Landscape Futures Super-Trip

I’m heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.

[Image: The Very Large Array].

This will be an amazing trip! Our stops include the “world’s largest collection of optical telescopes,” including the great hypotenuse of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, outside Tucson; the Very Large Array in west-central New Mexico; the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, aka the “lunar greenhouse,” where “researchers are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown without soil on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival”; the surreal encrustations of the Salton Sea, a site that, in the words of Kim Stringfellow, “provides an excellent example of the the growing overlap of humanmade and natural environments, and as such highlights the complex issues facing the management of ecosystems today”; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, with its automated scanning systems used for “robotic searches for variable stars and exoplanets” in the night sky, and its gamma-ray reflectors and “blazar lightcurves” flashing nearby; the Grand Canyon; Red Rocks, outside Sedona; the hermetic interiorities of Biosphere 2; White Sands National Monument and the Trinity Site marker, with its so-called bomb glass; the giant aircraft “boneyard” at the Pima Air & Space Museum; and, last but not least, the unbelievably fascinating Lunar Laser-ranging Experiment at Apache Point, New Mexico, where they shoot lasers at prismatic retroreflectors on the moon, testing theories of gravitation, arriving there by way of the nearby Dunn Solar Telescope.

[Image: The “Electric Aurora,” from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].

The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge’s study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator’s essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.

That book documents a forthcoming exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, featuring work by David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White & Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken, and Liam Young.

Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I’ll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, “an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies,” organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.

That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, Landscape Futures Super-Dialogue, and Landscape Futures Super-Media).

Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.

Ground TV

[Image: An otherwise unrelated temple complex in Indonesia].

“Hardened lava from Indonesia’s Mount Merapi covers ancient temples in the historic city of Yogyakarta,” Archaeology News reports. As if fishing in the ground for lost architecture, “Scientists are using remote sensing equipment to locate them.”

The Jakarta Post elaborates, pointing out that “objects recently found underneath cold lava,” thus “requiring archeologists to use remote sensing equipment to find them,” remain physically ambiguous when they cannot be directly excavated. Indeed, “the equipment cannot determine precisely whether rock is part of a temple construction or not.” In some cases, then, it’s a question of forensic interpretation.

Nonetheless, five entire temples have been discovered so far, locked down there in old lava: the Morangan, Gampingan, Kadisoko, Sambisari and Kimpulan temples, “buried between 2 and 9 meters deep.” That’s nearly thirty feet of rock—a once-liquid landscape covering blurred remnants of an otherwise overwritten past, architectural history by way of subterranean remote-sensing.

I should point out, meanwhile, that Archaeology News also links to a quick story taking place out here in greater Los Angeles: a parking lot in Ventura, at the intersection of Palm and Main streets, is under archaeological investigation. “Researchers this week are crisscrossing the parking lot using ground-penetrating radar,” the Ventura County Star explains, “in search of anomalies below the asphalt that could be artifacts or building foundations from years past. Archaeologists will return to excavate by hand those areas believed to contain artifacts.”

I love the idea that the surface of a parking lot could become something like a new screen technology—a depth-cinema of lost evidence from earlier phases of human history, shining from within with archaeological remains as researchers walk back and forth above.

Imagine the archaeological cinema of the future—some massive open parking lot in Istanbul, say, where crowds arrive, milling about, tickets in hand, and then, like the giant LED screen from the Beijing Olympics, the city’s archaeological past is revealed in 3D: hologram-like structures shivering there inside the surface of the earth, below everyone’s feet in real-time, the planet become an immersive TV screen on which we can view the debris of history.

Expedition to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere


BLDGBLOG and Atlas Obscura have teamed up to lead an outing into the deserts of southern California on Saturday, March 20: an afternoon-long photographic expedition through the dusty grids of unpaved streets on the northeastern fringe of California City.


To quote from an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG:

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). Bill & Ted meet Cerne Abbas Man.

The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.


Take a look.

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere. Meaningless STOP signs stand guard over dead intersections.


And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.


To make things more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

California City is now the site of a proposed mega-farm for solar energy harvesting, as well as for a bizarre plan to build the so-called Cannabis City of the Future.

Sign up to join us over at the Obscura Day site.


Note, however, that this is not a guided tour; it is simply an organized simultaneity of people all going out to investigate these streets en masse. Armed with cameras, microphones, sketchbooks, GPS devices, quickly scrawled notes for future blog posts, and more, we’ll be exploring the site at our own pace, perhaps even miles apart at various times. This is not a guided tour with an expert on the area.

