Tropo-electricity: or, how to turn the sky into a machine

In ‘Windmills in the Sky‘ we learn that: ‘Australian engineer Bryan Roberts wants to build a power station in the sky – a cluster of windmills soaring 15,000 feet in the air’ in the troposphere, where ‘there is enough energy in high-altitude winds to satisfy the world’s [electrical] demands.’ This resource is referred to as ‘high-altitude wind power’. The machines would ‘use GPS technology to maintain the crafts’ vertical and horizontal location to within a few feet. The craft will be brought to ground once a month or so for maintenance checks.’
An image which – perhaps to my discredit – immediately makes me think of films by Hayao Miyazaki.

But there are other angles to consider, including a sky full of hovering tropo-electric generators as: 1) atmospheric installation art; 2) tropotechnical engineering (v. geotechnics); 3) a fantastic idea for an animated science-fiction movie (again, viz Hayao Miyazaki);

4) a kind of retro-futurist Red Baron-era *Don Quixote* remake; 5) a nuts place to get a summer job, living on one of the windmills and making repairs from within the black skies of the troposphere; 6) something Rimbaud would’ve come up with while sipping absinthe; 7) etc.
Or 8), of course, lucky 8): how to turn the sky into a machine. Atmospheric irrigation, or the productive redirection of the planet’s rivers of air.
Or 9), too: a poetic insight into the otherwise unrecognized resources of energy and power all around us. Poetic engineering. Engineering as 3-dimensional poetry.

Unworkable devices / Archaeological machines

Because they could: Patents for unworkable devices. Why not patents for unworkable architecture?
Speaking of which: during an excavation in London, a team from the Museum of London uncovered part of a hydrologic machine that they then actually built using new parts. I’m reminded here of the (otherwise terrible) Stephen King novel, *The Tommyknockers*, in which a woman finds a small piece of metal in her backyard woods; while kicking away the dirt she realizes it is merely the outer edge of an alien spacecraft that crashed there hundreds of thousands of years before… The book rapidly goes downhill from there.

Kristian Birkeland’s magnetic museum: or, ‘sunspots like no one else can do better’

Kristian Birkeland, the first scientist correctly to deduce the solar-magnetic origin of the Northern Lights, at one point was obsessed with building an experimental device here on Earth that could reproduce those polar-bound auroral effects.

Though he started off only vaguely over-ambitious, a combination of hyper-caffeination in the Egyptian desert and addiction to veronal produced BLDGBLOG-worthy architectural hubris I feel should be quoted here in full. So, bearing in mind that this is a true story, as told by Lucy Jago’s book The Northern Lights:

1) Birkeland’s vacuum chamber was a ‘machine in which to recreate many phenomena of the solar system beyond the Earth. He drew up plans for a new machine unlike anything that had been made before.

…[L]ike a spacious aquarium, [the box] would provide a window into space. The box would be pumped out to create a vacuum and he would use larger globes and a more powerful cathode to produce charged particles. With so much more room he would be able to see effects, obscured in the smaller tubes, that could take his Northern Lights theory one step further – into a complete cosmogony, a theory of the origins of the universe. (…) All sorts of beautiful solar phenomena could recreated this way, such as the sun’s corona, the shining layers of the sun’s outer atmosphere, usually visible only during a total eclipse. He could reproduce sunspots that moved across the surface of the terrella [the electrical globe-mechanism inside the vacuum chamber itself]… With this extraordinary machine Birkeland was able to simulate Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and the Zodiacal Light. He even experimented with space propulsion using cathode rays. Sophisticated photographs were taken of each simulation, to be included in the next volume of Birkeland’s great work, which would discern the electromagnetic nature of the universe and his theories about the formation of the solar system.

The ensuing period of nearly hypnotised overwork is referred to later as ‘Birkeland’s immersion into the universe of his vacuum chamber’.

