Fossil Reactors

There are as many as sixteen 2-billion-year old nuclear reactors in the rocks beneath Gabon. Considering their age, they are also, unsurprisingly, completely natural.

[Image: The natural clocks and ticking stratigraphy of the Oklo uranium deposit, courtesy of the Curtin University of Technology].

“In 1972,” the Curtin University of Technology explains, “the very well preserved remains of several ancient natural nuclear reactors were discovered in the middle of the Oklo Uranium ore deposit.” The university adds that each of these equatorial African reactors “operated on an intermittent basis for a period ranging from a few years to hundreds of thousands of years. The total time period over which the reactors operated is thought to be about a million years.”

In one specific case, we read in a report published five years ago by Physical Review Focus, a chain reaction in the uranium-rich rocks “cycled on and off every three hours.”

The idea that radioactive deposits beneath the Earth could self-react and undergo fission was first proposed by physicist Paul Kazuo Kuroda. The internal clock of a geological formation, Kuroda suggested, given contact with water, could simply start ticking away:

In 1956, nuclear chemist Paul Kazuo Kuroda of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville predicted that a chain reaction could develop in natural uranium deposits, generating heat just as the reactor in a nuclear power plant does. His suggestion proved prophetic when, in the 1970s, others discovered several burned-out natural reactors in the Oklo uranium mines in Gabon.

Amazingly, “researchers still don’t know precisely how the fossil reactors managed to burn slowly for more than 150,000 years, when they could have exploded violently.” The presence of underground water seems especially fortuitous in that regard—it helped to avoid a nuclear detonation.

That’s plausible because the water molecules would collide with neutrons whizzing through the uranium and slow them down, a process called moderation. Because slower neutrons more efficiently split the uranium nuclei in a chain reaction, the water would promote the reaction and cause the reactor to heat up. Eventually, however, the heat would boil away the water, shutting the reaction down until more water could collect.

It was a pulsing rhythm, a geologic throb: based on present-day chemical measurements taken of specific isotopes in the nearby rocks, “the researchers estimate that the reactor ran for 30 minutes and then shut down for two and a half hours.”

[Image: A diagram of the Oklo uranium deposit, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy].

I’m reminded again here of William Burroughs’s extraordinary and haunting suggestion, from his novel The Ticket That Exploded, that, beneath the surface of the earth, there is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.” Here, though, it is a mineral seam, or ribbon of heavy metal—a riff of uranium—that stirs itself awake in a regularized cycle of radiative insomnia that disguises itself as a planet. Brainrock.

Gabon’s “natural nuclear fission reactors,” according to Wikipedia, “are the only known sites in which natural nuclear reactors existed. Other rich uranium ore bodies would also have had sufficient uranium to support nuclear reactions at that time, but the combination of uranium, water and physical conditions needed to support the chain reaction was unique to the Oklo ore bodies.”

Of course, this process created what we would now call nuclear waste—including plutonium. These otherwise extraordinarily dangerous waste products, however, have been entombed within the earth for two billion years. The Curtin University of Technology points out that “this is so long that all of the radioactive waste products (even those with million year half lives) have decayed away.” They have also hardly even moved: the plutonium, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “has moved less than 10 feet from where it was formed almost two billion years ago.”

Are there thus structural lessons to be learned from the rocks at Oklo? “By analyzing the remnants of these ancient nuclear reactors and understanding how underground rock formations contained the waste, scientists studying Oklo can apply their findings to containing nuclear waste today,” the DOE goes on to suggest. This is another way of saying that the Oklo uranium deposits are being studied as natural analogues for how high-level nuclear waste might behave in an artificial repository like Yucca Mountain (watch for a long and fascinating interview with a geophysicist from Yucca Mountain here on BLDGBLOG next week).

We might say, then, that a geological formation, like some nuclear version of Spanish architect Vicente Guallart’s notion of geologics, has partially inspired an architectural form.

The timescales are all wrong for this, meanwhile, but if geomythology is the study of ancient folk tales, oral traditions, and regional myths to see if they contain camouflaged references to real, but prehistoric, geological events—earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more—what geomythological influence might the throbbing and automechanized Oklo uranium mines play? How extraordinarily interesting would it be to come across a series of old myths about an intelligent presence in the rocks of equatorial Africa, a kind of mineralized Mother Nature winking at everyone from below—and to realize that they’re referring to the reactions at Oklo. A spirit in the Earth.

Finally, do these naturally occurring reactions come with the implication that our present-day nuclear reactors are, in a sense, simulated geological processes, not unlike artificial diamond-creation chambers? Nuclear reactors become models of already existing natural events. They are terrestrial reenactments, you might say.

Scientific American has a five-page article about the Oklo phenomenon, if you’d like to read more.

