Three Trees

1) And then there was computational wood.

For his master’s thesis, produced last year under the direction of Timo Arnall, Matt Jones, Jack Schulze, Lennart Andersson, and Mikael Wiberg, designer Matt Cottam directed this short video about a technique for growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees. Just inject the right trace metals, Cottam’s mad scientist narrator explains, do some more techno-magic, and simply let the wood grow…

If only it were true. But the day will come, my t-shirt will read, when all the trees around us are computers.

2) While researching blackouts for a seminar I am teaching this winter at Pratt, I stumbled on a strange anecdote from The New York Times, published back in 1986, about a plant physiologist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden who was seeking a way to end the risk of “trees crashing down on power lines” (a major source of power interruptions).


[Images: All photos by Adam Ryder, from On the Grid].

“One of the things we’re looking at,” the scientist explained, “is something that will directly retard the growth of trees”—that is, chemicals “that interfere with the basic growth hormones.” He was trying to develop, he adds, “a mild chemical” that would deliberately slow tree growth, “and instead of spraying we’re injecting [it] directly into the tree.”

Who knows where that research has now led them, twenty-four years later, but I’d suggest someone might want to mail them a copy of The Death of Grass. ASAP.


[Image: A fig tree grows in Los Angeles; photo by Pieter Severynen].

3) While going back through old bookmarks this morning, I rediscovered Tree of the Week, a series of articles run by the Los Angeles Times. The overall project could be described as a botanical cartography of the city: a catalog of Angeleno trees.

This week’s tree is the “highly productive fig“; last week’s was the Blackwood Acacia. With regard to the latter tree, Pieter Severynen, the series author, writes: “Given its negative properties it should be clear that a description of this tree, or for that matter any tree of the week, does not imply an endorsement to plant. Instead it is offered as a means to learn more about the existing trees that make up the fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland.”

The “fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland” includes the Weltwitschia, the “picturesque Aleppo pine,” and, of course, among many others, the apple, a tree genetically sculpted over the millennia through “hundreds of accidental and deliberate cross-hybridizations” around the world, Severynen writes.

Anyone interested in exploring the urban forests of Los Angeles would do well to check out the fruit maps of Fallen Fruit, who have discovered in the seemingly random dispersal of fruit trees around Silver Lake the remnant outlines of long-forgotten orchards; but if your curiosity goes further afield than L.A., the absolutely fantastic book Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, has truly unforgettable descriptions of walnut harvesting in Kazakhstan, old-growth Eastern European forests filled with war ruins and shrapnel, and Deakin’s own backyard in England. It is often astonishingly beautiful—and it also Deakin’s last major work.

Fire Lookout Towers

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

Constituting their own architectural typology, and falling perhaps somewhere between Lew Welch and Tom Kundig (someone hire Kundig to design the next Serpentine, please!), are the fire lookout towers of the Pacific Northwest.

Search the photo archives – assembled and maintained by Rex Kamstra, complete with lookout tower trivia – from Oregon and Washington to the hills of South Dakota (or just check out the site’s newsfeed) to explore these often extraordinarily remote structures in all their minimalist – and historically fascinating – glory.

And did you know that you can actually adopt a fire lookout?

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

While you’re at it, don’t miss the U.S. Forest Service’s own catalog of these overlooked minor building types: fire lookout towers in Sequoia National Forest, for instance, and Umatilla.

The fact that there are any lookout towers still standing at all is, it seems, slightly amazing. “In their heyday during the 1930s,” the Forest Service explains, “there were over 8,000 fire lookouts that dotted mountain tops across the United States with over 600 in California. Today there are only a few hundred in operation. Once considered a proud symbol of our nation’s conservation heritage, fire lookouts are a fading legacy. There are 10 lookouts left on the Sequoia National Forest.”

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

A definitive history of these timber structures and lonely cabins has not yet been written (attention Princeton Architectural Press!), although they constitute not only a distinctive family of structures, they also have a regional, ecosystemic importance that only the best pieces of civic infrastructure attain.