As such, all questions of transportation (including tires suitable for travel over unsealed dirt roads); adequate food, fuel, and water; personal safety (including protection from sprained ankles and snakes); and navigation are up to individual participants.

We will meet at 1pm on Saturday, March 20, 2010, in the parking lot of Rite Aid in California City: 9482 California City Boulevard, California City, CA 93505. There will be a very brief group introduction there—and you can run inside to buy Cokes or whatever—before we set off to document the uninhabited streets outside town. Let’s photograph, film, blog, Lomo, Twitter, and audio-record the crap out of this place! I’ve started a Flickr group, which will be opened up soon. If you arrive late, simply head out Randsburg Mojave Road, onto 20 Mule Team Parkway, and look for the cars; our eventual cluster of destinations is approximately 15 minutes’ drive northeast of town.

And, in the unlikely event of torrential rains, I will post travel updates here on BLDGBLOG.


Meanwhile, the incomparable Atlas Obscura has a whole slew of amazing trips planned for March 20, all over the world, all part of their first annual “Obscura Day.” Definitely check out that list for sites closer to you, if you’re not in southern California.

(California City was originally pointed out to me by David Donald, and it was written up by The Vigorous North last year. The “cannabis city” and solar farm links come courtesy of Alexis Madrigal. All images in this post via Google Maps and Google Street View).

California City

[Image: Geoglyphs of nowhere].

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.

Take a look.

[Image: Empty streets from above, rotated 90º (north is to the right)].

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere.

And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison—

[Image: The geometry of incarceration].

—and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.

To make things slightly more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

[Image: Spatial fossils of the 20th century].

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

I can see an amazing article being written about this place for GOOD magazine —”California and its Utopias,” say—or The New Yorker, or, for that matter, Atlas Obscura. The large-scale spatial remnants of an economic downturn, decades in advance of today’s recession.

[Images: Zooming in on the derelict grid].

Either way, and with any luck, a road trip out through the deserted inscriptions of this forgotten masterplan will hopefully beckon once BLDGBLOG moves back to Los Angeles.

(California City was pointed out to me a very long time ago by a BLDGBLOG reader—whose original email I can no longer find. If it was you who pointed this out to me, I owe you a huge thanks! David Donald—who also pointed out that California City was written up by The Vigorous North last year).

The Visionary State: An Interview with Erik Davis

[Image: Philip K. Dick’s former apartment complex, Fullerton, CA; photo ©Michael Rauner].

In The Visionary State, published last month by Chronicle Books, Erik Davis and Michael Rauner explore the religious landscape of California. The state’s cultural topography, Davis tells us, mirrors the physical terrain, “an overlapping set of diverse ecosystems, hanging, and sometimes quaking, on the literal edge of the West”:

This landscape ranges from pagan forests to ascetic deserts to the shifting shores of a watery void. It includes dizzying heights and terrible lows, and great urban zones of human construction. Even in its city life, California insists that there are more ways than one, with its major urban cultures roughly divided between the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Indeed, Northern and Southern California are considered by some to be so different as to effectively constitute different states. But that is a mistake. California is not two: it is bipolar.

Indeed, the state is animated from below with “titanic forces implied by its geology,” Davis writes, and a “frontier strand of nature mysticism” long ago took conscious root.

[Image: The labyrinth in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland; photo ©Michael Rauner].

Over the course of the book, the authors visit California’s “Buddha towns” and Vedantic ashrams, its National Parks and the properties of discontented theosophists. They try to fathom what strange mutations of 21st-century Christianity could produce Jesus, the “OC Superstar,” in whose name compassionate self-sacrifice and divine generosity have been reduced to a grinning statue rather pleased with itself in a well-watered grove of palm trees. They even stop by California’s hot springs, wineries, observatories, and mind labs – without forgetting the dark side of the state, where Charles Manson, “trippy folk songs,” and a psychedelic obsession with “the Now” all meet.
At one point Davis hilariously describes Anton LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible:

Born Howard Levey in 1930, LaVey was less a freak guru than a Playboy-era steak-and-martini man. He hated hippies and LSD, played Wurlitzer organs in strip clubs, and had no interest in mystically dissolving the ego. Though essentially a con man, LaVey had enough psychological frankness and sleazy charm to attract scores to the black masses he held at his house in the Outer Richmond, a place he had, as the song goes, painted black.

