Voids and Vacuums

[Image: Google Maps view of Mosul Dam (bottom center) and the huge reservoir it creates].

Dexter Filkins—author of, among other things, The Forever War—has a long new piece in the first 2017 issue of The New Yorker about the impending collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam.

The scale of the potential disaster is mind-boggling.

If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

Indeed, “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” according to a UN report cited by Filkins.

What’s interesting from a technical perspective is why the dam is so likely to collapse. It’s a question of foundations. The dam was built, Filkins writes, on rock “interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification, in which the foundation becomes shot through with voids and vacuums.”

Filling those voids with grout is now a constant job, requiring dam engineers to pump huge amounts of cementitious slurry down into the porous rock in order to replace the dissolved gypsum.

[Image: Mosul Dam spillway; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

At one point, Filkins goes inside the dam where “engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers working in the gallery have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.”

Finding and caulking these voids, Filkins writes, is “deeply inexact.” They are deep underground and remain unseen; they have to be inferred. The resulting process is both absurd and never-ending.

The engineers operating [the grout pumps] can’t see the voids they are filling and have no way of discerning their size or shape. A given void might be as big as a closet, or a car, or a house. It could be a single spacious cavity, requiring mounds of grout, or it could be an octopus-like tangle, with winding sub-caverns, or a hairline fracture. “We feel our way through,” [deputy director Hussein al-Jabouri] said, standing by the pump. Generally, smaller cavities require thinner grout, so Jabouri started with a milky solution and increased its thickness as the void took more. Finally, after several hours, he stopped; his intuition, aided by the pressure gauges, told him that the cavity was full. “It’s a crapshoot,” [civil engineer Azzam Alwash] told me. “There’s no X-ray vision. You stop grouting when you can’t put any more grout in a hole. It doesn’t mean the hole is gone.”

It’s hard not to think of a scene in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, a scene I have written about before. There, a character named Emilio Grifalconi picks up an old, used table only to find that the support column at its center is “completely worm-eaten.” Slowly, painstakingly, operating by intuition, he fills the worm-eaten passages with a permanent adhesive, “injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber.”

The table collapses anyway, alas, giving Grifalconi an idea: “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”

Whether or not such a rhizomatic tangle of grout-filled chambers, linked “voids and vacuums” like subterranean grapes, could ever be uncovered and explored beneath the future ruins of a safely dismantled Mosul Dam is something I will leave for engineers.

[Image: Mosul Dam water release; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

However, Filkins points out one possible solution that would sidestep all of this: this option, he writes, “which has lately gained currency, is to erect a ‘permanent’ seal of the existing dam wall—a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth.”

This would not be the only huge subterranean wall to be proposed recently: think of the “giant ice wall” under construction beneath the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: “Japan is about to switch on a huge refrigeration system that will create a 1.5-km-long, underground frozen ‘wall,’ in hopes of containing the radioactive water that’s spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.”

Read more over at The New Yorker.

Infrastructural Sine Wave

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

A Wall of Walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transnational Corporate Sovereignty

With the expected nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position of U.S. Secretary of State, the recent book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Columbia University dean of journalism Steve Coll seems newly relevant—so much so that, following Friday’s news about the nomination, Amazon has been temporarily sold out.

Coll has also just published a new piece over at The New Yorker looking at Tillerson’s legacy with the global oil firm. There, Coll describes ExxonMobil as resembling “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

Exxon’s foreign policy sometimes had more impact on the countries where it operated than did the State Department. Take, for example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in Africa. During the mid-two-thousands, the entirety of U.S. aid and military spending in the country directed through the U.S. Embassy in the capital, N’Djamena, amounted to less than twenty million dollars annually, whereas the royalty payments Exxon made to the government as part of an oil-production agreement were north of five hundred million dollars. Idriss Déby, the authoritarian President of Chad, did not need a calculator to understand that Rex Tillerson was more important to his future than the U.S. Secretary of State.

Should Tillerson be confirmed, Coll suggests, his new role “will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

The Guardian agrees, suggesting that, “In a very real sense, Tillerson has been a head of a state within a state. Exxon Mobil is bigger economically than many countries. It has its own foreign policy and its own contracted security forces.”

Consider picking up a copy of Private Empire and read more from Coll over at The New Yorker.

Love Unlocked

I was interested to see that the NYC Department of Transportation has begun hanging new signs prohibiting, among other things, the attachment of “love locks” to the Brooklyn Bridge.

[Image: Banning love locks; photo courtesy of the NYC Department of Transportation].

