“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

A Burglar’s Guide to Denver

burglars

If you’re near Denver, I’m excited to be doing an event there next week with novelist Nick Arvin. Arvin, you might recall, was previously interviewed here on BLDGBLOG about his novel The Reconstructionist, including Arvin’s previous, real-life job simulating car crashes for the insurance industry.

We’ll be discussing A Burglar’s Guide to the City at the David Adjaye-designed MCA Denver on Wednesday night, July 20, 6pm, in something called the Whole Room.

You can check-in on Facebook—although no RSVP is required—and the only fee is general admission to the museum ($2.50). Hope to see you there!

Burglary in Context

[Image: The former Polish National Alliance Building, now Studio Gang; via Studio Gang].

Just a quick reminder that, if you’re in Chicago this Friday, May 27th, Iker Gil, editor-in-chief of MAS Context, and I will be discussing A Burglar’s Guide to the City. We’ll be in the brand new event space inside Studio Gang’s newly renovated offices, the former Polish National Alliance Building on Division Street. The event is co-sponsored by the Seminary Co-Op bookstore, who will also be selling copies of the book. Issues of MAS Context will also be sale.

Stop by to learn about super-tools of architectural breaking & entering, from lock picks to burning bars, about abstract geometric shapes visible only to lawyers enclosing domestic space against the threat of burglary, and about the most prolific bank-robbing crew of the 19th-century—led by a man who trained as an architect—among many other points of discussion.

Things kick off at 6pm, at 1520 W. Division Street. Hope to see you there!

Three More Events

26250632803_429c5caef9_h[Image: Flying with the LAPD; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Just a quick heads up about three more Burglar’s Guide-related events coming up this month:

Monday, May 9th, AIA Center for Architecture, New York City—I’ll be speaking with fellow crime-enthusiast Tom Vanderbilt about various themes explored in the book, from lock picking and police helicopter flights over Los Angeles to security vulnerabilities hidden in a city’s fire code. Vanderbilt himself has a new book of his own out next week, called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, and he is also the author of Traffic and Survival City. Things kick off at 6pm. RSVP at the Center for Architecture. Books will be available for purchase courtesy of Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore.

Wednesday, May 18th, National Building Museum, Washington D.C.—Stop by the National Building Museum to watch clips from heist films, and to discuss the art of the getaway route, a typology of burglar’s tools, and much more. I’ll be introducing films, from Rififi to The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, and speaking with Ross Andersen, senior editor of The Atlantic, for a full evening of crime and the city. Things begin at 6:30pm. Pick up a ticket from the National Building Museum website.

Friday, May 27th, Studio Gang, Chicago—Iker Gil, editor-in-chief of MAS Context, will be moderating a lively conversation about A Burglar’s Guide to the City in the newly renovated office space of Jeanne Gang’s Chicago architecture firm, Studio Gang, winner of the 2016 Architect of the Year Award from The Architectural Review. Books will be for sale courtesy of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

Stop by any (or all!) if you’re nearby, and be sure to say hello.

Book Touring

burglars
The west coast leg of the book tour for A Burglar’s Guide to the City is coming to an end. I wanted to give readers near Portland and Seattle a quick heads up about events in those cities this week, in case you might be looking for something to do.

Stop by Powell’s tomorrow night—Tuesday, the 3rd, at 7:30—or Town Hall Seattle on Thursday night, May 5th, also at 7:30, to pick up a signed copy and to hear some stories from the book, from an unsolved subterranean bank heist in 1980s Los Angeles to the design war going on between the tools of breaking & entering and architectural fortification.

If you’re on the fence about reading the thing, meanwhile, check out Alex Bozikovic’s great review for The Globe and Mail. Bozikovic thinks A Burglar’s Guide to the City “gives the realm of architecture the kinetic thrills of a heist film.”

Alternatively, Marc Weingarten of The Guardian has an enthusiastic look at the book, as well. He writes that the Burglar’s Guide “locates the spot where architecture and crime intersect. It’s the dark side of urbanist Jane Jacobs’s 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, depicting the city and its environs as incubator for uncivil activity.”

The Atlantic’s CityLab has also discussed the book, as has Boing Boing, in a fantastic review by Cory Doctorow.Many more media links can also be found either here on BLDGBLOG or over at burglarsguide.com.

Of course, I know it’s not hugely compelling to hear an author touting a new book over and over again! It’s like sitting through an infomercial you didn’t intend to tune to. But I’m not only thrilled the book is finally out there, after having worked on it for the past three years; I’d also love to say hello to any BLDGBLOG readers who might be out there while I’m on the road.

Expedition to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere


BLDGBLOG and Atlas Obscura have teamed up to lead an outing into the deserts of southern California on Saturday, March 20: an afternoon-long photographic expedition through the dusty grids of unpaved streets on the northeastern fringe of California City.


To quote from an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG:

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). Bill & Ted meet Cerne Abbas Man.

The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.


Take a look.

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere. Meaningless STOP signs stand guard over dead intersections.


And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.


To make things more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

California City is now the site of a proposed mega-farm for solar energy harvesting, as well as for a bizarre plan to build the so-called Cannabis City of the Future.

