Gridshifting

You might recall our earlier look at the work of Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, who has been documenting the landscape phenomenon known as “grid corrections,” or where the U.S. road system is forced to deviate in order to account for the curvature of the Earth.

De Ruijter has now animated many dozens of those photos, with a soundtrack by Michel Banabila, into a one-minute video, embedded above. Watch roads tick into and out alignment across the American plains, as a grid of rectilinear lines faces geometric defeat on the surface of a sphere.

(Read more over at Travel + Leisure).

“Building with metals not from Earth”

I missed the story last month that a company called Planetary Resources had successfully 3D-printed a small model using “metals not from Earth”—that is, metal harvested from a meteorite. “Transforming a chunk of space rock into something you can feed into a 3D printer is a pretty odd process. Planetary Resources uses a plasma that essentially turns the meteorite into a cloud that then ‘precipitates’ metallic powder that can be extracted via a vacuum system. ‘It condenses like rain out of a cloud,’ said [a company spokesperson], ‘but instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.’ (…) ‘Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.’”

Extra-Terrestrial Sand Dunes

Geologist Michael Welland has an interesting post up about the “first detailed examination of extra-terrestrial sand dunes” on Mars, coming later this year. His post also briefly discusses the life and career of Ralph Bagnold, after whom the Martian dunes are named, as well as the granular physics of a remote landscape that, in Welland’s words, “just seems, instinctively, to be unearthly.”

Rings

In the forests of northern Ontario, a “strange phenomenon” of large natural rings occurs, where thousands of circles, as large as two kilometers in diameter, appear in the remote landscape.

ForestRings1[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

“From the air, these mysterious light-coloured rings of stunted tree growth are clearly visible,” the CBC explained back in 2008, “but on the ground, you could walk right through them without noticing them.”

Since they were discovered on aerial photos about 50 years ago, the rings have baffled biologists, geologists and foresters… Astronomers suggest the rings might be the result of meteor strikes. Prospectors wonder whether the formations signal diamond-bearing kimberlites, a type of igneous rock.

While it’s easy to get carried away with visions of supernatural tree rings growing of their own accord in the boreal forests, this is actually one of the more awesome examples of where the likely scientific explanation is also significantly more interesting than something more explicitly other-worldly.

Geochemistry of Forest Rings in northern Ontario:[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

Indeed, as geochemist Stew Hamilton suggested in 1998, the rings are most likely to be surface features caused by “reduced chimneys,” or “big centres of negative charge that frequently occur over metal deposits,” where a forest ring is simply “a special case of a reduced chimney.”

Reduced chimneys, meanwhile, are “giant electrochemical cells” in the ground that, as seen through the example of forest rings, can affect the way vegetation grows there.

rings[Image: Screen-grab from Google Maps].

One of many things worth highlighting here is this suggestion that the trees are being influenced from below by ambient electrochemical processes in the soil, set into motion by the region’s deep geology:

Hamilton was testing an analytical technique over a Matheson gold deposit to determine if there was any kind of geochemical surface signal. To his surprise, there were signals coming through 30 to 40 metres of glacial clay.

“We’re thinking there’s no way metals can move through clay 10,000 years after glaciation.”

After ruling out transport by ground water, diffusion and gas, he theorized it had to have been lifted to surface on electrical fields.

He applied the same theory to forest rings and discovered that they were also giant negatively charged cells.

Any source of negative charge will create a forest ring.

In landscape architecture terms, a forest ring—which Hamilton describes [PDF] as “a plant assemblage that is different from the surrounding forest making the features visible from the air”—could be seen as a kind of indirect electrochemical garden taking on a recognizably geometrical form without human intervention.

In effect, their shape is expressed from below. For ambitious future landscape designers, note that this implies a potential use of plantlife as a means for revealing naturally occurring electrical networks in the ground, where soil batteries and other forms of terrestrial electronics could articulate themselves through botanical side-effects.

That is, plant a forest; come back after twenty years; discover vast rings of negative electrochemical charge like smoke rings pushing upward from inside the earth.

Or, of course, you could reverse this: design for future landscape-architectural effects by formatting the deep soil of a given site, thus catalyzing subterranean electrochemical activity that, years if not generations later, would begin to have aesthetic effects.

ForestRings3[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

But it gets weirder: as Hamilton’s fieldwork also revealed, there is a measurable “bulge in the water table that occurs over the entire length of the forest ring with a profound dip on the ring’s outer edge.” For Hamilton, this effect was “beyond science fiction,” he remarked to the trade journal Northern Ontario Business, “it’s unbelievable.”

What this means, he explained, is that “the water is being held up against gravity” by naturally occurring electrical fields.

ForestRings4[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

Subsequent and still-ongoing research by other geologists and geochemists has shown that forest rings are also marked by the elevated presence of methane (which explains the “stunted tree growth”), caused by natural gas leaking up from geological structures beneath the forest.

Hamilton himself wrote, in a short report for the Ontario Geological Survey [PDF], that forest ring formation “may be due to upward methane seepage along geological structures from deeper sources,” and that this “may indicate deeper sources of natural gas in the James Bay Lowlands.”

Other hypotheses suggest that these forest rings could instead be surface indicators of diamond pipes and coal deposits—meaning that, given access to an aerial view, you can, in effect, “read” the earth’s biosphere as a living tissue of signs or symptoms through which deeper, non-biological phenomena (coal, diamonds, metals) are revealed.

ForestRings5[Image: Forest ring at N 49° 16′ 05″, W 83° 45′ 01″, via Google Maps].

Even better, these electrochemical effects stop on a macro-scale where the subsurface geology changes; as Hamilton points out [PDF], the “eastward disappearance of rings in Quebec occurs at the north-south Haricanna Moraine, which coincides with a sudden drop in the carbonate content of soils.”

If you recall that there were once naturally-occurring nuclear reactors burning away in the rocks below Gabon, then the implication here would be that large-scale geological formations, given the right slurry of carbonates, metals, and clays, can also form naturally-occurring super-batteries during particular phases of their existence.

To put this another way, through an accident of geology, what we refer to as “ground” in northern Ontario could actually be thought of a vast circuitboard of electrochemically active geological deposits, where an ambient negative charge in the soil has given rise to geometric shapes in the forest.

ForestRings6[Image: Forest rings at N 49° 29′ 48″, W 80° 05′ 40″, via Google Maps].

