Men in Space

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (c. 1818).]

[NOTE: I have dozens of posts—from book reviews to news items—sitting in my drafts folder that I never published for some reason. In re-reading this, from summer 2019, I thought I’d publish it.]

The tone of a new piece by Matthew Walther in The Week hits just shy of satire, but it makes an interesting—and, I would suggest, valid—point about the Apollo moon landing as more of an art historical event, a direct extension of European Romanticism, than it was a scientific one.

“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969,” Walther writes. “Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” Note the use of the word man.

The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.

I’m reminded of Kathleen Jamie’s critique of Robert Macfarlane’s work, published in the London Review of Books several years ago. There, Jamie mocked the current state of nature writing as a genre of the “lone enraptured male,” in her words, who she instead portrays as a figure of mythic delusion seeking self-aggrandizing solitude amongst inhuman things.

“What’s that coming over the hill?” Jamie asks. “A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Of course, to boldly go is clearly a sarcastic reference to a particular kind of explorer’s impulse “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In this context, consider Walther’s own comment that much of modern expeditionary literature—such as Antarctic diaries or the records of long ship journeys—was often written by “hard men” who “put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers.”

Men sending themselves to the moon, men climbing mountains, men staring down glacial landscapes alone or moving into mountain huts and man-caves.

I remember waking up from a dream once, maybe ten or twelve years ago*, in which I had been the author of a novel called Space. In that dream, my (purely imaginary) novel was about a man who abandons his family—leaving his wife and kids without notice—to find “space” for himself elsewhere, an ill-considered quest for solitude that was emotionally and financially devastating for the people he left behind, but a feeling of “space” he valued so much that he could not bring himself to worry about the pain it might cause to others. In other words, it was space refigured as a kind of masculine cruelty, a weapon for solitude-seeking men who can afford to walk away—space as freedom from consequences masquerading as self-sufficiency. (I wrote a description of the dream down the next morning and thus still remember it.)

In any case, I will say—perhaps because I am blinded by my own demography—that the idea of expeditionary solitude as a kind of landscape project, something that can lure hikers into remote national forests or pull unaccompanied astronauts into deep valleys on the dark sides of distant worlds, needn’t necessarily be gendered and needn’t necessarily have any scientific value at all. Humans alone in an experience of awe, surrounded by geology, can have nothing more than aesthetic value—of course, whether it’s $152 billion worth of aesthetic value is another question entirely.

*UPDATE: Looking back at my notes, I actually had this dream in September 2014.

Every Reflection A Leak

[Image: “Two images of the same room, one reconstructed from video footage of a bag of chips within the room (top) and the other photographed directly (bottom),” as described by Scientific American. Images courtesy Jeong Joon Park.]

“Researchers have now found that by filming a brief video clip of a shiny item, they can use the light flashing off it to construct a rough picture of the room around it,” Scientific American reports. “The results are surprisingly accurate, whether the reflections come from a bowl, a cylinder or a crinkly bag of potato chips.”

It comes down to mathematically modeling “what a known object will look like—how light will reflect off it—when it is placed in new surroundings,” such that you can then reconstruct the proper orientation of what it reflects.

There’s a lot more in the original article, but what immediately struck me about this was how this technology could be used for crime or espionage, both.

You send an unsuspecting group of school kids into a target building, carrying highly reflective silver balloons, or you wear a slyly reflective and precisely designed item of clothing into a business meeting: in both cases, a photographer on a roof across the street or hidden in a park nearby snaps away through a telephoto lens. The reflections spilling off in all directions are like a 360º spherical photograph of the building interior—the art on the walls, the position of furniture. The location of a safe.

Think of the Japanese pop star who was tracked by a stalker after he deduced her location by analyzing the reflection in her eye in a selfie. Every mirrored surface becomes a security leak—“Las Meninas” as burglary tool.

[Image: “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez; if my reference to this painting makes absolutely no sense in the present context, it’s because I’m being pretentious and indirectly referring to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, where he discusses the painting’s use of internal reflection.]

Of course, you may also recall that sounds can be reconstructed from the vibrations of distant objects: “Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass… In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.”

It’s worth noting here how potato chip bags pop up in each example. Ocean’s 14 will open with a surreptitious potato chip delivery…

In any case, political dissidents, high-value corporate CEOs, and adversarial diplomatic attachés will never be safe again. Just a brief reflection from a cigarette lighter or a piece of silverware, just a tiny ripple of sound across the leaves of an exotic orchid in the center of a dinner table, and someone across the city with a telescope has your bank passcode, the location of your home safe, and a complete 3D map of your building interior, even down to where your security guards are sitting.