Meanwhile, fans of Blade Runner will be pleased to hear that Davis and Rauner visit the so-called Bradbury Building. There, in Ridley Scott’s film, lived J.F. Sebastian, abandoned by everyone and prematurely old, designing his robotic toys.

[Image: The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles; designed by George Wyman, the interior of the building “shoots upward toward a gabled canopy of glass, a lattice of light suspended over the delicate wrought-iron trusses that float in the clerestory haze.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

Though I found the book philosophically adventurous, strangely good-humored, and particularly well-photographed, I will add that my own sense of the sacred – if I can phrase it as such – felt constantly challenged throughout. In other words, almost every time the authors visited a new site, I found myself immediately engaged in a kind of comparative landscape theology, asking: why is this place sacred?
Why on earth would they go there?
After all, is an archaeological site sacred to the Chumash more sacred than a street sacred to Philip K. Dick – or a quarry sacred to the Center for Land Use Interpretation? Or vice versa? What about a site favored by Erik Davis and Michael Rauner themselves, as they performed literally years of research for the book?
Such questions only lead to more of themselves. If the Mormons, for instance, launched a geostationary satellite over the city of Los Angeles, and they used it to broadcast radio sermons, is that precise location in the sky – a square-meter of rarefied air – to be considered sacred? Or is there a holy tide or blessed current that flows through the coves of Big Sur – whose landscape, a “wild harmony of impermanence and beauty,” Davis writes, so stunned the poet Robinson Jeffers? Does that visionary landscape have a correspondingly sacred hydroscape, some undersea world of the dead discussed a thousand years earlier in tribal myths? Can the weather be sacred – or even a particular storm?
And where does the geography of celebrity fit in…?
How do you differentiate between the sacred and the postmodern – and even outright kitsch?

• • •

I decided the best thing to do was talk to Davis himself – and so I called him. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

[Images: Swami’s in Encinitas; a room in the Star Center, Unarius Academy of Science, El Cajon; and the Temple Room at Goddess Temple, Boulder Creek. Photos ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: What were your criteria for deciding if a location – a building, a landscape, a particular street in Los Angeles – was sacred or visionary? Was your list of sites determined by rigorous historical and anthropological research, or by your own subjective interpretation of the sites?

Erik Davis: It was pretty clear, in an objective sense, where the major points were – the major locations to find. I was looking either for a new religious movement that had some literally visionary quality behind it, or for a novel, visionary development within an older and existing tradition. But there was always a grey area. On that level, I started to go a little bit on intuition – not just picking things that I liked, obviously, but picking things that seemed to complete or expand the story behind the book.

A good example is Luna, the tree that Julia Butterfly Hill sat in. Is it religious, is it spiritual, is it visionary? Even from an anthropological perspective, you’re kind of left wondering about that – but I really felt like there was something powerful in the way the tree came to serve as an update for the story of nature mysticism in California. We actually had to work quite a lot to access Luna – because it’s on private land, and they don’t like people to know where it is – but we did finally get there, and we went to the tree, and we thought, you know: it’s an impressive tree, it’s got these weird braces on it that stabilized it from where somebody tried to chop it down… But around the back side of the tree, there was this hollowed-out, blackened hole – and it was full of little trinkets. People had come, sneaking onto the land, in order to pay homage. There was a Navaho dreamcatcher and a little bodhisattva figure and a teacup and a little glyph of a tree – it was this rag-tag mixture of objects that had transformed the tree into a kind of miniature shrine.

I saw that and I thought: okay, I’m on the right track. [laughs]

[Image: Tire Tree, Salvation Mountain, Slab City; photo ©Michael Rauner. This, of course, is not Luna].

BLDGBLOG: At one point, you visit Gary Snyder’s zendo, and you mention the Beat Generation in several places throughout the book – but what about visiting a few more locations from the Beats’ literary heyday, like the apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl”?

Davis: I tried to keep to things that were as explicitly religious or spiritual as possible – but, you can imagine, we had a long B-list of places we thought we could include. We were constantly asking for more space from the publisher! There are just so many elements that went into it: geography; wanting to keep a balance between urban and rural, north and south, different traditions – Buddhist, Christian, pagan, Native American. There were places that were famous vs. places that weren’t famous – this kind of high/low tension – but there were also things that just came out of the earlier sites. People start telling you stuff.

