Concrete Honey and the Printing Room

[Image: "Beamer Bees" by Liam Young and Anab Jain].

I had an interesting and long conversation last week with John Becker, one of my students at Columbia's GSAPP, about everything from the future of 3D printers, the possibility of permanently embedding such machines into the fabric of a building, and even the genetic manipulation of nonhuman species so that they could produce new, architecturally useful materials.

A few quick things about that conversation seem worth repeating here:

1) Famously, groups like Archigram proposed using construction cranes as permanent parts of their buildings. The crane could thus lift new modular rooms into place, add whole new floors to the perpetually incomplete structure, and otherwise act as a kind of functional ornament. The crane, "now considered part of the architectural ensemble," Archigram's Mike Webb wrote, would simply be embedded there, "lifting up and moving building components so as to alter the plan configuration, or replacing parts that had work out with a 'better' product."

[Image: Plug-In City by Archigram/Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton; courtesy University of Westminster].

But 3D printers are the new cranes.

For instance, what if Enrico Dini's sandstone-printing device—so interestingly profiled in Blueprint Magazine last month—could be installed somewhere at the heart of a building complex—or up on the roof, or ringed around the edge of a site—where it could left alone to print new rooms and corridors into existence, near-constantly, hooked up to massive piles of loose sand and liquid adhesives, creating infinite Knossic mazes? The building is never complete, because it's always printing itself new rooms.

In fact, I think we'll start to see more and more student projects featuring permanent 3D printers as part of the building envelope—and I can't wait. A room inside your building that prints more rooms. It sounds awesome.

2) Several months ago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, as part of their exhibition Actions: What You Can Do With the City, put up #77 in its list of things "you can do with the city": they phrased it as Bees Make Concrete Honey.

My eyes practically fell out of my head when I saw that headline, imagining genetically modified bees that no longer produce honey, they produce concrete. They'd mix some strange new bio-aggregate inside their bellies. Instead of well-honeyed hives, you'd have apian knots of insectile concrete. Perhaps they could even print you readymade blocks of ornament: florid scrolls and gargoyle heads, printed into molds by a thousand bees buzzing full of concrete. Bee-printers.

Alas, it had nothing to do with apian concrete; it was simply a play on words: urban bees make urban honey... or concrete honey, if you want to be poetic. But no matter: using bees to create new forms of concrete—perhaps even new forms of sandstone (whole new geologies!)—is ethically horrific but absolutely extraordinary. After all, there are already bugs genetically modified to excrete oil, and even goats that have been made to produce spider silk.

What, though, are the architectural possibilities of concrete honey?

[Images: The Rosslyn Chapel hives; photos courtesy of the Times].

3) Last month, over at Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel, it was announced that "builders renovating the 600-year-old chapel have discovered two beehives carved within the stonework high on the pinnacles of the roof. They are thought to be the first man-made stone hives ever found."
    It appears the hives were carved into the roof when the chapel was built, with the entrance for the bees formed, appropriately, through the centre of an intricately carved stone flower. The hives were found when builders were dismantling and rebuilding the pinnacles for the first time in centuries.
As the article goes on to point out, "Although human beings have collected honey from wild bee colonies since time immemorial, at some point they began to domesticate wild bees in artificial hives, made from hollow logs, pottery, or woven straw baskets. The Egyptians kept bees in cylindrical hives, and pictures in temples show workers blowing smoke into the hives, and removing honeycombs. Sealed pots of honey were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb."

But, combining all these stories, what about bees that make concrete honey, artificially bred and housed inside hives in the spires of buildings? Hives that they themselves have printed?

High up on the roof of St. John the Divine sit six symmetrical stone hives, inside of which special bees now grow, tended by an architecture student at Columbia University; the bees are preparing their concrete to fix any flaw the building might have. No longer must you call in repair personnel to do the job; you simply tap the sides of your concrete-mixing beehives and living 3D printers fly out in a buzzing cloud, caulking broken arches and fixing the most delicate statuary.

Nearby homeowners occasionally find lumps of concrete on their rooftops and under the eaves, as if new hives are beginning to form.

4) In the opening image of this post, you see the so-called "Beamer Bees" that Liam Young, Anab Jain, and collaborators created for Power of 8. The beamer bees were "formulated by a community of biologists and hired bio-hackers to service under-pollinated trees, plants and vegetables due to the disappearance of honey bees." And while the beamers don't actually have much to do with the idea of mobile 3D-printing swarms, any post about designing with bees would be incomplete without them...

