New maps of national absence

As per the architectural averages of Meggan Gould, Jason Salavon, self-styled photographic king of the averaged image, has declared war on the US housing market through a really almost awe-inspiring photographic series called “Homes for Sale.”
By taking the visual average of, for instance, 114 homes for sale in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area –

[Image: 114 Homes for Sale, Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex].

– Salavon really just obliterates any claim to individuality – let alone architectural interest – that the (literally) average American home now has.
The housing market, in other words, has broken.

[Image: 124 Homes for Sale, The 5 Boroughs].

[Image: 117 Homes for Sale, Chicagoland].

How do you even know where you are? New York? Chicago?
St. Louis?
What’s so exciting about these images is how sarcastically condemnatory, rigorously critical, and yet strangely beautiful they really are. Of course the promising landscape of “America” is being destroyed by its own architecture; of course that country is falling victim to bad – or utterly absent – planning.
But Salavon’s images make this visually obvious, graphically accessible; they take what every American sees, everyday – driving through the exurbs, living in the midst of the homogeneous – and these images give it an iconography.
They represent the total mediocrity of America’s anarchitectural establishment.
Everyone’s houses look the same.

[Image: 121 Homes for Sale, LA/Orange County].

[Image: 112 Homes for Sale, Miami-Dade County].

Do you live in LA, or do you live in Miami? How the fuck can you even tell?
The symmetry and abstraction is by now so complete that America could fold in on itself through some complicated topological procedure, coast to coast, heartland to homeland, LA to Miami… and it could utterly disappear.

[Image: 109 Homes for Sale, Seattle/Tacoma].

Toward the end of Mark Rothko‘s life, as he drifted closer and closer to an unavoidable suicide, the paintings he produced grew more and more monochrome, lunar, enveloped in black and white, monumental, voidlike, immense.

[Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969].

As the color and vibrancy and detail and expressive individualism – even the ironic beauty – of the American housing market continues to flatline, it will be interesting to see if, in several years’ time, as the decades turn, as the millennium ages, perhaps Jason Salavon can return to this series and produce more maps of the architectural void, the evening-out, the swan song, the facade of national absence, to see if the architecture of an entire nation has succeeded in committing suicide.

[Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (No. 4), 1964].

Until then, millions and millions of American homes will continue to be for sale.

(Via, and with thanks to, Abe Burmeister at Abstract Dynamics).


Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle (a French pastry chef/arts photography team) create landscapes out of food: mushrooms, kiwis, salads, ice cream, watermelons, cakes. Cauliflower, even.
The result is actually really funny and great, and can be seen through the duo’s own photographs:

[Image: Week-end].

[Image: Escargot (in a different photograph, there is a large snail creeping through the salad)].

[Image: Peinture fraîche].

[Image: Mouton (aka Le prédateur)].

Gastronomic landscapes, or gastronomescapism, perhaps.
For those curious, of course, there’s more to be read at the Galerie Fraîch’Attitude (in French); and, if you have a lot of patience and a high tolerance for slow and completely unnecessary Flash, then you can visit their own website for some more images – some really, really great images – making all the frustrating Flash b.s. almost worthwhile.

[Image: Pastèque (aka Les épépineurs)].

(Via things magazine).

The mining industry

[Image: P.R.S. Gallery].

In his unfortunately titled but excellent book Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee receives, from mining industry consultant Charles Park, a crash course in exploration geology (there’s “the rootlessness of the life of an exploration geologist… ‘You’re just wandering. You’re on the loose'”), as well as a quick introduction to the modern process of gold mining – which sounds a lot like medieval alchemy:
“The rock, Park explained, is taken to the surface and crushed until it is fine sand. Mercury is poured through the sand. The mercury adroitly picks up gold, and nothing else. The mercury is then boiled away. Cyanide is poured into the sand and dissolves from it even more gold. Zinc is then put into the gold-cyanide solution. The zinc dissolves, and replaces the gold, which falls as metal to the bottom. The sand is put back in the mine, where concrete is poured on it to make platforms for upward mining. Thus, the mine consumes its own tailings” – in a perfect architectural-alchemical loop that owes much to Ouroboros, the self-devouring, occult world serpent:

A few quick questions, then – because this is not a website about alchemy or the occult – or even about Ouroboros – it’s a website about architecture, dammit:
If alchemy is considered a “religion” – and not just a form of speculative metallurgy – when America’s gold mining industry receives federal tax subsidies, does that violate the separation of church and state?
Accordingly, are exploration geologists really Earth-worshipping pagans in an alchemical conspiracy against the U.S. Constitution?
Should somebody warn President Bush…?