In any case, there is something pretty incredible about the idea that you could be hiking through the forests of northern Ontario without ever knowing you’re surrounded by huge, invisible, negatively charged megastructures exhibiting geometric effects on the plantlife all around you.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the future of the “sacred grove” for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, based on a paper called “The sacred groves of ancient Greece” by art historian Patrick Bowe. I mention this because it’s interesting to consider the forest rings of northern Ontario in the larger interpretive context of Bowe’s paper, not because there is any historical or empirical connection between the two, of course; but, rather, for the speculative value of questioning whether these types of anomalous forest-effects could, under certain cultural circumstances, carry symbolic weight. If they could, that is, become “sacred groves.”

Indeed, it is quite thrilling and strange to imagine some future cult of electrical activity whose spaces of worship and gathering are remote boreal rings, circular phenomena in the far north where water moves against gravity and chemical reactions crackle outward through the soil, forcing forests to take symmetrical forms only visible from high above.

For more on forest rings, check out the CBC or Northern Ontario Business or check out any of the PDFs linked in this post.

Comparative Astral Isochrones

[Image: Isochronic map of travel distances from London, from An Atlas of Economic Geography (1914) by John G. Bartholomew (via)].

“This is an isochronic map—isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time—and it tells a story about how travel was changing,” Simon Willis explains over at Intelligent Life. The map shows you how long it would take to get somewhere, embarking from London:

You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle within five days–to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

Earlier this year, when a private spacecraft made it from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station in less than six hours, the New York Times pointed out that “it is now quicker to go from Earth to the space station than it is to fly from New York to London.”

[Image: From Twitter].

In the context of Bartholomew’s map, it would be interesting to re-explore isochronal cartography in our own time, to visualize the strange spacetime we live within today, where the moon is closer than parts of Antarctica and the International Space Station is a shorter trip than flying to Heathrow.

(Map originally spotted via Francesco Sebregondi).

Dead Ringer

[Image: Mars’s moon, Phobos; courtesy NASA /JPL/University of Arizona].

Oh, to live another 40 million years… “One day,” Nature reports, “Mars may have rings like Saturn does”:

The martian moon Phobos, which is spiralling inexorably closer towards the red planet, will disintegrate to form a ring system some 20 million to 40 million years from now, according to calculations published on 23 November. Other research suggests that long grooves on Phobos’s surface may represent the first stages of that inevitable crack-up.

After that point, a red mineral ring will gradually coalesce from the dust storm, circling the planet in a desert halo.

In terms of human experience, 20-40 million years obviously dwarfs our anatomical and genetic history as modern Homo sapiens, and I am excessively confident that no humans will be around to witness this event. Nonetheless, it’s not actually that far off. The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old; 20-40 million years is the geological blink of an eye. In a sense, we will just miss it.

For what it’s worth, Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, is about a similar event—but set on Earth, not Mars.

“What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces?” a review in the New York Times asked. “What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?”

In any case, read more over at Nature.

The Drowned World

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

Artists Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton’s project Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime simultaneously explores the history of different geographic projections—including how these have been used to misrepresent and distort the earth’s surface—and at the future of that earth in an era of rising sea levels.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As Factum Arte explain, their chosen geographic projections offer “a way of engaging with the Earth from different points of view, and reflect historical ways of mapping the world from the Greeks to Google Earth.”

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

The projections are milled into beautiful 3D topographic models, with the vertical axis exaggerated to allow for changes in altitude to become visible.

The Andes, for example, become an abrupt spine of skyscraping pinnacles on the edge of an otherwise dead-flat continent, and deep-sea plains become spiky fields of underwater needles and pins.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As the artists write, “distortion was used because without it the globe’s surface would appear almost totally flat”—which interestingly suggests that representational distortion, with a great deal of irony, is actually central to giving our planet geographic legibility.

To map it or to know it, the implication seems to be, you must first alter it.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

This is only half the project, however.

The artists refer to Terra Forming as “a cartographic response to the advent of the Anthropocene“—which is why the resulting topographic models are then flooded.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

“The installation will mimic the passage of time as well as space,” Factum Arte write, “by flooding the world with water over several days, until we reach current sea levels; the world will then be flooded completely, leaving us with a drowned world, a prescient image for those parts of the world facing rising sea levels, as well as those such as parts of the Arabian Peninsula which is trying to reclaim land from the sea.”

You can watch a short video of the project’s gradual submergence on Vimeo—or embedded below.



And you can read much more about the project over at Factum Arte.

Village Design as Magnetic Storage Media

[Image: “Magnetic Field” by Berenice Abbott, from The Science Pictures (1958-1961)].

An interesting new paper suggests that the ritual practice of burning parts of villages to the ground in southern Africa had an unanticipated side-effect: resetting the ground’s magnetic data storage potential.

As a University of Rochester press release explains, the “villages were cleansed by burning down huts and grain bins. The burning clay floors reached a temperature in excess of 1000ºC, hot enough to erase the magnetic information stored in the magnetite and create a new record of the magnetic field strength and direction at the time of the burning.”

What this meant was that scientists could then study how the Earth’s magnetic field had changed over centuries by comparing more recent, post-fire alignments of magnetite in the ground beneath these charred building sites with older, pre-fire clay surrounding the villages.

The ground, then, is actually an archive of the Earth’s magnetic field.

If you picture this from above—perhaps illustrated as a map or floor plan—you can imagine seeing the footprint of the village itself, with little huts, buildings, and grain bins appearing simply as the outlines of open shapes.

However, within these shapes, like little windows in the surface of the planet, new magnetic alignments would begin to appear over decades as minerals in the ground slowly re-orient themselves with longterm shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field, like differently tiled geometries contrasting with the ground around them.

[Image: “Untitled” by Larry Bell (1962), via the L.A. Times, via Christopher Hawthorne].

What really blows me away here, though, is the much more abstract idea that the ground itself is a kind of reformattable magnetic data storage system. It can be reformatted and overwritten, its data wiped like a terrestrial harddrive.

While this obviously brings to mind the notion of the planetary harddrive we explored a few years ago—for what it’s worth, one of my favorite posts here—it also suggests something quite strange, which is that landscape architecture (that is, the tactical and aesthetic redesign of terrain) and strategies of data management (archiving, cryptography, inscription) might someday go hand in hand.

(Via Archaeology).

The Town That Creep Built

[Image: A curb in Hayward reveals how much the ground is drifting due to “fault creep”: the red-painted part is slowly, but relentlessly, moving north. Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

South of San Francisco, a whole town is being deformed by plate tectonics. These are the slow but relentless landscape effects known as “fault creep.”