(Thanks to Steve Silberman for the Rosslyn Chapel hives link, and to John Becker for the conversation these ideas came from).

Theatre for One

[Image: Theater for One by Christine Jones and LOT-EK].

LOT-EK and set designer Christine Jones will be premiering their project Theater for One in Times Square, two weeks from now. It "will be up for 10 days, with performances open to the general public"—but, as the architects point out, the public is only invited "one at a time."

[Image: Theater for One by Christine Jones and LOT-EK].

Specifically, the petite space is "a theater for one actor and one audience member. Inspired by small one-to-one spaces—such as the confessional or the sex peep-booth—Theater for One explores the intense emotion of live theater through the direct and intimate one-to-one interaction of actor and audience."

[Images: Theater for One by Christine Jones and LOT-EK].

In many ways, I'm reminded of the dramatic intensity of Nancy Bannon's Pod Project, which consisted of "13 private, one-on-one performances housed within 13 sculpted spaces." In Bannon's work, "the viewer actually enters the performance environment and experiences a one-on-one exchange in unconventional proximity. The interiors of the sculptures/pods are personalized"—but this also means that each pod has been architecturally stylized so as to fit the dramas involved.

[Image: Theater for One by Christine Jones and LOT-EK].

What I like about the LOT-EK/Christine Jones project is the blank architecturalization of this dramatic experience; portable, easily deployed, and externally neutral, the Theater for One could just as easily be reused as an interviewing station, a place for personal confrontation, or even a writing lab. It could be a dressing room, private cinema, or staging ground for psychedelic self-actualization—and I would actually love to see this thing hit the road someday, popping up all over the U.S. and abroad, to see what flexibly subjective uses people wish to put it to. NPR meets Storycorps, by way of a one-actor play.

The Church Below

[Images: Photos by Lawrence Looi/].

A bored family in Shropshire, England, after having a few too many drinks one night, started playing around with an air grate in their living room floor—which they managed to lift up and out of its grid, crawl through and under the house, and there discover an entire church sitting in the darkness where a basement should be. It was a "dark chapel complete with a large wooden cross on the floor."

Even better, after continuing to search, they found "a staircase in the chapel [that] came out of a cupboard in the dining room." Hidden topologies surround us.

After posting this link on Twitter, meanwhile, Patrick Smith chimed in, asking: "I wonder if stuff in their house moves around?" A poltergeist, turning strange devices on an altarpiece below ground, with a whole family on remote control above.

(Via Tim Maly. Related: The Horrible Secret of Number 6 Whitten Street, Sounding Rooms, Architectural Dissimulation, and many more).

An edge over which it is impossible to look

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth at full drain, photographed by Flickr user Serigrapher].

Nearly half a year ago, a reader emailed with a link to a paper by Andrew Crompton, called "Three Doors to Other Worlds" (download the PDF). While the entirety of the paper is worth reading, I want to highlight a specific moment, wherein Crompton introduces us to the colossal western bellmouth drain of the Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire, England.

His description of this "inverted infrastructural monument," as InfraNet Lab described it in their own post about Crompton's paper—adding that spillways like this "maintain two states: (1) in use they disappear and are minimally obscured by flowing water, (2) not in use they are sculptural oddities hovering ambiguously above the water line"—is spine-tingling.

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by John Fielding, via Geograph].

"What is down that hole is a deep mystery," Crompton begins, and the ensuing passage deserves quoting in full:
    Not even Google Earth can help you since its depths are in shadow when photographed from above. To see for yourself means going down the steps as far as you dare and then leaning out to take a look. Before attempting a descent, you might think it prudent to walk around the hole looking for the easiest way down. The search will reveal that the workmanship is superb and that there is no weakness to exploit, nowhere to tie a rope and not so much as a pebble to throw down the hole unless you brought it with you in the boat. The steps of this circular waterfall are all eighteen inches high. This is an awkward height to descend, and most people, one imagines, would soon turn their back on the hole and face the stone like a climber. How far would you be willing to go before the steps became too small to continue? With proper boots, it is possible to stand on a sharp edge as narrow as a quarter of an inch wide; in such a position, you will risk your life twisting your cheek away from the stone to look downward because that movement will shift your center of gravity from a position above your feet, causing you to pivot away from the wall with only friction at your fingertips to hold you in place. Sooner or later, either your nerves or your grip will fail while diminishing steps accumulate below preventing a vertical view. In short, as if you were performing a ritual, this structure will first make you walk in circles, then make you turn your back on the thing you fear, then give you a severe fright, and then deny you the answer to a question any bird could solve in a moment. When you do fall, you will hit the sides before hitting the bottom. Death with time to think about it arriving awaits anyone who peers too far into that hole.
"What we have here," he adds, "is a geometrical oddity: an edge over which it is impossible to look. Because you can see the endless walls of the abyss both below you and facing you, nothing is hidden except what is down the hole. Standing on the rim, you are very close to a mystery: a space receiving the light of the sun into which we cannot see."

