Joyful Rendezvous Upon Pure Ice and Snow

[Image: Snow-making equipment via Wikipedia].

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are something of a moonshot moment for artificial snow-making technology: the winter games will be held “in a place with no snow.” That’s right: “the 2022 Olympics will rely entirely on artificial snow.”

As a report released by the International Olympic Committee admits, “The Zhangjiakou and Yanqing Zones have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow. There would be no opportunity to haul snow from higher elevations for contingency maintenance to the racecourses so a contingency plan would rely on stockpiled man-made snow.”

This gives new meaning to the word snowbank: a stock-piled reserve of artificial landscape effects, an archive of on-demand, readymade topography.

Beijing’s slogan for their Olympic bid? “Joyful Rendezvous upon Pure Ice and Snow.”

[Image: Snow-making equipment via Wikipedia].

Purely in terms of energy infrastructure and freshwater demand—most of the water will be pumped in from existing reservoirs—the 2022 winter games will seemingly be unparalleled in terms of their sheer unsustainability. Even the IOC sees this; from their report:

The Commission considers Beijing 2022 has underestimated the amount of water that would be needed for snowmaking for the Games but believes adequate water for Games needs could be supplied.

In addition, the Commission is of the opinion that Beijing 2022 has overestimated the ability to recapture water used for snowmaking. These factors should be carefully considered in determining the legacy plans for snow venues.

Knowing all this, then, why not be truly radical—why not host the winter games in Florida’s forthcoming “snowball fight arena,” part of “a $309 million resort near Kissimmee that would include 14-story ski and snowboard mountain, an indoor/outdoor skateboard park and a snowball fight arena”?

Why not host them in Manaus?

Interestingly, the IOC also raises the question of the Games’ aesthetics, warning that the venues might not really look like winter.

“Due to the lack of natural snow,” we read, “the ‘look’ of the venue may not be aesthetically pleasing either side of the ski run. However, assuming sufficient snow has been made or stockpiled and that the temperature remains cold, this should not impact the sport during the Games.”

Elsewhere: “There could be no snow outside of the racecourse, especially in Yanqing, impacting the visual perception of the snow sports setting.” This basically means that there will be lots of bare ground, rocks, and gravel lining the virginal white strips of these future ski runs.

[Image: Ski jumping in summer at Chicago’s Soldier Field (1954); via Pruned].

Several years ago, Pruned satirically offered Chicago as a venue for the world’s “first wholly urban Winter Olympics.” With admirable detail, he went into many of the specifics for how Chicago might pull it off, but he also points out the potential aesthetic disorientation presented by seeing winter sports in a non-idyllic landscape setting.

“Chicago’s gritty landscape shouldn’t be much of a handicap,” he suggests. Chicago might not “embody a certain sort of nature—rustic mountains, pastoral evergreen forests, a lonely goatherd, etc.,” but the embedded landscape technology of the Winter Games should have left behind that antiquated Romanticism long ago.

As Pruned asks, “have the more traditional Winter Olympic sites not been over the years transformed into high-tech event landscapes, carefully managed and augmented with artificial snow and heavy plows that sculpt the slopes to a pre-programmed set of topographical parameters?”

Seen this way, Beijing’s snowless winter games are just an unsustainable historical trajectory taken to its most obvious next step.

[Image: Making snow for It’s A Wonderful Life, via vintage everyday].

In any case, the 2022 Winter Olympics are shaping up to be something like an Apollo Program for fake snow, an industry that, over the next seven years, seems poised to experience a surge of innovation as the unveiling of this most artificial of Olympic landscapes approaches.

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?).

N.A.W.A.P.A.

With drought on my mind, it was interesting to come across two new articles in The New York Times today, both about the United States of waterlessness.

The less interesting of the two tells us that “[w]ater levels in the Great Lakes are falling; Lake Ontario, for example, is about seven inches below where it was a year ago” – and, “for every inch of water that the lakes lose, the ships that ferry bulk materials across them must lighten their loads… or risk running aground.”

[Image: The Great Lakes are draining; photo by James Rajotte for The New York Times].

What’s causing this? “Most environmental researchers,” we read, “say that low precipitation, mild winters and high evaporation, due largely to a lack of heavy ice covers to shield cold lake waters from the warmer air above, are depleting the lakes.”

I’m reminded of something Alex Trevi sent me several weeks ago, in which writer and comedian Garrison Keillor speculates as to what might happen if the state of Minnesota sold all the water in Lake Superior.

Keillor describes a fantastical project called Excelsior, in which the Governor of Minnesota “will stand on a platform in Duluth and pull a golden lanyard, opening the gates of the Superior Diversion Canal, a concrete waterway the size of the Suez. Water from Lake Superior will flood into the canal at a rate of 50 billion gal. per hour and go south.”

It will flow into the St. Croix River, to the Mississippi, south to an aqueduct at Keokuk, Iowa, and from there west to the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon and many other southwestern canyons, filling them up to the rims – enough water to supply the parched Southwest from Los Angeles to Santa Fe for more than 50 years.

The drained landscape left behind will be renamed the Superior Canyon – and the Superior Canyon, Keillor says, will put the Grand Canyon to shame. “It’s bigger, for one thing,” he writes, “plus it has islands and sites of famous shipwrecks. You’ll have a monorail tour of the sites with crumpled hulls of ships. Very respectful.”