2) But then he got ambitious. In a letter written from a hotel in Aboukir, Egypt, where Birkeland’s addiction to caffeine and veronal was driving him insane – along with the Saharan sun – he wrote: ‘And, finally, I am going to tell you about a great idea I have had; it’s a bit premature but I think it will be realised. I am going to get some money from the state and from friends, to build a museum for the discovery of the Earth’s magnetism, magnetic storms, the nature of sunspots, of planets – their nature and creation. On a little hill I will build a dome of granite, the walls will be a metre thick, the floor will be formed of the mountain itself and the top of the dome, fourteen metres in diametre, will be a gilded copper sphere. Can you guess what the dome will cover? When I’m boasting I say to my friends here “next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber in the world.” I will make a vacuum chamber of 1,000 cubic metres and, every Sunday, people will have the opportunity to see a ring of Saturn ten metres in diametre, sunspots like no one else can do better, Zodiacal Light as evocative as the natural one and, finally, auroras… four metres in diametre. The same sphere will serve as Saturn, the sun, and Earth, and will be driven round by a motor.’

So, aside from conjuring up images somewhere between Frankenstein, City of Lost Children and Batman, perhaps, Birkeland’s mountaintop cosmogonic laboratory brings up the interesting possibility of modeling – even reproducing – the universe through architecture. Or, at least, through a combination of architecture and machinery (which is what architecture always was in the first place).

In any case, clue the United States Department of Energy in on this and you’ll – wait: they’ve already done it. It’s called Yucca Mountain.

Perhaps a subterranean tour of the carved radioactive vaults of Yucca Mountain will be available to someone in a few ten-thousand years. By which time Birkeland’s almost H.P. Lovecraftian visions of simulating the birth of the universe atop a granite mountaintop, beneath a copper dome, will be long forgotten.

Oh, one more thing – in fact, two more things: 1) note that cathode rays, which Birkeland used in his vacuum chambers, are also what make non-digital television possible (raising the intellectually stimulating idea that television, in and of itself, as a technical object, is a model of the cosmos); and 2) note that Birkeland says ‘next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber’, implying of course that the universe already is a vacuum chamber, in which case one could argue – at least rhetorically – that we are living not in the universe as such but in what is already the experimental reproduction of the universe, a universe which lies elsewhere. The universe itself, then, the universe we run tests on and live within, is just a model, a prototype even. But that’s neither here nor there…


Direct intervention into the earth’s surface through technology – the coupling of the planet with technological objects – could be phrased as ‘geotechnical,’ a word I thought I invented – until I discovered that ‘geotechnics’ is already a long-standing professional concern of engineers and architects. Gone was the whiz-bang neologism, but born was an intense curiosity in what ‘geotechnical engineers’ actually do.
Unforeseen ground conditions. Reuse of old foundations. Ground investigation. Geological voids. Borehole geophysics. ‘Geo Frontiers 2005’. Ground engineering, which includes ‘international geotechnical events’ and ‘covers all aspects of the engineering of the ground’.
The vocabulary alone justifies awe. Where else can you read: ‘Sui Field compression project: the tectonic structure of Northern Pakistan’, and take it seriously?
Ground improvement!
‘The geotechnics of contaminated land’!
Applied geology.
My enthusiasm coming here not from some pre-adolescent obsession with digging machines, but from the black-out inducing intellectual high of outright planetary engineering, a geosynthetic *Wunderproject*, where remote-sensing meets hydrological engineering, geotextiles, ground improvement, and mega-scale, antigravitational, interstellar industrial machines hovering 350 miles above the dark, unfinished surface of a geoengineered planet.
‘The engineering of the ground’!
After geotechnics, the whole planet could be already artificial, bearing marks of human intervention. To find in a moment of ultra-fast zoom-out cello-soundtracked awe that the earth you’re standing on is always, already, everywhere a huge Mt. Rushmore, a man-made, artificial, technological, geotechnic project.
A hollow earth, a geosynthetic planet. Sculpted from geotextiles.
Landscape architecture taken to the megalomaniacal extreme. And funded by multinational petroleum companies.

