Folktales for the Offworld

The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”

The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!

You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.

Fieldworks

[Image: Via Space Saloon].

For the second year in a row, Space Saloon’s Fieldworks program will take place out in the Morongo Valley, in the California desert near both the San Andreas Fault and Joshua Tree National Park.

Fieldworks bills itself as an “experimental design-build festival,” hosted by a “traveling group that investigates perceptions of place.” The program includes guest lectures, hands-on workshops in digital site-documentation, charrettes, and an eventual build-out of a few pavilion-like proposals.

[Image: Via Space Saloon].

You can read more at the Fieldworks website, including this useful FAQ, but it looks like a great opportunity to get your hands dirty in an extraordinary landscape only two hours or so outside Los Angeles.

Click through for the registration page.

Submarine Psychiatry

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photograph of a submarine, via Vice].

Something I’ve always loved about the architectural novels of J. G. Ballard—his excellent but under-rated Super-Cannes, the classic High-Rise, even, to an infrastructural extent, Concrete Island and Crash—is their suggestion that Modernism had produced a built environment so psychologically novel that humans did not fully understand how to inhabit it.

Ballard recasts residential towers on the edge of the city, for example, as fundamentally alienating, often inhumanly so, as if those structures’ bewildered new residents are encountering not a thoughtfully designed building but the spatial effects of an algorithm, a code stuck auto-suggesting new floors, supermarkets, and parking lots when any sane designer would long ago have put down the drafting pen.

Ballard’s novels suggest that these buildings should perhaps have come with a user’s guide, even a live-in psychiatrist for helping residents adapt to the otherwise unaccommodating, semi-psychotic emptiness of an un-ornamented Modern interior, a soothing Virgil for all those cavernous lobbies and late-night motorways.

Briefly, I might add that, in today’s age of questioning what it is that algorithms really want—for example, critiquing why social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and, especially, YouTube recommend what they do—we are essentially repeating the same questions Ballard asked about modern urban planning and architectural design. Do we really want these spaces being foisted on us by a design ideology—a cultural algorithm—and, much more interestingly, Ballard asked, are we psychologically prepared for them when they arrive?

Perhaps Ballard’s characters sent reeling by the elevator banks of endless high-rise apartment complexes are not all that different from someone being red-pilled by YouTube autoplay recommendations today: they are both confronting something designed to fulfill the ideological needs of a rationality gone awry. Seen this way, Le Corbusier could be compared to a YouTube engineer too enthralled by the inhuman power of his own design algorithm to ask whether it was recommending the right thing (cf. Patrik Schumacher).

In any case, I mention all this because one fascinating—and real—example of psychiatrists tasked with evaluating a new spatial environment for its effects on human beings comes not from architecture but from the early days of the long-mission nuclear submarine. We might say that, while J. G. Ballard himself remained on land and in the cities, the true Ballardian environment was offshore and heavily militarized, a hermetically sealed psychological experiment prowling the ocean depths.

Papers such as “Human Adjustment to an Exotic Environment: The Nuclear Submarine,” “An Experience in Submarine Psychiatry,” and “Psychiatry and the Nuclear Submarine,” all published in the late 1960s, suggested that humans might well be undone by an encounter with an environment of their own making—perhaps an early foreshadowing of how we will greet the Anthropocene.

Much of this, of course, was aimed at ensuring that we only sent the most stable and qualified personnel out to sea in a confined environment for prolonged periods of time with intercontinental missiles at their disposal, so as to avoid erratic or petulant individuals from starting a nuclear war.

But the prospect that humans might have constructed something they themselves are unable to tolerate psychologically was an explicit secondary theme of that research.

In one more recent work, looking back at several decades’ worth of pathological behaviors observed in submarine personnel—among other things—crew members were described as hiding in ever-smaller places at the outermost periphery of a submerged vessel, curled up against the hull as if seeking solace there, even examples of “hypnotic phenomena” and other slowly emerging neuroses.

There is obviously more to say about all of this, but what interests me the most here is the prospect that we are underestimating the psychological power of architectural design—and that J. G. Ballard was unusually sharp at highlighting what happens to a person when they are not prepared to inhabit a new kind of spatial environment.

