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Some midweek reading material…

[Images: Muons beneath the Alps; via and via].

I’m pretty much obsessed with muons—subatomic particles that have been used to map the interiors of archaeological ruins—so I was interested to see that muons have now also been put to work mapping the bedrock beneath glaciers in the Swiss Alps. It is the “first application of the technique in glacial geology,” Eos reports. Even better, it uses underground railway infrastructure—the Jungfrau rail tunnel—as part of its experimental apparatus.

[Image: Mountain, written by Robert Macfarlane].

Robert Macfarlane has written a movie called Mountain, narrated by Willem Defoe. Macfarlane also recently joined Twitter, where he has rapidly accumulated nearly 28,000 followers.

The world’s sand is running out—indeed, “it’s scarcer than you think,” David Owen writes for The New Yorker. As highlighted on Twitter by @lowlowtide, the piece includes this great line: “The problems start when people begin to think of mutable landforms as permanent property.” Sand, and the peculiar economies that value it, has gotten quite a bit of attention over the past few years; among other coverage, a long feature in Wired two years ago is worth checking out.

Researchers at Penn State have figured out a way to generate electricity from the chemical mixing point where freshwater rivers reach the sea. “‘The goal of this technology is to generate electricity from where the rivers meet the ocean,’ said Christopher Gorski, assistant professor in environmental engineering at Penn State. ‘It’s based on the difference in the salt concentrations between the two water sources.’”

Hawaii is experiencing an unusually intense barrage of high tides, known as “king tides.” “For the people of Hawaii, alarm bells are ringing,” Adrienne LaFrance writes for The Atlantic. “King tides like this aren’t just a historic anomaly; they’re a sign of what’s to come… Scientists believe Hawaii could experience a sea-level increase of three feet by the year 2100, which is in line with global predictions of sea-level change and which would substantially reshape life on the Islands. That’s part of why scientists are enlisting volunteers to help photograph and describe incremental high tides across Hawaii.” Read more at The Atlantic.

[Image: Courtesy Places Journal/Zach Mortice].

Over at Places, landscape architect Zach Mortice takes a long look at what he calls “perpetual neglect” and the challenge of historic preservation in African-American burial grounds. Badly maintained—and, in some cases, almost entirely erased—black cemeteries reveal “that the racism and inequality that plague African Americans in life are perpetuated in death,” Mortice suggests. This is “nothing less than a preservation crisis for black burial grounds across the country.”

I recently discovered the existence of something called Betonamit. Betonamit is a “non-explosive cracking agent,” essentially a “non-toxic” powder that can be used for the slow-motion demolition of buildings and geological forms. “When mixed with water and poured into holes 1 1/4″, 1 3/8″ or 1 1/2″ diameter, it hardens and expands, exerting pressures of 12,000 psi. Reinforced concrete, boulders, and ledge[s] are fractured overnight with no noise, vibration, or flyrock.” I’m imagining a truck full of this stuff overturning on a crack-laden bridge somewhere, just an hour before a rainstorm begins, or a storage yard filled with crates of this stuff being ripped apart in the summer wind; a seemingly innocuous grey powder drifts out across an entire neighborhood for the next few hours, settling down into cracks on brick rooftops and stone facades, in sidewalks and roadbeds. Then the rains begin. The city crumbles. Weaponized demolition powder.

In any case, I actually stumbled upon Betonamit after reading a few blog posts on that company’s in-house blog. Atlas Preservation has a handful of interesting short articles up documenting their preservation work, including what might be the oldest gravestone in the United States and the challenges of open-air cemetery preservation. Let’s hope no one goes wandering amongst the tombs with a bucket of Betonamit…

The BBC went into horror-movie mode earlier this month, asking, “what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before? We may be about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” The headline is straight-forward enough, I suppose: “There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up.”

[Images: Courtesy Waxwork Records].

Fans of John Carpenter’s (excellent) 1982 film The Thing might be interested to hear that the original score has been remastered and released on vinyl. The final product is visually gorgeous—and temporarily sold out. Keep your ears peeled for further pressings.

A retired F.B.I. investigator has newly dedicated himself to tracking down lost apple varietals of the Pacific Northwest. They are not extinct; they have simply disappeared into the background, both ecologically and historically. They are trees that have “faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands,” but the apples that grow from them can still be enjoyed and cultivated.

