectatorship" at UnionDocs in Brooklyn.
The event is ticketed, but stop by, if you get a chance—I believe there is a free cocktail reception afterward—and, either way, watch out for the release of A Burglar's Guide to the City in October 2015.
The signs that something’s not right aren’t immediately obvious, but, once you see them, they're hard to tune out.
Curbs at nearly the exact same spot on opposite sides of the street are popped out of alignment. Houses too young to show this level of wear stand oddly warped, torqued out of synch with their own foundations, their once strong frames off-kilter. The double yellow lines guiding traffic down a busy street suddenly bulge northward—as if the printing crew came to work drunk that day—before snapping back to their proper place a few feet later.
This is Hollister, California, a town being broken in two slowly, relentlessly, and in real time by an effect known as “fault creep.” A surreal tide of deformation has appeared throughout the city.
[Image: “Fault creep” bends the curbs in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
As if its grid of streets and single-family homes was actually built on an ice floe, the entire west half of Hollister is moving north along the Calaveras Fault, leaving its eastern streets behind.
In some cases, doors no longer fully close and many windows now open only at the risk of getting stuck (some no longer really close at all).
Walking through the center of town near Dunne Park offers keen observers a hidden funfair of skewed geometry.
[Image: 359 Locust Avenue, Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
For example, go to the house at 359 Locust Avenue.
The house itself stands on a different side of the Calaveras Fault than its own front walkway. As if trapped on a slow conveyor built sliding beneath the street, the walk is being pulled inexorably north, with the effect that the path is now nearly two feet off-center from the porch it still (for the time being) leads to.
[Image: The walkway is slowly creeping north, no longer centered with the house it leads to; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
In another generation, if it’s not fixed, this front path will be utterly useless, leading visitors straight into a pillar.
Or walk past the cute Victorian on 5th Street. Strangely askew, it seems frozen at the start of an unexpected metamorphosis.
[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].
Geometrically, it’s a cube being forced to become a rhomboid by the movements of the fault it was unknowingly built upon, an architectural dervish interrupted before it could complete its first whirl.
Now look down at your feet at the ridged crack spreading through the asphalt behind you, perfectly aligned with the broken curbs and twisted homes on either side.
This is the actual Calaveras Fault, a slow shockwave of distortion forcing its way through town, bringing architectural mutation along with it.
[Images: The Calaveras Fault pushes its way through Hollister; photos by Geoff Manaugh].
The ceaseless geometric tumult roiling just beneath the surface of Hollister brings to mind the New Orleans of John McPhee, as described in his legendary piece for The New Yorker, "Atchafalaya."
There, too, the ground is active and constantly shifting—only, in New Orleans, it's not north or south. It's up or down. The ground, McPhee explains, is subsiding.
"Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings," he writes. "As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise." This leads to the surreal appearance of carnivalesque spatial side-effects, with houses entirely detached from their own front porches and stairways now leading to nowhere:
Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene.
Like McPhee's New Orleans, Hollister is an inhabitable catalog of misalignment and disorientation, bulging, bending, and blistering as it splits right down the middle.
And there’s more. Stop at the north end of 6th Street, for example, just across from Dunne Park, and look back at the half-collapsed retaining wall hanging on for dear life in front of number 558.
It looks like someone once backed a truck into it—but it’s just evidence of plate tectonics, the ground bulging northward without regard for bricks or concrete.
[Images: A fault-buckled wall and sidewalk bearing traces of planetary forces below; photos by Geoff Manaugh].
In fact, follow this north on Google Maps and you’ll find a clean line connecting this broken wall to the jagged rupture crossing the street in the photographs above, to the paper-thin fault dividing the house from its own front walk on Locust Avenue.
So what’s happening to Hollister?
“Fault creep” is a condition that results when the underlying geology is too soft to get stuck or to accumulate tectonic stress: in other words, the deep rocks beneath Hollister are slippery, more pliable, and behave a bit like talc. Wonderfully but unsurprisingly, the mechanism used to study creep is called a creepmeter.
