Monocular Landscapes, Unmanned Drones, and the Orbital Future of Australian Archaeology

The new magazine Monocle has been getting loads of press lately, from both lovers and haters; and while I can’t necessarily say that I’m one or the other, I will admit to erring on the side of enthusiasm.
There’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve only got the first issue, however, so I’m not exactly an informed reader; and I won’t be performing a rigorous review of the magazine here – discussing its design, intentions, etc. etc. etc. I simply want to point out a few cool articles that have an architectural or landscape bent.
Which is quite a large part of the magazine, as it happens.
First, for instance, we take a brief trip to Paris, where we step down onto the Champs-Elysées and learn that a Citroën “flagship showroom” will soon open up, putting shiny cars with waxed bonnets on display in the window. Then there’s a glossy photo-essay on Le Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, “the city were timing is everything” (they manufacture watches). And there’s a quick visit to the nearby town of Sedrun, Switzerland, where the Gotthard Base Tunnel “is being dug more than 600m below the [earth’s surface], through nearly 58km of Massif stone.” A subterranean train station, located at the midpoint of the tunnel, will be “linked to the surface by the world’s tallest lift.” Long-term readers may note that this same tunnel was mentioned on BLDGBLOG back in December.

[Image: Gotthard Base Tunnel, via Wikipedia].

Awesomely, Monocle then turns its cyclopean gaze onto the empty skies above Kemijärvi, Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, where “a test centre for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” has opened. The test center is run by a firm called Robonic; Robonic “has taken advantage of the vast, virtually unused airspace – a rarity in Europe – above Finnish Lapland to create the only private test centre in the world devoted solely to UAVs.” This would also seem to be the perfect setting for a new novel by J.G. Ballard. Or an Alfred Hitchcock film: unmanned drones fly state secrets across the Arctic Circle…
Meanwhile, could you use these launchers, I wonder, to hurl small buildings into the sky? And if you could, would you do it?
Frustratingly, the article doesn’t ask these questions.

[Image: The launcher for a UAV; courtesy of Robonic].

Moving on, we read, Budapest wants to clean up its river; as it is, the Danube is now “a muddy grey-brown, thanks in part to the sewage gushing out underneath Elizabeth Bridge” – which is a structure, not a woman.
Apparently a “warehouse district” will soon be built, modeled after the Docklands in London.
There’s also a great article on China’s bankrolling of infrastructural construction projects throughout Africa:

China’s influence in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. Across the continent the Chinese are building stadiums, parliaments, roads, offering their expertise as well as they wallet. But China is not just giving to Africa, it is taking too. By the end of next year China will have become the world’s largest importer of oil, and most of it will come from Africa. China is also in desperate need of minerals such as copper, aluminium and iron ore – and African nations are willing to provide them.

This topic was also previously explored on BLDGBLOG.
I’m going on a bit here, I have to say, but there’s even a feature-length exposé on Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL) and their “daylight-redirection” scheme in Rattenberg, Austria – a project Pruned told us about so long ago.
Monocle explains how BLL plans “to create an elaborate system of heliostats and fixed mirrors that could bounce sunlight from a nearby mountaintop on to a hill opposite and into the main street’s gift shops and cafés.” Without these mirrors – and their “secondary mirrors,” in turn – the town would spend “almost four months of the year in the shadow of Rat mountain.” In the shadow of Rat mountain!
The English name alone would cause depression.

[Image: The lighting technologies of Bartenbach LichtLabor].

To test these devices, BLL has constructed an “artificial sky… packed with fluorescent lamps, translucent lamps and LEDs.” It’s referred to as “the ultimate toy for a lighting geek.”
Anyway, I could go on and on – it’s an impressive magazine.
However, I do have to mention, finally, the one article I was actually intending to write about here before I started drinking coffee: on page 70, there’s a short, one-column piece about Alice Gorman.
Gorman is an Australian archaeologist whose university homepage states her interests as “material culture relating to space exploration, including terrestrial launch sites like Woomera (South Australia), Kourou (French Guiana) and Hammaguir (Algeria).” She also studies “orbital debris” and “planetary landing sites.”
Gorman’s got a blog called Space Age Archaeology; she’s got a research abstract online discussing “the archaeological record of human endeavours beyond the atmosphere” (!); and she’s got a downloadable PDF about all of the above. Vaguely similar topics, meanwhile, pop up in an old – and somewhat confusingly typeset – BLDGBLOG post called “White men shining lights into the sky“…
Monocle further tells us that Gorman has been “calling on the United Nations this month to create a protected ‘heritage list'” for orbital objects, “including the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest man-made object in orbit.”
Gorman: “Maybe the only evidence that a country has a right to be in geostationary orbit will be [the presence of] an old satellite.” As space fills up with more and more junk – not to mention working satellites – she says: “It’s not impossible that being able to claim access to an orbit could be a bit like Aboriginal people in Australia being able to say, ‘This is where my ancestors camped.'”

[Image: The International Space Station].

A few things: 1) Last week I interviewed science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson for BLDGBLOG and I asked him about this very topic – directly referencing Monocle: will we yet see an archaeology of space, complete with in-orbit excavation sites, etc. etc. etc.? I hope to have that interview up and public within the month.
2) The very idea of an orbiting, geostationary archaeological site strikes me as so amazing, and so fun to think about, that I almost can’t believe it. What will happen, say, in 400 years, or 900 years, or 1500 years, when the International Space Station has become like Petra or Skara Brae or even Macchu Picchu – the lost and dusty relic of a dead civilization – visited by space tourists with a thing for archaeology, snapping photos of themselves beside old push-button consoles as the sun rises through command windows in the background…? Masked grad students earn summer credits in Forensic Anthropology, roping off portions of the Station, mapping ancient social dynamics as dictated by architectural space…
Ruins in orbit around the earth!
Anyway, I found the first issue of Monocle to be really exciting and well-done, and I’m looking forward to issues two, three, four, etc.
Although… note to Monocle: it is actually cheaper to buy the magazine issue by issue here in the States; subscribing is nearly 30% more expensive.

Agitation, Power, Space: An Interview with Ole Bouman

[Image: Ole Bouman, photographed by Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk].

In May 2005, Ole Bouman and Rem Koolhaas co-founded Volume. Volume was meant as both a magazine and a “global idea platform… dedicated to experimentation and the production of new forms of architectural discourse.” The tenth issue of Volume was published last month.

On April 1, 2007, Ole Bouman will become Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. As he explained in an NAI press release, that role will involve “draw[ing] inspiration from the major spatial challenges of our time.”