If you are interested in apples and their history, meanwhile, don’t miss the late Roger Deakin’s superb book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees.

[Images: Courtesy Public Domain Review].

Blending into the natural landscape is the subject of a fascinating piece over at Public Domain Review about the early wildlife photographers, Richard and Cherry Kearton. In order not to scare away their subject matter, the Keartons constructed artificial trees, put on short, deliberately misleading performative displays for wildlife, and carved masks that would help camouflage them against the woodlands.

There’s more—always more!—to link to and read, but I’ll leave it at that. For other, ongoing links, I am also on Twitter.

A Voice Moving Over The Waters

[Image: The Jim Creek Naval Radio Station from Popular Mechanics].

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been looking at a variety of large terrestrial antenna sites built for communicating with submarines. This is the field of Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency radio transmission (the latter wonderfully abbreviated as ELF).

This is a topic already explored here several years ago, of course, with the Project Sanguine antenna field in Wisconsin, for example, and the Cutler array up on a peninsula in Maine. But a few other examples came up that I thought I’d post.

One is the example you see above: the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station in the woods of Washington State, as featured here in an old issue of Popular Mechanics. The Jim Creek facility is basically an entire valley in the Pacific Northwest, denuded of its trees and then strung with the harp-like cables of a mega-antenna. This antenna then broadcasts “the voice that crosses the Pacific,” as Popular Mechanics describes it, including U.S. military ships and submarines.

[Image: The antenna field at Jim Creek, via Wikipedia].

Briefly, although it’s technically irrelevant, it is nonetheless interesting in this context to read about the so-called “Hessdalen lights,” a phenomenon that appears to be caused by natural electrical currents moving through a remote Norwegian valley.

The scientific explanation for these “lights” is incredible.

Back in 2011, New Scientist reported, a scientific team “analyzed rock samples from Hessdalen and found that it is a valley of two halves: the rocks on one side of the Hesja river are rich in zinc and iron, those on the other are rich in copper. Then, during the 2012 mission someone mentioned an abandoned sulphur mine in the valley. ‘For me it was news,’ says [head scientist Jader Monari from the Institute of Radio Astronomy]. ‘We found zinc and iron on one side and copper on the other. If there is sulphur in the water in the middle, it makes a perfect battery.’”

By a weird fluke of geochemistry, the entire valley is a natural electrical cell! Now imagine a valley somewhere—in Washington State, say—acting as a giant natural radio transmitter: a geological radio station broadcasting signals out to sea.

In any case, here is the Jim Creek facility on Google Maps.

Two other quick things to mention: as a commenter pointed out here a few years ago, there is a spectacular naval-communications facility located on a peninsula in Western Australia called the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station.

[Image: Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station, via Google Maps].

As described by the Australian government, the facility “consists of one central tower surrounded by two concentric circles each of six smaller towers ranging from 304 to 387 meters in height and is 2.54 km in diameter. It communicates over immense distances with submerged submarines in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

According to this commenter, the station “has an eerie suggestion of sacred geometry[:] pentagons and symmetrical shapes, all concentric. It is said that under the array, light bulbs held in the hand will glow.” This is not impossible; recall the work of artist Richard Box.

Indeed, seen on Google Maps, the facility is breathtaking. Be sure to zoom out to get a sense of how isolated this place is. Here is a view of the antennas from the nearby beach.

Finally, there is something called ZEVS. ZEVS is a secretive, Soviet-era electromagnetic facility and submarine-communication antenna array that allegedly exists somewhere beneath the forests of the Kola Peninsula.

There’s not a ton of information about it online, but I’m also just lazily Googling things at the moment and have undoubtedly missed something; if you have more details, by all means please feel free to share.

Rootkit

[Image: Work by Diana Scherer, used to promote an event coming up on December 14th, in Wageningen, Holland, where the artist will be speaking].

The work of German-born artist Diana Scherer explores what she calls “the dynamics of belowground plant parts.” She uses plant roots themselves as a medium for creating patterns and networks, the purpose of which is to suggest overlaps between human technological activity and the embodied “intelligence” of living botanical matter. “This buried matter is still a wondrous land,” she writes.

The results are incredible. They feature roots woven like carpets or textiles, imitating Gothic ornament with floral patterns and computational arabesques underground.

[Image: “Ornament with Thistle” by Daniel Hopfer; via Wikimedia].