The ground sort of oozes past itself, in other words, a slow-motion landslide at a pace that would be all but imperceptible if it weren’t for the gridded streets and property lines being bent out of shape above it.
[Image: A curb and street drain popped far out of alignment in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
In a sense, Hollister is an urban-scale device for tracking tectonic deformation: attach rulers to its porches and curbs, and you could even take measurements.
The good news is that the large and damaging earthquakes otherwise associated with fault movement—when the ground suddenly breaks free every hundred years or so in a catastrophic surge—are not nearly as common here.
Instead, half a town can move north by more than an inch every five years and all that most residents will ever feel is an occasional flutter.
[Images: Crossing onto the Pacific Plate (heading west) in Parkfield; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
Snyder works on an experiment known as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, which has actually drilled down through the San Andreas Fault to monitor what’s really happening down there, studying the landscape from below through sensitive probes installed deep in the active scar tissue between tectonic plates.
On Snyder’s advice, I made my way out to one of the greatest but most thoroughly mundane monuments to fault creep in the state of California. This was in Parkfield, a remote town with a stated population of 18 where Snyder and SAFOD are both based, and where fault creep is particularly active.
In Parkfield there is a remarkable road bridge: a steel structure that has been anchored to either side of the San Andreas Fault like a giant, doomed staple. Anyone who crosses it in either direction is welcomed onto a new tectonic plate by friendly road signs—but the bridge itself is curiously bent, warped like a bow as its western anchorage moves north toward San Francisco.
It distorts more and more every day of the month, every year, due to the slow effects of fault creep. Built straight, it is already becoming a graceful curve.
[Image: Looking east at the North American Plate in Parkfield; photos by Geoff Manaugh].
Parkfield is also approximately where fault creep begins in the state, Snyder explained, marking the southern edge of a zone of tectonic mobility that extends up roughly to Hollister and then begins again on a brief stretch of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay.
Over the past decade—most recently, in 2011—someone has actually been drawing little black arrows on the concrete to help visualize how far the city has drifted in that time.
The result is something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.
[Images: A moving curb becomes an inadvertent compass for measuring seismic energy in Hayward; photos by Geoff Manaugh].
Attempting to visualize earthquakes on a thousand-year time span, or to imagine the pure abstraction of seismic energy, can be rather daunting; this makes it all the more surprising to realize that even the tiniest details hidden in plain sight, such as cracks in the sidewalk, black sharpie marks on curbs, or lazily tilting front porches, can actually be real-time evidence that California is on the move.
But it is exactly these types of signs that function as minor landmarks for the seismic tourist—and, for all their near-invisibility, visiting them can still provide a mind-altering experience.
Back in Hollister, Snyder warned, many of these already easily missed signs through which fault creep is made visible are becoming more and more hard to find.
The town is rapidly gentrifying, he pointed out, and Hollister’s population is beginning to grow as its quiet and leafy streets fill up with commuters who can no longer afford to live closer to Silicon Valley or the Bay. This means that the city’s residents are now just a bit faster to repair things, just a bit quicker to tear down structurally unsound houses.
One of the most famous examples of fault creep, for example—a twisted and misshapen home formerly leaning every which way at a bend in Locust Avenue—is gone. But whatever replaces it will face the same fate.
After all, the creep is still there, like a poltergeist disfiguring things from below, a malign spirit struggling to make itself visible.
Beneath the painted eaves and the wheels of new BMWs, the landscape is still on the move; the deformation is just well hidden, a denied monstrosity reappearing millimeter by millimeter despite the quick satisfaction of weekend repair jobs. Tumid and unstoppable, there is little that new wallpaper or re-poured driveways can do to disguise it.
[Image: Haphazard concrete patchwork in a formerly straight sidewalk betrays the slow action of fault creep; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
Snyder remembered one more site in Hollister that he urged me to visit on my way out of town.
In the very center of Hollister’s Dunne Park, a nice and gentle swale “like a chaise longue,” in his words, has been developing.
Expecting to find just a small bump running through the park, I was instead surprised to see that there is actually a rather large grassy knoll forming there, a rolling and bucolic hill that few people would otherwise realize is an active tectonic fault.
