Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Cloud Constructor

375831pu[Image: An airplane hangar in Utah, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Another book I read while jet-lagged in London last week was Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker; its chapter “Wayfinding” is particularly fascinating and worth seeking out.

375827pu[Image: Interior view of same hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

The previous post here, however, mentioned 19th-century cloud chambers, and I was accordingly struck by a quick line in Vanhoenacker’s book. At one point, he describes the construction of airplane bodies inside sprawling factory buildings, whose contained volumes of air are so enormous they can generate their own weather. They are internal skies.

“Some airplane factories are so large,” he writes, “that clouds once formed inside them, a foreshadowing of the sky to come for each newborn jet.”

375829pu[Image: Utah airplane hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

Of course, other megastructures are also known to produce internal precipitation. NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral “is the second largest building (by volume) in the world,” for example, “and it even has its own weather inside—NASA employees report that rain clouds form below the ceiling on very humid days.”

And, as architecture writers like David Gissen and Sean Lally have compellingly shown, architecture—in and of itself—has, in a sense, always been a kind of applied atmospheric design, with buildings defined as much by temperature, barometry, and humidity as they are by walls and ceilings.

But I nevertheless love the idea of aircraft assembly and repair occurring amidst inadvertent simulations of the sky to come, as dew points are crossed, condensation begins, and internal weather fronts blurrily amass above the wings of dormant airplanes, as if conjured there in a dream.

Of Artificial Mountains, Revolutionary Politics, and Parisian Supreme Beings

“On 8 June 1794 (20 Prairial Year II) an artificial landscape was erected in the centre of Paris,” Andrew Ray writes at some LANDSCAPES. “This day had been chosen for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being, a new godhead devised by Robespierre, then at the zenith of power… What kind of mountain would be adequate for the Supreme Being? Not, it would seem from contemporary prints, a perfectly shaped one.” If this interests you, meanwhile, check out David Gissen’s project for a reconstruction of “The Mound of Vendôme.”

Abandoned Mines, Slow Printing, and the Living Metal Residue of a Post-Human World

“High in the Pyrenees Mountains,” we read, “deep in abandoned mines, scientists discovered peculiar black shells that seem to crop up of their own accord on metal surfaces.”

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Joan Santamaría, via Eos].

No, this is not a deleted scene from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; it’s from research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, recently reported by Eos.

It turns out that, under certain conditions, subterranean microbes can leave behind metallic deposits “as part of their natural metabolism.” Abandoned mines are apparently something of an ideal environment for this to occur within, resulting in “a rapid biomineralization process that sprouts iron-rich shells from the surface of steel structures.”

These then build up into reef-like deposits through a process analogous to 3D-printing: “Electron microscopy revealed small-scale, fiber-like crystals arranged into lines growing outward from the steel surface. The shells appear to be formed layer by layer, with crystal size and composition varying across layers.”

There are many, many interesting things to highlight here, which include but are not limited to:

Slow Printing

We could literalize the analogy used above by exploring how a controlled or guided version of this exact same process could be used as a new form of biological 3D-printing.

To put this another way, there is already a slow food movement—why not a slow printing one, as well?

Similar to the project John Becker and I explored a while back, using genetically-modified bees as living printheads, damp, metal-rich environments—microbial ovens, so to speak—could be constructed as facsimile mines inside of which particular strains of microbes and fungi would then be cultivated.

Geometric molds would be introduced as “seed-forms” to be depositionally copied by the microbes. Rather than creating the abstract, clamshell-like lumps seen in the below photograph, the microbes would be steered into particular shapes and patterns, resulting in discrete, recognizable objects.

Boom: a living 3D-printer, or a room of specially cultivated humidity and darkness out of which strange replicant tools and objects could be extracted every few years. At the very least, it would make a compelling art project—an object-reef sprouting with microbial facsimiles.

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Nieves López-Martínez, via Eos].

Dankness Instrumentalized

Historian David Gissen has written interestingly about the idea of “dankness” in architecture.

In an article for Domus back in 2010, Gissen explained that “dankness”—or “underground humidity,” in his words, a thick atmosphere of mold, rot, and stagnation usually found inside closed, subterranean spaces—was even once posited by architectural historian Marc-Antoine Laugier as a primal catalyst for first inspiring human beings to build cleaner, better ventilated structures—that is, architecture itself, in a kind of long-term retreat from the troglodyte lifestyle of settling in caves.

Dankness, to wildly over-simply this argument, so horrified our cave-dwelling ancestors that they invented what we now call architecture—and a long chain of hygienic improvements in managing the indoor atmospheric quality of these artificial environments eventually led us to modernism.