An earlier version of this post was first published on The Daily Beast.

The signs that something’s not right aren’t immediately obvious, but, once you see them, they’re hard to tune out.

Curbs at nearly the exact same spot on opposite sides of the street are popped out of alignment. Houses too young to show this level of wear stand oddly warped, torqued out of synch with their own foundations, their once strong frames off-kilter. The double yellow lines guiding traffic down a busy street suddenly bulge northward—as if the printing crew came to work drunk that day—before snapping back to their proper place a few feet later.

This is Hollister, California, a town being broken in two slowly, relentlessly, and in real time by an effect known as “fault creep.” A surreal tide of deformation has appeared throughout the city.

[Image: “Fault creep” bends the curbs in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

As if its grid of streets and single-family homes was actually built on an ice floe, the entire west half of Hollister is moving north along the Calaveras Fault, leaving its eastern streets behind.

In some cases, doors no longer fully close and many windows now open only at the risk of getting stuck (some no longer really close at all).

Walking through the center of town near Dunne Park offers keen observers a hidden funfair of skewed geometry.

[Image: 359 Locust Avenue, Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

For example, go to the house at 359 Locust Avenue.

The house itself stands on a different side of the Calaveras Fault than its own front walkway. As if trapped on a slow conveyor built sliding beneath the street, the walk is being pulled inexorably north, with the effect that the path is now nearly two feet off-center from the porch it still (for the time being) leads to.

[Image: The walkway is slowly creeping north, no longer centered with the house it leads to; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In another generation, if it’s not fixed, this front path will be utterly useless, leading visitors straight into a pillar.

Or walk past the cute Victorian on 5th Street. Strangely askew, it seems frozen at the start of an unexpected metamorphosis.

[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Geometrically, it’s a cube being forced to become a rhomboid by the movements of the fault it was unknowingly built upon, an architectural dervish interrupted before it could complete its first whirl.

Now look down at your feet at the ridged crack spreading through the asphalt behind you, perfectly aligned with the broken curbs and twisted homes on either side.

This is the actual Calaveras Fault, a slow shockwave of distortion forcing its way through town, bringing architectural mutation along with it.

[Images: The Calaveras Fault pushes its way through Hollister; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

The ceaseless geometric tumult roiling just beneath the surface of Hollister brings to mind the New Orleans of John McPhee, as described in his legendary piece for The New Yorker, “Atchafalaya.”

There, too, the ground is active and constantly shifting—only, in New Orleans, it’s not north or south. It’s up or down. The ground, McPhee explains, is subsiding.

“Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings,” he writes. “As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise.” This leads to the surreal appearance of carnivalesque spatial side-effects, with houses entirely detached from their own front porches and stairways now leading to nowhere:

Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene.

Like McPhee’s New Orleans, Hollister is an inhabitable catalog of misalignment and disorientation, bulging, bending, and blistering as it splits right down the middle.

And there’s more. Stop at the north end of 6th Street, for example, just across from Dunne Park, and look back at the half-collapsed retaining wall hanging on for dear life in front of number 558.

It looks like someone once backed a truck into it—but it’s just evidence of plate tectonics, the ground bulging northward without regard for bricks or concrete.

[Images: A fault-buckled wall and sidewalk bearing traces of planetary forces below; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, follow this north on Google Maps and you’ll find a clean line connecting this broken wall to the jagged rupture crossing the street in the photographs above, to the paper-thin fault dividing the house from its own front walk on Locust Avenue.

So what’s happening to Hollister?

“Fault creep” is a condition that results when the underlying geology is too soft to get stuck or to accumulate tectonic stress: in other words, the deep rocks beneath Hollister are slippery, more pliable, and behave a bit like talc. Wonderfully but unsurprisingly, the mechanism used to study creep is called a creepmeter.

The ground sort of oozes past itself, in other words, a slow-motion landslide at a pace that would be all but imperceptible if it weren’t for the gridded streets and property lines being bent out of shape above it.

[Image: A curb and street drain popped far out of alignment in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a sense, Hollister is an urban-scale device for tracking tectonic deformation: attach rulers to its porches and curbs, and you could even take measurements.

The good news is that the large and damaging earthquakes otherwise associated with fault movement—when the ground suddenly breaks free every hundred years or so in a catastrophic surge—are not nearly as common here.

Instead, half a town can move north by more than an inch every five years and all that most residents will ever feel is an occasional flutter.

[Images: Crossing onto the Pacific Plate (heading west) in Parkfield; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I spoke with Andy Snyder from the U.S. Geological Survey about the phenomenon.

Snyder works on an experiment known as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, which has actually drilled down through the San Andreas Fault to monitor what’s really happening down there, studying the landscape from below through sensitive probes installed deep in the active scar tissue between tectonic plates.

On Snyder’s advice, I made my way out to one of the greatest but most thoroughly mundane monuments to fault creep in the state of California. This was in Parkfield, a remote town with a stated population of 18 where Snyder and SAFOD are both based, and where fault creep is particularly active.

In Parkfield there is a remarkable road bridge: a steel structure that has been anchored to either side of the San Andreas Fault like a giant, doomed staple. Anyone who crosses it in either direction is welcomed onto a new tectonic plate by friendly road signs—but the bridge itself is curiously bent, warped like a bow as its western anchorage moves north toward San Francisco.

It distorts more and more every day of the month, every year, due to the slow effects of fault creep. Built straight, it is already becoming a graceful curve.

[Image: Looking east at the North American Plate in Parkfield; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Parkfield is also approximately where fault creep begins in the state, Snyder explained, marking the southern edge of a zone of tectonic mobility that extends up roughly to Hollister and then begins again on a brief stretch of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay.

Indeed, another suggestion of Snyder’s was that I go up to visit a very specific corner in the city of Hayward, where the curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect Streets has long since been shifted out of alignment.

Over the past decade—most recently, in 2011—someone has actually been drawing little black arrows on the concrete to help visualize how far the city has drifted in that time.

The result is something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.

[Images: A moving curb becomes an inadvertent compass for measuring seismic energy in Hayward; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Attempting to visualize earthquakes on a thousand-year time span, or to imagine the pure abstraction of seismic energy, can be rather daunting; this makes it all the more surprising to realize that even the tiniest details hidden in plain sight, such as cracks in the sidewalk, black sharpie marks on curbs, or lazily tilting front porches, can actually be real-time evidence that California is on the move.