Compare Scherer’s work, for example, to traditional Gothic plant ornament—that is, geometric shapes meant to imitate the movements and behaviors of plants—but here actually achieved with plants themselves.

Scherer calls this “root system domestication,” where, on the flipside of an otherwise perfectly “natural” landscape, such as an expanse of lawn grass, wonderfully artificial, technical patterns can be achieved.

[Images: All images by Diana Scherer, from “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication”].

The idea that we could grow biological circuits and living rootkits is incredible, as if, someday, electronic design and gardening will—wonderfully and surreally—converge.

You simply step into your backyard, exhume some root matter as if harvesting potatoes, and whole new circuits and electrical networks are yours to install elsewhere.

[Image: From “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication” by Diana Scherer].

After all, the soil is already alive with electricity, and plants are, in effect, computer networks in waiting.

Scherer’s work simply takes those observations to their next logical step, you might argue, using plants themselves as an intelligent form-finding technology with implications for the organic hardware of tomorrow.

For more images, click through to Diana Scherer’s website, and, for those of you near Wageningen, consider stopping by the artist’s live Q&A on December 14th. Someone please commission a landscape-scale work from Scherer soon!

The Dam Industry’s Chernobyl

There’s an alarming new piece up at The New Yorker looking at two potential dam failures, in Iraq and Zambia, and the extraordinary effects these disasters would have. The collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, for example, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls “the most dangerous dam in the world,” “could drown as many as five hundred thousand people downstream and leave a million homeless.” The collapse of Zambia’s Kariba Dam, meanwhile, and the resulting megaflood would be “the dam industry’s Chernobyl”: “three million people live in the flood’s path; most would die or lose their crops or possessions. About forty per cent of the electricity-generating capacity of twelve southern African nations would be eliminated.” (Spotted via @waltonwater)

Hot Rock, Lost Rock, Router

21012003800_7a51bd2882_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

This past summer, Aram Bartholl installed a project called Keepalive in the woods of Neuenkirchen, Germany. Keepalive was a hollow boulder that contained “a thermoelectric generator which converts heat directly into electricity.”

Visitors are invited to make a fire next to the boulder to power up the wifi router in the stone which then reveals a large collection of PDF survival guides. The piratebox.cc-inspired router which is NOT connected to the Internet offers the users [an opportunity] to download the guides and upload any content they like to the stone database. As long as the fire produces enough heat the router will stay switched on.

First, a chamber was cut into a large rock; the router was then installed inside it.

21189727272_1053f18340_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Next, the chamber was sealed with a piece of metal, and the rock itself was strapped to a delivery truck, to be dropped off in its new home in a wooded meadow.

21173830066_8ef1158b1a_z21012179148_aa5be0090e_z[Images: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Finally, a small campfire was started—and, lo and behold, the secret documents made their electromagnetic way to a nearby iPhone, as if conjured into digital existence through the most primitive means of a campfire.

It’s a kind of library in waiting.

21208073201_85db419959_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

While the actual, technical realization of the piece leaves something to be desired—by which I simply mean that there is just a large metal plate hiding the cavity inside of which the router is stored, which is visually disappointing—I love the idea that a better-hidden version of this might actually serve a real survivalist purpose someday.

Out on the remote periphery of the city, where you and your family agree to meet should there ever be an earthquake, a hurricane, or an act of terrorism or war, a cached collection of digital files waits utterly hidden from view, sealed inside a boulder with no visible exterior signs. When the Big One hits, out to your hot rock you go.

Of course, in real life, you’d doubtless lose track of the thing and spend two agonizing weeks lighting fire after fire after fire under every boulder in the region, desperately checking your dying phones to see if the digital documents appear… and they never do…

Think, for example, of the genuinely weird—and seemingly half-fictional—story of “Rocky II,” artist Ed Ruscha’s lost geological sculpture in the California desert.

As the Guardian explains, “Rocky II” is a “little-known and unexhibited work by the American artist Ed Ruscha: an artificial rock made out of resin and named ‘Rocky II’ after the Sylvester Stallone movie. A BBC crew filmed Ruscha during its creation for a 1980 documentary, which also captured him depositing the work somewhere in the Mojave desert, where it has apparently remained ever since, indistinguishable from all the other rocks around it.”