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by Peter Hanna, from his trip through the Peak District].

Crompton goes on to cite H.P. Lovecraft, the travels of Christopher Columbus, and more; again, it's worth the read (PDF). But that infinitely alluring blackness—and the tiny steps that lead down into it, and the abyssal impulse to see how far we're willing to go—is a hard thing to get out of my mind.

(Huge thanks to Kristof Hanzlik for the tip!)

The Switching Labyrinth

[Image: From "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

Sam McElhinney, a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, has been building full-scale labyrinths in London and testing people's spatial reactions to them. See photos of his constructions, below.

McElhinney explained his research to BLDGBLOG in a recent email, attaching a paper that he delivered earlier this month at a cybernetics conference in Vienna, where it was awarded best paper. Called "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween," it describes McElhinney's fascinating look at how people actually walk through, use, and familiarize themselves with the internal spaces of buildings, using mazes and labyrinths as his control studies.

In the process, McElhinney introduces us to movement-diagrams, Space Syntax, and other forms of architectural motion-analysis, asking: would a detailed study of user-behaviors help architects design more consistently interesting buildings, spaces that "might evoke," he writes, "a sense of continual delight"? Pushing these questions a bit further, we might ask: should all our buildings be labyrinths?

[Images: Movement-typologies from "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

Early in the paper, McElhinney differentiates between the two types of interior experiences—between mazes and labyrinths.
    A path system can be multicursal: a network of interconnecting routes, intended to disorient even the cunning. It may contain multiple branches and dead ends, specifically designed to confuse the occupant. This is a maze.

    Alternatively, a path can form a single, monocursal route. Once embarked upon, this may fold, twist and turn, but will remain a constant and ultimately reach a destination; this is a labyrinth.

    The experience of walking these two topologies is very different.
These basic definitions set the stage for McElhinney's own "premise," which is "that all space is found, experienced and inhabited in a state of ‘switching’ flux between the diametrically opposed topologies of maze and labyrinth. This offers insights into how we might evoke a sense of continual delight in the user [of the buildings that we go on to design]." Accordingly, he asks how architects might actually construct "a path that switches from a labyrinth into a maze (and vice-versa)."

How can architects design for this switch?

[Images: From "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

McElhinney's argument segues through a discussion of Alasdair Turner’s Space Syntax investigations (and the limitations thereof). He describes how Turner put together a series of automated test-runs through which he could track the in-labyrinth behavior of various "maze-agents"; these reprogrammable "agents" would continually seek new pathways through the twisty little passages around them—a spatial syntax of forward movement—and Turner took note of the results.

Turner's test-environments included, McElhinney explains, a maze that "was set to actively re-configure upon a door being opened, altering the maze control algorithms" behind the scenes, thus producing new route-seeking behavior in the maze-agents.

[Images: From "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

Unsatisfied with Turner's research, however, McElhinney went on to build his own full-scale "switching labyrinth" near London's Euston Station. Participants in this experiment "animated" McElhinney's switching labyrinth by way of "a stepper motor and slide mechanism" that, together, were "able to periodically shift, 'switching' openings to offer alternative entrance and exit paths."

The participants walked in and their routes warped the labyrinth around them.

[Image: Sam McElhinney's "switching labyrinth," or psycho-cybernetic human navigational testing ground, constructed near Euston Station].

After watching all this unfold, McElhinney suggested that further research along these lines could help to reveal architectural moments at which there is an "emergence of labyrinthine, or familiar, spatialities within an unknown or changing maze framework."

There can be a place or moment within any building, in other words, at which the spatially unfamiliar will erupt—and from movement-pathway studies we can extrapolate architectural form, buildings that perfectly rest at the cognitive flipping point between maze and labyrinth, familiar and disorienting, adventurous and strange.

[Images: Sam McElhinney's "switching labyrinth"].

The cybernetics of human memory and in-situ spatial decision-making processes provide a framework from which we can extract and assemble a new kind of architecture.

[Image: From "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

How we move through coiled, labyrinthine environments can be studied for insights into human navigation, physiology, and more.

