Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction

I’ve been remiss in posting about a graduate course I’ll be co-teaching with the brilliant Nicholas de Monchaux up at UC Berkeley for the 2018-2019 academic year. The application period is currently open through December 2017.

Called “Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction: The Future of Californian Ecology,” the year-long Master’s course will be a combination of architectural design, experimental drawing methods, and narrative speculation, exploring what de Monchaux calls a “new relationship between architecture, media, ecology, and craft.”

The idea is to look ahead, not just at the future of California, but at the future of what California represents: cutting-edge industrial design, the global cinematic imagination, unparalleled demographic integration, agricultural innovation, adaptive infrastructure, and, of course, the risks of climate change.

[Image: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

With the entire state of California at their disposal, students will be able to focus on everything from the U.S./Mexico border to the San Andreas Fault, from Silicon Valley and space tourism to the sci-fi productions of Hollywood. Agriculture, Artificial Intelligence, electric cars; species loss, wildfire, drought; policing, governance, human labor.

There are architectural scenarios to design and explore for all of these.

[Image: California’s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System photographed by Ethan Miller for Getty Images, via The Atlantic].

In an interview with Boom California published in 2014, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson—who was also interviewed here on BLDGBLOG way back in 2007—commented on the science-fictional appeal of California. By the time he went to college, he remarked, the landscape of the state had fundamentally changed; it was being terraformed for human habitation by the forces of industry and suburban development.

California, he realized, was itself a design project.

[Images: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

Robinson explained to Boom that, in the blink of an eye, California became a “completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction (…) and it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.”

Science fiction is the literature of California.

[Image: Early rendering for Michael Maltzan’s Six Street Viaduct in Los Angeles].

Briefly, this theme was developed further by an essay by Michael Ziser published in the same issue of Boom. “Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States,” Ziser wrote. It was also quite specifically Californian.

“As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California,” Ziser continued, “they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers.”

Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.

This idea of an “imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty” is something we will be exploring in architectural form throughout the Studio One experience. In the process, we will approach California itself as a subject of design and compare the state to other regions currently experiencing their own de novo re-inventions, whether it’s a thawing Arctic or China’s ongoing building boom.

[Image: Floating caisson during the construction of the original Bay Bridge; photo by Clyde Sunderland, courtesy Library of Congress].

To develop and articulate their visions, students will be pushed to experiment with new forms of architectural representation, modeling, and drawing—or, as de Monchaux writes, “Our chief medium will be drawing, but we will engage and embrace a world of devices and tools—from scripting through mapping and virtual reality-that are changing, and expanding, the capacity of architecture to influence the world.”

I will be up in the Bay Area multiple times for this throughout the academic year, although not on a full-time basis; if you’re a fan of de Monchaux’s work, of science fiction, of architecture, of design’s potential for conjuring radical visions of landscape futures, then please consider applying. You have roughly two more months to do so.

[Image: Farming California, via Google Maps].

More information is available over at UC Berkeley.

Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

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.

Agrirobotics

The USDA has announced a grant-giving program “for robots to roam farmlands,” Modern Farmer reports. It’s called the “National Robotics Initiative,” and it’s “getting $3 million to give in grants to robotics programs around the country to create robot-led agricultural advances.”

Pivot

[Image: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

The images of “Grid Corrections” seen in the previous post reminded me of an earlier project, also by photographer Gerco de Ruijter, called “Cropped,” previously seen here back in 2012.

[Image: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

The images seen here are all satellite views of pivot irrigation systems, taken from Google Earth and cleaned up by de Ruijter for display and printing.

[Images: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

The resulting textures look like terrestrial LPs disintegrating into the landscape, or vast alien engravings slowly being consumed by sand—

[Image: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

—and they are, at times, frankly so beautiful it’s almost hard to believe these landscapes were not deliberately created for their aesthetic effects.

[Image: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

Granted, de Ruijter has color-corrected these satellite shots and pushed the saturation, but as metaphorical gardens of pure color and hue, the original pivotscapes are themselves already quite extraordinary.

