The Fourth Plinth: London Planetarium

[Image: London’s Fourth Plinth, via Google Image search].

In an odd coincidence with the previous post, I actually saw a show at the American Museum of Natural History’s planetarium yesterday—an experience which reminded me not only how much I love planetaria, and that planetaria should be built all over the city, inside subway cars (and subway tunnels and subway stations), and inside children’s bedrooms, and in the back rooms of bookshops, in public buses, in bars, in department stores, in regular cinemas everywhere, in every city’s opera house, but I was reminded of the ongoing Fourth Plinth project in London.

The Fourth Plinth is the only plinth in Trafalgar Square without a statue; as such, it has been the site of (not always successful) public art installations for the past decade. But what if the Fourth Plinth, in tandem with London’s cloudy skies, could take on a more astronomical bent?

[Image: Planetarium projection equipment].

A rain-proof planetarium machine could be installed in public, anchored to the plinth indefinitely. Lurking over the square with its strange insectile geometries, the high-tech projector would rotate, dip, light up, and turn its bowed head to shine the lights of stars onto overcast skies above. Tourists in Covent Garden see Orion’s Belt on the all-enveloping stratus clouds—even a family out in Surrey spies a veil of illuminated nebulae in the sky.

The Milky Way rolls over Downing Street. Videos explaining starbirth color the air above Pall Mall and St. Martin in the Fields goes quiet as ringed orbits of planets are diagrammed in space half a mile above its steeple.

[Image: From a review of David Wright’s The Tenth Planet].

The sky becomes a writing board for astronomical imagery: planets rise and fall, constellations form, and the death of the universe is animated down to its slowest moment of heat-death. New shows are developed specifically for the London Planetarium, as Trafalgar Square is grudgingly called, and speakers installed in the nearby Pret A Manger allow customers to listen in while eating their evening sandwiches.

Eventually the idea is exported to other cloudy cities around the world. Astronomers in San Francisco’s Mission District project roiling animations of solar magnetism onto the fogbanks above Tank Hill.

Extreme agricultural statuary

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I mentioned a recent issue of Mark Magazine the other day, but I deliberately saved one of the articles for a stand-alone post later on. That article was a long profile of the work of Philip Beesley, a Toronto-based architect and sculptor, whose project the “Implant Matrix” BLDGBLOG covered several years ago.

In issue #21 of Mark, author Terri Peters describes several of Beesley’s projects, but it’s the “Endothelium” that really stood out (and that you see pictured here).

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Peters refers to Beesley’s work as a “lightweight landscape of moving, licking, breathing and swallowing geotextile mesh” – a kind of pornography of ornament, or the Baroque by way of David Cronenberg. “Inspired by coral reefs,” she continues, “with their cycles of opening, clamping, filtering and digesting,” Beesley’s biomechanical sculpture-spaces are “immersive theatre environments” in which “wheezing air pumps create an environment with no clear beginning or end.”

I’m reminded of the penultimate scene in James Cameron’s film Aliens, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) meets the alien “queen.” The queen is laying eggs, we see, through a gigantic, semi-prosthetic, peristaltically-powered external ovarian sac – and the scene exemplifies the encounter with the grotesque in all its H.R. Giger-influenced, sci-fi extremes. Put another way, if organisms, too – not just buildings – can reach a point of ornamental excess, then James Cameron’s aliens are perhaps exhibit number one.

[Images: Screen grabs from James Cameron’s Aliens].

In any case, Beesley’s work is a fascinating hybrid of advanced textile design, geostructural modeling, and rogue biology experiment. Peters’s descriptions of the “Endothelium” are worth quoting at length:

[The structure consists of] a field of organic “bladders” that are self-powered and that move very slowly, self-burrowing, self-fertilizing and are linked by 3D printed joints and thin bamboo scaffolding. The bladders are powered using mobile phone vibrators and have LED lights. It works by using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile.

This latter detail – “using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile” – brings to mind something at the intersection of an improvised explosive device (or IED) and a green roof: you hire Philip Beesley to design a landscape-machine for installation atop a new building downtown, and, over the course of many decades, it vibrates, yeast-bursts, rotates, crawls, and grows through extraordinary cycles of grotesque architectural fertility. A solar-powered landscape of mold and microroots, generating its own soil. Within a few years, the original sculpture it all came from is gone, archaeologically undetectable beneath the vitality of the forms that have consumed it.