Milled landscapes / Michael Heizer

The question is whether you could hook-up a milling machine to the earth itself. Rather than exact, laser-cut incisions made into boards of hardwood, you would mill entire landscapes out of the open surface of the earth.

This could start small – cutting foundations, bore holes, etc. – but should immediately expand to include larger examples of terrestrial engineering: landscape architecture, earthworks, gardens, perhaps even dikes, dams, and other flood containment systems. The earth-miller could be operated like an ordinary, programmable milling machine today: you input the design required, the exact sequence and dimensions of the cuts, and the machine sets out, milling a new landscape into existence.

In a recent *New York Times Magazine* profile of earthworks/land-sculptor Michael Heizer, we read about “‘City,’ [Heizer’s] own version of Easter Island or Angkor Wat: a modernist complex of abstract shapes – mounds, prismoids, ramps, pits – to be spread across the valley. It was to be experienced over time, in shifting weather, not from a single vantage point or from above but as an accumulation of impressions and views gathered by walking through it. (…) ‘City,’ in its vastness, was meant to synthesize ancient monuments, Minimalism and industrial technology. The work derived inspiration from Mississippian tumuli (ancient North American mounds), the ball court at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and La Venta in southern Tabasco… At the same time, it suggested airport runways and Modernist architecture.” (Michael Kimmelman, “Art’s Last, Lonely Cowboy”: 6 Feb 05).

Despite – or perhaps because of – the size of Heizer’s “City” (somewhere between the Washington Mall and Central Park, apparently), it’d be perfect for an earth-miller. Several programmable machines with self-sharpening mechanical grinders, pavement saws and rock sanders – and perhaps viab/nozzles, mentioned in an earlier post – set to work. It takes days, weeks even, but then it’s done: the milled landscape of a new earth, abstract volumes glowing in the sunlight.

Lunar urbanism deux

The abstract of ‘Lunar architecture and urbanism’ by Brent Sherwood reads: ‘Human civilization and architecture have defined each other for over 5000 years on Earth. Even in the novel environment of space, persistent issues of human urbanism will eclipse, within a historically short time, the technical challenges of space settlement that dominate our current view. By adding modern topics in space engineering, planetology, life support, human factors, material invention, and conservation to their already renaissance array of expertise, urban designers can responsibly apply ancient, proven standards to the exciting new opportunities afforded by space. Inescapable facts about the Moon set real boundaries within which tenable lunar urbanism and its component architecture must eventually develop.’
Sherwood was/is with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. An otherwise so-so paper, published originally in 1992.
If only he knew about the viab/nozzle

Lunar urbanism

Apparently ‘learning from nature’, François Roche and Behrokh Khoshnevis are working on a concrete spray-nozzle that ‘spits wet cement while a programmable trowel smoothes the goo into place’. They’re now wedding that with Roche’s own ‘viab’ device: ‘a construction robot capable of improvising as it assembles walls, ducts, cables, and pipes.’
They want to build skyscrapers on the moon.
There’s a movie coming out this summer called *Stealth* with Jamie Foxx that looks really, really bad. An AI bomber put to use by the Air Force – or Navy – gets struck by lightning, thereby rewiring its circuits into a predatory killing machine… What would be at least moderately more interesting, however, would be if a Roche/Khoshnevis viab/concrete nozzle assembly is struck by lightning, or perhaps reprogrammed by some strange shift in the local geomagnetic curtain: it thereafter starts building uninhabitably complex architectural structures out of a near-infinite supply of concrete from a nearby gravel plant. After only six days we’re talking Tower of Babel proportions. Soon you can see the results from six, seven, eight miles away; soon from the International Space Station.
A group of grad students volunteers to go out and waterproof it, sealing and perhaps painting it, and the autonomous viab/nozzle takes on literally mythic proportions. Soon Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of these States, starts an epic poem based on the legend of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth, rewriting it with the viab/nozzle as hero.
It just goes and goes and goes. Soon all of the American southwest is a hive of concrete. Skateboarders flock en masse to try out its arcs and curves, deep bowls and slopes perfect for next year’s X-Games. The galleries of New York fill with photographs and watercolors; avant-garde black-and-white films are released to great fanfare at European festivals; the President visits, complaining that it blocks access to resources vital to the extraction industry.
Soon the original – and real, mind you – purpose of the viab/nozzle is achieved: they are sent up to the moon, and Mars, and beyond – perhaps even to the bottom of the sea – in order to begin a more inhabitable, humanly useful construction.
They gaze back lovingly at the Earth, at the deserts of America, and the results of their ancestor’s first workings. The future origin myth for a race of interplanetary architect-machines.
(All quotations from Bruce Sterling, ‘An Architect’s Wet-Cement Dream’ in *Wired*, Feb 2005).