Terrain Deformation Grenades

Something I mentioned the other day in my talk at the Australian National Architecture Conference – and that came up again in Peter Wilson‘s conference summary – was the game Fracture by LucasArts.
Specifically, I referred to that game’s “terrain deformation grenades” (actually, ER23-N Tectonic Grenades).

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, courtesy of LucasArts].

The game’s own definition of terrain deformation is that it is a “warfare technology” through which “soldiers utilize specialized weaponry to reshape earth to their own strategic advantage.” In an interview with GameZone, David Perkinson, a producer from LucasArts, explains that any player “will be able to use a tectonic grenade to raise the ground and create a hill.”

He will also be able to then lower that same hill by using a subsonic grenade. From there, he could choose to throw another tectonic to rebuild that hill, or add on another subsonic to create a crater in the ground. The possibilities are, quite literally, limitless for the ways in which players can change the terrain.

Other of the game’s terrestrial weapons include a “subterranean torpedo.”
In any case, if you were at the conference and want to know more about either the game or its implications for landscape design, I thought I’d post a quick link back to the original post in which I first wrote about this: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation.
While we’re on the subject, though, it’d be interesting if terrain deformation weaponry not only was real, but if it could be demilitarized… and purchased at REI.
You load up your backpack with tectonic grenades, head off to hike the Appalachian Trail – and whenever the path gets boring, you just toss a few bombs ahead and create instant slopes and hillsides. An artificial Peak District is generated in northern England by a group of well-armed hikers from Manchester.
In other words, what recreational uses might terrain deformation also have – and need these sorts of speculative tools only be treated as weaponry?
If Capability Brown had had a box of Tectonic Grenades, for instance, England today might look like quite different…

Books Received

[Image: Bookstore for Shibuya Publishing, Japan, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura].

Through a combination of publisher review copies and the slow-to-end fire sale at my favorite local bookstore, Stacey’s – they’ve gone out of business and are selling everything at 50% off, including now even the furniture – BLDGBLOG’s home office is awash in books. Since there literally is not enough time left in a person’s life to read all of these, I decided that I would instead start a new, regular series of posts on the blog called “Books Received” – these will be short descriptions of, and links to, interesting books that have crossed my desk.
Note that these lists will include books I have not read in full – but they will never include books that don’t deserve the attention.
Note, as well, that if you yourself have a book you’d like to see on BLDGBLOG, get in touch – send us a copy, and, if it fits the site, we’ll mention your title in a future Books Received.

1) Oase #75 and #76Oase is an excellent architecture and urban studies journal published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute and designed by Karel Martens of Werkplaats Typografie. Oase #75 is the 25th anniversary issue, and includes essays from Jurjen Zeinstra (“Houses of the Future”), René Boomkens (“Modernism, Catastrophe and the Public Realm”), and Frans Sturkenboom (“Come una ola de fuerza y luz: On Borromini’s Naturalism”), among many, many others. To be honest, there is so much interesting material in this issue that it’s hard to know where to start; look for this in specialty architecture bookstores and definitely consider picking up a copy. Meanwhile, Oase #76 arrived just in time for me to quote part of its interview with photographer Bas Princen in The BLDGBLOG Book – but the entire issue, bilingually printed in both English and Dutch and themed around what the editors call “ContextSpecificity,” is worth reading. There’s a whole section on “In-Between Buildings,” itself coming between long looks at context, tradition, and the generation of architectural form. #76 also includes virtuoso displays of how to push the typographic grid. A new favorite.

2) Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World by Trevor Paglen (Dutton) — Trevor Paglen is an “experimental geographer” at UC-Berkeley, well-known – perhaps infamous – for his successful efforts in tracking unmarked CIA rendition flights around the world. Using optical equipment normally associated with astronomy, Paglen has managed to photograph the goings-on of deep desert military bases and has even been able to follow US spy satellites through what he calls “the other night sky.” This book serves more or less as an introduction to Paglen’s work, from Afghanistan to Los Alamos.

3) The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire by Joe Jackson (Penguin) — Jackon’s book, new in paperback, explores the industrial implications of monopoly plantlife, telling the story of Henry Wickham, who “smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England’s most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens.” This led directly to the “great rubber boom of the early twentieth century,” we read – which itself resulted in such surreal sites as Henry Ford’s failed utopian-industrial instant city in the rain forest, Fordlandia. Here, Jackson describes that city, now in ruins and like something from a novel by Patrick McGrath:

The American Villa still stands on the hill. The green and white cottages line the shady lane, but the only residents now are fruit bats and trap-door tarantulas. The state-of-the-art hospital shipped from Michigan is deserted. Broken bottles and patient records litter the floor. A towering machine shop houses a 1940s-era ambulance, now on blocks. A riverside warehouse built to hold huge sheets of processed rubber holds six empty coffins arranged in a circle around the ashes of a small campfire.

Check out Jackson’s website for a bit more.

4) Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz (Harvard University Press) — By choosing the historical experience of Łódź, Poland, during its political assimilation and ethnic ghettoization by the Nazis, Gordon Horwitz shows how a long series of seemingly minor bureaucratic decisions can radically alter the normal urban order of things, paving the way for something as nightmarish as the Final Solution. This latter fact Horwitz memorably describes as “a phenomenon so unexpected and outrageous in design and execution as to exceed the then-understood limits of organized human cruelty.” About Łódź itself, he writes: “Secured by German arms, reshaped by German planning and technical expertise, the city was to be remade inside and out.” Horwitz shows how property confiscation, spatial rezoning, and literal new walls transformed Łódź into a Ghettostadt.

5) Condemned Building by Douglas Darden (Princeton Architectural Press) — The late Douglas Darden’s work seems both underknown and underexposed (perhaps because so little of it can be found online). This book, published in 1993, collects ten speculative projects, including the Museum of Impostors, the Clinic for Sleep Disorders, and the Oxygen House, complete with plans, models, elevations, and historical engravings. Darden’s work is an interesting hybrid of narrative fiction, visual storytelling, and architectural design – and so naturally of great interest to BLDGBLOG. For instance, his “Temple Forgetful” project weds amnesia, flooding, and the mythic origins of Rome. Good stuff.

6) Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till (MIT Press) — Architectural theory written with the rhetorical pitch of a blog, Architecture Depends is a kind of from-the-hip philosophy of “rogue objects,” construction waste, massive landfills, “lo-fi architecture,” and the fate of buildings over long periods of time. As Till states in the book’s preface, “Mess is the law.”

7) Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century by P.W. Singer (Penguin) — An extremely provocative look at the future of war in an age of robot swarms and autonomous weaponry, Singer’s book is nonetheless a bit too casual for its own good (reading that Singer wrote the book because robots are “frakin’ cool” doesn’t help me trust the author’s sense of self-editing). Having said that, there is so much here to discuss and explore further that it’s impossible not to recommend the book – eyepopping micro-histories of individual war machines come together with Singer’s on-the-scene anthropological visits to robotics labs and military testing grounds, by way of Artificially Intelligent snipers, drone “motherships” forming militarized constellations in the sky, and even “mud batteries” and automated undersea warfare. Like Singer’s earlier Corporate Warriors – another book I would quite strongly recommend – the often terrifying implications of Wired for War nag at you long after you’ve stopped reading. For what it’s worth, by the way, this book seems almost perfectly timed for the release of Terminator Salvation.

8) Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press) — This book is awesome, and I hope to draw a much longer post out of it soon. Only slightly marred by an unfortunate subtitle, Welland’s book is disproportionately fascinating, considering its subject matter. On the other hand, “it has been estimated,” he writes, “that on the order of a billion sand grains are born around the world every second” (emphasis his) – so the sheer ubiquity of his referent makes the book worth reading. From the early history of sand studies to the aerial physics of dunes – by way of the United States’ little-known WWII-era Military Geology Unit – the interesting details of this book are inexhaustible.

9) A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster (Oxford University Press) — Donald Worster has written a long biography of John Muir, the naturalist and writer who once famously climbed as high as he could into the canopy of a Californian forest during a lightning storm so that he could see what it was like to experience nature firsthand. At its most basic, Worster’s book explores the natural landscape of the American West as “a source of liberation.”

Going into wild country freed one from the repressive hand of authority. Social deferences faded in wild places. Economic rank ceased to matter so much. Bags of money were not needed for survival – only one’s wits and knowledge. Nature offered a home to the political maverick, the rebellious child, the outlaw or runaway slave, the soldier who refused to fight, and, by the late nineteenth century, the woman who climbed mountains to show her strength and independence.

Worster himself is an environmental historian at the University of Kansas.

10) Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber (Alfred A. Knopf) — I’m strangely excited to read this, actually – and I say “strangely” because I am not otherwise known for my interest in reading about Le Corbusier. But Nicholas Fox Weber’s approximately 765 pages of biographical reflection on Corbu’s life look both narratively satisfying, as a glimpse into the man’s daily ins and outs over eight decades, but also architecturally minded, contextualizing Le Corbusier’s spatial work within his other political (and libidinal) interests. I hope to dive into this one over the summer.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Planet Harddrive

[Image: “Conceptual diagram of satellite triangulation,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

I’ve long been fascinated by what I might call the geological nature of harddrives – how certain mineral arrangements of metal and ferromagnetism result in our technological ability to store memories, save information, and leave previous versions of the present behind.

A harddrive would be a geological object as much as a technical one; it is a content-rich, heavily processed re-configuration of the earth’s surface.

[Image: Geometry in the sky. “Diagram showing conceptual photographs of how satellite versus star background would appear from three different locations on the surface of the earth,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

This reminds me of another ongoing fantasy of mine, which is that perhaps someday we won’t actually need harddrives at all: we’ll simply use geology itself.

