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.

A Burglar’s Guide to London

[Image: From London’s Hatton Garden heist; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service].

For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Things kick things off at 7pm, at Libreria, a great new bookshop run by the folks at Second Home, in a space designed by Selgas Cano. The event is free, but here are some details to RSVP.

Stop by—and join us for drinks afterward to continue the conversation.

The Sacrifice of the Microcosm

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.

Urban Under

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

I’m honored to have written a preface for the new book Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within, edited by Paul Dobraszczyk, Carlos López Galviz, and Bradley Garrett.

The authors document more than eighty subterranean sites, on every continent, from a nuclear bunker outside London to a secret military city buried in the ice. It is organized into thirteen chapters, by themes including “Security,” “Dwelling,” “Refuse,” and “Futures.”

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

The book is motivated by an intense desire to see: to reveal the underground circuits of utility tunnels, sanitation services, transportation networks, and everyday labor that writhe beneath the surface of the urban world. By doing so, it hopes “to foreground the connections between space and politics that converge underground.”

The editors’ collective goal was obviously more than just adventure tourism, or to produce a new gonzo collection of picturesque photographs. Rather, it was to experience these spaces firsthand whenever possible through direct exploration, whether that meant hiking down into the galleries of abandoned mines or sneaking through the tunnels of an underground prison.

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

Readers already familiar with Garrett’s work, both academic and journalistic, will know, of course, that for him infiltrating sites of public infrastructure is something of an oxymoron, given their nominal status as public space.

Nonetheless, it is often only through surreptitious means that we can truly analyze these labyrinthine systems that we have been funding all along and, today, remain so vulnerably reliant upon.

The book suggests that the peripheries of the built environment—these underspaces tucked away from view—are much more central than their physical position might suggest, and that putting them into an enlarged historical and political context is vital for understanding them.

If that sounds of interest, consider picking up a copy.

Shrink-Wrapped Superloads and Monumental Processions

rock[Image: Michael Heizer’s rock; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I audited a class about Archigram taught by Annette Fierro at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of many things I remember from the class was a description of how the Centre Pompidou, a building designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, was constructed.

Apparently, in order for the building to be assembled, huge pieces of structure had to be rolled through the streets in the middle of the night, long after traffic had died down and after almost everyone had gone to sleep.

Whole boulevards and intersections were closed to make way for the passage of these massive objects, as if the ribs and thigh bones of some colossal creature were being painstakingly assembled in a distant neighborhood, in the dark. The building began as a distributed network of large, chaperoned objects.

You can imagine Parisian insomniacs of the late 1970s, wandering the streets before—lo!—these oversized, monumental spans moving at a crawl through the city would come into view. It would have been as if Paris itself had somehow been caught dreaming new buildings into existence at 2am.

The Space Shuttle in front of a doughnut shop; photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

This same sort of awe at the mis-fit between an object’s size and its urban context arose a few years ago when a somewhat underwhelming art project by Michael Heizer was hauled, street by street, to LACMA; and it then happened again when the Space Shuttle made its slow way through Los Angeles back in October 2012.

I remember talking to architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne around that time, and he compared the Shuttle’s 2mph roll through the city to a Roman Triumph, as if Angelenos were celebrating an imperial event of extra-planetary importance, this grand object—this throne room—being paraded out in public for all to see.

It’s worth recalling how Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described the Triumph in an old interview with BLDGBLOG. “Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism,” she explained:

The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after—but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

Moving the Space Shuttle—or, for that matter, Heizer’s rock—gave not just Los Angeles but the entire United States an unexpected “way of thinking about itself,” in Beard’s terms, not just of the city’s historical relationship with the U.S. space program but of the country’s larger, and not necessarily perpetual, impulse to explore beyond the planet.

shuttle[Image: The Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles; photo by Andrew Khouri, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

These sorts of mega-objects, transported at great expense across urban infrastructure, are what the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has described as “big things on the move.”

CLUI suggests that Heizer’s rock was “a bit like a religious procession, with acolytes in hard hats and safety-vest vestments walking alongside the sacred monolith, all lit up and flashing.” When the Space Shuttle hit the street, however, “Much was said about the irony of a craft that had circled the earth 4,700 times at speeds up to 17,000mph taking three days to get through L.A. traffic.”

As CLUI points out, Heizer’s rock and NASA’s Shuttle were both dwarfed by the actual largest “superload” to move through L.A.’s nighttime streets.

This third object “had little in the way of promotion,” they write; “in fact, the owners of it were hoping it would pass through the city as unnoticed as possible,” despite being “the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever pass through the streets of Los Angeles.”

The cargo was a steam generator from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the coast just south of Orange County, which was being hauled to a disposal site in Utah, 830 miles away.
Though it was junk, it was radioactive, so cutting it into smaller pieces would just generate more contaminated material. A custom superload truck was made, with a total weight for the truck and load totaling 1.6 million pounds. The generator was covered in thick paint so pieces would not flake off.

To be absolutely sure of its safety, “armed guards stayed with the truck all the time, especially when it was parked for the day by the side of the road and the rest of the crew were sleeping in motels.”

I mention all this after some photos were published this week in the Northwest Evening Mail, featuring huge, shrink-wrapped parts of a British Astute-class nuclear submarine being transported through the city of Barrow.

[Image: A shrink-wrapped section of a nuclear submarine; photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

The newspaper warned that, while the “superstructure” made its sectioned way through the city, “car parking will be restricted.”

[Image: Photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

In a sense, though, the sight of this dissected weapon of war is more artistic than an art project. A dream-like sequence of shrink-wrapped superstructures, abstract and white, channeling Christo or perhaps even the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, inches forward street by street, shutting down secondary roads and sidewalks while waiting to be assembled in an eventual future shape, somewhere further down the road.