[Image: From "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

Briefly, I'm reminded here of 765's look earlier this winter at the history of all-text adventures, including Zork and the Colossal Cave Adventure. "The game is a landscape," 765 writes, and the parallels with McElhinney's mazes should be obvious, "but this isn't a landscape that can be appreciated visually, it can only be apprehended and understood structurally and functionally. The similarity of the game's structure to the flowcharts used by computer scientists is obvious, it is a network of nodes with paths between them that control how the landscape can be moved through."

Indeed, 765 adds, "the structure itself has a form, a branching self-similar network that is as intricate as any graphic representation."

In any case, McElhinney sent over a huge range of maze and labyrinth precedents that served as part of his research; some images from that research appear below.

[Images: Maze-studies from "Labyrinths, Mazes and the Spaces Inbetween" by Sam McElhinney].

It's fascinating research, and I would love to see it scaled way, way up, beyond a mere test-maze in a warehouse into something both multileveled and city-sized.

Quick Links 10

[Image: "Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt 7 Million Tons of Glacier!"].

1) New York Times: "From the city that has banned cars from broad swaths of Broadway and put picnic tables in Times Square, here comes another great reshaping of New York’s streetscape. The Bloomberg administration is moving ahead with what amounts to a radical, river-to-river reimagining of another major corridor: 34th Street."
    Automobiles would be banned on the block between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, creating a pedestrian plaza bookended by Herald Square and the Empire State Building. The result would be a street effectively split in two.
2) American Society of Landscape Architects: "Certainly, it’s very difficult to preserve an evolving landscape. We live in a transitional world and have to adapt to our own constants. Sometimes it’s very difficult to imagine that something will remain exactly the same. We had to define heritage categories that are intrinsically evolving. We’re trying at UNESCO to change our approach a little bit to create a vision of how heritage can be seen in a transitional world."

3) Archaeology: "The stone city of Nan Madol, in Pohnpei, one of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), consists of 92 man-made islands built on a coral reef at the edge of a mangrove swamp. The buildings of this mysterious 1,000-year-old site, which was the ceremonial and political seat of an ancient dynasty, are made of stacks of cut stone "logs," each weighing up to 50 tons. Today, issues of ownership and sovereignty hold up plans to rehabilitate Nan Madol and make it eligible for a UNESCO World Heritage designation."

4) BusinessWeek: U.S. Smart Bombs Rely on Metals Dominated by China

[Image: A giant battery grows in Texas; image courtesy of Popular Science].

5) Popular Science: "An aging transmission line built in 1948 is the only link between the U.S. power grid and the little city of Presidio in West Texas. So Presidio has invested in a single huge battery that can power the entire town and serve as emergency backup for the frequent outages caused by the line going down."

6) Daily Telegraph: "Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed the remains of a 6th century BC temple-style building complete with detailed assembly instructions which they have likened to an Ikea do-it-yourself furniture pack."

7) BBC: "The Nottingham Caves Survey... will use a 3D laser scanner to produce a three dimensional record of more than 450 sandstone caves around Nottingham from which a virtual representation can be made."
    The area which now makes up Nottingham city centre was once known as Tiggua Cobaucc, which means "place of caves." The caves date back to the medieval period and possibly earlier. Over the years they have been used as dungeons, beer cellars, cess-pits, tanneries and air-raid shelters.
8a) "The Falmouth Convention is a three-day conference in an unconventional form... Conceived as an international meeting of artists, curators and writers to explore the significance of time and place in relation to contemporary art and exhibition making, it has been planned to respond to the situation in Cornwall and other such dispersed, rural areas."

8b) "Described in the eighteenth century as the ‘richest square mile in the old world,’ the Gwennap Mining District will be the setting for a field trip led by the Falmouth-based arts organisation Urbanomic, ‘a journey into an historical process that assembled the powers of geology, mechanics, hydraulics, mineralogy and metallurgy, salvation and combustion, steam and capital into a mighty, infernal machine that traumatised the Cornish landscape and kick-started the industrial revolution.’"
    Visiting lesser-known sites where these components interacted and evolved during the height of the mining trade in Cornwall, the field trip will discover what lies beneath the tourist emblem of the abandoned engine-house. With the guidance of rogue scientists, agrosophists and geophilosophers, it will uncover "the complexities of subterranean poetics and aesthetics, and confront the industrial behemoth that made the earth scream."
[Image: Engine house of an abandoned mine in Cornwall, photographed by Thenenan T. Kig, of tangential relationship to the Hydroplutonic Kernow tour].

