An edge over which it is impossible to look

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth at full drain, photographed by Flickr user Serigrapher].

Nearly half a year ago, a reader emailed with a link to a paper by Andrew Crompton, called “Three Doors to Other Worlds” (download the PDF). While the entirety of the paper is worth reading, I want to highlight a specific moment, wherein Crompton introduces us to the colossal western bellmouth drain of the Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire, England.

His description of this “inverted infrastructural monument,” as InfraNet Lab described it in their own post about Crompton’s paper—adding that spillways like this “maintain two states: (1) in use they disappear and are minimally obscured by flowing water, (2) not in use they are sculptural oddities hovering ambiguously above the water line”—is spine-tingling.

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by John Fielding, via Geograph].

“What is down that hole is a deep mystery,” Crompton begins, and the ensuing passage deserves quoting in full:

Not even Google Earth can help you since its depths are in shadow when photographed from above. To see for yourself means going down the steps as far as you dare and then leaning out to take a look. Before attempting a descent, you might think it prudent to walk around the hole looking for the easiest way down. The search will reveal that the workmanship is superb and that there is no weakness to exploit, nowhere to tie a rope and not so much as a pebble to throw down the hole unless you brought it with you in the boat. The steps of this circular waterfall are all eighteen inches high. This is an awkward height to descend, and most people, one imagines, would soon turn their back on the hole and face the stone like a climber. How far would you be willing to go before the steps became too small to continue? With proper boots, it is possible to stand on a sharp edge as narrow as a quarter of an inch wide; in such a position, you will risk your life twisting your cheek away from the stone to look downward because that movement will shift your center of gravity from a position above your feet, causing you to pivot away from the wall with only friction at your fingertips to hold you in place. Sooner or later, either your nerves or your grip will fail while diminishing steps accumulate below preventing a vertical view. In short, as if you were performing a ritual, this structure will first make you walk in circles, then make you turn your back on the thing you fear, then give you a severe fright, and then deny you the answer to a question any bird could solve in a moment. When you do fall, you will hit the sides before hitting the bottom. Death with time to think about it arriving awaits anyone who peers too far into that hole.

“What we have here,” he adds, “is a geometrical oddity: an edge over which it is impossible to look. Because you can see the endless walls of the abyss both below you and facing you, nothing is hidden except what is down the hole. Standing on the rim, you are very close to a mystery: a space receiving the light of the sun into which we cannot see.”

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by Peter Hanna, from his trip through the Peak District].

Crompton goes on to cite H.P. Lovecraft, the travels of Christopher Columbus, and more; again, it’s worth the read (PDF). But that infinitely alluring blackness—and the tiny steps that lead down into it, and the abyssal impulse to see how far we’re willing to go—is a hard thing to get out of my mind.

(Huge thanks to Kristof Hanzlik for the tip!)

For whom the bell tolls

[Image: Diagram of Taipei 101’s earthquake ball via the Long Now Foundation].

Earlier this week, the Long Now Foundation looked at earthquake dampers inside skyscrapers, focusing specifically on Taipei 101—a building whose unanticipated seismic side-effects (the building’s construction might have reopened an ancient tectonic fault) are quite close to my heart.

As it happens, Taipei 101 includes a 728-ton sphere locked in a net of thick steel cables hung way up toward the top of the building. This secret Piranesian moment of inner geometry effectively acts as a pendulum or counterweight—a damper—for the motions of earthquakes.

[Image: The 728-ton damper in Taipei 101, photographed by ~Wei~].

As earthquake waves pass up through the structure, the ball remains all but stationary; its inertia helps to counteract the movements of the building around it, thus “dampening” the earthquake.

It is a mobile center, loose amidst the grid that contains it.

[Image: Animated GIF via Wikipedia].

However, there’s something about discovering a gigantic pendulum inside a skyscraper that makes my imagination reel. It’s as if the whole structure is a grandfather clock, or some kind of avant-garde metronome for a musical form that hasn’t been invented yet. As if, down there in the bedrock, or perhaps a few miles out at sea inside a submarine, every few seconds you hear the tolling of a massive church bell – but it’s not a bell, it’s the 728-ton spherical damper inside Taipei 101 knocking loose against its structure.

