Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

Black Box

[Image: Courtesy AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian].

A “huge granite sarcophagus” has been unearthed during construction work in Egypt. Physical evidence suggests that it has never been opened and that it has rested, undisturbed in the earth, for thousands of years. The lid alone apparently weighs fifteen metric tons.

In a sense, it feels oddly timely, the ultimate black box for our increasingly dark timeline in modern history, like some symbolic, mythic glimpse of that-which-should-not-be-opened but, of course, someone will inevitably open. Although, I suppose, I’m with Warren Ellis on this one.

Cities of the Sun

[Image: Ningbo, China, via Google Maps].

Although I will leave it up to you to decide if you agree with the author’s critique of planning regulations, there is nonetheless a fascinating post over at NYU’s Marron Institute. It was originally published back in 2014, but I just saw it the other day thanks to a tweet from Nicola Twilley.

There, Alain Bertaud describes a planning rule from 1950s China: “In the 1950s,” Bertaud writes, “China established a regulation requiring that at least one room in each apartment receive a minimum of one hour of sunshine on the day of the winter solstice, December 21.”

As an architectural constraint, this is actually quite amazing: it needn’t inspire identical towers with identical windows all pointing in the same direction, but could very easily lead to a riot of creativity and innovation, pushing architects to imagine increasingly clever structural and material means for opening even the deepest megastructural interior to winter sunlight.

In a sense, I might say, it is not the regulation’s fault if architects come to the table with a yawning and lackluster response. While this is admittedly an anachronistic comment, given what little I know about city planning in China’s state-driven economy of the 1950s, my larger point is simply that even extreme design constraints can be implemented with subtleness and creativity.

[Image: Guangzhou, China, via Google Maps].

Bertaud continues: “even though the rule no longer applies, its impact on the spatial structure of Chinese cities remains.” This kicks off a kind of forensic examination of Chinese urban form, with the goal of finding the sun of the winter solstice shining somewhere at each city’s regulatory core.

First of all, right away stuff like this is incredible: it is urban-planning analysis as astronomical inquiry, or, more abstractly speaking, it is the suggestion that, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the world we’ve built for ourselves, there are traces of older rules or beliefs that still make their presence known.

This is why things like apotropaic marks are so interesting, for example, not because you have to believe in the occult, but because these marks reveal that even superstition and folklore have spatial effects, and that these beliefs have influenced the design and construction of thresholds and hearths for centuries. Even apparently secular architecture has irrational patterns of belief built into it.

[Image: Beijing, China, via Google Maps].

In any case, the solstice-planning rule “boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: distance d between buildings is determined by the height of building h multiplied by the tangent of the angle α of the sun on the winter solstice at 11:30 in the morning using solar time.” It is “a mathematical formula linked to the movement of the sun,” which, for Bertaud, falsely lent it the air of science, creating the illusion that this approach was rational—in short, that it was a good idea.

One interesting emergent side-effect of the rule, however, is that, by necessity, it had different spatial effects at different latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth. Chinese urban form became a kind of diagram of the Earth’s relationship to the solar system: the distances between buildings, the layouts of rooms inside those buildings, the locations of windows inside those rooms, all taking their cue from a celestial source.

Like a careful study of Stonehenge, you could reverse-engineer the precise location of the sun on a specific day of the year from the layouts of Chinese cities.

But is such poetry really worth it, economically and spatially? Bertaud certainly thinks not. Check out the original post for more.

(The images in this post were arbitrarily taken from Google Maps purely based on locations referred to by Bertaud’s post; they should not be seen as visual evidence of the 1950s planning law discussed here.)

Wood from the Witch House

[Image: Via LASSCO].

This is amazing: shortly after writing an earlier post, I found this anecdote from an architectural salvage company in England called LASSCO. It’s like the beginning of a blockbuster film. A customer came in one weekend looking for “an oak beam for his fireplace lintel.” As LASSCO explains, the company tries to keep “a selection of them in stock—salvaged, prepped up and ready to sell. It was only when placing one of the beams aside we happened to put it down with daylight glancing along its length and we spotted that it held a secret. It was covered in apotropaic markings.”

Apotropaic markings, or protection marks, are basically magic symbols thought to ward off evil influences and keep malevolent fates at bay—and they are more common in traditional architectural practice than you might think. LASSCO even recommends checking your own house for them.

“If you live in a timber-framed house dating back earlier than the eighteenth century,” they advise, “look out for scratchings on the bressumer beam, sometimes only very lightly inscribed at the top corners of the fireplace, like the scratching of a cat. Look for a repeated ‘W’—thought to be a double ‘V’ for ‘Virgo Virginum’. Look for daisy wheels—a circular device with petals, or runic symbols—a ‘P’ incorporating a cross, or a ‘W’ incorporating a ‘P’. Look for two verticals with a ‘Saltire’ cross between them—a motif also much used on iron door latches and bolts and wrought iron firedogs.”

What an incredible setup for a horror film or novella: an architectural salvage firm uncovers strange ritual markings on pieces of timber in their inventory, and the macabre knock-on effects this might have as these bits of weird wood are incorporated into someone else’s home.

