The World as a Hieroglyph of Spatial Relationships Yet to be Interpreted

drones
[Image: Courtesy Iris Automation].

In an interview published on the blog here a few years ago, novelist Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, pointed out something very interesting about the nearly limitless, three-dimensional space of the Earth’s atmosphere and how it relates to artificial intelligence.

“One of the problems with A.I.,” Mason explained back in 2010, “is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and [these are] solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across a desert, though—or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions—is vastly more difficult.”

Another way of thinking about Mason’s comment—although Mason himself might disagree with the following statement—is that it is precisely the sky’s ease of navigation that makes it ideal for the emergence and testing of artificial intelligence. The Earth’s atmosphere, in other words—specifically because it is an unchallenging three-dimensional environment—is the perfect space for machine-vision algorithms and other forms of computational proto-intelligence to work out their most basic bugs.

Once they master the sky, then, autonomous machines can move on to more complicated environments, such as roads, mountains, forests. Cities.

In any case, I was thinking about Mason’s interview again earlier today when I read that drones are close to achieving “situational awareness”—albeit through visual, not artificially intelligent, means. In other words, it’s not AI—at least not yet—that will give unmanned aerial vehicles their much-needed ability to avoid colliding with other flying objects. Rather, it is a sufficiently advanced visual processing system that can identify and, more importantly, avoid potential obstacles.

Exactly such a system, TechCrunch claims, has been built by a Canadian firm called Iris Automation. Their system is able “to process visual data in real time, so it can see structures that suddenly appear, like a plane, flock of birds or another drone—not just static objects and waypoints that might be mapped using older technologies like GPS.” The company refers to this as “industrial drone collision avoidance,” which suggests a kind of on-board traffic management system for the sky. Air traffic control will be internal.

Now connect a drone’s “situational awareness” to sufficient processing power, and you could help steward into existence a computationally interesting form of autonomous intelligence.

To return to Zachary Mason’s computationally-inflected rewriting of The Odyssey, it would be AI as Athena, springing fully formed into the world from an empty sky.

Cloud Constructor

375831pu[Image: An airplane hangar in Utah, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Another book I read while jet-lagged in London last week was Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker; its chapter “Wayfinding” is particularly fascinating and worth seeking out.

375827pu[Image: Interior view of same hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

The previous post here, however, mentioned 19th-century cloud chambers, and I was accordingly struck by a quick line in Vanhoenacker’s book. At one point, he describes the construction of airplane bodies inside sprawling factory buildings, whose contained volumes of air are so enormous they can generate their own weather. They are internal skies.

“Some airplane factories are so large,” he writes, “that clouds once formed inside them, a foreshadowing of the sky to come for each newborn jet.”

375829pu[Image: Utah airplane hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

Of course, other megastructures are also known to produce internal precipitation. NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral “is the second largest building (by volume) in the world,” for example, “and it even has its own weather inside—NASA employees report that rain clouds form below the ceiling on very humid days.”

And, as architecture writers like David Gissen and Sean Lally have compellingly shown, architecture—in and of itself—has, in a sense, always been a kind of applied atmospheric design, with buildings defined as much by temperature, barometry, and humidity as they are by walls and ceilings.

But I nevertheless love the idea of aircraft assembly and repair occurring amidst inadvertent simulations of the sky to come, as dew points are crossed, condensation begins, and internal weather fronts blurrily amass above the wings of dormant airplanes, as if conjured there in a dream.

Cereal Bags of the Stratosphere

[Image: One of Google’ Loon balloons; screen grab from this video].

“The lab is 250 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 70 feet tall. It’s a massive space where Google’s scientists can simulate the negative-60 degrees Celsius temperature of the stratosphere.” Alexis Madrigal on Google’s Project Loon balloons.

The future of the internet is cereal bag technology in the sky.

Stealth Objects and Scanning Mist

The London-based architectural group ScanLAB—founded by Matthew Shaw and William Trossell—has been doing some fascinating work with laser scanners.