Or it’s like an alternate plot for Ghostbusters: instead of finding out that Sigourney Weaver’s New York high-rise is literally an antenna for the supernatural, they realize that it’s some strange form of architectural clock, with a massive pendulum inside—a great damper—its cables hidden behind closet walls and elevator shafts covered in dust; but, at three minutes to midnight on the final Halloween of the millennium, a deep and terrifying bell inside the building starts to toll.

The city goes dark. The tolling gets louder. In all the region’s cemeteries, the soil starts to quake.

(Thanks to Kevin Wade Shaw for the link!)

The TransHab: “interiors in space”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In space, no one can hear you pray

[Image: NASA].

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

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

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

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

(Original article spotted at Off Center).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

Faucets of Manhattan

“About 600 feet deep in the bedrock that supports Midtown Manhattan,” we meet “a 450-ton tunnel-boring machine known as the Mole.”
The Mole is “digging City Tunnel No. 3 far beneath Manhattan’s street level, part of a 50-year, $6 billion project to upgrade New York City’s water system.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

As the New York Times describes, this is actually the “second phase of City Tunnel No. 3, a 60-mile tunnel that began in the Bronx in 1970 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. By then, the tunnel will be able to handle the roughly one billion gallons of water a day used in New York City that originates from rural watersheds to points throughout the city.” And though the tunnel “is one of the largest urban projects in history, few people will ever see it. But beginning next week, many New Yorkers will certainly feel and hear the construction.”

[Images: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

The speed of the excavation process “varies based upon the hardness of the rock it encounters. The task of determining what type of rock lies in its path falls to Eric Jordan, a geologist hired by the city. By drilling down and hand-picking rocks from the tunnels, Mr. Jordan has created a precise map of the type of rock under Manhattan. His involvement in the tunnel project makes his geologist friends jealous. ‘For a geologist,’ he said, ‘this is like going to Disneyland.'”
Jordan’s “precise map” of Manhattan bedrock would indeed be something to see; but until then, we can make an educated guess about the rock his tunnel will find by turning to Richard Fortey.
In his highly recommended book, Earth, Fortey visits Central Park. First you notice the skyline of towers, he writes. “Then you notice the rocks. Cropping out in places under the trees are dark mounds of rock, emerging from the ground like some buried architecture of a former race, partly exhumed and then forgotten… That New York can be built so high and mighty is a consequence of its secure foundations on ancient rocks. It pays its dues to the geology. This is just a small part of one of those old seams that cross the earth… relics of a deeper time when millennia counted for nothing.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

John McPhee picks up this lithic line of thought in Annals of the Former World. Archipelago New York, he writes, is made of “rock that had once been heated near the point of melting, had recrystallized, had been heated again, had recrystallized, and, while not particularly competent, was more than adequate to hold up those buildings… Four hundred and fifty million years in age, it was called Manhattan Schist.”
Of course, we can also turn to the U.S. National Geologic Map Database, and find our very own bedrock maps –


– which, awesomely, include Times Square, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the Museum of Modern Art, all floating above a sea of solid Manhattan Schist.
In any case, the new tunnel being dug to power the faucets of Manhattan are supplements to the pharaonic, 19th-century Croton hydrological network that keeps New York in taps (including the now derelict, yet Historically Registered, Old Croton Aqueduct). You can read about the Croton Dam, for instance, here or here; and there’s yet more to learn about the Croton project, including how to follow it by trail, here.

[Image: Photograph by Robert Polidori, from “City of Water” by David Grann, The New Yorker, September 1, 2003].