Ruscha’s rock is apparently more than just forgotten, it is seemingly nonexistent: “‘Rocky II’ is so mysterious it neither appears on the call for information about missing artworks listed on the artist’s website, nor in the catalogue listing all his known works—almost as if its existence has been intentionally obscured.”

21189756822_ca095d0c0d_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

In any case, surely Bartholl’s Keepalive could also be used as an interesting geological tool for espionage, merely a different kind of spy rock, tucked away at a campsite somewhere, waiting for a foreign agent to come along and light a fire.

A few minutes later—invisibly, unexpectedly to anyone but the agent—a tiny router inside the rock whirs to life in the heat and an electromagnetic cache of classified files begins streaming.

(Originally spotted via @curiousoctopus).

Electronic Plantlife

[Image: A rose-circuit, courtesy Linköping University].

In a newly published paper called “Electronic plants,” researchers from Linköping University in Sweden describe the process by which they were able to “manufacture” what they call “analog and digital organic electronic circuits and devices” inside living plants.

The plants not only conducted electrical signals, but, as Science News points, the team also “induced roses leaves to light up and change color.”

Indeed, in their way of thinking, plants have been electronic gadgets all along: “The roots, stems, leaves, and vascular circuitry of higher plants are responsible for conveying the chemical signals that regulate growth and functions. From a certain perspective, these features are analogous to the contacts, interconnections, devices, and wires of discrete and integrated electronic circuits.”

[Image: Bioluminescent foxfire mushrooms (used purely for illustrative effect), via Wikipedia].

Here’s the process in a nutshell:

The idea of putting electronics directly into trees for the paper industry originated in the 1990s while the LOE team at Linköping University was researching printed electronics on paper. Early efforts to introduce electronics in plants were attempted by Assistant Professor Daniel Simon, leader of the LOE’s bioelectronics team, and Professor Xavier Crispin, leader of the LOE’s solid-state device team, but a lack of funding from skeptical investors halted these projects.
Thanks to independent research money from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in 2012, Professor Berggren was able to assemble a team of researchers to reboot the project. The team tried many attempts of introducing conductive polymers through rose stems. Only one polymer, called PEDOT-S, synthesized by Dr. Roger Gabrielsson, successfully assembled itself inside the xylem channels as conducting wires, while still allowing the transport of water and nutrients. Dr. Eleni Stavrinidou used the material to create long (10 cm) wires in the xylem channels of the rose. By combining the wires with the electrolyte that surrounds these channels she was able to create an electrochemical transistor, a transistor that converts ionic signals to electronic output. Using the xylem transistors she also demonstrated digital logic gate function.

Headily enough, using plantlife as a logic gate also implies a future computational use of vegetation: living supercomputers producing their own circuits inside dual-use stems.

Previously, we have looked at the use of electricity to stimulate plants into producing certain chemicals, how the action of plant roots growing through soil could be tapped as a future source of power, and how soil bacteria could be wired up into huge, living battery fields—in fact, we also looked at a tongue-in-cheek design project for “growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees“—but this actually turns vegetation into a form of living circuitry.

While Archigram’s “Logplug” project is an obvious reference point here within the world of architectural design, it seems more interesting to consider instead the future landscape design implications of technological advances such as this—how “electronic plants” might affect everything from forestry to home gardening, energy production and distribution infrastructure to a city’s lighting grid.

[Image: The “Logplug” by Archigram, from Archigram].

We looked at this latter possibility several few years ago, in fact, in a post from 2009 called “The Bioluminescent Metropolis,” where the first comment now seems both prescient and somewhat sad given later developments.

But the possibilities here go beyond mere bioluminescence, into someday fully functioning electronic vegetation.

Plants could be used as interactive displays—recall the roses “induced… to light up and change color”—as well as given larger conductive roles in a region’s electrical grid. Imagine storing excess electricity from a solar power plant inside shining rose gardens, or the ability to bypass fallen power lines after a thunderstorm by re-routing a town’s electrical supply through the landscape itself, living corridors wired from within by self-assembling circuits and transistors.

And, of course, that’s all in addition to the possibility of cultivating plants specifically for their use as manufacturing systems for organic electronics—for example, cracking them open not to reveal nuts, seeds, or other consumable protein, but the flexible circuits of living computer networks. BioRAM.

There are obvious reasons to hesitate before realizing such a vision—that is, before charging headlong into a future world where forests are treated merely as back-up lighting plans for overcrowded cities and plants of every kind are seen as nothing but wildlife-disrupting sources of light cultivated for the throwaway value of human aesthetic pleasure.

