As difficult to compose and they will be to follow

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

For a variety of reasons, I found myself looking back at Lebbeus Woods’s blog this morning, where I was captivated by this amazing cut-out paper model of the city of Prague.

The images themselves, “meant to be cut up, very precisely, and assembled into a three-dimensional paper model,” as Lebbeus explained, already resemble an avant-garde architectural proposal, to the extent that, embarrassingly, when I first saw the top image, I thought it was a project by John Hejduk.

[Images: Via Lebbeus Woods].

But, in addition to the images’ artistic complexity, I love this dry line from Lebbeus’s write-up, reflecting on the near-impossible task of explaining to someone else how they are meant to excise each piece and then assemble them all in the proper order: “the several pages of written instructions on the model’s assembly,” he deadpans, “would seem to have been as difficult to compose and they will be to follow.”

[Image: Via Lebbeus Woods].

Read—and see—more over at Lebbeus’s blog.

(Previously: Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods and Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012.)

International House of Wobbling

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory was designed in 1899 as part of a ring of similar facilities around the world, all constructed at the same latitude.

[Images: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Each building was installed at its specific location in order to collaborate in watching a particular star, and—as revealed by any inconsistencies of measurement—to find evidence of the Earth’s “wobble.” This was part of the so-called “International Latitude Service.”

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The building seen here basically operated like a machine, with a sliding-panel roof controlled by a rope and pulley, and a solid concrete foundation, isolated from the building itself, on which stood a high-power telescope.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

This pillar gives the building a vaguely gyroscopic feel, or perhaps something more like the spindle of a hard drive: a central axis that grounds the building and allows it to perform its celestial mission.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

What’s interesting, however, is that this absolutely heroic building program—a structure for measuring heavenly discrepancies and, thus, the wobble of the Earth—is hidden inside such an unremarkable, everyday appearance.

[Image: A photo of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via NOAA].

It’s a kind of normcore beach hut that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod, with one eye fixed on the stars, a geodetic device revealing our planet’s wobbly imperfections, masquerading as vernacular architecture.

Found Robotics

Imagine a flexible suit or garment that you can wrap around an object to turn it into a robot, something that convulsively—compulsively—moves against its will. Researchers at Yale have created a lo-fi version of exactly that: “Robotic skin that bends, stretches and contracts can wrap around inanimate objects like stuffed animals, foam tubes or balloons to create flexible, lightweight robots,” Science News reported last week.

“The researchers achieved different types of motion by altering the layout of air pouches or coils in the skin and by attaching pieces of skin to an object in various configurations,” the report explains. “For instance, wrapping the skin around foam tubes in different orientations created robots that either scooted like inchworms or paddled forward on two ends. Patches of robotic skin around three foam fingers animated a soft robot grabber.”

While the results, at least for the time being, look more like epileptic children’s toys, as you can see in the video embedded above, the idea of giving unnatural movement to the inanimate through an external suit is a compelling reversal of a standard literary narrative. There are so many stories, for example, where something from within—a drug or medicine, a magical spell, an act of demonic possession—causes a person or thing to act strangely, against their will.

Instead, a robotic suit like this makes the source of alien locomotion an exterior one. Put on this clothing, the story would say, and watch yourself change. Like, say, Venom.

In any case, the construction implications of this are also interesting. Rather than assemble materials into a building using nails, screws, or joinery, you could instead wrap those materials up in a particular order inside a geotechnical fabric or cloak; then, using a particular sequence of air pouches and electrical charges, you could watch as previously unconnected materials heave upward and compress like a fist, assembling into some sort of architectural unit.

While this seems useless on any real industrial scale, a series of small architectural sculptures taking shape could make for an interesting gallery installation—a kind of found robotics, enlisting everyday objects into uncanny mechanized forms.

Read more over at Science News.

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?

Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

Governor General of Fortifications

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

As part of some tangential research for an article of mine coming out this weekend, I found myself looking at Michelangelo’s incredible sketches for fortifications and defensive works designed for the city of Florence.

Michelangelo served as “Governor General of Fortifications” for this massive military project, undertaken in the late 1520s to protect the city from an eventual 11-month siege.

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

While Michelangelo’s walls play only the most marginal role in the actual article I was writing, I was so taken by the images that I thought I’d post a few here. Graphically bold and interestingly layered with other sketches and drawings, they’re surprisingly beautiful.

Indeed, as the late Lebbeus Woods wrote, “For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power.”

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

This wouldn’t be surprising. In a paper called “‘Dal disegno allo spazio’: Michelangelo’s Drawings for the Fortifications of Florence,” historian William E. Wallace points out that, “In the Renaissance, military engineering was an important aspect of the profession of being an artist.”

Designing defensive works to protect his own city from attack was thus a natural continuation of Michelangelo’s expertise, and his artistic sensibility only made the resulting designs that much more visually captivating.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

The vocabulary for these structures is also, in its own way, strangely mesmerizing.

As Wallace writes, for example, this is “a design for an extremely complex detached bastion, a triangular-shaped defensive work usually projecting from a rampart or curtain wall, but here situated in front of a rectangular city gate which is drawn toward the bottom center of the sheet. The fortification is actually composed of three separate outworks or lunettes, and two ravelins, the long narrow constructions placed in front of the defensive work in order to break up a frontal assault. The various parts of the fortification are linked by removable log or plank bridges, and the whole complex is surrounded by a ditch repeatedly labeled ‘fosso,’ the outer rim of which, the counterscarp, has a stellate outline echoing the pincerlike (tenaille) form of the fortification.”

Bastions, counterscarps, outworks, lunettes. Ramparts, ravelins, stellate outlines.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

In any case, you can see more over at Lebbeus Woods’s site, or in Carmen C. Bambach’s gorgeously produced exhibition catalog, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.

(Related: The City and its Citadels. Thanks to Allison Meier for helping obtain a copy of William E. Wallace’s paper.)

Waller

[Image: Otherwise unrelated photo of a wall in Malta; photo by the author].

It’s a slow morning, so perhaps the laziness of linking to Wikipedia can be excused… Immurement is “a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits.”

In folklore and myth, “immurement is prominent as a form of capital punishment, but its use as a type of human sacrifice to make buildings sturdy has many tales attached to it as well. Skeletal remains have been, from time to time, found behind walls and in hidden rooms and on several occasions have been asserted to be evidence of such sacrificial practices or of such a form of punishment.”

In terms of literature and film, an obvious example would be Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” but there was also an absolutely God-awful horror movie a few years ago called, yes, Walled In.

The examples given by Wikipedia include a Moroccan serial killer sentenced to death in 1906 by being walled alive—or immured—and whose screams, inside the walls, were audible for two days; immurement as a tactic for military revenge; and a horrific photo of a woman “immured” inside a wooden crate with only her arm and head visible, left to die outside in Mongolia.

Vaguely related to this, anchorites are self-isolated religious hermits, but ones who “take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.” While not immurement in a technical sense, becoming an anchorite was nonetheless also a radical act of bodily enclosure, using architecture as an extreme kind of “stability of place,” a permanent habitation.

I suppose exile would be the opposite spatial condition, a state in which one is permanently disallowed from ever entering architecture, always locked outside. Walled out, as it were.

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.

Journey of a Single Line

[Image: A1 (1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I meant to write about these way back when they first appeared in the Paris Review, but alas. In any case, Wacław Szpakowski was a trained architect who dedicated an inordinate amount of his own free time to hand-drawing elaborate mazes and patterns using only a single line.

