Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound

[Image: A shot of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party” (2020), by Don Stahl, via Artforum.]

There’s a great moment in a recent article by Jace Clayton, who reviews an installation by DJ and musician Carl Craig for Artforum, where Clayton talks about music’s relationship to empty space.

There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”

The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.

In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.

“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.

Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”

There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”

[Image: Gowanus, Brooklyn; photograph by Geoff Manaugh.]

I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.

There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.

The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”

Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.

In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?

(Consider picking up a copy of Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.)

The Glacial Gothic, or the Cathedral as an “Avalanche on Pause”

[Image: Diagram from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

There are at least two interesting moments in John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice.

One is his description of buttresses.

Buttresses, Ruskin writes, are structures against pressure: a cathedral’s walls want to fall outward, for example, pushed aside by the relentless weight of the roof. But this gravitational pressure can be stabilized by an exoskeleton: a sequence of buttresses that will prevent those walls from collapsing outward.

However, Ruskin points out, there is a similar kind of pressure from the waves of the sea. Think of the curved hull of a ship, he writes, which is internally buttressed against the “crushing force” of the ocean around it. It is a kind of inside-out cathedral.

Consider other high-pressure environments where architecture can thrive—resting in the benthic abyss or twirling through the vacuum of outer space, where offworld stations rotate and spin through exotic gravitational scenarios—and you’ve perhaps envisioned what John Ruskin would be writing about today. Ship-buildings, buttressed against the void.

In any case, for Ruskin, buttresses perform a kind of gravitational judo: he describes “buttresses of peculiar forms, cunning buttresses, which do not attempt to sustain the weight, but parry it, and throw it off in directions clear of the wall.” They shed the load, so to speak, flipping it elsewhere, as if taking advantage of an opponent’s slow and graceless momentum.

…as science advances, the weight to be borne is designedly and decisively thrown upon certain points; the direction and degree of the forces which are then received are exactly calculated, and met by conducting buttresses of the smallest possible dimensions; themselves, in their turn, supported by vertical buttresses acting by weight, and these perhaps, in their turn, by another set of conducting buttresses: so that, in the best examples of such arrangements, the weight to be borne may be considered as the shock of an electric fluid, which, by a hundred different rods and channels, is divided and carried away into the ground.

It’s buttresses buttressing buttresses—or buttresses all the way down.

Ruskin reminds his readers, however, that a buttress’s function can even be seen outdoors, where he specifically cites Swiss landscape defenses. There, Ruskin writes, horizontal buttresses like defensive walls “are often built round churches, heading up hill, to divide and throw off the avalanches.” Again, it’s a question of parrying an oppositional force, deflecting it elsewhere.

[Image: “Profile of a buttress with vertical internal line, when the line of thrust coincides with the axis of the buttress,” taken from a paper called “Milankovitch’s Theorie der Druckkurven: Good mechanics for masonry architecture” by Federico Foce, in Nexus Network Journal.]

From an architectural point of view, you might say that a landscape is stationary until it buckles, shudders, or moves, becoming oceanic, heaving like the sea.

Or, to be pretentious and quote myself from an op-ed in the New York Times, “the ground itself is a kind of ocean in waiting. We might say that [the Earth] is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.”

For Ruskin, the buttress is an architectural technology—a spatial tool—that can be built to anticipate this act of marine transformation, a device that can prepare our buildings and cities to resist violent events in the landscape they are built upon.

With this in mind, it’s worth recalling a recent experiment that showed buildings can be partially shielded from the effects of earthquakes. An “invisibility cloak,” as researchers somewhat hyperbolically described it back in 2013, would use a “regular grid of cylindrical and empty boreholes” drilled into the earth to absorb and deflect seismic waves and thus protect certain structures from damage.

They would “parry it,” as Ruskin once wrote, “and throw it off in directions clear” of the city. In Ruskin’s terms, in other words, they would be buttresses: empty void-silos in the earth that nevertheless function like the exoskeletal cage of a cathedral or the internal ribs of a ship at sea.

[Image: Glacial logics diagrammed in The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

The second interesting thing from The Stones of Venice—among many others, to be sure, but I will only focus on two here—is that, amazingly, for a book published back in 1853, Ruskin scales his analysis up to the point of suggesting that glaciers should be considered as complex architectural objects.

