Afghan Twin

[Image: Screen-grab from an interview between John Peel and Aphex Twin, filmed in Cornwall’s Gwennap Pit; spotted via Xenogothic].

An anecdote I often use while teaching design classes—but also something I first read so long ago, I might actually be making the whole thing up—comes from an old interview with Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. I’ve tried some very, very lazy Googling to find the original source, but, frankly, I like the version I remember so much that I’m not really concerned with verifying its details.

In any case, the story goes like this: in an interview with a music magazine, published I believe some time in the late-1990s, James claimed that he had been hired to remix a track by—if I remember correctly—The Afghan Whigs. Whether or not it was The Afghan Whigs, the point was that James reported being so unable to come up with new ideas for the band’s music that he simply sped their original song up to the length of a high-hat, then composed a new track of his own using that sound.

The upshot is that, if you were to slow down the resulting Aphex Twin track by several orders of magnitude, you would hear an Afghan Whigs song (or whatever) playing, in its entirety, every four or five minutes, bursting surreally out of the electronic blur before falling silent again, like a tide. Just cycling away, over and over again.

What’s amazing about this, at least for me, is in the possibilities it implies for everything from sonic camouflage—such as hiding acoustic information inside a mere beep in the overall background sound of a room—to art installations.

Imagine a scenario, for example, in which every little bleep and bloop in a song (or TV commercial or blockbuster film or ringtone) somewhere is actually an entire other song accelerated, or even what this could do outside the field of acoustics altogether. An entire film, for example, sped up to a brief flash of light: you film the flash, slow down the resulting footage, and you’ve got 2001 playing in a public space, in full, hours compressed into a microsecond. It’s like the exact opposite of Bryan Boyer’s Very Slow Movie Player, with very fast nano-cinemas hidden in plain sight.

The world of sampling litigation has been widely covered—in which predatory legal teams exhaustively listen to new musical releases, flagging unauthorized uses of sampled material—but, for this, it’s like you’d need time cops, temporal attorneys slowing things down dramatically out of some weird fear that their client’s music has been used as a high-hat sound…

Anyway, for context, think of the inaudible commands used to trigger Internet-of-Things devices: “The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser,” Ars Technica reported back in 2015. “While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.”

Or, as the New York Times wrote in 2018, “researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online—simply with music playing over the radio.”

Now imagine some malevolent Aphex Twin doing audio-engineering work for a London advertising firm—or for the intelligence services of an adversarial nation-state—embedding ultra-fast sonic triggers in the audio environment. Only, here, it would actually be some weird dystopia in which the Internet of Things is secretly run by ubiquitous Afghan Whigs songs being played at 3,600-times their intended speed.

[Don’t miss Marc Weidenbaum’s book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2.]

Black Foundations

[Images: Via Borderland Sciences].

The Sonic Doom of Vladimir Gavreau” by Gerry Vassilatos is a great example of speculative nonfiction—or, more specifically, of music history as conspiracy theory, where acoustic engineering gradually morphs into something closer to pseudo-science and occult mythology.

It goes all over the place, from the work of Oliver Messiaen to the physical threat of infrasound, and from the alleged Cold War weaponization of acoustics to the malignant “resonant profiles” of the buildings we work within today.

The anecdotes alone—whether or not you take them at their word—are amazing: “Walt Disney and his artists were once made seriously ill when a sound effect, intended for a short cartoon scene, was slowed down several times on a tape machine and amplified through a theater sound system. The original sound source was a soldering iron, whose buzzing 60 cycle tone was lowered five times to 12 cycles. This tone produced a lingering nausea in the crew which lasted for days.”

For anyone who’s read about the controversial “sonic attack” on U.S. ambassadorial staff in Cuba, or for fans of the book How to Wreck a Nice Beach, it’s probably a must-read.

While you’re there, if you’ve got time to kill, check out Vassilatos’s essay on “nocturnal auditory disturbances,” otherwise known as mysterious humming sounds with no discernible origin.

(Spotted via @robertcurgenven.)