But it is exactly these types of signs that function as minor landmarks for the seismic tourist—and, for all their near-invisibility, visiting them can still provide a mind-altering experience.

Back in Hollister, Snyder warned, many of these already easily missed signs through which fault creep is made visible are becoming more and more hard to find.

The town is rapidly gentrifying, he pointed out, and Hollister’s population is beginning to grow as its quiet and leafy streets fill up with commuters who can no longer afford to live closer to Silicon Valley or the Bay. This means that the city’s residents are now just a bit faster to repair things, just a bit quicker to tear down structurally unsound houses.

One of the most famous examples of fault creep, for example—a twisted and misshapen home formerly leaning every which way at a bend in Locust Avenue—is gone. But whatever replaces it will face the same fate.

After all, the creep is still there, like a poltergeist disfiguring things from below, a malign spirit struggling to make itself visible.

Beneath the painted eaves and the wheels of new BMWs, the landscape is still on the move; the deformation is just well hidden, a denied monstrosity reappearing millimeter by millimeter despite the quick satisfaction of weekend repair jobs. Tumid and unstoppable, there is little that new wallpaper or re-poured driveways can do to disguise it.

[Image: Haphazard concrete patchwork in a formerly straight sidewalk betrays the slow action of fault creep; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Snyder remembered one more site in Hollister that he urged me to visit on my way out of town.

In the very center of Hollister’s Dunne Park, a nice and gentle swale “like a chaise longue,” in his words, has been developing.

Expecting to find just a small bump running through the park, I was instead surprised to see that there is actually a rather large grassy knoll forming there, a rolling and bucolic hill that few people would otherwise realize is an active tectonic fault.

[Image: A fault-caused grassy knoll rises in the center of Dunne Park in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, he said, residents have been entirely unperturbed by this mysterious appearance of a brand new landform in the middle of their city, seeing it instead as an opportunity for better sunbathing. Fault creep is not without its benefits, he joked.

Snyder laughed as he described the sight of a dozen people and their beach towels, all angling themselves upward toward the sun, getting tan in a mobile city with the help of plate tectonics.

[Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Daily Beast (where I did not choose the original headline). I owe a huge thanks to Andy Snyder for the phone conversation in which we discussed fault creep; and the book Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough was also extremely useful. Finally, please also note that, if you do go to Hollister or Hayward to photograph these sites, be mindful of the people who actually live there, as they do not necessarily want crowds of strangers gathering outside their homes].

A Cenotaph for Tailings

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Here’s another project from the RIBA President’s Medals, this one by Alexis Quinteros Salazar, a student at the University of Chile in Santiago.

Called “Mining Cenotaph,” it imagines an “occupation” of the tailings piles that have become a toxic urban landmark and a spatial reminder of the region’s economic exploitation.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

A museum would be carved into the tailings; in Salazar’s words, this would be a “building that captures the history and symbolism behind mining, enhancing and revitalizing a memory that is currently disaggregated and ignored and has a very high touristic potential.”

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

In an architectural context such as this, the use of the word “cenotaph” is a pretty clear reference to Étienne-Louis Boullée’s classic speculative project, the “Cenotaph for Newton.” Over multiple generations, that has become something of a prime mover in the history of experimental architectural design.

Punctured walls and ceilings bring light into the interior—

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

—while the roof is a recreational space for visitors.

Of course, there are a lot of unanswered questions here—including the control of aerosol pollution from the tailings pile itself and that pile’s own long-term structural stability—but the poetic gesture of a public museum grafted into a pile of waste material is worth commending.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

The detail I might like this most is where the structure becomes a kind of inversion of Boullée’s dome, which was pierced to make its huge interior space appear illuminated from above by constellations. Here, instead, it is the perforations in the the rooftop that would glow upward from below, as if in resonance with the night skies high above.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Salazar’s project brings to mind a few other proposals seen here over the years, including the extraordinary “Memorial to a Buried Village” by Bo Li and Ge Men, as well as Brandon Mosley’s “Mine Plug” (which actually took its name retroactively from that BLDGBLOG post).

Click through to see slightly larger versions of the images over at the RIBA President’s Medals website.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Finally, don’t miss the Brooklyn food co-op posted earlier, also a recent President’s Medal featured project.

Books Received

[Image: Cincinnati Public Library, 1870s; photo via Steve Silberman].

It’s that time of the year again, to take a look at the many, many books that have passed through the halls of BLDGBLOG the past season or two, ranging, as usual, from popular science to fiction, landscape history to the urban future of the refugee camp.

There are some great books included in this round-up, ones I’d love to help find a wider audience—however, as will be clear from a handful of descriptions below, and as is always the case with book round-ups here on BLDGBLOG, I have not read every book included in the following list and not all of them are necessarily new.

However, in all cases, these books are included for the interest of their approach or for their general subject matter, and the wide range of themes present should give anyone at least a few interesting titles to seek out for autumn reading.


1) Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press)

One of the most enjoyable books of my summer was Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Lapsley’s history of “phone phreaks,” or people who successfully hacked the early phone networks into giving them free calls to one another and around the world, would read, in a different context, like some strange occult thriller featuring disaffected teenagers tapping into a supernatural world. Weird boxes, unexplained dial tones, and disembodied voices at the end of the line pop up throughout the book, as do surprise cameos from a pre-Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Teenagers throwing frequencies and sounds at vast machines through telephone handsets managed to unlock another dimension of the phone network, Lapsley explains, a byzantine geography of remote switching centers and international operators. In the process, they helped pave the way for the hackers we know today. I have heard, anecdotally, from a few people who were around and part of these groups at the time, that Lapsley got some of his details wrong, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of—or inability to put down—his book. Recommended, and very fun.

2) Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (MIT Press)

This pamphlet-length book by Carnegie Mellon University’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh on the future of robotics pays admirable attention to the fundamental problem of even defining what “robotics” is. Better yet, Nourbakhsh prefaces each of his short chapters with fictional interludes exploring speculative scenarios of future robotics gone awry. There is a disturbing vignette in which flying robot toys programmed to recognize human eye contact swarm around and terrify anyone not hiding their gaze behind wearing sunglasses—something the toys’ manufacturer never predicted—as well as a memorable scenario in which new forms of robot-readable graffiti throw entire self-driving traffic systems into a tizzy, making car after car wrongly report that an impenetrable roadblock lies ahead. Call it traffic-hacking.