Nonetheless, thinking through the design possibilities in addition to the ethical risks not only now seems very necessary, but might also lead someplace truly extraordinary—or someplace otherworldly, we might say with no need for justification.

For now, check out the original research paper over at Science Advances.

Subterranean Lightning Brigade

[Image: “Riggers install a lightning rod” atop the Empire State Building “in preparation for an investigation into lightning by scientists of the General Electric Company” (1947), via the Library of Congress].

This is hardly news, but I wanted to post about the use of artificial lightning as a navigational aid for subterranean military operations.

This was reported at the time as a project whose goal was “to let troops navigate about inside huge underground enemy tunnel complexes by measuring energy pulses given off by lightning bolts,” where those lightning bolts could potentially be generated on-demand by aboveground tactical strike teams.

Such a system would replace the use of GPS—whose signals cannot penetrate into deep subterranean spaces—and it would operate by way of sferics, or radio atmospheric signals generated by electrical activity in the sky.

The proposed underground navigational system—known as “Sferics-Based Underground Geolocation” or S-BUG—would be capable of picking up these signals even from “hundreds of miles away. Receiving signals from lighting strikes in multiple directions, along with minimal information from a surface base station also at a distance, could allow operators to accurately pinpoint their position.” They could thus maneuver underground, even in hundreds—thousands—of feet below the earth’s surface in enemy caves or bunkers.

Hundreds of miles is a very wide range, of course—but what if there is no natural lightning in the area?

Enter artificial military storm generators, or the charge of the lightning brigade.

Back in 2009, DARPA also put out of a request for proposals as part of something called Project Nimbus. NIMBUS is “a fundamental science program focused on obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the lightning process.” However, it included a specific interest in developing machines for “triggering lightning”:

Experimental Set-up for Triggering Lightning: Bidders should fully describe how they would attempt to trigger lightning and list all potential pieces of equipment necessary to trigger lightning, as well as the equipment necessary to measure and characterize the processes governing lightning initiation, propagation, and attachment.

While it’s easy enough to wax conspiratorial here about future lightning weapons or militarized storm cells—after all, DARPA themselves write that they want to understand “how [lightning] ties into the global charging circuit,” as if “the global charging circuit” is something that could be instrumentalized or controlled—I actually find it more interesting to speculate that generating lightning would be not for offensive purposes at all, but for guiding underground navigation.

[Image: Lightning storm over Boston; via Wikimedia/NOAA].

Something akin to a strobe light begins pulsing atop a small camp of unmarked military vehicles parked far outside a desert city known for its insurgent activities. These flashes gradual lengthen, both temporally and physically, lasting longer and stretching upward into the sky; the clouds above are beginning to thicken, grumbling with quiet rolls of thunder.

Then the lightning strikes begin—but they’re unlike any natural lightning you’ve ever seen. They’re more like pops of static electricity—a pulsing halo or toroidal crown of light centered on the caravan of trucks below—and they seem carefully timed.

To defensive spotters watching them through binoculars in the city, it’s obvious what this means: there must be a team of soldiers underground somewhere, using artificial sferics to navigate. They must be pushing forward relentlessly through the sewers and smuggling tunnels, crawling around the roots of buildings and maneuvering through the mazework of infrastructure that constitutes the city’s underside, locating themselves by way of these rhythmic flashes of false lightning.

Of course, this equipment would eventually be de-militarized and handed down to the civilian sector, in which case you can imagine four friends leaving REI on a Friday afternoon after work with an artificial lightning generator split between them; no larger than a camp stove, it would eventually be set up with their other weekend caving equipment, used to help navigate through deep, stream-slick caves an hour and a half outside town, beneath tall mountains where GPS can’t always be trusted.

Or, perhaps fifty years from now, salvage teams are sent deep into the flooded cities of the eastern seaboard to look for and retrieve valuable industrial equipment. They install an artificial lightning unit on the salt-bleached roof of a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse before heading off in a small armada of marsh boats, looking for entrances to old maintenance facilities whose basement storage rooms might have survived rapid sea-level rise.

Disappearing down into these lost rooms—like explorers of Egyptian tombs—they are guided by bolts of artificial lightning that spark upward above the ruins, reflected by tides.

[Image: Lightning via NOAA].