In other words, what if we could manipulate the earth’s own magnetic field and thus program data into the natural energy curtains of the planet?

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.

This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else’s data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.

I’m reminded of a line from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which we read that beneath all of this, hidden in the surface of the earth, is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

[Image: “An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

In any case, this all came to mind again last night when I saw an article in New Scientist about how 3D holograms might revolutionize data storage. One hologram-encoded DVD, for instance, could hold an incredible 1000GB of information.

So how would these 3D holograms be formed?

“A pair of laser beams is used to write data into discs of light-sensitive plastic, with both aiming at the same spot,” the article explains. “One beam shines continuously, while the other pulses on and off to encode patches that represent digital 0s and 1s.”

The question, then, would be whether or not you could build a geotechnical version of this, some vast and slow-moving machine – manufactured by Komatsu – that moves over exposed faces of bedrock and “encodes” that geological formation with data. You would use it to inscribe information into the planet.

To use a cheap pun, you could store terrabytes of information.

But it’d be like some new form of plowing in which the furrows you produce are not for seeds but for data. An entirely new landscape design process results: a fragment of the earth formatted to store encrypted files.

Data gardens.

They can even be read by satellite.

[Image: The “worldwide satellite triangulation camera station network,” courtesy of NOAA’s Geodesy Collection].

Like something out of H.P. Lovecraft – or the most unhinged imaginations of early European explorers – future humans will look down uneasily at the earth they walk upon, knowing that vast holograms span that rocky darkness, spun like inexplicable cobwebs through the planet.

Beneath a massive stretch of rock in the remotest state-owned corner of Nevada, top secret government holograms await their future decryption.

The planet thus becomes an archive.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Geomagnetic Harddrive).

Of networks, grids, and infrastructures, or: How to make a planet

If I have several blogging resolutions for 2009 – and I do – one of them is definitely to read InfraNet Lab more often.

[Image: Offshore energy islands, via InfraNet Lab].

Easily one of the most interesting architecture blogs out there today – though it’s really an infrastructure blog, hopefully heralding a new focus for design writers in the next few years – and written by Toronto-based architects Mason White and Lola Sheppard, along with two contributors named Maya and Neeraj, it tracks massive infrastructure, waste, energy, and design projects across the global landscape, taking in geology, engineering, network economics, ecology, construction innovation, future fuels, and much more.

Read it and you’ll know how to “harvest energy from the earth’s rotation” using mega-gyroscopes, you’ll discover how a more efficient offshore seaweed industry might work, you’ll pick up clues for how to design a mountain and then how to connect that mountain to others using aerial tramways, you’ll get an architectural glimpse of habitat meshing, you’ll take an hallucinatory tour through Taiwanese mushroom farms, you’ll visit underground waste isolation sites in New Mexico, you’ll turn around and go the opposite vertical direction – into the sky – to farm water from the atmosphere, and you’ll even punt around the artificial inland waterways of Britain using strange mechanized structures and seeing that archipelago as hydrology first, geography later.

So go check it out – and make 2009 the year of networks, grids, and infrastructures.

Fossil Cities

[Image: Art by Joe Alterio; view larger].

I’m thrilled to announce that BLDGBLOG and Wired Science have teamed up with Swissnex to host a live interview—free and open to the public—with University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, from Oxford University Press.

The event will be from 7-9pm on Wednesday, December 17th, at Swissnex, 730 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco; here’s a map.

Zalasiewicz’s book offers a fascinating and sustained look at what will happen to the material artifacts of human civilization 100 million years from now, when cities like Manhattan are mere trace fossils in flooded submarinescapes, Amsterdam is an indecipherably fragmentary presence in the lithified mudflats of a new, future continent, and cities like Los Angeles and Zurich have been eroded away entirely by a hundred million years of rockslides and weather.

To quote an early chapter from Zalasiewicz’s book at length:

The surface of the Earth is no place to preserve deep history. This is in spite of – and in large part because of – the many events that have taken place on it. The surface of the future Earth, one hundred million years now, will not have preserved evidence of contemporary human activity. One can be quite categorical about this. Whatever arrangement of oceans and continents, or whatever state of cool or warmth will exist then, the Earth’s surface will have been wiped clean of human traces.
(…)
Thus, one hundred million years from now, nothing will be left of our contemporary human empire at the Earth’s surface. Our planet is too active, its surface too energetic, too abrasive, too corrosive, to allow even (say) the Egyptian Pyramids to exist for even a hundredth of that time. Leave a building carved out of solid diamond – were it even to be as big as the Ritz – exposed to the elements for that long and it would be worn away quite inexorably.
(…)
So there will be no corroded cities amid the jungle that will, then, cover most of the land surface, no skyscraper remains akin to some future Angkor Wat for future archaeologists to pore over. Structures such as those might survive at the surface for thousands of years, but not for many millions.