In the following interview, Bouman talks to BLDGBLOG about some of these “spatial challenges,” including the role of “agitation” in architecture; who the real audience for architectural journalism might be; the “politics of the spectacular”; unexpected possible side-effects of long-term investment in China; public space and dialogue in post-conflict cities; and the future of the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: The new issue of Volume is themed around agitation. What exactly does that mean in the context of architecture?

Ole Bouman: Agitation is, of course, a very general category. It’s also a cultural term that has strong political connotations. In terms of Volume, as a way of approaching architecture, I think it’s good to cover that theme, to explore agitation in the present state of affairs, and to challenge the accepted formats, the accepted language, the accepted procedures in architecture. It’s a way to expand the architectural imagination in a way.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve said that part of this comes through asking why in architecture.

Bouman: Well, I think it’s very important to acknowledge the necessity of asking why in general. In a culture where people, at a very early stage of their careers, are forced to stick to their subject – or to a specific role – there is, in my view, an extreme urgency to keep asking why. Why, in a way, is a very innocent question and a very childish question – but it is also a very important question. It doesn’t allow you to take things for granted in terms of the role you play in society, or the service you provide to society and things like that. It always brings you back to fundamental questions about your presence, your role, your possibilities – etc. etc. So it’s an extremely important question, and, I would hope, a very obvious question – but, unfortunately, it is not so common anymore.

Posing it so explicitly – pushing forward this notion of why – is itself already a critical act. This is in contrast to presenting what you’re doing, how you are doing it, or – more gossipy – who is doing something. Who and what and how are, of course, very important questions, and there is a big market for those questions: everybody knows that you can make a lot of money presenting what has been done by other people. And there is a growing market now for information about the person behind the built work, the personality behind the building. But for why there is no natural market.

So we are trying to create a momentum behind this spirit, to create a market for why. And if we find sufficient international readers who share this attitude – asking why wherever they go and whatever they do – then maybe this project is sustainable in the long term. But this is an experiment, and we don’t know yet where it will go.

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #6 you refer to the idea that clients are a kind of “necessary evil.” But what’s interesting, in the context of architecture, is that magazines like Dwell and Metropolis are more popular than ever – which seems, at the very least, to indicate that clients read magazines, too. In other words, the people who buy and commission architecture also want to read about architecture. Perhaps, then, the declining popularity of non-mass market architectural criticism simply indicates that critics are not writing for clients anymore – for the people who actually purchase architecture. Instead, they are writing for other architects, and so of course architectural criticism appears to be in decline. Where would Volume fit in, here?

Bouman: It is a good question. Of course, there are at least three different layers of clients. First of all, there are the people with money who want a program to be accommodated by an architectural work – in other words, a client in the traditional sense. But I don’t think that there is a sufficient market for a magazine that would address that specific group.

There is also the client, in terms of the decision-maker. Maybe that person is not about to commission an architect to do something now, but they may ask an architect to do something in the future. And there are decision-makers throughout society – so this is a much larger group. If magazines can address this group of decision-makers specifically, then they already have a bigger reader base.

But, of course, there is also a group of clients that thinks, maybe in a more metaphorical way, about architecture as a way of fulfilling their dreams or serving their interests, in both a material way and in a more idealistic sense. And if our readership is this larger group of people – a very mixed group – then you could say that we already do address clients as the people who ask questions to architects – not just ask for buildings from architects, but who ask architects to engage with these issues. They ask architects to address larger social issues, rather than just supply built stuff. This is a redefinition of architecture, from delivering an object to a definition of architecture that challenges certain issues within a larger cultural strategy.

I think there could be a great dialogue between architects and this group of people. And this spirit and interpretation of the client is perhaps what we are addressing. Of course, the question comes up: is it still necessary to call this group clients and not just the public? But I think it is a nice way to put it: to see those people, this larger group of people engaged in cultural issues, as clients, who ask questions without an immediate budget, without pointing at a specific site, without asking you to accommodate a program. They ask general questions of architecture, and that helps us mobilize architecture beyond one specific purpose.

BLDGBLOG: So we need a new, or different, kind of architect now, in addition to a new way of interacting with clients?

Bouman: Yes – and that brings me to the role of the architect in responding to the client. This can no longer be the reactive way that most architects work with clients. In the first definition I gave of the client, the client is asking a question: Architect X or Architect Y, can you do something for me, because I need you? The output of architecture, in that sense, is very reactive. It can only be based on a program, a budget, a site, an existing location, etc. etc. – but there is always something coming first, before the architectural act.

In the other description I gave of the client, there is more of a shared interest – a common interest – with architects addressing a cultural or political issue from the angle of architecture. So there is a dialogue between different people with a common curiosity, and that can evolve into a completely different output of the architectural discipline. It gives architects a new role, I think, in the long-term, and this may even give architecture its future legitimacy.

If an art form or a scientific discipline, in the end, only boils down to performing a service for other people, then it’s very hard to find cultural legitimacy for that discipline.

BLDGBLOG: Again in Volume #6, you differentiate between cities and what you call “large congregations of architecture.” I’m curious how this distinction plays out on the level of community, or local identity – what a region full of architecture might mean to its inhabitants.

Bouman: If you don’t distinguish between those two – if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture – then you make a very big mistake. First of all, I think it’s necessary for architectural criticism, in that sense, to find the right words for these very complicated processes, to distinguish between two processes or forms that, at first sight, appear the same, but that are, in reality, very different.

When Roemer van Toorn and I wrote the book The Invisible in Architecture in the early 1990s, we were directly reacting to an architecture culture which was taken hostage by the politics of the spectacular. It was an effort to figure out what was behind those fancy or glossy facades which were already highly present in the architectural press – and, in that sense, nothing has changed. There is still an incredible focus – not just among architects, but among clients – on an architecture that is strongest at first sight. The second sight or the third sight is not so important anymore. The invisible in architecture, in that sense, is still an interesting concept to explore: to figure out the intricacies of the architectural profession within a larger political context.

Beyond that, distinguishing between a city and these “large congregations of architecture” may also help architects to clarify their own position, and to see how they might want to work – to help draft a new agenda for the discipline. This brings us back to that notion of agitation. So agitation can also mean: keep going, keep defining alternative agendas that are not well known – or well accepted, or that are just undiscovered – and keep opening windows for other kinds of practice.

[Image: The CCTV building, Beijing, by Rem Koolhaas/OMA].

BLDGBLOG: In Volume #8, you write that China is “an emerging world for which we as yet have no concepts” – but perhaps we do have concepts for it, only we won’t find them in China: we’ll find them within the logic of Western globalization. Do you think, then, that the economic development of China is really just a mutant strain of something that has already happened in the West?