Whether it’s the potential loneliness of an American suburb, a high-rise overlooking London, or, for that matter, a nuclear submarine, it is an intriguing topic to explore in future fiction, perhaps some strange literary hybrid of J. G. Ballard and Tom Clancy in which the psychological effects of military isolation are explored in more depth.

(Related: Psychology at Depth.)

International House of Wobbling

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory was designed in 1899 as part of a ring of similar facilities around the world, all constructed at the same latitude.

[Images: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Each building was installed at its specific location in order to collaborate in watching a particular star, and—as revealed by any inconsistencies of measurement—to find evidence of the Earth’s “wobble.” This was part of the so-called “International Latitude Service.”

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

The building seen here basically operated like a machine, with a sliding-panel roof controlled by a rope and pulley, and a solid concrete foundation, isolated from the building itself, on which stood a high-power telescope.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

This pillar gives the building a vaguely gyroscopic feel, or perhaps something more like the spindle of a hard drive: a central axis that grounds the building and allows it to perform its celestial mission.

[Image: The Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

What’s interesting, however, is that this absolutely heroic building program—a structure for measuring heavenly discrepancies and, thus, the wobble of the Earth—is hidden inside such an unremarkable, everyday appearance.

[Image: A photo of the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory, via NOAA].

It’s a kind of normcore beach hut that wouldn’t be out of place on Cape Cod, with one eye fixed on the stars, a geodetic device revealing our planet’s wobbly imperfections, masquerading as vernacular architecture.

Found Robotics

Imagine a flexible suit or garment that you can wrap around an object to turn it into a robot, something that convulsively—compulsively—moves against its will. Researchers at Yale have created a lo-fi version of exactly that: “Robotic skin that bends, stretches and contracts can wrap around inanimate objects like stuffed animals, foam tubes or balloons to create flexible, lightweight robots,” Science News reported last week.

“The researchers achieved different types of motion by altering the layout of air pouches or coils in the skin and by attaching pieces of skin to an object in various configurations,” the report explains. “For instance, wrapping the skin around foam tubes in different orientations created robots that either scooted like inchworms or paddled forward on two ends. Patches of robotic skin around three foam fingers animated a soft robot grabber.”

While the results, at least for the time being, look more like epileptic children’s toys, as you can see in the video embedded above, the idea of giving unnatural movement to the inanimate through an external suit is a compelling reversal of a standard literary narrative. There are so many stories, for example, where something from within—a drug or medicine, a magical spell, an act of demonic possession—causes a person or thing to act strangely, against their will.

Instead, a robotic suit like this makes the source of alien locomotion an exterior one. Put on this clothing, the story would say, and watch yourself change. Like, say, Venom.

In any case, the construction implications of this are also interesting. Rather than assemble materials into a building using nails, screws, or joinery, you could instead wrap those materials up in a particular order inside a geotechnical fabric or cloak; then, using a particular sequence of air pouches and electrical charges, you could watch as previously unconnected materials heave upward and compress like a fist, assembling into some sort of architectural unit.

While this seems useless on any real industrial scale, a series of small architectural sculptures taking shape could make for an interesting gallery installation—a kind of found robotics, enlisting everyday objects into uncanny mechanized forms.

Read more over at Science News.

On Plastic in Time

Two recent articles worth reading in each other’s context explore the unexpected long-term morphological behavior of plastic.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Chelly, courtesy Albin-Michel/Galerie47, via The New York Times].

In one, Popular Science looks at the curatorial difficulties posed by plastic objects. Today, we read, “chemists and curators are in near-constant collaboration, working to preserve the world’s modern and contemporary art collections with methods derived from the field of heritage science. The thing is, no one’s actually certain what the best course of action is.”

For example, “museums are still stumped by plastics. Little is known, [University College London chemist Katherine Curran] says, about how plastics degrade, let alone how to stop it. But perhaps most surprising is the fact that most museums don’t even know the type of plastics in their collection. ‘Things often get classified as “plastic,”’ Curran says, ‘and that’s not that helpful.’”