Sign up to join us over at the Obscura Day site.


Note, however, that this is not a guided tour; it is simply an organized simultaneity of people all going out to investigate these streets en masse. Armed with cameras, microphones, sketchbooks, GPS devices, quickly scrawled notes for future blog posts, and more, we’ll be exploring the site at our own pace, perhaps even miles apart at various times. This is not a guided tour with an expert on the area.

As such, all questions of transportation (including tires suitable for travel over unsealed dirt roads); adequate food, fuel, and water; personal safety (including protection from sprained ankles and snakes); and navigation are up to individual participants.

We will meet at 1pm on Saturday, March 20, 2010, in the parking lot of Rite Aid in California City: 9482 California City Boulevard, California City, CA 93505. There will be a very brief group introduction there—and you can run inside to buy Cokes or whatever—before we set off to document the uninhabited streets outside town. Let’s photograph, film, blog, Lomo, Twitter, and audio-record the crap out of this place! I’ve started a Flickr group, which will be opened up soon. If you arrive late, simply head out Randsburg Mojave Road, onto 20 Mule Team Parkway, and look for the cars; our eventual cluster of destinations is approximately 15 minutes’ drive northeast of town.

And, in the unlikely event of torrential rains, I will post travel updates here on BLDGBLOG.


Meanwhile, the incomparable Atlas Obscura has a whole slew of amazing trips planned for March 20, all over the world, all part of their first annual “Obscura Day.” Definitely check out that list for sites closer to you, if you’re not in southern California.

(California City was originally pointed out to me by David Donald, and it was written up by The Vigorous North last year. The “cannabis city” and solar farm links come courtesy of Alexis Madrigal. All images in this post via Google Maps and Google Street View).

Digital Memory Palace

First thing tomorrow morning, I will be presenting at Ruairi Glynn’s Digital Architecture London conference, alongside Neil Spiller, Murray Fraser, and Alan Penn. Our topic is “Digital Architecture & Space.”

Anticipating a day filled with formal discussions, I’ll be speaking – albeit briefly – about what might be called the psychiatric effects of simulated environments. Specifically referring to the U.S. military’s Virtual Iraq project, I want to bring into the discussion the idea that “digital space” can be used for therapeutic purposes.

[Image: Brains].

To quote at length from a fascinating article in The New Yorker about the use of virtual reality as a treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

P.T.S.D. is precipitated by a terrifying event or situation—war, a car accident, rape, planes crashing into the World Trade Center—and is characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts, as well as by emotional detachment, numbness, jumpiness, anger, and avoidance. [A recently returned soldier from Iraq’s] doctor prescribed medicine for his insomnia and encouraged him to seek out psychotherapy, telling him about an experimental treatment option called Virtual Iraq, in which patients worked through their combat trauma in a computer-simulated environment. The portal was a head-mounted display (a helmet with a pair of video goggles), earphones, a scent-producing machine, and a modified version of Full Spectrum Warrior, a popular video game.

The purpose of discussing this is to look beyond formal analyses of digital architecture and virtual space, and to focus instead on their therapeutic possibilities. Put another way, to what extent could architectural simulations help to treat or even cure Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

With only a slight shift in emphasis, could you produce a building project that used the techniques of digital architecture to create an elaborate spatial memory system – a kind of RHINO mnemonics – that neurologically stimulated the act of remembering?

Of course, the use of architectural space as a road toward mental self-improvement, so to speak, is not at all new. A memory palace, for instance, is the art of remembering something by associating it with specific spatial details in a fantasy architectural structure, and this idea goes back at least to Cicero.

So is there a way to discuss the impact of digital design on architecture, with all of its implications of cinematic immersion and real-time animation, without getting stuck on questions of form? How might we discuss digital architecture’s impacts on things like memory – and can we do so in the context of experimental psychiatry and so-called exposure therapy?

I should add that each speaker will only be presenting for about five minutes – so the above remarks will be quite short, before turning into a much more general panel discussion.

The First Million

I’m immensely pleased to announce BLDGBLOG’s first event, on January 13th in Los Angeles, to be hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

The event is meant as a way to mark BLDGBLOG’s recent move to Los Angeles; to kick-start the new year in a conversationally exciting way; to celebrate being one of Yahoo’s top 25 web picks of 2006; and to meet a few of the one million readers who have now clicked through to read BLDGBLOG (some much-needed statistical caveats about that statement appear below) – and, thus, an event seemed like a good idea. It also just sounds fun.

So this Saturday, January 13th, from 3pm-5pm, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City, Los Angeles, I’ll be introducing five speakers: Matthew Coolidge, Mary-Ann Ray, Robert Sumrell, Christine Wertheim, and Margaret Wertheim, who will speak for 15-20 minutes each.

Matthew Coolidge is Director of CLUI; as such, he’s one of the larger influences on BLDGBLOG, up there with J.G. Ballard, John McPhee, and Piranesi – so it’s immensely exciting for me to have him as a participant, and equally exciting that he and the CLUI staff are willing to host this event in their space. If you’re curious about CLUI’s work, consider purchasing their new book: Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or just stop by the Center at some point and say hello.