Or—why not?—perhaps we’ll send a DARPA-funded lightning unit to one of the moons of Jupiter and let it flash and strobe there for as long as it needs. Called Project Miller-Urey, its aim is to catalyze life from the prebiotic, primordial soup of chemistry swirling around there in the Cthulhoid shadow of eternal ice mountains.

Millions and millions of years hence, proto-intelligent lifeforms emerge, never once guessing that they are, in fact, indirect descendants of artificial lightning technology. Their spark is not divine but military, the electrical equipment that sparked their ancestral line long since fallen into oblivion.

In any case, keep your eyes—and cameras—posted for artificial lightning strikes coming to a future military theater near you…

Branch

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

There are a few projects by the young South African photographer Dillon Marsh that seem worth a look.

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

The first are his photos of “electricity pylons… criss-crossing the landscape around the city of Cape Town,” called “Means to an End.”

[Image: From “Means to an End” by Dillon Marsh].

Marsh is by no means the first photographer, artist, writer, architect, etc., to look at electricity pylons, but the resulting images are pretty stunning.

Meanwhile, Marsh has a variety of other series available for view on his website, but another one I want to feature briefly here is called “Limbo.”

[Image: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

In Marsh’s own words, “‘Limbo‘ is a series of photographs showing trees that have died, but not yet fallen. All these trees were photographed in various suburbs of the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, including Bridgetown, Bonteheuwel, Ruyterwacht, Windermere, and The Hague.”

The results perhaps recall the “Rise” filter, as well as the square format of Instagram, but, for me, that doesn’t take away from their visual or conceptual interest.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Oddly, these actually remind me of the trees in Hackney, a borough of London where I briefly lived more than a decade ago; the branches of almost every tree along the streets that I walked each morning to the local bus stop had been cut—or hacked, as it were—by the Council, apparently out of a mathematically impossible fear of liability should the branches someday fall and hit a car, a pedestrian, or a baby in a stroller, lending the neighborhood an even drearier feel of grey-skied Gothic horror than it would have had already on its own.

[Images: From “Limbo” by Dillon Marsh].

Somewhere between portraits and landscape photography, these two projects of Marsh’s go well together, depicting the starkly exposed branching peculiar to these two types of structures.

They are also both in Marsh’s “Landscape Series” of photographs, a series that, in his words, seeks “to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family.”

I’ll do one more quick post about Marsh’s work, showing my favorite series of all.

The Archigram Archive

[Image: From an “ongoing speculative proposal exploring the implications of cones of vision and their interaction with an existing neoclassical ‘temple’ on the River Thames in Henley, Berkshire,” by Archigram/Michael Webb].

As of roughly 16 hours ago, the Archigram Archival Project is finally online and ready to for browsing, courtesy of the University of Westminster: the archive “makes the work of the seminal architectural group Archigram available free online for public viewing and academic study.”

The newly launched site includes more than 200 projects; “this comprises projects done by members before they met, the Archigram magazines (grouped together at no. 100), the projects done by Archigram as a group between 1961 and 1974, and some later projects.” There are also brief biographies of each participating member of the collaborative group: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb.

[Image: “Proposal for a series of inflatable dwellings as part of an exhibition for the Commonwealth Festival, located in the lodge of Cardiff Castle,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

Even at their most surreal, it feels as if Archigram did, in fact, accurately foresee what the architectural world was coming to. After all, if Chalk & Co. had built the things around us, there would be electricity supplies in the middle of nowhere and drive-in housing amidst the sprawl; for good or for bad, we’d all be playing with gadgets like the Electronic Tomato, that perhaps would not have given the iPhone a run for its money but was a “mobile sensory stimulation device,” nonetheless. We might even live together on the outer fringes of “extreme suburbs,” constructed like concentric halos around minor airports, such as Peter Cook’s “Crater City,” an “earth sheltered hotel-type city around central park,” or “Hedgerow Village,” tiny clusters of houses like North Face tents “hidden in hedgerow strips.”

There would be temporary, inflatable additions to whole towns and cities; pyramidal diagrid megastructures squatting over dead neighborhoods like malls; dream cities like Rorschach blots stretched across the sky, toothed and angular Montreal Towers looming in the distance; plug-in universities and capsule homes in a computer-controlled city of automatic switches and micro-pneumatic infrastructure.

