BLDGBLOG 12/04/2013 18:16[Image: Via the Extreme Environments & Future Landscapes program].
Returning briefly to the theme of landscape devicesparticularly in the run-up to the launch of Landscape FuturesI thought I'd post a quick look at a trip to the Arctic island of Svalbard last autumn led by David Garcia with students from the University of Lund School of Architecture.
As part of Lund's Extreme Environments & Future Landscapes program, students flew up to visit "the far north, beyond the Polar Circle, to Svalbard, to study the growing communities affected by the melting ice cap and the large opportunities for transportation and resources that the northeast passage now offers."
[Image: Via the Extreme Environments & Future Landscapes program].
There, the students would also research first-hand the performance of "urban structures in the extreme cold."
[Images: From a series of "light beacon studies" by Marta Nestorov].
However, Garcia adds, during their time in the extreme environment of the north, the group also "tested and probed the surroundings with surveying equipment designed and built for the expedition, at urban and natural landscapes, from -30 degrees Celsius to overcast blackout weather."
[Image: An instrument for analyzing "perception and interpretation of the aurora borealis" by Christopher Erdman].
Some of that equipment is pictured here, ranging from a colorful audio device "used for testing sound absorption properties of snow" to a kind of portable oven meant for testing the thermal-insulation qualities of "ice tiles" that might someday be used in constructing frozen architecture.
[Image: Device "for testing sound absorption qualities of snow," by Milja Lindberg and Liina Pikk].
For their test of the acoustic properties of snow, for example, using tripods seen in the above photo, students Milja Lindberg and Liina Pikk designed an experiment that would operate "by transmitting sound onto snow and reflecting it to a receiver":
The device consists of three parts. A blue transmitter tube (Ø 60mm) sends focused sound frequencies through a speaker fitted at one end of the tube. A red receiver tube 20mm wider in diameter picks up sound waves reflected from the snow test bed. Both tubes are connected to tripods with an angle adjuster that works as a protractor to set the right angle. This piece also connects two lasers on top of the tubes. The lasers meet in the middle of the snow test bed.[Images: The aforementioned device "used for testing sound absorption qualities of snow," by Milja Lindberg and Liina Pikk].
The accompanying pink & lavender light show lent a strangely theatrical air to the operationperhaps also inadvertently revealing the possibility of designing "architecture" in snow-intensive environments using nothing but colored light.
[Images: A device for performing "biomimicry of polar plants" by Clemens Hochreiter].
Clemens Hochreiter's installation for studying the "biomimicry of polar plants," meanwhile, was an attempt to reproduce the shapes of Arctic flowers in small translucent shells, in order to testif I've understood this correctlywhat architectural shapes might be most useful in future greenhouse design.
Hochreiter hoped to "clarify if it [is] possible to improve the microclimate within the flower shaped volumes by using transparent, translucent, light absorbing or light reflecting materials."
[Image: Device for studying the "insulation properties and light transmission" of ice tiles, by Daniela Miller].
Continuing to move through the projects relatively quickly, we come to Daniela Miller's study, pictured above, which seems to be one of the more practical investigations of the bunch. Miller's goal was to analyze the ability of specially made "ice tiles" to insulate against heat loss as well as to transmit light.
[Images: Ice tiles by Daniela Miller].
"The tiles are produced in different thicknesses," Miller explains, "and some of them encase different kinds of material. Using a heat source within the box, the insulation properties of the tiles can be measured with a thermometer. The other series of studies deals with the translucency of the tiles. A light source is placed inside the box and the light intensity and quality crossing through the tile can be measured with a luxmeter."
The "different ice and snow plates were produced by use of a mould system," she adds, and each tile was subsequently "registered and analyzed to quantify the most relevant data"; this was all part of her attempt to explore "the potential of benefiting from ice and snow in architecture."
BLDGBLOG 12/04/2013 05:25[Image: Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News, courtesy of KSL].
Utah's Bingham Canyon Mine, one of the largest active copper mines in the world, had a massive landslide last night, which makes for quite an extraordinary coppery blur against the orderly terraced geometry of the hole itself.
[Images: Photos by Ravell Call, Deseret News, courtesy of KSL].