They also figure into the national mythology in a way that few other forms of architecture do; from Jack Kerouac disappearing off into the mountains for a summer of fire-spotting, to the poems of Gary Snyder, these awesomely elevated perspectives on the natural world – as well as sites of enforced introspection – deserve their NorCalMod moment. That is, they deserve their architectural rediscovery.

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

Instead of a definitive reference work, there are simply books (albeit still fascinating) like How to Rent a Fire Lookout in the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to Renting Fire Lookouts, Guard Stations, Ranger Cabins, Warming Shelters and Bunkhouses in the National Forests of Oregon and Washington; Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore; Lookouts: Firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics; and the so-called “fire lookout research” of David E. Lorenz (now out of print). So people are clearly still interested in these structures. For instance, check out this photo-log of a hike up to the spectacular mountain views of the Mule Peak Lookout.

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

Even better, take a long read through the Skagit River Journal‘s look at the fire lookout towers of the Cascades. This latter link includes some amazing material, including references to interviews with former fire watchers and their colleagues:

They told many unusual stories of the watchers, who were prepared to be alone on a mountain ridge in a tower measuring less than 200 square feet. Towers were sometimes built on nearby ridges so that two watchers could combine their observations of a section of forest, which enabled them to triangulate and more accurately call in resources to fight fires. A broad spectrum of watchers developed, from college students to housewives to hermits and those who loved to be surrounded by wilderness and mountains. The authors discovered one watcher who was so frightened during a lightning storm that he ran all the way down the mountain.

There is also the story of Maxine Meyers, a former forest lookout.

More architecturally, the Skagit River Journal also gets into the ways and means of these towers’ construction: “Before mountain roads were built of a size to accomodate trucks, the materials were largely packed in on backs or on mules, and then another team had to slog through the brush, stringing telephone wire before the use of two-way radios.” Thus were distant structures assembled in the woods.

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

Plus, where, now, are the people who actually lived in these structures – stationed there for whole seasons at a time to eat canned peaches and watch the stars, looking out for signs of distant fires? Are they still alive, and, like Maxine Meyers, could you interview them? It’s an architectural form that comes with its own anthropology: narratives of use and inhabitation.

Further, who designed these structures – based on what plan, and from what material inspiration? What would a fire lookout tower, built today, look like? Perhaps like the awesome “Prairie Ladder” by Anderson Anderson?

And how do these towers frame the landscape, and to what extent could you put them into the visual tradition of things like panoramas?

These towers, after all, aren’t just towers; they have a kind of optical functionality, built specifically for the purpose of viewing the landscape in a certain, specific, highly regulated way. They spatially frame this act of disciplined surveillance. In a sense, they are like the British watchtowers so beautifully photographed by Donovan Wylie.

[Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service].

But, more to the point, where do fire lookout towers – as a minor design typology – fit into architectural history?

The Museum of Nature

[Image: Museum 2 by Ilkka Halso, featuring a protected mountain. If you look close enough, you’ll also see the roller-coaster, pictured below, as it wraps around the bay…].

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Framework: The Finnish Art Review because it looked really good and had some cool images in it – and, even now, I think it’s an interesting magazine. I don’t regret the purchase.

[Image: Museum 1 by Ilkka Halso].

So I was flipping through it again the other night, looking for something, when I re-discovered a bunch of photographs by Ilkka Halso.

The images are part of an amazing series called the “Museum of Nature,” and I’m frankly still in awe of the project.

[Image: Roller-coaster by Ilkka Halso].

The basic premise of Halso’s digitally manipulated work is that “nature” has been transformed into a museum display – yet the public’s interaction with this new, endangered artifact is limited to spectacular roller coaster rides, perfectly reflected in the still waters they pass over. Alternatively, you can visit this steamy, delirious, quasi-Parisian gallery of iron and glass roofs built arching into disappearance over pine forests.

[Image: Kitka-river by Ilkka Halso].

These are “shelters,” the artist writes, “massive buildings where big ecosystems could be stored.”

The more I think about this project, the more interesting it gets; someone should write a novel set in this place – a kind of eco-catastrophic sequel to Westworld, perhaps – or, at the very least, someone should put Halso’s images on display in the United States. They’d also make a gorgeous spread in Wired.