One wonders what Philip Beesley would think of the mushroom tunnel of Mittagong.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Elsewhere in the article, Peters writes:

Endothelium is an automated geotextile, a lightweight and sculptural field housing arrays of organic batteries within a lattice system that might reinforce new growth. It uses a dense series of thin “whiskers” and burrowing leg mechanisms to support low-power miniature lights, pulsing and shifting in slight increments. Within this distributed matrix, microbial growth is fostered by enriched seed-patches housed within nest-like forms, sheltered beneath the main lattice units.

I’m a bit rhetorically stuck on “between” statements, I’m afraid, but it’s as if Beesley’s work falls somewhere between a loaf of sourdough bread and a sculpture by Jean Tinguely.

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’m curious, meanwhile, if you could bury a Philip Beesley sculpture in the woods of rural England somewhere, and allowed it to articulate new ecosystems slowly, over the cyclic course of generations. In fact, I’m reminded of an article in the New York Times last week, spotted via mammoth, in which we learn that two abandoned landfills in Brooklyn have since been used as unlikely foundations for new ecosystems:

In a $200 million project, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection covered the Fountain Avenue Landfill and the neighboring Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill with a layer of plastic, then put down clean soil and planted 33,000 trees and shrubs at the two sites. The result is 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago.

“Once the plants take hold,” the article adds, “nature will be allowed to take its course, evolving the land into microclimates.” But what if those weren’t landfills down there but sculptures by Philip Beesley? Strategically sown seed-patches and gel packs of yeast wait underground for new roots to rediscover them.

It’s living geostatuary, buried beneath the surface of the earth – a kind of extreme agriculture, with soil-preparation by Philip Beesley.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’d genuinely like to see what Beesley might do if he was hired by, say, a NASA R&D program dedicated to terraforming other planets. Could you fly a modular, self-unfolding Philip Beesley sculpture into the depths of radiative space, land it on a planet somewhere, and watch as revolting pools of bacteriological mucus begin to coagulate and form new fungi?

Beesley’s whiskered vibrators begin to shiver with signs of piezoelectric life, as small crystals surrounded by radio transmitters and genetically engineerined space-seed-patches imperceptibly tremble, evolving into mutation-prone “organic batteries” unprotected beneath starlight. Give it a thousand years, and vast infected forests, the width of continents, take hold.

You’ve colonized a distant planet through architecture and yeast.

For more, check out Mark Magazine‘s issue #21. Beesley’s also got a book out, called Hylozoic Soil, that I would love to read.

Watershed Down

[Image: Mike Bouchet’s Watershed being towed through Venice towards the Arsenale basin, against a backdrop of Italian palazzi].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The 2009 Venice Biennale opened this week with an unexpected and quite beautiful piece of performance art. Artist Mike Bouchet had built a one-to-one scale replica of a typical American surburban home that he planned to install on floating pontoons in the Venice Arsenale basin. He called the project Watershed.

David Birnbaum, the Biennale’s curator, told camera crews filming the installation that he thought the project “sounded a bit megalomaniac,” but the sight of the oversized house, clad in beige vinyl, flimsily bobbing up and down against a backdrop of palazzi and piazzi as it was towed through Venice’s canals, was breathtaking. It was an architectural icon of the American Dream revealed in all its formulaic absurdity.

Amazingly, then, one of the pontoons capsized, and the entire house sank to the bottom of the canal—an unintentional yet utterly perfect coda to the house’s own built-in commentary. Now, a fake generic American suburban home will add its ruins to the underwater archaeology of Venice.

[Image: Mike Bouchet’s Watershed goes down].

A two-minute video of the house’s journey, and eventual fate, can be seen in full on YouTube.

(Originally spotted on Flavorwire).

London Future Green

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

During a brief Tube journey earlier today, this image stood out against a backdrop of mobile phone advertisements, travel insurance offers, and posters for English-language schools.

[Image: “Above Ground” by Nils Norman, commissioned by Platform for Art for Transport for London; view it as a 2.6MB PDF].

Designed by artist and architect Nils Norman, this fantasy map traces the Piccadilly line’s route through an alternate London whose landmarks consist of utopian eco-fantasies (mushroom farms and geothermal energy platforms) alongside various post-war avant-garde architects’ unrealized projects for the city.

Mike Webb’s Sin Centre and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace sit next to the Westminster Bog and Wetland Chain, while Thomas Affleck Greeves’ Monument to Commemorate the Passing of the Good Old Days of Architecture nestles in the shadow of a dual purpose algae factory and housing tower not far from George Orwell’s Ministries of Love, Peace and Plenty. The result is an interesting juxtaposition of hypothetical projects designed as critique or provocation, and equally imaginary proposals rooted in a utopian impulse toward sustainability: Superstudio’s Continuous Monument is set alongside the North London Turbine Fields and the South Kensington Vegetable Oil Refinery.