In the end, Nourbakhsh suggests, robots will prove to be fundamentally different from human beings, and we should be prepared for his. “A robot moving down the street will see in all directions, not simply in front of it like humans,” he writes. “If that robot is connected to a network of video cameras along the street, it will see everywhere on the street, from all angles, the entire time it walks. Imagine this scenario. A not-very-clever robot walking down the street will have access to entire synthesized views of the street—up and down, behind you, down the alley, around the corner—and be able to scroll back through time with perfect fidelity. As you approach this robot, it might be cognitively much dumber than you, but it knows far more about its surroundings than you do. It stops suddenly. What do you do? There is no common ground established between you and this robot, just the fact that you occupy the same sidewalk.”


3) Beyond The Blue Horizon: How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked The Secrets Of The Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)

Brian Fagan, an environmental historian known for his books on climate change and civilization, has written a great example of what might be called adventure-history. Beyond the Blue Horizon takes us through roughly twenty thousand—even potentially, depending on how you interpret the archaeological evidence, more than one hundred thousand—years of human seafaring. Every few pages, amidst tales of people sailing in small groups, even drifting, seemingly lost, for days at a time across vast expanses of open water, Fagan makes arresting observations, such as the fact that early Pacific navigators, laden down with seeds and plants, “literally carried their own landscape with them,” he writes.

The importance of the coast in supporting human settlement, and the absolute centrality of the sea—rather than continental interiors—in shaping human history, gives Fagan multiple opportunities to refocus our sense of our own remote past. We are not landed creatures of roads and automobiles, Fagan argues, but a maritime species whose entire childhood and adolescence was spent paddling past unknown coastlines, searching for freshwater rivers and streams—a “world of ceaseless movement,” as he calls it, including now lost islands, deltas, and coasts. Fagan’s brilliance at describing landscapes as they undergo both seasonal changes and variations in climate also applies to his depictions of Earthly geography when sea levels were, for most of the eras described in his book, more than 300 feet lower than it is today. It was another planet—a maritime world—one that humans seem to have lost sight of and forgotten.

4) The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press)

John R. Gillis’s look at “seacoasts in history” proves to be compulsively readable, sustaining many long subway rides for me here in New York, although the final few chapters fall off into unnecessarily long quotations from what seems like any random academic source he could find that mentioned the sea. This is too bad, because a shorter, more tightly edited version of this book would be a dream. Gillis is not shy about making outsized claims for revising the history of human civilization. The shore is “the true home of humankind,” he writes, “the original Eden.” He wants Westerners to forget the “terracentric history” they’ve been taught, which is, he points out, simply a historical misunderstanding of where humans actually spent 95%—the number Gillis uses—of their development: on shorelines and coastal islands.

“The book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked,” he writes, “but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” Gillis quotes the words of writer Steve Mentz here, who argued that we need “fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks” in our narrative understanding of human prehistory.

Gillis allows his book some intriguing political subthemes. He writes, for example, that “it would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” He adds, “for the first century or more [of their habitation in the Americas], northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.” Rivers and lakes were the key to ruling North America, for a time; and, seemingly since the interior land rush of U.S. history, the “seaborne” ways of humans, with or without a state to back them, have been forgotten.

As a brief side note, it’s interesting here to look at the Somali pirates so often mythologized in Western media, including the forthcoming Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips—that stateless, seaborne groups of humans still exist and are the rogue scourge of landed empires (see also The Enemy of All by Daniel Heller-Roazan, etc.).

5) The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush by Davig Igler (Oxford University Press)

David Igler’s own book on all things anthropologically oceanic focuses solely on the Pacific Ocean, from the first wave of European exploration to early-modern sea trade. Igler, too, finds the land-locked nature of traditional history both claustrophobic and incorrect. “The ‘places’ usually subjected to historical analysis—nations, regions, and localities—have fixed borders enclosing land and thus constitute terrestrial history,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Historians have far less experience imagining the ways that oceanic space connects people and polities, rather than separating them.” Igler’s larger point—that tides, currents, and winds, even specific ships, are also, in a sense, “places” deserving of historical recognition—animates the rest of the book.

Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, And Future Of Human Space Exploration by Claude A. Piantadosi (Columbia University Press)

6) This book is admittedly quite hampered by its extraordinary practicality: there is very little poetry here, mostly straight talk of musculoskeletal disorders in low gravity and heat-loss from warm bodies in space. We begin on the ground floor, not only with a short and perhaps unnecessary history of the U.S. space program, but with the very basics of human physiology and the mechanics of flight. I suspect, however, that most readers are perfectly willing to jump into the deep end and read what’s on offer in the book’s later chapters: human visits to Mars, to asteroids, to “big planets, dwarf planets, and small bodies,” in Piantadosi’s words, to the “moons of the ice giants” and beyond. Ultimately, though, the book is simply too dry to feel like these later glimpses of “mankind beyond Earth,” as the title teasingly—and, for the most part, misleadingly—promises, are a worthy reward. If you must, one to look for in the local library.


7) Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday)

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 and thus, now, a colleague of mine, has exceeded all expectations with the research, depth, and range of this quirkily enthusiastic look at planetary mass extinction. Her early chapters on dinosaurs, plagues, extremophiles, world-altering volcanic eruptions, long geological eras when the Earth was locked in ice, possible human/Neanderthal guerrilla warfare (not to mention inter-breeding), and much more, are like a New Scientist article you hope never ends. It’s an exciting read.

Oddly, though, the central premise of the book—that, through urbanization, human beings will find ways to avoid their own extinction—feels tacked on and unconvincingly developed. If I’m being honest, it feels like Newitz is trying to make more of an ideological point about the political value and cultural centrality of cities today, rather than actually arguing rationally for the possibility that cities will save the human species. This is especially the case if we’re talking about—as, in this book, we are—catastrophic asteroid impacts or the outbreak of a super-virus. This otherwise gripping book thus has a bit of an are-you-serious? feel as it wraps up its final fifty pages or so. While advancing a theory of safety achieved through collective living, urban farming, and social cooperation, Newitz also inadvertently seems to contradict the first command of her book’s title: to scatter. That is, to fling ourselves to the far edges of the universe—to explore, survive, and mutate with the cosmos—not to band together, urbanize, and cooperate.