"The copper-mining company [Kennecott] was aware of the impending slide ," local news station KSL reports, "and had warned residents near the mine Wednesday that a slide was possible any day."
Kennecott engineers had been detecting ground movement as far back as February. At the time, the movement amounted to just fractions of an inch, but it was enough for the company to close and relocate the mine's visitors center. "This is something that we had anticipated," [a company spokesperson] said of the slide. "We knew the slide was imminent. We had relocated machinery, we had rerouted roads, we had rerouted utilities, we had rerouted buildings."But the ground had faster plans, and it rerouted the roads itself.
[Image: Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News, courtesy of KSL].
Oddly enough, the Bingham Pit, as it's colloquially known, was the subject of one of the earliest posts on BLDGBLOG, as well as a recurring site of visual investigation in the work of photographer David Maisel. "These sites are the contemplative gardens of our time," Maisel writes, "places that offer the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are collectively, as a society."
It is an absolutely amazing landform perhaps made all the more otherworldly by the Herculean levels of terrestrial obliteration its creation required: planetary resurfacing performed on a jaw-dropping scale.
[Image: An aerial photo of the Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah, by David Maisel].
Last night's landslide only adds to its terrestrial interest, giving us hints of what fate might ultimately befall all the many mines, flattened mountains, hydroelectric dams, and other gigantic acts of human industryopen wounds, lasting far longer than citiesthat currently surround us.
[Image: Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News, courtesy of KSL].
After all, even our deepest mines will erase themselves, buried in flash floods of rock, carrying nearby architecture, roads, and all memories of themselves along with them.
(Bingham landslide photos originally spotted via Chris Rowan).
BLDGBLOG 11/04/2013 19:38New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has released some new shots by photographer Patrick Cashin of the so-called "86th Street cavern," through which the future 2nd Avenue subway will someday travel.
[Image: Inside the "86th Street cavern"; photo by Patrick Cashin. View larger!]
The artificial caves are roughly 100 feet below street level. Quoting from a now-subscriber only article originally published back in 2009 in the trade journal New Civil Engineer, Wikipedia offers a glimpse of the difficulties: "Of the below-ground obstacles, Arup director of construction David Caiden says: 'Its a spaghetti of tunnels, utilities, pipes and cablesIve never seen anything like it.' Additionally, the project must go over, or under, subway lines, Amtrak railway lines, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel linking Manhattan and Queens." It's woven through the city like a carpet.
[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].
It's extraordinary, though, to see how easy it is to forget that, when walking up and down stairs inside subway stations, you're actually walking around inside a series of relatively dark and irregular caverns
[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].
their walls and ceilings seemingly held in place only by an acupuncture of rock bolts, a monochrome world of uneven geologies smoothed over by shotcrete and disguised by tile.
[Images: Photos by Patrick Cashin].
I bookmarked an old article that seems relevant here, especially in light of the next image, that the tunnels had been "blessed"made holyby a Catholic priest back in August 2012. In a short article written with suitablyif obviousDantean undertones, we read that "the priest, Rev. Kazimierz Kowalski of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel on East 90th Street in Manhattan, stepped over rocks into a small clearing away from the shaft to be clear of falling objects. And there he began to pray, blessing the underground cavity where the Second Avenue subway tunnel is taking shape."
[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].
Fascinatingly, he then made architectural reference to the urban work of laying down this subterranean layer of the city: "Reading from a letter of Paul to the Corinthians, he added, 'For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely our Lord'," something I quote not out of theological advocacy but for the interest of a possible religious connection between mining out "a spaghetti of tunnels, utilities, pipes and cables" beneath New York City and the establishment of a metaphoric "foundation" upon which a future city might sit. Tunneling, we might say in this specific and limited context, is God's work, the subway system secretly a consecrated labyrinth of artificial caves, its stations like chapels drilled into solid bedrock.
[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].
The priest then "sprinkled holy water on the ground and invited the sandhogs to sing sometime for his parishioners."
[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].
In any case, I feel compelled briefly to revisit something in Jonathan Lethem's recent novel Chronic City, in which we read about a tunneling machine that has gone "a little out of control" deep beneath the streets of New York, resurfacing at night like some terrestrial Leviathan to wreak havoc amongst the boroughs. From the book:
"I guess the thing got lonely"Eventually the machineknown as the "tiger"is spotted rooting around the city, sliding out of the subterranean worlds it helped create, weaving above and below, an autonomous underground object on the loose.