As if all contemporary buildings have tinnitus: An Interview with Sabine von Fischer

[Image: “A tapping machine used in tests to evaluate the ability of floor coverings to reduce the transmission of impact sound from one floor to another in multi-family dwellings. Courtesy of the National Research Council Canada/Conseil national de recherches Canada,” via CCA].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

Sabine von Fischer is an architectural historian with a specific interest in acoustics. Both Von Fischer and I were Fellows at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in the summer of 2010, where she was “researching the relationship between architecture and sound for a Ph.D.”

I was fascinated by the work she presented one afternoon during a lecture, and, later that week, I caught up with Von Fischer for a brief Q&A about her work. The following interview was originally published in 2010.

* * *

BLDGBLOG: In the most general terms, what is the topic of your dissertation?

Sabine von Fischer: The Ph.D. will be a history of 20th century architecture, with sound being the filter through which I want to look at different spatial configurations, building technologies, and the mutual effect of technologies and architecture on each other. The period that I am looking at is 1930-1970; this was a period when drastic changes in acoustic technology happened that continue to impact our environment today.

BLDGBLOG: Why do you begin in 1930?

Von Fischer: 1930 was the first publication of the tapping machine—that’s my case study for building acoustics. The 1970 date is maybe a little more vague—it’s a nice even number! But if I find other events, I might change it to 1971. [laughs]

BLDGBLOG: What was the tapping machine [seen in the image above]?

Von Fischer: The tapping machine, as it was first published in 1930 and as it was standardized in the 1960s, has five steel rods that hammer against the floor. The speed has changed a bit over time—and its speed is now standardized—but it just tramples on the floor. It’s a very basic machine.

The principle of the machine can be found in older apparatuses, such as those used in grinding food items, but this particular application was to simulate the sound of footsteps, furniture, and machines on the floors of multi-story buildings. In this form—with five hammers, which are electrically operated—it was first published in 1930, in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Everyone who has been working on building acoustics claims that, since 1923 or 1926, they’ve been doing similar tests on structure-borne sound, but almost all of those earlier tests were done with women in high-heeled shoes. High- heeled shoes make a very distinct sound. For impact-sound measurements, these women—and I have never seen a photo with a man or a documentation of a test done with a man—would wear high-heeled shoes, making a very standard noise.

Obviously, there have been comparative tests with men wearing different-soled shoes, evaluating the different ways of walking—or people who are very heavy, who produce different frequencies in the floor—but the National Bureau of Standards, in the period between the wars, had ladies in high-heeled shoes walking around inside buildings.

BLDGBLOG: Did the tapping machine put those women out of work, or was it used in parallel?

Von Fischer: I think they were replaced by the machine—but, then, people came back in over the last decades, mostly for measuring sound inside the same spaces. Because, once there is sound insulation in the floor, there’s a new problem: sound gets thrown back into the room. It’s not transmitted into the lower floors; it wanders around the same room. Especially with laminated flooring, there can be a strange sound when people are walking inside their own spaces. To test that, it’s done with people; the tapping machine wouldn’t simulate it well enough.

BLDGBLOG: I’m reminded of Nightingale floors in Japan: deliberately squeaky floors installed as a security measure against ninjas and assassins. The idea was to make the floor as acoustically noticeable as possible, rather than to mitigate its sonic properties.

Von Fischer: In Indian culture, as well, there’s a related example, where often the lady of the house would have a ring on her toes so that the other people in the house would know when she’s approaching. Different cultures have different traditions of using sound to mark someone’s presence in a building.

BLDGBLOG: Going back to your Ph.D. research, can you explain your idea of the “clairaudient building”?

Von Fischer: The “clairaudient building” is a metaphor, because normally you would say that a person is clairaudient.

BLDGBLOG: It’s like clairvoyant—clairaudient is a kind of supernatural “all-hearing”?