Back in 1997, then, I found myself in Rotterdam where I went to the Netherlands Architecture Institute several days in a row to use their architecture library; the NAi’s exhibit at the time was about Daniel Libeskind. While this proves that I’m possibly the world’s lamest backpacker, it also resulted in my stumbling across a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets, a book I highly recommend to just about anyone – and a book that may or may not even be responsible for my current interest in architecture.

So when I saw last week that Mary-Ann still lives in LA, and that her firm had actually worked on the facade of the Museum of Jurassic Technology – located right next door to the Center for Land Use Interpretation – I immediately gave her a call; and now she’s a speaker at the event.

[Image: Mary-Ann Ray, from Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets].

Robert Sumrell, meanwhile, is co-director of AUDC. AUDC’s work explores the fields of diffuse urbanism and network geography, whether that means analyzing Muzak as a form of spatial augmentation or photo-documenting the town of Quartzsite, Arizona.

Interestingly, Sumrell also works as a production designer for elaborate fashion shoots and other high-gloss, celebrity spectacles. If you’re a fan of Usher, for instance, don’t miss Sumrell’s Portfolio 2; if you like topless women surrounded by veils of smoke, see his Portfolio 1. I like Portfolio 1.

[Image: From Robert Sumrell’s Portfolio 4].

Then we come to Christine and Margaret Wertheim, co-directors of the Institute for Figuring, here in Los Angeles.

“The Institute’s interests,” they explain, “are twofold: the manifestation of figures in the world around us and the figurative technologies that humans have developed through the ages. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding, the tiling patterns of Islamic mosaics and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.”

Margaret will be presenting a hand-crocheted hyperbolic reef, “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft.” The reef is part craft object, part mathematical model in colored wool.

[Image: An example of “mega coral,” crocheted by Christine Wertheim].

Margaret is also an ace interviewer; don’t miss her conversation with Nicholas Gessler, for instance, collector of analogue computers. While you’re at it, don’t miss her “history of space from Dante to the internet”.

Meanwhile, Christine’s interests lie more in the realm of logic and its spatial representations. Christine has curated an upcoming show at the Museum of Jurassic Technology around the work of Shea Zellweger, an “outsider logician” and former hotel switchboard operator who developed a three-dimensional, internally rigorous representational system for logical processes.

Christine will thus be speaking on what could be called an illustrated spatial history of logic.

[Image: Part of Shea Zellweger’s logical alphabet; image courtesy of Shea Zellweger, via the Institute for Figuring].

Finally, the statistical caveats I mentioned above.

While it is true that my Sitemeter is now above one million – recording visitors to the site – it is also true that if you come to BLDGBLOG four times a week for a year, then you will be counted as 208 different people… So the accounting is a bit off.

Also, it is inarguably the case that at least 350,000 of those 1,000,000 visitors only visited one of the five following posts, which, thanks to Fark, Digg, MetaFilter, Boing Boing, etc., are overwhelmingly the most popular posts here: World’s largest diamond mine, Scientological Circles, The city as an avatar of itself, Transformer Houses, and Gazprom City.

Possible runners-up for that list – though those five really do take the cake – include, and I apologize for this blatantly self-indulgent yet strangely irresistible nostalgia trip: the interview with Simon Sellars, the interview with Simon Norfolk, the Aeneid-inspired look at offshore oil derricks, Chinese death vans, how to buy your own concrete utopia, Architectural Criticism, Where cathedrals go to die, the story of Joe Kittinger, London Topological, and L.A.’s high-tech world of traffic control. Actually, this one had a lot of readers, and the mud mosques were also quite popular…

But now I’ve wasted twenty minutes, assembling those links.

So I’ll link to others, instead. BLDGBLOG would still only be read by myself, my wife, and possibly two or three others if it hadn’t been for the early and/or ongoing enthusiasm of other websites who link in – including, but by no means limited to: Pruned, gravestmor, Archinect, things magazine, Inhabitat, Gridskipper, Boing Boing, Design Observer, Coudal, Artkrush, we make money not art, Subtopia, Ballardian, The Dirt, Apartment Therapy, Curbed LA and Curbed SF, City of Sound, Future Feeder, Archidose, Brand Avenue, Tropolism, hippoblog, Land+Living, Abstract Dynamics, Worldchanging, Warren Ellis, The Nonist, The Kircher Society, Conscientious, Centripetal Notion, and whoever it is that occasionally puts links to BLDGBLOG up on MetaFilter.

In any case, my final point is just to be honest and say that a million visitors is more like “a million visitors” – i.e. not quite a million visitors – and that, on top of that, many of those people only came through to see five or six particular posts in the first place. And that’s not even to mention the fact that many websites have more than a million visitors per month, and so the whole thing is not exactly awe-inspiring.

But who cares. If you’re in LA this weekend, consider dropping by; it’ll be a fun and casual event, not an academic conference, and you can tell me in person whether cone beats sphere.

(There’s also a full-size version of the event poster available).