[Image: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

For a few more examples of these—posted at a much-larger, eye-popping size—click through to the Washington Post or consider watching the original film, called “Crops,” here on BLDGBLOG.

[Images: From “Cropped” by Gerco de Ruijter; view larger].

[Previously: Grid Corrections].

The Fall

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

At the end of 2013, photographer David Maisel was commissioned to photograph the city of Toledo, Spain, as part of a group exhibition called ToledoContemporánea, timed for a wider celebration of the 400th birthday of the painter El Greco.

Maisel’s photos offered a kind of aerial portraiture of the city, including its labyrinthine knots of rooftops. But the core of the project consists of disorientingly off-kilter, almost axonometric shots of the city’s historic architecture.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

On wider flights beyond the edge of the city, modern swirls of highways are seen coiling through the landscape, like snakes preparing for arrival; in a sense, their geometry mimics—or perhaps mocks—the bewildering whorls of tiny streets and passages seen in the city’s core.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

While he was in the country, however, Maisel took advantage of some extra time and access to a helicopter to explore the landscape between Toledo and Madrid, a short stretch of infrastructural connections, agricultural hinterlands, abandoned suburban developments, and arid hills.

The result was a new series of photos called The Fall.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

As Maisel writes, The Fall suggests a genre in which “the worlds of painting and photography have merged together,” creating an ironically abstract form of landscape documentation.

This is most evident in the photos from an area called Vicalvaro on the outskirts of Madrid. As Maisel explains, this is “where construction was halted after the economic collapse of 2008. The abandoned zones appear like the surreal aftermath of a bombed out city or an alien landing field.”

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But, as seen in Maisel’s photos, they could also just as easily be extreme close-ups of minimalist oil paintings, nearly microscopic zooms into the texture of another method of representation to reveal a different kind of landscape there, one created by pigments and dyes.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

This is an interrupted landscape, a geography elaborately and expensively prepared for something that has yet to arrive.

However, the dead abstractions of Vicalvaro were only one part of the “three different areas of the Spanish landscape” that Maisel says he set out to see.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Another landscape type—true to form, considering Maisel’s pre-existing focus on landscapes of industrial use—are borax extraction sites.

These are “strange, ashen landscapes,” he writes, seen “in a mining and agricultural region of La Mancha. The soil is laden with the mineral borax, which gives a surreal, ashen quality; the landscape shines, almost like a grey sea in a desert.”

They’re like windowpanes—or mercury lakes—reflecting the afternoon light.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

The surface of the earth becomes weirdly metallic in these shots, just a thin surface scraped away to reveal something seemingly utterly unnatural beneath, as if some divine force has begun etching the earth, scratching and engraving incomprehensible shapes into the planet.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In many cases, amidst these grooved and metallized landscapes, gridded blooms of plant life have been introduced both to visually interrupt and physically contain the landscape.

Among other things, their roots help to secure disturbed dirt and soil from blowing away in heavy winds—but they also act to recuperate the terrain aesthetically, as if seeing these robotic fields the color of gunmetal was so philosophically unsettling for local residents that plants had to be brought in to make things seem earthly once again.

What we’re seeing is thus not really arboriculture, but a kind of existential stagecraft, a rigorously constructed landscape whose ironic purpose is to shield us from the true artificiality of our surroundings.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In fact, these bring us around nicely to the third landscape type Maisel says he was exploring with these photographs, joining the abandoned developments and borax sites that we’ve already seen, above.

This is Fuensalida, or a region of “croplands in the La Mancha region” that have been “gridded, crosshatched, and abstracted.”

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Like the exquisite tree farms documented by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, these rob viewers of any real sense of scale.

What are, in fact, trees appear instead to be small tufts of fabric pushing up through a needlepointing mesh. It could be a carpet interrupted mid-weave, or it could be some worn patch of clothing rubbed raw to reveal the underlying pattern for all to see.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But it’s just landscape: the earth reformatted again, made artifactual and strange, carefully touched up for human culture.

This is just a selection of images, however; click through to Maisel’s website to see the full series.