Von Fischer: Yes, I am using “clairaudience” to refer to early and post-war modern building systems, which transmitted sounds much more than any traditional way of building, creating problems that were unheard of before. Then, the word clairaudience, to me, also spans all of the technological machines and apparatuses that are used to broadcast sound inside architecture—speakers, microphones, intercoms, all the way up to surveillance systems and equipment. So buildings became clairaudient through technology.

BLDGBLOG: In that sense, a clairaudient building would be a space of total acoustic transparency?

Von Fischer: Yes, and I also think acoustic transparency is a quality of ambience—what became known as the “atmosphere” of a space. Very often, for example, you can observe that once rooms are silenced, other sounds are introduced artificially because, in the end, total silence doesn’t feel comfortable.

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting—as someone who has very bad tinnitus, I need to have some kind of noise playing at night or I can’t go to sleep. So my wife—I hope!—has gotten used to the fact that we have to have fans on, even in the middle of winter, and sometimes more than one. But what’s interesting about tinnitus is that a silent room is not necessarily socially uncomfortable—in the sense that you need to think of something to say to the people around you—but, speaking only for myself, it can be acoustically uncomfortable. I can actually feel dizzy sometimes when it’s totally silent due to all the ringing in my ears.

Von Fischer: I would say that the term tinnitus can also be applied to buildings and to cities in general. I think sounds in cities and buildings have moved from being distinct signals, or individual sounds, to a constant background. There is often not one loud noise, but a mélange or a multiplicity of dampened—yet still audible—machines.

This will sound too harsh, but it’s as if all contemporary buildings have tinnitus. That’s an image I want to work on—a pathological metaphor for the state of sound in architecture.

[Image: Sulzer air-conditioning ad, ca. 1958, courtesy Sabine von Fischer/CCA].

BLDGBLOG: In your presentation you showed a photo of a man sitting at a desk, smoking a cigarette, listening to the sound of his air conditioner.

Von Fischer: Well, this is from 1958, a man being bothered by his air conditioner! The ad suggests that he should buy a new model because it’s more silent.

I’m fascinated by that image, because it visualizes the constant quest for new technologies that we need simply to make up for the downsides of the previous new technology. For instance, once rooms were air-conditioned, there was the sound of the air conditioner that we had to make up for; and, I assume, this new air conditioner in 1958 was not as silent as we are used to now—and, even today, air conditioners are not silent at all.

BLDGBLOG: The example of air conditioner noise points to an interesting line between the equipment of everyday domesticity—refrigerators, ceiling fans, air conditioning units, even tea kettles—and what could be called proto-musical instruments. They are things that you can tune to make the world quieter or more melodious.

Von Fischer: That’s definitely something I am interested in, although I think that this specific kind of sound design is something that only came after 1970.

It’s all a question of attitudes or personal taste, so tuning everyday objects can be a quite difficult enterprise. There will never be a consensus on what a good sound is. That’s why the noise regulations in cities are so rigid, because there are so many different reactions and compromises in order to avoid being a nuisance to someone.

Different sounds can also mean different things. Lawnmowers are always loud because, if a lawnmower was very quiet, maybe people wouldn’t buy it for fear that a quiet lawnmower isn’t strong enough. And men’s shavers are much louder than ladies’ shavers, even though they do the same thing. There are a bunch of products around us that are already heavily sound-designed.

BLDGBLOG: Even police sirens are being redesigned. In New York City, for instance, a new siren called the “Rumbler” was introduced last autumn that uses subwoofers and heavy bass to cut through urban noise (and through the music you might be listening to in your car). It’s like sonic warfare—noise v. noise.

Von Fischer: There was also a project by Max Neuhaus, from the 1970s, where he designed new sirens for emergency vehicles in New York City. His contention was that drivers and pedestrians in the city could not locate where the existing siren sounds were coming from. You would hear a siren somewhere but not know where it was. So he designed a better sound that, he claimed, you could hear which direction it was coming from. He invested a lot in the project, and I think he was quite frustrated when it never made it into the actual system.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, when it comes to specific resources here at the CCA, are you here more for the research & writing time, or is there a specific object or text in the archives that you came to see?