The entire article is worth reading, especially for architects committed to using novel materials in their work without a clear sense of how those materials will behave over time (in particular, when novel materials are used as exterior cladding).

The other article to throw into the mix here describes the behavior of plastic furniture over multiple years and decades as a kind of open-air materials science experiment, unfolding in real time.

“One famous designer chair is oozing goop. Another has exploded into puffs of foam. A bookcase’s shelves bubbled as gases formed within,” The New York Times writes. “The culprits? Plastic. And time.

Like the article linked above, this one looks at plastic’s surprising mutability, given the material’s otherwise notorious, planet-threatening ability to outlast human civilization. It specifically discusses the work of designer Gaetano Pesce, including a cabinet of his that “bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths.” Pesce’s giddy response to his worried client? “The cabinet is alive and beautiful,” he allegedly said. “I so wish I was there to see my work evolving.”

That article also introduces the great phrase “furniture components with questionable futures,” writing that these sorts of “experimental objects are falling into mysterious decay” and that this fate is already visible with 3D-printed artworks, for example, made using materials whose long-term performance is completely unknown.

What’s so compelling about both of these articles for me is the basic idea that something perceived as nightmarishly eternal is, in fact, subject to deeply flawed mundane transformation, and that artificial objects supposedly facing near-geological lifespans actually perform, behave, and decay in semi-biological ways. What’s more, museum curators are ironically being tasked with stopping the decay of a material that, in almost other ecological context, cannot degrade fast enough.

This is not to suggest that we can therefore be cavalier in our use of plastic, but simply that the world of immortal things will not last forever after all.

Literary Architecture

[Image: Photo via ].

There are still a few days left to apply for a spot in Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, this time setting up shop in Prague from June 7-11.

“Architectural space is made of sequences, revelations, expectations and rhythm,” Pericoli explains, so “why not try to create a piece of architecture that explicitly embodies the structure of a literary text?” The program “is neither an architecture workshop nor a literature workshop,” he adds. “It is an exploration of the tight interconnection between narrative and space. We will use principles of architectural design to describe literary structures.”

Learn more about the LabLitArch website, where you can also see some of Pericoli’s own visual explorations of architectural narrative.

Stairway to Nowhere

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The Estonian Academy of Arts continues to produce interesting site-specific installations in the nation’s remote and often extraordinary landscapes, the most-recent example being an observation tower and staircase built amidst the sprawling Tuhu bog.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

According to the project’s accompanying text, “the design challenge was to provide a better view of the bog landscape and allow people to monitor the movement of moorland birds, raising observers above the landscape.”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The site came with some obvious constraints: “How to design an observation tower that takes its delicate environment into account whilst adding a layer of contemporary spatial design?” the school asked.

“What kind of space would hikers and ornithologists appreciate? What are the restrictions when constructing something for a location that is flooded several times a year, where the temperature can change from +25C to -25C, easily, and which is a home to a number of protected species?”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The piece does, admittedly, look much better in the snow, where it blends into the surrounding landscape and can even be difficult to distinguish against the quiet background; without snow, the structure looks a bit more ramshackle.

[Images: Drone photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the whole project is perhaps the overall educational context: the department of interior architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts has teamed with architects b210 and Estonian Forest Management Centre to teach “a special class on small-scale buildings… focused on nature infrastructure—resulting in a number of observation towers and shelters. The purpose of the educational process is to show how considerate spatial design can add to the beauty of natural landscapes through human-scale, site-specific structures, and to advance local spatial culture.”

If some enterprising multimillionaire or ambitious school administrator is reading this, please bring this sort of collaboration here to Southern California. Observation towers for the San Andreas Fault. Desert shelters for the canyons near Joshua Tree. Acoustic listening platforms for the coast near Point Mugu.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Forest Megaphone).

Gold Fault Laser

[Image: Drawing courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

In the general chaos of renovating a house here in Los Angeles, I missed this lecture and reception on Friday night, launching a semi-fictional “Geothermal Futures Lab” at SCI-Arc.