By 2006, Keillor speculated (he was writing from the Hootie & the Blowfish-filled year of 1995):

Lake Superior will be gone, and its islands will be wooded buttes rising above the fertile coulees of the basin. A river will run through it, the Riviera River, and great glittering casinos like the Corn Palace, the Voyageur, the Big Kawishiwi, the Tamarack Sands, the Clair de Loon, the Sileaux, the Garage Mahal, the Glacial Sands, the Temple of Denture, the Golden Mukooda will lie across the basin like diamonds in a dish. Family-style casinos, with theme parks and sensational water rides on the rivers cascading over the north rim, plus high-rise hotels and time-share condominiums. Currently there are no building restrictions in Lake Superior; developers will be free to create high-rises in the shape of grain elevators, casinos shaped like casserole dishes, accordions, automatic washers. Celebrities will flock to the canyon. You’ll see guys on the Letterman show who, when Dave asks, “Where you going next month, pal?” will say, “I’ll be in Minnesota, Dave, playing four weeks at the Pokegama.” Tourism will jump 1,000%. Guys on the red-eye from L.A. to New York will look out and see a blaze of light off the left wing and ask the flight attendant, “What’s that?” And she’ll say, “Minnesota, of course.”

All of which actually reminds of Lebbeus Woods, and his vision of a drained Manhattan.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan; view larger].

But perhaps such a willfully fictive reference overlooks the reality of the drought(s) now creeping up on the United States.

In a massive new article published this weekend in The New York Times, we’re given a long and rather alarming look at the lack of water in the American west, focusing on the decline of the Colorado River.

A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River – which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains – has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations. Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government.

And it will happen; this “unfathomable” situation will someday occur. The American West will run out of water.

[Image: Simon Norfolk, a photographer previously interviewed by BLDGBLOG, taken for The New York Times].

Or will it?

At one point in his genuinely brilliant book Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner describes something called N.A.W.A.P.A.: the North American Water and Power Alliance. N.A.W.A.P.A. is nothing less than the gonzo hydrological fantasy project of a particular group of U.S. water engineers. N.A.W.A.P.A., Reisner tells us, would “solve at one stroke all the West’s problems with water” – but it would also take “a $6-trillion economy” to pay for it, and “it might require taking Canada by force.”

He quips that British Columbia “is to water what Russia is to land,” and so N.A.W.A.P.A., if realized, would tap those unexploited natural waterways and bring them down south to fill the cups of Uncle Sam. Canadians, we read, “have viewed all of this with a mixture of horror, amusement, and avarice” – but what exactly is “all of this”?

Reisner:

Visualize, then, a series of towering dams in the deep river canyons of British Columbia – dams that are 800, 1,500, even 1,700 feet high. Visualize reservoirs backing up behind them for hundreds of miles – reservoirs among which Lake Mead would be merely regulation-size. Visualize the flow of the Susitna River, the Copper, the Tanana, and the upper Yukon running in reverse, pushed through the Saint Elias Mountains by million-horsepower pumps, then dumped into nature’s second-largest natural reservoir, the Rocky Mountain Trench. Humbled only by the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the trench would serve as the continent’s hydrologic switching yard, storing 400 million acre-feet of water in a reservoir 500 miles long.

And that’s barely half the project!

The project would ultimately make “the Mojave Desert green,” we read, diverting Canada’s fresh water south to the faucets of greater Los Angeles – thus destroying almost every salmon fishery between Anchorage and Vancouver, and even “rais[ing] the level of all five [Great Lakes],” in the process.

After all, N.A.W.A.P.A. also means that the Great Lakes would be connected to the center of the North American continent by something called the Canadian–Great Lakes Waterway.

But N.A.W.A.P.A. is an old plan; it’s been gathering dust since the 1980s. No one now is seriously considering building it. It’s literally history.

But who knows – perhaps 2008 is the year N.A.W.A.P.A. makes a comeback. Or, perhaps, in January 2010, after another dry winter, Los Angeles voters will start to get thirsty. Perhaps some well-positioned Senators, in 2011, might even start making phonecalls north. Perhaps, in 2012, some recent graduates from water management programs at state-funded universities in Illinois or Utah might catch the itch of moral rebellion; they might then start redrawing their personal maps of the continent, going to bed at night with visions of massive dams in their heads, writing position papers for peer-reviewed hydrological engineering magazines.

Perhaps, in 2017, ten years from now, BLDGBLOG – if it’s still around – will even be reporting from the rims of these gigantic structures, thrown up overnight in the remote and untrafficked darkness of riverine western Canada. Long, perfectly calibrated concrete sluices and pumps will bring water thousands of miles south through redwood forests to the open basins of California’s reservoirs, and photographs of their incomprehensibly expensive and exactly poured geometry will elicit whistles of embarrassed awe from readers on the streets of Weehawken.

[Image: A fish-cleaning station in Las Vegas Bay, now abandoned by the West’s sinking waters; taken by Simon Norfolk for The New York Times].

Or perhaps it won’t be N.A.W.A.P.A. after all, but some titanic new project identical in all but name.

Will California wait for the coming drought to destroy it – or will the state take drastic measures?