Von Fischer: It’s primarily to have the freedom to really think and focus, but there are things that I want to look at. The archive here is very strong in post-war visionary projects, and I’m looking at their ideas of utopia and the role of technology in buildings and interiors. I’m interested in the audio component of the social utopias of the 1960s—to see what role sound played in projects of this period. One famous example would be François Dallegret’s illustrations for Reyner Banham’s text “A Home is not a House” from 1965.

Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Sound House


[Image: Robert Fludd’s “Temple of Music,” via Public Domain Review].

The next generation of car audio might not require speakers at all, according to the New York Times, with interesting implications for architecture.

“Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car’s interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now,” the newspaper reports. “The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-posts—the posts between the windshield and the doors—become your tweeters… The result is something like an enhanced version of surround sound.”

The architectural applications are pretty obvious—for example, transforming your home’s windows, pillars, floors, and even foundation walls into pieces of an inhabitable sonic ensemble. The results would be sound everywhere. “You can’t tell where it’s coming from,” a Continental engineer remarks.

Should the tech find a foothold in car design, its leap over into architecture will not be far behind: first up would no doubt be amusement parks, cinemas, and other venues where immersive sound without origin is a premium service, followed closely by luxury home construction and then, finally, the rest of us. The whole article, in fact, has descriptions of future car audio—noise-cancellation, cones of silence, and more—that should be of interest to architectural designers.

Sounds in Detention

[Image: Score for a “soundtrack to a Catalan prison” by Gruff Rhys and Roger Paez i Blanch].

For those of you in Wales next month, there will be an interesting collaboration between musician Gruff Rhys and architect Roger Paez i Blanch, called “Breaking and Entry.”

It is described as the “soundtrack to a Catalan prison,” one designed by Paez i Blanch’s firm, and it relies on an unusual graphic score “based on a map of the prison that registers the emergent life that also occupies the building.”

[Image: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

The design of the penitentiary itself was also documented in a book recently published by Actar.

I’ve included some photos of the facilities here, but you can see many more over at Dezeen.


[Images: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

Finally, for more details about the composition’s debut in Wales next month, see here.

(Thanks to Ed Keller for the tip!)

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 power 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 how—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).

In Case You Missed Them

There are a few books I wanted to mention here at the height of the holiday season, not because they’re new or even necessarily recent but because, selfishly, I simply wish more people had read them. If you’re looking for an extra gift, or just a last-minute surprise, for anyone with an interest in architecture, landscape, archaeology, acoustics, geopolitics, history, and more, here are eight titles to consider.

(1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)—This is an academic work, in both tone and approach, but of the ideal kind: nearly every page had something I wanted to underline, write down, or scramble to look up elsewhere. Put simply, The Strait Gate is a history of the door, but, as Jütte shows, this ultra-quotidian architectural detail—the dividing line between inside and outside—has political, psychological, Constitutional, philosophical, mythological, narrative, cultural, and even material implications that are easy to overlook. Whether it’s a controversial order that “all door handles and knobs be removed from homes and shops” so that the metal could be melted down for war materiel, divine gateways as described in the Book of Revelation, or the resonant phenomenon of Torschlusspanik—“panic of gate closure,” aka a fear of being locked out—Jütte’s book is a superb example of how we can still look at architecture afresh.

(2) The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press)—What did cultures without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge think of the monstrous skeletons and fossilized bones they occasionally unearthed? Quite a lot, as it happens. It turns out that huge chunks of human mythology, including the existence of dragons and the idea of an extinct race of titanic super-human ancestors, can all be traced back to misinterpretations of paleontology. Mayor’s writing is casually engaging—even quite funny, at times—and the book’s many examples of ancient human societies encountering monstrous, inexplicable, and possibly otherworldly things hidden in the earth stuck with me long after reading it.

(3) The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox (W.W. Norton)—If you have even a passing interest in sound, this is the book to read. Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer, introduces readers to sonic phenomena around the world, both naturally occurring and artificially induced, from the frozen surface of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Stone Age tombs in rural England. There are examples of sound art, acoustic science, and even landscape-scale auditory effects that easily justify the subtitle, “sonic wonders of the world.” This would pair well with David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, for those of you interested not just in acoustics but in avant-garde composition and ambient music, as well.