It involves installing a gold-plated laser somewhere deep in the San Andreas Fault to extract geothermal energy from the landscape. Think of it as a kind of gonzo version of the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth.

[Image: Drawing courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

The press release, from architect Mark Foster Gage, is a great example of a solipsistic inventor’s imagination at full blast—featuring “geothermal resonance technologies,” nano-gold foil-wrapped laser components, an “experimental phenolic cured resin foam,” and so on.

The functioning of the equipment would also rely, at least partially, on existing “metal deposits along the strike-slipping continental plates,” bringing to mind both the naturally occurring nuclear reactors in Gabon and the giant Earth-battery cells circulating beneath the forests of central Canada: landscapes whose geochemistry lends them to these sorts of giant, speculative energy installations.

Or see Norway’s extraordinary Hessdalen lights, a geologically electrified valley that seems ripe for a Mark Foster Gage-like architectural-energy proposal.

In all these cases, of course, what’s also worth noting is that, as fantastic as this sort of facility might seem—whether it’s a lab extracting electrical energy from the San Andreas Fault, as Foster Gage suggests, or one positioned above geochemical differentials in the Canadian soil—as soon as the power it supplies can be made available through the national grid, it would immediately pass from some sort of absolutely bonkers sci-fi vision of the near-future to, frankly, something utterly mundane. It would simply be where the power comes from, and people would shrug it off as a mere utility (if they think about it at all).

But what this also means is that we might already, right now, be missing out on seeing the truly otherworldly nature of our own power-generation facilities, which have all too easily disappeared into the infrastructural background of the modern world. Science fiction is already here, in other words, we just tend to refer to it as infrastructure. See, for example, Crescent Dunes or PS10. Or, for that matter, take a harder look at oil.

[Images: Drawings courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

In any case, here’s a sample from the project text, obligatory typos and all:

The exhibited technology capitalizes on the unique tungsten-saturated substrate of the San Andres fault through the use of a visible-light Q-switched Nd:YAG lasers, tuned to extract sustainable magno-electrical energy from a +678 degree Kelvin supercritical water deposits located adjacent to a stable magma chamber 4.4km beneath the Earths surface. This supercritical water, that behaves both as liquid and gas, is vaporized through 3,780 Kelvin bursts which at peak power induce a supercritical matter state releasing energy in exponential excess of its matter equivalent. The presence of heterogeneous frequency fields in metal deposits along the strike-slipping continental plates supercharges the pockets of supercritical water with magnetic nuons which are forced upwards with velocity µ as a result of the pressure gradient along the vertical faults. Due to the variable decay rate of metals in the presence of such high trajectory nuons, the prototype laser resonance mechanism itself is encased in an experimental phenolic cured resin foam (Cas no. 000050-00-0 with a normal specific gravity of 120 kg/m3) which insulates the process from outside magnetic interference. For rapid nuon decay protection the foam resin is additionally coated with the same seven µm micrometer nano-gold foil used to encase existing NASA satellites. This thick film of gold nano-molecules particles gives the machine its striking gold aesthetic appearance.

A nuon-resistant radiant machine buried in the San Andreas Fault, extracting energy from the friction between tectonic plates? With lasers? Yes, please.

[Images: Drawings courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

The exhibition itself is up until March 4; stop by SCI-Arc to see more or check out the project’s website.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault. Thanks to Wayne Chambliss and Eva Barbarossa for the heads up!)

Conversion Moment

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins, based on a photo by Stijnstijl Fotografie].

While we’re looking at work by Zecc Architects, it’s worth checking out their proposed renovation of a water tower in Utrecht.

A circular room with panoramic views of the city, and a modern fireplace in the center? Yes, please.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

I even love where the tower’s original brick core is revealed, despite appearing in something as mundane as a restaurant.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

As a very brief aside, meanwhile, one of many things that remains amazing to me about the architectural world today is that these sorts of buildings—grandiose brick megastructures, from water towers to old tobacco warehouses to classic New York brownstones—are immensely popular as domestic renovations or large-scale residential conversions, but they otherwise seem to be completely beyond the pale for architects to consider designing from scratch in the present day. Even when contemporary architects do take on such commissions, they seem to leave their creativity at the door.