Like at Watts Towers: one of the guys who worked there was a local, and we started talking about assemblage, and collage, and using different pieces of trash to make art – and he said, Oh, you know, there’s this great place called Self Help Graphics out in East L.A., and I never would’ve found that place if I hadn’t met the guy. So Michael Rauner and I went out there, and it was great.

There were all kinds of synchronicities like that.

[Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Self Help Graphics & Art, East L.A.; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: This is perhaps a question more appropriate for J.G. Ballard than it is for The Visionary State, but were you ever tempted to include things like the site where James Dean was killed? Or the exact route driven by O.J. Simpson as he fled the police? For that matter, what if you’d found out that the whole Los Angeles freeway system had been designed by some rogue Freemason – and so all those knotted flyovers and concretized inner-city access routes are really a huge, psycho-spiritual landscape installation? Something between the Blythe geoglyph and the maze outside Grace Cathedral?

Davis: I would have loved that. [laughter] But, you know, the further you go into these weird mixtures of imagination and space, inevitably that kind of thing comes your way. That’s the thing about psychogeography – because, in a way, what I was doing was a kind of relatively gentle psychogeography of the state.

For instance, one thing I really enjoyed seeing was this witch’s map of California, where she’d laid the 7 chakras down onto different regions of the state – and I really wanted to work that in. But as far as the built, modern, commercial, secular landscape of California goes, if I had come across stuff like that – and I’m sure there’s some of it out there – then of course. That wouldn’t surprise me, for one thing – and it would excite me, for another. As I say, we have a long B-list.

[Image: The Witch House/Spadena House, Beverly Hills; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, where do earthquakes and seismology fit in all this? For some reason, I was expecting the San Andreas Fault to play a much larger role in the book – but you don’t really play that up. Which I actually then preferred.

Davis: You’re right – I didn’t play that too strongly – but it’s definitely there as a kind of psychic twist inside the state. For me, the seismology thing really worked in a more gentle way, and that was by talking about the hot springs. In the hot springs you see how the seismically active underside of California has created an environment where you get natural springs, and those become centers of healing.

When I started out, I thought there were going to be more explicit landscapes to include in the book – like Death Valley, and the San Andreas Fault – but the more we got into it, the more we found there were built structures just screaming out for inclusion. The book ended up shifting subtly toward architecture and the built environment, with the landscape providing the background, as it were, for these more specifically cultural places of spiritual and visionary power.

[Image: Huxley Street, Los Angeles, named after Aldous Huxley. By the end of his life, Davis tells us, Huxley had “concluded that people needed to change on an individual psychological level if civilization was going to avoid the disasters he glimpsed on the horizon: overpopulation, high-tech war, ecological catastrophe, and the sort of narcotized totalitarian propaganda depicted with such lasting power in Brave New World.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

• • •

At the book’s end, Davis reconsiders sunset, an event that resets the westward clock to its cyclic eastern origins; it is, he says, “the holiest moment of the day.” But sunset is too easily mythologized: it resets no clocks, and its cycles are not human but magnetic, thermochemical, turning on an alien timescale that knows nothing of earthly religion.
In the myths that do arise, however, transforming westward motion into something yet more godly and epic, California plays a distinct – and vulnerable – role:

In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”

[Image: Noah Purifoy Sculpture Garden, Joshua Tree; photo ©Michael Rauner].

(Thanks to Erik Davis for his time and enthusiasm, and to Michael Rauner for the fantastic photographs. Meanwhile, Erik will be presenting The Visionary State at a number of locations; here’s his schedule of appearances.

Earthquake Body Radio

While I was in Denver last week I picked up a copy of The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin. The book covers seismology, California’s self-intersecting jigsaw puzzle of major and minor faultlines, and the imagination of disaster (to paraphrase Mike Davis).