As such, it seems possible to imagine an identical version of this book—identical, that is, for 200 pages or so—but with a radically differnet ending: one in which truly scattering, adapting ourselves, isolating ourselves, and differentiating our civilizational pursuits—even differentiating our very DNA through evolution in separation—would be the most effective way to avoid human extinction. But that argument, it seems, is ideologically impermissible; it makes you an anti-state survivalist, a cosmic redneck, building bunkers in the Utah desert or on the moons of another world, more Ted Nugent than Stewart Brand.

In any case, putting political arguments like these aside, the book ends with a mind-popper of a quotation. In a conversation with Randii Wessen at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Wessen tells Newitz: “Our kids are the last generation who will see no city lights on the Moon.” This is both wonderful and terrible, and as concise a statement as I’ve read anywhere to show the human future rolling on.

8) Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings (Current)

Gifted science writer Lee Billings takes us on a search for other Earths—or, more accurately, for habitable “exoplanets” where life like us may or may not have a chance of existing. The book starts off with quite a coup. Billings treats us to a long, at-home visit with astronomer Frank Drake of Drake’s Equation fame: the abstract but reasonable calculation used for decades now to determine whether or not intelligent civilizations might exist elsewhere (and, by extension, how likely it is that humans will find them).

The book is not hard science, it is easy to follow, and Billings is a great writer; his tendency, however, veers toward the humanistic, following the life stories of individual astronomers or physicists here on Earth as they search the outer reaches of the detectable universe for signs of exoplanets.

A sizable diversion late in the book, for example, takes us on a canoe trip far into the Canadian north, past lakes and rivers, with a wary eye on approaching storms, to tell the story of how physicist Sara Seager met and fell in love with one of her colleagues. It is not a short diversion, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Seager’s canoe trip has little to do with the search for “life among the stars,” as the book’s subtitle suggests. It is at moments like this, as Seager and her partner paddle from one portage to another, that I found myself wondering if the only stories to tell are of other human beings—whether scientists or NASA administrators—then why, in a sense, are we looking for exoplanets at all?

Of course, the book jacket never promised us surreal descriptions of other worlds. But it’s hard not to hope for exactly that: that Billings would focus his considerable rhetorical powers away from our world for a few more chapters and offer those evocative glimpses of Earth-like planets I suspect so many readers will come to his book to find—visions of worlds like ours but magically, cosmically different—and thus communicate the beautiful, poetically irresistible urge to discover them. His introductory descriptions of the formation of our solar system, for instance, are breathtaking, clear, and poetic, and similar passages elsewhere show the pull of the exoplanetary; the narrative structure of the scientist profile seems inadvertently to have focused the bulk of the book’s attention here on Earth, where we are already bound, rather than to let the strange light of the universe shine through more frequently.

But this is like complaining about dessert after a delicious meal. I’ll simply hope that Billings’s next book concentrates more on the inhuman allure so peculiar to astronomy, a field astonishingly rich with worlds mortal humans long to see.

9) Are We Being Watched?: The Search for Life in the Cosmos by Paul Murdin (Thames & Hudson)

The off-putting and sensationalistic title of Paul Murdin’s new book is, thankfully, not a sign of things to come in the text itself. Murdin’s sober yet thrilling look at the history and future of astrobiology is a bright spot in a recent spate of books about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “The twenty-first century is the century of astrobiology,” he writes in the first sentence of chapter one; indeed, he adds with extraordinary confidence, “this is the era in which we will discover life on other worlds, and learn from it.”

Amidst many interesting tidbits, one worth repeating here actually comes from Murdin’s quotation of paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris. Conway-Morris, referring to the possibility of discovering truly alien life, rightly suggests that we could very well have no idea what we’re looking at. Indeed, he memorably says, these other life forms could be “constructions so unfamiliar that they are only brought home by accident and then inadvertently handed over for curation in a department of mineralogy.” The idea that rocks sitting quietly in a Natural History museum somewhere are actually alien life forms is mind-blowing and but one take-away from this thought-provoking book.

Over the course of Are We Being Watched?, Murdin enjoyably goes all over the place, from amino acids to plate tectonics, to radio-stimulated organic molecules in the atmosphere of Titan. As if channeling H.P. Lovecraft, Murdin at one point writes that, on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, scientists have seen the same churning processes as witnessed in Antarctica, but, on Europa, “we see the results of this churning as colored stains on ridges of ice at the boundaries of ice floes. Perhaps in these colored stains lie dead creatures, brought up from the depths of the ocean and exposed to view by orbiting spacecraft or landers that can rove over the surface.”

10) Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes (FSG)

Frankenstein’s Cat follows the 21st-century quest to re-engineer biology, to design “the fauna of the future,” as the book promises, or “biotech’s brave new beasts,” where resurrected species, pets with prostheses, and militarized insects crawl through forests of genetically modified trees. At once terrifying and thrilling, and animated in all cases by the gonzo enthusiasm of any science operating at seemingly unstoppable speed, Emily Anthes’s book shows the weird biological breakthroughs that will ultimately create the landscapes of tomorrow: the cities, gardens, parks, oceans, and backyards our descendants will inevitably mistake for nature (and then, eventually, dismiss as mundane).


11) Sweet & Salt: Water And The Dutch by Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel (NAi Publishers)

Journalist Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel have teamed up for this collaborative look at “environmental planning” in the Netherlands, with a focus on all things aquatic. While Metz visits the country’s numerous megaprojects and anti-flooding infrastructure to speak with water engineers, “dike wardens,” and other stewards of Holland’s relationship with rain and the sea, van den Heuvel assembles a spectacular catalog featuring visual depictions of waterworks throughout Dutch art history. This is “the visualization of water in art,” as she calls it, revealing “anxieties about flooding” and a deep-rooted infrastructural patriotism inspired by the technical means for controlling that flooding.

Ultimately, the book’s goal is to show how Dutch water management is changing in the face of rising sea levels and climate change, and how “water is coming back into the city,” as Metz writes, changing the nature of contemporary urban design.

12) Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 by Christian Salewski (010 Publishers)

This well-illustrated history and catalog of large-scale hydrological projects in the Netherlands—and the “Dutch new worlds” those projects helped generate—offers a provocative look at the very idea of infrastructure. Salewski suggests that a nation’s infrastructure is like literature or mythology, a built narrative in which a much larger constellation of dreams and aspirations can be read. “There is no Dutch Hollywood,” Salewski writes, “no cinematic dream machine that constantly processes the current view of the future into easily digestible, mass-consumed science fiction movies. Dutch views into the future are probably best found not in cultural works of literature and art, but in physical planning designs.” That is, in the dams, dikes, levees, and polders the rest of the book goes on to so interestingly describe. Infrastructure, Salewski offers, is one of many ways in which a nation dreams.

