Lost Lakes of the Empire State Building

[Image: Sunfish Pond].

Something I’ve meant to post about for awhile—and that isn’t news at all—is the fact that there is a lost lake in the basement of the Empire State Building. Or a pond, more accurately speaking.

After following a series of links leading off from Steve Duncan’s ongoing exploration of New York’s “lost streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs,” I found the fascinating story of Sunfish Pond, a “lovely little body of water” at the corner of what is now 31st Street and Fourth Avenue. “The pond was fed both by springs and by a brook which also carried its overflow down to the East River at Kip’s Bay.”

Interestingly, although the pond proper would miss the foundations of the Empire State Building, its feeder streams nonetheless pose a flood risk to the building: the now-buried waterway “leading from Sunfish Pond still floods the deep basement of the Empire State Building today.”

To a certain extent, this reminds me of a line from the recent book Alphaville: “Heat lightning cackles above the Brooklyn skyline and her message is clear: ‘You may have it paved over, but it’s still a swamp.'” That is, the city can’t escape its hydrology.

But perhaps this makes the Empire State Building as good a place as any for us to test out the possibility of fishing in the basements of Manhattan: break in, air-hammer some holes through the concrete, bust out fishing rods, and spend the night hauling inexplicable marine life out of the deep and gurgling darkness below.

Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.

Drylands Design

If I could go back in time, there are two things I would have prioritized this autumn, had I known about them earlier: 1) I would have stopped by the Out of Water: Innovative Technologies in Arid Climates exhibition, curated by Liat Margolis and Aziza Chouani, at the Arid Lands Institute of Woodbury University, and 2) I would have attended more of the accompanying lecture series. The whole thing sounds amazing.

Here’s a description of the lecture series:

Excavating Innovation: The History and Future of Drylands Design examines the role of water engineering in shaping public space and city form, by using arid and semi-arid sites in India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and the New World to explore how dryland water systems throughout history have formed and been formed by ritual, hygiene, gender, technology, governance, markets, and, perhaps above all, power.

The series “brings together historians, urbanists, and contemporary designers to selectively excavate global historical case studies and reveal relevance to contemporary design practice.”

The specific lectures sound almost too good to be true, including a forthcoming talk this Thursday, November 18, about the stepwells of India—fantastically gorgeous native hydrological structures I’ve returned to again and again in my own off-blog reading and research.

[Image: Stepwell at Chand Baori, courtesy of Wikipedia].

The series continues into 2011 with a lecture by Nan Ellin called “Canalscape: Ancient and Contemporary Infrastructures of Phoenix” (January 27) and one by Vinayak Bharne called “Indigenous Infrastructure and the Urban Water Crisis: Perspectives from Asia” (February 10).

Anyone interested in the idea of “drylands design” or arid-climate technologies should strongly consider picking up a copy of Fred Pearce’s excellent book When the Rivers Run Dry: Water, The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century. In it, Pearce presents a huge variety of vernacular water-harvesting and storage architectures, from Chinese domestic cisterns and dew ponds in the English South Downs to fog-catching nets in Pacific South America. Two other quick suggestions, if you want to extend your reading, include Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water—an immensely interesting but often historically over-detailed book—and James Powell’s Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West. The latter title I favorably reviewed a while back for the The Wilson Quarterly.

In fact, if you’re really into this stuff, another article I frequently recommend here is something published in the Chicago Reader back in 2006: “They need it, we waste it,” a provocative look at the future interstate politics of freshwater, projecting a time when cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and even L.A. might come, buckets in hand, begging for clean water from the Great Lakes. What impending hydro-political rearrangement of North America might we then see take shape?

(Follow the Arid Land Institute on Twitter. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: N.A.W.A.P.A.).

An Invisible Empire of Sidewalks and Gutterspace

[Image: The Viele Map].

Because of a talk I’ll be giving tonight at the USC School of Architecture with Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography, I found myself re-reading an old post here about fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: The Viele Map].

