Gold Standard

[Image: “Ringroad (Houston)” (2005) by Bas Princen].

Photographer Bas Princen has published a new book looking at the visual and personal backstory to one particular photograph, seen above, “Ringroad (Houston),” from 2005. Called The Construction of an Image, the book is also the final publication from Bedford Press.

It is, the book’s editor, Vanessa Norwood, writes, “an arresting image: an ordinary American office block transformed by Princen’s lens into a glowing golden cube cut by the horizon, acting as both mirror and container; the reflected landscape of trees confined within its gridded exterior.”

As part of his work process, Princen assembles small research notebooks of images he is thinking of or influenced by during the production of certain images; The Construction of an Image includes those along with other examples of Princen’s work created at the same time. As such, it offers a sustained glimpse of how Princen operates, how visual concepts are formed, and how analogies are identified and tracked from one building or landscape to another.

In the case of “Ringroad (Houston),” these precedent images range from engravings by Albrecht Dürer—fitting the world into a perspectival grid—to photographs taken inside geodesic domes, and from corporate lobbies to archaeological earthworks. These represent moments or sites where solitary structures, all-encompassing geometric frames or grids, and uneasy distinctions between foreground and background predominate.

I’m proud to have a short essay featured in the book, alongside texts by editor Vanessa Norwood, architect Kersten Geers, curator Moritz Küng, and a summary by Princen himself.

Geers, in particular, swings for the fences with his assessment of the photo, writing, “Bas Princen’s photograph Ringroad (Houston) encapsulates, through its simple presence and curious ambiguity, almost everything I feel we can ever say about architecture,” continuing over the rest of his essay to explain how the photo went on to influence Geers’s own architectural design work.

My own look at the image is in the context of Princen’s output, from Los Angeles to Dubai, focusing on his images in which “there is often an extraordinary, building-size geometric shape in the center of the frame, yet it is not always clear if it can be described as architecture. (…) Rather, these abstract objects—sometimes mirrored, sometimes with no visible points of entry—function more like undeclared monuments with no clear subject of commemoration. They are, in a sense, both unexplained and inexplicable.”

[Image: “Cooling Plant, Dubai” (2009) by Bas Princen; while this photograph does not appear in The Construction of the Image, I mention it in my essay as an inversion of “Ringroad (Houston)”].

If you’re curious to see a slightly different sort of approach, Princen’s photos are also—as of yesterday—on display at the Met Breuer museum in New York City.

In a show called Breuer Revisited, photographers Luisa Lambri and Princen both offer their own distinctive visual analyses of four buildings designed by Marcel Breuer.

“Evoking minimalism and abstraction,” the museum explains, “Lambri creates images that examine the dialogue between interior and exterior, and the interaction between surface and light. Princen investigates and reframes urban and rural spaces through documenting the concept of post-occupancy, or the evolution of a building and its enduring relevance.”

The show is open until May 21, 2017; The Construction of an Image is available through the Architectural Association.

(Earlier: Pieces of the city are forming, like islands).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”

The Wreckage, The Collapse

I’ve been thinking about two art installations lately—one from the 1980s, the other from 2008—that remain interesting beyond their admittedly obvious metaphoric value.

The first is the aptly named Samson by Chris Burden, an installation piece from 1985.

[Image: An installation view of Samson (1985) by Chris Burden, courtesy Zwirner & Worth].

Samson was “a museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could theoretically destroy the building.”

The idea that attendees might not know this—that they could continue to visit the gallery unaware of the purpose or function of this massive device sitting there in the middle of the room, disastrously expanding millimeter by millimeter with every click of the turnstile—haunted me for days after first studying this back in college. Perhaps the artist gets drunk on the night of the opening and doesn’t fully explain what the piece does, or perhaps far more people show up than anyone had expected, the wall-text is obscured by human bodies, and the outward pressure of the machine relentlessly builds. And builds.

The end is built into the very working of the machinery, even while the moment of its long-promised collapse remains impossible to anticipate.