Finally, in 2003 The New Yorker published an excellent article by David Grann called “City of Water,” about, yes, City Tunnel No. 3. I’ll quote from it here briefly before urging you to find a copy at your local library and read it for yourself.
Until Grann actually accompanied the tunnel workers – called sandhogs – underground, he “had only heard tales of New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes. Two main tunnels provide New York City with most of the 1.3 billion gallons of water it consumes each day, ninety per cent of which is pumped in from reservoirs upstate by the sheer force of gravity. Descending through aqueducts from as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the water gathers speed, racing down to a thousand feet below sea level when it reaches the pipes beneath the city.”
Two main tunnels, he writes – and, thus, City Tunnel No. 3.
But I’ll stop there – after I point out that toward the end of the ludicrously bad Die Hard III, Jeremy Irons temporarily escapes the less than threatening eye of Bruce Willis by driving out of Manhattan through similar such aqueducting tunnels.

(For more tunnels: See BLDGBLOG’s London Topological or The Great Man-Made River; then check out The Guardian on London’s so-called CTRL Project, with a quick visit to that city’s cranky old 19th-century sewers, the “capital’s bowels”… Enjoy!).

Deep Space Hilton

[Image: The “inflatable multilayered polymer hull” of this orbiting hotel room “will be around 30 centimetres thick and will contain layers of Kevlar – as used in bullet-proof vests – to provide some protection against micrometeorites and space debris” – as well as from rowdy hotel guests. Click on to enlarge; from New Scientist].

Might future space tourists need an inflatable space hotel? Of course – and “Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is aiming to supply it. Bigelow made his fortune as the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, and he is now launching a $500 million effort to expand his business off-planet.”
The design for Bigelow’s space hotel was taken from “TransHab, a never-used NASA design for an inflatable space station.” (TransHab also appears in an old BLDGBLOG post on astrobiology).
The space hotel “will provide 330 cubic metres of living space for space tourists or industrial researchers” – or even maximum security prisoners…? Instead of a secret prison city, they build a secret prison satellite-archipelago… Forget the death penalty: you’re sent alone into outer space.
Setting up the prison break film of the century.
They whiz you up there in a space elevator

[Images: Check out the Space Elevator blog, the LiftPort website and image gallery (“dedicated to building a mass transportation system to open up access to the inner solar system”), and some other technical drawings here].

– but don’t forget to pack your toothbrush.
If the your hotel room begins to wander, of course, a space tether could save you (a “100-kilometre-long ‘fishing line’ that spins freely in space may one day catch and fling satellites to higher orbits… using just solar power and the Earth’s magnetic field”); and if the tether fails, you can always use Richard Gott’s map of the universe to find your way home. (“Gott realised that… if he drew our galaxy to fit on the page, he’d need another 100 kilometres of paper to show the most distant quasar” – skip to bottom of link to see how he made the map work).
Or it serves as home for an exiled author, writing back from deep space.

(With thanks to the excellent Interactive Architecture dot Org, as well as the always ahead of its time we make money not art).

Katrina 2: New Atlantis (on flooded cities)

New Orleans is not the only city to be faced with a future of indefinite flooding – nor is it the only city in the world below sealevel.
The entire nation of the Netherlands, for instance, provides perhaps the most famous example of urbanized land reclaimed from the Atlantic seafloor. “Polders” is the Dutch name for such rigorously flood-controlled territory, and an exhibition literally even now being held at the Rotterdam-based Netherlands Architecture Institute explores the polders’ geotechnical creation.
The polders’ “rationally organized landscape is unique, but also vulnerable,” the NAI explains. Vulnerable to overdevelopment – as well as to catastrophic flooding.
The 2005 Rotterdam International Architecture Biennale, in fact, takes nothing less than “The Flood” as its central, organizing theme – with one particular sub-focus being Water City*.


[Image: The metropolis, the flood, the boundaries of architectural design.]
In April and May, 2005, The New Yorker ran a three-part article by Elizabeth Kolbert, called “The Climate of Man,” on the subject of human-induced climate change. The third part, published on 9 May 2005, ends with a description of how “one of the Netherlands’ largest construction firms, Dura Vermeer, [has] received permission to turn a former R.V. park into a development of ‘amphibious homes'” – a floating city. (The Guardian also has an article about this.)
“The amphibious homes all look alike,” Kolbert says. Floating on the River Meuse in Maasbommel, “they resemble a row of toasters. Each one is moored to a metal pole and sits on a set of hollow concrete pontoons. Assuming that all goes according to plan, when the Meuse floods the homes will bob up and then, when the water recedes, they will gently be deposited back on land. Dura Vermeer is also working to construct buoyant roads and floating greenhouses” – the entire human race gone hydroponic.
As Dura Vermeer’s environmental director says: “There is a flood market emerging.”