[This is only somewhat related, but recall that an engineer at Carnegie Mellon has developed “a long-range iris scanner that can identify someone as they glance at their rear-view mirror” in a moving vehicle, Rob Meyer reported for The Atlantic back in 2015.]

Gravitational Lensing, Interstellar Cinematography, and the Future of Magical Warfare in Space

[Image: An example of gravitational lens effects, via Wikipedia.]

Over at WIRED, Daniel Oberhaus, author of the recent book Extraterrestrial Languages, takes a look at some proposals from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program. “Among this year’s NIAC grants,” Oberhaus writes, “are proposals to turn a lunar crater into a giant radio dish, to develop an antimatter deceleration system, and to map the inside of an asteroid. But the most eye-popping concept of the bunch was advanced by Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who wants to photograph an exoplanet by using the sun as a giant camera lens.”

There is much more specific information in Oberhaus’s piece—about gravitational lensing, etc. etc.—but the following detail is killer. “Unlike a camera lens,” we read, “the sun doesn’t have a single focal point, but a focal line that starts around 50 billion miles away and extends infinitely into space. The image of an exoplanet can be imagined as a tube less than a mile in diameter centered on this focal line and located 60 billion miles away in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. The telescope must align itself perfectly within this tube so that you could draw an imaginary line from the center of the telescope through the center of the sun to a region on the exoplanet.”

Cameras in space, waiting to be discovered—or where astronomy and cinematography become the same pursuit.

Seen this way, the solar system is more like a maze of optical effects, a topology of entangled image-tubes and horizon lines, of gravitational mirages streamed from one side of the galaxy to the next, torqued, lensed, and ribboned into geometric shapes we then struggle to unknot with the right billion-dollar instrumentation.

Along those lines, recall this excellent post on Xenogothic following last year’s unprecedented “photo” taken of a black hole. According to Xenogothic, this curious anti-photo depicting the absence of light reveals “the true, formless nature of photography and our photographies-to-come… The further out into the imperceptible universe we reach, the quicker we must get used to seeing images which are ostensibly not-for-us.” Imaging black holes is art history by other means.

[Image: Black hole, via Xenogothic.]

In fact, all of this reminds me of one of my favorite museums in the world, the National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy, which begins its history of cinema with a display of circular mirrors, anamorphic paintings, perspectival diagrams, and other optical tricks that, in the proper historical context, seem indistinguishable from magic. The birth of “cinema,” we might say, occurred when someone distorted light with mirrors; its origins are rooted in illusion and reflection, not projection and electricity.

In any case, imagine magicians of the near-future, performing for audiences aboard relativistic spacecraft, making stars disappear by manipulating image-tubes in the voids between planets. Gravitational lensing will pass from a niche science into popular spectacle.

And then, of course—the inevitable next step in a Christopher Priest novel—these magical effects of stellar camouflage, Xenogothic’s “photographies-to-come,” will become weaponized, militarized, transformed into tools for catastrophically redirecting light through space and extinguishing distant worlds.

From an optical effect in the prehistory of cinema to relativistic gravitational lensing in the abstracts of NASA to future galactic conquerors casually folding closed their image-tubes and making entire planets disappear.

Tax Incentives and the Human Imagination

[Image: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818).]

It would be interesting to look at locations of the American popular imagination, as seen in movies and TV, mapped against regional tax breaks for the film industry.

There was a brief span of time, for example, when rural Pennsylvania stood in for authentic Americana, a kind of Rust Belt imaginary, all pick-up trucks and hard-drinking younger brothers, stories framed against the hulking ruins of industrial landscapes—I’m thinking of Out Of The Furnace or Prisoners, both released in 2013, or even 2010’s Unstoppable. Whereas, today, Georgia seems to have stepped into that niche, between The Outsider and, say, Mindhunter (season two), let alone Atlanta, no doubt precisely because Georgia has well-known tax incentives in place for filming.

My point is that an entire generation of people—not just Americans, but film viewers and coronavirus quarantine streamers and TV binge-watchers around the world—might have their imaginative landscapes shaped not by immaterial forces, by symbolic archetypes or universal rules bubbling up from the high-pressure depths of human psychology, but instead by tax breaks offered in particular U.S. states at particular moments in American history.