Ruskin describes “a curve about three quarters of a mile long,” for example, “formed by the surface of a small glacier of the second order.” This curve, he writes, is “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life.” So, he wonders, how could it be applied to architecture? How could we learn from glaciers?

At this point, Ruskin draws a diagram—the one I’ve scanned, above—to highlight a variety of nested curves that he believes are hiding inside a particular glacier. These are organizational systems that extend for many miles at a time through the ice and that allegedly entail geometric lessons for architects.

The idea here—that Ruskin was trying to extract architectural lessons from glaciers nearly two centuries ago—is incredible to me.

After all, if the Gothic is an architectural language that, as writers such as Lars Spuybroek have compellingly shown, draws from the natural vocabulary of leaves, plants, tree roots, and so on, then this means that Ruskin is suggesting—in 1853!—a kind of Glacial Gothic, an architectural lesson drawn from continent-spanning masses of ice.

[Image: “A Crack in an Antarctic Ice Shelf Is 8 Miles From Creating an Iceberg the Size of Delaware”; image via Ohio State University.]

I’m reminded of an old t-shirt produced by the band Godflesh that described their music as an “Avalanche On Pause.”

This is a very Ruskinian description, we might say in the present context.

An avalanche on pause brings together Ruskin’s interests in landscape-scale structural events—such as glaciers and landslides—with his attention to the mechanics of cathedrals built to resist such imposing pressures. To freeze them in place. To press pause.

(Thanks to Marc Weidenbaum for reminding me of that Godflesh shirt many years ago.)

The “So-called Tower of Babel”

[Image: The “so-called Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

I posted these on social media the other day, but I thought I’d include them here simply because of how much I love the casually jaw-dropping caption used for these over at the Library of Congress. This eerie pile of bricks looming over the desert, photographed back in 1932?

It’s nothing other than “Possibly the Tower of Babel,” or the “So-called Tower of Babel.” No biggie.

[Images: “Possibly the Tower of Babel” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

As novelist Paul M.M. Cooper responded on Twitter, the site is still extent today. Iraqi-Dutch filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji, Cooper wrote, “used it as a backdrop for a memorable scene in his movie Son of Babylon.”

Here it is on Google Maps.

[Image: The “so-called Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

The Library of Congress also refers to the site as an “extinct city,” which is a fabulous phrase, complete with its own “Watchman of the Ruins,” only adding to the mythic weight of the place.

[Image: “Possibly the Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

Even better, I now have an excuse to post some paintings of the Tower of Babel, as seen through the lens of European art history…

[Image: “The Tower of Babel” (1595) by Abel Grimmer, via Wikimedia Commons.]

[Image: “The Tower of Babel” (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Fine Art America.]

Check out several more photos—including a later, color version—over at the Library of Congress.

Building Digital with Timber, Mud, and Ice

[Image: From a project called “Slice” by HANNAH, as featured in FABRICATE 2020.]

The Bartlett School of Architecture recently put out two new books, freely available for download, FABRICATE 2020 and Design Transactions. Check them both out, as each is filled with incredibly interesting and innovative work.

Purely in the interests of time—by all means, download the books and dive in—I’ll focus on three projects rethinking the use of wood, clay, and ice, respectively, alongside new kinds of concrete formwork and 3D printing.

[Image: From “Slice” by HANNAH, as featured in FABRICATE 2020.]

For a project called “Slice,” Sasa Zivkovic and Leslie Lok of design firm HANNAH and Cornell University explore the use of “waste wood” killed by Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

[Image: From “Slice” by HANNAH, as featured in FABRICATE 2020.]

“Mature ash trees with irregular geometries present an enormous untapped material resource. Through high-precision 3D scanning and robotic fabrication on a custom platform, this project aims to demonstrate that such trees constitute a valuable resource and present architectural opportunities,” they explain.

[Images: From “Slice” by HANNAH, as featured in FABRICATE 2020.]

They continue on their website: “No longer bound to the paradigm of industrial standardization, this project revisits bygone wood craft and design based on organic, found and living materials. Robotic bandsaw cutting is paired with high-precision 3D scanning to slice bent logs from ash trees that are infested by the Emerald Ash Borer.”

I’m reminded of a point made by my wife, Nicola Twilley, in an article for The New Yorker last year about fighting wildfires in California. At one point, she describes attempts “to imagine the outlines of a timber industry built around small trees, rather than the big trees that lumber companies love but the forest can’t spare. In Europe, small-diameter wood is commonly compressed into an engineered product called cross-laminated timber, which is strong enough to be used in multistory structures.”