(All images by David Maisel, used with permission. If you like the look of Maisel’s work, considering picking up a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book to read an interview with the photographer).

Cultivating the Map

[Image: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

For his final thesis project at the endangered Cooper Union, Danny Wills explored how survey instruments, cartographic tools, and architecture might work together at different scales to transform tracts of land in the geographic center of the United States.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Called “Cultivating the Map,” his project is set in the gridded fields, sand hills, playas, and deep aquifers of the nation’s midland, where agricultural activity has left a variety of influential marks on the region’s landscapes and ecosystems.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Its final presentation is light on text and heavy on models, maps, and diagrams, yet Wills still manages to communicate the complex spatial effects of very basic physical tools, how things as basic as survey grids and irrigation equipment can bring whole new regimes of territorial management into existence.

It’s as if agriculture is actually a huge mathematical empire in the middle of the country—a rigorously artificial world of furrows, grids, and seasons—dedicated to reorganizing the surface of the planet by way of relatively simple handheld tools and then rigorously perfecting the other-worldly results.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Wills produced quite a lot of material for the project, including a cluster of table-sized landscapes that show these tools and instruments as they might be seen in the field.

[Image: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In many ways, parts of the project bring to mind the work of Smout Allen, who also conceive of architecture as just one intermediary spatial product on a scale that goes from the most intricate of handheld mechanisms to super-sized blocks of pure infrastructure.

Imagine Augmented Landscapes transported to the Great Plains and animated by a subtext of hydrological surveying and experimental agriculture. Deep and invisible bodies of water exert slow-motion influence on the fields far above, and “architecture” is really just the medium through which these spatial effects can be cultivated, realized, and distributed.

This, it seems, is the underlying premise of Wills’s project, that architecture is like a valve through which new landscapes pass.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In any case, I’ve included a whole bunch of images here, broadly organized by tool or, perhaps more accurately, by cartographic idea, where the system of projection suggested by Wills’s devices have had some sort of spatial effect on the landscape in which they’re situated.

However, I’ve also been a little loose here, organizing these a bit by visual association, so it’s entirely possible that my ordering of the images has thrown off the actual narrative of the project—in which case, it’s probably best just to check out Wills’s own website if you’re interested in seeing more.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

The project includes land ordinance survey tools and irrigation mechanisms, a “Mississippi River levee tool” and the building-sized “grain elevator tool.”

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In Danny’s own words, the project “finds itself in the territory of the map, proposing that the map is also a generative tool. Using the drawing as fertile ground, this thesis attempts a predictive organization of territory through the design of four new tools for the management of natural resources in the Great Plains, a region threatened with the cumulative adverse effects of industrial farming. Each tool proposes new ways of drawing the land and acts as an instrument that reveals the landscape’s new potential.”

These “new potentials” are often presented as if in a little catalog of ideas, with sites named, located, and described, followed by a diagrammatic depiction of what Wills suggests might spatially occur there.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

The ambitious project earned Wills both the Henry Adams AIA Medal & Certificate of Merit, and the school’s Yarnell Thesis Prize in Architecture.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

I’ll wrap up here with a selection of images of the landscapes, tools, and instruments, but click over to Danny’s site for a few more. Here are also some descriptions:

Tool 1: Meanders, Fog Fences, Air Wells

Tool 1 attaches itself to the groundwater streams, both proposing tools to redirect and slow down the flow, as well as tools to collect atmospheric water through technological systems like air wells and fog fences, forming new bodies and streams of water. The new air wells collect atmospheric water through a system of cooling and heating a substrate core inside of a ventilated exterior shell. The air wells also become spaces to observe the re-directing flow of water, as overflow quantities are appropriately managed.

Tool 2: Aquifer Irrigation Ponds

Tool 2 uses the center pivot irrigation rigs to reconstruct the ground, making bowls in the landscape that act as dew ponds. At the same time, the wells become tools and markers to survey the levels of the aquifer below, signifying changes in the depth through elevational changes above. New forms of settlement begin to appear around each ring as a balance is reached between extraction and recharge of the aquifer.