Here are three of their recent projects.

1) Scanning Mist. Shaw and Trossell “thought it might be interesting to see if the scanner could detect smoke and mist. It did and here are the remarkable results!

[Images: From Scanning the Mist by ScanLAB].

In a way, I’m reminded of photographs by Alexey Titarenko.

2) Scanning an Artificial Weather System. For this project, ScanLAB wanted to “draw attention to the magical properties of weather events.” They thus installed a network of what they call “pressure vessels linked to an array of humidity tanks” in the middle of England’s Kielder Forest.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

These “humidity tanks” then, at certain atmospherically appropriate moments, dispersed a fine mist, deploying an artificial cloud or fog bank into the woods.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

Then, of course, Shaw and Trossell laser-scanned it.

3) Subverting Urban-Scanning Projects through “Stealth Objects.” The architectural potential of this final project blows me away. Basically, Shaw and Trossell have been looking at “the subversion of city scale 3D scanning in London.” As they explain it, “the project uses hypothetical devices which are installed across the city and which edit the way the city is scanned and recorded.”

Tools include the “stealth drill” which dissolves scan data in the surrounding area, creating voids and new openings in the scanned urban landscape, and “boundary miscommunication devices” which offset, relocate and invent spatial data such as paths, boundaries, tunnels and walls.

The spatial and counter-spatial possibilities of this are extraordinary. Imagine whole new classes of architectural ornament (ornament as digital camouflage that scans in precise and strange ways), entirely new kinds of building facades (augmented reality meets LiDAR), and, of course, the creation of a kind of shadow-architecture, invisible to the naked eye, that only pops up on laser scanners at various points around the city.

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

ScanLAB refers to this as “the deployment of flash architecture”—flash streets, flash statues, flash doors, instancing gates—like something from a short story by China Miéville. The narrative and/or cinematic possibilities of these “stealth objects” are seemingly limitless, let alone their architectural or ornamental use.

Imagine stealth statuary dotting the streetscape, for instance, or other anomalous spatial entities that become an accepted part of the urban fabric. They exist only as representational effects on the technologies through which we view the landscape—but they eventually become landmarks, nonetheless.

For now, Shaw and Trossell explain that they are experimenting with “speculative LiDAR blooms, blockages, holes and drains. These are the result of strategically deployed devices which offset, copy, paste, erase and tangle LiDAR data around them.”

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

Here is one such “stealth object,” pictured below, designed to be “undetected” by laser-scanning equipment.

Of course, it is not hard to imagine the military being interested in this research, creating stealth body armor, stealth ground vehicles, even stealth forward-operating bases, all of which would be geometrically invisible to radar and/or scanning equipment.

In fact, one could easily imagine a kind of weapon with no moving parts, consisting entirely of radar- and LiDAR-jamming geometries; you would thus simply plant this thing, like some sort of medieval totem pole, in the streets of Mogadishu—or ring hundreds of them in a necklace around Washington D.C.—thus precluding enemy attempts to visualize your movements.

[Images: A hypothetical “stealth object,” resistant to laser-scanning, by ScanLAB].

Briefly, ScanLAB’s “stealth object” reminds me of an idea bandied about by the U.S. Department of Energy, suggesting that future nuclear-waste entombment sites should be liberally peppered with misleading “radar reflectors” buried in the surface of the earth.

The D.O.E.’s “trihedral” objects would produce “distinctive anomalous magnetic and radar-reflective signatures” for anyone using ground-scanning equipment above. In other words, they would create deliberate false clues, leading potential future excavators to think that they were digging in the wrong place. They would “subvert” the scanning process.

In any case, read more at ScanLAB’s website.

Shelved in the Sky

I couldn’t resist this photo of a man blown off his feet by high winds on the British coast.

[Image: Photo by Steve Poole/Rex Features, via the Guardian].