Bouman: Well, there are many angles that could be taken, and I think that’s a good one. It’s strange that China is seen as a new world by many Westerners, a land of opportunity, a place they all want to go. Investors are also looking at China as where they would like to put their money. So, in a way, it’s very similar to concepts we already do have – the concepts of innovation, of career, of success. But also, the concept of a return on your investment, the concept of economic growth – all of those well-known elements of the Western worldview that we all share.

On the other hand, China is still seen as another world. You have to go there. You have to get yourself a portfolio in China. Or you have to start your office, or open a new headquarters there – so there is always the concept of over there, of otherness. I talk to Chinese colleagues, and Chinese businesspeople, and they sometimes openly admit that this persistence of otherness, this persistence of the idea that this is a country that is different from the West, that you can go to, or send your money to, is helping China to take over. To put it dramatically.

So, in terms of capital, for instance, if you just consider the fact that 15 years of boundless investment in China – hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in China, within a very Western paradigm of finding the best returns – is also, in the long-term, undermining the Western position. So, in a Western way of thinking, and from a capitalist point of view, investing in China may actually accomplish the opposite of what investors intended. These kind of paradoxes are hardly understood.

If China is launching a new rocket, or a new satellite, or testing a new space weapon system, suddenly people wake up – but there is this strange anomaly between China as the promised land and China as the latent rival, the opponent, the growing danger. Either people accept that China is becoming part of a larger global system of capital, and so they aren’t afraid to give it its own momentum wherever it goes, or whatever it takes – that is just the price you pay for growth. Or you say: we can no longer accept this – and this might be a moment that is not so far away anymore, a moment of regression or conservatism. Some governments will say that we can no longer go there, maybe, because we would not like to add to the power and culture of China. It’s still very fashionable to host Chinese festivals and to invite Chinese artists and to buy Chinese art – but the moment might not be so far away when we ask: why would we pay for China? If it reinforces or strengthens their power?

I feel sometimes that we are just a little bit away from the moment when this paradox, this anomaly, will erupt into a more existential question. What do we do? Do we keep adding to the strength of China? Or do we go back to this kind of Western chauvinism, or nationalism, and not allow architects, for instance, to work in China or to allow Western investors to invest in China?

I think, in the work of Rem Koolhaas, for instance, this anomaly is almost already on the surface. On the one hand there’s this admiration of the great architect with an incredible track record who goes to build in China, who creates a new monument, a kind of signal of what architecture can do, an incredible achievement. On the other hand, there is this latent, almost open criticism: what does this do for China? Are we giving away our assets to the enemy? I think in the whole discussion around the CCTV Building you see this tension between chauvinism and internationalism, between western interests and the interests of globalization in general, and many other dialectics in the debate being played out through that specific building. That’s why the building is so interesting. As a metaphor, it represents much more than just the fact that it is built for an institution of Chinese power by a powerful western architect; it also reveals something that has to do with the dynamics of our culture – and where architecture can do that, then architecture is gaining in legitimacy.

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your work – and Volume’s work – with cities like Beirut, Ramallah, and Prishtina. Could you tell me a bit more about the role of architecture and urban design in so-called conflict zones?

Bouman: Well, first of all, there are many people there who need help – so it’s a very direct appeal to do something for people who may need you. I don’t have money, and I don’t have power, and I don’t have political influence – but what I can do, together with many other people, is, first, to acknowledge the need for cultural discourse. Very often all the discourse that is left to those people in post-conflict cities is about everyday needs, or maybe some rebuilding of political institutions; but culture is always at the end of the story, at the end of the line. What we can do is provide them with discourse, give them a certain vitality, as we did in Ramallah once, in Bosnia once, in Vilnius once – and even as we did at the feet of the Statue of Liberty once. If a city is in trouble, sometimes it’s good to organize dialogue, regardless of the subject matter – dialogue as a goal in itself.

Of course, the second stage is the content – the subject matter of the dialogue. And for cities like Beirut or Prishtina, a very obvious subject matter is reclaiming the public domain. If there is a situation, as there is in many post-conflict cities, where political parties are extremely weak or even nonexistent, and where private citizens, sometimes criminals, have taken over the public domain because no one feels responsible – there are no owners, so to speak – then it is good to arrive quickly, and to figure out what the public domain can mean in that city.

Beirut, especially now, seems to be a culture that is divided among factions. We’re trying to set up some projects in Beirut, and in the entirety of Lebanon, to specifically address the question of public domain. Or in Prishtina, for instance, there is an incredibly strong tendency to let the public domain be grasped not just by private interests, but by mafia, by criminals. So real estate is no longer an off-spin of the need to build; real estate becomes a modality of corruption, or an exemplification of corrupt wheelings and dealings.

In that sense, it is important to be there, and to acknowledge the work of local architects, designers, civil servants: what they are doing is extremely important, and can be a model for a global discourse. It can be something that we learn from all over the world – because there are so many of those cities, and there is an increasing amount of those cities, that need to learn these lessons.

So we try to go there, to acknowledge the problems, sometimes to help – with just ideas – and to give it exposure; but also to give the local protagonists a certain momentum by connecting them to the international discourse. And if you live in Beirut, or Prishtina, or Ramallah, it might be an incredible thing to feel connected to a more general international discourse.

BLDGBLOG: When you go there, who exactly are you networking with? Architects? Civil servants?

Bouman: When we decided to go to these places and to organize a dialogue there, we started a practice called RSVP Events. We published an invitation to participate, and we just mentioned the place and the date and the subject matter. People who felt responsible, or who were interested, and who might show up on that date, could react by way of email. After collecting the people who might be interested, we started an email dialogue with this group. And the background of those people was always different – you might find an activist group, or a cultural institution, or a student association, or a school, and they would turn out to be the main provider of content, or the main provider of people, to help. So it’s always different.

In Ramallah, we did a conversation with an organization specifically responsible for heritage in Palestine – in the West Bank – which was a very unexpected turn of events. In Zagreb we worked with a group of students. In Vilnius we were at an art museum. It’s really not fixed – it’s an open system – and it should be that way.

We are trying to set up a new series this year, and, like Beirut and Kosovo, we are planning on going to Ulaanbaator, to Chennai, to Taichung, to Tijuana – different places in borderline situations – and I’m very curious who will eventually help us. We have no institutional connections yet, but we need some; that will help us find a larger audience. We urgently need, always, the email lists, and the local groups that may sustain an event like that.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, as far as your new job goes – becoming Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute on April 1, 2007 – what are your specific plans?

Bouman: [laughs] That’s a huge question – and it’s a question I’m still in the middle of answering. I haven’t found the words for it yet.