Love locks, as I explored in a piece for the New Yorker a few summers ago—an article that was also later partially absorbed into the tools chapter of A Burglar’s Guide to the City—are “padlocks with names, initials, or messages of love written on them, clipped to pieces of urban infrastructure as a public sign of romantic commitment.”

In some cases, the locks have been expensively laser-etched; others are simply written on with Sharpie. “Carrina, will you marry me?” “Zach + Julie, Always + Forever.” They are poetic, forming quite beautiful, rose-like clusters—and they are doomed. In nearly all cases, they will be clipped by the city and disposed of, their magic and romance lost.

Love locks are a global phenomenon, and have been popping up in the news more and more recently, usually portrayed as “a scourge” or even “insipid.”

[Image: Love locks on the Brooklyn Bridge; photo by Nicola Twilley].

(Top photo spotted via Chris Woebken).

Instance Gate

[Image: Malta, Instragram by BLDGBLOG].

Down in the lower levels of Valletta’s fortified walls, an old bricked-up doorway resembles something from a computer game: an oddly colored bit of masonry you would knock aside with a hammer, or a subtle wave of a wand, to make a corridor appear leading much further into the geologic depths.

The underside of Valletta, of course, is already mazed with passages, from wartime bomb shelters to church crypts, abandoned rail tunnels to hotel sub-cellars, and the entire island of Malta, made from such easily cut rock, is home to warrens of prehistoric temples and catacombs.

That entryways into the labyrinth can be found is hardly surprising; that they can look so much like a chunky, 8-bit game landscape only adds to the sense of urban mythology.

[The phrase “instance gate,” at least as I use it, comes from World of Warcraft. It implies that through a certain gate is a world that only you or your group will experience; anyone stepping through the same gate after you will, in fact, enter an entirely different space to confront an entirely different world of experiences. It’s a great metaphor.]

Totemic Elevator

[Image: The Barakka Lift, Malta, by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While in Malta last week, I stumbled on the Barakka Lift outdoor elevator, a project I’d written about here but had forgotten was in the city of Valletta. It was a pleasant surprise.

Designed by local firm Architecture Project, the lift connects two very different vertical levels of the metropolis, rising like a fortified tower to bring visitors to and from a small garden on the walls of Valletta.

[Image: The Barakka Lift by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of my favorite urban sights is the unfinished concrete elevator cores of under-construction high-rises. Monolithic, sharply defined, and almost always undecorated—such as this random example—they are pure concrete geometry rising above foundation piles and machinery—elevators that appear before their buildings have arrived.

The Barakka Lift is obviously different, in that it adds an exterior skin of perforated metal to hide the shaft of the lift itself, but it also divorces the idea of the elevator from any building it would normally be contained by. It connects two outsides, sewing one level of the city to another.

As such, it suggests that lifts, like bridges, are just another possibility for urban transportation—vertical pedestrian movement through space—and that lifts are not really interiors at all, in fact, but public spaces we can all use or inhabit.

There’s also something so interesting in the notion of a 21st-century elevator shaft stylized to look more like a 17th-century fortification by way of a near-future science fiction film.

In any case, better photos of the project can be seen in this earlier post. If you’re ever in Malta, be sure to check it out; you’ll find it here.

A Burglar’s Guide to London

[Image: From London’s Hatton Garden heist; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service].

For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Things kick things off at 7pm, at Libreria, a great new bookshop run by the folks at Second Home, in a space designed by Selgas Cano. The event is free, but here are some details to RSVP.

Stop by—and join us for drinks afterward to continue the conversation.

Urban Under

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

I’m honored to have written a preface for the new book Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within, edited by Paul Dobraszczyk, Carlos López Galviz, and Bradley Garrett.

The authors document more than eighty subterranean sites, on every continent, from a nuclear bunker outside London to a secret military city buried in the ice. It is organized into thirteen chapters, by themes including “Security,” “Dwelling,” “Refuse,” and “Futures.”

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

The book is motivated by an intense desire to see: to reveal the underground circuits of utility tunnels, sanitation services, transportation networks, and everyday labor that writhe beneath the surface of the urban world. By doing so, it hopes “to foreground the connections between space and politics that converge underground.”

The editors’ collective goal was obviously more than just adventure tourism, or to produce a new gonzo collection of picturesque photographs. Rather, it was to experience these spaces firsthand whenever possible through direct exploration, whether that meant hiking down into the galleries of abandoned mines or sneaking through the tunnels of an underground prison.

[Image: Photo by Bradley Garrett].