It turns out that the map dates from summer 2007, and was part of a year-long celebration of the Piccadilly line’s centenary. Transport for London commissioned multiple public art projects to mark the occasion, under the curatorial title “Thin Cities”—a reference to Italo Calvino’s invisible city of Armilla, in which a “forest of pipes… rise[s] vertically where the houses should be and spread[s] out horizontally where the floors should be.” This striking description highlights the Tube’s structural centrality to London—even if Calvino’s “underground veins” carry water, not commuters or tourists.

Other projects from the series include the first ever whole-Tube wrap, as well as the calls of fifty-two different migratory species (one per week) broadcast every twenty minutes over the Knightsbridge station tannoy. Taken from the British Library’s sound archive, these included the clicks of a bottle-nosed dolphin and the honks of a Whooper swan—and they were each introduced by the official voice of the Tube, Emma Clarke.

All the Thin Cities projects are now archived online; they’re presented alongside photos and anecdotes from each station on the Piccadilly line, such as the best place to watch planes take off and land at Heathrow (hint: it’s a small footbridge outside Hatton Cross) and the fate of Alfie the cat (he was adopted by a Station Supervisor after 10 years’ independent living at Cockfosters).

[Check out Archinect‘s interview with Nils Norman for more. Also vaguely related: Just Add Water. Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

Atmospheric Intoxication

[Image: Photo by Jonathan Brown. Brown reviewed the launch on his blog, Around Britain with a Paunch, writing that he and his friends “mingled in the mist, like shadows on the set of Hamlet”].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

A former boutique storefront in London has become the temporary home for a pop-up bar with a twist: 2 Ganton Street is currently the U.K.’s “first walk in cocktail.” Created by Bompas & Parr (known for their earlier experiments with glow-in-the-dark jello and scratch & sniff cinema), the “Alcoholic Architecture” bar features giant limes, over-sized straws, and most importantly, a gin-and-tonic mist.

Lucky ticket-holders (the event has now sold out) are equipped with plastic jumpsuits and encouraged to “breathe responsibly” before stepping into an alcoholic fog for up to 40 minutes – long enough to inhale “a fairly strong drink,” according to Wired UK.

The Guardian noted that “as far as taste goes, this is the real deal,” with some mouthfuls of air “sweeter with tonic and others nicely gin-heavy.” Sam Bompas explained to Wired that they chose to vaporize gin and tonic (rather than, say, an appletini) because of its “nice smell, botanical flavours and freshness.” St. John Ambulance volunteers are on hand, though the only reported casualties so far seem to have been hairstyles – victims of “gin-frizz”. The Guardian concluded that, “With no sentient ice cubes able to confirm it, one can only assume that this is what the inside of a G and T feels like.”

[Image: Antony Gormley’s Blind Light, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London, ©Stephen White].

The project was inspired by Antony Gormley’s Blind Light, a fog box installed at the Hayward Gallery in 2007. Bompas & Parr, who describe their world as operating in “the space between food and architecture,” worked with the same company, JS Humidifiers, to adapt and install the ultrasonic humidifiers that create the thick, gin-based fog.

Though even typing “thick, gin-based fog” makes me feel a bit queasy, the experiment does seem to provide a perfect instantiation of London’s social history, the city’s prevailing damp, and its dense population. If the project is recreated elsewhere, perhaps local conditions will shape the installation: a freezing hail of neat vodka will form a layer of crystals on fur hoods and boots at a cavernous underground bar in Moscow; or a refreshing rum-and-coke mist will cool sunburned spring-breakers in the overcrowded hotel rooms of Daytona Beach.

[Image: JS Humidifiers].

Of course, the architectural manipulation of humidity is not limited to alcohol. As JS’s website boasts: “For precise control of humidity and temperature, extreme outputs, specialist construction for controlled environments or unusual control, whatever the requirement JS will design and manufacture a solution.” Existing clients for these bespoke humidification systems apparently include medical device manufacturing, offshore oil exploration, firearms production, specialist printing, pharmaceutical production and automotive manufacturing. It seems clear that custom atmosphere solutions are a product with endless applications: migrating from industry to art to retail, with the next step being high-end custom interior design for the very rich.