"That's why it destroys bodegas?" asked Perkus.
"At night sometimes it comes up from underneath and sort of, you know, ravages around."
"You can't stop it?" I asked.
"Sure, we could stop it, Chase, it we wanted to. But this city's been waiting for a Second Avenue subway line for a long time, I'm sure you know. The thing's mostly doing a good job with the tunnel, so they've been stalling, and I guess trying to negotiate to keep it underground. The degree of damage is really exaggerated."
(For a tiny bit more context on the Lethem novel, see this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, from which the final line of the current post is borrowed).
BLDGBLOG 10/04/2013 03:14Many of today's most original and bizarre visions of alternative worlds and landscapes come from the workshops of Hollywood effects studios. Behind the scenes of nondescript San Fernando Valley offices and warehouse spaces (if not outside California altogether, in many of the other nodes in the ever-expanding global network of cinematic effects production, from suburban London to Wellington, New Zealand), lurk the multidisciplinary teams whose job it is to create tomorrow's monsters.
Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion applies make-up to actor Ron Perlman, as Hellboy.
Spectral Motion, the effects house responsible for some of the most technically intricate and physically stunning animatronic creatures seen in feature film today, is no exception. Based in a small strip of anonymous one-story warehouse spaces squeezed in between a freeway and rail tracks, and overshadowed by a gargantuan Home Depot, Spectral Motion has developed monsters, effects, and other mechanical grotesqueries that have since become household nightmares, if not names.
Since its founding, by Mike & Mary Elizalde in 1994, the firm has worked on such films as Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Looper, Attack the Block, Blade 2 & Blade: Trinity, X-Men: First Class, The Watch, and this summer's highly anticipated Pacific Rim.
This winter, while out in Los Angeles on a trip for Venue, I had the enormous pleasure of stopping by Spectral Motion with Nicola Twilley in order to interview Mike Elizalde, CEO of Spectral Motion, on a cloudy day in Glendale to talk all things monstrous and disturbing. To a certain extent, this interview thus forms the second part in a series with BLDGBLOG's earlier interview with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and the present conversation, reproduced below, pairs well with Mignola's thoughts on what we might call landscapes of monstrosity.
Our conversation with Elizalde ranged from the fine line that separates the grotesque and the alien to the possibility of planetary-scale creatures made using tweaked geotextiles, via the price of yak hair and John Carpenter's now-legendary Antarctic thriller, The Thing.
Mike Elizalde behind his desk at Spectral Motion.
Elizalde, a good-humored conversationalist, not only patiently answered our many questionswith a head cold, no lessbut then took us on a tour through Spectral Motion's surprisingly large workshop. We saw miniature zombie heads emerging from latex molds (destined for a film project by Elizalde's own son), costumes being sewn by a technician named Claire Flewin for an upcoming attraction at Disneyland, and a bewildering variety of body partsheads, torsos, claws, and even a very hairy rubber chest once worn by footballer Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Standthat were either awaiting, or had already performed, their celluloid magic.
The visit ended with a screening of Spectral Motion's greatest hits, so to speak, with in-house photographer and archivist Kevin McTurka chance to see the company's creations in their natural habitat. We walked back out into the flat light and beige parking lots of the Valley, a landscape enlivened by our heightened sense of the combination of close observation and inspired distortion required to transform the everyday into the grotesque.
Geoff Manaugh: Id love to start with the most basic question of all: how would you describe Spectral Motion and what the company does?
Mike Elizalde: We are principally a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio, but we are also a multifaceted design studio. We do a lot of different kinds of work. Most recently, for example, in partnership with one of my long-time colleagues, Mark Setrakian, we built anthropomorphic bipedal hydraulic robots that engage in battle, for a reality show for Syfy. Its called RCLRobot Combat League. Its pretty astounding what these machines can do, including what they can do to each other.
Battling it out in Robot Combat League with two robots"eight-feet tall, state-of-the-art humanoid robots controlled by human 'robo-jockeys,'" in the words of Syfydesigned by Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion.