[Image: A fault-caused grassy knoll rises in the center of Dunne Park in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
In fact, he said, residents have been entirely unperturbed by this mysterious appearance of a brand new landform in the middle of their city, seeing it instead as an opportunity for better sunbathing. Fault creep is not without its benefits, he joked.
Snyder laughed as he described the sight of a dozen people and their beach towels, all angling themselves upward toward the sun, getting tan in a mobile city with the help of plate tectonics.
[Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Daily Beast (where I did not choose the original headline). I owe a huge thanks to Andy Snyder for the phone conversation in which we discussed fault creep; and the book Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist's Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough was also extremely useful. Finally, please also note that, if you do go to Hollister or Hayward to photograph these sites, be mindful of the people who actually live there, as they do not necessarily want crowds of strangers gathering outside their homes].
I found this thing in my desk again last night, and, as you can tell from the date in the image, below, it's been following me around since 1998 (!). However, after seventeen years of carrying random clippings like this around in files, folders, drawers, and envelopes—after all, this is only one of many dozens—I decided it was time to get rid of it.
The original article actually appeared in Scientific American way back in their 1898 issue, making the fragment, scanned above, just a snippet published 100 years later.
The original was called "A Brazilian Indian Telephone," and you can read it over at Archive.org. Here's the bulk of the story:
Mr. Jose Bach, in a narrative of his travels among the Indians of the regions of the Amazon, describes in L'lllustration an instrument by means of which these people communicate with each other at a distance.
These natives live in groups of from one hundred to two hundred persons, and in dwellings called "maloccas," which are usually situated at a distance of half a mile or a mile apart.
In each malocca there is an instrument called a "cambarisa," which consists essentially of a sort of wooden drum that is buried for half of its height in sand mixed with fragments of wood, bone, and mica, and is closed with a triple diaphragm of leather, wood, and India rubber.
When this drum is struck with a wooden mallet, the sound is transmitted to a long distance, and is distinctly heard in the other drums situated in the neighboring maloccas. It is certain that the transmission of the sound takes place through the earth, since the blows struck are scarcely audible outside of the houses in which the instruments are placed.
After the attention of the neighboring maloccas has been attracted by a call blow, a conversation may be carried on between the cambarisas designated.
According to Mr. Bach, the communication is facilitated by the nature of the ground, the drums doubtless resting upon one and the same stratum of rock, since transmission through ordinary alluvial earth could not be depended upon.
While, in and of itself, this is pretty awesome, there are at least two quick things that really captivate me here:
1) One is the simple idea that the geology of the forest itself can be instrumentalized and turned into a "telephone" network, in the most literal, etymological sense of that word (voices [-phone] at a distance [tele-]). The landscape itself becomes a percussive grid of underground communication, pounding out messages and warnings from home to home, like submarine captains pinging Morse code to one another in the deep.
It's fascinating and, in fact, deeply strange to imagine that little rumblings or booms in the soil are actually homes corresponding to one another—and that, given the context, they might actually be talking about you.
2) The other thing is how this could be updated or, as it were, urbanized for today. You go down into the basement to get away from your family, bored of your life, trapped in a house you want to leave, wondering if you'll ever meet true friends, and you start randomly tapping away on the sump pump, when—lo!—someone actually answers back, skittling out a little rhythm for you from another cellar just up the street. A whole suburb of feral children, drumming messages to each other in the dark, hammering on their basement floors.
It's like those scenes in old prison flicks, where two men tap back and forth all night on their cell walls, only, here, it's people banging on cellar floors in New York City high rises or hitting sump pumps with mallets in the wilds of suburbia, speaking back and forth through their own "Brazilian Indian Telephone," a kind of terrestrial sonar.
A post yesterday over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun described a new game called "Kieru," in which monochromatic ninjas lost in a monochromatic landscape alternately blend in with and radically stand out from their architectural surroundings.
As Rock, Paper, Shotgun explains, the design of the game is such that "you’ll be trained to react to colour and shadow—two things that are traditionally irrelevant for most games—in completely new ways."