13) Bird On Fire: Lessons From The World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross (Oxford University Press)

Andrew Ross takes a critical look at Phoenix, Arizona, a desert city “sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.” As the city tries to “green” itself through boosts in public transportation and a more sensible water management strategy—among other things—Ross asks if an urban transformation, something that might save Phoenix from its current parched fate, is even possible.

14) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (Oxford University Press)

Kate Brown’s Plutopia creates a horrifying set of conjoined urban twins, so to speak, by both comparing and contrasting the purpose-built plutonium production towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia. These were fully planned and state-supported facilities, yet both were also highly delicate, secret cities—in Ozersk’s case, literally off the map—constantly at risk of nuclear disaster. And disaster, of course, eventually comes.

Brown points out how, between the two of them, Richland and Ozersk released four times the amount of radiation into the environment as the meltdown at Chernobyl, and she tracks the disturbing long-term health and environmental effects in the surrounding regions. In both cases, perhaps cynically, perhaps inspiringly, these polluted regions have become nature reserves.

In a particularly troubling anecdote from the final chapter, referring to the experience of Richland, Brown points out that “periodically deer and rabbits wander from the preserve and leave radioactive droppings on Richland’s lawns,” but also, more seriously, that multiple wineries have sprung up perilously close to the hazard zone, “near the mothballed plutonium plant.” While sipping wine at one of those very vineyards, Brown tries to talk to the locals about the potential for radiation in the soil—and, thus, in the wine—but, unsurprisingly, they react to her questions “testily.”

These carefully manicured utopian towns, like scenes from The Truman Show crossed with Silkwood, with their dark role in the state production of plutonium, give us the “Plutopia” of the book’s title. Ozersk and Richland are “citadels of plutonium,” she writes, instant cities of the atomic age.


15) From Camp To City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara by Manuel Herz (Lars Müller Publishers)

Based on original research from a studio taught at the ETH in Zurich, architect Manuel Herz has assembled this fascinating and important guide to the urban and quasi-urban structures of refugee camps. Focusing specifically on camps in extreme southwest Algeria, populated by people fleeing from conflict in the Western Sahara, these camps are, Herz suggests, Western instant urbanism stripped bare, the city shown at its factory presets, revealing the infrastructural defaults and basic political conditions of the modern metropolis. They are “the spatial manifestation of the state of exception,” he writes, citing Giorgio Agamben, mere “holding areas” in which urban forms slowly take shape and crystallize. The camps are where, Herz writes, “Architecture and planning becomes [sic] a replacement for a political solution.”

From the architecture of the tents themselves to the delivery infrastructures that bring water, food, and other vital goods to their inhabitants, to culturally specific spatial accouterments, like carpets and curtains, Herz shows how the camps manage to become cities almost in spite of themselves, and how these cities then offer something like training grounds for future nations to come. In Herz’s own words, “the camps act also as a training phase, during which the Sahrawi society [of the Western Sahara] can develop ideas and concepts of what system of education they want to establish, and learn about public health and medical service provision. The camps become a space where nation-building can be learned and performed, to be later transferred to their original homeland, if it becomes available in the future.”

This idea of the state-in-waiting—and its ongoing spatial rehearsal in the form of emergency camps—runs throughout the book, which is also a detailed, full-color catalog of almost every conceivable spatial detail of life in these refugee camps. In the process, Herz and his team have assembled a highly readable and deeply fascinating look at urbanism in its most exposed or raw condition. “In the blazing sun of the Sahara Desert,” he concludes, “we can observe the birth of the urban condition with a clarity and crispness almost unlike anywhere else in the world.”

16) Roman Disasters by Jerry Toner (Polity)

Cambridge Classicist Jerry Toner had described his wide range of interests as being centered on the notion of “history from below.” He has written prolifically about ancient Rome, in particular, from several unexpected points of view, including popular culture in antiquity, the smellscape of early Christianity, and an currently in-progress work on crime in the ancient metropolis.

Roman Disasters looks specifically at imperial disaster-response, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic fires, warfare, and disease. Toner describes how the abstract notion of risk was first formulated and understood; the role of religious prophecy in “imagining future disaster”; and halting, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to construct a fireproof metropolis, such as the widening of city streets and the creation of a semi-permanent Roman fire brigade.

Very much a history, rather than a page-turner directed at a popular audience, Roman Disasters nonetheless offers a compelling and unexpected look at the ancient world, one peppered with refugee camps, tent cities, and displaced populations all looking for—and not necessarily finding—imperial beneficence.

17) Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (FSG)

Robin Nagle is an “anthropologist-in-residence” at the NYC Department Sanitation. Picking Up is her document of that incredible—and strange—backstage pass to the afterlife of the city, where all that we discard or undervalue simply gets tossed to the curb. Nagle tags along with, interviews, and reveals the “garbage faeries” who rid our streets of the unwanted detritus of everyday life, whether trash or snow. In the process, she’s written a kind of narrative map or oral history of another New York, one with its own flows and infrastructure, and one that exists all but invisibly alongside the one we inhabit everyday.

18) Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook edited by Stefan Al (Hong Kong University Press)

Architect Stefan Al, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a team of researchers to the Pearl River Delta, the “factory of the world,” to explore how people live and—even more—how they work in the region. A fascinating glimpse at the “self-contained world” of what amounts to corporate-industrial urbanism, the book nonetheless feels very much like a book assembled by architects who had a grant for producing a publication: it is heavy on comparative infographics, layered images, pie charts, and small-print introductory essays, all on coated paper resistant to underlining. The subject matter is fascinating, but the book is ultimately of less use than, say, sending Robin Nagle to visit these “factory towns of south China,” reporting back about the complicated lives and material cultures found there.


19) Ruin Nation: Destruction And The American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press)

Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation is a kind of Piranesian guide to the Civil War ruins of American cities of the 19th century. The book is a bit slow and overly cautious in its descriptions, but it is remarkable for a specific focus on architectural ruins following the Civil War. “Architectural ruins—cities and houses—dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the Civil War,” she writes in the book’s introduction, a time when whole cities were reduced to “lone chimneys” amidst the smoke and obliteration of urban warfare. We often hear—especially post-9/11—that Americans have never really experienced war and destruction on their own soil, but Nelson’s book convincingly and devastatingly shows how inaccurate a statement that is.