[Image: A floating house, moored to the earth, in Maasbommel.]
Further afield, the year 2005 has seen major flooding in Europe, India, and Bangladesh, to name but a few sites of major hydrological catastrophe.
In Mumbai, India, *The Economist* explains, the 2005 floods “uncovered long-term failures. Not enough had been done to maintain Mumbai’s ageing infrastructure, such as storm-drains and sewers. Worse, new building had weakened the city’s defences. Large areas of protective mangrove had been razed – in one notorious example, to make way for a golf course. Developers have built on wetlands, clogging natural drainage channels. River banks have been reclaimed and become slums.”


And then there is Bangladesh. “From the air,” we read, also in The Economist (most of their articles are for subscribers only, it’s really irritating), “Bangladesh looks less like a country than one vast lake, dotted with thousands of tiny islets, clumps of trees and houses. Few boats ruffle the placid floodwaters: there is nowhere to go.” And yet “[t]he great lake of Bangladesh is in reality a network of nearly 250 rivers.”
New Orleans, Rotterdam, Bangladesh, Mumbai: 2005 will be the year of flooded infrastructure and overwhelmed cities.
And so if Atlantis sets the gold standard for civilizations lost to floods – forget Noah – then it’s interesting that Atlantis, even before Katrina occurred, was back in the news this year (though I suppose it is every year). As already explored elsewhere on BLDGBLOG, Atlantis’s island home may (or may not) be in the Straits of Gibraltar.
The real issue, however, that the infrastructural possibility of Atlantis brings to the fore – or, rather, that Katrina brings to the fore, through the hydrological destruction of New Orleans – is revealed quite clearly in the following artist’s representations of what Atlantis might have looked like:



Atlantis, city of dikes and levees, city of canals and inland seas, city of water-smart urban design and hydrological planning – it, too, was swallowed by the oceans, and destroyed.

This thread continues in Katrina 1: Levee City (on military hydrology); and Katrina 3: Two anti-hurricane projects (on landscape climatology) – both on BLDGBLOG.

Katrina 1: Levee City (on military hydrology)

[Policing the earth: a military helicopter surveys a flooded metropolis under martial law.]

It’s too easy, not to mention slightly vindictive, to blame all of hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic impact and aftermath on the Army Corps of Engineers; but it is worth remembering that New Orleans – in fact the near totality of the lower Mississippi delta – is a manmade landscape that has become, over the last century at least, something of a military artifact. To say that New Orleans is, today, under martial law, is therefore almost redundant: its very landscape, for at least the last century, has never been under anything *but* martial law. The lower Mississippi delta is literally nothing less than landscape design by army hydrologists.
New Orleans as military hydrology.
Or, military urbanism as a hydrological project.
According to The Economist, “For much of the 20th century the federal government tampered with the Mississippi, to help shipping and – ironically – prevent floods. In the process it destroyed some 1m acres of coastal marshland around New Orleans – something which suited property developers, but removed much of the city’s natural protection against flooding. The city’s system of levees, itself somewhat undermaintained, was not able to cope.”
When even people within the Army Corps of Engineers began to warn that the hubristic landscape design methods of the US military might actually be inappropriate for what is a very muscular, flood-prone, not-to-be-fucked-with drainage basin, the warnings were taken – well, frankly, they were probably taken to be blatantly unpatriotic, knowing what’s happened to this country. But I digress.
“There is an irony,” The Economist elsewhere continues, “in this warning coming from the Corps of Engineers. Just as with the Everglades in Florida, New Orleans’s vulnerability has been exacerbated by the corps’ excellence in reshaping nature’s waterways to suit mankind’s whims. In the middle of the last century, engineers succeeded in re-plumbing the great Mississippi… [which simply] hastened erosion of the coastal marshes that used to buffer New Orleans, leaving the city needlessly exposed. Most of the metropolitan area lies below sea level on drained swamp land. Levees normally hold back the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, but those were not designed to handle the waters that would come with such a powerful hurricane.”
Those same levees, in fact, as we all know, are actually now responsible for keeping the flood waters in:


“‘We’ve been living in this bowl,’ said Shea Penland, a coastal geologist who has studied storm threats to Louisiana for years,” in an interview with The New York Times. “‘And then Katrina broke channels into the bowl and the bowl filled. And now the bowl is connected to the Gulf of Mexico. We are going to have to close those inlets and then pump it dry.'”
But pumping the flooded city dry will be a “hard task,” according to the somewhat characteristic understatement of the BBC, in an article that then outlines the various steps of the engineering strategy involved (included new causeways, steel sheets, and 300-lb. sandbags).
But even if New Orleans is “pumped dry,” even if the city is eventually drained, even if commerce returns and the Big Easy’s population goes back to life as usual, there is still a much larger problem to face.
The Economist: “America’s Geological Survey has estimated that if nothing is done by 2050, Louisiana will lose another 700 square miles of coastal wetlands. Various local groups have long called for reconstruction of the marshes along the lines of the troubled $10 billion Everglades rejuvenation project. The New Orleans version, which would cost $4 billion more, would divert some 200,000 cubic feet of water each second from the Mississippi 60 miles through a channel to feed the existing marsh and to build two new deltas. The plan, which would also shut canals and locks to keep out salt water and would build artificial barrier islands, may find more adherents.”
Artificial barrier islands; 200,000 cubic feet of water each second; two new deltas: if at first you don’t succeed… try ever more elaborate feats of hydrological engineering. More of the disease is the cure for the disease. (See here for a much older – yet no less impressive for being small-scale – example of complex hydrological engineering).
Katrina, in this context, becomes a problem of landscape design.
The “hurricane” as an atmospherically-interactive, military-hydrological landscape problem.

[NASA satellite image: the Mississippi delta – several hundred square miles smaller than it should be.]

It’s a question, in other words, of human geotechnical constructions and how they interact with the complex dynamics of the earth’s tropical atmosphere and waterways.


[Image: Nearly all of the Atlantic’s equatorial reserves of warm water contributed to the strength of the storm. A few levees didn’t stand a chance.]
So what may soon become known as the destruction of New Orleans was simply the violent and undeniable clarification of how bad certain examples of landscape architecture really can be. This should surprise no one – horrify everyone, but surprise no one.




[Images: The total collapse of the manmade landscape has all but drowned the city, turning it, in the words of the Associated Press, into “a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment”; and the complete failure of urban infrastructure – including federal emergency response, management, and planning, which has hamstrung itself by sending first-responders to fight in Iraq – has made what is fundamentally a problem of landscape design much worse.]

Financially, could things have been different? Could the money now being spent in Iraq and on bogus Homeland Security projects have gone elsewhere – into FEMA, for instance, or into hydrologically better-designed levee projects on the outskirts of New Orleans? Or into some of those “artificial barrier islands” mentioned above (that BLDGBLOG would love to help design)?
Yes, the money could have been spent differently. But is further entrenching a particular manmade landscape – really, a kind of prosthetic earth’s surface, a concrete shell, of valves, dams, locks, levees, and holding ponds installed upon the lower Mississippi – really the answer? Perhaps; but equally possible is that *there should not be a city there*.