‘Animaris Mammoth’

At the risk of repeating another article, I’ll just quote liberally instead: Lakshmi Sandhana writes in *Wired* (24 Jan 05: *Wild Things Are on the Beach*) about Theo Jansen, an artist ‘evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind.’ ‘His latest creations contain lemonade bottles in their body structure into which the wind is slowly pumped, enabling the creature to walk for a couple of minutes afterward. (…) He says a future version – a 12-ton behemoth, big enough to have several rooms inside – could be called the Animaris Mammoth.’
A friend of Jansen’s, Carl Pisaturo, another robotics designer, refers to a collapsed Jansenian creature as ‘a tipped-over, short-circuited machine half-buried in beach sand’ – surely outdoing the end of *Planet of the Apes*, or at least competing.
So could you do that with a building? It captures wind in huge flexible sacks that gradually return to normal size, pumping the air into a complex network of pneumatic tubing; these then power the elevators, vents, and whatever else you need. The plumbing perhaps. When you go through the doldrums of a windless Spring, the building effectively shuts down. But in a windstorm, you’d be forgiven for thinking the building was artificially intelligent. Constant motion, unpredictable internal rearrangements.
Artificial intelligence through wind. An architectural version of the Aeolian harp. Covered in sails and windsacs. A huge architectural lung, traveling slowly over the coastal landscape, fourteen thousand years after humans have gone extinct.
And then it collapses…

2 architectural suggestions for stopping time

While not ‘architectural,’ really – though I’m reminded of Norman Foster’s assertion that the 747 airplane is the single most important architectural design of the 20th century (giving a whole new perspective to September 11th: it was an architectural competition, and the skyscraper lost) – two architectural suggestions for stopping time are as follows:
1) Build a solar-powered airplane and fly it at exactly the speed of the rotation of the earth, against the earth’s rotation. Do this at high-noon, over the equator. The plane will always be in the glow of the sun, never leaving its precise and comfortable position at high-noon. Having become a geostationary structure in a low-atmosphere orbit, the airplane, barring mechanical failure, will never advance forward in time. It will always be noon, technically on the same day. It will be architecture that’s seceded from the aging of the universe.
2) Build a box of perfectly reflective internal surfaces. Light will never be absorbed or dissipated, but endlessly recycled and returned through the box’s mirrored interior. Whatever moment it captures – that is, whatever was happening when the box was sealed: the event, or location, that bounced its reflective way into the box’s hermetic closure – will remain in a constant state of cross-reflection, never dissipating or fading. The image, a kind of 3-dimensional holograph of the event it refers to, can then be sent floating outward from the earth, drifting through space, reflecting, never aging, one moment stuttering through itself over and over again till universal heat-death does us in.
And in both cases – within those two spatial instances, those two pieces of ‘architecture’ – time will effectively be stopped.
(Or so he tells himself.)


We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard and the international warehousing strategies of Bechtel than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe – yet we study Mies van der Rohe.