Nicola Twilley: Are the robot battles choreographed, or do you genuinely not know which robot will win?
Elizalde: Oh, no, absolutelyits a contest. It really is about which robot will emerge as the victorious contender.
RCL is not only one of our most recent projects, but it also shows that, here at the studio, we can do everything from a very delicate prosthetic application on an actor, to an animatronic character in a film, to something thats completely out of our comfort zonelike building battling robots.
I always tell people that, if they come in here with a drawing of a car, we could build that car. It is a very diverse group that we work with: artists, technicians, and, of course, we use all the available or cutting-edge technologies out there in the world to realize whatever it is that we are required to make.
Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion shows us a creature.
Manaugh: What kind of design briefs come to you? Also, when a client comes to you, typically how detailed or amorphous is their request?
BLDGBLOG 08/04/2013 17:36[Image: A plane lands at Heathrow, London; photo by Simon Dawson, courtesy of Bloomberg].
A short article in The Economist raises the possibility that television signals in London, England, could be turned into a passive, aircraft-detecting radar system.
A system such as this "relies on existing signals, such as television and radio broadcasts, to illuminate aircraft."
This involves using multiple antennas to listen out for signals from broadcast towers, and for reflections of those signals that have bounced off aircraft, and comparing the two. With enough number-crunching, the position, speed and direction of nearby aircraft can then be determined. Passive radar requires a lot of processing power, but because there is no need for a transmitter, it ends up being cheaper than conventional radar. It also has military benefits, because it enables a radar station to detect objects covertly, without emitting any signals of its own."Will soap operas and news bulletins end up helping to direct aircraft in Londons busy skies?" The Economist asks. The idea of the entirety of London becoming a passive aeronautic device, pinging both commercial aircraft and military planes, and tracking the encroachment of unmanned aerial vehicles on urban airspace, all simply by piggybacking on the everyday technology of the television set, is pretty eerie, as if living in a giant radar dish powered by late-night entertainment.
London becomes a weird new kind of camera pointed upward at secretly passing aircraft, your living room taking pictures of the sky.
It also brings to mind the so-called "wifi camera" developed way back in 2008 by Bengt Sjölén and Adam Somlai Fischer with Usman Haque. The wifi camera "takes 'pictures' of spaces illuminated by wifi in much the same way that a traditional camera takes pictures of spaces illuminated by visible light."
[Image: The "wifi camera" by Bengt Sjölén and Adam Somlai Fischer with Usman Haque].
You can thus create images of architectural spaces, almost like a CAT scan, based on wifi signal strength, deducing from the data things like building layout, room density, material thickness, the locations of walls, doors, windows, and more, albeit to quite a low degree of resolution.
[Image: Signal data and its spatial implications from the "wifi camera" by Bengt Sjölén and Adam Somlai Fischer with Usman Haque].
"With the camera we can take real time 'photos' of wifi," its developers write. "These show how our physical structures are illuminated by this particular electromagnetic phenomenon and we are even able to see the shadows that our bodies cast within such 'hertzian' spaces."
It's a kind of electromagnetic chiaroscuro that selectively and invisibly "illuminates" the built environmentuntil the right device or camera comes along, and all that spatial data becomes available to human view. It's like a sixth sense of wifi, or something out of Simone Ferracina's project Theriomorphous Cyborg.
Here, the comparison to the London TV radar system is simply that, in both cases, already existing networks of electromagnetic signals are operationalized, so to speak, becoming inputs for a new form of visualization. You can thus take pictures of the sky, so to speak, using passive, city-wide, televisual radar, and you can scan the interiors of unknown buildings using wifi cameras tuned to routers' electromagnetic glow.
[Image: From the "wifi camera" by Bengt Sjölén and Adam Somlai Fischer with Usman Haque].
Apropos of very little, meanwhile, and more or less dispensing with plausibility, it would be interesting to see if the same sort of thingthat is, passive radar, using pre-existing signalscould somehow be used to turn the human nervous system itself into a kind of distributed, passively electric object-detection device on an urban scale. Nervous systems of the city as sensor network: a neuro-operative technology always scanning, sometimes dreaming, interacting with itself on all scales.