Manhattan being an island once thoroughly criss-crossed by ponds and streams, almost all of which have been sealed in concrete and turned into sewers, this somewhat hallucinatory theory goes that some of those streams might still be accessible: just smash down through your building’s basement floor, uncover the island’s lost hydrology of well-braided rivers and streams, and an angling paradise will be accessible at your feet.

[Image: The Viele Map via Kottke.org].

But what really caught my eye, and what I’m actually posting about here, is a “gutterspace” reclamation project inaugurated by a man named Jack Gasnick, something I rediscovered today after following a link at the end of that post, which leads to the long-defunct blog Urbablurb by Giles Anthony.

[Image: From Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates, via Free Association Design].

This is how Anthony describes Gasnick’s project:

In the early 1970s—unbelievably, given how influential Gordon Matta-Clark has become in the last few years—Gasnick began buying and collecting “gutterspace,” or small slivers of land left over from zoning or surveying errors. He said that after a little while he couldn’t stop: “It’s like collecting stamps; once you’ve got the fever, you’ve got the fever.”

Accordingly, Gasnick “bought a slice in Corona just behind Louis Armstrong’s house,” Urbablurb continues, “a piece near Jamaica Bay where he once filled a pail with sea-horses, and yet another adjacent to the Fresh Kills landfill where he claims an abandoned sea Captain’s house still stood.” Gasnick then cultivated small patches of parkland and wilderness within those areas—a micro-wilding of the metropolis, one site at a time: “On the weekends, he would sometimes drive out to the tiny parcels and help the milkweed and laurel grow, tend to the turtles, and sit down for a picnic. ‘This jump of mine from flower pot to apple tree bears witness to the fact that it doesn’t cost much for an apartment-living guy to get a share of the good environment,’ he wrote in 1974. To be exact, it cost between $50 and $250. But the taxes he had to pay were enough of a hassle that he gave away (or otherwise lost track of) all the pieces by 1977.”

He “lost track” of them—the mind reels at the possibility that there is still a distributed Jack Gasnick estate somewhere, peppering the streets and gutters of New York City.

As Anthony suggests, this all has an uncanny parallel in Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project. From Cabinet magazine:

In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark discovered that the City of New York periodically auctioned off “gutterspace”—unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion. He purchased fifteen of these lots, fourteen in Queens and one in Staten Island. Over the next years, he collected the maps, deeds, and other bureaucratic documentation attached to the slivers; photographed, spoke, and wrote about them; and considered using them as sites for his unique brand of “anarchitectural” intervention into urban space.

So who is Jack Gasnick, that minor New Yorker who once “bought strange-shaped lots in every borough,” as the New York Times reported back in 1994, when Gasnick was still alive and 74 years old, and who once claimed to fish in the basements of Manhattan? Who knows.

(The BLDGBLOG/Edible Geography presentation tonight at USC is at 6pm in Harris Hall; it’s free and open to the public. We’ll be talking about buried rivers, artificial glaciers, and quarantine, among other shared topics of interest).

An edge over which it is impossible to look

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth at full drain, photographed by Flickr user Serigrapher].

Nearly half a year ago, a reader emailed with a link to a paper by Andrew Crompton, called “Three Doors to Other Worlds” (download the PDF). While the entirety of the paper is worth reading, I want to highlight a specific moment, wherein Crompton introduces us to the colossal western bellmouth drain of the Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire, England.

His description of this “inverted infrastructural monument,” as InfraNet Lab described it in their own post about Crompton’s paper—adding that spillways like this “maintain two states: (1) in use they disappear and are minimally obscured by flowing water, (2) not in use they are sculptural oddities hovering ambiguously above the water line”—is spine-tingling.

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by John Fielding, via Geograph].