It can only be a matter of time before wealthy individuals are able to wake up to vaporized coffee, maintaining their multi-tasking edge by inhaling caffeine for that last half-hour of sleep, while the riders of Hollywood stars will routinely specify custom dressing rooms bathed in a fine mist of light-diffusing, age-defying elixirs.

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Water Menu, Dark Sky Park, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

Watermarks

Last night in Bristol, England, marked the start of Chris Bodle’s Watermarks Project. For the next week, Bodle will be projecting onto the facades of buildings throughout Bristol estimated future high-tide marks should the entire Greenland ice cap melt.

[Image: From Chris Bodle’s Watermarks Project].

The idea is brilliant; I love the idea of mapping the future earth onto the earth of the present, of overlaying onto our present geography the virtual presence of a geography yet to come.

In many ways, I’d even say that this project can be divorced from its immediate context of climate change science and applied to any number of terrestrial processes, from the projected future and the hypothesized past. Whether mapping lost lakes of a different era or tracing the edges of disappeared lagoons that still haunt the streets of San Francisco – or reminding urbanites of the sport-fishing possibilities beneath Manhattan – we are alive within laminations we will never fully map or comprehend.

And these geographic superimpositions needn’t all by hydrological: the constant erasures and revisions of the earth through plate tectonics represent an unlimited supply of counter-landscapes we might explore.

I’m reminded of John McPhee’s fantastic book Assembling California – part of his equally great collection Annals of the Former World. There, McPhee describes how entire “Newfoundlands, Madagascars, New Zealands, Sumatras, [and] Japans” have all come together, rammed into place, one into the other over millions of years, to form what we now call California. Walking around Los Angeles, or through the coastal hills of Bug Sur, you’re not walking on unified ground at all, then, but across “the metamorphosed remains of what had once been an island arc.”

The ground here is all wandering, nomadic wreckage, only it’s been temporarily “consolidated as California,” McPhee writes.

So could all those old islands be flagged, their mutated and compressed remains – sheer gravel, lone hillsides, folded slopes, and whole mountain ranges – marked out with surveyors’ tape? The Archipelago Project. You cross and recross lost geographies made visible through an artist’s intervention – or follow a new state hiking path that meanders around the edges of minor fault lines yet to open.

[Image: From Chris Bodle’s Watermarks Project].

In any case, projecting the earth’s future oceans onto a contemporary cityscape is an almost unbelievably stimulating idea.

These are the data points of a world yet to come, you might say, made visible here on the fronts of a hundred buildings – a future or alternative version of the earth coming into focus all around us.

(Via the RSA’s Arts & Ecology site, thanks to Nicky!)

The Museum of Nature

[Image: Museum 2 by Ilkka Halso, featuring a protected mountain. If you look close enough, you’ll also see the roller-coaster, pictured below, as it wraps around the bay…].

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Framework: The Finnish Art Review because it looked really good and had some cool images in it – and, even now, I think it’s an interesting magazine. I don’t regret the purchase.

[Image: Museum 1 by Ilkka Halso].

So I was flipping through it again the other night, looking for something, when I re-discovered a bunch of photographs by Ilkka Halso.

The images are part of an amazing series called the “Museum of Nature,” and I’m frankly still in awe of the project.

[Image: Roller-coaster by Ilkka Halso].

The basic premise of Halso’s digitally manipulated work is that “nature” has been transformed into a museum display – yet the public’s interaction with this new, endangered artifact is limited to spectacular roller coaster rides, perfectly reflected in the still waters they pass over. Alternatively, you can visit this steamy, delirious, quasi-Parisian gallery of iron and glass roofs built arching into disappearance over pine forests.

[Image: Kitka-river by Ilkka Halso].

These are “shelters,” the artist writes, “massive buildings where big ecosystems could be stored.”

The more I think about this project, the more interesting it gets; someone should write a novel set in this place – a kind of eco-catastrophic sequel to Westworld, perhaps – or, at the very least, someone should put Halso’s images on display in the United States. They’d also make a gorgeous spread in Wired.

In any case, be sure to spend time clicking around through Halso’s site. It’s worth it. And check out another of Halso’s projects, featured on Pruned back in 2005.

resonator.bldg

There was a short article in the August 2004 issue of The Wire about sound artist Mark Bain. “Equipped with seismometers,” The Wire writes, Bain “can turn architectural structures into giant musical instruments and demolish buildings with sound alone.” His installations have included “sensing devices, oscillators and the occasional sculptural element” – such as the “six metre high inflatable speaker” featured below.