Tool 3: Sand Dunes, Grazing Fields

Tool 3 uses gas wells as new geo-positioning points, redrawing boundaries and introducing controlled grazing and fallowing zones into the region. Walls are also built as markers of the drilling wells below, creating a dune topography to retain more ground water. Each repurposed oil rig becomes an architectural element that both provides protection and feed for grazing animals as well as a core sample viewing station. The abandoned rigs suspend cross sections of the earth to educate visitors of the geological history of the ground they stand on.

Tool 4: Water Recycling Station

Tool 4 converts the grain elevator into a water recycling station, filling the silos with different densities of sand and stone to filter collected types of water- rain, ground run-off, grey, brackish, etc. Large pavilion like structures are built between houses, collecting water and providing shade underneath. Some housing is converted into family-run markets; the new social space under the pavilions provide for market space. The repurposed grain elevator becomes the storage center for the region’s new water bank. Economic control is brought back to the local scale.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Farmland World

[Image: “Farmland World” by Design With Company (Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks)].

One of the runners-up for the recent Animal Architecture Awards is also one of my favorites from the competition: “Farmland World” by Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks of the Chicago-based Design With Company.

The project is an ironic investigation of how humans relate to farm animals—more specifically, how the ongoing spatial separation between humans and the animals they rely on for food and other forms of agricultural work can make animals seem to be nothing more than utilitarian machines.

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

In the architects’ words:

The everyday life of the average American is almost completely disconnected from the land and animals that support them. Even farmers perform their duties primarily through automated mechanisms that remove them from the subject of their industry. The constructed distance between the human “us” and the animal “others” is increasing to the point that distinctions between machines and animals look blurry purely from distanced detachment. From our removed perspective, the extreme demand for cheap food production and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon) or anthropomorphic projections to entertain and decorate (tea-cup terrier). As we relate to animals and machines similarly, where each begins to exhibit characteristics of the other, their converging trajectories point to an impending crisis at their collision.

Farmland World makes the human-animal encounter spectacular, proposing an absurdly over-the-top farm animal theme park—a “human/machine/animal hybrid adventure-land.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company].

Farmland World “is a chain of agro-tourist resorts sprinkled across the American Midwestern countryside”:

Part theme park and part working farm, guests arrive to the resort via train and stay as part of 1-day, 3-day or 5-day experience packages. Capitalizing on both recent governmental investments in high-speed rail infrastructure and the plentiful subsidies for farming, the network of resorts combine crowd-sourced farm labor with eco-tainment.

“As train-loads of itinerant fantasy farmers arrive,” Newmeyer and Hicks drily write, “they are herded to the Grazing Coliseum to receive their complimentary overalls. From there, the adventure begins.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

Foregrounding the idea that humans have increasingly come to confuse animals with machines, Farmland World is populated by robots, rides, and representations.

Inflatable mega-pigs and hollow, roving “cow combines” act as “robotic performers,” in the designers’ words. Animal replicants, these false creatures “extend the tradition of machines using and mimicking animals for moving, operating, branding and processing food crops.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

Meanwhile, the architect adds, “temporary farm excursionists”—paying visitors—”work, sowing and harvesting fields, becoming part of the herd. Farmland World embraces this hybrid human-animal-machine relationship, reinvigorating the rural landscape.”

[Images: The robotic super-cows of “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

As you can see in the project’s overall guide, there are a whole series of these giant robot animals. A “chicken planter” stands beside a mechanical “sheep baaaler,” which, in turn, is neighbors with a pig plow and a mechanical horse that spreads real horse manure from its techno-derriere. Think of it as Westworld in an age of vast industrial farming—a livestock Disneyland.

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

On the project plan, you’ll also see such places as “Beeville” and “Veggie Row,” the latter promising an internally-animated range of machine-plants sprouting from beds of artificial soil.

Having gone to elementary school in a small town in rural Wisconsin, I vividly remember being taken to see farm animals over at UW-Madison, including one that had had a window surgically implanted into its side; you could actually watch the cow, in section, digesting its food.

To go from this—a bovine proto-cyborg—to Design With Company’s beautifully rendered “Farmland World” doesn’t actually seem like such a stretch.