But dankness has its uses. “While modernists generally held dankness in suspect,” Gissen writes, “a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity.” The “atmospheric depths of the cellar,” Gissen then suggests, might ironically be a sign of architectural developments yet to come:

Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities.

In any case, I am not only quoting this essay because it is interesting and deserves wider discussion; I am also quoting all this in order to suggest that dankness could also be instrumentalized, or tapped as a kind of readymade industrial process, an already available microbial atmosphere wherein metal-depositing metabolic processes pulsing away in the dankest understructures of the world could be transformed into 3D-printing facilities.

The slow printheads for long-term object replication, mentioned above, would be fueled by and dependent upon Gissen’s spaces of subterranean humidity.

Heavy Metal Compost

If it is too difficult, too unrealistic, or simply too uselessly speculative to consider the possibility of 3D-printing with microbes, you could simply eliminate the notion that this is meant to produce recognizable object-forms, and use the same process instead as a new kind of compost heap.

Similar to throwing your old banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and avocado skins into a backyard compost pile, you could throw metallic waste into a Gissen Hole™ and wait for genetically-modified microbes such as these to slowly but relentlessly break it all down, leaving behind weird, clamshell-like structures of purified metal in their wake.

Cropping teams would then climb down into this subterranean recycling center—or open an airlock and step inside some sort of controlled-atmosphere facility tucked away on the industrial outskirts of town—to harvest these easily commodified lumps of metal. It’d be like foraging for mushrooms or picking strawberries.

[Image: An “ancient coral reef,” illustrated by Heinrich Harder].

The Coming Super-Reef

Finally, this also seems to suggest at least one fate awaiting the world of human construction long after humans themselves have disappeared.

Basements in the ruined cores of today’s cities will bloom in the darkness with ever-expanding metallic reefs, as the steel frames of skyscrapers and the collapsed machinery of the modern world become source material—industrial soil—for future metal-eating microbes.

Quietly, endlessly, wonderfully, the planet-spanning dankness of unmaintained subterranean infrastructure—in the depths of Shanghai, London, New York, Moscow—humidly accumulates these strange metallic shells. Reefs larger than anything alive today form, crystallized from the remains of our cities.

A hundred million years go by, and our towers are reduced to bizarre agglomerations of metal—then another hundred million years and they’ve stopped growing, now hidden beneath hundreds of meters of soil or flooded by unpredictable shifts of sea level.

Clouds of super-fish unrecognizable to today’s science swim through the grotesque arches and coils of what used to be banks and highways, apartment blocks and automobiles, monstrous and oyster-like shells whose indirect human origins no future paleontologist could realistically deduce.

Landscape Futures Arrives

[Image: Internal title page from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

At long last, after a delay from the printer, Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions is finally out and shipping internationally.

I am incredibly excited about the book, to be honest, and about the huge variety of content it features, including an original essay by Elizabeth Ellsworth & Jamie Kruse of Smudge Studio, a short piece of landscape fiction by Pushcart Prize-winning author Scott Geiger, and a readymade course outline—open for anyone looking to teach a course on oceanographic instrumentation—by Mammoth’s Rob Holmes.

These join reprints of classic texts by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, on the incipient fossilization of our cities 100 million years from now; a look at the perverse history of weather warfare and the possibility of planetary-scale climate manipulation by James Fleming; and a brilliant analysis of the Temple of Dendur, currently held deep in the controlled atmosphere of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its implications for architectural preservation elsewhere.

And even these are complemented by an urban hiking tour by the Center for Land Use Interpretation that takes you up into the hills of Los Angeles to visit check dams, debris basins, radio antennas, and cell phone towers, and a series of ultra-short stories set in a Chicago yet to come by Pruned‘s Alexander Trevi.

[Images: A few spreads from the “Landscape Futures Sourcebook” featured in Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

Of course, everything just listed supplements and expands on the heart of the book, which documents the eponymous exhibition hosted at the Nevada Museum of Art, featuring specially commissioned work by Smout Allen, David Gissen, and The Living, and pre-existing work by Liam Young, Chris Woebken & Kenichi Okada, and Lateral Office.

Extensive original interviews with the exhibiting architects and designers, and a long curator’s essay—describing the exhibition’s focus on the intermediary devices, instruments, and spatial machines that can fundamentally transform how human beings perceive and understand the landscapes around them—complete the book, in addition to hundreds of images, many maps, and an extensive use of metallic and fluorescent inks.

The book is currently only $17.97 on Amazon.com, as well, which seems like an almost unbelievable deal; now is an awesome time to buy a copy.

[Images: Interview spreads from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

In any case, I’ve written about Landscape Futures here before, and an exhaustive preview of it can be seen in this earlier post.

I just wanted to put up a notice that the book is finally shipping worldwide, with a new publication date of August 2013, and I look forward to hearing what people think. Enjoy!