Mainly, my role there will be in the spirit of taking architecture as a cultural medium, not just as a profession – taking architecture as a way of thinking, as a metaphor for society, as a medium for culture, and as a very rich historical discipline that can address larger issues. Architecture is more than just serving the spatial needs of society, or providing technical solutions by professionals. Architecture is done by professionals, but that shouldn’t inhibit it to ask the questions of an amateur – very open, curious questions that are larger than just the service, or the facilities, the professional interests of that discipline.

Most of the time, when you find a podium, it is outside the discipline – and, as I said, that’s still successful – but I often wonder why architecture doesn’t seize the opportunity to make itself much more legitimate – more useful, in a way. I think presenting architecture as a potential, a capacity, to pose big questions and to draft agendas that are larger than architecture itself might be a good characterization of things I have in mind.

• • •

With special thanks to Benedict Clouette, of Columbia University’s C-LAB, for setting this interview up and assisting me with images (all unlabeled images come from Volume); and to Ole Bouman for taking the time to talk.

Interchange Tiles

[Image: Four tiles by Jim Termeer].

“This is a set of 25 ceramic tiles,” artist Jim Termeer explains. “The patterns are based on satellite imagery of major highway interchanges that have been built worldwide.”
So you can decorate your bathroom with the freeways of Barcelona.

[Image: The Barcelona tile, by Jim Termeer].

(Discovered via Mason White, thanks to a tip from Theresa Duncan. If you like these images, meanwhile, be sure to stop by BLDGBLOG’s Return of the Knot Driver and, of course, The Knot Driver

).

Urban Knot Theory

[Image: From Blend, where this post first appeared (translated into Dutch)].

Rumor has it that a university outside Manchester teaches courses in mathematics and knot theory not inside comfortable, well-lit classrooms – the university has none – but down in the sewers, drains, valves, and storm tunnels built long ago beneath the city. That subterranean world of old Victorian brickwork is measured, sketched, and catalogued every year by new students; they spend whole weeks at a time mapping the curvature of spillway walls, graphing intersections of unexplored side-channels.
The results are then compared to diagrams of Euclidean geometry.
Manchester’s storm overflow sewers, the rumor goes, are actually topological models. They are knot theory in built form.
Other rumors claim that a former student of that program is now Chief Engineer for the city of Brisbane, Australia, where he leads the construction of new civic infrastructure; every sewer and spillway built there is designed by him alone. As a result, each time you flush a toilet in Brisbane, a bewildering and exhaustively contorted world of concrete knots and brick culverts comes to life, engineered to faultless precision, washing everyone’s waste out to sea.
Manifolds, loops, toroids, even prime number sequences: the entire history of Western mathematics can be derived from the sewers of Brisbane, monuments of urban plumbing.

[Image: An artificial waterfall below the surface of the earth, photographed by Siologen].

Perhaps even as you read this, meanwhile, two extraordinary photographers – under the names Siologen and Dsankt – are busy documenting these topologically complex systems built beneath cities throughout the UK, Australia, Canada, greater Europe, and beyond.
Siologen ranks tunnels according to their “connectivity, variation and age,” he explained in an email, and he travels literally around the world to explore new systems, collecting tetanus shots along the way…
Some drains, he claims, resemble subterranean car parts, as if glimpsing, from within, huge engines attached to the underside of the city, resonating with the echoes of unseen pumps. For instance, Sidedraught Induction, Siologen writes, referring to a system in Manchester, “reminds me of a Stromberg carburetor.”

[Image: Tower of ladders and platforms, photographed by Siologen].

The drains, then, are even named – “the person who finds them, names them,” Siologen says – ranging from The Motherload to the ROTOR Bunker, to systems called Supercharger, Maze, Processor, Zardox, and The Works. Post that name, with photographs, onto enough websites, and eventually the label sticks. The sewers are a known geography.
Dsankt, meanwhile, actually boats his way into the underworld, boarding small skiffs in the rivers of outer Brisbane and following tides up intake valves, ducking beneath dangling scraps of sewage. His visits to the subcity are therefore carefully timed: should the waters rise faster than expected, both he and his boat will be crushed – shipwrecked in a world of abstract concrete rooms, slowly flooding.

[Image: Black and white topology of intake valves, photographed by Dsankt].

Apparently, Australian drains sound different than drains in the UK. In Sydney, for instance, there are “weird acoustics due to the jagged facets of rock in the walls,” Siologen explains, whereas London’s tunnels “sound wet” – and smell like shit. “Mostly it’s the sound of rushing water, with the clank of cars running over loose manhole lids and, of course, the splashing of people walking through.”

[Images: The human encounter with geometry by torchlight, photographed by Siologen].

Unreliable sources suggest that the earliest Victorian sewer engineers were also trained to make musical instruments: thus many storm drains beneath London are designed like saxophones, tubas, and flutes. Distant changes in air pressure cause the whole system to shudder, whistling subliminally on the edges of the wind, a soundtrack for the city so beautiful it’s often hypnotic. If you wait long enough in certain alleys in Soho, you’ll hear it, droning beneath the rustle of crisp bags and trash.
It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

[Image: Instrumental curvature, photographed by Siologen].

In any case, it is worth wondering what these tunnels will look like in five hundred years’ time. Will future archaeologists correctly conclude that all these drains, carved beneath the cities of the world, from Cairo to Shenzhen, were indeed textbooks in advanced knot theory? Or will those labyrinthine tunnels and networks of spillways simply appear to be some kind of prehistoric earthwork sculpture – Giza, Stonehenge, Easter Island, Heathrow – abandoned in the subsiding clay?
Perhaps the entire archaeological profession will be revolutionized by the discovery that alignments exist between the sewers of central Paris and the rising summer sun – lines of solstice and equinox that fill whole drains with light. Anthropologists will speculate that vast mirrors once stood at the junctions of empty corridors, illuminating the underworld bright as day. Post-graduate researchers will apply for funding to re-construct that subterranean maze of mirrors: reflections hitting reflections… hitting reflections.
Finally, on a summer solstice five hundred years from now, the archaeologists will stand, cameras in hand, as every sewer system in Europe begins to shine, light escaping from manhole covers, the surface of the earth faintly glowing.

[Image: Shining tunnelwork of the future, photographed by Siologen].

[Note: Thanks to Dsankt for putting me in touch with Siologen – and to Siologen for answering my questions and supplying the images for print. For more urban exploration, meanwhile, see London Topological; and under no circumstances miss the DIY Supervillain Hideout on Dsankt’s own Sleepy City. Finally, the image captions, above, are my own descriptions, not the actual titles of the photographs – which is why they’re so pretentious].

