Rumored Chutes

For a piece published by The New Yorker back in October, writer Joshua Yaffa looked back at the history of his Moscow apartment complex, “a vast building across the river from the Kremlin, known as the House on the Embankment. In 1931, when tenants began to move in, it was the largest residential complex in Europe, a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.”

Among many other such stories and details, one stood out: the interior of the building, Yaffa learned, was allegedly used against the people who lived in it. He explains that, “throughout 1937 and 1938 the House of Government was a vortex of disappearances, arrests, and deaths. Arrest lists were prepared by the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, which later became the K.G.B., and were approved by Stalin and his close associates. Arrests occurred in the middle of the night.”

However, it’s how the police were rumored to access individual apartments that caught my eye: “A story I have heard many times,” Yaffa continues, “but which seems apocryphal, is that N.K.V.D. agents would sometimes use the garbage chutes that ran like large tubes through many apartments, popping out inside a suspect’s home without having to knock on the door.”

This vision of vermicular control from within—of agents of the state sliding around within our walls and utility ducts like animals—is both unsettling and Kafkaesque, a nightmare and the setup for a surreal tragicomedy.

An undercover cop stuck in the walls between floors four and five for nearly three weeks is fed homemade soup by a young boy who takes pity on him, this unknown man caught in the fabric of the building and abandoned there by his superior officers out of embarrassment.

Gradually, the boy and this agent of the state strike up something like a friendship, sharing their hopes for the future, complaining about perceived limitations in life, confiding in one another about random things they’re both inspired to recall, and looking forward to future adventures—until, finally, one day after a shower leak raining down from a luxury apartment somewhere much further above, the man is able to slip free.

He slides into the boy’s room feet-first, covered in wood shavings and dust—where he promptly follows through on his initial mission and arrests the boy’s entire family.

Read Yaffa’s piece over at The New Yorker.

Planetary Scale

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

With news of “the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world” opening in New Jersey, I’m reminded of a design competition I meant to post about earlier this year.

A few months ago, Eleven Magazine hosted a quick competition to rethink the planetarium. It’s a great design brief: Eleven’s editors asked “if architecture itself could become—once again—a tool for experiencing and understanding space. How can architecture engage with and enhance today’s renewed age of space exploration and discovery? What does the next generation of planetariums look like?”

You can click around on the various entries here, but a few seemed worth mentioning.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

The “Microsphere” proposal, for example, entails “a network of little planetariums scattered all over the world.” As the title suggests, each planetarium would be a small, single-occupancy sphere acting as a meditative space for viewing, studying, or thinking about the cosmos.

It’s an idea that only suffers from the unnecessary stipulation that these should be built directly next to existing, often very ancient sites of star observation, including Stonehenge. Not only does Stonehenge not need this sort of thing parked next to it, but installing these out in the suburbs, on city streets, on the roofs of low-income housing units, or even hidden in thickets in state parks would seem to be a much more interesting way for these structures to bring astronomy to the masses.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Another project is interesting for its attempt to reconceive what “space” really is and how a planetarium is meant to represent or engage with it.

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

Acting as a “space-time planetarium,” a project called CHRONOS would allow visitors to “perceive astronomical scenes at different rates… through a labyrinth of six architectural techniques that invite the user to abandon earthly notions of space and time.”

The building thus requires a “space-time diagram.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Whether or not the resulting building would actually resemble what the designers have proposed here, it sounds awesome. “The planetarium grounds users through abstract learning as they navigate the entanglement while warping their perception of space-time,” they write. “While traveling through a series of architectural space-time scenarios, users are enlightened with astronomical scenes that transcend human perception.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

As you’d expect, not every entry is particularly interesting and there are some real doozies in there, but it’s worth checking out. While you’re there, though, check out the other competitions—some still ongoing—that Eleven has hosted.

Cabin Fever

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

One more cabin! This one is designed by STPMJ architects for a site in South Korea.

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

Called “Shear House,” the project uses a shifted roof and angled interior walls to play with the geometric effect of each room. In the architects’ words, although the rooms “are rectangular in plan, walls are triangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids in elevation.”

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

As I’m simply posting a few projects I think are cool, you’ll find more information—including further photographs and plans—over at Dezeen.

Social Architecture

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

Students at the Yale School of Architecture have realized a really impressive residential project, noteworthy both for its refined appearance and for its social mission: intended to house local homeless families, the project kicks off “a five-year collaboration with Columbus House, a New Haven-based homelessness services provider.”

The two-family home is constructed from prefabricated units, and is “sited on a formerly vacant corner lot on Adeline Street” in New Haven. It includes “two units that are separated by a walkway, but under the same roof, and adorned with large windows that balance the needs of openness and privacy.”

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

As Dezeen explains, “The building was designed by students in the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, a programme established in 1967. The course involves designing and building low-cost homes in New Haven, the city where Yale is located. First-year architecture students are required to participate in the programme as part of the school’s curriculum.” Here is a house from 2015, for example.

This particular structure is the first in what I understand to be a series of projects undertaken with funding and planning input from Columbus House. In a press release, the organization’s president remarked that their goal “is to end homelessness, and we do that by getting people housed… Every unit that we add toward the affordable housing stock in New Haven helps us come closer to that goal. We are delighted with the house on Adeline Street and with the relationship with Yale School of Architecture that has grown out of this project.”