At its more bizarre, there would have been things like the Fabergram castle, as if the Teutonic Knights became an over-chimneyed race of factory-builders in an era of cheap LSD, reading Gormenghast in Disneyworld, or this proposal “for technology enabling underwater farming by scuba divers, including chambers, floats and tubes for walking and farm control.” After all, Archigram asked, why live in a house at all when you can live in a submarine? Why use airplanes when you can ride a magic carpet constructed from shining looms in a “‘reverse hovercraft’ facility where a body can be held at an adjustable point in space through the use of jets of air”?

[Image: “Speculative proposal showing use of the ‘Popular Pak’, a kit of architectural parts for ‘tuning-up’ existing buildings, applied to an invented suburb,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

It might not be architects who have realized much of this fever dream of the world to come, but that doesn’t mean that these ideas have not, in many cases, been constructed. Archigram spoke of instant cities and easily deployed, reconfigurable megastructures—but the people more likely to own and operate such spaces today are Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments, infinitely exchangeable modular shelving, and fleeting themes-of-the-week. Archigram’s flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors are not a sign of impending utopia, in other words, but of the reach of your neighborhood shopping mall—and the people airdropping instant cities into the middle of nowhere today are less likely to be algorithmically trained Rhino enthusiasts from architecture school, but the logistics support teams behind Bechtel and the U.S. military.

Another way of saying this is that Archigram’s ideas seem unbuilt—even unbuildable—but those ideas actually lend themselves surprisingly well to the environment in which we now live, full of “extreme suburbs,” drive-in everything, KFC-supplied army bases in the middle of foreign deserts, robot bank tellers, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe.

The irony, for me, is that Archigram’s ideas have, in many ways, actually been constructed—but in most cases it was for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and by the wrong people.

[Image: Proposal “fusing alternative and changing Archigram structures, amenities and facilities with traditional and nostalgic structures,” by Archigram/Peter Cook].

In any case, what was it about Archigram that promised on-demand self-transformation in an urban strobe of flashing lights but then got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Times Square? How did Archigram simply become the plug-in units of discount retail—or the Fun Palaces of forty years ago downgraded to Barnes & Noble outlets in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases, where the Instant City meets Camp Bondsteel?

Archigram predicted a modular future propelled by cheap fuel, petrodollars, and a billion easy tons of unrecycled plastic—but, beneath that seamless gleam of artificial surfacing and extraterrestrial color combinations was a fizzy-lifting drink of human ideas—as many ideas as you could think of, sometimes imperfectly illustrated but illustrated nonetheless, and, thus, now canonical—all of it wrapped up in a dossier of new forms of planetary civilization. Archigram wasn’t just out on the prowl for better escalators or to make our buildings look like giant orchids and Venus Flytraps, where today’s avant-bust software formalism has unfortunately so far been mired; it wasn’t just bigger bank towers and the Burj Dubai.

Instead, Archigram suggested, we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live, and what matters to me less here is whether or not they were right, or even if they were the only people saying such things (they weren’t)—what matters to me is the idea that architecture can reframe and inspire whole new anthropologies, new ways of being human on earth, new chances to do something more fun tomorrow (and later today). Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don’t like the world you’ve been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

In any case, the entire Archigram Archival Project is worth a look; even treated simply as an historical resource, its presence corrects what had been a sorely missing feature of online architecture culture: we can now finally link to, and see, Archigram’s work.

(Note: Part of the latter half of this post includes some re-edited bits from a comment I posted several months ago).

Shining Path

One of many things that we’ll be looking at tonight in the Blackout seminar that I’ve been teaching over at Pratt in Brooklyn is organically generated electricity—things like virus batteries, biogeobatteries, sediment batteries, and more.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

By way of getting there, though, we’ll be taking a very brief look at Christopher Nolan’s under-rated film The Prestige—specifically the scene in which we see a hillside covered in giant incandescent light bulbs, none of which appear to be plugged into anything but soil and all of which are powered wirelessly by a generator located over 12 miles away.

The geological form of the mountain plateau becomes a shining grid framing our two featured characters.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

Although The Prestige does not suggest that this is what’s happening in this scene, what if the soil itself was powering these light bulbs? What if soil could be turned into a landscape-scale, distributed electrical device?

Awesomely, as Nature reported just two months ago, there is growing evidence to back up “a suggestion within the geophysics and microbiology communities that bacteria can grow tiny ‘wires’ and hook up to form a biogeobattery—a giant natural battery that generates electrical currents.”