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

The Weather Bowl

[Image: A passing Illinois lightning storm and supercell, the clouds peeling away to reveal evening stars; photo ©Extreme Instability/Mike Hollingshead. If you can overlook pet photos, meanwhile, don’t miss Hollingshead’s other storm work from 2006 and 2005 – including these Nebraskan auroras. While you’re at it, this storm sequence has some stunning, pre-storm landscape shots].

During a disastrously moderated talk at the MAK Center last night in West Hollywood, where the panelists could hardly get a word in edgewise because of the barely coherent, self-answering, 40-minute monologue of the moderator, Karl Chu briefly managed to say that he was interested in constructing and designing whole continents and weather systems.

Which got me thinking.

Given time, some digging equipment, a bit of geotechnical expertise, and loads of money, for instance, you could turn the entirety of greater Los Angeles into a weather bowl, dedicated to the recreation of famous storms. Install some rotating fans and open-air wind tunnels, build some deflection screens in the Hollywood Hills, scatter smaller fans and blowers throughout Culver City or overlooking Burbank, amplify the natural sea winds blowing in through Long Beach – and you could re-enact famous weather systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, reproducing hurricanes, even bringing back, for one night, the notorious storm that killed Shelley.

You consult your table of weather histories, choose your storm and go: fans deep in hillsides start turning, the wind tunnels roar, and lo! The exact speed and direction of Hurricane Andrew is unleashed. Seed the clouds a bit and reprogram the fans, and you can precisely reproduce the atmospheric conditions from the night William Blake was born. Or the ice storm that leveled electrical gantries outside Montreal, now whirling in a snow-blurred haze through Echo Park.

You could build competing weather colosseums in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Beijing. Every night new storms are reenacted, moving upward in scale and complexity. The storm Goethe saw as a nineteen year-old, contemplating European history, kills a family of seven outside Nanking. You soon get Weather Olympics, or a new Pritzker Prize for Best Weather Effects.

One day, a man consumed with nostalgia hacks the control program to recreate the exact breeze on which he once flew a kite over the Monbijouplatz in Berlin…

(For more on the exhibition now up at the MAK Center, download this PDF).

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mike Davis, author, sociologist, and urban theorist, recorded upon the publication of his book, Planet of Slums. If you missed part one, here it is.


In this installment, Davis discusses the rise of Pentecostalism in global mega-slums; the threat of avian flu; the disease vectors of urban poverty; criminal and terrorist mini-states; the future of sovereignty; environmental footprints; William Gibson; the allure of Hollywood; and Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing imprint, Perceval Press.


BLDGBLOG: In an earlier, essay-length version of Planet of Slums, you write at some length about the rise of Pentecostalism as a social and organizational force in the slums – but that research is missing from the actual book, Planet of Slums. Are you distancing yourself from that research, or perhaps less interested now in its implications?

Davis: Actually, several hundred pages on Pentecostalism are now being decanted in the second volume, written with Forrest Hylton, where they properly belong. But the historical significance of Pentecostalism – evangelical Christianity – is that it’s the first modern religious movement, I believe – or religious sect – which emerged out of the urban poor. Although there are many gentrified Pentecostal churches in the United States today, and even in places like Brazil, the real crucible of Pentecostalism – the spiritual experience which propels it – the whole logic of Pentecostalism – remains within the urban poor.

Of course, Pentecostalism, in most places, is also, overwhelmingly, a religion of women – and in Latin America, at least, it has an actual material benefit. Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away.

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

BLDGBLOG: Outside of simply filling a void left behind by the retreat of the State, what’s the actual appeal of Pentecostalism for this new generation of urban poor?

Davis: Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.


BLDGBLOG: It would seem that human overpopulation is, in and of itself, turning cities into slums. In other words, no matter what governmental steps or state-based programs are devised to address urban poverty, slums are just a by-product of overpopulation.

Davis: Well, I don’t actually believe in the notion of overpopulation – particularly as it’s now become clear that the most extreme projections of human population growth just aren’t coming to pass. Probably for the last ten or fifteen years, demographers have been steadily reducing their projections.

The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model.

Having said that, the problem of urbanization in the world today is that it’s not urbanism in the classic sense. The real challenge is to make cities better as cities. I think Planet of Slums addresses the reality that every complaint made by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s about American suburbia is now true on an exponentially increased scale with poor cities: all the problems with sprawl, all the problems with an increasing amount of time and resources tied up in commutes to work, all the problems with environmental pollution, all the problems with the lack of traditional urban apparatuses of leisure, recreation, social services and so on.

BLDGBLOG: Yet a city like Khartoum – or even Cairo – simply doesn’t have the environmental resources to support such a large human population. No matter what the government decides to do, there are simply too many people. Eventually you hit a wall. So there can’t be a European-style social model, based on taxation and the supply of municipal services, if there aren’t the necessary environmental resources.

Davis: Well, I’d say it the other way around, actually. If you look at a city like Los Angeles, and its extreme dependence on regional infrastructure, the question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space. So I wouldn’t say that a city like Khartoum is an impossible city; that has much more to do with the nature of private consumption.

People talk about environmental footprints, but the environmental footprints of different groups who make up a population tend to differ dramatically. In California, for instance, within the right-wing of the Sierra Club, and amongst anti-immigrant groups, there’s this belief that a huge tide of immigration from Mexico is destroying the environment, and that all these immigrants are actually responsible for the congestion and the pollution – but that’s absurd. Nobody has a smaller environmental footprint, or tends to use public space more intensely, than Latin American immigrants. The real problem is white guys in golf carts out on the hundred and ten golf courses in the Coachella Valley. In other words, one retired white guy my age may be using up a resource base ten, twenty, thirty times the size of a young chicana trying to raise her family in a small apartment in the city.

So Malthusianism, in a crude sense, keeps reappearing in these debates, but the real question is not about panicking in the face of future population growth or immigration, but how to invest in the genius of urbanism. How to make suburbs, like those of Los Angeles, function as cities in a more classical sense. There’s an absolute, essential need to preserve green areas and environmental reserves. A city can’t operate without those. Of course, the pattern everywhere in the world is for poverty – for housing and development – to spill over into crucial watersheds, to build up around reservoirs and open spaces that are essential to the metabolism of the city. Even this astonishing example in Mumbai, where people have pushed so far into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park that slum dwellers are now being eaten by leopards – or Sao Paulo, which uses astronomical amounts of water purification chemicals because it’s fighting a losing battle against the pollution of its watershed.

If you allow that kind of growth, if you lose the green areas and the open spaces, if you pump out the aquifers, if you terminally pollute the rivers, then, of course, you can do fatal damage to the ecology of the city.


BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found most interesting in your recent book, Monster At Our Door, is the concept of “biosecurity.” Could you explain how biosecurity is, or is not, being achieved on the level of urban space and architectural design?

Davis: I see the whole question of epidemic control and biosecurity being modeled after immigration control. That’s the reigning paradigm right now. Of course, it’s a totally false analogy – particularly when you deal with something like influenza, which can’t be quarantined. You can’t build walls against it. Biosecurity, in a globalized world that contains as much poverty and squalor as our urban world does, is impossible. There is no biosecurity. The continuing quest will be to achieve the biological equivalent of a gated community, with the control of movement and with regulations that just enforce all the most Orwellian tendencies – the selective creation and provision of vaccines, anti-virals, and so on.

But, at the end of the day, biosecurity is an impossibility – until you address the essence of the problem: which is public health for the poor, and the ecological sustainability of the city.

In Monster At Our Door, I cite what I thought was an absolutely model study, published in Science, about how breakneck urbanization in western Africa is occurring at the same time that European factory ships are coming in and scooping up all the fish protein. This has turned urban populations massively to bush meat – which was already a booming business because of construction crews logging out the last tropical forests in west Africa – and, presto: you get HIV, you get ebola, you get unknown plagues. I thought the article was an absolutely masterful description of inadvertent causal linkages, and the complex ecology – the environmental impact – that urbanization has. Likewise, with urbanization in China and southeast Asia, the industrialization of poultry seems to be one of the chief factors behind the threat of avian flu.

As any epidemiologist will tell you, these are just the first, new plagues of globalization – and there will be more. The idea that you can defend against diseases by the equivalent of a gated community is ludicrous, but it’s exactly the direction in which public health policy is being directed. As we’ve seen, unless you’re prepared to shoot down all the migratory birds in the world –

BLDGBLOG: Which I’m sure someone has suggested.

Davis: I mean, I did a lot of calculator work on the UN data, from The Challenge of Slums, calculating urban densities and so on, and this is the Victorian world writ large. Just as the Victorian middle classes could not escape the diseases of the slums, neither will the rich, bunkered down in their country clubs or inside gated communities. The whole obsession now is that avian flu will be brought into the country by –

BLDGBLOG: A Mexican!

Davis: Exactly: it’ll be smuggled over the border – which is absurd. This ongoing obsession with illegal immigration has become a one-stop phantasmagoria for… everything. Of course, it goes back to primal, ancient fears: the Irish brought typhoid, the Chinese brought plague. It’s old hat.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that bird flu is being used as a competitive strategy by large-scale, industrialized producers of livestock to force independent producers to the wall. These industrial-scale farms are claiming that only indoor, bio-secured, industrially farmed poultry is safe. This is part of a very complex process of global competition. In Monster At Our Door I cite the case of CP, in Thailand – the Tyson of SE Asia. Even as they’re being wiped-out in Thailand, unable to exploit their chickens, they’re opening new factories in Bulgaria – and profiting from the panic over chicken from Thailand. In other words, avian flu is being used to rationalize and further centralize the poultry industry – yet it appears, to a lot of people, that it’s precisely the industrialization of poultry that has not just allowed the emergence of avian flu but has actually sped up its evolution.


BLDGBLOG: What would a biosecure world actually look like, on the level of architecture and urban design? How do you construct biosecurity? Do you see any evidence that the medical profession is being architecturally empowered, so to speak, influencing the design of “disease-free” public spaces?

Davis: Well, sure. It’s exactly how Victorian social control over the slums was defined as a kind of hygienic project – or in the same way that urban segregation was justified in colonial cities as a problem of sanitation. Everywhere these discourses reinforce one another. What really has been lacking, however, is one big epidemic, originating in poverty, that hits the middle classes – because then you’ll see people really go berzerk. I think one of the most important facts about our world is that middle class people – above all, middle class Americans – have lived inside a historical bubble that really has no precedent in the rest of human history. For two, three, almost four, generations now, they have not personally experienced the cost of war, have not experienced epidemic disease – in other words, they have lived in an ever-increasing arc not only of personal affluence but of personal longevity and security from accidental death, war, disease, and so on. Now if that were abruptly to come to a halt – to be interrupted by a very bad event, like a pandemic, that begins killing some significant number of middle class Americans – then obviously all hell is going to break loose.

The one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that the larger, affluent middle classes in this country will never surrender their lifestyle and its privileges. If suddenly faced with a threat in which they may be made homeless by disaster, or killed by plagues, I think you can expect very, very irrational reactions – which of course will inscribe themselves in a spatial order, and probably in spectacular ways. I think one thing that would emerge after an avian flu pandemic, if it does occur, will be a lot of focus on biosecurity at the level of domestic space.

BLDGBLOG: Duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Davis: Sure.


BLDGBLOG: What has happened to the status or role of the nation-state – of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, etc.? For instance, are national governments being replaced by multinational corporations, and citizens by employees?

Davis: That’s a very interesting question. Clearly, though, what’s happened with globalization has not been the transcendence of the nation-state by the corporation, or by new, higher-level entities. What we’ve seen is much more of a loss of sovereignty on some levels – and the reinforcement of sovereignty on others.

Obviously, the whole process of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s meant the ceding of much local sovereignty and powers of local government to the international bodies that administer debt. The World Bank, for example, working with NGOs, creates networks that often dilute local sovereignty. A brilliant example of this problem is actually what’s happening right now in New Orleans: all the expert commissions, and the oversight boards, and the off-site authorities that are being proposed will basically destroy popular government in New Orleans, reducing the city council to a figurehead and transferring power back to the traditional elite. And that’s all in the name of fighting corruption and so on.

But whether you’ll see new kinds of supra-national entities emerge depends, I think, on the country. Obviously some countries are strengthening their national positions – the state remains all important – while other countries have effectively lost all sovereignty. I mean, look at an extreme case, like Haiti.

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

Davis: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson’s view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world’s human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

BLDGBLOG: Is there an economic solution, then?

Davis: You’ll never re-conquer these parts of the city simply through surveillance, or military invasion, or policing – you have to offer the people some way to re-connect with the world economy. Until you can provide resources, or jobs, the danger is that this will worsen. People are being thrown back onto tribal and ethnic clientelism of one kind or another as a means of survival – even as a means of excluding other poor people from these already limited resources. Increasingly, new arrivals in the city – the sons and daughters of the urban poor – are being pressed by tighter housing markets, and by the inability to find cheap – certainly not free – land. Where cheap land does exist, it only exists because the land is otherwise undevelopable. It’s too dangerous. You’re just wagering on natural disaster. In fact, the end of this frontier of squattable land is one conclusion of Planet of Slums.