“What is down that hole is a deep mystery,” Crompton begins, and the ensuing passage deserves quoting in full:

Not even Google Earth can help you since its depths are in shadow when photographed from above. To see for yourself means going down the steps as far as you dare and then leaning out to take a look. Before attempting a descent, you might think it prudent to walk around the hole looking for the easiest way down. The search will reveal that the workmanship is superb and that there is no weakness to exploit, nowhere to tie a rope and not so much as a pebble to throw down the hole unless you brought it with you in the boat. The steps of this circular waterfall are all eighteen inches high. This is an awkward height to descend, and most people, one imagines, would soon turn their back on the hole and face the stone like a climber. How far would you be willing to go before the steps became too small to continue? With proper boots, it is possible to stand on a sharp edge as narrow as a quarter of an inch wide; in such a position, you will risk your life twisting your cheek away from the stone to look downward because that movement will shift your center of gravity from a position above your feet, causing you to pivot away from the wall with only friction at your fingertips to hold you in place. Sooner or later, either your nerves or your grip will fail while diminishing steps accumulate below preventing a vertical view. In short, as if you were performing a ritual, this structure will first make you walk in circles, then make you turn your back on the thing you fear, then give you a severe fright, and then deny you the answer to a question any bird could solve in a moment. When you do fall, you will hit the sides before hitting the bottom. Death with time to think about it arriving awaits anyone who peers too far into that hole.

“What we have here,” he adds, “is a geometrical oddity: an edge over which it is impossible to look. Because you can see the endless walls of the abyss both below you and facing you, nothing is hidden except what is down the hole. Standing on the rim, you are very close to a mystery: a space receiving the light of the sun into which we cannot see.”

[Image: The Ladybower bellmouth, photographed by Peter Hanna, from his trip through the Peak District].

Crompton goes on to cite H.P. Lovecraft, the travels of Christopher Columbus, and more; again, it’s worth the read (PDF). But that infinitely alluring blackness—and the tiny steps that lead down into it, and the abyssal impulse to see how far we’re willing to go—is a hard thing to get out of my mind.

(Huge thanks to Kristof Hanzlik for the tip!)

Hexagonal Hydropolis

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Andrew Kudless of Matsys recently proposed an extraordinary desert city of semi-subterranean terraces inspired by the novel Dune.

The images are fantastic, and the project description hooked me right away:

In Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 novel Dune, he describes a planet that has undergone nearly complete desertification. Dune has been called the “first planetary ecology novel” and forecasts a dystopian world without water. The few remaining inhabitants have secluded themselves from their harsh environment in what could be called subterranean oasises. Far from idyllic, these havens, known as sietch, are essentially underground water storage banks. Water is wealth in this alternate reality. It is preciously conserved, rationed with strict authority, and secretly hidden and protected.

The rest of the project combines an interest in drought hydropolitics in the U.S. southwest with the speculative architecture of “underground water banks.”

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Continuing to quote at length:

Although this science fiction novel sounded alien in 1965, the concept of a water-poor world is quickly becoming a reality, especially in the American Southwest. Lured by cheap land and the promise of endless water via the powerful Colorado River, millions have made this area their home. However, the Colorado River has been desiccated by both heavy agricultural use and global warming to the point that it now ends in an intermittent trickle in Baja California. Towns that once relied on the river for water have increasingly begun to create underground water banks for use in emergency drought conditions. However, as droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, these water banks will become more than simply emergency precautions.

Accordingly, Kudless suggests that “waterbanking” will become “the fundamental factor in future urban infrastructure in the American Southwest.”

In this context, I would unhesitatingly recommend Marc Reisner’s classic book Cadillac Desert – the first hydrological page-turner I’ve ever read – as well as James Lawrence Powell’s recent Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West (which I reviewed for The Wilson Quarterly earlier this year). Those two books are ideal references for Matsys’s project, as they each supply countless examples of hubristic, quasi-imperial waterbanking projects – projects that might still be functioning today but that are doomed, the authors convincingly show, to eventual dehydration.

Powell, in particular, offers genuinely disturbing descriptions of the looming silt-deposits that have accumulated behind the dams of the American west, amongst often extraordinarily poetic overviews of these dams’ inevitable failure. “One day every trace of the dams and their reservoirs will be gone,” Powell writes, “a few exotic grains of concrete the only evidence of their one-time existence.”

