Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

The Walled City (10-Mile Version)

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

A new exhibition opens next week at the Hubbell Street Galleries in San Francisco, part of the California College of the Arts, called Drawing Codes: Experimental Protocols of Architectural Representation. The idea behind the group show is to look at “the relationship between code and drawing” (emphases theirs), or “how rules and constraints inform the ways we document, analyze, represent, and design the built environment.”

Drawing Codes is curated by Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus, with Clayton Muhleman, and it features work by Erin Besler, Elena Manferdini, Jimenez Lai, the Oyler Wu Collaborative, Rael San Fratello, and many more.

As Kudless—of Matsys fame—pointed out to me over email, the curators “gave all of the participants a set of codes that they had to follow (e.g. all black and white, orthographic projection, 25″ x 25″, etc.),” using this set of constraints to, among other things, foreground differences in approach between each participating architect.

If everyone’s doing the same thing, then how each person does it becomes more revealing.

[Image: “Half-Hearted Diamonds” by Jimenez Lai/Bureau Spectacular].

Perhaps ironically, it was actually the drawing by Kudless himself—which I first saw on Instagram—that caught my interest.

Called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” that project imagines an entire metropolis that is nothing but one, continuous wall.

Kudless explained that it came about by posing himself a rhetorical question: “What would a city look like if it was a wall and nothing else? I’ve been fascinated with walls that have grown thick enough to be buildings in themselves. From medieval European city walls to the Great Wall in China, there is something really interesting about taking something that is ostensively about separating two territories and turning into an inhabitable space in its own right.”

[Image: Close-up from “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

The results: a rule-constrained exploration of how a wall could become a city.

I started to play around with slowly increasing a wall’s length while preventing it from moving outside a site or intersecting itself. At a certain point in the growth process, the wall takes over the entire site. There is still an inside and outside to the wall, but sometimes the outside is deep inside the site boundary or vice versa. At that point, I was left with a big squiggly wall, but realized that I needed some sort of roofscape to make it read as a city and not just a thick wall. That’s when I turned to Google’s autocomplete feature to give me suggestions on what programs [spatial functions] a rooftop might support. I worked my way from A to Z pretty much accepting whatever suggestion Google’s autocomplete gave me and started designing parametric definitions that could implement that program on a number of different sites along the wall’s top.

The various social and architectural functions distributed around the massive roofscape included, for example, Rooftop Antenna, Rooftop Bar, Rooftop Cafe, Rooftop Deck, Rooftop Exhaust, Rooftop Film, Rooftop Garden, Rooftop Hotel Pool, and so on.

Interestingly, Kudless also pointed out that, if he were to run the same generative script again, it would likely produce “a similar, but not identical city,” and it would almost certainly not result in a wall exactly ten miles in length (which, in this case, was purely a coincidence, he explained).

In any case, I’ve been impressed by Kudless’s work for a long time; check out these older posts on his projects Nevada Sietch and robotic drawing protocols, for example, and then stop by the exhibition when it opens next week. There will be a reception on January 19 at 5:30pm at 161 Hubbell Street. More info.

Space Grain

[Image: A micrometeorite, photographed by Donald Brownlee, University of Washington].

A paper published last month in Geology reported “the discovery of significant numbers (500) of large micrometeorites (>100 μm) from rooftops in urban areas”—or “cosmic dust grains,” in the words of New Scientist, that have been “found on city rooftops for the first time.”

Although the samples were “collected primarily from roof gutters in Norway,” according to the original paper, their presence there “demonstrates that, contrary to current belief, micrometeorites can be collected from urban environments.” That is, the dust of ruined cosmic objects can be found intermixed with autumn leaves, cigarette butts, and brake pad dust, perhaps even accumulating on your bedroom window sill.

[Image: Gorgeous photograph of a micrometeorite by Matej Pašák].

Of course, it has long been possible to sample urban areas for micrometeorites, so this is not entirely new.

What’s fascinating, nonetheless, is that these micrometeorites are most likely to have arrived on Earth within the past six years, the study points out, but their size is notably larger than the average sample of micrometeorites from the recent geological record, indicating “variations in the extraterrestrial dust flux” on the scale of 800,000 years.

As New Scientist points out, this means that larger cosmic shifts can be deduced from the size and shape of these grains:

The differences [in size] may be linked to changes in the orbits of planets such as the Earth and Mars over millions of years, [researcher Matthew Genge] says. Resulting gravitational disturbances may have influenced the trajectory of the particles as they hurtled through space. This in turn would have an effect on the speed at which they slam into the Earth’s atmosphere and heat up.

“This find is important because if we are to look at fossil cosmic dust collected from ancient rocks to reconstruct a geological history of our solar system, then we need to understand how this dust is changed by the continuous pull of the planets,” Genge says.

Something’s changing in our local cosmic-dust environment, in other words, and evidence of this shift is slowly collecting on our roofs and sidewalks, accumulating in our gutters and sills.

(Conceptually related: War Sand).

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

500 Years of Utopia

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. More not only coined the term now used interchangeably with visions of an ideal society, he also linked the concept of just government specifically with the management and administration of a well-designed metropolis: the perfect society in Utopia is also an urban one.