The book goes on to explore buried cities, flooded cities, and cities destroyed by erosion; the long-term traces of different materials, from concrete and steel to nuclear waste and industrial plastics; and the future magnetic presence of urban metals that have been compressed into the thinnest bands of underground strata. We’ll be talking about cities like New Orleans, London, Hanoi, and Shanghai; New York, Los Angeles, Cairo, and Geneva. What “signals” of their one-time existence will these cities offer in 100 million years’ time? About Mexico City, Zalasiewicz writes:

Mexico City has a good short-term chance of fossilization, being built on a former lake basin next to active, ash-generating volcanoes; but its long-term chances are poor, as that basin lies on a high plateau, some two kilometers above sea level. The only ultimate traces of the fine buildings of [Mexico City] will be as eroded sand- and mud-sized particles of brick or concrete, washed by rivers into the distant sea.

With visions of cities become not spectacular, vine-covered ruins but but vast deltaic fans of multi-colored sand, the book looks at the future geological destinies of everything from plastic cups to clothes.

Alexis Madrigal, from Wired Science, and I will also have five copies of Zalasiewicz’s book to give away to attendees, and there will be drinks and light food after the event, so it will be well worth coming out.

If you get a chance, please RSVP at the Swissnex site, so that they can keep track of expected visitors.

(With special thanks to Joe Alterio for the artwork!)

Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture by LucasArts. Via Wired].

Over on Wired this weekend I read about a game called Fracture, by LucasArts, which features “terrain deformation” as a central factor in gameplay.

Fracture is “a game centered on the wanton reformation of land masses,” Wired reports; the author then goes on to introduce us to the game’s “terrain deformation mechanics.”

“Every player is equipped with a tool called an Entrencher,” we read. The Entrencher “gives them the ability to raise or lower most surfaces at will,” including the surface of the earth itself:

Gone are the days of studying a level, and simply memorizing sniper positions and the fastest routes. Resourceful players will be digging trenches, raising their own cover and manipulating level elements to fortify their positions… fundamentally altering the way levels are played.

Which means what, exactly?

Can’t find a way across that slime pit? Raise the ground underneath it. You can also terrain-jump by leaping as you raise the ground beneath your feet, launching yourself into the air.

“The rule of thumb,” the article adds, “is that if you can walk on it, you can probably alter it.”

Using weapons like the Tectonic Grenade, you can reshape the planet. Quoting from the official Fracture website:

The ER23-N Tectonic Grenade sets off localized shockwaves when detonated, causing small, concentrated earthquakes that raise the immediate terrain around the point of impact. The weapon is extremely useful for shaping the terrain and providing cover.

There’s also a Spike Grenade. As LucasArts explains, “Tectonic scientists discovered that lava tubes lying dormant deep below the surface of the earth could be stimulated to eject a pyroclastic column.” These columns can “be used as a ‘natural elevator’ of sorts, allowing a soldier to access hard to reach high elevation areas.”

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, by LucasArts, showing a pyroclastic elevator at work].

There are even Subterranean Torpedoes that burrow into the planet and create landforms on the surface far away.

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture by LucasArts].

Of course, the idea that an instantaneous and semi-magmatic reshaping of the earth’s surface might have military implications is an interesting one – and probably not far from technological realization. I’ve written about the weaponization of the earth’s surface before, but Fracture seems to illustrate the concept in a refreshingly accessible way.

However, there are many historical precedents for the idea of politicized terrain creation, and these deserve at least a passing mention here.

I’m thinking, in particular, of David Blackbourn’s recent book The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. The “making” in Blackbourn’s subtitle is meant literally, as the book looks at coastal reshaping, bog- and marsh-draining, and other projects of imperial hydrology; these were the activities through which the territory of Germany itself was physically shaped.

It was terrain deformation: a militarized reshaping of the earth’s surface under orders from Frederick the Great. Frederick sought to transform the lands of northern Germany – then called Prussia – in order to create more space to rule.

In his book, Blackbourn describes what these imperial “hydro-technicians” actually did:

The task of filling in the squares on Frederick’s grids remained. That meant ditching and diking the future fields, constructing sluices, uprooting the old vegetation and planting willows by the new drainage canals, preparing the still heavy, intractable soil, building paths and bridges, houses, farms, and schools, all the while maintaining the new defenses against the water.

These “new defenses” have since been so naturalized that we mistake them for a pre-existing terrain upon which modern Germany was founded – but they were and are constructed landforms, a “brave new world of dikes, ditches, windmills, fields, and meadows.”

These were lands created through military intervention in order to host a particular form of political governance.

In this context, then, Fracture would seem to be simply an accelerated – or what Sanford Kwinter might call an “adrenalated” – version of this tactical landscaping.

[Image: Celestial Impact].

Meanwhile, a commenter over on Wired points out that there are conceptual similarities between Fracture and another game called Celestial Impact.

In Celestial Impact, “the landscape is fully deformable in all directions.”

