Sulphur Bricks and Super-Arches

mars[Image: Mars architecture concept by ZA Architects, via The Verge].

Without water or traditional building materials, what will hypothetical Martian settlers use to build their future homes? Worry no more: materials scientists at Northwestern University have developed “Martian concrete” using sulphur, which is abundant on our neighboring planet.

The key material in a Martian construction boom will be sulphur, says the Northwestern team. The basic idea is to heat sulphur to about 240°C [464°F] so that it becomes liquid, mix it with Martian soil, which acts as an aggregate, and then let it cool. The sulphur solidifies, binding the aggregate and creating concrete. Voila—Martian concrete.

The resulting bricks are apparently quite strong and readily recyclable. As the MIT Technology Review points out, “Martian concrete can be recycled by heating it, so that the sulphur melts. So it can be re-used repeatedly. It is also fast-setting, relatively easy to handle and extremely cheap compared to materials brought from Earth.”

Briefly, it’s worth noting that sulphur-based brick mixes were previously explored at McGill University in Montréal by a team of environmentally minded designers, including architect Vikram Bhatt. As I got to learn from Bhatt himself during a summer at the Canadian Centre for Architecture back in 2010, that group sought to reuse waste sulfur as a building material.

One of the more interesting and, if I remember correctly, totally unexpected side-effects was the discovery that full-color images could be transferred to the bricks with a startling degree of verisimilitude, as the following two photos make clear.

IMG_0430IMG_0433[Images: Photos by Geoff Manaugh, originally published here].

Of course, this feature is presumably rather low on the list of details future astronaut-architects will be hoping for as they build their first encampments on Mars.

More practically, one thing I’d love to learn more about would be the possibility of novel architectural structures constructed using sulfurous concrete in the lower-gravity environment of Mars. Would the planet’s weaker gravity augment an architect’s ability to construct ambitious spans and arches, for example, because the materials themselves would be substantially lighter? Or, conversely, would the planet’s gravitational strength already be accounted for by a reduced density of the material, negating gravity’s diminished pull?

Put another way, the idea of ultra-light sulphur-concrete vaults and arches covering distances and spans that would be terrestrially impossible is quite a beautiful thing to imagine—and, coupled with those image-transfer techniques seen by Bhatt and his team at McGill, could result in vast new galleries and chapels illustrated with Martian frescoes, a high-tech return to older representational techniques from art history.

Forensic Flowers

Two quick botanical stories in the news:

1) A short piece in The Scientist profiles artist Macoto Murayama, who “began applying the computer graphics programs and techniques he had learned while studying architecture at Miyagi University of Education in Sendai to illustrate, in meticulous detail, the anatomy of flowers.”

[Image: A flower by Macoto Murayama, via The Scientist].

Murayama physically dissects flowers in his studio, uncovering what he calls their “hidden mechanical and inorganic elements”; he then “sketches what he sees, photographs it, and models it on the computer using 3dsMAX software, a program typically used by architects and animators. Finally, he creates a composition of the different parts in Photoshop, and uses Illustrator to add measurements and other labels.” See more at The Scientist.

2) Archaeologists in Israel have used pollen trapped in plaster to reconstruct a “luxurious garden created by the Persians.” Their method reads like a rejected pitch for Jurassic Park 4: “Using a specialised technique for separating fossilized pollen trapped in the layers of plaster found in the garden’s waterways, researchers from Tel Aviv University’s Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology have now been able to identify exactly what grew in the ancient royal gardens of Ramat Rahel. By examining the archaeological evidence and the likely settings of specific plants they have also been able to reconstruct the lay-out of the garden.”

The hydrologically complex landscape, as reimagined by the archaeologists, was able to support a huge variety of species, including “ornamentals such as myrtle and water lilies, native fruit trees including the grape vine, the common fig, and the olive and imported citron, Persian walnut, cedar of Lebanon and birch trees. Researchers theorize that these exotics were imported by the ruling Persian authorities from remote parts of the empire to flaunt the power of their imperial administration.”

It would be interesting to reconstruct Central Park based solely on pollen grains trapped inside the painted walls and debris-filled lobbies of ruined hotels of a semi-submerged New York City 2,000 years from now. A Nobel Prize in Landscape Forensics.

(See also: Detection Landscapes).

Detection Landscapes

[Images: Botanical photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt].

I’ve been going through a lot of old files recently, including a short piece I clipped from New Scientist five years ago. I absolutely love stories like this, and I swoon a little bit when I read them; it turns out that “plants growing over old sites of human habitation have a different chemistry from their neighbors, and these differences can reveal the location of buried ruins.”