The other is the technically and aesthetically fascinating slow-motion car crash of Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle.”

The “sculpture is a machine that advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision. Each car moves about three feet into the other. The movement is so slow as to be invisible.”

The tectonic effects of the ensuing collision are incredible to watch; this would be hugely useful, it seems, in a geology lab, for demonstrating the movement of faults. Slow it down even more—not days, but weeks, months—and you could watch whole mountain ranges, basins, folds, and troughs form in stressed and crumpling landscapes of different materials over the course of an entire semester.

Two forces, oppositely oriented, appear at first glance to be still, their mutual ruination—gorgeous, unstoppable—already underway.

Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

Northern Sonic

[Image: Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait, source of the “ping”].

The “mysterious ‘ping’ sound” occurring beneath the waters of Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait is now under official investigation.

“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”

To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”

In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.

No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign military sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.

[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].

The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking building whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them of what cause—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.

One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.

A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.

And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.

(Via Atlas Obscura).

The Doomway

[Image: The beginning of the Broomway path, at Wakering Stairs].

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, has been excerpted over at the BBC—and, although the excerpt itself is well worth reading in full, it only reminds me of how good the entire chapter really is (note, as well, that the following quotations come from Macfarlane’s book, not from the BBC excerpt, lest there be variations in text).

The chapter documents a hike along the Broomway, an eerie coastal path across tidally exposed sands out where the Thames meets the North Sea.

The satellite photo, above, shows the Broomway’s launching point, at a place called Wakering Stairs. From there it heads into a shifting marine landscape of tidal flats—a “vast revealed world,” in Macfarlane’s words, of mud, half-buried guideposts, and omnipresent quicksand.

The path is also known as the Doomway: it is a path that leads “straight out to sea.”

[Image: One possible end-point—not the furthest—of the “Doomway” path].

The Broomway is “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” Macfarlane writes, “and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

It only exists at low tide, for starters, and it can often be followed only with the visual help of unstable wooden poles driven into the ground to mark its route across the landscape. Its unusual name, in fact, comes from “the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.”

Without those brooms, the path—and not just where it’s heading, but the route you’ve already walked to get there–would disappear from view entirely, in effect stranding you at sea.

That might sound easy enough to account for, if you have a good sense of direction. “When the tide comes back in, though,” Macfarlane warns, “it comes fast—galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.”

[Image: The endpoint of the Broomway tidal path].

A sense of how difficult the Broomway can be to follow is revealed by Macfarlane’s description of how people used to walk it in bad weather. “Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom.”

They would then either haul the stone up to their current position and start the process all over again, or they would search back through the mist and darkness for the correct route forward.

The path “is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries,” and what an utterly lost and disoriented death it must have been.

If you’re tempted to hike it—as am I—please take the necessary precautions; consider reading Macfarlane’s book the first necessary step.

(On a side note, it is very much not the same thing, but Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney takes place in a coastal British landscape that has its own disappearing footpath across the tidal sands; it can be, at times, uneven, but it is a good read for any fellow fans of Gothic horror).

The Walled City (10-Mile Version)

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

A new exhibition opens next week at the Hubbell Street Galleries in San Francisco, part of the California College of the Arts, called Drawing Codes: Experimental Protocols of Architectural Representation. The idea behind the group show is to look at “the relationship between code and drawing” (emphases theirs), or “how rules and constraints inform the ways we document, analyze, represent, and design the built environment.”

Drawing Codes is curated by Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus, with Clayton Muhleman, and it features work by Erin Besler, Elena Manferdini, Jimenez Lai, the Oyler Wu Collaborative, Rael San Fratello, and many more.

As Kudless—of Matsys fame—pointed out to me over email, the curators “gave all of the participants a set of codes that they had to follow (e.g. all black and white, orthographic projection, 25″ x 25″, etc.),” using this set of constraints to, among other things, foreground differences in approach between each participating architect.

If everyone’s doing the same thing, then how each person does it becomes more revealing.