[More on mines: Bingham Pit and Mirny Mine].

Urban coats of arms

How do you represent a city?

What decisions would you make – graphically, textually, even musically – in order to produce something sufficiently emblematic of an urban experience, something people all over the world could recognize and relate to?

[Image: Need a hint? Think Oprah].

If you had to represent New York, for instance – or London, or Shanghai, or New Orleans – or Atlantis, for that matter – what, first of all, does such a question even mean? How do you “represent” “Shanghai”?
Well, let’s just say that we’ve answered those questions: what, then, would you choose? The people? The landscape? The skyline?
The architecture?

A series of digital city guides, produced by The Economist, uses unique graphic emblems to represent each city under discussion – in the process, making clear artistic decisions about what does or does not constitute “London” or “Sydney” or “Tokyo.”
Overwhelmingly (if unsurprisingly), these graphics – like urban coats of arms for the 21st century – choose landmark architectural sites and streetscapes for their centerpiece.
From the obvious –

– to the slightly less obvious –

(why obscure Berlin’s TV tower in clouds? why not include the Reichstag? and is that really the best Brandenburg Gate they could draw?)

(here, why hide the Golden Gate Bridge to focus on a cable car – which, as drawn, looks like every other tram on earth?)

– to the downright ugly –

(that’s Tokyo!)


(is that a UFO invading New York? why not a flaming World Trade Center?)

– to the surreal or overly abstract:

Those last two? Mexico City and Toronto.
Bilbao, Rome, Rio, Las Vegas, Montreal, Marrakech, Cairo, Baghdad – all emblemizable, so to speak: but what would those emblems depict? And what of so-called minor cities, from Glasgow to Winnipeg, Frankfurt to Xian?
What about The City of Lost Children?
What about Guantanamo Bay?
If we were to develop a new series of international coats of arms for all our global cities, what buildings or spaces or skylines – or bodies of water, or atmospheric events, or exposed geological formations, or even emblematic animals or famous disasters – earthquakes, fires, floods, terrorist attacks, atom bombs – would be included?
How do you represent a city?

Nova Arctica

it is a false and feverous state for the Centre to live in the Circumference

[Image: “The first map dedicated to the North Pole, by the great Gerard Mercator,” titled Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio, reprinted 1623].

The North Pole’s melting ice cap is apparently creating something of an Arctic real estate boom.

Or a shipping route boom, more specifically: new Arctic sea channels are opening up almost literally every season, and new – or revived – ports are being opened – or renovated – to serve them.

Pat Broe, for instance, “a Denver entrepreneur,” bought a “derelict Hudson Bay port from the Canadian government in 1997” – for $7. That $7 port, however, could eventually “bring in as much as $100 million a year as a port on Arctic shipping lanes [made] shorter by thousands of miles” due to thawing sea ice.

Such Arctic routes are predicted to grow in importance quite rapidly “as the retreat of ice in the region clears the way for a longer shipping season.”

But the world is full of Pat Broes. Accordingly, “the Arctic is undergoing nothing less than a great rush for virgin territory and natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Even before the polar ice began shrinking more each summer, countries were pushing into the frigid Barents Sea, lured by undersea oil and gas fields and emboldened by advances in technology. But now, as thinning ice stands to simplify construction of drilling rigs, exploration is likely to move even farther north.”

Aside from the inevitable and ecologically unfortunate discovery of new Arctic oil reserves (“it’s the next energy frontier,” a Russian energy worker says), the “polar thaw is also starting to unlock other treasures… perhaps even the storied Northwest Passage.”

[Image: A 1754 De Fonte Map of the Northwest Passage].

Something of a land grab – or sea grab – is now underway: “Under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territory is determined by how far a nation’s continental shelf extends” offshore – adding a somewhat Freudian dimension to Arctic real estate. (Or perhaps we could call it the Arctic Real, where “the true coordinates are much better hidden than we realize.”)

In any case: “Under the treaty, countries have limited time after ratifying it to map the sea floor and make claims.” What kind of claims? “[C]laims of expanded territory.”

But it soon gets interesting. “In a 2002 report for the Navy on climate change and the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic Research Commission, a panel appointed by the president, concluded that species were moving north through the Bering Strait.” [Emphasis added]. Territorial alterations and geographic changes at the pole, in other words, are leading to unexpected seaborne migrations, repositionings of the planetary gene pool.