“Build and dig your way around the landscape in various strategic ways,” we read, ways that are “not limited to destruction”:

[T]he players also have the ability to add terrain to the landscape in the middle of combat using a special tool called Dirtgun. With the Dirtgun, players can add or remove terrain during combat as they see fit, simply by aiming and firing the dirtgun. Depending on the chosen action, this will either add or remove a chunk of dirt from the landscape. So as the teams are battling, the landscape receives vast changes opening up for various tactical approaches each team can use.

When your weapons are set on build-mode, the game’s creators explain, “the Dirtgun adds terrain in the form of a pre-selected shape in front of the player. The shapes could be a simple cube, a part of a bridge or even a defensive wall.”

In many ways, this sounds like a weaponized version of Behrokh Khoshnevis‘s building-printer – subject of one of the earliest posts on BLDGBLOG – here remade as a kind of propulsive instant-concrete mixer retrofit for imperial military campaigns.

As Discover described Khoshnevis’s machine back in 2005, “a robotically controlled nozzle squeezes a ribbon of concrete onto a wooden plank. Every two minutes and 14 seconds, the nozzle completes a circuit, topping the previous ribbon with a fresh one. Thus a five-foot-long wall rises – a wall built without human intervention.”

Now make an accelerated, portable, and fully weaponized version of this thing, put it in a videogame, and you’ve got something a bit like Celestial Impact.

Here are some screenshots.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

Finally, I couldn’t help but think here of architect Vicente Guallart. Guallart’s work consistently seeks to introduce new geological forms into the built infrastructure of the city – artificial mountains, for instance, and “new topographies” through which a city might expand.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

I suppose one question here might be: what would a videogame look like as designed by Vicente Guallart? Would it look like Fracture? If Vicente Guallart and Behrokh Khoshnevis teamed up, would they have created Celestial Impact?

But a more interesting, and wide-ranging, question is whether designing videogame environments is not something of a missed opportunity for today’s architecture studios.

After all, how might architects relay complex ideas about space, landscape, and the design of new terrains if they were to stop using academic essays and even project renderings and turn instead to video games?

It seems like you can take your ideas about terrain deformation and instant landscapes and nomadic geology and you can license it to LucasArts, knowing that tens of thousands of people will soon be interacting with your ideas all over the world; or you can just pin some images up on the wall of an architecture class, make no money at all, and be forced to get a job rendering buildings for Frank Gehry.

So would more people understand Rem Koolhaas’s thoughts on cities if he stopped writing 1000-page books and started designing videogames – games set in some strange quasi-Asiatic desert world of Koolhaasian urbanism?

Or do all of these questions simply mistake popularity for engaged comprehension?

The larger issue, though, is whether or not architecture, increasingly popular as a kind of Dubai-inspired freakshow (rotating skyscrapers! solar-powered floating hotels!), is nonetheless not reaching the audience it needs.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

If architects and architecture writers continue to use outmoded forms of publication, such as $25/copy university-sponsored magazines and huge books purchased by no one but college librarians, then surely they can expect only people currently enrolled in academic programs even to be aware of what they’re talking about, let alone to be enthusiastic about it or appreciative of the implications.

$100 hardcover books do absolutely nothing to increase architecture’s audience.

So what would happen if architects tried videogames?

[Image: The constructed geologies of Vicente Guallart, from How To Make a Mountain].

In any case, terrain deformation, dirtguns set on build-mode, and other forms of militarized landscape creation – these seem like good enough reasons to me to add gaming consoles to a design syllabus near you.

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!)

Aerial Terrains

It what sounds like the coolest job description going, the BBC reports that “scientists have been sailing across the Atlantic in a bid to track down sand from the Sahara Desert.” They are chasing an aerial landform while plying currents through the sea.

Terrestrial stability is nowhere in sight.

[Image: Photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie].

Tracking that desert in the sky, the scientists have already “encountered two large sand storms during their cruise and recorded footage of their dust-drenched experience for the BBC News website.”

It’s airborne geology, of a different kind.

Of course, the Sahara is always popping up in unexpected places. A few quick links away from the BBC and we find that Saharan sand even peppered the ground in Wales last month; and that desert often blooms northward to cover parts of France, Italy, and Mediterranean Europe more generally, going as far north as England. It’s like some shapeless, living landmass from Greek myth – or from the tales of Scheherazade. (Leading me to wonder aloud: are the world’s religious texts an untapped resource of ideas for avant-garde landscape design?)

[Image: The Libyan Sahara; photo ©Jacques Herman].

So here’s a landscape design project for your next summer school studio: go around Europe tracking down the Sahara. Map these sites of territorial spread. Find where airborne terrains stratigraphically settle onto fields and cities elsewhere. Photograph zones of undisturbed deposition – small pockets of sand in a gully in eastern Spain – where it’s already compressing to form stone.