However, it also explores (and, for the most part, debunks, although Ulin seems to do so only reluctantly) earthquake sensitives, or people who experience physical symptoms immediately prior to the onset of a quake. Headaches, back aches, bad dreams, sore joints – the body becomes a warning flag for terrestrial disturbance. The human nervous system, a seismic prediction device.
Kathy Gori, for example, “a Los Angeles sensitive, has run off a string of better than twenty successful predictions – with just a handful of misses – by relying on headaches that come and go a few hours before a quake. The key, Gori believes, is that her brain contains higher-than-average levels of magnetite, the mineral that helps bats and other animals orient themselves to the electromagnetic field of the earth, which enables her to function as a tectonic receiver, as it were.”
A tectonic receiver! Her brain, containing a metallic analogue of the earth’s surface, responds to disturbances in the earth’s surface. The brain as a micro-landscape, metallized and resonating.
Or, more comically, there is the guy “nicknamed ‘Pain-in-the-Butt Man,’ because he feels pain shoot through his ass cheeks before the ground begins to shake.”
There’s also “Charlotte King, the self-styled doyenne of the earthquake sensitives,” who claims that she “has literally been able to hear low-frequency sound waves – a foghornlike moaning she refers to simply as ‘The Sound’ – and, in conjunction with physical symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to nosebleeds, muscle spasms, headaches, and severe stomach or heart pain, use them to predict earthquakes and volcanoes with a rate of accuracy that, by her accounting, comes in somewhere around 85 percent.”
(Somewhat related to this, see BLDGBLOG’s recent post on Sound dunes).
On Charlotte King’s website there’s even a definition of something she calls the “Charlotte King effect,” aka “geosensology,” or “the study of senses and biological systems as it relates to geologic dynamics or geologic events.”
This – geosensology – is all part of Project Migraine:
“Through the efforts of Charlotte King who pioneered Biological Earthquake Prediction, and Chris Dodge of the US Library of Congress, a volunteer research project was born – aptly named ‘Project Migraine.’ The focus of this project was to prove, beyond coincidence, that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions could be forecast, prospective of the event, giving time, magnitude, location and probability” – forecast using the human body.
King has mapped seemingly every part of her body to the earth’s surface, limb by continent by island chain: “Upper back as I have repeatedly said is for Japan;” or “Pain in ears, this is usually Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete.” Her body – and this is not at all something I am endorsing, or implying that I believe – acts as a kind of muscular radio, or nervous antenna, the meat and gristle and bone of being human somehow tuned-in to geoseismic activity.
Earthquake/body/radio.
Ulin’s book then looks at the scientific work of Tony Fraser-Smith, a professor at Stanford University, “who recorded anomalous ultra-low-frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves in the ground near Corralitos, a small town three miles from the Loma Prieta epicenter.” (Loma Prieta was a large earthquake in 1989).
“‘Twelve days before the earthquake,’ he says, ‘the noise level went up by a factor of ten. Three hours before, it went up by another factor of ten.'”
The faultlines themselves – all crushed rock and slurry – were emitting radio waves.
This apparently legitimate discovery, however, collapes into the New Age weirdness of amateur earthquake prediction with a man called Jack Coles. Just after the Loma Prieta earthquake, “Fraser-Smith accompanied USGS seismologist Andy Michael to Coles’s San Jose apartment, where they found [him] monitoring a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial. ‘Clearly,’ Fraser-Smith remembers, ‘he believed in what he was doing. I don’t think he was a charlatan. But every time a radio popped, he’d claim it indicated something, which he’d then interpret according to his criteria that he wouldn’t tell us anything about.'”
BLDGBLOG has already written about radio astronomy; this, I suppose, is radio seismology.
There are people who use clouds to predict earthquakes; there is even Jim Berkland, with his own method of prediction, “which is to read lost and found columns in various California newspapers,” keeping “a daily log of pet disappearances in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, going back twenty-two years.” (His earthquake prediction website can be found here.)
The interest here, at least for me, is not the individual methods these people use, or even whether those methods can be treated as “scientific,” but the basic idea at work behind them: that – through a kind of unintended revival of the medieval Great Chain of Being – the human body, the lived skeleto-muscular present, is actually a terrestrial analogue, a corporeal mappa mundi. The idea that metal in the California hills can also be found in the human brain, thus making the human brain a microcosm or simulacrum of the earth: human anatomy as world model.
Yet it’s also the seemingly disastrous misuse of hermeneutics – reading too far into things – that would lead someone to conclude that missing pet ads in Los Angeles newspapers are harbingers of earthquakes, or that radio static from dead stations hissing and popping outside the usable spectrum is somehow coming from the earth, picking up on planetary reverberations, literally radio-active. Over-literalizing a pun.
The “earth” as a system of signs, meant to be interpreted. The logic behind this.
The logic of earthquake prediction.

(Meanwhile, for those of you dying to use origami as a means to analyze tectonic faulting, click here).