You grow up thinking about Gothic pine forests, or you fall asleep at night with visions of rain-soaked Georgia parking lots crowding your head, but it’s not just because of the aesthetic or atmospheric appeal of those landscapes; it’s because those landscapes are, in effect, receiving imaginative subsidies from local business bureaus. You’re dreaming of them for a reason.

Your mind is not immaterial, in other words, some angelic force waltzing across the surface of the world, stopping now and again to dwell on universal imagery, but something deeply mundane, something sculpted by ridiculous things, like whether or not camera crews in a given state get hotel room discounts for productions lasting more than two weeks.

Of course, you could extend a similar kind of analysis way back into art history and look at, say, the opening of particular landscapes in western Europe, after decades of war, suddenly made safe for cultured travelers such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings later came to define an entire era of European and European-descended male imaginations. That wanderer over a sea of fog, in other words, was wandering through a very specific landscape during a very particular window of European political accessibility. Had things been different, had history taken a slightly different path, Friedrich might have been stuck in his parents’ house, painting still-lives and weed-choked alleyways, and who knows what images today’s solo hikers might be daydreaming about instead.

[Image: From The Outsider, courtesy HBO; I should mention that The Outsider was set and filmed primarily in Georgia, a departure from Stephen King’s novel, which was primarily set in Oklahoma.]

In any case, the humid forests of rural America, the looming water towers and abandoned industrial facilities, the kudzu-covered strip malls and furloughed police stations—picture the Louisianan expanses of True Detective (season one)—have come to represent the dark narrative potential of the contemporary world. But what if, say, North Dakota or Manitoba (where, for example, The Grudge was recently filmed) had offered better tax breaks?

My own childhood imagination was a world of sunlit suburbs, detached single-family homes, and long-shadowed neighborhood secrets, but, as to my larger point here, I also grew up watching movies like E.T., Poltergeist, Fright Night, and Blue Velvet—so, in a sense, of course I would think that’s what the world looked like.

[Image: From David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), specifically via the site Velvet Eyes.]

So, again, it would be interesting to explore how one’s vision of the world—your most fundamental imagination of the cosmos—is being shaped for you by tax breaks, film incentives, and other, utterly trivial local concerns, like whether or not out-of-state catering companies can get refunds on expenditures over a certain amount or where actors can write off per diems as gifts, not income, affecting whether crime films or horror stories will be shot there, and thus where an entire generation’s future nightmares might be set.

Or, for that matter, you could look at when particular colors, paints, and pigments became affordable for artists of a certain era, resulting in all those dark and moody images you love to stare at in the local museum—e.g. the old joke that, at some point, Rembrandt simply bought too much purple. It wasn’t promethean inspiration; it was material surplus.

We see things for a reason, yet, over and over again, mistake our dreams for signs of the cosmic. Or, to put this another way, we are not surrounded by mythology; we are surrounded by economics. The latter is a superb and confusing mimic.


[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

Hard Drives, Not Telescopes

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

More or less following on from the previous post, @CrookedCosmos is a Twitter bot programed by Zach Whalen, based on an idea by Adam Ferriss, that digitally manipulates astronomical photography.

It describes itself as “pixel sorting the cosmos”: skipping image by image through the heavens and leaving behind its own idiosyncratic scratches, context-aware blurs, stutters, and displacements.

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

While the results are frequently quite gorgeous, suggesting some sort of strange, machine-filtered view of the cosmos, the irony is that, in many ways, @CrookedCosmos is simply returning to an earlier state in the data.

After all, so-called “images” of exotic celestial phenomena often come to Earth not in the form of polished, full-color imagery, ready for framing, but as low-res numerical sets that require often quite drastic cosmetic manipulation. Only then, after extensive processing, do they become legible—or, we might say, art-historically recognizable as “photography.”

Consider, for example, what the data really look like when astronomers discover an exoplanet: an almost Cubist-level of abstraction, constructed from rough areas of light and shadow, has to be dramatically cleaned up to yield any evidence that a “planet” might really be depicted. Prior to that act of visual interpretation, these alien worlds “only show up in data as tiny blips.”

In fact, it seems somewhat justifiable to say that exoplanets are not discovered by astronomers at all; they are discovered by computer scientists peering deep into data, not into space.

[Image: Via @CrookedCosmos].

Deliberately or not, then, @CrookedCosmos seems to take us back one step, to when the data are still incompletely sorted. In producing artistically manipulated images, it implies a more accurate glimpse of how machines truly see.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: We don’t have an algorithm for this.”)

Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

The Totality That Remains Invisible

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972)].