9) Popular Science: "While three-dimensional printing has come a long way, engineers still struggle with fabricating objects smaller than a quarter," but "researchers have hit upon a technique that could produce any number of microscopic medical or mechanical devices through folding, rather than layered printing."

10) National Geographic Channel: "Take an inside look at what may be the toughest disciplinary tool in the U.S. prison system: solitary confinement."

Extra Credit: "The European Union has declared travelling a human right, and is launching a scheme to subsidize vacations with taxpayers' dollars for those too poor to afford their own trips."

(Some links via Archaeology, Reza Negarestani, and more).

Strato Lab

[Image: Strato Lab; photo via Gregory P. Kennedy].

The Strato Lab project was a manned, high-altitude balloon project from the 1950s that ascended with its crew above 80,000 feet several times. The pilots performed scientific observations there, including taking observations of Venus through an on-board telescope.

The specific experiments interest me less, however, than the architectural possibilities of inhabited balloons in the stratosphere. The Strato Lab was a kind of sky-throne, regal and airborne over the continents below.

[Image: Strato Lab as sky-throne; photo via Gregory P. Kennedy].

Historian Gregory P. Kennedy has the story over on his website; he includes technical details about how the Strato Lab worked, as well as some thoughts about its position in design history.
    Strato Lab had two inward opening hatches mounted in flat frames. Having two hatches made normal entry and exit easier and facilitated rapid exit in case of an emergency. Simple air pressure sealed the hatches. Within the cabin, a pressure equivalent to 17,000 feet was maintained. When the balloon ascended beyond that altitude, the pressure difference between the inside and outside atmospheres forced the hatches against their frames. A silicone O-ring around the outer diameter of each hatch created a pressure-tight seal. During descent, the hatches opened automatically.
The lab was also backed up by a "64-foot diameter nylon cargo parachute," and, if that should fail in addition to the balloon, the crew members themselves had their own emergency chutes.

"Strato Lab retained the configuration and certain design elements of balloon gondolas of the 1930s," Kennedy writes. "Thus, it bridged the gap between pressurized gondola designs of the 1930s and modern spacecraft."

[Image: Strato Lab; photo via Gregory P. Kennedy].

All of this takes on a further, slightly different air of possibility when seen in the context of recent questions about the future of air travel in light of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano; if the Katla volcano—ten times the size of Eyjafjallajokull and less than six miles away from it—were to erupt next, for instance, the European airline industry as it currently exists could be put out of business for weeks or months at a time. The New York Times took this as a cue to ask what might be next: high-speed rail, dirigibles, airships...? And that, of course, is if a future supervolcano doesn't simply cause extinction.

But perhaps high-altitude—and "super-high-altitude"—balloons could be both destination and route: airborne rooms enthroned atop wind systems accessible to civilians for the first time, future platforms for housing at the forecourt of the sky. You build a pressurized village of linked pods, spanning acres—the architectural legacy of Ant Farm—on some land in Nebraska; the final step clips oversized polyethylene balloons to roof-hooks, and then there you go: hauling your project to its rightful site, skybound, where an emerging race of balloonists will evolve massive lungs 95,000 feet above the Great Plains.

The Archigram Archive

[Image: From an "ongoing speculative proposal exploring the implications of cones of vision and their interaction with an existing neoclassical ‘temple’ on the River Thames in Henley, Berkshire," by Archigram/Michael Webb].

As of roughly 16 hours ago, the Archigram Archival Project is finally online and ready to for browsing, courtesy of the University of Westminster: the archive "makes the work of the seminal architectural group Archigram available free online for public viewing and academic study."

The newly launched site includes more than 200 projects; "this comprises projects done by members before they met, the Archigram magazines (grouped together at no. 100), the projects done by Archigram as a group between 1961 and 1974, and some later projects." There are also brief biographies of each participating member of the collaborative group: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb.

[Image: "Proposal for a series of inflatable dwellings as part of an exhibition for the Commonwealth Festival, located in the lodge of Cardiff Castle," by Archigram/Ron Herron].

Even at their most surreal, it feels as if Archigram did, in fact, accurately foresee what the architectural world was coming to. After all, if Chalk & Co. had built the things around us, there would be electricity supplies in the middle of nowhere and drive-in housing amidst the sprawl; for good or for bad, we'd all be playing with gadgets like the Electronic Tomato, that perhaps would not have given the iPhone a run for its money but was a "mobile sensory stimulation device," nonetheless. We might even live together on the outer fringes of "extreme suburbs," constructed like concentric halos around minor airports, such as Peter Cook's "Crater City," an "earth sheltered hotel-type city around central park," or "Hedgerow Village," tiny clusters of houses like North Face tents "hidden in hedgerow strips."