BLDGBLOG 08/04/2013 02:39An interesting symposium at Columbia University later this month looks at "the ecology of New York City":
This symposium will explore a range of ecological research happening in and around New York City. The program is focused on three themesorganisms, environment, and historywith speakers from a range of disciplines including community ecology, evolutionary biology, ecophysiology, paleoecology, archaeology, and conservation. The research presented here spans multiple taxa including plants, microbes, birds, and mammals.The event is free and kicks offas a lot of academic events unfortunately doat 9am on a Saturday morning, but if you're up and at 'em and want to stop by, the program looks pretty compelling. Expect the marginal ecologies of vacant lots, green roofs, urban waterways, regional bird migration, marshlands, and even a look back at "Early Foods and Medicines of 17th Century New Amsterdam: Cross-cultural Plant Population Exchange and Environmental Change in the Lower Hudson Valley," when the plans growing along the river could perhaps be thought of as a kind of cultivated pharmacy garden. Finally, the symposium wraps up with a speculative look ahead to the ecology of greater New York in the year 2409 AD, with Eric Sanderson of Mannahatta fame leading the conversation.
You must register to attend, after which you'll find everyone in room 501 of Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia University's Morningside Campus on Saturday, April 20.
(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)
BLDGBLOG 07/04/2013 20:28[Image: The WWI terrain model of Messines, Belgium, in Cannock Chase, England; photo, "taken probably 1918 by Thomas Frederick Scales," courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand].
Past Horizons reported the other week that "a large concrete terrain model on Cannock Chase, representing a section of the Great War battle of Messines Ridge, is to be excavated" by archaeologists later this year.
The preserved but damaged model "represents the section of the front captured by New Zealand troops," and, indeed, the model itself was used most extensively by troops from New Zealand who had been stationed in England during the war.
[Image: The concrete model at Cannock Chase, including a viewing hut; photo via The First World War Camps of Cannock Chase].
The construction of the model is itself pretty fascinating, as it was accomplished with the forced help of German POWs:
The Messines model had been constructed at Brocton in 1918 by men from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, using German labour from the nearby prisoner of war camp. The use of trench maps and aerial photographs ensured the model, constructed in concrete, had a high degree of accuracy; trenches, strong points, railways, roads and buildings all being represented. The model was used to train soldiers in topography and to show how an impeccably planned battle could be won with minimal casualties. One feature, believed to be a "viewing platform" around three sides of the model still exists.The "full excavation" to occur later this yearhopefully more photographs of the model will emerge onlinewill include the "recording and reburial" of the simulated landscape.
[Image: A viewing hut for studying the model landscape; photo via The First World War Camps of Cannock Chase].
An interpretive centercomplete with an interactive 3D digital model of the nearby 3D concrete model of the actual 3D battlefield in Belgiumwill also be constructed, to guide visitors through the site and to "explain how these models were used to prepare troops for battle."
Near the model, however, lie the rest of the training camps at Cannock Chase, the subject of at least one historical website about these wartime facilities, where we read about the preserved earthworks used to train soldiers for trench warfare:
Front line trenches were typically constructed in a pattern which in plan resembled battlements (also known as the Greek Key pattern) with the intention that attackers were fired upon from three sides. Conversely communication trenches connecting the front line with reserve trenches were built in a zig-zag pattern. This ensured that if the front line trenches fell the enemy would not have a clear line of sight down the length of the "communication" trench and could therefore not enfilade (fire straight at) approaching reinforcements.They were topographic baffles, we might say.
[Image: The scale of the model becomes more clear in this photo, also via Past Horizons].
Briefly, I'm reminded of an aside by natural historian Tim Flannery in his long but extraordinarily interesting book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, where he comments on the Maori origins of European trench warfare tactics.
The Maoripre-European but remarkably recent inhabitants of the islands of New Zealandhad been brutalized, in Flannery's telling, by their own environmental mismanagement of their adopted island home, all but exterminating the indigenous wild bird population and reducing themselves, through egregiously unsustainable hunting practices, to an almost stereotypically Hobbesian state of nature.
They had thus long been at war amongst themselves, fighting over the archipelago's steadily dwindling sources of proteinwhich is when the British came along, unknowingly stumbling into the midst of what Flannery describes as a chaotic and very nearly continuous state of ecologically-necessitated human conflict.