Then you hear rumors of a particularly violent storm that blew grains as far as Japan… and so off you go in your personal jetliner, sponsored by SCI-Arc.

In any case, the future geology of Europe will come down to it from the air, a distant lamination of the Sahara. Landscape at a distance.

If we stop sweeping the streets, what new sedimentary rocks would be forming here?

Perhaps that famous graffiti from Paris in May 1968 got it all wrong. Instead of: “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” It should have read: “Above these roofs – the desert!”

Sailing across the Atlantic, scanning for nomadic side-storms of the Sahara, seems like a good place to start.

Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city

My friend Robert and I finished reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us almost simultaneously – and we both noted one specific passage.
Before we get to that, however, the premise of Weisman’s book – though it does, more often than not, drift away from this otherwise fascinating central narrative – is: what would happen to the Earth if humans disappeared overnight? What would humans leave behind – and how long would those remnants last?
These questions lead Weisman at one point to discuss the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey, which, he says, will outlast nearly everything else humans have constructed here on Earth.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Manhattan will be gone, Los Angeles gone, Cape Canaveral flooded and covered with seaweed, London dissolving into post-Britannic muck, the Great Wall of China merely an undetectable line of minerals blowing across an abandoned landscape – but there, beneath the porous surface of Turkey, carved directly into tuff, there will still be underground cities.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Of course, I’m not entirely convinced by Weisman’s argument here – not that I have expertise in the field – but Turkey is a very seismically active country, for instance, and… it just doesn’t seem likely that these cities will be the last human traces to remain. But that’s something for another conversation.
In any case, Weisman writes:

No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn’t discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people – and much remains to be excavated. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network. Many still use the tunnels of this ancient subway as cellar storerooms.

I was excited to learn, meanwhile, that another – quite possibly larger – underground Cappadocian city, called Gaziemir, was only opened to tourists this summer (someone send me, please!), having been discovered in January 2007 (a discovery which doesn’t seem to have made the news outside Turkey).
So the next time the ground you’re walking on sounds hollow – perhaps it is… Whole new cities beneath our feet!
I was also excited to read, meanwhile, that these subsurface urban structures are acoustically sophisticated. In other words, Weisman writes, using “vertical communication shafts, it was possible to speak to another person on any level” down below. It’s a kind of geological party line, or terrestrial resonating gourd.
There were even ancient microbreweries down there, “equipped with tuff fermentation vats and basalt grinding wheels.”

[Images: Derinkuyu and a view of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Meanwhile, Robert, my co-reader of Weisman’s book, pointed out that the discovery of Derinkuyu, by a man who simply “broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another,” is surely the ultimate undiscovered room fantasy – and I have to agree.
However, it also reminded me of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum – which is overwhelmingly my favorite novel (something I say with somewhat embarrassed hesitation because no one I have ever recommended it to – literally no one – not a single person! – has enjoyed, or even finished reading, it) – where we read about a French town called Provins.
In the novel, a deluded ex-colonel from the Italian military explains to two academic publishers that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill.”
The man continues:

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults – there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

The editors to whom this story has been told call the colonel out on this, pressing for more details, looking for evidence of what he claims. But the colonel parries – and then forges on. After all, he’s an ex-Fascist.
He’ll say what he likes.
As the colonel goes on, his story gets stranger: in 1894, he says, two Chevaliers went to visit an old granary in Provins, where they asked to be taken down into the tunnels.

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

So a few quick points:
1) Today’s city planners need to read more things like this! How exciting would it be if you could visit your grandparents in some small town somewhere, only to find that a door in the basement, which you thought led to a closet… actually opens up onto an underground Home Depot? Or a chapel. Or their neighbor’s house.
2) Do humans no longer build interesting subterranean structures like this – with the exception of militaries, where, to paraphrase Jonathan Glancey, we still see the architectural imagination at full flight – and I’m referring here to things like Yucca Mountain, something that would surely be too ambitious for almost any architectural design studio today – because they lack the imagination, or because of insurance liability? Is it possible that architectural critics today are lambasting the wrong people? It’s not that Daniel Libeskind or Peter Eisenman or Frank Gehry are boring, it’s simply that they’ve been hemmed in by unimaginative insurance regulations… Is insurance to blame for the state of contemporary architecture?
And if you called up State Farm to insure an underground city… what would happen?
Or if you tried to get UPS to deliver a package there?

[Image: A map, altered by BLDGBLOG, of an underground Cappadocian metropolis].