There would be temporary, inflatable additions to whole towns and cities; pyramidal diagrid megastructures squatting over dead neighborhoods like malls; dream cities like Rorschach blots stretched across the sky, toothed and angular Montreal Towers looming in the distance; plug-in universities and capsule homes in a computer-controlled city of automatic switches and micro-pneumatic infrastructure.

At its more bizarre, there would have been things like the Fabergram castle, as if the Teutonic Knights became an over-chimneyed race of factory-builders in an era of cheap LSD, reading Gormenghast in Disneyworld, or this proposal "for technology enabling underwater farming by scuba divers, including chambers, floats and tubes for walking and farm control." After all, Archigram asked, why live in a house at all when you can live in a submarine? Why use airplanes when you can ride a magic carpet constructed from shining looms in a "‘reverse hovercraft’ facility where a body can be held at an adjustable point in space through the use of jets of air"?

[Image: "Speculative proposal showing use of the ‘Popular Pak’, a kit of architectural parts for ‘tuning-up’ existing buildings, applied to an invented suburb," by Archigram/Ron Herron].

It might not be architects who have realized much of this fever dream of the world to come, but that doesn't mean that these ideas have not, in many cases, been constructed. Archigram spoke of instant cities and easily deployed, reconfigurable megastructures—but the people more likely to own and operate such spaces today are Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments, infinitely exchangeable modular shelving, and fleeting themes-of-the-week. Archigram's flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors are not a sign of impending utopia, in other words, but of the reach of your neighborhood shopping mall—and the people airdropping instant cities into the middle of nowhere today are less likely to be algorithmically trained Rhino enthusiasts from architecture school, but the logistics support teams behind Bechtel and the U.S. military.

Another way of saying this is that Archigram's ideas seem unbuilt—even unbuildable—but those ideas actually lend themselves surprisingly well to the environment in which we now live, full of "extreme suburbs," drive-in everything, KFC-supplied army bases in the middle of foreign deserts, robot bank tellers, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe.

The irony, for me, is that Archigram's ideas have, in many ways, actually been constructed—but in most cases it was for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and by the wrong people.

[Image: Proposal "fusing alternative and changing Archigram structures, amenities and facilities with traditional and nostalgic structures," by Archigram/Peter Cook].

In any case, what was it about Archigram that promised on-demand self-transformation in an urban strobe of flashing lights but then got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Times Square? How did Archigram simply become the plug-in units of discount retail—or the Fun Palaces of forty years ago downgraded to Barnes & Noble outlets in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases, where the Instant City meets Camp Bondsteel?

Archigram predicted a modular future propelled by cheap fuel, petrodollars, and a billion easy tons of unrecycled plastic—but, beneath that seamless gleam of artificial surfacing and extraterrestrial color combinations was a fizzy-lifting drink of human ideas—as many ideas as you could think of, sometimes imperfectly illustrated but illustrated nonetheless, and, thus, now canonical—all of it wrapped up in a dossier of new forms of planetary civilization. Archigram wasn't just out on the prowl for better escalators or to make our buildings look like giant orchids and Venus Flytraps, where today's avant-bust software formalism has unfortunately so far been mired; it wasn't just bigger bank towers and the Burj Dubai. Instead, Archigram suggested, we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live, and what matters to me less here is whether or not they were right, or even if they were the only people saying such things (they weren't)—what matters to me is the idea that architecture can reframe and inspire whole new anthropologies, new ways of being human on earth, new chances to do something more fun tomorrow (and later today). Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don't like the world you've been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

In any case, the entire Archigram Archival Project is worth a look; even treated simply as an historical resource, its presence corrects what had been a sorely missing feature of online architecture culture: we can now finally link to, and see, Archigram's work.

(Note: Part of the latter half of this post includes some re-edited bits from a comment I posted several months ago).

Glacier/Island/Storm Reading List

As the spring semester comes to an end, and as this past Friday afternoon brought with it a guest lecture from historian James Fleming, I thought I'd offer a quick look back at some texts—mostly books—that were of particular use during the Glacier/Island/Storm studio up at Columbia.

[Image: A hike through the South Downs, photo by the author].

I should add, though, that the following books were not assigned reading—they simply came up as frequent points of conversational reference during individual desk-crits. These were also all in addition to technical readings, done on a per-project basis, such as industry reports on maritime pharmacology, the engineering and construction of offshore structures, the ferroelectric potential of ice, surveys of atmospheric fog- and dew-harvesting techniques in southern England, and the full text of the U.N. Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.