This statement combined with the aesthetic of the game itself also brought to mind an undergraduate thesis project that we looked at last week, by Anthony Morey at SCI-Arc, where a rotating, monochromatic exploration of architectural space plays havoc with your sense of volume, shadow, and massing.
I will confess to knowing almost nothing about these projects, but I wanted to post the images anyway; they're from a book called Takis Ch. Zenetos (1926-1977), which was originally pointed out to me in the comments of that earlier post.
For more Zenetos, check out the earlier post here on BLDGBLOG and follow some of the many links in the comment thread. And, of course, if you read Greek and have some insight into what these projects actually are, by all means, let us all know!
[Image: A tree turned into architecture by the addition of a door. Photo via Tumblr, where it is erroneously described as being on the Portuguese island of Madeira; in fact, it appears to be a tree on the U.S./Canadian border, as per a shot called "Two boys at the doorway of their treehouse, c.1870-80," from Bridgeman Images, where it is described as a "picture taken on the American/Canadian border." That photo clearly depicts the same tree, albeit at a different stage in its life].
Alas, I did not have a chance to write about this project while it was still on public display last month at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, but Design With Co.—an interesting firm previously featured here for their "Farmland World" proposal—has put together an analytic landscape model called the "Midwestern Culture Sampler."
In other words, if 27% forest cover, 11% asphalt, 53% agricultural, or any other possible mathematical combination—including number of sports fields, schools, roads, or even hospitals—was the average American use of a given square-acreage of land, then that is how it would be modeled by Design With Co.
This would result in a perfectly calibrated but, for that very reason, utterly absurd representation of the ideal countryside.
An accompanying guidebook, which I have not yet seen, called Mis-Guided Tactics for Propriety Calibration, apparently offers a history of their fictional institution, but perhaps also, as its title suggests, includes a series of instructions for how one's own land use patterns could brought into mathematical alignment with the national average.
Their overall intention, according to the designers, was "to reframe the familiar in a way that begins to feel like a hyper-real fairy tale," a landscape of exaggerated relationships and distorted terrains that, nonetheless, are mathematically accurate reflections of the country.
I believe the model is now traveling to other venues, so keep your eye out for the American average landscape popping up in a gallery near you.
[Image: An "unofficial illustration" of the idea by Huntington Ingalls, via gCaptain].
A Washington state legislator has channeled his inner Hans Hollein, proposing the radical adaptive urban reuse of discarded military equipment: turning old aircraft carriers into a new toll bridge for Seattle.
A Washington state lawmaker looking to ease traffic congestion for several Puget Sound-area communities near Seattle has proposed building an eye-catching new toll bridge made from retired Navy aircraft carriers.
It would involve at least two—although possibly many more—aircraft carriers laid "end to end" to cross a local stretch of water known as the Sinclair Inlet.
"This would definitely be a unique way to tackle some of those problems," the representative stated to the AP, "but at the same time it would serve as a floating memorial to veterans and the sacrifice they have given to our country."
[Image: "Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, project, Exterior perspective," by Hans Hollein (1064); via MoMA].
Just think of the epic possibilities here for pedestrian paths, interstitial business opportunities, weird spaces for physical fitness, peripheral plazas and decks available for private events, and new public park space.
Perhaps even, deep in the labyrinth of the old ships' underbellies, you could open a restaurant, a bookstore, a cinema. A SCUBA academy. An architecture school.
It would be like a return to the inhabited bridges of an earlier age —
—only gunmetal grey and prickly with artillery, like a surreal hybridization of Constant's New Babylon and the U.S. Navy.
[Images: Constant's New Babylon].
Of course, this isn't exactly a real plan—it's more of a casual remark by a state politician. No feasible studies, environmental reviews, or financial plans have yet been put in place, for example (although apparently one is in the works), and I personally doubt that such a thing could ever see the light of day.
But here's to weird architectural visions popping up in unexpected contexts—and to the future civilian reuse of discarded military equipment, even (or especially) in spectacular urban ways such as this.
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my friends, editors, employers, publishers, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated.