Books Received

[Image: Bookstore for Shibuya Publishing, Japan, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura].

Through a combination of publisher review copies and the slow-to-end fire sale at my favorite local bookstore, Stacey’s – they’ve gone out of business and are selling everything at 50% off, including now even the furniture – BLDGBLOG’s home office is awash in books. Since there literally is not enough time left in a person’s life to read all of these, I decided that I would instead start a new, regular series of posts on the blog called “Books Received” – these will be short descriptions of, and links to, interesting books that have crossed my desk.
Note that these lists will include books I have not read in full – but they will never include books that don’t deserve the attention.
Note, as well, that if you yourself have a book you’d like to see on BLDGBLOG, get in touch – send us a copy, and, if it fits the site, we’ll mention your title in a future Books Received.

1) Oase #75 and #76Oase is an excellent architecture and urban studies journal published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute and designed by Karel Martens of Werkplaats Typografie. Oase #75 is the 25th anniversary issue, and includes essays from Jurjen Zeinstra (“Houses of the Future”), René Boomkens (“Modernism, Catastrophe and the Public Realm”), and Frans Sturkenboom (“Come una ola de fuerza y luz: On Borromini’s Naturalism”), among many, many others. To be honest, there is so much interesting material in this issue that it’s hard to know where to start; look for this in specialty architecture bookstores and definitely consider picking up a copy. Meanwhile, Oase #76 arrived just in time for me to quote part of its interview with photographer Bas Princen in The BLDGBLOG Book – but the entire issue, bilingually printed in both English and Dutch and themed around what the editors call “ContextSpecificity,” is worth reading. There’s a whole section on “In-Between Buildings,” itself coming between long looks at context, tradition, and the generation of architectural form. #76 also includes virtuoso displays of how to push the typographic grid. A new favorite.

2) Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World by Trevor Paglen (Dutton) — Trevor Paglen is an “experimental geographer” at UC-Berkeley, well-known – perhaps infamous – for his successful efforts in tracking unmarked CIA rendition flights around the world. Using optical equipment normally associated with astronomy, Paglen has managed to photograph the goings-on of deep desert military bases and has even been able to follow US spy satellites through what he calls “the other night sky.” This book serves more or less as an introduction to Paglen’s work, from Afghanistan to Los Alamos.

3) The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire by Joe Jackson (Penguin) — Jackon’s book, new in paperback, explores the industrial implications of monopoly plantlife, telling the story of Henry Wickham, who “smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England’s most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens.” This led directly to the “great rubber boom of the early twentieth century,” we read – which itself resulted in such surreal sites as Henry Ford’s failed utopian-industrial instant city in the rain forest, Fordlandia. Here, Jackson describes that city, now in ruins and like something from a novel by Patrick McGrath:

The American Villa still stands on the hill. The green and white cottages line the shady lane, but the only residents now are fruit bats and trap-door tarantulas. The state-of-the-art hospital shipped from Michigan is deserted. Broken bottles and patient records litter the floor. A towering machine shop houses a 1940s-era ambulance, now on blocks. A riverside warehouse built to hold huge sheets of processed rubber holds six empty coffins arranged in a circle around the ashes of a small campfire.

Check out Jackson’s website for a bit more.

4) Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz (Harvard University Press) — By choosing the historical experience of Łódź, Poland, during its political assimilation and ethnic ghettoization by the Nazis, Gordon Horwitz shows how a long series of seemingly minor bureaucratic decisions can radically alter the normal urban order of things, paving the way for something as nightmarish as the Final Solution. This latter fact Horwitz memorably describes as “a phenomenon so unexpected and outrageous in design and execution as to exceed the then-understood limits of organized human cruelty.” About Łódź itself, he writes: “Secured by German arms, reshaped by German planning and technical expertise, the city was to be remade inside and out.” Horwitz shows how property confiscation, spatial rezoning, and literal new walls transformed Łódź into a Ghettostadt.

5) Condemned Building by Douglas Darden (Princeton Architectural Press) — The late Douglas Darden’s work seems both underknown and underexposed (perhaps because so little of it can be found online). This book, published in 1993, collects ten speculative projects, including the Museum of Impostors, the Clinic for Sleep Disorders, and the Oxygen House, complete with plans, models, elevations, and historical engravings. Darden’s work is an interesting hybrid of narrative fiction, visual storytelling, and architectural design – and so naturally of great interest to BLDGBLOG. For instance, his “Temple Forgetful” project weds amnesia, flooding, and the mythic origins of Rome. Good stuff.

6) Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till (MIT Press) — Architectural theory written with the rhetorical pitch of a blog, Architecture Depends is a kind of from-the-hip philosophy of “rogue objects,” construction waste, massive landfills, “lo-fi architecture,” and the fate of buildings over long periods of time. As Till states in the book’s preface, “Mess is the law.”

7) Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century by P.W. Singer (Penguin) — An extremely provocative look at the future of war in an age of robot swarms and autonomous weaponry, Singer’s book is nonetheless a bit too casual for its own good (reading that Singer wrote the book because robots are “frakin’ cool” doesn’t help me trust the author’s sense of self-editing). Having said that, there is so much here to discuss and explore further that it’s impossible not to recommend the book – eyepopping micro-histories of individual war machines come together with Singer’s on-the-scene anthropological visits to robotics labs and military testing grounds, by way of Artificially Intelligent snipers, drone “motherships” forming militarized constellations in the sky, and even “mud batteries” and automated undersea warfare. Like Singer’s earlier Corporate Warriors – another book I would quite strongly recommend – the often terrifying implications of Wired for War nag at you long after you’ve stopped reading. For what it’s worth, by the way, this book seems almost perfectly timed for the release of Terminator Salvation.

8) Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press) — This book is awesome, and I hope to draw a much longer post out of it soon. Only slightly marred by an unfortunate subtitle, Welland’s book is disproportionately fascinating, considering its subject matter. On the other hand, “it has been estimated,” he writes, “that on the order of a billion sand grains are born around the world every second” (emphasis his) – so the sheer ubiquity of his referent makes the book worth reading. From the early history of sand studies to the aerial physics of dunes – by way of the United States’ little-known WWII-era Military Geology Unit – the interesting details of this book are inexhaustible.

9) A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster (Oxford University Press) — Donald Worster has written a long biography of John Muir, the naturalist and writer who once famously climbed as high as he could into the canopy of a Californian forest during a lightning storm so that he could see what it was like to experience nature firsthand. At its most basic, Worster’s book explores the natural landscape of the American West as “a source of liberation.”

Going into wild country freed one from the repressive hand of authority. Social deferences faded in wild places. Economic rank ceased to matter so much. Bags of money were not needed for survival – only one’s wits and knowledge. Nature offered a home to the political maverick, the rebellious child, the outlaw or runaway slave, the soldier who refused to fight, and, by the late nineteenth century, the woman who climbed mountains to show her strength and independence.

Worster himself is an environmental historian at the University of Kansas.

10) Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber (Alfred A. Knopf) — I’m strangely excited to read this, actually – and I say “strangely” because I am not otherwise known for my interest in reading about Le Corbusier. But Nicholas Fox Weber’s approximately 765 pages of biographical reflection on Corbu’s life look both narratively satisfying, as a glimpse into the man’s daily ins and outs over eight decades, but also architecturally minded, contextualizing Le Corbusier’s spatial work within his other political (and libidinal) interests. I hope to dive into this one over the summer.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Bering Bridge

If you could design a bridge across the Bering Strait, connecting the U.S. to Russia, what would it look like? Come up with something good and you could win as much as $80,000 ($20,000, if you’re a student).
From the competition website:

This project is a dream project attempting to connect two continents. In a wide sense, it includes building a tunnel or a bridge at both ends of the strait, extending [the] existing railways of the United States and Russia, and laying a world highway around the coasts of the world, which require a massive amount of construction.

Your only two requirements are to design “a peace park with a bridging structure using the two islands, Big Diomede and Little Diomede at the Bering Strait,” and a “proposal of how to connect two continents.”
Of course, Russian engineers have already been considering digging a tunnel between the two continents, and the Discovery Channel has chimed in about how a bridge might actually be built across that “iceberg-swirled ocean near the Arctic Circle.”
But neither of those plans came with a total of $200,000 in prize money…
There’s a confusing clock ticking away on the competition website, but you appear to have until March 24, 2009, to register.

Cable City and the Hanging Hotel

[Image: The Hanging Hotel by Takis Zenetos; think of it as the International Style meets the Potala Palace].

Nearly a year ago, a reader named Stavros Koulis tipped me off to the work of Takis Zenetos. Zenetos was a Greek architect whose work seems clearly to belong in a list of avant-garde mid-to-late 20th century architects like Yona Friedman, Constant, and even Archigram, but who seems otherwise to have been overlooked.
The above project – visible in the next image – is for a hanging hotel, a combination of Tibetan palace, Anasazi cliff dwelling, and artificial geological formation.

[Image: The Hanging Hotel, strung onto a cliffside like a musical instrument, by Takis Zenetos].

But his most exciting project, I’d suggest (based on very little information, to be frank), is Cable City, an incredible 1961 design for a suspended city – what Zenetos called une ville suspendue.
The entire metropolis would be hung from cables, a kind of tensional extension of the earth’s surface.

[Image: The Cable City of Takis Zenetos].
To be honest, I’ve never read a word about this thing in English, so who knows what I’m getting right here; but the overall impetus behind the project seems to be something like counter-terrestriality: a city that would not only span, but even temporarily replace, the earth’s surface, forming a cobweb of urban settlement. An extremely local architectural offworld made of capsules, wired Archigramian hammocks, and other high-tech micro-environments.

[Image: The Cable City of Takis Zenetos; the instant city as toupee].

But my own descriptions shouldn’t get in the way of Zenetos’s images.

[Images: The Cable City of Takis Zenetos].

After all, he even drew gullies choked with wind turbines – sustainable, if bird-murdering, power stations – decades ahead of his time.

[Images: A turbined gorge by Takis Zenetos].

I’d love to know more about Zenetos, if anyone reading BLDGBLOG has more information. “Takis Zenetos (1926-1978),” we read, “is the pre-eminent architect of Greek modernism, with a varied oeuvre (industrial buildings, schools, residences, objects, urban planning studies), and he is best known for the FIX building on Syngrou Avenue and the Lycabettus theatre.
“What is not widely known is that Zenetos was a visionary of the future electronic city and the digital age.”

[Thanks to Stavros Koulis for sending me these scans].

Of networks, grids, and infrastructures, or: How to make a planet

If I have several blogging resolutions for 2009 – and I do – one of them is definitely to read InfraNet Lab more often.

[Image: Offshore energy islands, via InfraNet Lab].

Easily one of the most interesting architecture blogs out there today – though it’s really an infrastructure blog, hopefully heralding a new focus for design writers in the next few years – and written by Toronto-based architects Mason White and Lola Sheppard, along with two contributors named Maya and Neeraj, it tracks massive infrastructure, waste, energy, and design projects across the global landscape, taking in geology, engineering, network economics, ecology, construction innovation, future fuels, and much more.

Read it and you’ll know how to “harvest energy from the earth’s rotation” using mega-gyroscopes, you’ll discover how a more efficient offshore seaweed industry might work, you’ll pick up clues for how to design a mountain and then how to connect that mountain to others using aerial tramways, you’ll get an architectural glimpse of habitat meshing, you’ll take an hallucinatory tour through Taiwanese mushroom farms, you’ll visit underground waste isolation sites in New Mexico, you’ll turn around and go the opposite vertical direction – into the sky – to farm water from the atmosphere, and you’ll even punt around the artificial inland waterways of Britain using strange mechanized structures and seeing that archipelago as hydrology first, geography later.

So go check it out – and make 2009 the year of networks, grids, and infrastructures.

Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu

[Image: Daniel Dociu. View larger! This and all images below are Guild Wars content and materials, and are trademarks and/or copyrights of ArenaNet, Inc. and/or NCsoft Corporation, and are used with permission; all rights reserved].

Seattle-based concept artist Daniel Dociu is Chief Art Director for ArenaNet, the North American wing of NCSoft, an online game developer with headquarters in Seoul. Most notably, Dociu heads up the production of game environments for Guild Wars – to which GameSpot gave 9.2 out of 10, specifically citing the game’s “gorgeous graphics” and its “richly detailed and shockingly gigantic” world.

Dociu has previously worked with Electronic Arts; he has an M.A. in industrial design; and he won both Gold and Silver medals for Concept Art at this year’s Spectrum awards

To date, BLDGBLOG has spoken with novelists, film editors, musicians, architects, photographers, historians, and urban theorists, among others, to see how architecture and the built environment have been used, understood, or completely reimagined from within those disciplines – but coverage of game design is something in which this site has fallen woefully short.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

So when I first saw Daniel Dociu’s work I decided to get in touch with him, and to ask him some questions about architecture, landscape design, and the creation of detailed online environments for games.

For instance, are there specific architects, historical eras, or urban designers who have inspired Dociu’s work? What about vice versa: could Dociu’s own beautifully rendered take on the built environment, however fantastical it might be, have something to teach today’s architecture schools? How does the game design process differ from – or perhaps resemble – that of producing “real” cities and buildings?

Of course, there are many types of games, and many types of game environments. The present interview focuses quite clearly on fantasy – and it does so not from the perspective of game play or of programming but from the visual perspective of architectural design.

After all, if Dociu’s buildings and landscapes are spaces that tens of thousands of people have experienced – far more than will ever experience whatever new home is featured in starchitects’ renderings cut and pasted from blog to blog this week – then surely they, too, should be subject to architectural discussion?

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

Further, at what point in the design process do architects themselves begin to consider action and narrative development – and would games be a viable way for them to explore the social use of their own later spaces?

What would a game environment designed by Rem Koolhaas, or Zaha Hadid, or FAT really look like – and could video games be an interesting next step for professional architectural portfolios? You want to see someone’s buildings – but you don’t look at a book, or at a PDF, or at a Flickr set of JPGs: you instead enter an entire game world, stocked only with spaces those architects have created.

Richard Rogers is hired to design Grand Theft Auto: South London.

Of course, these questions go far beyond the scope of this interview – but such a discussion would be well worth having.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

What appears below is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with Daniel Dociu about his work, and about the architecture of game design.

• • •

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: First, I’d love to hear where you look for inspiration or ideas when you sit down to work on a project. Do you look at different eras of architecture, or at specific buildings, or books, or paintings – even other video games?

Daniel Dociu: Anything but video games! [laughs] I don’t want to copy anybody else.

Architecture has always made a strong impression on me – though I can’t think of one particular style or era or architect where I would say: “This is it. This is the one and only influence that I’ll let seep into my work.” Rather, I just sort of store in my memory everything that has ever made an impression on me, and I let it simmer there and blend with everything else. Eventually some things will resurface and come back, depending on the particular assignment I’m working on.

But I look back all the way to the dawn of mankind: to ruins, and Greek architecture, and Mycenean architecture, all the way up to the architecture of the Crusades, and castles in North Africa, and the Romanesque and Gothic and Baroque and Rococo – even to neo-Classical and art deco and Bauhaus and Modernist. I mean, there are bits and pieces here and there that make a strong impression on me, and I blend them – but that’s the beauty of games. You don’t have to be stylistically pure, or even coherent. You can afford a certain eclecticism to your work. It’s a more forgiving medium. I can blend elements from the Potala Palace in Tibet with, say, La Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s cathedral. I really take a lot of liberties with whatever I can use, wherever I can find it.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top, middle, and bottom].

BLDGBLOG: Of course, if you were an architecture student and you started to design buildings that looked like Gothic cathedrals crossed with the Bauhaus, everybody outside of architecture school might love it, but inside your studio –

Dociu: You’d be crucified! [laughs]

[Image: Daniel Dociu; larger!].

BLDGBLOG: No one would take you seriously. It’d be considered unimaginative – even kitsch.

Dociu: Absolutely. That’s probably why I chose to work in this field. There’s just so much creative freedom. I mean, sure, you do compromise and you do tailor your ideas, and the scope of your design, to the needs of the product – but, still, there’s a lot of room to push.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top and bottom].

BLDGBLOG: So how much description are you actually given? When someone comes to you and says, “I need a mine, or a mountain, or a medieval city” – how much detail do they really give before you have to start designing?

Dociu: That’s about the amount of information I get.

Game designers lay things out according to approximate locations – this tribe goes here, this tribe goes there, we need a village here, we need an extra reason for a conflict along this line, or a natural barrier here, whether it’s a river or a mountain, or we need an artificial barrier or a bridge. That’s pretty much the level at which I prefer for them to give me input, and I take it from there. Most of my work recently has been focusing around environments and unique spaces that fulfill whatever the game play requires – providing a memorable background for that experience.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: So somebody just says, “we need a castle,” and you go design it?

Dociu: Usually I don’t put pen to paper, figuratively speaking, until I have an idea. I don’t believe in just doodling and hoping for things to happen. More often than not, I think about a sentiment or an emotion that I’m trying to capture with an environment – and then I go back in my mind through images or places that have made a strong impression on me, and I see if anything resonates. I then start doing research along those lines. Only once did I have a pretty strong formal solution – an actual design or spatial relationship, an architectural arrangement of the elements – before that emotion crystallized.

But do I want something to be awe-inspiring, daunting, unnerving? That’s what I work on first – to have that sentiment clarify itself. I don’t start just playing with shapes to see what might result. Most of my work is pretty simple, so clarity and simplicity is important to me; my ideas aren’t very sophisticated, as far as requiring complex technical solutions. They’re pretty simple. I try to achieve emotional impact through rather simple means.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: one, two, three, four, five, and six].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever find that you’ve designed something where the architecture itself sort of has its own logic – but the logic of the game calls for something else? So you have to design against your own sense of the design for the sake of game play?

Dociu: Oh, absolutely – more often than not.

To make an environment work for a game, you have to redesign your work – and I do sometimes feel bad about the missed opportunities. These may not be ideas that would necessarily make great architecture in real life, but these ideas often take a more uncompromising form – a more pure form – before you have to change them. When these environments need to be adapted to the game, they lose some of that impact.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to focus on a few specific images now, to hear what went into them – both conceptually and technically. For instance, the image I’m looking at here is called Skybridge. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Dociu: Sure. The request there was for a tribe that’s been trying to isolate itself from the conflict, and the tensions, and the political unrest of the world around it. So they find this canyon in the mountains – and I was picturing the mountains kind of like the Andes: really steep and shard-like. They pick one of these canyons and they build a structure that’s floating above the valley below – to physically remove themselves from the world. That was the premise.

I wanted a structure that looked light and airy, as if it’s trying to float, and I chose the shapes you see for their wing-like quality. Everything is very thin, supported by a rather minimalist structure of cables. It’s supposed to be the habitat for an entire tribe that chooses to detach themselves from society, as much as they can.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve designed a lot of structures in the sky, like airborne utopias – for instance, the Floating Mosque and the Floating Temple. Was there a similar concept behind those images?

Dociu: Well, yes and no. The reasons behind those examples were quite different. First, floating mosques were my attempt to deal with what is a rather obnoxious cliché in games – which is floating castles. Every game has a floating castle. You know, I really hate that!

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] So these are actually your way of dealing with a game design cliché?

Dociu: I was trying to find a somewhat elegant and satisfying solution to an uninteresting request.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: And what about Pagodas?

Dociu: The story there was that this was a city for the elite. It was built in a pool of water and it was surrounded by desert. Water is in really high demand in this world, but these guys are kind of controlling the water supply. The real estate on these rock formations is limited, though, so they were forced to build vertically and use every inch of rock to anchor their structures. So it’s about people over-building, and about clinging onto resources, and about greed.

That doesn’t touch on the game in its entirety – but that’s the story behind the image.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, what about the Petrified Tree?

Dociu: That was part of another chapter in our game. We thought that there should be some kind of cataclysm – or an event, a curse – that turns the oceans into jade and the forests into stone. We had nomads traveling the jade sea in these big contraptions, like machines.

So the petrified forest was a gigantic forest that got turned into stone, and the people who were happily inhabiting that forest had to find ways to carve dwellings into the trees: different ways of shaping the natural stone formations and giving them some kind of functionality – arches, bridges, dwellings, and so on and so forth. It was a blend of organic and manmade structures.

At that particular point in time, quite a few of my pieces were the result of my fascination with the Walled City of Kowloon. I was really sad to see that demolished, and this was kind of my desperate attempt to hold onto it! I was incorporating that sensibility into a lot of my pieces, knowing it was going to be gone for good.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top and bottom].

• • •

Thanks again to Daniel Dociu for taking the time to have this conversation. Meanwhile, many, many more images are available on his website – and in this Flickr set.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

(Daniel Dociu’s work originally spotted on io9).

White House Redux

I’m excited to announce that I’m on the jury for a new design competition, called White House Redux, the purpose of which is to design a new home for the U.S. Presidency.

It’s a speculative project, to be sure – but a fun one, and I can’t wait to see what comes up.
Here’s the brief:

What if the White House, the ultimate architectural symbol of political power, were to be designed today? On occasion of the election of the 44th President of the United States of America, Storefront for Art and Architecture, in association with Control Group, challenge you to design a new residence for the world’s most powerful individual. The best ideas, designs, descriptions, images, and videos will be selected by some of the world’s most distinguished designers and critics and featured in a month-long exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture in July 2008 and published in Surface magazine. All three winners will be flown to New York to collect their prizes at the opening party. Register now and send us your ideas for the Presidential Palace of the future!


Few people realize the extent of the White House, since much of it is below ground or otherwise concealed by landscaping. The White House includes: Six stories and 55,000 square feet of floor space, 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, twenty-eight fireplaces, eight staircases, three elevators, five full-time chefs, a tennis court, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a jogging track, a swimming pool, and a putting green. It receives about 5,000 visitors a day.
The original White House design, by James Hoban, was the result of a competition held in 1792. Over the centuries, presidents have added rooms, facilities and even entire new wings, turning the White House into the labyrinthine complex it is today.
What if, instead of in 1792, that competition were to be held today? What would a White House designed in 2008, year of election of the 44th President of the United States, look like?

That’s the question, then: If you were to design a residential office complex for the U.S. President, what would it look like? Perhaps London’s GLA? Or the CCTV Building? Or Selfridge’s, Birmingham? Or the Kunsthaus Graz?
Would it be stylistically European – or Latin American, or African, or Asian? Prefab? Rammed earth? Perhaps an updated Nakagin Capsule Tower? Or would it be a Walking City? Maybe a helicopter archipelago? Maybe algae-powered, or billboard-bound, or an inhabited dam?
Would it be ironic, self-deprecating, imperial, solar-powered, walled off behind anti-missile batteries, or anachronistically neoclassical and made of limestone?
All of the above?
Here are the specs. The jury consists of Beatriz Colomina, Stefano Boeri, Liz Diller, John Maeda, myself, and Laetitia Wolff.
So step up and submit. I’m genuinely excited about this. Show us your best! Think big, think small, think detailed. Think abstract. Change history.

[White House Redux is sponsored by Control Group and Storefront for Art and Architecture].

Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999; view larger].

Lebbeus Woods is one of the first architects I knew by name – not Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, but Lebbeus Woods – and it was Woods’s own technically baroque sketches and models, of buildings that could very well be machines (and vice versa), that gave me an early glimpse of what architecture could really be about.

Woods’s work is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence proclaiming that the architectural imagination, freed from constraints of finance and buildability, should be uncompromising, always. One should imagine entirely new structures, spaces without walls, radically reconstructing the outermost possibilities of the built environment.

If need be, we should re-think the very planet we stand on.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, radically reconstructed, 1994].

Of course, Woods is usually considered the avant-garde of the avant-garde, someone for whom architecture and science fiction – or urban planning and exhilarating, uncontained speculation – are all but one and the same. His work is experimental architecture in its most powerful, and politically provocative, sense.

Genres cross; fiction becomes reflection; archaeology becomes an unpredictable form of projective technology; and even the Earth itself gains an air of the non-terrestrial.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, DMZ, 1988].

One project by Woods, in particular, captured my imagination – and, to this day, it just floors me. I love this thing. In 1980, Woods proposed a tomb for Albert Einstein – the so-called Einstein Tomb (collected here) – inspired by Boullée’s famous Cenotaph for Newton.

But Woods’s proposal wasn’t some paltry gravestone or intricate mausoleum in hewn granite: it was an asymmetrical space station traveling on the gravitational warp and weft of infinite emptiness, passing through clouds of mutational radiation, riding electromagnetic currents into the void.

The Einstein Tomb struck me as such an ingenious solution to an otherwise unremarkable problem – how to build a tomb for an historically titanic mathematician and physicist – that I’ve known who Lebbeus Woods is ever since.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, the city and the faults it sits on, from the San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

So when the opportunity came to talk to Lebbeus about one image that he produced nearly a decade ago, I continued with the questions; the result is this interview, which happily coincides with the launch of Lebbeus’s own website – his first – at That site contains projects, writings, studio reports, and some external links, and it’s worth bookmarking for later exploration.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, 1994; view larger].

In the following Q&A, then, Woods talks to BLDGBLOG about the geology of Manhattan; the reconstruction of urban warzones; politics, walls, and cooperative building projects in the future-perfect tense; and the networked forces of his most recent installations.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, could you explain the origins of the Lower Manhattan image?

Lebbeus Woods: This was one of those occasions when I got a request from a magazine – which is very rare. In 1999, Abitare was making a special issue on New York City, and they invited a number of architects – like Steven Holl, Rafael Viñoly, and, oh god, I don’t recall. Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Michael Sorkin. Myself. They invited us to make some sort of comment about New York. So I wrote a piece – probably 1000 words, 800 words – and I made the drawing.

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth. Let’s not forget that buildings sit on the Earth.

I wanted to suggest that maybe lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet. So, in the drawing, you see that the East River and the Hudson are both dammed. They’re purposefully drained, as it were. The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999, in case you missed it; view larger].

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself. I think that comes across in the drawing. It’s not geologically correct, I’m sure, but the idea is there.

There are a couple of other interesting features which I’ll just mention. One is that the only bridge I show is the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t show the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, for instance. That’s just gone. And I don’t show the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge, which are the other two bridges on the East River. On the Hudson side, it was interesting, because I looked carefully at the drawings – which I based on an aerial photograph of Manhattan, obviously – and the World Trade Center… something’s going on there. Of course, this was in 1999, and I’m not a prophet and I don’t think that I have any particular telepathic or clairvoyant abilities [laughs], but obviously the World Trade Center has been somehow diminished, and there are things floating in the Hudson next to it. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind – it was already several years ago – except that some kind of transformation was going to happen there.

BLDGBLOG: That’s actually one of the things I like so much about your work: you re-imagine cities and buildings and whole landscapes as if they have undergone some sort of potentially catastrophic transformation – be it a war or an earthquake, etc. – but you don’t respond to those transformations by designing, say, new prefab refugee shelters or more durable tents. You respond with what I’ll call science fiction: a completely new order of things – a new way of organizing and thinking about space. You posit something radically different than what was there before. It’s exciting.

Woods: Well, I think that, for instance, in Sarajevo, I was trying to speculate on how the war could be turned around, into something that people could build the new Sarajevo on. It wasn’t about cleaning up the mess or fixing up the damage; it was more about a transformation in the society and the politics and the economics through architecture. I mean, it was a scenario – and, I suppose, that was the kind of movie aspect to it. It was a “what if?”

I think there’s not enough of that thinking today in relation to cities that have been faced with sudden and dramatic – even violent – transformations, either because of natural or human causes. But we need to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move. No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented. It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do. But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction. Of course, being an architect, I’m very interested in the specifics of that direction – you know, not just a verbal description but: this is what it might look like.

So that was the approach in Sarajevo – as well as in this drawing of Lower Manhattan, as I called it.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods. Future structures of the Korean demilitarized zone (1988) juxtaposed with two views of the architectonic tip of some vast flooded machine-building, from Icebergs (1991)].

BLDGBLOG: Part of that comes from recognizing architecture as its own kind of genre. In other words, architecture has the ability, rivaling literature, to imagine and propose new, alternative routes out of the present moment. So architecture isn’t just buildings, it’s a system of entirely re-imagining the world through new plans and scenarios.

Woods: Well, let me just back up and say that architecture is a multi-disciplinary field, by definition. But, as a multi-disciplinary field, our ideas have to be comprehensive; we can’t just say: “I’ve got a new type of column that I think will be great for the future of architecture.”

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Woods: Maybe it will be great – but it’s not enough. I think architects – at least those inclined to understand the multi-disciplinarity and the comprehensive nature of their field – have to visualize something that embraces all these political, economic, and social changes. As well as the technological. As well as the spatial.

But we’re living in a very odd time for the field. There’s a kind of lack of discourse about these larger issues. People are hunkered down, looking for jobs, trying to get a building. It’s a low point. I don’t think it will stay that way. I don’t think that architects themselves will allow that. After all, it’s architects who create the field of architecture; it’s not society, it’s not clients, it’s not governments. I mean, we architects are the ones who define what the field is about, right?

So if there’s a dearth of that kind of thinking at the moment, it’s because architects have retreated – and I’m sure a coming generation is going to say: hey, this retreat is not good. We’ve got to imagine more broadly. We have to have a more comprehensive vision of what the future is.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, The Wall Game].

BLDGBLOG: In your own work – and I’m thinking here of the Korean DMZ project or the Israeli wall-game – this “more comprehensive vision” of the future also involves rethinking political structures. Engaging in society not just spatially, but politically. Many of the buildings that you’ve proposed are more than just buildings, in other words; they’re actually new forms of political organization.

Woods: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the making of buildings is a huge investment of resources of various kinds. Financial, as well as material, and intellectual, and emotional resources of a whole group of people get involved in a particular building project. And any time you get a group, you’re talking about politics. To me politics means one thing: How do you change your situation? What is the mechanism by which you change your life? That’s politics. That’s the political question. It’s about negotiation, or it’s about revolution, or it’s about terrorism, or it’s about careful step-by-step planning – all of this is political in nature. It’s about how people, when they get together, agree to change their situation.

As I wrote some years back, architecture is a political act, by nature. It has to do with the relationships between people and how they decide to change their conditions of living. And architecture is a prime instrument of making that change – because it has to do with building the environment they live in, and the relationships that exist in that environment.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Siteline Vienna, 1998].

BLDGBLOG: There’s also the incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once complete, will actually change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture – could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them.

Woods: I love that. I love the way you put it, and I totally agree with it. I think, you know, architecture should not just be something that follows up on events but be a leader of events. That’s what you’re saying: That by implementing an architectural action, you actually are making a transformation in the social fabric and in the political fabric. Architecture becomes an instigator; it becomes an initiator.

That, of course, is what I’ve always promoted – but it’s the most difficult thing for people to do. Architects say: well, it’s my client, they won’t let me do this. Or: I have to do what my client wants. That’s why I don’t have any clients! [laughter] It’s true.

Because at least I can put the ideas out there and somehow it might seep through, or filter through, to another level.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, Nine Reconstructed Boxes].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, it seems like a lot of the work you’ve been doing for the past few years – in Vienna, especially – has been a kind of architecture without walls. It’s almost pure space. In other words, instead of walls and floors and recognizable structures, you’ve been producing networks and forces and tangles and clusters – an abstract space of energy and directions. Is that an accurate way of looking at your recent work – and, if so, is this a purely aesthetic exploration, or is this architecture without walls meant to symbolize or communicate a larger political message?

Woods: Well, look – if you go back through my projects over the years, probably the least present aspect is the idea of property lines. There are certainly boundaries – spatial boundaries – because, without them, you can’t create space. But the idea of fencing off, or of compartmentalizing – or the capitalist ideal of private property – has been absent from my work over the last few years.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods. A drawing of tectonic faults and other subsurface tensions, from his San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

I think in my more recent work, certainly, there are still boundaries. There are still edges. But they are much more porous, and the property lines… [laughs] are even less, should we say, defined or desired.

So the more recent work – like in Vienna, as you mentioned – is harder for people to grasp. Back in the early 90s I was confronting particular situations, and I was doing it in a kind of scenario way. I made realistic-looking drawings of places – of situations – but now I’ve moved into a purely architectonic mode. I think people probably scratch their heads a little bit and say: well, what is this? But I’m glad you grasp it – and I hope my comments clarify at least my aspirations.

Probably the political implication of that is something about being open – encouraging what I call the lateral movement and not the vertical movement of politics. It’s the definition of a space through a set of approximations or a set of vibrations or a set of energy fluctuations – and that has everything to do with living in the present.

All of those lines are in flux. They’re in movement, as we ourselves develop and change.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, System Wien, 2005].

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge thanks to Lebbeus Woods, not only for having this conversation but for proving over and over again that architecture can and should always be a form of radical reconstruction, unafraid to take on buildings, cities, worlds – whole planets.

For more images, meanwhile, including much larger versions of all the ones that appear here, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s Lebbeus Woods Flickr set. Also consider stopping by Subtopia for an enthusiastic recap of Lebbeus’s appearance at Postopolis! last Spring; and by City of Sound for Dan Hill’s synopsis of the same event.

Single Hauz

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Like an inhabitable billboard, the Single Hauz – by Poland’s front architects – proposes cantilevering domestic living space from a central mast. The house can then be installed above a variety of ground conditions, from the middle of a meadow to an urban core.
Personally… I’d put it in a lake.

[Images: The Single Hauz by front architects].

The cool thing is that I’ve actually spent the last 11 months of my life staring up at some of the Herculean billboard structures out here in Los Angeles; they tower over intersections on streets from Venice to Sepulveda and often seem as large as houses.
But how much weight could a billboard carry?

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Could you build a house up there?
Could you use the mast-and-cantilever model for other types of architectural structures, whether those are single-family houses – whole cul-de-sacs lined with modernist billboard homes! – or even restaurants and public libraries?
The Single Hauz shows how beautiful the effect could be.

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

For more projects by front architects, check out their website (though I couldn’t find any information in English).

(With huge thanks to a commenter named munditia, who first pointed out this project to me).

It’s Friday, June 1, in New York City

[Image: Standing outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by City of Sound].

It’s that time of day again: I’m on my way south across the island, heading down to the Storefront for Art and Architecture, for Day 4 of Postopolis!
Dan Hill has continued his coverage of the event, so if you’re looking for regular updates – as opposed to my half-efforts here, full of nothing – I’d urge you all to go check out City of Sound. There’s also a Postopolis! Flickr pool, if you’re looking for some images of the proceedings – and I promise to start posting normal BLDGBLOG content as soon as possible (and I apologize to readers who are tired of these meager asides!).

[Image: DJ /rupture, speaking yesterday at the Storefront; in some late-breaking but huge news, /rup will be spinning the Postopolis! closing party, Saturday night! Photo by Nicola Twilley].

Meanwhile, here’s today’s schedule:

1:30pm: Julia Solis
2:10pm: Andrew Blum
3:00pm: William Drenttel, Tom Vanderbilt, and Michael Bierut
4:10pm: James Sanders
4:50pm: David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang
5:30pm: Kevin Slavin
6:10pm: Eric Rodenbeck
6:50pm: Laura Kurgan
7:30pm: Lawrence Weschler

Hope to see you there! And don’t forget the Saturday night closing party, with live sets by DJ / rupture and N-RON.

The TransHab: “interiors in space”

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module, attached to the International Space Station. TransHab designed by Constance Adams; image found via HobbySpace].

Last week, Metropolis posted a short article by Susan Szenasy discussing a recent talk given by NASA architect Constance Adams.
Adams designed the TransHab, an inflatable housing module that connects to the International Space Station. Her work, Szenasy explains, shows how architects can successfully “interface people with… interiors in space” – with strong design implications for building interiors here on Earth.

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module; image via HobbySpace].

As Metropolis reported way back in 1999, Adams’s “path to NASA was a circuitous one. After graduating from Yale Architecture School in the early 1990s, she worked for Kenzo Tange in Tokyo and Josef Paul Kleiheus in Berlin, where she focused on large projects, from office buildings to city plans. But in 1996, when urban renewal efforts in Berlin began to slow down, she returned to the United States.”
That article goes on to explain how her first project for NASA was undertaken at the Johnson Space Center; there, she worked on something called a “bioplex” – a “laboratory for testing technologies that might eventually be used” on Mars, Metropolis explains. The bioplex came complete with “advanced life-support systems” for Mars-based astronauts, and it was thus Adams’s job “to design their living quarters.”
A few years later came the TransHab module. If one is to judge from the architectural lay-out of that module, we can assume that domesticity in space will include “bathrooms, exercise areas, and sick bays,” as well as “sleeping and work quarters,” an “enclosed mechanical room,” a few “radiation-shielding water tanks,” and even a conference room with its own “Earth-viewing window.”

[Image: The TransHab, cut-away to reveal the exercise room and a “pressurized tunnel” no home in space should be without. Image via Synthesis Intl. (where many more images are to be found)].

For more info about Adams and her architectural work, see this 1993 interview (it’s a pretty cool interview, I have to say); download this MP3, which documents a conversation between Constance Adams and journalist Andrew Blum (the latter of whom will be speaking at Postopolis! next week); or click way back to BLDGBLOG’s slightly strange, and now rather old, look at Adams (and many other astro-structural subjects) in Lunar urbanism 3.
So I’ll just end here with a few images, all of which are by Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.. According to Metropolis, these “show the different levels and spatial configurations for SEIM, a semi-inflatable vehicle created for both flight and planetary or lunar deployment.”
It was developed for NASA; you’re looking at Level 3.

[Images: Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.].