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.
BLDGBLOG 21/03/2013 15:00[Image: Fallen rockets at the bottom of the sea; photo by Bezos Expeditions, via Discovery News].
News this week that the discarded engines of the Apollo rockets from the moon missions of the 1960s have been found at the bottom of the ocean by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is perhaps further indication that the robber barons of the 21st-century will be spending at least some of their fortunes on complex, engineering-oriented, and slightly Nemo-like adventures, whether that means mining asteroids, flying civilians into space, building 10,000-year clocks in the mountains of west Texas, traveling down into the deepest trenches on Earth, or, yes, performing gonzo acts of space archaeology 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.
Bezos's description of the rocket-age ruins now on their way back to dry landand, eventually, into a museumputs a fairly Ballardian spin on the discovery: "Weve seen an underwater wonderland," he quipped, "an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines," a garden of fallen offworld technologies appearing to grow coral at the bottom of the sea.
I'm reminded of a line from Robert Charles Wilson's novel Axis, where Wilson writes that "the sky filled with the luminous debris of ancient, incomprehensible machines," fragmentary gears and circuits drifting through the air like mechanical snow, only, here, it's the equipment of our own recent history having washed down through the ocean, taking on the ringed appearance of coral.
Maintaining his Ballardian tone, Bezos suggested that the seafloor from which the rockets were pulled was not unlike the surface of the moon: "We on the team were often struck by poetic echoes of the lunar missions. The buoyancy of the ROVs looks every bit like microgravity. The blackness of the horizon. The gray and colourless ocean floor. Only the occasional deep sea fish broke the illusion."
Explaining his interest in restoring the behemoth pieces of equipment being re-absorbed into the planetary ecosystem, Bezos adds that his team "photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible." Now, he says, "We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mph re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface." Sadly, doing this required interrupting what might someday have been a reef, possibly one of the most interesting points to take away from all of thisthat even something as unearthly as rockets, given enough time and isolation, could become overgrown, a kind of Angkor Wat of the sea, indistinguishable from life in the oceans.
BLDGBLOG 15/03/2013 19:07Last year, I posted about a summer workshop held in upstate New York run by architect David Gersten of the Cooper Union. Well, it's back and this summer's 8-week program is even more ambitious. However, note that the deadline for applications fast approaches (due March 25).
[Images: Photos from Arts Letters & Numbers; applications for the summer 2013 workshop are due March 25].
As Gersten himself describes it, this summer's workshop will be "structured through six disciplines: construction, drawing, film/photography, writing, theater and music/sound," forming a kind of "disciplinary exquisite corpse." Participants in each of these fields "will work in parallel and in close proximity, directly interacting though a framework of shared questions and actions."
During the eight-week intensive workshop, together, we will build a bridge; a bridge that is a stage, a drawing board, a film screen, a story, a place to acta bridge between many disciplines. This bridge will be co-constructed, as each step in its construction will be developed as a series of shared questions across all of the disciplines. As we excavate the site, we will ask: What is excavation in drawing? in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As we pour the foundations we will ask what are foundations in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As we raise the structure, we will ask what is structure in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music. As raise a new horizon, we will ask; what is horizon in drawing, in film, in writing, in theater, in music? Week by week as we move thought the shared questions we will co-construct a work, an emergent space between all of the disciplines.The grand finale of the eight weeks will be "a live performance built between all of the works," an interdisciplinary opera of construction, poetry, drawing, light, and words.
[Image: Photo from Arts Letters & Numbers].
As is probably obvious, this is a much more embodied and physically engaged form of architectural exploration, in many ways at the opposite end of the world from sitting inside, designing little triangle-shaped tiles in Rhino all day, and, as such, it offers a great way to experience the humid and heavy vegetation of a New York forest outside the nighttime lights of the city for a few weeks, exploring the rigors of other disciplines (and possibly even driving heavy excavation equipment).
[Image: Photo from Arts Letters & Numbers].
Application information and a short film about the summer program are available on the project website.
BLDGBLOG 15/03/2013 18:31The last few years have seen the rise of "soft robots," squirming, biomorphic, and highly flexible little machines that can be used to slip through cracks, infiltrate tight spaces, even explore architectural ruins in the wake of earthquakes and warfare.
But soft robots are also getting closer to becoming what are, in effect, mechanically agile medical devices that can "monitor your insides," in the words of Sangbae Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, as reprinted by Popular Science, sneaking around inside your body like an earthworm.