In any case, congratulations to Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks for placing as second runner-up in the Animal Architecture Awards; for more, see the Animal Architecture website as well as this earlier post today on BLDGBLOG.

The Weather Bank

A slideshow over at National Geographic features this image by photographer Ian Wood, showing, in the magazine’s own words, “what might be called extreme Inca landscaping.”

[Image: The weather bowl at Moray, Peru; photo by Ian Wood/Alamy, courtesy of National Geographic].

“Three enormous pits, each with beautifully curved sides that staircase down like the interiors of titanic flowerpots have been carved out of the earth to depths of up to 100 feet and more,” the magazine adds. They are like Indian stepwells—only they concentrate thermal gradients—and this affects the local weather: “Air temperatures between the top and bottom layers can differ by more than 20 degrees, which has led some researchers to theorize that Moray was an Inca agricultural site where experiments on crops were conducted.”

It’s a site of experimental agriculture fueled by an act of microclimatic terrain deformation.

So does this mean that the weather at Moray should be subject not only to meteorological analysis, but to archaeological interpretation? The site you’re excavating seamlessly continues into the sky above it, turning the weather itself into an historic artifact—a whole new spin on paleotempestology.

But is the weather created by an historic site also part of that historic site? If so, should ancient microclimates such as these be subject to material preservation? Put another way, if there were a Museum of Ancient Microclimates, how would you design it and what would the visitor experience be?

Imagine a whole constellation of these oversized weather pits, meanwhile, distributed throughout the Andes, all interacting with and augmenting one another, producing continent-scale storm systems—and imagine being hit by a summer downpour, or sitting calmly throughout the winter as blizzards rage just one valley over, knowing that the atmospheric events around you are really long-lasting cultural gifts of the people who lived there centuries before. Weather designed by your ancestors still rages around you today.

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Superficially, I’m reminded of the hexagonal “water storage banks” of Sietch Nevada, a speculative design by the San Francisco-based firm MATSYS. While the resemblance doesn’t go much beyond form, this comparison lets us borrow MATSYS’s idea of a water bank and, thus, reinterpret the Incan site at Moray as a kind of weather bank, storing temperatures and headwinds year round. It is a space to store climates in.

Extrapolating wildly from this, if the rise of the Himalayas radically altered the earth’s climate by changing weather patterns for thousands of miles in all directions, then perhaps we can imagine a scenario in which a network of artificial pits in the Andes begins to affect the jet stream, plunging Australia into drought and pushing rain far north into Mexico—and that, in turns out, is those pits’ very purpose, having been excavated by scientifically advanced, self-styled weather warriors more than 600 years ago for reasons still unclear today. Groups of elders would get together in the dark, sitting around their pits in tight circles as the winds picked up, burning incense, singing tales, hurling storms like artillery into the central Pacific.

(Thanks to Marilyn Terrell for the heads up!)

The Duplicative Forest

Atlas Obscura points our attention to a site in Oregon known as the “duplicative forest.”

[Image: The Duplicative Forest—17,000 acres of identical trees—awaits; photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura].

The poplar trees growing at this 17,000-acre farm are “all the same height and thickness,” we read, “and evenly spaced in all directions. The effect is compounded when blasting by at 75 mph. If you look for too long the strobe effect may induce seizures.”

While this latter comment is clearly a joke, it would actually be quite interesting to see if optical regulations are ever needed for the spacing of roadside objects. If, for instance, the Duplicative Forest really did induce seizures in motorists—but only those driving more than 90 mph, say—thus exhibiting neurological effects, what sorts of spatial rules might need to be implemented? Every sixth tree could be planted off-grid, for instance, in a slight stagger away from the otherwise mesmerizing patterns, or the speed limit could be rigorously enforced using bumps—in which case you would know that, just over the horizon of your car’s speedometer, a strange world of neurobiological self-interference looms, as the world around you threatens cognitive failure in those passing through it at a high enough speed or intensity.

Want to find out for yourself? Consider doing a drive-by.