In any case, underground cities are far too broad and popular an idea to cover in one post – there’s even a Stephen King story about a maze of tunnels discovered beneath some kind of garment factory in Maine, where cleaners find a new, monstrous species of rat – and I’ve written about these subterranean worlds before. For instance, in Tokyo Secret City and in London Topological.
While I’m on the subject, then, London seems actually to be constructed more on re-buttressed volumes of air than it is on solid ground.
As Antony Clayton writes in his Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London:

The heart of modern London contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres… [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that some of the underground cities in Cappadocia have not been fully explored. I also can’t help but wonder if more than two thousand years’ worth of earthquakes might not have collapsed some passages, or even shifted whole subcity systems, so that they are no longer accessible – and, thus, no longer known.
Could some building engineer one day shovel through the Earth’s surface and find a brand new underground city – or might not some archaeologist, scanning the hills with ground-penetrating radar, stumble upon an anomalous void, linked to other voids, and the voids lead to more voids, and he’s discovered yet another long-lost city?
It’s also worth pointing out, quickly, that there is a Jean Reno film, called Empire of the Wolves, that is at least partially set inside a subsurface Cappadocian complex. What’s interesting about this otherwise uninteresting film is that it uses the carved heads and statuary of Cappadocia not at all unlike the way Alfred Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore in his film North by Northwest: the final action scenes of both films take place literally on the face of the Earth.
In any case, I should be returning to the topic of underground cities quite soon.

Books cited:
• Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
• Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
• Anthony Clayton, Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London

(With huge thanks to Robert Krulwich for kicking off this post!)

Geology in the Age of the War on Terror

A few months after September 11th, the New York Times published a kind of geological look at the War on Terror.
In a short but amazingly interesting – albeit subscriber-only – article, the NYTimes explored how ancient landscape processes and tectonic events had formed the interconnected mountain caves in which Osama bin Laden was, at that time, hiding.

[Image: The topography of Afghanistan, a sign of deeper tectonics. In a cave somewhere amidst those fractal canyons sat Osama bin Laden, in the darkness, rubbing his grenades, complaining about women, Jews, and homosexuals…].

“The area that is now Afghanistan started to take shape hundreds of millions of years ago,” the article explains, “when gigantic rocks, propelled by the immense geological forces that continuously rearrange the earth’s landforms, slammed into the landmass that is now Asia.”
From here, rocks “deep inside the earth” were “heated to thousands of degrees and crushed under tremendous pressures”; this caused them to “flow like taffy.” And I love this next sentence: “Just like the air masses in thunderstorms, the warmer rocks rise and the cooler ones sink, setting up Ferris wheel-shaped circulations of magma that drag along the crust above them. Over time, these forces broke off several pieces off the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland – the ancient conglomeration of South America and Africa – and carried them north toward Asia.”
Of course, Afghanistan – like most (but not all) of the earth’s surface – was once entirely underwater. There, beneath the warm waves of the Tethys Seaway, over millions of year, aquatic organisms “were compressed into limestone.”
Limestone, incidentally, is less a rock than a kind of strange anatomical by-product – something the living can become.
In any case, these massive and shuddering tectonic mutations continued:

Minerals from the ocean floor, melted by the heat of the interior, then flowed back up near the surface, forming rich deposits of copper and iron (minerals that could someday finance an economic boom in Afghanistan). The limestone along the coasts of Asia and India buckled upward, like two cars in a head-on collision. Water then ate away at the limestone to form the caves. Though arid today, Afghanistan was once warm and wet. Carbon dioxide from decaying plants dissolves into water to form carbonic acid, and in water-saturated underground areas, the acid hollowed out the limestone to form the caves, some several miles long.

The story gets really interesting here, then; think of it as the CIA-meets-geology.

[Image: Via the Telegraph].

What happened was that Osama bin Laden, in hiding after 9/11, started releasing his famous videotapes – but those tapes included glimpses of cave walls and rocky hillsides behind him.
When John F. Shroder – a geologist specializing in the structure of Himalayan Afghanistan – saw the tapes, he tried to interpret their setting and background, looking for mineralogical clues as to where bin Laden might be. Like a scene from The Conversation – or, hermeneutics gone geo-cinematic – Shroder pored over the tapes, fast-forwarding and rewinding, scanning for subtle signs…
It was the surface of the earth on TiVo.
“Afghanistan’s fighters find shelter in the natural caves,” the New York Times continues. “They also make their own, often in the mountains of crystalline rock made of minerals like quartz and feldspar, the pieces of Afghanistan that were carried in by plate tectonics. ‘This kind of rock is extremely resistant,’ Dr. Shroder said. ‘It’s a good place to build bunkers, and bin Laden knows that.’ Dr. Shroder said he believed that Mr. bin Laden’s video in October was taken in a region with crystalline rocks like those south of Jalalabad.”
All of which makes me think that soldiers heading off to Afghanistan could do worse than to carry bulletproof copies of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth along with them.
As another New York Times article puts it: “Afghanistan is a virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are the product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr. bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a hefty dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Bin Laden et al could thus “take their most secret and dangerous operations to earth,” hidden beneath the veil of geology.

(Elsewhere: Bryan Finoki takes a tour of borders, tunnels, and other Orwellian wormholes; see also BLDGBLOG’s look at Terrestrial weaponization).