Seeing HANNAH’s work, it seems that perhaps another way to unlock the potential of small-diameter wood is through robotic bandsaw slicing.

[Image: From “Mud Frontiers” by Emerging Objects, as featured in FABRICATE 2020.]

For their project “Mud Frontiers,” Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello use 3D printing and “traditional materials (clay, water, and wheat straw), to push the boundaries of sustainable and ecological construction in a two phase project that explores traditional clay craft at the scale of architecture and pottery.”

[Image: From “Mud Frontiers” by Emerging Objects.]

“To do this,” they explain on their website, “we stepped out of the gallery and into the natural environment by constructing a low-cost, and portable robot, designed to be carried into a site where local soils could be harvested and used immediately to 3D print large scale structures.”

[Image: From “Mud Frontiers” by Emerging Objects.]

Finally—and, again, I would recommend just downloading the books and spending time with each, as I am barely scratching the surface here—we have a very cool project looking at “ice formwork” for concrete, developed by Vasily Sitnikov at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

[Image: Ice formwork for casting concrete, developed by Vasily Sitnikov, as featured in Design Transactions.]

Sitnikov’s method was initially devised as a way to save energy during the concrete-casting and construction process, but quickly revealed its own aesthetic and structural implications: “The variety of programmable functions for ice formwork is vast,” he writes, “across environmental design, programmable lighting conditions, acoustics, ventilation, insulation and structural-design weight-saving applications.”

[Image: Ice formwork for casting concrete, developed by Vasily Sitnikov.]

He has found, for example, that “spatial patterns… can be imposed on concrete, abandoning any use of petrochemicals in the fabrication process. Breaking away from the ‘solid’ image of conventional concrete, the technique of using ice as the formwork material enables the production of mesoscale spatial structures in concrete which would be impossible to manufacture with existing formwork materials.”

[Image: Ice formwork for casting concrete, developed by Vasily Sitnikov.]

Weaving, carving, cutting, molding: the two new Bartlett books have much, much more, including voluminous detail about each of the projects mentioned briefly above, so click on through and go wild: Design Transactions and FABRICATE 2020.

Weed Hoax Architecture

[Image: Weeds, via Wikipedia.]

This story, from July 1988, feels unexpectedly timely today, given our new era of experimental sci-fi building materials, from mushroom bricks to translucent wood.

“Two brothers were convicted by a federal jury Thursday on charges that they organized an elaborate hoax in which they duped investors of $3 million with claims that they had found a way to transform common weeds into ‘Space Age’ synthetic building materials,” the L.A. Times reported. “They gave the products names, including ‘Impervium’ and ‘Impervicon,’ and at one time peddled them on the ‘700 Club,’ an evangelical television program, according to the charges.”

This would make a great premise for a short story or novel, for what it’s worth.

(Spotted via Peter Smith.)

A Process Rather Like Launching A Ship

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

I should have posted this a million years ago, but there was an interesting story last month in the Washington Post about a Canadian island being shut off from the national grid, leaving anyone there who has yet to leave almost literally stranded in the dark.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

“On Dec. 31, the government will cut off all services to the community,” we read, “including electricity, snow removal and ferry service. Residents may keep their homes but will have to use them off-grid.”

One couple, interviewed by the paper, has chosen to stay. They have “spent more than $38,000 on solar panels, generators and other items so they can live off-grid. They’ve stockpiled goods and completed first-aid training.”

A Canadian Gothic remake of The Shining comes to mind. In fact, potential fictional storylines about winter caretakers on remote islands—whether they be science fiction or horror, about international espionage or even a medical thriller—are seemingly infinite.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

As the article also explains, resettlement programs such as this—where the Canadian government pays for residents to move away from particularly remote, difficult-to-service areas—have “a long and controversial history in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

When the former British dominion joined Canada in 1949, Premier Joey Smallwood struggled to provide services to the 1,200 outposts that dotted the coast. In 1954, he started the first of several centralization programs that gave cash to households from villages with “no great future” to move to government-selected “growth centers.” From 1954 to 1975, roughly 28,000 people from nearly 300 remote outposts were uprooted and resettled, many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities.

It’s this last line—“many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities”—that leads to the images you see here, screen-grabs taken from a 1961 film called Moving House. “Here,” the narrator says, “moving house means just that… a process rather like launching a ship.”