[Image: “Half-Hearted Diamonds” by Jimenez Lai/Bureau Spectacular].

Perhaps ironically, it was actually the drawing by Kudless himself—which I first saw on Instagram—that caught my interest.

Called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” that project imagines an entire metropolis that is nothing but one, continuous wall.

Kudless explained that it came about by posing himself a rhetorical question: “What would a city look like if it was a wall and nothing else? I’ve been fascinated with walls that have grown thick enough to be buildings in themselves. From medieval European city walls to the Great Wall in China, there is something really interesting about taking something that is ostensively about separating two territories and turning into an inhabitable space in its own right.”

[Image: Close-up from “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

The results: a rule-constrained exploration of how a wall could become a city.

I started to play around with slowly increasing a wall’s length while preventing it from moving outside a site or intersecting itself. At a certain point in the growth process, the wall takes over the entire site. There is still an inside and outside to the wall, but sometimes the outside is deep inside the site boundary or vice versa. At that point, I was left with a big squiggly wall, but realized that I needed some sort of roofscape to make it read as a city and not just a thick wall. That’s when I turned to Google’s autocomplete feature to give me suggestions on what programs [spatial functions] a rooftop might support. I worked my way from A to Z pretty much accepting whatever suggestion Google’s autocomplete gave me and started designing parametric definitions that could implement that program on a number of different sites along the wall’s top.

The various social and architectural functions distributed around the massive roofscape included, for example, Rooftop Antenna, Rooftop Bar, Rooftop Cafe, Rooftop Deck, Rooftop Exhaust, Rooftop Film, Rooftop Garden, Rooftop Hotel Pool, and so on.

Interestingly, Kudless also pointed out that, if he were to run the same generative script again, it would likely produce “a similar, but not identical city,” and it would almost certainly not result in a wall exactly ten miles in length (which, in this case, was purely a coincidence, he explained).

In any case, I’ve been impressed by Kudless’s work for a long time; check out these older posts on his projects Nevada Sietch and robotic drawing protocols, for example, and then stop by the exhibition when it opens next week. There will be a reception on January 19 at 5:30pm at 161 Hubbell Street. More info.

Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

The Season of Burning Trucks

Stories of GPS directions run amok are a dime a dozen these days: gullible travelers led astray by their iPhones or dashboard navigation systems, driving for hours into the desert night, straight into mountain lakes, up unpaved rural roads that are clearly no more than footpaths, or even halfway across Iceland before they realize something’s wrong.

But there is still something remarkable and almost Raymond Carver-esque about this story of a small town in Arkansas being visited—over and over again—by runaway trucks, their drivers misled by GPS, their vehicles mechanically unprepared for the town’s sharp curves and steep terrain. “Several of them go through here with their brakes smoking or on fire,” a local resident tells ArkansasOnline.

This vision of a town—population a mere 100—now seeing the blazing and violent side-effects of digital navigation technology is both hilarious and beautifully symbolic of the larger phenomenon, of people becoming over-reliant upon algorithmic systems and finding their journeys no longer proceeding as planned.

Like freak weather caused by atmospheric events halfway across the country—bringing unexpected local snow or unseasonably heavy rain hundreds of miles away—intangible changes in route-mapping software send burning trucks roaring through a remote mountain town.

It is both a macabre spectacle and a symptom of bigger technological shifts—before, of course, those same algorithms receive slights tweaks and all those trucks, as mysteriously as they first arrived one night, halo’d in oily flames, now cease to appear.

Imagine being five or six years old in a town like that, not knowing what GPS is, looking out from the darkness of your bedroom over several weeks of late nights, and living through this season of burning trucks, those infernal visitors from further up the mountainside, tumbling down past houses, trailed by smoke, their fiery wheels reflecting bright red in the windows of parked cars. It’s like the visions of Ezekiel, updated for an age of car accidents and Google Maps.

Where are they coming from? And why? Then it all stops and the mystery deepens.