Ghost Reefs

[Image: 18th-century nautical chart by George Gauld, via Geographical].

A theme that has near-universal appeal for me is when old maps reveal the presence of something in the landscape that people have otherwise overlooked or forgotten. It could be a lost road deep in the mountain forests of Vermont, for example, or it could a whole series of missing reefs off the coast of Florida.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers led by Loren McClenachan at Colby College in Maine found what they called “ghost reefs” in old nautical charts drawn by an 18th-century British surveyor named George Gauld. When the team compared Gauld’s maps with modern satellite images of the same landscape, “a stark picture of shrinking coral emerged: Half of the reefs recorded in the 1770s are missing from the satellite data,” the Washington Post reported.

There are limitations to the approach, of course: “It’s impossible to tell whether the [18th-century] surveyors distinguished between living and dead coral, for example, or how long the reefs had persisted,” the Post writes, but the idea of finding ghost geographic forms in old maps is too evocative not to mention here.

Inflatables Give Structure To Air

[Image: A project by Haus-Rucker-Co].

Three men with oversize briefcases show up in New York City. They drop their cases onto the sidewalk and leave them there, disguised amongst the workday crowds, several blocks away from one another, unattended. Ten minutes later, the cases pop open: a whirring sound is heard as small industrial fans begin to operate, inflating carefully packed chains of linked polyethylene structures. Buildings emerge, expanding out from each case until entire rooms and corridors block the street. No one knows how to turn the fans off. The buildings are growing, labyrinthine, turning corners now and halting traffic. A news helicopter captures the scene from above as the transparent walls of huge empty buildings made of air flash with the colored lights of police cars.

[Image: An “inflatable nested toroid structure” patented by NASA (PDF)].

A man toils for thirteen years, sending ever-more complex test diagrams off to polyethylene factories in Florida. He wants to know how much it would cost for them to manufacture these parts he’s been designing, and designing well: temporary inflatable rooms that link off from other rooms, multi-scalar gaskets able to withstand knife attacks, even strange, one-time entry points that can be resealed from within. A retired cargo pilot, he dreams of giving structure to air. He writes, Man can live on air alone!, and sketches obscene bulbous shapes on paper napkins to the discomfort of passing strangers.

[Image: Inflatable toroid test; via NASA/Wikipedia].

A building made of polyethylene and sealed air takes shape on a beach near Cape Canaveral. Tourists flock to it, taking selfies and filming short videos with their kids. But the midday sun is relentless; the structure is heating and the winds are picking up. Within two hours, the complex inflated shape begins to tremble and beat against the sand, until, accompanied by an audible gasp from the assembled crowd, it is sucked out to sea. It tumbles and rolls and rises through the sky, a spinning point reflecting glints of subtropical sunlight as it disappears over the Atlantic horizon. No one can say who it was, but all witnesses insist there was a man inside. Sure enough, smartphone video of the structure being lifted over the waves reveals a man bracing himself against the interior walls, bearing an expression somewhere between mania and glee. Two weeks later, French police find him, disoriented and unshaven, lacking his passport, at a seaside bar in Arcachon. “I have a very strange story to tell you,” he slurs, before falling off his seat.

Lightning Farm

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group].

This past winter, I had the pleasure of traveling around south Florida with Smout Allen, Kyle Buchanan, and nearly two dozen students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Florida’s variable terrains—of sink holes, swamps, and eroding beaches—and its Herculean infrastructure, from canals and freeways to theme parks and rocket facilities, served as the narrative backdrop for the many architectural projects ultimately produced by the class (in addition, of course, to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, the results of which we watched live from the bar of a tropical-themed hotel near Cape Canaveral, next door to Ron Jon).

While there were many, many interesting projects resulting from the trip, and from the Unit in general, there is one that I thought I’d post here, by student Farah Aliza Badaruddin, particularly for the quality of its drawings.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

Badaruddin’s project explored the large-scale architectural implications of applying radical weather technologies to the task of landscape remediation, asking specifically if Cape Canaveral’s highly contaminated ground water—polluted by a “viscous toxic goo” made from tens of thousands of pounds of rocket fuels, chemical plumes, solvents, and other industrial waste products over the decades—could be decontaminated through pyrolysis, using guided and controlled bursts of lightning.

In her own words, Badaruddin explains that the would test “the idea that lightning can be harnessed on-site to pyrolyse highly contaminated groundwater as an approach to remediate the polluted site.”

These controlled and repetitive lightning strikes would also, in turn, help fertilize the soil, producing a kind of bio-electro-agricultural event of truly cosmic (or at least Miller-Ureyan) proportions.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida Lightning Research Group].

Her maps of the area—which she presents as if drawn in a Moleskine notebook—show the terrestrial borders of the proposal (although volumetric maps of the sky, showing the project’s fully three-dimensional engagement with regional weather systems, would have been an equally, if not more, effective way of showing the project’s spatial boundaries).

This raises the awesome question of how you should most accurately represent an architectural project whose central goal is to wield electrical influence on the atmosphere around it.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

In short, her design proposes a new infrastructure of “rocket-triggered lightning technology,” assisted and supervised by a peripheral network of dirigibles—floating airships that “surround the site and serve as the observatory platform for a proposed lightning visitor centre and the weather research center.”

The former was directly inspired by real-world lightning research equipment found at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group.

[Image: Triggered lightning technology at the University of Florida’s Lightning Research Group].

Badaruddin’s own rocket triggers would be used both to attract and “to provide direct lightning strikes to the proposed sites,” thus pyrolizing the landscape and purifying both ground water and soil.

[Image: Aerial collage view of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

The result would be a lightning farm, a titanic landscape tuned to the sky, flashing with controlled lightning strikes as the ground conditions are gradually remediated—an unmoving, nearly permanent, artificial electrical storm like something out of Norse mythology, cleansing the earth of toxic chemicals and preparing the site for future reuse.

[Image: Collage of the lightning farm, by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

I should say that my own interest in these kinds of proposals is less in their future workability and more in what it means to see a technology taken out of context, picked apart for its spatial implications, and then re-scaled and transformed into a speculative work of landscape architecture. The value, in other words, is in re-thinking existing technologies by placing them at unexpected scales in unexpected conditions, simultaneously extracting an architectural proposal from that and perhaps catalyzing innovative new ways for the original technology itself to be redeveloped or used.

[Image: Farah Aliza Badaruddin].

It’s not a question of whether or not something can be immediately realized or built; it’s a question of how open-ended, fictional design proposals can change the way someone thinks about an entire field or class of technologies.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

But I’ll let Badaruddin’s own extraordinary visual skills tell the story. Most if not all of these images can be seen in a much larger size if you open the images in their own windows; they’re well worth a closer look—

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

—including what amount to a short graphic novel telling the story of her proposed controlled-lightning landscape-decontamination facility.

[Images: From a project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin at the Bartlett School of Architecture].

All in all, whether or not architecturally-controlled lightning storms will ever purify the land and water of south Florida, it’s a wonderfully realized and highly imaginative project, and I hope Badaruddin finds more opportunities, post-Bartlett, to showcase and develop her skills.