The so-called "meshworm" is exactly that: a robotic "worm" made from layered wire mesh that uses "nickel-titanium alloy for muscles." The application of a high temperature "shortens the wire, tightens the springs coil, and squeezes that body segment." Thus, "when a segment contracts, the one behind it stretches out, and the robot inches forward. The tendon also has muscles attached so the robot can turn left or right."
The result is the oddly grotesque and somewhat phallic creeping machine you see in the short video, above. The idea is that this could be used for medical diagnosis or vascular surgery.
However, the architectural or broadly spatial uses of this technology are also worth considering, including the potential for monumentally scaled-up versions of the meshworm, capable of assisting human or material transport through the built environmenta kind of peristaltic package-delivery tube that could replace the much-discussed pneumatic tubes of an earlier urban era. Like something out of a David Cronenberg film, the city would have a kind of giant bowel-infrastructure distributing waste material from point to point.
More interestingly, though, this new class of soft robots and meshworms could quickly assume their roles as architectural explorers in their own right, burrowing through collapsed buildings, passing beneath or around doors, even being taken up by the more ambitious burglars and tactical operations teams of the world.
Or, for example, earlier this month in the cave state of Kentucky, the annual "Cave City Hamfest" explored how to bring radio transmission deep underground. This was "accomplished by placing handheld (relay capable) walkie-talkies or relay boxes along a cave passage." "After the inital debugging phase, we demonstrated the ability to simply walk the cave, until data was lost and then backing up a few feet for a solid link. Then placing a radio on a convenient rock and continuing." Taking this as our cue, we could simply wire-up a team of meshworms with radio repeaters and send a small, crawling team of spelunking robots far ahead of us into caves where no human body can fit; they would crawl until they lose a signal, move back a few feet to re-establish a secure feed, and then the next one squirms dutifully forward.
You've thus built a mobile, semi-autonomous, deep-earth radio network made from repurposed medical devicesequal parts cave-mapping expedition and subterranean pirate radio stationopening up whole new realms of underground exploration (and tactical media).
BLDGBLOG 12/03/2013 17:30[Images: The cover of Landscape Futures; book design by Brooklyn's Everything-Type-Company].
I'm enormously pleased to say that a book project long in the making will finally see the light of day later this month, a collaboration between ACTAR and the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions.
On a related note, I'm also happy to say simply, despite the painfully slow pace of posts here on the blog, going back at least the last six months or so, that many projects ticking away in the background are, at long last, coming to fruition, including Venue, and, now, the publication of Landscape Futures.
[Images: The opening spreads of Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].
Landscape Futures both documents and continues an exhibition of the same name that ran for a bit more than six months at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, from August 2011 to February 2012. The exhibition was my first solo commission as a curator and by far the largest project I had worked on to that point. It was an incredible opportunity, and I remain hugely excited by the physical quality and conceptual breadth of the work produced by the show's participating artists and architects.
Best of all, I was able to commission brand new work from many of the contributors, including giving historian David Gissen a new opportunity to explore his ideason preservation, technology, and the environmental regulation of everyday urban spacein a series of wall-sized prints; finding a new genrea fictional travelogue from a future lithium boomfor architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang of The Living in which to experiment; and setting aside nearly an entire room, the centerpiece of the 2,500-square-foot exhibition, for an immensely complicated piece of functioning machinery (plus documentary photographs, posters, study-models, an entire bound book of research, and much else besides) by London-based architects Smout Allen, a design duo I refer to often here on BLDGBLOG.
Those works joined pre-existing projects by Mason White & Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, whose project "Next North/The Active Layer" explored the emerging architectural conditions presented by climate-changed terrains in the far north; Chris Woebken & Kenichi Okada, whose widely exhibited "Animal Superpowers" added a colorful note to the exhibition's second room; and architect-adventurer Liam Young, who brought his "Specimens of Unnatural History" successfully through international customs to model the warped future ecosystem of a genetically-enhanced Galapagos.
[Images: More spreads from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].
BLDGBLOG 12/03/2013 03:37[Image: From "Assimilation" by Dillon Marsh].
I mentioned in the previous post the work of South African photographer Dillon Marsh, whose "Landscape Series" seeks "to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family."
[Image: From "Assimilation" by Dillon Marsh].
Marsh's photos seen here were seemingly everywhere on the internet a few weeks ago, but I thought I'd post them nonetheless, as they're not only interesting images in and of themselves, but they depict one of my favorite topics: human infrastructure claimedor assimilated, in Marsh's wordsby nonhuman species, other builders and users of artificial environments, who construct their own homes on those underlying skeletons.