[Image: From Popular Science].

Then Popular Science picked up on the story:

Scientists have known that bacteria can create electricity when mixed with mud and seawater, and have even built microbial fuel cells around the little buggers. Now they have begun figuring out just how bacteria create electrical networks that serve as long-distance communication, at least on the microbial scale—the distances ranged up to 2 centimeters. Yet those few centimeters equal roughly 20,000 times the body size of individual bacteria.

Imagining soil itself—the ground all around us—as a giant electrical transmission network is astonishing. And, again, while there is no mention of anything like biogeobatteries and their ilk in The Prestige, the very idea that perhaps someday we could plug light bulbs directly into the soil—an organic battery coextensive with the living surface of the earth—amazes me.

[Images: From The Prestige (2006)].

And biogeobatteries are not even the only option here; there are also virus batteries.

MIT reported back in 2006 that a team of researchers had “harnessed the construction talents of tiny viruses to build ultra-small ‘nanowire’ structures for use in very thin lithium-ion batteries. By manipulating a few genes inside these viruses, the team was able to coax the organisms to grow and self-assemble into a functional electronic device.” The resulting virus batteries are tiny, but they could vary in scale “from the size of a grain of rice up to the size of existing hearing aid batteries.”

The future design possibilities are bewildering. Could deposits of virus-impregnated soil be used as electricity-storage devices in rural, off-the-grid areas?

[Image: From Nature].

After all, bacteria might already be “wiring up the soil,” Nature suggested three years ago. Indeed, “bacteria can sprout webs of electrical wiring that transform the soil into a geological battery,” meaning that “the earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems.” And you can build a soil battery yourself:

The researchers filled plastic columns with wet sand infiltrated with a nutrient compound (lactate), and allowed S. oneidensis to grow in this “fake soil.” Only the top of the column was in contact with air. Electrodes inserted at various heights up the columns revealed that, after about ten days, electrical charge was coursing up the column… threaded by a web of filaments between the bacterial cells.

I’m reminded here of the work of Philip Beesley, which often uses self-fertilizing yeast-packs, gels, and seeds to create living geotextiles. In fact, a Beesley Battery doesn’t seem at all very off: a living mat woven through the soil, generating and storing electricity based on pre-existing bacterial activity in the ground.

You infect the soil with a genetically-modified virus patented by MIT and electrical currents start to flow…

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006)].

Perhaps someday, then, we could simply show up somewhere, in the middle of the night, surrounded by pine forests and hills, and just crouch down, push a light bulb two or three inches into the earth—

[Image: From The Prestige (2006)].

—and watch as everything around us starts to glow.

Blackout

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

I’ll be leading a research seminar at the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture this coming spring. I’ve decided to post the general course description here, simply because I think it might be of interest; I’m really looking forward to exploring this more in the spring.

BLACKOUT: Failures of Power and The City

In this guided research seminar we will look at blackouts—the total loss of electrical power and its impact on the built environment. From the blackouts of NYC in 1965 and 1977 to the complete blackout of the northeast in August 2003; from the “rolling blackouts” of Enron-era California to the flickering electrical supplies of developing economies; from terrorist attacks on physical infrastructure to aerial bombing campaigns in Iraq and beyond; loss of power affects millions of people, urban and rural, worldwide.

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

But how do blackouts also affect the form, function, social experience, and even ecology of the city? What do blackouts do to infrastructure—from hospitals to police and traffic systems—as well as to the cultural lives of a city’s residents? While blackouts can lead to a surge in crime and looting, they can also catalyze informal concerts, sleep-outs, and neighborhood festivities. Further, how do such things as “dark sky” regulations transform what we know as nighttime in the city—and how does the temporary disappearance of electrical light change the city for species other than humans? This raises a final point: before electricity, cities at night presented a fundamentally different spatio-cultural experience. That is, the pre-industrial night was always blacked-out (something to consider when we read that, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly 25% of the global human population currently lacks access to electricity).

We will look at multiple examples of blackouts—internationally and throughout history—exploring what caused them, what impacts they had, and what spatial opportunities exist for architects in a blacked-out city. On the one hand, we might ask: how do we make the city more resilient against future failures of electrical power? But, on the other: how might we take advantage of blackouts for a temporary re-programming of the city?