As a former New Yorker, it always blew me away that incredible building stock existed in neighborhoods such as DUMBO—that is, huge warehouses featuring recessed arched windows, ornamented brick, and, at times, gorgeous exterior buttressing—or that even the most random online image search for historical warehouse districts pop up such incredible and evocative buildings. Yet there seems to be no appetite, either amongst developers or architects, to explore what architects could do with these same styles and languages today.

Even just imagining a 21st-century brick super-warehouse (or circular tower) built from scratch in New York City—or Boston, or Bermondsey, or Hamburg—featuring modern interiors and finishes, and designed to avoid the headaches of older building stock, makes my head swoon, and there is no doubt in my mind that elaborate, architecturally complex brick megastructures could be realized today without falling into kitsch or postmodern quotation. And there is also, in fact, no inherent reason why creating brickwork residential super-projects should lead to an emerging financial ecosystem for absent investors in the process.

But, hey: I’m not a real estate developer and I have no way to change the game.

Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction

I’ve been remiss in posting about a graduate course I’ll be co-teaching with the brilliant Nicholas de Monchaux up at UC Berkeley for the 2018-2019 academic year. The application period is currently open through December 2017.

Called “Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction: The Future of Californian Ecology,” the year-long Master’s course will be a combination of architectural design, experimental drawing methods, and narrative speculation, exploring what de Monchaux calls a “new relationship between architecture, media, ecology, and craft.”

The idea is to look ahead, not just at the future of California, but at the future of what California represents: cutting-edge industrial design, the global cinematic imagination, unparalleled demographic integration, agricultural innovation, adaptive infrastructure, and, of course, the risks of climate change.

[Image: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

With the entire state of California at their disposal, students will be able to focus on everything from the U.S./Mexico border to the San Andreas Fault, from Silicon Valley and space tourism to the sci-fi productions of Hollywood. Agriculture, Artificial Intelligence, electric cars; species loss, wildfire, drought; policing, governance, human labor.

There are architectural scenarios to design and explore for all of these.

[Image: California’s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System photographed by Ethan Miller for Getty Images, via The Atlantic].

In an interview with Boom California published in 2014, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson—who was also interviewed here on BLDGBLOG way back in 2007—commented on the science-fictional appeal of California. By the time he went to college, he remarked, the landscape of the state had fundamentally changed; it was being terraformed for human habitation by the forces of industry and suburban development.

California, he realized, was itself a design project.

[Images: From David Maisel’s “The Lake Project”; used with permission of the artist].

Robinson explained to Boom that, in the blink of an eye, California became a “completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction (…) and it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.”

Science fiction is the literature of California.

[Image: Early rendering for Michael Maltzan’s Six Street Viaduct in Los Angeles].

Briefly, this theme was developed further by an essay by Michael Ziser published in the same issue of Boom. “Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States,” Ziser wrote. It was also quite specifically Californian.

“As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California,” Ziser continued, “they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers.”

Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.

This idea of an “imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty” is something we will be exploring in architectural form throughout the Studio One experience. In the process, we will approach California itself as a subject of design and compare the state to other regions currently experiencing their own de novo re-inventions, whether it’s a thawing Arctic or China’s ongoing building boom.

[Image: Floating caisson during the construction of the original Bay Bridge; photo by Clyde Sunderland, courtesy Library of Congress].

To develop and articulate their visions, students will be pushed to experiment with new forms of architectural representation, modeling, and drawing—or, as de Monchaux writes, “Our chief medium will be drawing, but we will engage and embrace a world of devices and tools—from scripting through mapping and virtual reality-that are changing, and expanding, the capacity of architecture to influence the world.”

I will be up in the Bay Area multiple times for this throughout the academic year, although not on a full-time basis; if you’re a fan of de Monchaux’s work, of science fiction, of architecture, of design’s potential for conjuring radical visions of landscape futures, then please consider applying. You have roughly two more months to do so.

[Image: Farming California, via Google Maps].

More information is available over at UC Berkeley.