This is the Sonusphere, formerly installed in the Edith Russ Haus, Germany. The Sonusphere musicalizes the effects of plate tectonics: “Modified seismic sensors pick up the normally unheard movements of the earth and are channeled through the entire building until reaching a ‘crescendo’ in Bain’s sonusphere. Unique in its purpose and design, the sonusphere is essentially a wired, inflatable ball that fills the entire upper floor and takes signals generated from an acoustic network running through the entire architecture. It acts as a low frequency, 360 degree, acoustic radiator translating the sound to its curved walls as physically pulsating sound pressure.”
Bain’s work, The Wire explains, references “the ideas of maverick engineer Nikola Tesla.” Tesla’s prolific output and avant-garde electrical ideas inspired Bain to develop “a system for resonating buildings that allowed him to ‘play’ structures. ‘The multi-resonator system I designed could drive waveforms into buildings,’ Bain comments, ‘like giant additive synthesis where you get different beatings of frequencies and shifted harmonics. I was basically designing systems that turned a structure into a musical instrument.'”
Elsewhere, we’re told, “the portable earthquake machines [that Bain] showed in Holland in 2001 produced severe tremors that spread through the surrounding area. Then there was Het Paard, a large music venue in The Hague slated for demolition. The oscillators he attached to the building activated the entire structure, inflicting severe damage on parts of the walls and ceilings.”
Of course, Bain has been on BLDGBLOG before, where we discuss a musical composition of his made entirely from seismic data recorded during the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 – the trembling of Manhattan turned into a roar of sound. (Listen to an excerpt here).

(Similar ideas are taken up in this post).

Mirror displacements


I ran across this image at SPROL, and immediately thought of Robert Smithson’s “Yucatan Mirror Displacements,” in which Smithson put mirrors on the ground and in the trees throughout the Yucatan, and then photographed the resulting inversions of sky, land, earth, heaven… left, right, etc.

[Image: Robert Smithson, from “Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1-9,” 1969].

And though the first image, above, is actually an array of solar power generators, the machines it pictures rearrange and visually disrupt the landscape in such an exciting way that I’m tempted to suggest they should be installed everywhere just for the visual effect.
Thousands of these things on the roofs of every building downtown, installed in the smoky corners of clubs, part fractal-mirror-machine, part-echo-wall. Rotating inside jewelry shops, turning everything into a seamless, through-linked chain of exact-faceted geometric self-similarity.
Install ten thousand of these in the sky, rotating above Manhattan: babies will wake-up from afternoon naps and see sparkling heavens of mirror-bright skies flashing like cameras, reflecting towers, clouds, seas, rivers, a world made alive through reflective technology.
There’s something oddly attractive – even Greek-mythological – about a mirror that can store the sun’s energy: it can copy the sun, in other words, or imitate it. It’s a kind of rearing-up of the son, the prodigal copy – a return of the repressed – to slay and replace the source, the original.
In fact, imagine a retelling of the Narcissus myth, updated for the 21st century, populated entirely with solar-powered technology and written by Jean Baudrillard – and you’d get something like these mirror-displacing reflection machines.

‘Animaris Mammoth’

At the risk of repeating another article, I’ll just quote liberally instead: Lakshmi Sandhana writes in *Wired* (24 Jan 05: *Wild Things Are on the Beach*) about Theo Jansen, an artist ‘evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind.’ ‘His latest creations contain lemonade bottles in their body structure into which the wind is slowly pumped, enabling the creature to walk for a couple of minutes afterward. (…) He says a future version – a 12-ton behemoth, big enough to have several rooms inside – could be called the Animaris Mammoth.’
A friend of Jansen’s, Carl Pisaturo, another robotics designer, refers to a collapsed Jansenian creature as ‘a tipped-over, short-circuited machine half-buried in beach sand’ – surely outdoing the end of *Planet of the Apes*, or at least competing.
So could you do that with a building? It captures wind in huge flexible sacks that gradually return to normal size, pumping the air into a complex network of pneumatic tubing; these then power the elevators, vents, and whatever else you need. The plumbing perhaps. When you go through the doldrums of a windless Spring, the building effectively shuts down. But in a windstorm, you’d be forgiven for thinking the building was artificially intelligent. Constant motion, unpredictable internal rearrangements.
Artificial intelligence through wind. An architectural version of the Aeolian harp. Covered in sails and windsacs. A huge architectural lung, traveling slowly over the coastal landscape, fourteen thousand years after humans have gone extinct.
And then it collapses…