[Image: Matsys’s Sietch Nevada as seen from above; renderings by Nenad Katic].

In any case, the proposal seen here is “an urban prototype,” we read, “that makes the storage, use, and collection of water essential to the form and performance of urban life.”

A network of storage canals is covered with undulating residential and commercial structures. These canals connect the city with vast aquifers deep underground and provide transportation as well as agricultural irrigation. The caverns brim with dense, urban life: an underground Venice. Cellular in form, these structures constitute a new neighborhood typology that mediates between the subterranean urban network and the surface level activities of water harvesting, energy generation, and urban agriculture and aquaculture. However, the Sietch is also a bunker-like fortress preparing for the inevitable wars over water in the region.

Check out the full project on Matsys’s own website – and, while you’re there, the entire project database is worth a spin.

(Spotted on Architecture MNP. And read Dune!)

The Water Menu

[Image: The water selection at Claridge’s, curated by Renaud Grégoire, food and beverage director].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The concept of terroir has its origins in French winemaking, as a means to describe the effect of geographic origin on taste. As a shorthand marker for both provenance and flavor, and as a sign of its burgeoning conceptual popularity, it has spread to encompass Kobe beef, San Marzano tomatoes, and even single-plantation chocolate.

But can water have terroir? What about the influence of the earth on water?

In late 2007, Claridge’s (a luxury hotel in Mayfair, London) caused a minor stir by introducing a “Water Menu.” The list features more than thirty mineral waters from around the world, described in terms of their origin and suggested flavor pairings.

Leaving aside a few obvious issues (such as the environmental impact of bottled water and the sheer economic wastefulness of sending multiple varieties of it to one hotel in England), it is hard not to appreciate the poetry of three-line exotic water biographies.

Take Mahalo Deep Sea Water, at £20 for 71cl, which comes from “a freshwater iceberg that melted thousands of years ago and, being of different temperature and salinity to the sea water around it, sank to become a lake at the bottom of the ocean floor. The water has been collected through a 3000ft pipeline off the shores of Hawaii.” According to the Daily Mail, Mahalo has a “very rounded quality on the palate” and it “would be good with shellfish.”

[Image: The Daily Mail‘s taste test results].

Meanwhile, Danish Iskilde‘s “flinty, crisp style” apparently derives from the Jutland aquifer’s complicated geology, consisting of interlaced deposits of quartz sand, clay, gravel, and soil. The most expensive (and possibly the most exciting) water on the menu is 420 Volcanic from New Zealand. Sourced from the Tai Tapu spring, which bubbles up through more then 650 feet of rock at the bottom of an extinct volcano, it is apparently “extremely spritzy on the palate with a tangy mineral finish.”

Claridge’s has since been joined by the Four Seasons in Sydney, and, according to The Guardian, “a handful of five-star Los Angeles hotels now employ water sommeliers to advise on the best water accompaniment to spiced braised belly pork or fillet of brill with parmentier of truffled leek.”

This same Guardian article goes on to recount the origins of Elsenham Water, which is described as “absolutely pure” and “very earthy—almost muddy,” depending on who you ask. Elsenham was discovered almost accidentally by Michael Johnstone, a former jam manufacturer; it is filtered over a 10-year period, in a confined chalk aquifer, half a mile below his abandoned jam factory and a neighboring industrial-sealant plant. Now, staff in white coats and hair nets fill up to 1,000 bottles daily “from an acrylic tank connected to pipes running into a hole in the ground.” Each bottle, priced at £12 for 75cl, is then polished by hand before it leaves the building.

According to Michael Mascha, former wine critic and author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, “water is in a transition from being considered a commodity to being considered a product.”

There is an undeniable Wild West gold-rush type of excitement to the idea of drilling for water in geologically auspicious locations. However, Mascha’s comment also implies that we might even begin to see the engineering of gourmet water products.

