Listening to a machine made entirely from windows

An old issue of The Wire introduces us to a synthesizer called the ANS, built in 1950s Moscow by Eugene Murzin and “constructed around a unique and incredibly intricate photoelectronic system.”

[Image: The ANS].

The ANS functioned through an “array of tiny chisels” that engraved “lines and points on rotating black enamelled glass discs.” These engravings would then “regulate the brightness of light rays” that passed “through the discs onto photoelements,” like the sun streaming through carefully shaded windows. The “level of intensity” of this light then produced specific sounds.

Elsewhere (scroll down in this link till you hit the COILANS review), we read about the ANS’s unique compositional process: “The composer inscribes his visual ‘score’ onto a glass plate covered with sticky black mastic, slides it through the machine, which reads the inscribed plate and converts the etchings into sound produced by a system of 800 oscillators.”

It’s a machine that reads windows.

[Image: A representative musical score for the ANS – but what if you fed it architectural diagrams?].

The Wire then explains that, in 2002, British band Coil visited the synthesizer in Moscow and recorded nearly 4 hours of music using the machine. Listening to what they produced, we’re told, sounds “like travelling through the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt – glitting slivers of distant white light and vast, nebulous spaces populated by inchoate radioactive matter.” As you’ll notice in these three, 3-minute samples, the effect is certainly weird – but also unbelievably mesmerizing: 1, 2, and 3 (all MP3s).

Light, chisels, glass plates, oscillators, enamelled surfaces, engravings on windows – with these elements it is not at all hard to imagine a kind of ANS architecture, rebuilt on the scale of a building. Windowed lobbies and escalators; sunlight; entire lift shafts full of glass discs, inscribed and black-enamelled, emitting music like light. Whole rooms of sound, angelic, the windows slightly trembling.

Moving panes of glass, washed clean at the end of the day, pass slowly behind curtains, casting acoustic shadows.

A symphony for glass escalators. Chamber music.

Entire cities, made from nothing but windows, tuning to one another like the sound of orchestral sunlight.

(Note: The ANS was apparently used to soundtrack Andrei Tarkovsky’s films Solaris and Stalker).

In space, no one can hear you pray

[Image: NASA].

Qibla is the direction a Muslim must face when praying—specifically, toward the Kaaba, in Mecca. In order to align oneself properly with that religious axis mundi, all kinds of complicated mathematical techniques had to be used or developed. From compasses to azimuths to spherical trigonometry, determining what angle to take in relation to the horizon became as much a mathematical, or geographic, pursuit as it was religious.

So now, as Malaysia prepares to send three Muslim astronauts into space, the question of qibla has once again been revived: in what direction should an astronaut pray in order to face Mecca? As that last link reminds us, these astronauts “will also visit the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times in 24 hours, so another thorny question is how to pray five times a day as required by Islam.”

I’m imagining a bewildering series of gyroscopes, mirrors, magnets and platforms, with arms covered in quantum clocks, ticking off “days” where there are none, keeping time in space devoid of terrestrial references. Motors will click and whir, aligning the chair constantly, and whole new branches of robotics – RoboQibla™ – gyroPrayer® – will take off. Science academies throughout the Muslim world will start producing new and strange direction sensors, devices of alignment that’d make John Dee proud and Athanasius Kircher whistle. New space stations designed by architecture students in Dubai will show us the future of intercelestial travel: self-unfolding, solar-powered spaceships, ceaselessly rotating in space—whilst maintaining perfect ship-to-Mecca alignment.

The Jesuits respond with floating cathedrals… flying buttresses in space.

(Original article spotted at Off Center).

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”


Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.


“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).


“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”


But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:


Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…