On an only vaguely related note, meanwhile, fans of Fredric Jameson might recall his spatial analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s absolutely excellent film North by Northwest—specifically Hitchcock’s use of rhythmically placed, identical trees.

London Yields, Harvested

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

As Geoff mentioned last month, London’s Building Center hosted a daylong seminar at the end of May called London Yields: Getting Urban Agriculture off the Ground.

[Image: From London Yields: Urban Agriculture].

The speakers covered a lot of terrain—so, instead of a full recap of the event, the following list simply explores some of the broader ideas, responses, and questions about urban agriculture that stood out from the day’s presentations.

1. Becoming public policy
The event was introduced and moderated by David Barrie, a sustainable development consultant, who framed the day as a collective opportunity to brainstorm ways in which urban agriculture could be moved from mere “sustainable accessory” to become a standard practice of both everyday life and city design. Interestingly, Mark Brearley, Head of Design at Design for London (DfL) and the day’s first speaker, provided confirmation of Barrie’s diagnosis, confessing that food production was a recent add-on to many of their open space projects. Why? “Because people were asking us about it,” he said.

Brearley’s presentation was an overview of DfL’s hundreds of urban regeneration and infrastructure improvement projects; these are, in themselves, interesting but, in aggregate, somewhat exhausting. However, as an office of the London Development Agency, working on behalf of the Mayor of London, Brearley was able to provide a fascinating insight into some of the current institutional priorities that need to be satisfied before urban agriculture can become a standard part of London public policy. For example, DfL’s main interest in food production today is in terms of its “public engagement potential” and their primary stumbling block is how to measure the scaleability of local initiatives. Any London-based urban agriculture projects hoping for a mayoral blessing, take note!

2. Food is a design tool
The second speaker was Carolyn Steel, author of the excellent book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Hungry City traces how food has shaped both the city and its productive hinterland throughout history, from the Sumerian city of Ur to today’s London via the markets and gates of ancient Rome. Steel provides a wide-ranging historical look of food production, importation, regulation, and culture, before putting forward her own intriguing and potentially revolutionary proposition: what would happen if we consciously used food as a design tool to create a “sitopic” city? Steel’s coinage here, sitopia—from “sitos” (food) and “topos” (place)—is derived from her realization that “food shares with utopia the quality of being cross-disciplinary… capable of transforming not just landscapes, but political structures, public spaces, social relationships, [and] cities.” And because “food is necessary,” a sitopian city (unlike its utopian cousin) would remain tied to reality and of universal relevance.

The quotations above come from Steel’s book, however, rather than her lecture; twenty-five minutes was enough time to provide fascinating examples of food’s role in shaping cities and urban life, but, sadly, not enough to explain (let alone explore) further thoughts about food’s use as an urban planning tool. More to come soon, I hope, on this topic…

[Image: Ebenezer Howard’s original scheme for the Garden Cities of To-morrow shows a landscape reimagined in terms of food production and supply. As Carolyn Steel explains in her own book Hungry City, Howard’s plans relied on land reform that was never carried out, and the garden cities of today (Letchworth, Welwyn, etc.) are, as a result, little more than green dormitory suburbs].

3. Partnerships as infrastructure
Anna Terzi, who runs London Food Link’s small grants scheme for Sustain, was the day’s third speaker; she described one of their current projects, demonstrating how key insights from both Mark Brearley’s and Carolyn Steel’s talks might look in action.

Sustain (a nonprofit alliance for better food and farming) is currently poised to create borough-wide institutional change by partnering with Camden Council and Camden Primary Care Trust (part of the National Health Service). This alliance—with its intriguing implication that the National Health Service might be the one institution with the most to gain by promoting urban agriculture—speaks to the impact of creating new interest groups for locally grown food. By partnering with institutions responsible for dealing with established urban challenges—issues such as public health, economic growth, community engagement, waste, and environmental sustainability—groups like Sustain have the potential to take urban agriculture from decorative hobby to investment-worthy infrastructure.