As Mike Davis writes in *Dead Cities*: “Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust. The forces at its command are of course colossal as a hurricane and as invisible as a baccilli. At either end of the scale, natural energies are capable of opening breaches that can quickly unravel the cultural order. (…) Environmental control demands continuous investment and systematic maintenance: whether building a multi-billion-dollar flood control system or simply weeding the garden. It is an inevitably Sisyphean labor.”
Davis then describes the 19th century novel *After London: or, Wild England* by Richard Jefferies, a book in which “the medievalized landscape of postapocalyptic England” is explored “less [as] a nightmare than [as] a deep ecologist’s dreamwish of wild powers re-enthroned. (William Morris reported that ‘absurd hopes curled around my heart as I read it.’)”
After its destruction, then, this is London: “As fields, house sites, and roads were overrun, the saplings of new forests appeared. Elms, ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse chestnuts thrived chaotically in the ruins while more disciplined copses of fir, beech, and nut trees relentlessly expanded their circumferences.”
The city is soon home to huge flocks of kestrel hawks and owls; wild cattle; and thousands and thousands of cats, “now mostly grayish and longer in body than domestic ancestors.” (As per the film *Logan’s Run* – or see CNN: “New Orleans residents who return to their homes [will] face ‘a wilderness’ without power and drinking water that will be infested with poisonous snakes and fire ants.”)
Eventually, Davis recounts, “new species or subspecies [evolve] out of other former domesticates, (…) [and] the monstrous vegetative powers of feral nature begin a full-scale assault on London’s brick, stone, and iron skeleton.”
“As marsh recovered the floodplain, (…) [t]he hydraulic pressure of the flooded substratum of the city – underground passages, sewers, cellars, and drains – soon burst the foundations of homes and buildings, which in turn crumbled into rubble heaps, further impeding drainage.”
A “200-mile-long inland sea” soon forms: “Jefferies’s extinct London, in short, is a giant stopped-up toilet, threatening death as an ‘inevitable fate’ to anyone foolish enough to expose themselves to its poisonous miasma.”
It becomes, that is, a flooded city.

[Image: A corpse floats in the oil-coated lake that was once New Orleans.]

This thread continues in Katrina 2: New Atlantis (on flooded cities); and Katrina 3: Two anti-hurricane projects (on landscape climatology) – both on BLDGBLOG.

Geotechnics

Direct intervention into the earth’s surface through technology – the coupling of the planet with technological objects – could be phrased as ‘geotechnical,’ a word I thought I invented – until I discovered that ‘geotechnics’ is already a long-standing professional concern of engineers and architects. Gone was the whiz-bang neologism, but born was an intense curiosity in what ‘geotechnical engineers’ actually do.
Unforeseen ground conditions. Reuse of old foundations. Ground investigation. Geological voids. Borehole geophysics. ‘Geo Frontiers 2005’. Ground engineering, which includes ‘international geotechnical events’ and ‘covers all aspects of the engineering of the ground’.
The vocabulary alone justifies awe. Where else can you read: ‘Sui Field compression project: the tectonic structure of Northern Pakistan’, and take it seriously?
Geosynthetics!
Ground improvement!
‘The geotechnics of contaminated land’!
Applied geology.
My enthusiasm coming here not from some pre-adolescent obsession with digging machines, but from the black-out inducing intellectual high of outright planetary engineering, a geosynthetic *Wunderproject*, where remote-sensing meets hydrological engineering, geotextiles, ground improvement, and mega-scale, antigravitational, interstellar industrial machines hovering 350 miles above the dark, unfinished surface of a geoengineered planet.
‘The engineering of the ground’!
After geotechnics, the whole planet could be already artificial, bearing marks of human intervention. To find in a moment of ultra-fast zoom-out cello-soundtracked awe that the earth you’re standing on is always, already, everywhere a huge Mt. Rushmore, a man-made, artificial, technological, geotechnic project.
A hollow earth, a geosynthetic planet. Sculpted from geotextiles.
Landscape architecture taken to the megalomaniacal extreme. And funded by multinational petroleum companies.