There are many moral, political, and—for that matter—architectural flaws in More’s work, but it has nonetheless, for half a millennium, served as a synonym in the West for a perfect world. What does “utopia” really mean today, however—and who has access to it? Is utopia already here—but, to paraphrase novelist William Gibson, it remains unevenly distributed?

For the next few months, I’ll be working with the University of Southern California’s Doheny Memorial Library, to explore 500 Years of Utopia. An exhibition at the University will open in November 2016, including a gorgeous 16th-century edition of More’s work, and it will be joined by a series of public events discussing the legacy of Utopia today and what it means for the future.

The first of these events takes place this coming Saturday, October 15th, on the subject of “Governing Paradise.”

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

At 1pm that day, we’ll be hosting Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole, planning historian & USC Price professor David Sloane, and researcher & curator Aurora Tang from the Center for Land Use Interpretation to discuss the peculiar relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the linked concepts of utopia and dystopia.

What role should government play in bringing about a state of Earthly paradise—or is utopia precisely a condition in which government is meant to play no role? From heroic works of public infrastructure to intentional private communities, and from limited natural resources to visions of infinite prosperity, Los Angeles has long been emblematic of the difficulties and rewards of governing paradise.

On November 9, meanwhile, we’ll be hosting “Designing Utopia,” looking at the architecture and landscape of the ideal city, and on February 7, 2017, we’ll discuss “Utopian Representations.” Both of those events are going to be fantastic, and I will have more information about them soon.

So stop by on Saturday—more info here—and please also mark your calendar for Wednesday, November 9, when our exhibition, 500 Years of Utopia, officially opens.

Local Code

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Architect Nicholas de Monchaux—whom you might remember from, among other things, a long interview on BLDGBLOG a few years back—has a new book out this week.

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Local Code is an exploration of design variants and latent possibilities in overlooked parcels of urban space. It is “as much design speculation as narrative (and as much obsession as exposition),” he explains.


[Images: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book includes no fewer than “3,659 drawings of designs (by me!) for vacant lots and spaces in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Venice Lagoon, highlighting how such spaces can play an essential and unique role in providing ecological, social, and cultural resilience. Inspired originally by Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project, the book has become a graphic and intellectual meditation on cities, networks, data and resilience.”

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book’s thesis is that “vacant public land”—by which de Monchaux means everything from “land under billboards in Los Angeles, ­dead-end alleys in San Francisco, city-owned vacant lots in New York City, and abandoned islands in the Venetian lagoon”—actually contain “unrecognized potential as a social and ecological resource.” The accompanying explosion of drawings and diagrams is meant to tease out what some of these potentials might be.

Consider picking up a copy, check out the book’s introduction online, and don’t forget to click back to BLDGBLOG’s interview with de Monchaux about the design history of the Apollo spacesuit.

Instance Gate

[Image: Malta, Instragram by BLDGBLOG].

Down in the lower levels of Valletta’s fortified walls, an old bricked-up doorway resembles something from a computer game: an oddly colored bit of masonry you would knock aside with a hammer, or a subtle wave of a wand, to make a corridor appear leading much further into the geologic depths.

The underside of Valletta, of course, is already mazed with passages, from wartime bomb shelters to church crypts, abandoned rail tunnels to hotel sub-cellars, and the entire island of Malta, made from such easily cut rock, is home to warrens of prehistoric temples and catacombs.

That entryways into the labyrinth can be found is hardly surprising; that they can look so much like a chunky, 8-bit game landscape only adds to the sense of urban mythology.

[The phrase “instance gate,” at least as I use it, comes from World of Warcraft. It implies that through a certain gate is a world that only you or your group will experience; anyone stepping through the same gate after you will, in fact, enter an entirely different space to confront an entirely different world of experiences. It’s a great metaphor.]

Totemic Elevator

[Image: The Barakka Lift, Malta, by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While in Malta last week, I stumbled on the Barakka Lift outdoor elevator, a project I’d written about here but had forgotten was in the city of Valletta. It was a pleasant surprise.

Designed by local firm Architecture Project, the lift connects two very different vertical levels of the metropolis, rising like a fortified tower to bring visitors to and from a small garden on the walls of Valletta.

[Image: The Barakka Lift by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of my favorite urban sights is the unfinished concrete elevator cores of under-construction high-rises. Monolithic, sharply defined, and almost always undecorated—such as this random example—they are pure concrete geometry rising above foundation piles and machinery—elevators that appear before their buildings have arrived.

The Barakka Lift is obviously different, in that it adds an exterior skin of perforated metal to hide the shaft of the lift itself, but it also divorces the idea of the elevator from any building it would normally be contained by. It connects two outsides, sewing one level of the city to another.

As such, it suggests that lifts, like bridges, are just another possibility for urban transportation—vertical pedestrian movement through space—and that lifts are not really interiors at all, in fact, but public spaces we can all use or inhabit.

There’s also something so interesting in the notion of a 21st-century elevator shaft stylized to look more like a 17th-century fortification by way of a near-future science fiction film.

In any case, better photos of the project can be seen in this earlier post. If you’re ever in Malta, be sure to check it out; you’ll find it here.