How could we take better spatial advantage of meteorological situations like this, I wonder, whether that means designing parachute-like clothing lines for weekend air-surfing or perhaps manufacturing perfectly weighted hovering objects so that we could shelve things in the air, stationary but airborne, even whole rooms lifting off the ground to pause, several feet above the surface of the earth, looking out over the battered sea?

The exact acoustic shape of
the skies above Los Angeles

[Image: Photo by John Gay: an F/A-18 creates a condensation cone as it breaks the speed of sound].

An email was sent out last week from the Regional Public & Private Infrastructure Collaboration Systems (RPPICS) – an organization with no apparent web presence – warning many businesses in and around Los Angeles that city residents “could hear up to a dozen sonic booms this morning [June 11] as some NASA F/A-18 aircraft fly at supersonic speeds around Edwards Air Force Base.”

While the “loudness of the booms will vary,” we read, these are only “preliminary calibration flights for an upcoming NASA study” that will research how “to reduce the intensity of sonic booms.” Part of this will be studying “local atmospheric conditions,” including air pressure, wind speed, and humidity, as these all entail acoustic side-effects.

It’s a sonic cartography of the lower atmosphere: an echo-location exercise. The geometry of noise.

Sound-bombing L.A. from above in order to know the exact acoustic shape and structure of the sky.

Acqua Veritas

The city of Venice has begun to rebrand its tap water, calling it Acqua Veritas, in an attempt to woo both residents and tourists away from the environmental hazards (and waste collection nightmare) of bottled water.
After all, Italians are “the leading consumers of bottled water in the world,” the New York Times reports, “drinking more than 40 gallons per person annually.” Further, “Venice’s tap water comes from deep underground in the same region as one of Italy’s most popular bottled waters, San Benedetto” – so turning Venetians on to the miracles of the tap (and setting an example for cities elsewhere) is clearly overdue.
However, as we saw earlier on BLDGBLOG, in a guest post by Nicola Twilley, bottled water now sits on the cusp of becoming as pretentious as the wine industry, complete with a developing vocabulary for taste preferences and even an emerging geography of aquatic terroir. In other words, it will be hard to break the Duchampian habit of seeking water in a bottle. Why Duchampian?
Because bottled water is the ultimate readymade object; I’d even suggest that Marcel Duchamp very nearly discovered the bottled water industry when he first captured 50 cc of Paris Air, in an artwork of the same title, back in 1919.

[Image: Marcel Duchamp, 50 cc of Paris Air (1919), courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art].

It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had Marcel Duchamp been alive just slightly later, and able to exhibit his artwork alongside – or even simply to hang out with – Andy Warhol; combine the readymade object with Warholian mass reproduction, substitute pure glacial water for Paris air, and perhaps today we’d all be drinking L’Eau de Duchamp.
In any case, if cities around the world engaged in marketing campaigns similar to this one in Venice, however tongue-in-cheek it may be, might people finally regain interest in their own municipal water supplies?
Croton Silver: The Taste of Manhattan™.

(Vaguely related: The next bottled water industry? Chinese Air Bars).

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].

Bride of Climate Change

[Image: The earth is coming to get you… A dust storm in Iraq, via Pruned].

“Someday the U.S. military could drive a trailer to a spot just beyond insurgent fighting and, within minutes,” we read, “reconfigure part of the atmosphere, blocking an enemy’s ability to receive satellite signals, even as U.S. troops are able to see into the area with radar.”

They’ll roll up, in other words – and throw storms at you.

[Images: The Grand Island Supercell, photographed by Mike Hollingshead].

But imagine what an architect, or landscape architect, might do with such a thing: some atmosphere-reconfiguration technology disguised inside pillars, towers and arcades. An 18th c. English garden maze, lined with lichen-covered statuary, and each standing figure is an atmosphere-machine, generating clouds or clearing them. A cure for British weather.

You can turn them all on, in the right order, fast enough, and form tornadoes. The murderer of birds, whirled to their doom. And if it’s too close to Heathrow, your garden becomes a national security threat.

Harry Potter and the Garden of Storms.