[Images: From "Assimilation" by Dillon Marsh].
It is an architecture of infestation, of creative reuse across species lines.
[Images: From "Assimilation" by Dillon Marsh].
So what is all this, more specifically? As Marsh explains, "In the vast barren landscapes of the southern Kalahari, Sociable Weaver Birds assume ownership of the telephone poles that cut across their habitat. Their burgeoning nests are at once inertly statuesque and teeming with life. The twigs and grass collected to build these nests combine to give strangely recognisable personalities to the otherwise inanimate poles."
[Images: From "Assimilation" by Dillon Marsh].
Seen one way, these photos depict an entire form of architecture reduced to ornament, mere biological decoration; seen another, they just as powerfully reveal how the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential additions to the built environmentincremental 3D fabrics of twigs, grass, and weedsserve to augment that built environment through inhuman architectural means.
BLDGBLOG 12/03/2013 03:03[Image: From "Means to an End" by Dillon Marsh].
There are a few projects by the young South African photographer Dillon Marsh that seem worth a look.
[Image: From "Means to an End" by Dillon Marsh].
The first are his photos of "electricity pylons... criss-crossing the landscape around the city of Cape Town," called "Means to an End."
[Image: From "Means to an End" by Dillon Marsh].
Marsh is by no means the first photographer, artist, writer, architect, etc., to look at electricity pylons, but the resulting images are pretty stunning.
Meanwhile, Marsh has a variety of other series available for view on his website, but another one I want to feature briefly here is called "Limbo."
[Image: From "Limbo" by Dillon Marsh].
In Marsh's own words, "'Limbo' is a series of photographs showing trees that have died, but not yet fallen. All these trees were photographed in various suburbs of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, including Bridgetown, Bonteheuwel, Ruyterwacht, Windermere, and The Hague."
The results perhaps recall the "Rise" filter, as well as the square format of Instagram, but, for me, that doesn't take away from their visual or conceptual interest.
[Images: From "Limbo" by Dillon Marsh].
Oddly, these actually remind me of the trees in Hackney, a borough of London where I briefly lived more than a decade ago; the branches of almost every tree along the streets that I walked each morning to the local bus stop had been cutor hacked, as it wereby the Council, apparently out of a mathematically impossible fear of liability should the branches someday fall and hit a car, a pedestrian, or a baby in a stroller, lending the neighborhood an even drearier feel of grey-skied Gothic horror than it would have had already on its own.
[Images: From "Limbo" by Dillon Marsh].
Somewhere between portraits and landscape photography, these two projects of Marsh's go well together, depicting the starkly exposed branching peculiar to these two types of structures.
They are also both in Marsh's "Landscape Series" of photographs, a series that, in his words, seeks "to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family."
I'll do one more quick post, showing my favorite series of all.
BLDGBLOG 11/03/2013 16:49[Image: Machines slide beneath the streets, via Crossrail].
The Crossrail tunnels in Londonfor now, Europe's largest construction project, scheduled to finish in 2018continue to take shape, created in a "tunneling marathon under the streets of London" that aims to add 26 new miles of underground track for commuter rail traffic.
It's London as Laocoön, wrapped in tunnel-boring machines, mechanical snakes that coil through their own hollow nests beneath the city.
[Image: Looking down through shafts into the subcity, via Crossrail].
What interested me the most in all this, however, was simply that fact that the first tunneling machine put to work in this round of excavation is called Phyllis
[Image: Phyllis, via Crossrail].
named after Phyllis Pearsall, widely (but incorrectly?) mythologized as the founder of the legendary A-Z book of London street maps.
There's something very Psychogeography Lite in this, weaving your city together from below with a giant machine-needle named after the woman who (supposedly) first walked the streets of the capital, assembling her book of maps, as if the only logical direction to go, once you've mapped the surface of your city, is down, passing through those surfaces to explore larger and darker volumes of urban space.
BLDGBLOG 11/03/2013 15:33[Image: An otherwise irrelevant photo of early night-vision technology used during the Vietnam War; courtesy of the U.S. Army].
So where were we?
Just clearing out a few old links for a fresh start. Last spring, Danger Room reported that DARPA had been hoping to step into the world of "battlefield illusions," developing "technologies that will 'manage the adversarys sensory perception' in order to 'confuse, delay, inhibit, or misdirect [his or her] actions.'" This includes "frontline illusions intended to disrupt enemy warfighters' thought patterns."