Buttressed buttresses

First, whenever I hear the phrase ‘buttressed buttresses’ I think of Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Perhaps to his credit.
Second, the actual point in bringing up (inventing?) the phrase, is that even buttresses can have buttresses. Buttresses, the spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals and hold up the walls of the nave, have always fascinated me, both on the aesthetic level (they’re gorgeous, and absolutely beautiful to look at in their hypnotic repetition and grace) and on the intellectual level. They are, after all, fun to think about it: because they’re not really objects, they’re events. They’re events of gravity channeled downward toward the earth’s core; they’re the building always on the verge of falling apart – and then not falling apart.
They’re somewhere between event and structure.
But what really interests me is to think that you’re visiting Paris, say, or some other city that has no name and, strangely, no one’s ever heard of it, and you’re standing in the apartment of a friend. There’s a rather large arching stone structure that cuts through the center of his bedroom, but he’s done his best to adapt to it: there are pictures, maybe some cool decorative objects, maybe some shelves, all attached with nails into the arch. You say, ‘What exactly is that thing, anyway?’ and he grins, embarrassed, and he says, ‘It’s a buttress.’
You go, ‘What?’ and hold back a yawn, looking around for a place to sit.
He starts laughing. He says, ‘Come on, dude, you know what a buttress is. It’s like those – those big fucking things you see outside Notre-Dame. Those spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals.’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘So… what’s it doing in your apartment?’
It turns out, as the man explains, you friend, standing there looking at you with a beer in his hand, that there’s a monumental structure in the center of the city, a derrick-like core of platforms and offices, and it’s called, simply, The Cathedral. Or The Tower. But it’s big, so big, so incomprehensibly massive, that the only way it can remain standing is to surround itself with massive buttresses that help distribute the gravitational load. The buttresses themselves, on the other hand, are so huge that they were put to dual use almost immediately as motorway bridges and highway flyover supports; but then the weight of the motorways, and of cars and trains and people and maybe some houses built atop the buttresses – and, of course, the weight of The Cathedral itself – was all too much, and the buttresses needed to be buttressed. But, as you can imagine, even these subsidiary buttresses were so huge that they, too, were put to dual use; and so on.
Finally, in an exquisite filigree stretching everywhere throughout the city, a mandala of lace-like interconnected structures that spans the width and breadth of the whole metropolis: there begin to appear thousands upon thousands of microbuttresses, all buttressing the buttresses that buttress the buttresses.
And what you see there in your friend’s apartment is one of those microbuttresses.
Buttressed buttresses.
There are pubs in the city set in the vertices of two dozen arches; new children’s games invented to incorporate the presence of strange structural blocks; and there are dreams at night, shared by everyone, at different times, that even The Cathedral in the center of the city is itself a buttress, and it, too, is just one structural unit among uncountable hundreds of thousands, all of which add up to some dizzyingly titanic megastructure no one has ever seen the whole of.
My point is not to write a science-fiction novel – though I might, actually, so be prepared – but to explore the idea that even buttresses have buttresses; even foundations have foundations; even arches need arches to support them. Even one buttress, after all, requires the resistance and strength of the ground it’s anchored upon; and that ground depends upon the strength of the ground around it. Which makes earthquake faultlines so interesting, as an architectural consideration, but that’s for another entry.
But the chain never ends. Buttresses simply make visible the always present gravitational forces so well disguised by other styles of building, and, as such, they’re amazing.
What would be even more interesting, perhaps, is: you are out walking in a field and you stumble upon a strange architectural structure, only it has no doors or windows, ie. no inside. You’re twenty, thirty miles away from any metropolitan center, and you have no clue what it is. You’re in a bad mood. You begin to hack away at it, and then finally you just say fuck it, and you drive a Hummer into it. It falls over.
You think that’s the end of it, but then you hear that a cathedral has collapsed in the nearest city, and it collapsed because suddenly one of its outer buttresses gave out. It turns out that, yes, the now-collapsed buttress was reliant upon the compressive and resistant capacity of the soil it was anchored in, and that that structure you knocked over, thirty miles away, was very carefully calibrated as a brace for that soil. By knocking it over you let the earth sag, in a straight line leading right to the cathedral, and voilà: architectural action at a distance.
It’s the magical mystery of buttressed buttresses.