(Spotted via @CovertShores).

Shocked to discover “they were living in ‘hill country’”

MysteriousUpswelling[Image: “Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington (1946),” courtesy USC Libraries].

In 1946, a “mysterious upswelling” occurred in a street in the neighborhood of Wilmington, California, near Long Beach. The photograph above, courtesy of the USC Libraries, pictures a young boy who went outside to measure it.

As part of an irregular series of short posts for KCET’s Lost L.A.—about things like Los Angeles partially illuminated by the light of an atomic bomb—I wrote a quick piece, inspired both by the photo itself and by its caption. “Surprising uprising,” it begins. “George Applegate measures mysterious swelling of Opp Street in Wilmington. Residents were shocked yesterday morning to discover they were living in ‘hill country.’ Street is seven inches above the curbing. Officials are investigating.”

Although I don’t mention this in the KCET post, I was instantly reminded of terrain deformation grenades and the instant, pop-up landforms of an old LucasArts game called Fracture. There, specialized weapons are put to use, tactically reshaping the earth’s surface, resulting in “mysterious upswellings” such as these.

There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure,” I write over at KCET. “A street today is a mountain tomorrow.”

(Also related: The previous post, Inland Sea).

Inland Sea

For two closely related projects—one called L.A.T.B.D., produced for the USC Libraries, and the other called L.A. Recalculated, commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, both designed with Smout Allen—I wrote that Los Angeles could be approached bathymetrically.

Los Angeles is “less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.”

pendulums
[Image: Underground seismic counterweights act as pendulums, designed to stabilize Los Angeles from below; from L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

Because of seismic instability, in other words, the city should be thought of in terms of depths and soundings, not as a horizontal urban surface but as a volumetric space churning with underground forces analogous to currents and tides.

This bathymetric approach to dry land came to mind again when reading last month that the land of Southern California, as shown by a recent GPS study, is undergoing “constant large-scale motion.”

It is more like a slow ocean than it is solid ground, torqued and agitating almost imperceptibly in real-time.

“Constant large-scale motion has been detected at the San Andreas Fault System in Southern California,” we read, “confirming movement previously predicted by models—but never before documented. The discovery will help researchers better understand the fault system, and its potential to produce the next big earthquake.”

fault
[Image: “Vertical velocities” along the San Andreas Fault; via Nature Geoscience].

This is true, of course, on a near-planetary scale, as plate tectonics are constantly pushing land masses into and away from one another like the slow and jagged shapes of an ice floe.

But the constant roiling motion of something meant to be solid is both scientifically fascinating and metaphorically rich—eliminating the very idea of being grounded or standing on firm ground—not to mention conceptually intriguing when put into the context of architectural design.

That is, if architecture is the design and fabrication of stationary structures, meant to be founded on solid ground, then this “constant large-scale motion” suggests that we should instead think of architecture, at least by analogy, more in terms of shipbuilding or even robotics. Architecture can thus be given an altogether different philosophical meaning, as a point of temporary orientation and solidity in a world of constant large-scale surges and flux.

Put another way, the ground we rely on has never been solid; it has always been an ocean, its motion too slow to perceive.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip).

chill.once.waddle

what3words[Image: Screen-grab from what3words].

Using the bizarre three-word addressing system known as what3words, the now-destroyed curb in Hayward, CA, mentioned in the previous post, is located at a site called “chill.once.waddle.”

As you can tell, of course, what3words is not a descriptive language, and these phrases are not intended to mean anything: they are simply randomly-generated sets of words used to give any location on earth a physical address.

As Quartz explained the system back in 2015, it is, at heart, “a simple idea”:

…a combination of three words, in any language, could specify any three meter by three meter square in the world—more than enough to designate a hut in Siberia or a building doorway in Tokyo. Altogether, 40,000 words combined in triplets label 57 trillion squares. Thus far, the system has been built in 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swahili, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, and, starting next month, Arabic… All together, this lingua franca requires only five megabytes of data, small enough to reside in any smartphone and work offline. Each square has its identity in its own language that is not a translation of another. The dictionaries have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms being reserved for the most populated areas

The addresses are poetically absurd—shaky.audit.detail, salsa.gangs.square, dozed.lamps.wing.

I mention this, however, because I meant to post last month that “Mongolia is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases.” Again, from Quartz:

Mongol Post is switching to the What3Words system because there are too few named streets in its territory. The mail network provides service over 1.5 million square km (580,000 square miles), an area that’s three times the size of Spain, though much of that area is uninhabited. Mongolia is among the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and about a quarter of its population is nomadic, according to the World Bank.

While, on one level, in an age of stacks and infinite addressability, this seems like a thrilling, almost science-fictional step forward for locating and mapping physical spaces, it also seems like an alarming example of national over-reliance on a proprietary address system, one that the state itself ultimately cannot control.

Imagine a nation-state losing influence over the physical coordinates of its own territory, or a population stuck living inside an outdated, even discontinued address network, and needing to start again, from scratch, renaming all its streets and buildings—not to mention all the lost local histories and significance of certain place names, from avenues to intersections, that need to be reclaimed.

Granted, in this particular case, the system is being adopted precisely because “there are too few named streets” in Mongolia, that does not change the fact that the country will soon be dependent upon the continued existence of what3words for its packages to be delivered, its services to run, and its spatial infrastructures to function. It will be interesting to see how the transition to the use of these peculiar place tags goes—but, even more so, how this decision looks in five or ten years’ time.