Future Silk

[Image: Neri Oxman’s otherwise unrelated “Silk Pavilion” at MIT; photo by Steven Keating via Wired].

Research published last month in the journal Nano Letters suggests that silkworms fed a steady diet of carbon nanotubes can produce structurally stronger silk:

Silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance. The possibility of creating tougher silks attracts particular research interest. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are widely studied for their use as reinforcement. In this work, we report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding Bombyx mori larval silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene. We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers, whereas the others went into the excrement of silkworms.

Using animals as living 3D printers is thus more of a reality every year.

It’s also worth noting here that the resulting super-silk exhibited “enhanced electrical conductivity,” implying some strange new world in which conductive textiles and other flexible, wearable electronic circuitry could be woven in space by augmented silkworms.

(Spotted by Benjamin Bratton).

Escaping from the Garden

[Image: An example of Periplaneta japonica, via New York Daily News].

Ornamental vegetation planted on New York City’s famed High Line park might have inadvertently brought an “invasive cockroach” to the United States. From the New York Daily News:

The High Line, a park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into one of New York’s newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach that can withstand harsh winter cold and never seen before in the U.S.
Rutgers University insect biologists Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista said the species Periplaneta japonica is well documented in Asia but was never confirmed in the United States until now. The scientists, whose findings were published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, say it is too soon to predict the impact but that there is probably little cause for concern.

“The scientists suspect the little critter was likely a stowaway in the soil of ornamental plants used to adorn the park,” the newspaper adds.

I’ve always been fascinated by how gardens—ostensibly well-controlled landscapes meant to reach maturity under the guise of human supervision—accidentally become beachheads for invasive species.

In the UK, for instance, and this is only one example among very many, it is estimated that nearly “one-quarter of plants sold to ornamental gardeners since the 1800s have escaped, and 30 per cent of these are firmly established in the English countryside.”

As naturalist Richard Mabey points out in his highly recommended book Weeds, sometimes these botanical escapees can even be tracked step by step—or rail line by rail line, as the case may be.

[Image: Buddleia; photo by Steven Mulvey via the BBC, who describe it as “the plant that dominates Britain’s railways”].

Consider buddleia, a popular plant described by writer Laura Spinney, in a great old article for New Scientist (that no longer appears to be archived on their website), as “one of the commonest destructive weeds in Britain.” Buddleia is “not a native of the island,” on the other hand, but rather was “brought from the Himalayas in Victorian times to offer a long flowering season and attract butterflies.”

Ironically, however, “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. It has powerful roots used to thin soil on rocky substrata, ideally suited to penetrating the bricks and mortar of modern buildings. In London and other urban centres it can be seen growing out of walls and eves.”

It is, Spinney suggests, a long-term vegetative threat to the masonry structure of the city itself, a demolition tool hiding in plain sight.

Even in the descriptions of this phenomenon there is such strange poetry to be found—phrases both ominous and inspiring, like, “a plant establishing itself outside the garden,” as if John Milton had somehow reinvented himself as a horticultural critic with a penchant for sci-fi.

In any case, read more about New York City’s newest inhabitant—another alleged escapee from a garden—over at the New York Daily News.

(Roach story spotted, like the previous post, via Chris Woebken).

Love Unlocked

I was interested to see that the NYC Department of Transportation has begun hanging new signs prohibiting, among other things, the attachment of “love locks” to the Brooklyn Bridge.

[Image: Banning love locks; photo courtesy of the NYC Department of Transportation].

Love locks, as I explored in a piece for the New Yorker a few summers ago—an article that was also later partially absorbed into the tools chapter of A Burglar’s Guide to the City—are “padlocks with names, initials, or messages of love written on them, clipped to pieces of urban infrastructure as a public sign of romantic commitment.”

In some cases, the locks have been expensively laser-etched; others are simply written on with Sharpie. “Carrina, will you marry me?” “Zach + Julie, Always + Forever.” They are poetic, forming quite beautiful, rose-like clusters—and they are doomed. In nearly all cases, they will be clipped by the city and disposed of, their magic and romance lost.

Love locks are a global phenomenon, and have been popping up in the news more and more recently, usually portrayed as “a scourge” or even “insipid.”

[Image: Love locks on the Brooklyn Bridge; photo by Nicola Twilley].

(Top photo spotted via Chris Woebken).

500 Years of Utopia

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. More not only coined the term now used interchangeably with visions of an ideal society, he also linked the concept of just government specifically with the management and administration of a well-designed metropolis: the perfect society in Utopia is also an urban one.