In turn, those were in addition to several documentary films, such as Owning the Weather, Drifting Station Alpha, and The Reef Builders; which were also on top of a field trip to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a visit from marine biologist Thomas Goreau, a daylong symposium looking at Glacier/Island/Storm outside of its more explicit architectural contexts with the authors of Mammoth, Quiet Babylon, and Edible Geography, and a long list of individual student interviews with experts in the field. These took place during overseas trips to destinations as far as Bali, Morocco, the Blue Hole of Belize, the South Downs, and the Swiss Alps. It's been an awesome semester, at least from my perspective, and I'm sorry to see it go.

In any case, the following list includes texts that came up across more than one project, at multiple times during the semester for various reasons. As such, they were particularly useful in helping to generate design ideas. In no particular order:

[Images: Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control by James Fleming and Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland by Shin Egashira and David Greene].

1) "The Climate Engineers" by James Fleming. Fleming's article is an excellent survey of the history—and possible political future—of weather-control efforts and climate-modification technology, mostly in a military context. "Assume, for just a moment," Fleming writes, "that climate control were technically possible. Who would be given the authority to manage it? Who would have the wisdom to dispense drought, severe winters, or the effects of storms to some so that the rest of the planet could prosper? At what cost, economically, aesthetically, and in our moral relationship to nature, would we manipulate the climate?" His forthcoming book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control sounds fantastic, and it extends that research.

2) Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland by Shin Egashira and David Greene. I bought this book—a pamphlet, really—back in 1998, and I've held onto it ever since, even taking it with me on this (still ongoing) year-plus global trip. Exploring the island of Portland—from which much of London's architectural rock was once quarried, turning the island's profile into a negative graph of London's expansion—from the perspective of investigative landscape design, Egashira's and Greene's students covered the terrain in architectural devices, machines, and mechanisms that could record wind speed, coastal barometry, island seismology, water levels, and much more (as well as simply demonstrate carpentry skills).

[Images: Spreads from Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland by Shin Egashira and David Greene].

3) The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman. I first became aware of this book through an old reference on Pruned, but only managed to read it this past winter. A historical look at the early days of ice-harvesting from the surfaces of frozen ponds across New England—after which great cubes would be preserved in ice houses and in the hulls of ships, insulated with saw dust, and sold to markets as far away as India. The economics, technicalities, and strange cultural inspirations behind the ice-harvesting industry are genuinely fascinating. "Those who could afford it," Weightman explains, "had a fresh block of ice delivered daily, for which they paid a weekly or monthly subscription"—and thus we have the deterritorialized surfaces of frozen ponds, rearranging themselves around the world by monthly subscription.

4) When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce. This book seemed like something I'd simply file away on my bookshelf for another day, but I stormed through it in less than three nights after letting myself take on the first few pages. Absurdly interesting, and almost impossible to put down, this book about freshwater and its dwindling global presence is so full of interesting material that I could refer to it again and again. Fog nets in South America, dew ponds in Sussex, desert raincatchers, and underground cisterns in China, by way of Iranian qanats, freshwater politics in the U.S. southwest, and polluted irrigation systems in India, cross with disappearing glaciers, the Amazon river, the subsidized economies of hydroelectric projects, and much more, to make a fantastic book. The author, Fred Pearce, also blogs for the Guardian.

5) Sand by Michael Welland. Welland's book—which I have been meaning to review at great length all Spring and will finally be doing so soon—is equally fantastic. The torsional geometry of sandstorms, dune physics, military geology labs, sand forensics at murder scenes, "sand smuggling," and large-scale anti-desertification projects in the Sahara meet high-grade silicon mines and granular deposits on Mars in Welland's informal narrative that goes all the way around (and off) the planet. Welland, too, has a blog, Through the Sandglass, which is well worth checking out.

[Images: The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman, When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce, Sand by Michael Welland, and -arium: Weather + Architecture by Neeraj Bhatia and J. Mayer H].

6) -arium: Weather + Architecture by Neeraj Bhatia and J. Mayer H. Published midway through the semester, Bhatia's and Mayer's book includes several student projects from a recent weather-design studio in Toronto, as well as the editors' own original research into climate-modification and its possible urban futures. Bhatia's short history of thermally regulated interior environments, and what he calls "the crisis of created climates," is a highlight. Bhatia, of course, is co-author of the blog InfraNet Lab, whose four authors collectively participated in our Glacier/Island/Storm blog week back in February.