In any case, be sure to spend time clicking around through Halso’s site. It’s worth it. And check out another of Halso’s projects, featured on Pruned back in 2005.

Tree bombs

Two earlier posts here have strangely merged in real life: while we were off soil-bombing Iceland, MIT’s Moshe Alamaro – of the famed anti-hurricane jet engine barges – was strafing the earth with tree seeds. It’s called “aerial reforestation.”

Back in 1997, Alamaro “designed conical canisters, of a starchy biodegradable material, which each contain a seedling packed in soil and nutrients. The canisters are dropped from a low-flying plane, so that they hit the ground at 200 m.p.h., and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

Whole forests, fired from F-16s. Stealth forestry.


Or, branching off from an earlier comment on the agri-militaristic possibilities of garden wars (“hotheaded dictators and war-time presidents decide to take turns garden-bombing each other” [see comments]), you’d get forest wars, landscape design by Cruise missile: launched from a ship in the Indian Ocean, soon there are rich deciduous forests in the hills of Afghanistan.


Aspen trees. Precision Seedlings®. Bunker busters dropped into the San Andreas fault, where genetically engineered redwood saplings grow so deep they knit the faultline back together…

Riot police discard their plastic bullets and tear gas canisters to fire baby tulip bulbs; you go home and flowers are growing from your wounds… All scars become gardens…

Or on CNN some morning we see ICBMs arcing out of the mid-Atlantic, submarine crews cheering, the hunt for a truly red October now over: new maple tree saplings have been fired – they are reforesting the eastern Canadian plateau –

Or it’s a threat: disarm – or we will reforest you… Using tree bombs…

Soil-bombing Iceland

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland is in the midst of a rather heroic effort to de-desertify large parts of the country. Iceland, in fact, is the largest desert in all of Europe.

As the BBC says, “The only difference [between the Icelandic desert and] the Sahara is that the sand here is black. Pitch black – with glaciers towering above and the sea shimmering in the distance. And the wind howling in between.” Which sounds like quite a difference.

In any case, the desert’s origins are with human activity; it is an artificial landscape, bearing traces of the island nation’s earlier inhabitants: “Despite the rather frightening name of the country, Iceland was green when Vikings came to settle. About 60% of the country was covered in bushes, trees, grass and all that. (…) But the Vikings, aside from chopping down trees for their own needs, also brought along their sheep. And what do sheep do best? They eat anything that is green.”

What interests me here, aside from the ecological message – don’t overgraze your territory – is the Soil Conservation Service’s preferred method of re-seeding: they pack finely sorted and organized seeds – virtual ecosystems, yet to occur, chosen species by species – into bombs: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated. There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’, dropping the fertiliser and seeds from a WW II DC 3 Dakota.”

Earth, delivered by warplane.

(You can also listen to this story, as I first did, through an often irritating BBC podcast.)

So the bombs collide with the planet, releasing condensed and virtual landscapes: seed-bombs. Soil-bombs. The Icelandic countryside soon becomes an ironic inversion of a warzone: where the bombs fall, trees, grass, and wildflowers grow.

Instead of the lunar landscape of the Nevada test site, for instance—

—you get the opposite: strange oases of green, or gardening by artillery.

Which, conveniently, brings me to a new BLDGBLOG project.

It’s a landscape proposal: Artillery Gardens.

Unfortunately, there already is, in London, a place called Artillery Gardens, but no matter. BLDGBLOG’s Artillery Gardens will require the following: a very large parcel of land; a Howitzer; several shotguns; a military engineer who can calculate launching arcs and target distances; and some seed-packing volunteers, preferably experienced gardeners. Constant gardeners, perhaps. Everyone would fill up as many shotgun shells and old Howitzer cases as they could, using odd, rare, or otherwise exciting combinations of exotic seed; we’d all don some earplugs; and then it could begin: you’d blast a garden into existence.

Landscape planning as field artillery calculation. Landscape-at-a-distance. Gardening by artillery.

Through explosion and gunfire and heavy artillery, a rare and fragile garden is born. Species by species, day by day, through blast radii and impact fields, with the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction,” these Artillery Gardens will grow.

War as a garden, pursued by other means.