Loop tap water in a closed pressurized system for twenty years, through thick beds of pure northern Italian dolomite, and enjoy the lightly acidic result with chicken and fish. Better yet, blend it with water forced through a mixture of Forez and Porphyroid granite chips sourced from southwest France, stacked in a warehouse outside London to mimic in situ geological formations, to add a citrusy top note reminscent of Badoit.

A final spritz of oxygen ensures a silky mouthfeel—combined with the right designer packaging—and the burgeoning ranks of water connoisseurs will be lining up at your industrial plant for a taste.

[Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

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.

Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing

Last summer, on the extremely short-lived blog Urbablurb – which only managed five posts before dying, yet still remains interesting today – we read about the little-known phenomenon of people fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: A map of the lost rivers of Manhattan, via Urbablurb].

Urbablurb quotes from The New York Times:

We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

The lost rivers of Manhattan are real; hundreds of streams and whole wetlands were paved over and filled so that the roots of buildings could safely grow. But whether or not you could ever fish in them – and this whole thing sounds like Dr. Seuss to me – is the subject of a post on the also now defunct blog, Empire Zone. There, a commenter informs us that fishing for eyeless carp in the underground cisterns of Istanbul is something of a national past-time.

Alas, we also learn that, as to the question of “whether any carp could be found swimming under Manhattan today,” the answer, sadly, is no.

But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story – when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s 11pm. I’m tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: “I think this is something you’d like to see.” I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself – but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I’m led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.

I step into a large room, that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

(Also on Urbablurb: Who is Jack Gasnick?).

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook’s accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions’ warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he’s produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook’s interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:

The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.

In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: “Stairs” by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so… I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) “Transition to CMP,” from Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain; (middle) “Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)” inside Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) “Backwards junction” in Toronto’s Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: “Emerging in Wilson Heights,” out of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An “A-shaped conduit” in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) “Outfall structure in the West Don Valley,” part of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that’s been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they’ve replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: “Outfall in winter” at Toronto’s Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The “spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds,” in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A “short drop” in Toronto’s beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara’s William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: “Transitions” inside the Duncan’s Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: “Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace” (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa’s Governor General’s Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe…].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:

I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I’m still working on finding. We’ve started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options. In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.

So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The “Three Musketeers” standing inside Toronto’s Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, check out Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the “upwardly migrating void”).

Lake Loss

A lake has disappeared: “Four sinkholes beneath a 285-acre lake in central Florida, and one in a nearby ridge, caused the lake to drain completely earlier this month, flooding two nearby homes and killing wildlife. An engineering firm in Lakeland, where Scott Lake is located, is repairing the damage.”

[Image: Scott Lake, minus Scott Lake. (Via)].

In the process, engineers have concluded that “a permanent plug must be installed in the throat of the sinkhole to stop the water drain. The lake shoreline, parts of which have sunk into the sinkhole, must also be restored. The firm must also determine how to refill the lake.” Good luck!

This, of course, reminds me of Lake Peigneur, Louisiana. There, an oil-drilling crew accidentally punctured the upper dome of a salt mine located directly beneath the lake in which the crew had been stationed:

Texaco, who had ordered the oil probe, was aware of the salt mine’s presence and had planned accordingly; but somewhere a miscalculation had been made, which placed the drill site directly above one of the salt mine’s 80-foot-high, 50-foot-wide upper shafts. As the freshwater poured in through the original 14-inch-wide hole, it quickly dissolved the salt away, making the hole grow bigger by the second. The water pouring into the mine also dissolved the huge salt pillars which supported the ceilings, and the shafts began to collapse… Meanwhile, up on the surface, the tremendous sucking power of the whirlpool was causing violent destruction. It swallowed another nearby drilling platform whole, as well as a barge loading dock, 70 acres of soil from Jefferson Island, trucks, trees, structures, and a parking lot. The sucking force was so strong that it reversed the flow of a 12-mile-long canal which led out to the Gulf of Mexico, and dragged 11 barges from that canal into the swirling vortex, where they disappeared into the flooded mines below.

Perhaps now the mines will become a scuba-diving park…