[Images: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

The full film is embedded over at the Washington Post.

Secret Telephone Buildings

“In harmony with its residential location,” we read in a paper called “Radio Relay and Other Special Buildings,” originally published in the Spring 1950 issue of Bell Telephone Magazine, “this building serves nevertheless as a voice-frequency repeater and coaxial main station.” An empty suburban house, inhabited only by machines and spectral voices.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Transformer Houses.)

Light in the Time of a Digital Sun

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

There’s a cool project in the most recent issue of Site Magazine, by Jonathan Enns, an architectural designer and professor at the University of Waterloo.

In a short text written for Site, Enns describes the project as a proposal for a 12-meter-tall solar clock, a monolithic sandstone pillar whose sculpted form would combine ancient methods of timekeeping with digital fabrication.

“The resulting parametric script,” Enns writes, “which begins with the hourly solar location data and subtracts a channel of sandstone from the column for each hour, produces a complex Swiss cheese of voids that are unique to the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the design site.”

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

It would be incredibly interesting to see this approach applied to blocks of sandstone of varying heights, depths, and dimensions, producing what I imagine might be complex, vertebral stacks of perforation and shadow, alternately as broad and imposing as medieval watch towers or as diminutive and fragile as flutes of ornament hidden on the corners of existing buildings.

As the chronographic marks surrounding the pillar also seem to indicate, the graphic possibilities for telling time with this are presumably endless—colors, patterns, arcs, loops, textures, materials.

For now, the newest issue of Site is not online, but click through to Enns’s own portfolio for a bit more.

(Earlier, this post wrongly claimed that the University of Waterloo is in Toronto; it is not. It is nearly an hour west of Toronto.)

Computational Ornament

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

A few billion years ago, back in July 2008, Alexis Madrigal blogged about the design of “visual circuitry” for Wired. “A cognitive scientist wants to employ M.C. Escher’s bag of optical tricks to get your eyes to solve logic problems,” Madrigal wrote at the time, referring to the work of Mark Changizi.

Changizi’s idea, as Madrigal explained, was that “human beings can use their brain’s visual-processing abilities to solve LSAT-style logic puzzles, simply by staring at images designed to get their eyes to compute. Because this form of visual processing feels so effortless, such problems might be much easier to solve than their written counterparts.”

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

These visually processed logic puzzles rely on a new form of writing, in effect, one that uses not traditional letters or typography but geometric shapes specifically angled and shaded to create optical illusions; each version of the illusion, so to speak, carries a different meaning. A whole visual grammar can thus be created, Changizi suggests.

You can read Wired—or, of course, Changizi’s own paper, “Harnessing Vision For Computation”—to understand how the system really works, but what interests me here is the possibility that designers could take a visual/computational language such as this and extrapolate a new style of architectural ornament from it.

[Image: From Geometrical Objects: Architecture and the Mathematical Sciences, 1400-1800, edited by Anthony Gerbino].

In other words, you could transform Changizi’s visual circuitry into a system of 3-dimensional architectural details that could be designed to sharpen and stimulate human cognitive abilities. Instead of playing sudoku, you and your elderly relatives could just look at the fronts of buildings and watch as waning daylight changes the shapes and angles of shadows, working out the logical implications.

At 10am, your building’s facade says one thing; at 6pm, because the shadows have shifted—that is, the Changizian circuits are now closing differently—it says something else entirely.

[Image: From Geometrical Objects: Architecture and the Mathematical Sciences, 1400-1800, edited by Anthony Gerbino].

Architecture becomes a passive cognitive environment, a logical stimulant, an object-based grammar meant to keep its inhabitants’ brains more supple.

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

Whether or not this is possible or just hand-wavey bullshit, I’m totally fascinated by the idea that you could use cognitive science to design a new class of architectural ornament—not just geometry for the sake of geometry, or statuary for the sake of historical narratives, but a spur toward cognitive health in the people who gaze upon it.

New Spatial Contract

The theme of the next Venice Architecture Biennale has been announced by its curator, Hashim Sarkis.

“We need a new spatial contract,” Sarkis writes. We need to “call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together: together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; and together as a planet facing crises that require global action for us to continue living at all.”

You can read the full statement at the Biennale website. The Biennale itself will open next year, in May 2020.

Folktales for the Offworld

The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”

The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!

You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.