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

On the most basic level, it’s exciting to see a student project inspired by such a clear social mission, especially one that has also resulted in a building I’d be thrilled to live in myself.

Read more courtesy of Yale University or Dezeen.

Conversion Moment

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins, based on a photo by Stijnstijl Fotografie].

While we’re looking at work by Zecc Architects, it’s worth checking out their proposed renovation of a water tower in Utrecht.

A circular room with panoramic views of the city, and a modern fireplace in the center? Yes, please.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

I even love where the tower’s original brick core is revealed, despite appearing in something as mundane as a restaurant.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

As a very brief aside, meanwhile, one of many things that remains amazing to me about the architectural world today is that these sorts of buildings—grandiose brick megastructures, from water towers to old tobacco warehouses to classic New York brownstones—are immensely popular as domestic renovations or large-scale residential conversions, but they otherwise seem to be completely beyond the pale for architects to consider designing from scratch in the present day. Even when contemporary architects do take on such commissions, they seem to leave their creativity at the door.

As a former New Yorker, it always blew me away that incredible building stock existed in neighborhoods such as DUMBO—that is, huge warehouses featuring recessed arched windows, ornamented brick, and, at times, gorgeous exterior buttressing—or that even the most random online image search for historical warehouse districts pop up such incredible and evocative buildings. Yet there seems to be no appetite, either amongst developers or architects, to explore what architects could do with these same styles and languages today.

Even just imagining a 21st-century brick super-warehouse (or circular tower) built from scratch in New York City—or Boston, or Bermondsey, or Hamburg—featuring modern interiors and finishes, and designed to avoid the headaches of older building stock, makes my head swoon, and there is no doubt in my mind that elaborate, architecturally complex brick megastructures could be realized today without falling into kitsch or postmodern quotation. And there is also, in fact, no inherent reason why creating brickwork residential super-projects should lead to an emerging financial ecosystem for absent investors in the process.

But, hey: I’m not a real estate developer and I have no way to change the game.

Shuttered

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

Here’s another cabin, this time by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel for a client in the Netherlands.

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

“Building atop the foundation of a previous greenhouse was a cost-cutting measure,” according to Dwell; this “allowed the project to be considered a renovation and thereby qualify for a temporary tax reduction. Its traditional, gabled form also pays homage to the original structure.”

[Images: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photos by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

The shutters are awesome, I think, and the effect at night is otherworldly, like an inhabited lantern.

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

For more photos of the project, check out Dwell or ArchDaily.

(I am under the impression that these photos were taken by Laura Mallonee, but the attribution at Dwell leaves this somewhat ambiguous; apologies if I have misattributed someone else’s work).

Lodge

[Image: The “Bjellandsbu” cabin, named after its client, by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

I have cabins, retreats, and small houses on the brain, and this remote Norwegian hunting lodge designed by Snøhetta, complete with green roof and local timber, is one of many recent projects that caught my eye.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

According to the architects, the structure is “accessible only by foot or horseback,” and apparently features enough bunk beds to sleep up to 21 people.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

While at first glance, you might think it’s a relic from a J.R.R. Tolkien-infused 1970s counterculture, it was actually completed in 2013.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

For more shots of the cabin in the wild, meanwhile, check out the #bjellandsbu hashtag on Instagram.

(All photos in this post by James Silverman, courtesy of Snøhetta).

Worth the Weight

In the midst of a long New York Times article about the serial theft of offensive cyberweapons from the National Security Agency, there’s a brief but interesting image. “Much of [a core N.S.A. group’s] work is labeled E.C.I., for ‘exceptionally controlled information,’ material so sensitive it was initially stored only in safes,” the article explains. “When the cumulative weight of the safes threatened the integrity of N.S.A.’s engineering building a few years ago, one agency veteran said, the rules were changed to allow locked file cabinets.”

It’s like some undiscovered Italo Calvino short story: an agency physically deformed by the gravitational implications of its secrets, its buildings now bulbous and misshapen as the literal weight of its mission continues to grow.

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.

Fab

[Image: “The Sphere” by Oliver Tessman, Mark Fahlbusch, Klaus Bollinger, and Manfred Grohmann].

The Bartlett School of Architecture has made all three volumes of Fabricate, their excellent series of books and conference proceedings dating back to 2011, free to download.

[Image: Matter Design’s La Voûte de LeFevre, Banvard Gallery (2012)].

More than 700 pages’ worth of technical experiments, speculative construction processes, new industrial tools, and one-off prototypes, the books are a gold mine for research and development.

[Image: Greg Lynn’s “Embryological House,” Venice Biennale (2002)].

3D printers, buoyant robots, multi-axis milling machines, directed insect-secretion, cellular automata, semi-autonomous bricklaying, self-assembling endoskeletons, drone weaving—it’s hard to go wrong with even the most cursory skimming of each volume, and that doesn’t even mention the essays and interviews.

[Image: “Custom forming tool mounted on the six-axis robotic arm,” via Fabricate 2014]

Download each book—from 2017, 2014, and 2011—and be prepared to lose a few days reading through them.