The programa kind of military-sensory complexis based on the belief that "if researchers can better understand 'how humans use their brains to process sensory inputs,' the military should be able to develop 'auditory and visual' hallucinations that will 'provide tactical advantage for our forces.'"
But what might the architecturalor the more generally urban, the very broadly spatialimplications of such a technology be? Can managing or choreographing perception through shared hallucinations and techniques of sensory misdirection in the built environment be a tool increasingly useful for designers today? Even DARPA refers to this sub-class of programs as "Shaping the Environment"so is there a civilian, or, more accurately, a deweaponized, version of these deployable "illusions" that could be used by architects or even by set & interior designers for real-time augmentations of everyday space? For "engineering ghosts" in the rooms around us, where the rooms themselves are sometimes ghosts?
After all, urban design as a hand-me-down technology from the military is nothing new, so adapting battlefield misperceptions to architectural use on the homefront would hardly be surprising.
Perhaps it'd be like Microsoft's patented Immersive Display Experience, an architecture of overlapping stitched projections such that "the peripheral image appears as an extension of the primary image," and, in the process, the room you're standing in becomes a game display.
[Image: Microsoft's Immersive Display Experience].
How could this be used by architects?
While we're on the subject of DARPA, meanwhile, another even older piece of news from their designers' desks was this 2011 announcement that they'd begun constructing "an entirely new class of electronic systems that can meet the demands of dynamic environments." These would be called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (or SyNAPSE), a "program [that] aims to fundamentally alter conventional designs by developing biological-scale neuromorphic electronic systems that mimic important functions of a human brain." A strange future of neuromorphic plastic brains illusioneering streets into existenceinvisible cities, flickering and disruptivewe humans will try and, haplessly, fail to navigate.
BLDGBLOG 28/02/2013 12:56[Image: A Starfish site, like a pyromaniac's version of Archigram, via the St. Margaret's Community Website; view larger].
A few other things that will probably come up this evening at the Architectural Association, in the context of the British Exploratory Land Archive project, are the so-called "Starfish sites" of World War II Britain. Starfish sites "were large-scale night-time decoys created during The Blitz to simulate burning British cities."
[Image: A Starfish site burning, via the St. Margaret's Community Website; view larger].
Their nickname, "Starfish," comes from the initials they were given by their designer, Colonel John Turner, for "Special Fire" sites or "SF."
As English Heritage explains, in their list of "airfield bombing decoys," these misleading proto-cities were "operated by lighting a series of controlled fires during an air raid to replicate an urban area targeted by bombs." They would thus be set ablaze to lead German pilots further astray, as the bombers would, at least in theory, fly several miles off-course to obliterate nothing but empty fields camouflaged as urban cores.
They were like optical distant cousins of the camouflaged factories of Southern California during World War II.
Being in a hotel without my books, and thus relying entirely on the infallible historical resource of Wikipedia for the following quotation, the Starfish sites "consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town. By the end of the war there were 237 decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country."
[Image: Zooming-in on the Starfish site, seen above; image via the St. Margaret's Community Website].
The specific system of visual camouflage used at the sites consisted of various special effects, including "fire baskets," "glow boxes," reflecting pools, and long trenches that could be set alight in a controlled sequence so as to replicate the streets and buildings of particular towns1:1 urban models built almost entirely with light.
In fact, in some cases, these dissimulating light shows for visiting Germans were subtractively augmented, we might say, with entire lakes being "drained during the war to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft."
Operational "instructions" for turning onthat is, setting ablaze"Minor Starfish sites" can be read, courtesy of the Arborfield Local History Society, where we also learn how such sites were meant to be decommissioned after the war. Disconcertingly, despite the presence of literally tons of "explosive boiling oil" and other highly flammable liquid fuel, often simply lying about in open trenches, we read that "sites should be de-requisitioned and cleared of obstructions quickly in order to hand the land back to agriculture etc., as soon as possible."
The remarkable photos posted heredepicting a kind of pyromaniac's version of Archigram, a temporary circus of flame bolted together from scaffoldingcome from the St. Margaret's Community Website, where a bit more information is available.
In any case, if you're around London this evening, Starfish sites, aerial archaeology, and many other noteworthy features of the British landscape will be mentionedalbeit in passingduring our lecture at the Architectural Association. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood...
(Thanks to Laura Allen for first pointing me to Starfish sites).