Surely there’s a James Cameron film in there, or at least some kind of Arctic pulp fiction thriller dying to be written?

In any case, as new territories, both aquatic and terrestrial, appear at the Earth’s poles, we might do well to reconsider what Victoria Nelson calls “the Polar gothic,” or “the literary genre of mystical geography,” part of a “psychotopography” of the Earth…

Either way I want to mention – as Nelson does – a text by H.P. Lovecraft. In his slightly goofy 1931 novella, At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft sends a group of geologists to the south pole where they’re meant to collect “deep-level specimens of rock and soil from the antarctic continent.” Under “great barren peaks of mystery” and “desolate summits” made of “Jurassic and Comanchian sandstones and Permian and Triassic schists, with now and then a glossy black outcropping suggesting a hard and slaty coal,” they go snowshoeing, dogsledding, and hiking some more – till, drilling through ice into the ancient metamorphic prehistory of a once-tropical antarctic mountain range, they begin “to discern new topographical features in areas unreached by previous explorers.”

Soon they find weird marine fossils.

Then ancient, apparently manmade artifacts turn up.

At night they hear things.

Then they find a city.

This antarctic city is “of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. (…) All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing one to the other at dizzying heights,” including “various nightmare turrets,” crowding “the most utterly unknown stretches of the aeon-dead continent.” Etc.

Lovecraft’s polar gothic now continues apace, however, at the opposite end of the Earth, as the planet’s northernmost currents of melting ice bring new rivers, new migrations, and even new instant cities deep into the waters of thawing Arctic archipelagos.

Landscapes of “a world gone wrong”

[Image: Flood].

Artist-photographer Lori Nix creates miniature landscapes “out of any material that will simulate a real landscape; for example faux fur becomes field grass, buckwheat flour becomes dirt.”
She then photographs these sets, producing evidence of “a world gone wrong.”

[Image: Blimp].

These disasters, camouflaged within idyllic surroundings – Nix’s series is entitled “Accidentally Kansas” – are not even immediately noticeable –

[Image: Ice Storm, 1999].

– until they’re all but impossible to ignore.

[Image: Plane].

While resembling the work – or at least the working methods – of Oliver Boberg and Thomas Demand, there is something much more readily pronounced in almost all of Nix’s photographs: a sense of humor.

[Image: Parade, 2004].

My immediate response here is: 1) you have to build more of these things, they’re crazy, you could have skyscraper infernos and earthquakes leveling Los Angeles and pitch-black space shuttles hurtling past the moon and…; but then I calm down and think: 2) how about some avian flu?
28 Days Later meets an illegal container ship full of infected chickens and people on the streets of London go toppling over like dominos, bodies in heaps in Piccadilly Circus, the King’s Road lined with cadavers…
Lori Nix takes the photograph and: simulation precedes reality.

(Lori Nix discovered via the very, very excellent things magazine).

Architectural averages

The series Go Ogle by photographer Meggan Gould takes the first 100 responses to a Google image search, then overlays those 100 images into a single photographic “average.”

[Image: leaning+tower+pisa].

As Gould herself writes:
“The results, a visualization of intersections between Boolean logic and the popular imagination, are more often than not a hopeless jumble of unidentifiable pixels – but occasionally a recognizable form does emerge.” See animation.
“Word choice, spelling, and textual hints are all critical to conducting an effective search, and the averages reflect their importance: a search for coke+can reveals a crisp, almost legible average, whereas coca+cola+can is muddy and barely recognizable. Truly iconic imagery is elusive, particularly considering the glut of computer graphics through which internet spiders and archivers crawl daily; only a small fraction of searches retains any degree of legibility through the averaging process.”
But some of the most recognizable averages, I have found, are architectural.

[Image: tower+babel].

[Image: pyramid+giza].

Leaving me to wonder what has to be at least one other BLDGBLOG reader’s first thought: what about world+trade+center?
If BLDGBLOG was richer, in fact, it could probably keep Meggan Gould in business for several years, producing more and more – and more and more – architectural averages: stone+henge; san+andreas+fault; berlin+wall; yucca+mountain; space+shuttle; taj+mahal; falling+water

PS: big+ben; forbidden+city; chrysler+building; trump+tower

Death’s pyramids and Boullée’s domes

While BLDGBLOG just explored Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton – of which some better images appear here –

– complete with an internal view of the dome’s constellational ceiling –

– Boullée also designed another, if substantially less well-known, cenotaph (complete, again, with monumentally over-sized dome and somewhat ridiculous, almost elephantiasis-stricken, pyramidal shell), revealed here in both elevation and section –

– as well as yet another tomb – or cénotaphe – here a kind of architectural remix of the first pyramid:

And even that wasn’t the end. Boullée designed a tomb for Hercules; a tomb for Sparta; several funerary monuments; and a chapel of the dead that seems to have set the architectural temperature for the bunker-like, uninspired, and potentially even anti-Christian churches you now find all over today’s middle America:

Well, actually, it looks an awful lot like the house Robert Venturi built for his mother –

– which I suppose says something about Robert Venturi.