20) Line In The Sand: A History Of The U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John (Princeton University Press)

Heading west from the Gulf Coast, the U.S.-Mexico border takes an unexpected turn when you get past El Paso, Texas—that is, by not really turning at all. The border instead becomes a series of abnormally, mathematically straight lines, cutting, with only a few diversions north and south, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It thus no longer follows any natural feature, such as the Rio Grande River.

But why is the border exactly here, and why the rigid, linear path that it takes? Rachel St. John’s “history of the western U.S.-Mexico border” looks at sovereignty, surveying, geography, diplomacy, war, conquest, and private property to piece together the tangled story of this “line in the sand” and the people (and economies) it has divided. Line in the Sand—which often has the ungainly feel of a Ph.D. thesis later edited into a book—ends with a critical look at the “operational security” falsely promised by a border fence, and a more hopeful look at mutations of the border region yet to come.

21) The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon To Richter by Deborah R. Coen (University of Chicago Press)

Deborah Coen’s Earthquake Observers looks at the history of seismology—or the study of earthquakes—but, more specifically, seismology’s transition from something like a folk art of human observation to an instrumented science. It is a consistently interesting book, so much so that I invited Coen to speak to my class at Columbia last semester.

The book includes a great deal worth mentioning here, from the gender of early earthquake observers—writing, for example, specifically in reference to early-modern domesticity, that “a quiet, housebound lifestyle and close attention to the arrangement of domestic objects put many bourgeois women in an excellent position to detect tremors”—to the literally geopolitical effects of earthquakes. In the latter case, a state of emergency following catastrophic seismic events helped to influence 20th-century legal theory as well as to challenge accepted hierarchies of what it means for a state to respond. “Particularly in the Balkans,” she writes, “earthquakes called into question the political framework that tied the monarchy’s fringes to its two capitals: which level of the state’s intricate web of governance would respond?”

John Muir, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the study of earthquake-related traumas, or “seismopathology,” all make their appearance in Coen’s study of how seismology became both modern and scientific.


22) From Roof To Table: Photographs By Rob Stephenson by Rob Stephenson (Design Trust for Public Space)

This magazine-style pamphlet of images by photographer Rob Stephenson documents urban farming efforts—not necessarily limited to roofs—across New York City. Plots of land beside empty brick warehouses, backyards, and even university labs bloom with fruits and vegetables in Stephenson’s full-color shots. “With the influx of people to cities and a continuing rise in the financial and environmental costs of shipping food, the widespread and large-scale adoption of urban agriculture seems inevitable,” Stephenson writes in an accompanying project description. “New York City, with its network of backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and rooftop farms, is at the forefront of this transformation.”

23) The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press)

Gordon Campbell’s history of the garden hermit attempts to discover why the phenomenon of the live-in hermit—an actual human being, installed in a landscaped garden, acting as a form of living ornament—arose at all. Along the way, he explores what architectural structures these hermits required and the cultural motifs their strange roles kicked off. “Who were these people?” Campbell asks. “Why did landowners think it appropriate to have them in their gardens? What function did they serve?”


24) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Killcullen (Oxford University Press)

Military strategist David Kilcullen takes on the urban future of war, arguing that armed conflict will occur more often, and with increasingly devastating effects, in cities. If the future is such that, in his words, “all aspects of human life—including, but not only, conflict, crime and violence—will be crowded, urban, networked and coastal,” then it only makes sense to attempt to make sense of this, both sociologically and from the perspective of the military.

Citing everything from Richard Norton’s revolutionary notion of the “feral city” to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums—Davis, in fact, blurbs the book—Kilcullen has written a must-read for anyone unconvinced by the rosy take on cities and their triumphant future currently dominating the best-seller list.

25) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (PublicAffairs)

Radley Blako’s libertarian take on the “militarization of America’s police forces” is more Rand Paul than ACLU, if you will, but it’s a worthy read for all sides of the political debate. It opens with the jarring rhetorical question, “Are cops constitutional?” And it goes on from there to discuss legal debates on federal power and the 3rd and 4th Amendments, a short history of military tactics creeping into the U.S. police arsenal following urban riots in Watts, the rise of reality TV shows seemingly encouraging police belligerence, the War on Drugs, the Occupy Movement, today’s all but ubiquitous Taser (and its abuse), no-knock raids, and more.

If you’re interested in cities, you should also be interested in how those cities are policed, and this is as interesting a place as any to start digging.

26) Manhunts: A Philosophical History by Grégoire Chamayou (Princeton University Press)

I picked up a copy of this book after an interesting, albeit brief, email exchange with L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who described a shift from the high-speed chase (that is, a large amount of space covered at high speed) to the manhunt (or a limited space studied with incredible intensity).

I’ve written about Hawthorne’s observation at greater length in my own forthcoming book about crime and architecture, and, while researching that book, I thought Grégoire Chamayou’s Manhunts would be a helpful reference. It was not, if I’m being honest, but it is, nonetheless, a striking work on its own terms: a history of what it means to hunt human beings, from runaway slaves and “illegal aliens” to Jews in World War II. He calls this an “anthropology of the predator”—“a history and a philosophy of hunting powers and their technologies of capture”—wherein the prey subject to destruction is a banished or shunned human being, terrifyingly relegated to the status of animal.

27) Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (New York Review of Books Classics)

This strange, quite short, and very readable novel, recently brought back into print by the New York Review of Books, tells the story of a British political agent who fails in his attempt to assassinate an unnamed German political leader (who is, clearly, Adolf Hitler). The man flees Germany for the comparative safety of England, only to be relentlessly—and, as it happens, successfully—hunted by German agents intent on revenge.

It both does and does not spoil the rest of the book to reveal that the hunted man literally goes to ground, terrestrializing himself by digging a burrow in the Earth and hiding out there amidst the mud, the exposed tree roots, the darkness, and his own waste, sleeping unwashed in a humiliating cave of his own making, his clothes rotten, his feet swollen by rain, living underground at the side of a small lane in Britain’s agrarian hinterland. When he is found—and he is found—what could descend into a Rambo-like scene of violence and retaliation instead offers something that is still violent but far stranger, as this nearly worldchanging political actor, a failed assassin who could have changed the 20th century, finds a way to escape his grotesque and feral state.

Have a good autumn, and enjoy the books.

* * *

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

(Thanks to Dan Bergevin for my copy of Out of the Mountains).