A few years ago, my wife and I went out to hike Breakneck Ridge when there was still a bunch of snow on the ground. It’s not, in and of itself, a hugely challenging hike, but between being ill-prepared for the slippery terrain, including a short opening scramble up snow-covered rocks, we found ourselves looking forward to the final vertical stretch before we could loop back down again to the road.

What was interesting, however, was that, from our point of view, each hill appeared to be the final one—until we got to the top of it and saw another one waiting there. Then it happened all over again: what appeared to be the final hill was actually just obstructing our view of the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and, next thing we knew, there were something like seven or eight different individual upward hikes, each hidden from view by the one leading up to it.

In 1972, earthworks artist Alice Aycock proposed a new, never-built work called “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines.” It was part of a larger group, Aycock’s Six Semi-Architectural Projects, exhibited in 1973.

“Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” was meant to be a sculpted mound of earth, shaped for its optical effects.

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972), courtesy White Columns].

“Only one side of the resulting structure can be climbed,” Aycock wrote in her brief instructions for realizing the conceptual project. “All other side slopes are steep enough to deter climbing. The elevation of each successive climbing slope is determined by the sight lines of a 6 ft. observer so that only as the observer completes the ascent of a given slope does the next slope become visible.”

The piece obviously lends itself quite well to Kafka-esque metaphors—this structure that deliberately hides itself from view, never once perceptible in its totality but, instead, always revealing more of itself the further you go.

However, it also interestingly weds conceptual land art with hiking—that is, with embodied outdoor athleticism, rather than detached aesthetic contemplation—implying that, perhaps, trail design is an under-appreciated venue for potential conceptual art projects, where a terrain’s symbolic power only becomes clear to those engaged with hiking it.

(Aycock’s project spotted via Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974).

The Architecture of the Overlap

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

One of my favorite museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, has teamed up with ScanLAB Projects for a new, 3D introduction to the Soane’s collections.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

“We are using the latest in 3D technology,” the Museum explains, “to scan and digitize a wide selection of Museum rooms and objects—including Soane’s Model Room, and the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I.”

The opening animations alone—pulling viewers straight into the facade of the building, like a submarine passing impossibly through a luminous reef—are well worth the click.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

The museum’s interior walls become translucent screens through which the rest of Soane’s home is visible. Rooms shimmer beneath other rooms, with even deeper chambers visible behind them, golden, hive-like, lit from within. Like a camera built to capture only where things overlap.

In fact, I could watch entire, feature-length films shot this way: cutting through walls, dissecting cities, forming a great narrative clockwork of action ticking away in shining blocks of space. As if the future of cinema is already here, it’s just hidden—for now—in the guise of avant-garde architectural representation.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

ScanLAB’s work—such as in Rome, beneath the streets of London, or in strange new forms of portraiture—continues to have the remarkable effect of revealing every architectural space as actually existing in a state more like a cobweb.

Hallways become bridges crossing the black vacuum of space; individual rooms and galleries become unreal fogs of ornament and detail, hanging in a context of nothing.

It thus seems a perfect fit for a place as bewildering and over-stuffed as the Soane Museum, that coiling maze of archaeological artifacts and art historical cross-references, connected to itself through narrow stairways and convex mirrors.

Of course, this also begs the question of how architecture could be redesigned for maximizing the effects of this particular mode of visualization. What materials, what sequences, what placements of doors and walls would lend itself particularly well to 3-dimensional laser scanning?

The new site also includes high-res, downloadable images of the artifacts themselves—

[Images: The sarcophagus of King Seti I; courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum].

—including Seti I’s sarcophagus, as seen above.

Click through to the Soane Museum for more.

(Elsewhere: The Dream Life of Driverless Cars).

Perspectival Objects

[Image: A perspectival representation of the “ideal city,” artist unknown].

There’s an interesting throwaway line in The Verge‘s write-up of yesterday’s Amazon phone launch, where blogger David Pierce remarks that the much-hyped public unveiling of Amazon’s so-called Fire Phone was “oddly focused on art history and perspective.”

As another post at the site points out, “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likened it to the move from flat artwork to artwork with geometric perspective which began in the 14th century.”

These are passing comments, sure, and, from Amazon’s side, it’s more marketing hype than anything like rigorous phenomenological theorizing. Yet there’s something strangely compelling in the idea that a seemingly gratuitous new consumer product—just another smartphone—might actually owe its allegiance to a different technical lineage, one less connected to the telecommunications industry and more from the world of architectural representation.

[Image: Jeff Bezos as perspectival historian. Courtesy of The Verge].