There are many moral, political, and—for that matter—architectural flaws in More’s work, but it has nonetheless, for half a millennium, served as a synonym in the West for a perfect world. What does “utopia” really mean today, however—and who has access to it? Is utopia already here—but, to paraphrase novelist William Gibson, it remains unevenly distributed?

For the next few months, I’ll be working with the University of Southern California’s Doheny Memorial Library, to explore 500 Years of Utopia. An exhibition at the University will open in November 2016, including a gorgeous 16th-century edition of More’s work, and it will be joined by a series of public events discussing the legacy of Utopia today and what it means for the future.

The first of these events takes place this coming Saturday, October 15th, on the subject of “Governing Paradise.”

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

At 1pm that day, we’ll be hosting Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole, planning historian & USC Price professor David Sloane, and researcher & curator Aurora Tang from the Center for Land Use Interpretation to discuss the peculiar relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the linked concepts of utopia and dystopia.

What role should government play in bringing about a state of Earthly paradise—or is utopia precisely a condition in which government is meant to play no role? From heroic works of public infrastructure to intentional private communities, and from limited natural resources to visions of infinite prosperity, Los Angeles has long been emblematic of the difficulties and rewards of governing paradise.

On November 9, meanwhile, we’ll be hosting “Designing Utopia,” looking at the architecture and landscape of the ideal city, and on February 7, 2017, we’ll discuss “Utopian Representations.” Both of those events are going to be fantastic, and I will have more information about them soon.

So stop by on Saturday—more info here—and please also mark your calendar for Wednesday, November 9, when our exhibition, 500 Years of Utopia, officially opens.

Local Code

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Architect Nicholas de Monchaux—whom you might remember from, among other things, a long interview on BLDGBLOG a few years back—has a new book out this week.

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Local Code is an exploration of design variants and latent possibilities in overlooked parcels of urban space. It is “as much design speculation as narrative (and as much obsession as exposition),” he explains.

[Images: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book includes no fewer than “3,659 drawings of designs (by me!) for vacant lots and spaces in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Venice Lagoon, highlighting how such spaces can play an essential and unique role in providing ecological, social, and cultural resilience. Inspired originally by Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project, the book has become a graphic and intellectual meditation on cities, networks, data and resilience.”

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book’s thesis is that “vacant public land”—by which de Monchaux means everything from “land under billboards in Los Angeles, ­dead-end alleys in San Francisco, city-owned vacant lots in New York City, and abandoned islands in the Venetian lagoon”—actually contain “unrecognized potential as a social and ecological resource.” The accompanying explosion of drawings and diagrams is meant to tease out what some of these potentials might be.

Consider picking up a copy, check out the book’s introduction online, and don’t forget to click back to BLDGBLOG’s interview with de Monchaux about the design history of the Apollo spacesuit.


[Image: Photo courtesy Javier de Riba].

Catalan artist Javier de Riba, who paints often quite large geometric patterns reminiscent of tiles onto the floors of abandoned buildings, has produced a new installation inside a derelict Portuguese hotel.

[Image: Photo courtesy Javier de Riba].

The hotel, de Riba explains, was “open only for one year. It was a foreign investment that didn’t succeed and was unable to pay the suppliers. Soon after the closing [it] became empty and now there’s only the skeleton left.”

An accompanying video documents de Riba’s actual painting process, as you can see below.

I have to admit, I find these installations much more visually compelling than many other examples of graffiti, and I would love to see this sort of thing produced elsewhere.

[Image: Photo courtesy Javier de Riba].

Even de Riba’s deliberately fragmentary works are quite evocative and go a very long way toward transforming the ambience of otherwise empty architectural spaces, both indoors and out.

[Image: Photo courtesy Javier de Riba].

(Via designboom; see also Colossal).

A Burglar’s Guide to TV

I’m finally back from several weeks of travel and wanted to post some recent news I was particularly thrilled about: my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, is being developed for television by CBS Studios. From Variety:

The drama, which landed a put pilot commitment, hails from writer Paul Grellong (“Scorpion,” “Revolution”) and exec producers Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, Danielle Woodrow, and Justin Lin, who is attached to direct the pilot.
“A Burglar’s Guide to the City” follows a team of modern-day Robin Hoods, led by a brilliant architect with a troubled past, that uses their unique skills to gain access to any stronghold in order to steal from rich criminals and give to those that have been wronged by a corrupt system.
The potential series is based on Geoff Manaugh’s non-fiction book. Manaugh, repped by Manage-ment and Marc Van Arx, will serve as a consulting producer on the TV project. Nate Miller and Dan Halsted of Manage-ment are also producing, along with Aaron Baiers of Secret Hideout.