[Images: An almost theologically intense supercell, photographed by Mike Hollingshead].

A new tower is built in midtown Manhattan, attracting storms, its upper floors constantly awash in sleeves of cloud cover. Ghostbusters III. Transmitters hidden inside marshland graveyards far east of London: Dracula Returns.

Or none of the above, just a military unit on a border somewhere, staring through binoculars, preparing to hurl hurricanes, the grand wizardy of war: Bride of Climate Change. A weaponized earth.

Musicalizing the weather through landscape architecture

The idea of listening to a landscape – how to podcast a landscape, for instance – tends to be literally overlooked in favor of a site’s visual impact or even its smell. When I was in Greece a few years ago, for instance, hiking toward an abandoned village on Tilos, every step I took crushed wild onions, herbs, and different flowers, and a temporary envelope of scent, picked up by breezes, floated all around me as I walked uphill. I may not remember every single detail of what that path *looked* like – but I do remember how it *smelled*.
It was like hiking through salad.
In any case, you don’t often see people packing up the family car, or hopping onto a train, to tour Wales or the Green Mountains of Vermont so that they can listen to the hills – they’ll go out to look at autumn leaf colors, sure, or take photographs of spring wildflowers. But to go all the way to Wales so they can hear a particular autumn wind storm howling through the gorges, a storm that only lasts two days of every year? Specifically going somewhere to *listen to the landscape*.
Seasonal weather events and their sonic after-effects. The Great November Moan.
All of which brings me to the idea of sound mirrors.


Musicalizing a weather system through landscape architecture.
BLDGBLOG here proposes a series of sound mirrors to be built in a landscape with regular, annual wind phenomena. A distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October due to northern winds from Canada, has its low, droning, cliff-created reverb carefully echoed back up a chain of sound mirrors to supply natural soundscapes for the sleeping residents of nearby towns.
Or a crevasse that actually makes no sound at all has a sound mirror built nearby, which then amplifies and redirects the ambient air movements, coaxing out a tone – but only for the first week of March. Annually.
Landscape as saxophone.


It’s a question of interacting with the earth’s atmosphere through human geotechnical constructions. Through sound mirrors.
What you’d need: 1) Detailed meteorological charts of a region’s annual wind-flow patterns. 2) Sound mirrors. 3) A very large arts grant.
You could then musicalize the climate.
With exactly placed and arranged sound mirrors atop a mesa, for instance, deep inside a system of canyons – whether that’s in the Peak District or Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – or even in Rajasthan, or western Afghanistan – you could interact with the earth’s atmosphere to create music for two weeks every year, amplifying the natural sounds of seasonal air patterns.
People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes.


A few questions arise: in this context, does Stonehenge make any sounds? What if – and this is just a question – it was built not as a prehistoric astronomical device but as a *landscape wind instrument*? You’d be out there wandering around the Cotswolds, thinking oh – christ, it’s 5000 years ago and we’re lost, but: what’s that? I hear Stonehenge… And then you locate yourself.
Sonic landmark.
This raises the possibility of building smaller versions of these sound mirrors in urban neighborhoods so that, for instance, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg sounds different than Mitte, which sounds different than Kreuzberg – which sounds different than South Kensington, which is different than Gramercy Park… Etc.
You’d always know which district of the city you were in – even which city you were in, full stop – based on what the wind sounded like.
(Which reminds me of another idea: that, to attract people to a city without much going for it, you could *flavor the water supply*: make it taste like Doritos, for instance, and then sell that on huge billboards: buy your new home in Detroit, the water tastes like Doritos… the water tastes like tofurky…).
Second: is there a sonic signature to the US occupation of Baghdad? And I don’t mean rumbling Hummers and airplane engines, I mean what if all those Bremer walls –


– generate sounds during passing wind storms? All the American military bases of Iraq moaning at 3am as desert breezes pass by.
What does the occupation *sound like*?
A sonic taxonomy of architectural forms could begin…