Another conclusion is that almost all the research on informal urban economies has shown that informality is simply not generating job ladders. Sure, some micro-entrepreneurs go on to become mini-entrepreneurs – but the larger fact is you’re just subdividing poverty. You’re getting more and more people competing, trying to pursue the same survival strategies in the same place. Those are the facts that darken this book the most, I think. They’re also what darken the horizon of research on the city in general, even more than questions of sanitation and so on. What the World Bank, what the NGOs, what all the apostles of neoliberal self-help depend on is the availability of cheap, squattable land, and the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector.

If you exhaust those two, people will be driven to the wall – and then the safety valves won’t work. Then the urban poor will run out of the resources for miracles.


BLDGBLOG: I’ll wrap up with two quick questions. It’s interesting that you’re raising a family – even two young toddlers – in a world where, as you write, there are emerging super-plagues, earthquakes, race riots, tornadoes in Los Angeles, mega-slums, etc. Are you nervous about the future for your kids?

Davis: Well, of course. I mean, people who read into my work a kind of delight in disaster and apocalypse either are reading incorrectly or I’m a bad writer – because that isn’t the intention. To be honest with you, there’s more of a yearning for these kinds of apocalypse in the literature of Pentecostalism –

BLDGBLOG: Good point.

Davis: – and that’s apocalypse properly understood, its real, Biblical meaning. It’s precisely this idea of an unrevealed, secret history of the world that will become luminously clear in the last hour, and will rewrite history from the standpoint of the people who had previously been history’s victims. I would say that, as somebody who’s ultimately an old-fashioned socialist, or rationalist, with an almost excessive faith in science – you know, I tremble when I write this stuff. I take no joy in writing a book about car bombs, but it just struck me that here was this technology nobody had written about on its own terms, yet it had become horribly successful. It’s a lot easier for me to cope with hypochondria about avian flu – having written a book about it – than if I hadn’t written about it. Let’s put it that way. I feel the same way about the future of my children.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, have you ever considered working outside the genre of critical nonfiction, and – in an almost Ridley Scott-like way – directing a film, or writing a novel?

Davis: [laughs] Well, I have in an extremely minor way: I’ve published two young adult science adventure novels – which is the name I’ve given to the genre – through Viggo Mortenson’s little press, Perceval Press. Three young kids, including my son who lives in Dublin, are the heroes.

BLDGBLOG: How’d that come about?

Davis: It all arose out of the fact that, in 1998, I got this MacArthur Foundation money – and I just wasted it all [laughter]. My kids and I went to the four corners of the earth. I took my son to east Greenland, and one night – because the sun never sets, and the sled dogs howl into the wee hours – he asked me to tell him a story, and I spun it off into a novel. But that’s as far as I’ll get. I mean, living in LA as long as I have, the one thing you learn is: stay away from Hollywood. Never, ever contemplate writing a screenplay or getting involved in a movie; it’s just a graveyard of talented people. I’ve literally seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the allure of that kind of stuff. And I’ve never had the slightest desire to do it. If I wrote fiction it would be very forgettable.

BLDGBLOG: So if Ridley Scott called you in to write his next screenplay you’d have to refuse?

Davis: I’ve seen people I admire greatly – hugely talented, much greater writers than I am – just crash and burn and destroy their lives: partially because they never learned the difference between good writing and Hollywood. It’s the same way with the seduction of becoming a public intellectual, having lots of fans, and reading in bookstores all the time – which I’ve learned to run away from with horror. Right now I’m trying to simplify my life by cutting out as much of that stuff as possible, because I’m having a ball with my two two-year olds, hanging out in Balboa Park everyday.


(BLDGBLOG owes an enormous thanks to Mike Davis for his time, patience, and willingness to see this discussion through to completion. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman – who also deserves a big thanks. Don’t miss part one).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

Tokyo Secret City

This is an old story, but I still like telling it. Japanese researcher Shun Akiba has apparently discovered “hundreds of kilometers of Tokyo tunnels whose purpose is unknown and whose very existence is denied.”

[Image: From the LOMO Tokyo flickr pool; image by someone called wooooooo].

Shun, who believes he is now the victim of a conspiracy, stumbled upon “an old map in a secondhand bookstore. Comparing it to a contemporary map, he found significant variations. ‘Close to the Diet in Nagata-cho, current maps show two subways crossing. In the old map, they are parallel.'”
This unexpected parallelization of Tokyo’s subway tunnels – a geometrician’s secret fantasy – inspired Shun to seek out old municipal construction records. When no one wanted to help, however, treating him as if he were drunk or crazy – their “lips zipped tight” – he woke up to find his thighs sealed together with a transparent, jelly-like substance –
Er
Actually, he was so invigorated by this mysterious lack of interest that “he set out to prove that the two subway tunnels could not cross: ‘Engineering cannot lie.'”
But engineers can.
To make a long story short, there are “seven riddles” about this underground world, a secret Subtokyo of tunnels; the parallel subways were only mystery number one: “The second reveals a secret underground complex between Kokkai-gijidomae and the prime minister’s residence. A prewar map (riddle No. 3) shows the Diet in a huge empty space surrounded by paddy fields: ‘What was the military covering up?’ New maps (No. 4) are full of inconsistencies: ‘People are still trying to hide things.’ The postwar General Headquarters (No. 5) was a most mysterious place. Eidan’s records of the construction of the Hibiya Line (No. 6) are hazy to say the least. As for the ‘new’ O-Edo Line (No. 7), ‘that existed already.’ Which begs the question, where did all the money go allocated for the tunneling?”
Shun even “claims to have uncovered a secret code that links a complex network of tunnels unknown to the general public. ‘Every city with a historic subterranean transport system has secrets,’ he says. ‘In London, for example, some lines are near the surface and others very deep, for no obvious reason.'” (Though everyone knows the Tube is a weaving diagram for extraterrestrials).


Further, Shun reveals, “on the Ginza subway from Suehirocho to Kanda,” there are “many mysterious tunnels leading off from the main track. ‘No such routes are shown on maps.’ Traveling from Kasumigaseki to Kokkai-gijidomae, there is a line off to the left that is not shown on any map. Nor is it indicated in subway construction records.”
Old underground car parks, unofficial basements, locked doors near public toilets – and all “within missile range of North Korea.”
What’s going on beneath Tokyo?