The British, Flannery explains, thus learned firsthand that the Maori had already gone to ground, so to speak, digging themselves into defensive trenches and other complex earthworks as their battles became both more extreme and more sophisticated. "Indeed," Flannery writes, "during the Maori defense of the pa [or fortress] Puapekapeka, the British learned their first lessons in trench warfare and underground bunkers from the Maori. They were to turn these tactics to their advantage in the First World War."
Of course, as we've explored elsewhere on BLDGBLOG, Flannery's claim is an overstatement"siege mines" and other forms of militarized earthworks had already long existed in the European war tradition, well before English seafarers reached New Zealandbut it's an interesting claim, nonetheless, and it resonates strangely with this vision of New Zealand troops studying trench geometries on a large-scale 3D concrete model in the middle of WWI England, preparing to dig themselves into "Greek key" and zig-zag patterns over on the European mainland.
BLDGBLOG 01/04/2013 05:29[Image: The Central Park bolt, photographed by The Bowery Boys].
One of many memorable images from Marguerite Holloway's recommended new book The Measure of Manhattan is the Central Park bolt, a 19th-century survey marker affixed in place by John Randel Jr., original surveyor of Manhattan's street grid.
The bolt is, in Holloway's words, "the relic of an invisible intersection, one city leaders had planned to build in 1811 but that had never been constructed." In fact, she adds, these "planned but never realized intersections" are rare but not, in fact, unique, low in number but peppered around the island like acupuncture points that somehow materialized before the body they were meant to intensify. The city lives alongside and strangely amidst other, historically unrealized versions of itself.
This particular "grid bolt," as Holloway goes on to describes it, is now "long-forgotten," but has recently become "part of the National Spatial Reference System database." This means, as she phrases it, that a "bolt on a rock in a park on an island is connected to the satellites that travel above us in great arcs," incorporated into the great digital systems of earth-measurementor geodesyused today.
[Image: A photo of Benchmark B taken by Tullio Aebischer, courtesy of Discovery News].
I thought of this when reading earlier this winter about a "Roman marker used to measure the Earth" that had been found "near the town of Frattocchie along one of the earliest Roman roads which links the Eternal City to the southern city of Brindisi."
To refer to it as "Roman," however, is a bit misleading, as it was actually laid in the mid-1800s by Father Angelo Secchinot in the days of ancient Romeas part of an attempt to establish a comprehensively measured geographic baseline; this baseline could be used to support much larger calculations that would ultimately verify (or not) the mathematically projected shape of the Earth. It thus acted as a verification point for abstract speculation.
A geographer named Tullio Aebischer explained how it worked to Discovery News back in January:
We found it after a long archival research and a georadar survey. The discovery will allow us to precisely verify the ancient measurements with modern GPS technologies, Aebischer said.Today, the marker is referred to as Benchmark Bwith Benchmark A located back in Rome proper, near the tomb of Cecilia Metellaan architectural feature familiar to any fans of Piranesi. More specifically, it is "hidden under a manhole in the middle of the road at the Cecilia Metella mausoleum"as such, surely a worthy target for urban explorers intent on bringing to light the forgotten objects and spaces of geographic history.
The measurements along the Appian Way were part of surveys which began in the middle of the 18th century and spread all over Italy, in Europe, especially in France and Lapland, and in South America. The aim was to measure the shape of the Earth, Aebischer said.
Buried benchmarks, competing meridians, rejected state lines, shifting global poles, mistaken horizons: one can easily imagine a kind of amateur archaeology dedicated to exploring nothing but obsolete regimes of territorial management, whole planet-spanning systems of measurement whose function depends on these almost impossibly mundane, mud-covered artifacts.
If Borges, say, is their poet laureate, then we might say that theselost bolts, grids, and baselinesare the sites and relics of other Earths that nearly were, derelict props from a Borgesian folklore now geodetically coextensive with the planet.
In any case, both of the examples referred to here are all but forgotten 19th-century objectsa plaque and a boltthat nonetheless now participate in much larger-scale projects of measurement, one planetary, the other civic: two physical monuments to older ways of modeling, measuring, and definitively interpreting something as unassuming as the ground.