Alas, LASSCO’s tale is from 2013 and the oak beam has since been sold.

Cathedral Apprentice

[Image: Lincoln Cathedral, via Visit Lincoln].

This sounds incredible: England’s Lincoln Cathedral is looking for an Apprentice Stonemason.

This is a three-year post, including training leading to NVQ Level 3 in Stonemasonry. Working within a supportive team you will be mentored by qualified Cathedral masons and other heritage craft professionals. You will work within the workshop and out on site, and you will undertake block release training at college. Please note that, as the local colleges do not offer a stonemasonry course, this post will require you to live away from home for the periods of block release training. (We will pay all essential travel, accommodation and subsistence costs as well as all college fees.)

As a Cathedral apprentice you will learn the masonry conservation skills to care for one of the finest buildings in the world, and you will lay the foundation for a meaningful career in the built heritage sector. A strong passion for working within the heritage sector is an absolute must, as is some proven expertise in practical skills.

Applications are accepted until June 1st, so hop to it.

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.

Warnings Along the Inundation Line

[Image: Cover from An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

After the Tōhoku tsunami in 2011, one of the most ominous details revealed about the coast where it struck, for those of us not familiar with the region, was that a series of warning stones stand there overlooking the sea, carved with sayings such as, “Do not build your homes below this point!

As part of her recent thesis at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design—a school of the University of Toronto—landscape architect Elise Hunchuck spent the summer of 2015 traveling around Japan’s Sanriku coast, documenting every available tsunami stone in photographs, maps, and satellite views, and accumulating seismic and geological data about each stone’s local circumstances.

The end result was a book called An Incomplete Atlas of Stones. It was inspired, she writes, by “a combined interest in warning systems and cartography.”

[Image: From An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

“Rising from the earth,” Hunchuck writes in the book’s introduction, “many [of the warning stones] were placed in the landscape to mark either the height of the inundation line or to mark territory above the inundation line.”

They formed a kind of worst-case boundary line for where solid land meets the sea, the known limit of catastrophic inundation.

[Images: Spreads from An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

The book introduces each stone taxonomically:

Each tsunami stone is introduced by its geographic coordinates: latitude, longitude, and elevation. Latitude and longitude site each stone on the surface of the earth while elevation situates each stone in relation to the mean level of the sea. The stones are further situated; first, by the boundaries of the village, town, or city they are located within; second, by their administrative prefecture; and, third, their geographical region. As each stone has been erected in response to a major tsunami, both the year and name of the tsunami is listed in addition to the stone’s relation to the inundation line (below the line, on the line, or above the line) of both its target tsunami and the tsunami of 2011. Each stone, at the time of its erection, was engraved with a message. The stones mapped in this atlas may be considered as belonging to one of two categories: as a memorial, commemorating people and places lost to an earthquake tsunami, or as a lesson, providing a description of events and directions as to where to build, where to evacuate to, and where waters have risen in the past.

Each stone or set of stones thus gets a four-page spread, giving the book a nice structural consistency.

[Images: Spreads from An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

As you can also see, satellite shots are used to show the landscape at different states in time: one depicts the coastline immediately following the 2011 tsunami, the next then showing the same locatio after up to five years of rebuilding have taken place.

In some of these comparisons, seemingly nothing at all has changed; in others, it appears nearly the entire landscape has been consumed by forests.

[Images: Spreads from An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

The entire book is nearly 250 pages in length, and the selections I’ve chosen here barely scratch the surface. The material Hunchuck has gathered would not only be served well by a gallery installation; the project also sets up an interesting formal precedent for other documentary undertakings such as this.

Given my own background, meanwhile—I am a writer, not an architect—I would love to see more of a reporting angle in future versions of this sort of thing, e.g. interviews with local residents, or even with disaster-response workers, connected to these landscapes through personal circumstance.

The narratives of what these stones are and what they mean would be well-illustrated by more than just data, in other words, including verbal expressions of how and why these warnings were heeded (or, for that matter, fatally overlooked).

[Images: Spreads from An Incomplete Atlas of Stones by Elise Hunchuck].

In any case, the title of Hunchuck’s book—it is an incomplete atlas—also reveals that Hunchuck is still investigating what the stones might mean and how, as a landscape architect, she might respond to them. Her goal, she writes, “is not to offer an explicit response—yet. This incomplete atlas shares the stories of seventy five places, each without a definitive beginning or end.”

Along those lines, I’m reminded of a geologist quoted by the New York Times in their own coverage of the megaliths: “We need a modern version of the tsunami stones.”

Stay tuned for Hunchuck’s forthcoming website with more about the project.

(Vaguely related: Boundary Stones and Capital Magic and, to a certain extent, Watermarks.)

Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

The Remnants

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

Arcs, Sets, Circles






[Images: Via the Getty Research Institute].

Thanks to some “newly digitized” versions of the classic Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and Robert Bénard—among others—I stumbled on these beautiful carpentry diagrams, presented here simply for your Monday morning viewing pleasure.

Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.