(Thanks to Bryan Finoki for originally pointing this out to me! For similar such explorations of underground London, see London Topological; and for more on underground Tokyo, see Pillars of Tokyo – then read about the freaky goings-on of Aum Shinrikyo, the subway-gassing Japanese supercult. And if you’ve got information on other stuff like this – send it in…)

Faucets of Manhattan

“About 600 feet deep in the bedrock that supports Midtown Manhattan,” we meet “a 450-ton tunnel-boring machine known as the Mole.”
The Mole is “digging City Tunnel No. 3 far beneath Manhattan’s street level, part of a 50-year, $6 billion project to upgrade New York City’s water system.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

As the New York Times describes, this is actually the “second phase of City Tunnel No. 3, a 60-mile tunnel that began in the Bronx in 1970 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. By then, the tunnel will be able to handle the roughly one billion gallons of water a day used in New York City that originates from rural watersheds to points throughout the city.” And though the tunnel “is one of the largest urban projects in history, few people will ever see it. But beginning next week, many New Yorkers will certainly feel and hear the construction.”

[Images: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

The speed of the excavation process “varies based upon the hardness of the rock it encounters. The task of determining what type of rock lies in its path falls to Eric Jordan, a geologist hired by the city. By drilling down and hand-picking rocks from the tunnels, Mr. Jordan has created a precise map of the type of rock under Manhattan. His involvement in the tunnel project makes his geologist friends jealous. ‘For a geologist,’ he said, ‘this is like going to Disneyland.'”
Jordan’s “precise map” of Manhattan bedrock would indeed be something to see; but until then, we can make an educated guess about the rock his tunnel will find by turning to Richard Fortey.
In his highly recommended book, Earth, Fortey visits Central Park. First you notice the skyline of towers, he writes. “Then you notice the rocks. Cropping out in places under the trees are dark mounds of rock, emerging from the ground like some buried architecture of a former race, partly exhumed and then forgotten… That New York can be built so high and mighty is a consequence of its secure foundations on ancient rocks. It pays its dues to the geology. This is just a small part of one of those old seams that cross the earth… relics of a deeper time when millennia counted for nothing.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

John McPhee picks up this lithic line of thought in Annals of the Former World. Archipelago New York, he writes, is made of “rock that had once been heated near the point of melting, had recrystallized, had been heated again, had recrystallized, and, while not particularly competent, was more than adequate to hold up those buildings… Four hundred and fifty million years in age, it was called Manhattan Schist.”
Of course, we can also turn to the U.S. National Geologic Map Database, and find our very own bedrock maps –


– which, awesomely, include Times Square, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the Museum of Modern Art, all floating above a sea of solid Manhattan Schist.
In any case, the new tunnel being dug to power the faucets of Manhattan are supplements to the pharaonic, 19th-century Croton hydrological network that keeps New York in taps (including the now derelict, yet Historically Registered, Old Croton Aqueduct). You can read about the Croton Dam, for instance, here or here; and there’s yet more to learn about the Croton project, including how to follow it by trail, here.

[Image: Photograph by Robert Polidori, from “City of Water” by David Grann, The New Yorker, September 1, 2003].

Finally, in 2003 The New Yorker published an excellent article by David Grann called “City of Water,” about, yes, City Tunnel No. 3. I’ll quote from it here briefly before urging you to find a copy at your local library and read it for yourself.
Until Grann actually accompanied the tunnel workers – called sandhogs – underground, he “had only heard tales of New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes. Two main tunnels provide New York City with most of the 1.3 billion gallons of water it consumes each day, ninety per cent of which is pumped in from reservoirs upstate by the sheer force of gravity. Descending through aqueducts from as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the water gathers speed, racing down to a thousand feet below sea level when it reaches the pipes beneath the city.”
Two main tunnels, he writes – and, thus, City Tunnel No. 3.
But I’ll stop there – after I point out that toward the end of the ludicrously bad Die Hard III, Jeremy Irons temporarily escapes the less than threatening eye of Bruce Willis by driving out of Manhattan through similar such aqueducting tunnels.

(For more tunnels: See BLDGBLOG’s London Topological or The Great Man-Made River; then check out The Guardian on London’s so-called CTRL Project, with a quick visit to that city’s cranky old 19th-century sewers, the “capital’s bowels”… Enjoy!).

Gondolas of New York

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced an interest in building a network of gondolas across New York City.

[Image: Santiago Calatrava].

Well… not quite a “network” – “across New York City” – but one route, “linking Brooklyn to Manhattan by way of Governors Island on a tramway.”
Governors Island, incidentally, is a small island in the New York harbor: “The city and state of New York bought the island in 2002 from the U.S. government for $1. Until 2000, it had been the longest continuously used U.S. military facility, dating back more than 200 years.” $1!

[Image: Governors Island, upper left; Manhattan, upper right. The rest is Brooklyn. The gondola would go zipping back and forth].

In any case, the gondola, “estimated to cost $125 million, would be designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava, and would greatly change the face of Upper New York Bay. But there is a catch,” we read: Bloomberg “acknowledged that the system was still only an idea. He said, however, that he hoped it would eventually become reality and in the meantime inspire others to come up with big ideas for the development of Governors Island.”
Like a Shakespearean theatre?
Well, here’s an idea:
More routes. More gondolas. Gondolas you can rent as a live/work space. Private gondola routes, from high-rise to high-rise, with windows of bulletproof glass. Night-club gondolas. Church confessional gondolas. Flying prison cells, an Alcatraz of the sky, reforming criminals through scenic views.

Different architects and engineering firms should design the gondolas – Foster and Partners, Zaha Hadid, Michael Sorkin, Halcrow, even BLDGBLOG – and they shouldn’t stop there: gondolas linking to gondolas, which in turn link to more gondolas. Gondolas switching through Ferris wheels. Gondolas connecting to the space elevator – which leads upward to gondolas in space… then back to Greenwich Village. Return trip: two hours.
The city could recoup its investment by selling film permits to Hollywood. Die Hard 4.
Gondola greenhouses that follow the sun in a heliocentric circuit round Manhattan, growing mutant flowers.
An airborne hospital for the depressed.
Rumors break out that there is a hidden gondola somewhere, itself unreachable by gondola – Kabbalists and Aristotelians argue that, in fact, this is impossible, citing Maimonides. Entire websites go up, dedicated to finding it.
Folk maps are produced, printed in the back of Time Out, charting the fastest route, the most interesting route, the longest route, the scenic route. A listserv begins, describing gondola hacks: how to make your gondola do a 360º.
You can win the Olympics with it.

[Image: Santiago Calatrava].

Alternatively, forget the gondolas: Governors Island, in its 172-acre entirety, should be uprooted, dismantled, geologically ground-down to soil and dust – then hung from a series of sacks and hammocks off the side of the Empire State Building. Hanging gardens, indeed.