The brief article goes on to tell the story of two archaeologists, who, in collecting plants in Greenland, made the chemical discovery: “Some of their samples were unusually rich in nitrogen-15, and subsequent digs revealed that these plants had been growing above long-abandoned Norse farmsteads.”

The idea that your garden could be more like an indicator landscape for lost archaeological sites—that, below the flowers, informing their very chemistry, perhaps even subtly altering their shapes and colors, are the traces of abandoned architecture—is absolutely unbelievable.

[Images: More extraordinary photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt].

So why not develop a new type of flower in some gene lab somewhere, a designed species that reacts spectacularly to the elevated presence of nitrogen-15 from ruined settlements? Ruin Flowers® by Monsanto acting as deserted medieval village detection-landscapes, as thale cress does for mines.

You plant these flowers or trees or vineyards—future archaeological wine—and you wait three seasons for the traces to develop. Now imagine a modified tree that can only grow directly above ruined houses. Imagine an entire forest of these trees, curling and knurled to form floorplans, shaping out streets and alleyways, rooms instead of orchards and halls instead of groves. Now imagine the city beneath that forest becoming visible as the woods slowly spread, articulating whole lost neighborhoods over time.

[Image: Summer in a city by Jacek Yerka].

Genetically-modified plantlife used as non-invasive archaeological research tools would, at the very least, add a strange practicality to summer gardening activities, in the process turning whole surface landscapes into an unexpected new kind of data visualization program.

It’s the earth’s surface as browser for what waits undetected below.

(Blossfeldt images found via but does it float; see also Forensic Flowers).

Golden Scans

[Image: The Pelican Nebula, photographed by Charles Shahar at the Palomar Observatory].

A new book of photographs curated, cropped, and digitally reprocessed by Michael Benson (previously mentioned on BLDGBLOG here) has been reviewed by the New York Times as something you could flip through “for hours and never be bored by the shapes, colors and textures into which cosmic creation can arrange itself.” The book shows us “stars packed like golden sand, gas combed in delicate blue threads, piled into burgundy thunderheads and carved into sinuous rilles and ribbons, and galaxies clotted with star clusters dancing like spiders on the ceiling.”

The above image of the Pelican Nebula, photographed by Charles Shahar at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, brings to mind the later sky studies and weather paintings of John Constable, in particular Constable’s Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827). As if there are nebulas here on earth with us, moving through the sky (and through art history).

Stars, here, would be chemical weather that emits light.

[Image: John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827); originally spotted at Pruned].

But such landscape comparisons only go so far; here are a few more photographs from the book, which you can buy at Amazon.

[Images: (top) The bewilderingly beautiful Cat’s Paw Nebula, photographed by T.A. Rector at the University of Alaska, Anchorage; (middle) The Witch Head Nebula, photographed by Davide De Martin at the Palomar Observatory; (bottom) The Rosette Nebula, photographed by J.C. Cuillandre (Canada France Hawaii Telescope) and Giovanni Anselmi (Coelum Astronomia)].

That final image shows us “3000 cubic light years of gas… heated to a temperature of over 10 million degrees Fahrenheit.” To my discredit, I have never thought of volumes of space in terms of “cubic light years” before—it’s an extraordinary unit of measurement. Perhaps someday it could even be applied to data: teraflops be damned, our future harddrives will be filled with cubic light years of information.

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.

Library of Dust

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

There’s a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book’s introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below.
I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves.
After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.

[Image: Abandoned rooms of the hospital. From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders.
There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as “the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite,” Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, “and the hospital is concerned that they’re now basically corroding.”

So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that’s made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they’re literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.

In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one.
He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark.
Maisel’s photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It’s expensive, but well worth checking out.
The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

• • •

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”

Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.

Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.

The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.

The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.


[Images: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.

Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.

Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.

Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.

Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.

Dust, in this way, is a library.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.

Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.

Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.

Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?

After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.

It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.

There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.

Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.

That is our final, inhuman release.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.

Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.

Within it was the Library of Dust.


• • •

David Maisel’s Library of Dust is available both through Chronicle Books and through Amazon.com – though you can also buy a signed copy through photo-eye.
Don’t miss my earlier interview with David over at Archinect – and, at some point soon, take a long trip through David’s website.

(Thanks to Joseph Antonetti for his help with the images – and to editor Alan Rapp for instigating this book in the first place).