Landscape Futures

[Images: The cover of Landscape Futures; book design by Brooklyn’s Everything-Type-Company].

I’m enormously pleased to say that a book project long in the making will finally see the light of day later this month, a collaboration between ACTAR and the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions.

On a related note, I’m also happy to say simply, despite the painfully slow pace of posts here on the blog, going back at least the last six months or so, that many projects ticking away in the background are, at long last, coming to fruition, including Venue, and, now, the publication of Landscape Futures.

[Images: The opening spreads of Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

Landscape Futures both documents and continues an exhibition of the same name that ran for a bit more than six months at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, from August 2011 to February 2012. The exhibition was my first solo commission as a curator and by far the largest project I had worked on to that point. It was an incredible opportunity, and I remain hugely excited by the physical quality and conceptual breadth of the work produced by the show’s participating artists and architects.

Best of all, I was able to commission brand new work from many of the contributors, including giving historian David Gissen a new opportunity to explore his ideas—on preservation, technology, and the environmental regulation of everyday urban space—in a series of wall-sized prints; finding a new genre—a fictional travelogue from a future lithium boom—with The Living; and setting aside nearly an entire room, the centerpiece of the 2,500-square-foot exhibition, for an immensely complicated piece of functioning machinery (plus documentary photographs, posters, study-models, an entire bound book of research, and much else besides) by London-based architects Smout Allen.

Those works joined pre-existing projects by Mason White & Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, whose project “Next North/The Active Layer” explored the emerging architectural conditions presented by climate-changed terrains in the far north; Chris Woebken & Kenichi Okada, whose widely exhibited “Animal Superpowers” added a colorful note to the exhibition’s second room; and architect-adventurer Liam Young, who brought his “Specimens of Unnatural History” successfully through international customs to model the warped future ecosystem of a genetically-enhanced Galapagos.

[Images: More spreads from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

But the book also expands on that core of both new and pre-existing work to include work by Rob Holmes, Alex Trevi (edited from their original appearance on Pruned), a travelogue through the lost lakes of the American West by Smudge Studio, a walking tour through the electromagnetic landscapes of Los Angeles by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and a new short story by Pushcart Prize-winning author Scott Geiger.

These, in turn, join reprints of texts highly influential for the overall Landscape Futures project, including a short history of climate control technologies and weather warfare by historian James Fleming, David Gissen‘s excellent overview of the atmospheric preservation of artifacts in museums in New York City (specifically, the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and a classic article—from BLDGBLOG’s perspective, at least—originally published in New Scientist back in 1998, where geologist Jan Zalasiewicz suggests a number of possibilities for the large-scale fossilization of entire urban landscapes in the Earth’s far future.

Even that’s not the end of the book, however, which is then further augmented by a long look, in the curator’s essay, at the various technical and metaphoric implications of the instruments, devices, and architectural inventions of the book’s subtitle, from robot-readable geotextiles and military surveillance technologies to the future of remote-sensing in archaeology, and moving between scales as divergent as plate-tectonic tomography, radio astronomical installations in the the polar north, and speculative laser-jamming objects designed by ScanLAB Projects.

To wrap it all up and connect the conceptual dots set loose across the book, detailed interviews with all of the exhibition’s participating artists, writers, and architects fill out the book’s long middle—and, in all cases, I can’t wait to get these out there, as they are all conversations that deserve continuation in other formats. The responses from David Gissen alone could fuel an entire graduate seminar.

The spreads and images you see here all come directly from the book.

[Images: Spreads from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

Of course, the work itself also takes up a large section in the final third or so of the book; consisting mostly of photographs by Jamie Kingham and Dean Burton, these document the exhibition contents in their full, spatial context, including the double-height, naturally lit room in which the ceiling-mounted machinery of Smout Allen whirred away for six months. This is also where full-color spreads enter the book, offering a nice pop after all the pink that came before.

[Images: Installation shots from the Nevada Museum of Art, by Jamie Kingham and Dean Burton, including other views, from posters to renderings, from Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

Which brings us, finally, to the Landscape Futures Sourcebook, the final thirty or forty pages of the book, filled with the guest essays, travelogues, walking tours, photographs, a speculative future course brief by Rob Holmes of Mammoth, and the aforementioned short story by Scott Geiger.

[Images: A few spreads from the Landscape Futures Sourcebook featured in Landscape Futures; book design by Everything-Type-Company].

Needless to say, I am absolutely thrilled with the incredible design work done by Everything-Type-Company—a new and rapidly rising design firm based in Brooklyn, founded by Kyle Blue and Geoff Halber—and I am also over the moon to think that this material will finally be out there for discussion elsewhere. It’s been a long, long time in the making.