It would be a smartphone that takes us back to, say, Albrecht Dürer and his gridded drawing machines, making the Fire Phone a kind of perspectival object that deserves a place, however weird, in architectural history. Erwin Panofksy, we might say, would have used a Fire Phone—or at least he would have written a blog post about it.

In this context, the amazing image of billionaire Jeff Bezos standing on stage, giving a kind of off-the-cuff history of perspectival rendering surely belongs in future works of architectural history. Smiling and schoolteacher-like, Bezos gestures in front of an infinite grid ghosted-in over this seminal work of urban scenography, in one moment aiming to fit his product within a very particular, highly Western tradition of representing the built environment.

[Image: Courtesy of The Verge].

The launch of the Fire Phone did indeed give perspectival representation its due, showing how a three-dimensionally or relationally accurate perception of geometric space can change quite dramatically with only a small move of the viewer’s own head.

The phone’s “dynamic perspective,” engineered to correct this, seems a little rickety at best, but it is meant as way to account for otherwise inconsequential movements of the viewer through the landscape, whether it’s a crowded city street or the vast interiors of a hotel. To do so requires an almost comical amount of technical hand-waving. From The Verge:

The key to making dynamic perspective work is knowing exactly where the user’s head is at all times, in real time, many times per second, Bezos said. It’s something that the company has been working on for four years, and [the] best way to do it is with computer vision, he went on to note. The single, standard front-facing camera wasn’t sufficient because its field of view was too narrow—so Amazon included four additional cameras with a much wider field of view to continuously capture a user’s head. At the end of the day, it features four specialized front-facing cameras in addition to the standard front-facing camera found near the earpiece, two of which can be used in case the other cameras were covered; it uses the best two at any given time. Lastly, Amazon included infrared lights in each camera to allow the phone to work in the dark.

Five hundred years ago, we’d instead be reading about some fabulous new system of mirrors, lens, prisms, and strings, all tied back to or operated by way of complexly engineered works of geared furniture. Unfolding tables and adjustable chairs, with operable flaps and windows.

[Image: One of several perspectival objects—contraptions for producing spatially accurate drawings—by Albrecht Dürer].

These precursors of the Fire Phone, after seemingly endless acts of fine-tuning, would then, and only then, allow their users to see the scene before them with three-dimensional accuracy.

Now, replace those prisms and mirrors with multiple forward-facing cameras and infrared sensors, and market the resulting object to billions of potential users in front of gridded scenes of Western urbanism, and you’ve got the strange moment that happened yesterday, where a smartphone aimed to collapse all of Western art history into a single technical artifact, a perspectival object many of us will soon be carrying in our bags and pockets.

[Image: Another “ideal city,” artist unknown].

More interestingly, though, with its odd focus “on art history and perspective,” Amazon’s event raises the question of how electronic mediation of the built environment might be affecting how our cities are designed in the first place—how we see buildings, streets, and cities through the dynamic lens of automatic perspective correction and other visual algorithms.

Put another way, is there a type of architecture—Classical, Romanesque—particularly well-suited for perspectival objects like the Fire Phone, and, conversely, are there types of built space that throw these devices off altogether? Further, could artificial environments that exceed the rendering capacity of smartphones and other digital cameras be deliberately designed—and, if so, what would they “look like” to those sensors and objects?

Recall that, at one point in his demonstration, Bezos explained how Amazon’s new interface “uses different layers to hide and show information on the map like Yelp reviews,” effectively tagging works of architecture with digital metadata in a kind of Augmented Reality Lite.

But what this suggests, together with Bezos’s use of “ideal city” imagery, is that smartphone urbanism will have its own peculiar stylistic needs. Perhaps, if visually defined, that will mean that phones will require cities to be gridded and legible, with clear spatial differentiation between buildings and objects in order to function most accurately—in order to line up with the clouds of virtual tags we will soon be placing all over the structures around us. Perhaps, if more GPS-defined, that will mean overlapping buildings and spaces are just fine, but they nonetheless must allow unblocked access to satellite signals above so that things don’t get confused down at street level—a kind of celestial perspectivism where, from the phone’s point of view, the roof is the new facade, the actual “front” of the building through which vital navigational signals must travel.

Either way, the possibility that there is a particular type of space, or a particular type of urbanism, most suited to the perspectival needs of new smartphones is totally fascinating. Perhaps in retrospect, this photograph of Jeff Bezos, grinning at the world in front of a gigantic image of Western perspective, will become a canonical architectural image of where digital objects and urban design intersect.