Buttressed buttresses

First, whenever I hear the phrase ‘buttressed buttresses’ I think of Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Perhaps to his credit.
Second, the actual point in bringing up (inventing?) the phrase, is that even buttresses can have buttresses. Buttresses, the spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals and hold up the walls of the nave, have always fascinated me, both on the aesthetic level (they’re gorgeous, and absolutely beautiful to look at in their hypnotic repetition and grace) and on the intellectual level. They are, after all, fun to think about it: because they’re not really objects, they’re events. They’re events of gravity channeled downward toward the earth’s core; they’re the building always on the verge of falling apart – and then not falling apart.
They’re somewhere between event and structure.
But what really interests me is to think that you’re visiting Paris, say, or some other city that has no name and, strangely, no one’s ever heard of it, and you’re standing in the apartment of a friend. There’s a rather large arching stone structure that cuts through the center of his bedroom, but he’s done his best to adapt to it: there are pictures, maybe some cool decorative objects, maybe some shelves, all attached with nails into the arch. You say, ‘What exactly is that thing, anyway?’ and he grins, embarrassed, and he says, ‘It’s a buttress.’
You go, ‘What?’ and hold back a yawn, looking around for a place to sit.
He starts laughing. He says, ‘Come on, dude, you know what a buttress is. It’s like those – those big fucking things you see outside Notre-Dame. Those spidery, ribcage-like stone arches that stand outside cathedrals.’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘So… what’s it doing in your apartment?’
It turns out, as the man explains, you friend, standing there looking at you with a beer in his hand, that there’s a monumental structure in the center of the city, a derrick-like core of platforms and offices, and it’s called, simply, The Cathedral. Or The Tower. But it’s big, so big, so incomprehensibly massive, that the only way it can remain standing is to surround itself with massive buttresses that help distribute the gravitational load. The buttresses themselves, on the other hand, are so huge that they were put to dual use almost immediately as motorway bridges and highway flyover supports; but then the weight of the motorways, and of cars and trains and people and maybe some houses built atop the buttresses – and, of course, the weight of The Cathedral itself – was all too much, and the buttresses needed to be buttressed. But, as you can imagine, even these subsidiary buttresses were so huge that they, too, were put to dual use; and so on.
Finally, in an exquisite filigree stretching everywhere throughout the city, a mandala of lace-like interconnected structures that spans the width and breadth of the whole metropolis: there begin to appear thousands upon thousands of microbuttresses, all buttressing the buttresses that buttress the buttresses.
And what you see there in your friend’s apartment is one of those microbuttresses.
Buttressed buttresses.
There are pubs in the city set in the vertices of two dozen arches; new children’s games invented to incorporate the presence of strange structural blocks; and there are dreams at night, shared by everyone, at different times, that even The Cathedral in the center of the city is itself a buttress, and it, too, is just one structural unit among uncountable hundreds of thousands, all of which add up to some dizzyingly titanic megastructure no one has ever seen the whole of.
My point is not to write a science-fiction novel – though I might, actually, so be prepared – but to explore the idea that even buttresses have buttresses; even foundations have foundations; even arches need arches to support them. Even one buttress, after all, requires the resistance and strength of the ground it’s anchored upon; and that ground depends upon the strength of the ground around it. Which makes earthquake faultlines so interesting, as an architectural consideration, but that’s for another entry.
But the chain never ends. Buttresses simply make visible the always present gravitational forces so well disguised by other styles of building, and, as such, they’re amazing.
What would be even more interesting, perhaps, is: you are out walking in a field and you stumble upon a strange architectural structure, only it has no doors or windows, ie. no inside. You’re twenty, thirty miles away from any metropolitan center, and you have no clue what it is. You’re in a bad mood. You begin to hack away at it, and then finally you just say fuck it, and you drive a Hummer into it. It falls over.
You think that’s the end of it, but then you hear that a cathedral has collapsed in the nearest city, and it collapsed because suddenly one of its outer buttresses gave out. It turns out that, yes, the now-collapsed buttress was reliant upon the compressive and resistant capacity of the soil it was anchored in, and that that structure you knocked over, thirty miles away, was very carefully calibrated as a brace for that soil. By knocking it over you let the earth sag, in a straight line leading right to the cathedral, and voilà: architectural action at a distance.
It’s the magical mystery of buttressed buttresses.