The Camden partnership’s report (still in draft stage) aims to outline a relatively coherent and holistic food program for the borough—a plan that promises to use food to reshape at least this part of the city, in terms of promoting social enterprise, meeting infrastructure needs, and reducing health inequalities.

[Image: A lemon grown in Dulwich; photograph by Jonathan Gales (2008), ©Bohn & Viljoen Architects].

4. Mapping and visualization tools
The last two presentations of the day agreed that successfully producing food in the city requires a detailed resource inventory combined with effective promotion efforts. Mikey Tomkins, a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton, described systematically mapping the rooftops, grass patches, vertical faces, and vacant lots of Elephant & Castle—whereupon he discovered that 30% of the area’s food needs could be met through the cultivation of found space alone.

Architects Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen, creators of the uninspiringly named CPUL (Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes), emphasized the need to think about spare inventory in terms of population and three dimensionality (their Urban Agriculture Curtain filled a display window one floor above us). Their research techniques included the accumulation of census data and questionnaires combined with GPS mapping and site visits in order to analyze a landscape’s food production capacity.

Both Tomkins and Bohn & Viljoen also showed several projects intended to help people read the city in terms of food, using tools as diverse as “edible maps” of London and visual analyses of urban agriculture in Havana, to installations and public events, such as the Continuous Picnic. This was a day-long event, part of the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, that included an “Inverted Market” (bring your own locally grown fruit and vegetables to be admired, judged, and then prepared), as well lessons in “Community Composting”; a giant public picnic then spread throughout Russell Square and Montague Place, with connecting corridors between.

Meanwhile, for his Edible Maps series, an example of which appears below, Tomkins targets a new type of urban resident: the “food-flâneur,” who, map in hand, “could start to picture… the grassed areas around housing, the corners of parks, or the many flat rooftops of this quarter of Croydon spring into life with psychogeographic food.”

Another example of urban agriculture as an opportunity for community activation was Croydon Roof Divercity, Tomkins’s collaboration with AOC (previously discussed, along with other AOC projects, on BLDGBLOG here).

[Image: From Mikey Tomkins’s series of Edible Maps, this guide represents the area around Surrey Street car park, site of Croydon Roof Divercity, in terms of inventory and potential yield].

5. Easy, cheap, and somewhat under control
Both Anna Terzi and Bohn & Viljoen recognized the difficulty of maintaining urban agriculture projects, once the initial novelty has worn off. Bohn & Viljoen are currently working on a twelve-step program to prevent relapse, while Sustain are offering ongoing practical and financial support to new food growing spaces in London through their Capital Growth initiative.

Throughout the morning, David Barrie repeatedly registered his concern that urban agriculture needed to be economically viable, not just an upscale $64 Tomato lifestyle choice. Several of the presenters added a layer of nuance to Barrie’s formulation, noting that cheap food has simply had its costs externalized and hidden (Carolyn Steel) and that organizations like the New Economics Foundation are developing the much-needed tools to measure urban-agriculture-created value, such as increased community engagement and environmental sustainability, which is currently perceived as intangible and qualitative (Katrin Bohn). Mikey Tomkins argued against an economics-based one-size-fits-all approach to urban agriculture, explaining that the scale of a food growing project determines its possible benefits. Thus differentiated, food gardening generates educational and quality of life outcomes and should be measured accordingly, while market gardening creates recycling benefits, and urban agriculture can be evaluated in terms of yield.

Finally, the elephant in the room was the degree of coordination and regulation needed to transform London into a food-producing landscape. In an environment where, as Carolyn Steel said, the supermarkets where Londoners buy more than 80% of their groceries refused to participate in consultations with the Mayor’s London Food Strategy, it seems unlikely that sustainable food production and distribution will become the norm without legislative intervention.

In her book, Steel quotes Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who wrote: “You who control the transportation of food supplies are in charge, so to speak, of the city’s lifeline, of its very throat.” At the moment, Steel tells us, roughly 30 agrifood conglomerates—unelected, and with no responsibility other than to their shareholders—have almost unfettered control over London’s food supply. Until that changes, urban agriculture can’t help but remain “at the artwork stage”—an inspiring, attractive, and completely optional extra.

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].