Sections, Tombs, and Stock Exchanges

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a small exhibition guide to “The Amsterdam Stock Exchange: A Structure Revealed,” by Daniel Castor.
After winning a Fulbright in 1992, Castor “created twenty-two drawings [of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange] that, like x-ray photographs, enable us to look through the building’s walls into its inner spaces in a way that one could neither achieve by means of photography nor by viewing the building in person.”

The drawings are “magnificently beautiful,” the Getty’s guide opines. By “gradually peeling away more and more of the exterior wall, like an archaeologist digging through centuries of rubble… Castor shows that the facade is no more than a thin layer around a circulatory space circumscribing the main exchange halls.”
Castor also produced a series of sketches of Bramante’s Tempietto –

– of which these are two.
But then today I stumbled across a new post on Pruned, about Jean-Jacques Lequeu, architect, cross-dresser, amateur pornographer: “In post-Revolution and Napoleon France,” Pruned writes, “Lequeu produced some of the most imaginary landscape and architectural designs” of his time, using “a masterful combination of the Gothic, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Chinese, and a smattering of hallucinations.” And, however superficially, Lequeu’s drawings reminded me of Castor’s work:

[Image: Elévation géométrale for Laqueu’s Temple consacré à l’Egalité].

Then there is the quite similar, but really, really, really exciting Temple de la Terre:

If you enlarge the image, you’ll see that the building’s dome is actually a detailed globe of the earth, and that its surface is pierced by dozens of small holes; these allow light to burn through, into the interior, in the shape of constellations. Which, of course, makes it rather a lot like Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton

– but, in many ways, Lequeu’s design is more interesting (if only because its less monolithic, less death-obsessed scale makes it a legitimate ancestor for today’s planetaria).

In any case, there are so many cool images – out of 784, total – on the Jean-Jacques Lequeu website that it’s tempting to sit here uploading more and more of the things; but I’ll stop.
Meanwhile, slicing buildings into sections, letting patterned light through, and using architecture to help model the constellations, will all be picked up again elsewhere…

A Drive-Thru Enemy Landscape

In a short article published by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we read about “a rare example of a simulated hostile nation on American soil, open to the public.”
This “drive-thru enemy landscape” is in the Dixie Valley of Nevada.

[Image: Center for Land Use Interpretation; note the tank].
After a long series of complicated land deals, the U.S. Navy “began burning down the homesteads it bought, replacing them with Soviet radar and military equipment to simulate an enemy landscape.”
Because the Valley is still open to “transit by the public,” it currently serves as a kind of “open air gallery of active warfare props,” complete with a few old homestead buildings “left to be used as visual targets, mak[ing] for a mise en scene that resembles the surrealist renderings of Dalí and de Chirico”:

But while Dixie Valley may be “a rare example” of such a landscape, it is not unique: there is also the so-called German Village in Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground.

[Image: The remnants of German Village in 1998, taken by CLUI/Mike Davis].
As Mike Davis writes, “‘German Village,’ as it is officially labeled on declassified maps of the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, is the remnant of a much larger, composite German/Japanese ‘doomtown’ constructed by Standard Oil in 1943.” That same year, “the Chemical Warfare Corps secretly recruited [architect Erich] Mendelsohn to work with Standard Oil engineers and RKO set designers to create a miniature Hohenzollern slum in the Utah desert.”
Hollywood + European Modernism = Enemy Faux-Urbanism.
“Dugway, it should be pointed out,” Davis says, “is slightly bigger than Rhode Island and more toxically contaminated than the Nuclear Test Site in nearby Nevada.”
In any case, German Village was built to be destroyed, as its exact and to-scale replicas of Berlin architecture – down to precise materials – could be tested for flammability. How architecture reacts to bombs.
German Village, in other words, was another “simulated hostile nation on American soil.”

(Of related interest, see BLDGBLOG’s A miniature city waiting for attack and Law enforcement training architecture).