Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”

Infrastructural Sine Wave

[Image: As if a lighter-than-air geometric fluid became temporarily frozen between two gateways of masonry, it’s just a bridge over the Norderelbe in Hamburg, Germany; photograph by Georg Koppmann (1888) from the collection of the Hamburg Museum, via Hamburger Architektur Sommer 2015, as spotted by Wassmann Foundation and Darran Anderson].

A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Covert Cartographics

[Image: Map Measuring Tool, CIA].

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has uploaded a massive set of images from their historic mapping unit to Flickr.

[Image: Triangular 24-Inch Engineering Scale, CIA].

The collections include state-of-the-art graphic tools for producing maps and other measured cartographic products, as well as the maps themselves. Organized by the decade of its production—including batches from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—“each map is a time capsule of that era’s international issues,” as Allison Meier points out.

[Image: Terrain map of the Sinai Peninsula (1950s), CIA, CIA].

“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”

[Images: The Austin Photo Interpretometer, CIA].

But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.

On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.

[Image: 10-Point Divider, CIA].

Nonetheless, there is something hugely compelling for me in glimpsing the actual devices through which a country’s global geopolitical influence was simultaneously mapped and strategized.

[Images: Rolling Disc Planimeter, CIA].

As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”

[Image: Dietzgen Champion Drawing Instruments, CIA].

In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.

It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.

[Image: Stanley Improved Pantograph, CIA].

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books on the subject of geopolitics, literally understood: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.

There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.

[Image: Keufel & Esser 20.5-inch Slide Rule, CIA].

In any case, check out more at the CIA’s “Cartography Tools” Flickr set.

(Originally spotted via Alessandro Musetta).

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

The Sacrifice of the Microcosm

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.