In any case, shipping should begin later this month. Hopefully the above glimpses, and the huge list of people whose graphic, textual, or conceptual work is represented in the book, will entice you to support their effort with an order.

Enjoy!

(Thank you to all the people and organizations who made Landscape Futures possible, including the Nevada Museum of Art and ACTAR, supported generously by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts).

Brooklyn Vent

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, two characters discuss a house that is not what it appears to be. People “walk by” this house in Paris, we read, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

[Image: The door to the underworld; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Two days ago, Nicola Twilley and I went on an early evening expedition over to visit the house at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, with its blacked out windows and its unresponsive front door.

This “house” is actually “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.” It is also a disguised emergency exit for the New York City subway.

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

According to a blog called the Willowtown Association, “the ventilator was a private brownstone dating from 1847. The substation was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn. As reported in the BKLYN magazine article, the building’s ‘cavernous interior once housed a battery of electrical devices that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the IRT.'”

[Image: A view through the front door of 58 Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

It is New York’s more interesting version of 23/24 Leinster Gardens in London. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote last year, “the exit disguised as a brownstone leads to a grimy-lit set of metal stairs that ascend past utility boxes and ventilation shafts into a windowless room with a door. If you opened the door, you would find yourself on a stoop, which is just part of the façade.”

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

You’ll notice on Google Maps that the 4/5 subway line passes directly beneath the house, which brings to mind an old post here on BLDGBLOG in which we looked at the possibility that repurposed subway cars could be used someday as extra, rentable basement space—that is, “temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars,” with the effect that “each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.”

Then, for a substantial fee—as much as $15,000 a month—you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

Perhaps Joralemon Street is where this unlikely business model could be first tried out…

In any case, Nicola and I walked over to see the house for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the disguised-entrance-to-the-underworld is undoubtedly one of the coolest building programs imaginable, and would make an amazing premise for an intensive design studio; but also because the surface vent structures through which underground currents of air are controlled have always fascinated me.

These vents appear throughout New York City, as it happens—although Joralemon, I believe, is the only fake house—serving as surface articulations of the larger buried networks to which they are connected.

[Image: Two views of the tunnel vent on Governors Island; photos by BLDGBLOG].

The Battery Tunnel has a particularly noticeable vent, pictured above, and the Holland Tunnel also vents out near my place of work.

[Image: Holland Tunnel exhaust tower; photo via SkyscraperPage.com].

As historian David Gissen writes in his excellent book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, New York’s ventilation control structures are “strange buildings” that have “collapsed” the difference between architecture and civil engineering:

The Holland Tunnel spanned an enormous 8,500 feet. At each end, engineers designed ten-story ventilation towers that would push air through tunnels above the cars, drawing the vehicle exhaust upward, where it would be blown back through the tops of the towers and over industrial areas of the city. The exhaust towers provided a strange new building type in the city—a looming blank tower that oscillated between a work of engineering and architecture.

As further described in this PDF, for instance, Holland Tunnel has a total of four ventilation structures: “The four ventilation buildings (two in New Jersey and two in New York) house a total of 84 fans, of which 42 are blower units, and 42 are exhaust units. They are capable, at full speed, of completely changing the tunnel air every 90 seconds.”

[Image: The Holland Tunnel Land Ventilation Building, courtesy of Wikipedia].

Several years ago a friend of ours remarked that she didn’t like staying in hotels near Columbus Circle here in New York because that’s the neighborhood, she said, where all the subways vent to—a statement that appears to be nothing more than an urban legend, but that nonetheless sparked off a long-term interest for me in finding where the underground weather systems of New York City are vented to the outside. Imagine an entire city district dedicated to nothing but ventilating the underworld!

[Image: The house on Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

This is a topic I will no doubt return to at some point soon—but, for now, if you want to see a disguised entrance to the 4/5 line, walk down Joralemon Street toward the river and keep your eyes peeled soon after the street turns to cobblestones.

(The house on Joralemon Street first discovered via Curbed).

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.

Vent Stack

[Image: The Holland Tunnel Land Ventilation Building, courtesy of Wikipedia].

As described in this PDF, Holland Tunnel has four ventilation structures:

The four ventilation buildings (two in New Jersey and two in New York) house a total of 84 fans, of which 42 are blower units, and 42 are exhaust units. They are capable, at full speed, of completely changing the tunnel air every 90 seconds.

David Gissen briefly explores the architecture of NYC tunnel vents in his book Subnature, opening a window onto the architecture of subterranean weather generation, where unseen machines suck whole atmospheres from the depths of the city. Perhaps we’ll even read someday that New York’s ongoing rash of tornadoes includes a few rogue climate systems belched forth from these vent stacks on the autumnal banks of the Hudson (or perhaps not).