7) Subnature by David Gissen. Gissen's book has already come up several times, to positive review, here on BLDGBLOG and presumably needs little introduction to long-term readers—but it's a memorably wide-ranging look at all those other presences in the city that urbanists tend to overlook: puddles, dust, dirt, rats, weeds, and car exhaust, to name but a few. Gissen's history of the tunnel-ventilation infrastructure of Manhattan was of particular relevance this term, as a few students and I looked briefly at the possibility of weather systems generated underneath the metropolis, as air pressure builds, moves, and dissipates throughout sewers, subway tunnels, and cross-island links. What weather-modification possibilities exist below the earth's surface? Speculative rhetorical questions aside, Gissen's book is valuable reading for anyone interested in the flipside of the modern city.

[Image: Holland Tunnel exhaust tower, ventilating the Manhattanite underworld; photo via].

8) Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets by Mary-Ann Ray. Mary-Ann Ray's old Pamphlet Architecture installment is still one of my favorites. As much an archaeological handbook as it is an architectural guide, Ray's pamphlet takes us into the ruins of underground spaces around Italy, including helical stairways, spherical ice-storage facilities "with as little surface area as possible," and vaulted secret passageways for midgets.

[Images: Subnature by David Gissen, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets by Mary-Ann Ray, and Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen].

9) Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen. Smout Allen's work bridges landscapes, watersheds, continents, and villages, connecting architectural design to the mobile terrains of receding coastlines, wind-blown fens, and drainage canals. "In this Pamphlet," the authors write, "we discuss five design cases.
    In each the physicality of the site and the processes of environmental transformation are exploited—the intrinsic features of the landscape, the force of nature, geography, climate, geology, and land use are all scrutinized. The resulting architectural interventions respond to their dynamic and fluxing territories. The ephemeral character of the environment is reflected in the solidity of the artifacts that inhabit it as they take on a local specificity and lend to their surroundings a sense of nature illuminated.
You can read more about Smout Allen's work courtesy of an article in the April 2010 issue of Blueprint Magazine.

[Images: Four Moleskine spreads from Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen].

10) Mont Blanc: A Treatise on its Geodesic and Geological Constitution by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Last but not least, Viollet-le-Duc's amazing hybrid architectural/geological analysis of the tectonic structure of Mont Blanc and its glaciers offered us several beautiful insights into the structural properties of ice flows and how they might be of interest in the context of architectural design.

[Images: From Mont Blanc by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc].

Quoting at great length from a paper by architectural historians Martin Bressani and Robert Jan van Pelt:
    Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Mont Blanc introduces a new edge to geological discourse in architecture as compared to the painterly outlook of [John] Ruskin. Now, observations of tectonic forms not only served to see nature intensely but also, and mainly, to identify a structural logic to its complex morphology. A basic principle thus organizes Viollet-le-Duc’s analysis of the great massif: The apparent chaos of its outline is only an illusion, as “laws have ordered these forms and determined the great crystalline system.” Viollet-le-Duc’s book is essentially a description of the process of formation of Mont Blanc, using a set of fascinating drawings and diagrams as if he had been present at the time of its genesis. The book’s opening chapter confidently illustrates the initial upheaval that generated the massif: An expanded mass of soft granite (protogine) below the earth’s thick surface erupted through the crystalline crust above, producing a domical rock formation sprouting out of a buttonhole-shape slit. As it slowly cooled and crystallized, this gigantic mass of granite progressively shrank and retreated. According to Viollet-le-Duc, the subtraction process followed a very precise rhombohedral prismatic pattern consistent throughout the whole. Mont Blanc thus acts as one huge crystal formation—every edge, every peak and aiguille follows a geodesic structure. The pattern creates a network of cells, a type of formation that Viollet-le-Duc found also at the micro level in glacial formation. This hexagonal configuration, based upon the equilateral triangle, proved the most fundamental and consistent principle of organization within Viollet-le-Duc’s late writings and architecture.
Within both glaciers and large-scale rock formations, in other words, we can find formal analogies for human architectural constructions—a geometry and order to both rock and ice. Coming round nearly full circle, then, geologist Michael Welland, whose book Sand is mentioned above, wrote a blog post exploring Viollet-le-Duc's Alpine investigations, also mentioning a kind of geological novella that Viollet-le-Duc wrote shortly before his death.

• • •

Again, that's by no means all of the material that we looked at this term, but it does give a fairly good list of the textual, historical, scientific, and architectural influences that came up repeatedly during the course.