BLDGBLOG 25/03/2013 00:00
Spatially speaking, the game Parallax looks pretty amazing, especially now that, in the words of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the developerstwo students at Queen's University, calling themselves Toasty Gameshave "decided to turn off all the gravity."
The resulting "gravitational surface test," seen in the first video embedded above, lets you twist, meander, level-hop, and corkscrew around inside the game's "overlapping spatial dimensions," passing through portals on windowed ribbons of black and white space.
The game has not been released yet, but, if it looks like something you might want to play someday, consider voting for Parallax over on Steam Greenlight.
BLDGBLOG 24/03/2013 17:29[Image: The Auburn Dam site, via Google Maps].
While re-reading John McPhee's excellent book Assembling California last month for the San Andreas Fault National Park studio, I was struck once again by a short description of a Californian landscape partially redesigned in preparation for a reservoir that never arrived.
McPhee is referring to the Auburn Dam, in the city of Auburn, northeast of Sacramento (and near a small town called, of all things, Cool, California). The $1 billion Auburn Dam would have been "the largest concrete arched dam in the world," according to Geoengineer.org, but construction was abandoned over fears that seismic activity might cause the dam to collapse, inundating Sacramento.
Construction was begun, however, and its cessation produced some rather unassuming ruinsbasically large piles of exposed gravel and rock now eroding in springtime floods.
Nonetheless, these mounds were not cheap, including "$327 million concrete abutments [that] stand in stark contrast to the rest of the oak-filled canyon," as the Auburn-Cool Trail site (or ACT) explains. "The washout of the 250-foot coffer dam in 1986 left huge scars that continue to erode, with large broken pipes sticking out in a precarious manner. Hasty roadbuilding for the project has contributed to landslides that have caused sedimentation and increased turbidity in the river downstream and in Folsom Lake. The cost of seasonal repairs on the service roads alone has run into the millions of dollars, and many roads remain cracked and unsafe."
[Image: A bypass tunnel built in anticipation of the never-completed Auburn Dam; photo by D.P. Zeccos of Geoengineer.org].
Amazingly, though, and this is where we come to John McPhee, regional infrastructure was constructed with an eye on what the landscape would look like in the future, given the presence of the Auburn Dam, leading to surreal sights like the Foresthill Bridge.
The bridge, which you can still drive on today, is a towering structure remarkably out of proportion with the landscape, its unnecessary height all but incomprehensible until you imagine the cold waters of the American River rising up behind the Auburn Dam, forming a recreational lake and reservoir, the lights of the bridge reflected at night in the waters below. "Not particularly long," McPhee quips, "the bridge was built so high in order to clear the lake that wasn't there."
[Image: The Foresthill Bridge, via Wikipedia].
Weirdest of all, McPhee writes, there were boat docks built high up on the surrounding hillsides, waiting for their lake.
One gravel boat ramp, he explains, "several hundred yards long, descends a steep slope and ends high and nowhere, a dangling cul-de-sac. The skeletons [a skeleton crew of federal workers stationed at the former dam site] call it 'the largest and highest unused boat ramp in California.' Houses that cling to the canyon sides look into the empty pit. They were built around the future lakeshore under the promise of rising water. You can almost see their boat docks projecting into the air. Thirty-three hundred quarter-acre lots were platted in a subdivision called Auburn Lake Trails."
[Image: The expected waters of a lake that never arrived; via Wikipedia].
While I will confess that, while using the omniscient eye of Google Maps, I can't find these gravel boat ramps leading down to the rim of a lake that doesn't existlooking in vain for a maze of quasi-lakeside home lots perched uselessly in the hillsI assume that it's either because the ramps have long since revegetated, given the two decades that have passed since the publication of McPhee's book, or perhaps because there was a certain amount of willful projection on McPhee's part in the first place.
After all, the idea of a line of homes built far up in the hills somewhere, overlooking an empty space in which a lake should be, is so beautiful, and so perfectly odd, that it would be tempting to conjure it into being, imagining bored kids in a town called Cool riding their bikes down to lost docks in the woods each summer near sunset, climbing over maritime ruins slowly crumbling in the mountains, throwing rocks at rotting lifejackets, building small forts inside the discarded hulls of someone else's midlife crisis, perhaps still waiting, even hoping, for a flood to come.