I can’t say more about the show at this point, other than to point out that I am absolutely, genuinely over the moon about this, but I am very much looking forward to bringing burglary and architecture to a small screen near you…

If you haven’t checked out the book, meanwhile, consider picking up a copy; many reviews and blurbs can also be found at burglarsguide.com.

Deep Storage

[Image: Photo by Michele Limina, courtesy Bloomberg].

Bloomberg has a look at the subterranean warehousing strategies of the very rich, former Swiss military caves and bunkers that have been repurposed as private gold vaults.

Deep in the Swiss Alps, next to an old airstrip suitable for landing Gulfstream and Falcon jets, is a vast bunker that holds what may be one of the world’s largest stashes of gold. The entrance, protected by a guard in a bulletproof vest, is a small metal door set into a granite mountain face at the end of a narrow country lane. Behind two farther doors sits a 3.5-ton metal portal that opens only after a code is entered and an iris scan and a facial-recognition screen are performed. A maze of tunnels once used by Swiss armed forces lies within.

These “Swiss storage operations,” as the article describes them, can be seen as spatial byproducts of international financial loopholes, such as the fact that U.S. citizens “aren’t required under the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to declare gold stored outside financial institutions,” or that these sorts of storage firms “aren’t regulated by the Swiss financial-services regulator Finma. Nor do such companies have to report suspicious activity to Switzerland’s Money Laundering Reporting Office.”

These regulations—or, rather, the lack thereof—assume architectural form: sites of temporary burial for monetary instruments that benefit from being held securely beyond the reach of the active economy.

Now for the inevitable heist film—part Bank Job, part Zork—set in the high-tech mountain bunkers of Switzerland…

Read more over at Bloomberg.

(Thanks to @fabmass for the tip!)

Escaped Pets are Ecosystems in Waiting

[Image: Photo by Stephen Beatty, via the New York Times].

A few years ago, we learned that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze—or, rather, its rapid fizzling-out—led to a spike in illicit turtle releases in England’s Lake District. As a result, the District today is suffering through a minor invasion of orphaned turtles, unwanted pets struggling to return to a state of nature.

Zoom-in on an historic landscape in Britain, in other words, and you will find the living remnants of a 1980s pop cultural fad splashing around somewhat pathetically—somewhat sadly—in the brisk water.

Now, in thematically related news, discarded goldfish have been taking over entire river landscapes in Australia: “Two decades ago, someone dropped a handful of unwanted pet goldfish into a creek in southwestern Australia. Those goldfish grew, swam downstream, mucked up waters wherever they went and spawned like mad. Before long, they took over the whole river.”

Liberated from endless circling inside glass bowls in children’s bedrooms, the fish are able to reach their expected size, “with some fish growing as long as 16 inches and weighing up to four pounds—the size of a two-liter soda bottle.”

Indeed, the New York Times explains, “Freed from the constraints of a tank, goldfish balloon to the size of footballs. Within a few generations, they revert to natural yellow and brown colors, in place of the bright orange that breeders try to achieve.” Their success in the wild should not come as a surprise.

While there’s much more about the invasive ecology of this species over in the original article, it’s hard not to be struck by the anthropocenic absurdity of an ecosystem constituted entirely by escaped pets.

Hypertrophied beyond recognition, re-wilded by their unexpected freedom, feral pets remake the world in the distorted image of what their human owners thought nature should look like. Toy poodles will stalk our future woods.

Instance Gate

[Image: Malta, Instragram by BLDGBLOG].

Down in the lower levels of Valletta’s fortified walls, an old bricked-up doorway resembles something from a computer game: an oddly colored bit of masonry you would knock aside with a hammer, or a subtle wave of a wand, to make a corridor appear leading much further into the geologic depths.

The underside of Valletta, of course, is already mazed with passages, from wartime bomb shelters to church crypts, abandoned rail tunnels to hotel sub-cellars, and the entire island of Malta, made from such easily cut rock, is home to warrens of prehistoric temples and catacombs.

That entryways into the labyrinth can be found is hardly surprising; that they can look so much like a chunky, 8-bit game landscape only adds to the sense of urban mythology.

[The phrase “instance gate,” at least as I use it, comes from World of Warcraft. It implies that through a certain gate is a world that only you or your group will experience; anyone stepping through the same gate after you will, in fact, enter an entirely different space to confront an entirely different world of experiences. It’s a great metaphor.]