The Criminal Reawakening of Dormant Architectural Interiors

[Image: The monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia].

I’ve got an article in the (apparently very delayed) “Summer 2015” issue of Cabinet Magazine, that only came out earlier this week, looking at rare-book theft and the architecture of burglary. The article is also a nice introduction to many of the themes in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out in April.

Called “Inside Jobs,” the essay looks at two rare-book thieves. One was an almost Jules Verne-like guy who broke into the monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile in the mountains of eastern France after discovering an old floor plan of the place in an archive.

That document—and this sounds like something straight out of an Umberto Eco novel—revealed a secret passageway that twisted down from an attic to the monks’ library through the back of a cabinet, which, of course, became his preferred method of entry.

The other guy was one of the most prolific book thieves in U.S. history, whose escapades in the rare book collection of the University of Southern California occurred by means of the library’s old dumbwaiter system. Although the dumbwaiter itself was no longer in use, the shafts were still there, hidden inside the wall, connecting floor to floor. By crawling through the dumbwaiter, he basically brought those dead spaces back into use.

In both cases, I suggest, these men’s respective crimes were “made possible by the reawakening of a dormant interior, one disguised by and simultaneous with the buildings’ visible rooms. There was another building inside each building, we might say, a deeper interior within the interior. Their burglaries thus both depended on and operated through an act of spatial revelation: bringing to light illicit connections between two internal points previously seen as separate.”

Indeed, in both cases the actual theft of books seems strangely anti-climactic, even boring, merely a graduated form of shoplifting. Rather, it is the way these crimes were committed that bears such sustained consideration. The burglars’ rehabilitation of a quiescent architectural space brings with it a much broader and more troubling implication that we ourselves do not fully understand the extent of the rooms and corridors around us, that the walls we rely on for solidity might in fact be hollow, and that there are ways of moving through any building, passing from one floor to another, that are so architecturally unexpected as to bear comparison to animal life or even the supernatural. In the end, burglars—dark figures burrowing along the periphery of the world—need not steal a thing to accomplish their most unsettling revelation.

Check it out, if you get the chance, and consider pre-ordering a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, if these sorts of things are of interest.

Sleep Labs of the Soviet Empire

[Image: A “garden suburb” outside Moscow. Via Cabinet Magazine].

In the new issue of Cabinet, we read how, following the implementation of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan – and in the wake of food rationing and extended work hours – “the shock-troops of Communism were edging perilously close to physical and mental exhaustion: what they needed was rest.”
Soviet authorities thus “announced a competition to design a garden suburb outside Moscow, where workers could be sent to recuperate from the strains of factory labor.”
Without getting into specifics – for that, be sure to pick up a copy of the magazine, issue #24 – one detail about the garden suburb that I particularly love, and that the article’s author specifically highlights, was a sort of colosseum of slumber. A dream academy.
Designed by Konstantin Melnikov, the building was a purpose-built structure referred to as the “Sonata of Sleep.”

[Image: Konstantin Melnikov’s “Sonata of Sleep.” Via Cabinet Magazine].

Specifically, we’re told, “the building consisted of two large dormitories either side of a central block,” and the dormitories each “had sloping floors.”
This would “obviate the need for pillows.”
Even more amazing – or is it absurd? – we read:

At either end of the long buildings were to be situated control booths, where technicians would command instruments to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air pressure, as well as to waft salubrious scents and “rarefied condensed air” through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Specialists working “according to scientific facts” would transmit from the control centre a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. The rustle of leaves, the cooing of nightingales, or the soft murmur of waves would instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis. Should these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.

While all this certainly sounds ambitious enough, apparently “Melnikov’s original impulse had been much more far-reaching.”
His original dream had been to create an Institute for Changing the Form of Man.
The whole article is awesome, frankly, encompassing the resurrection of the dead, a house designed by Melnikov in which residents felt as if they “were floating in thick golden air,” and further thoughts about how Melnikov “recombined industrial iconography into a series of spatial adventures,” most notably with a building that was “a delirium of gigantic stairways and roller bearings.”

[Image: Konstantin Melnikov’s “Leningrad Pravda” tower, as modelled by R. Notrott].

While I’m on the subject, though, don’t miss this page full of Melnikov’s other architectural projects, including the tower, pictured above, where “each floor should turn around the central core,” and this outrageous parking garage, to be constructed as a bridge in Paris, over the Seine. Note the bronze, Oscar-like statues holding up either end of the structure.

(Thanks to Leah Beeferman for emailing me the first two images, hot off the press from Cabinet).