[Image: B9 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

“When he was eighty-five,” Sarah Cowan writes in a review of a show mounted by the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City, “Wacław Szpakowski wrote a treatise for a lifetime project that no one had known about. Titled ‘Rhythmical Lines,’ it describes a series of labyrinthine geometrical abstractions, each one produced from a single continuous line. He’d begun these drawings around 1900, when he was just seventeen—what started as sketches he then formalized, compiled, and made ever more intricate over the course of his life.”

[Image: F3 (1925) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Szpakowski’s notebooks are, according to Cowan, “a twentieth-century version of Leonardo da Vinci’s, with enthusiastic scribblings next to observations of architecture and diagrams of natural phenomena, from ocean currents to fir-tree needles.”

[Image: C4 (1924) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

It’s hard to exaggerate how interesting these are from an architectural point of view: labyrinths of a single line, suggesting possibilities for infinite complexity along single paths of circulation. Room after room after room, laid out along a sufficiently complex corridor, becomes a building as large as a city.

[Image: F13 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I’m reminded of a recent project by Andrew Kudless of Matsys called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” which also featured a single megastructure made from one continuous 10-mile wall.

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

But the appeal of Szpakowski’s work would appear to extend well beyond the architectural. At times they resemble textiles, weaving diagrams, computer circuity, and even Arts & Crafts ornamentation, like 19th-century wallpapers designed for an era of retro-computational aesthetics.

[Images: (top to bottom) D4 (1925), D5 (1926), and D7 (1928) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Woodworking templates, patent drawings for fluidic calculators, elaborate game boards—the list of associations goes on and on.

[Image: B10 (ca. 1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

For more, check out the write-up in the Paris Review,”>Paris Review and be sure to click through the various images over at the Miguel Abreu Gallery.

[Image: F1 (1925-1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

(Originally spotted via Paul Prudence. Also of interest: The Switching Labyrinth.)

Literary Architecture

[Image: Photo via ].

There are still a few days left to apply for a spot in Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, this time setting up shop in Prague from June 7-11.

“Architectural space is made of sequences, revelations, expectations and rhythm,” Pericoli explains, so “why not try to create a piece of architecture that explicitly embodies the structure of a literary text?” The program “is neither an architecture workshop nor a literature workshop,” he adds. “It is an exploration of the tight interconnection between narrative and space. We will use principles of architectural design to describe literary structures.”

Learn more about the LabLitArch website, where you can also see some of Pericoli’s own visual explorations of architectural narrative.

Wood from the Witch House

[Image: Via LASSCO].

This is amazing: shortly after writing an earlier post, I found this anecdote from an architectural salvage company in England called LASSCO. It’s like the beginning of a blockbuster film. A customer came in one weekend looking for “an oak beam for his fireplace lintel.” As LASSCO explains, the company tries to keep “a selection of them in stock—salvaged, prepped up and ready to sell. It was only when placing one of the beams aside we happened to put it down with daylight glancing along its length and we spotted that it held a secret. It was covered in apotropaic markings.”

Apotropaic markings, or protection marks, are basically magic symbols thought to ward off evil influences and keep malevolent fates at bay—and they are more common in traditional architectural practice than you might think. LASSCO even recommends checking your own house for them.

“If you live in a timber-framed house dating back earlier than the eighteenth century,” they advise, “look out for scratchings on the bressumer beam, sometimes only very lightly inscribed at the top corners of the fireplace, like the scratching of a cat. Look for a repeated ‘W’—thought to be a double ‘V’ for ‘Virgo Virginum’. Look for daisy wheels—a circular device with petals, or runic symbols—a ‘P’ incorporating a cross, or a ‘W’ incorporating a ‘P’. Look for two verticals with a ‘Saltire’ cross between them—a motif also much used on iron door latches and bolts and wrought iron firedogs.”

What an incredible setup for a horror film or novella: an architectural salvage firm uncovers strange ritual markings on pieces of timber in their inventory, and the macabre knock-on effects this might have as these bits of weird wood are incorporated into someone else’s home.

Alas, LASSCO’s tale is from 2013 and the oak beam has since been sold.