(4) The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere (Harvard University Press)—This slim book, part of classicist Mary Beard’s excellent (but, sadly, now hibernating) “Wonders of the World” series for Harvard University Press, hit so many sweet spots for me. Author Cathy Gere convincingly shows how Mediterranean archaeological discoveries over the course of the 19th century helped to shape an emerging European mythos of the glories of war and historical empire. These same emphases lent themselves extremely well, however, to tragic and grotesque distortions that soon fed into the twin ideologies of Nazism and 20th-century fascism. Along the way, Gere writes, Classical discoveries misinterpreted by modern biases helped to justify British involvement in World War I. Gere’s book includes a brief, beautiful, and monumentally sad description of young, Homer-quoting scholars being shipped off to war to fight a rising evil from the East—only to be annihilated in the sodden trenches of the Somme. The Tomb of Agamemnon is probably one of my favorite ten books of the past decade; no other book I’ve read in that time conveys the true political stakes of archaeological research and the clear and obvious risks in distorting history for ideological ends.

(5) Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Anchor)—It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that this widely publicized book has been overlooked, but Lawrence in Arabia is nonetheless an uncannily well-timed history of the post-World War I Middle East and well worth taking the time to read. I was utterly absorbed by it for nearly a week. Part military adventure, part geopolitical biography of Lawrence of Arabia, part soul-crushing alternative history of a region that could have been—complete with agonizing descriptions of the infamous assault on Gallipoli—this book will make you see the entire 20th century differently, up to and including our own century’s Iraq War and the rise of ISIS.

(6) Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta)—I mentioned this book in a recent post and I would recommend it again. Map of a Nation tells the story of the British Ordnance Survey, the institute’s original geopolitical context, and the experimental cartographic tools it used to make its imperial surveys more accurate. For anyone interested in geography, maps, landscape, or British history, Hewitt’s book is a must-read.

(7) Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (Grove/Atlantic)—You don’t need to be interested in the wonkish details of the telephone system to be amazed by the weirdness of Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley’s introduction to so-called phone phreaking. On one level, it’s a story of bored teenagers using synthesized sound and DIY home electronics to hack the global telephone network; on another, it’s a story with hugely metaphoric, almost occult undertones. The phone system’s diffuse and labyrinthine system of “inward operators,” robotic mechanical test numbers, and secret military phone exchanges—to name only a few ingredients—takes on the air of something invented by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison: teens encountering a world of numerological connection and mechanical intelligence through handheld receivers in the long afternoons of the 1960s and 70s. So good.

(8) Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster)—The only thing that makes me pause before recommending Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab right now is that a brand new paperback edition is due out in June 2017; but, that aside, I heartily endorse this one. Imagine Archigram teaming up with a secretive branch of the U.S. military to invent an utterly bonkers new version of human civilization on the ocean floor, and you’ve roughly pictured what this book is about. Whether it’s describing what were, in effect, moon bases at the bottom of the sea or bizarre experiments with farm animals, submerged ecological research stations or Cold War espionage in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sealab is as much outsider architectural history as it is a maritime geopolitical thriller. At the very least, preorder the forthcoming paperback if you want to wait before diving in.

Finally, it’s super-obnoxious to end with my own book, but if you’re looking for something to read this winter—or if you need a gift for someone who can be hard to shop for—consider picking up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City. It’s a mix of true crime, architectural theory, and first-person reporting, from a Chicago lock-picking club to flying with the LAPD’s Air Support Division, from an architect who became the most prolific bank robber of the 19th century to fake apartments run by the British police. A Burglar’s Guide includes interviews with a Toronto burglar known for using the city’s fire code to help pick his next target, with renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, with game designers, and with FBI Special Agents, among others, and the whole thing is currently being adapted for TV by CBS Studios. Check it out, if you get the chance and let me know what you think.

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).