Readers already familiar with Garrett’s work, both academic and journalistic, will know, of course, that for him infiltrating sites of public infrastructure is something of an oxymoron, given their nominal status as public space.

Nonetheless, it is often only through surreptitious means that we can truly analyze these labyrinthine systems that we have been funding all along and, today, remain so vulnerably reliant upon.

The book suggests that the peripheries of the built environment—these underspaces tucked away from view—are much more central than their physical position might suggest, and that putting them into an enlarged historical and political context is vital for understanding them.

If that sounds of interest, consider picking up a copy.

Shrink-Wrapped Superloads and Monumental Processions

rock[Image: Michael Heizer’s rock; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I audited a class about Archigram taught by Annette Fierro at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of many things I remember from the class was a description of how the Centre Pompidou, a building designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, was constructed.

Apparently, in order for the building to be assembled, huge pieces of structure had to be rolled through the streets in the middle of the night, long after traffic had died down and after almost everyone had gone to sleep.

Whole boulevards and intersections were closed to make way for the passage of these massive objects, as if the ribs and thigh bones of some colossal creature were being painstakingly assembled in a distant neighborhood, in the dark. The building began as a distributed network of large, chaperoned objects.

You can imagine Parisian insomniacs of the late 1970s, wandering the streets before—lo!—these oversized, monumental spans moving at a crawl through the city would come into view. It would have been as if Paris itself had somehow been caught dreaming new buildings into existence at 2am.

The Space Shuttle in front of a doughnut shop; photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

This same sort of awe at the mis-fit between an object’s size and its urban context arose a few years ago when a somewhat underwhelming art project by Michael Heizer was hauled, street by street, to LACMA; and it then happened again when the Space Shuttle made its slow way through Los Angeles back in October 2012.

I remember talking to architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne around that time, and he compared the Shuttle’s 2mph roll through the city to a Roman Triumph, as if Angelenos were celebrating an imperial event of extra-planetary importance, this grand object—this throne room—being paraded out in public for all to see.

It’s worth recalling how Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described the Triumph in an old interview with BLDGBLOG. “Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism,” she explained:

The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after—but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

Moving the Space Shuttle—or, for that matter, Heizer’s rock—gave not just Los Angeles but the entire United States an unexpected “way of thinking about itself,” in Beard’s terms, not just of the city’s historical relationship with the U.S. space program but of the country’s larger, and not necessarily perpetual, impulse to explore beyond the planet.

shuttle[Image: The Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles; photo by Andrew Khouri, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

These sorts of mega-objects, transported at great expense across urban infrastructure, are what the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has described as “big things on the move.”

CLUI suggests that Heizer’s rock was “a bit like a religious procession, with acolytes in hard hats and safety-vest vestments walking alongside the sacred monolith, all lit up and flashing.” When the Space Shuttle hit the street, however, “Much was said about the irony of a craft that had circled the earth 4,700 times at speeds up to 17,000mph taking three days to get through L.A. traffic.”

As CLUI points out, Heizer’s rock and NASA’s Shuttle were both dwarfed by the actual largest “superload” to move through L.A.’s nighttime streets.

This third object “had little in the way of promotion,” they write; “in fact, the owners of it were hoping it would pass through the city as unnoticed as possible,” despite being “the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever pass through the streets of Los Angeles.”

The cargo was a steam generator from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the coast just south of Orange County, which was being hauled to a disposal site in Utah, 830 miles away.
Though it was junk, it was radioactive, so cutting it into smaller pieces would just generate more contaminated material. A custom superload truck was made, with a total weight for the truck and load totaling 1.6 million pounds. The generator was covered in thick paint so pieces would not flake off.

To be absolutely sure of its safety, “armed guards stayed with the truck all the time, especially when it was parked for the day by the side of the road and the rest of the crew were sleeping in motels.”

I mention all this after some photos were published this week in the Northwest Evening Mail, featuring huge, shrink-wrapped parts of a British Astute-class nuclear submarine being transported through the city of Barrow.

[Image: A shrink-wrapped section of a nuclear submarine; photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

The newspaper warned that, while the “superstructure” made its sectioned way through the city, “car parking will be restricted.”

[Image: Photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

In a sense, though, the sight of this dissected weapon of war is more artistic than an art project. A dream-like sequence of shrink-wrapped superstructures, abstract and white, channeling Christo or perhaps even the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, inches forward street by street, shutting down secondary roads and sidewalks while waiting to be assembled in an eventual future shape, somewhere further down the road.

(Spotted via @CovertShores).

Critical Engineering Summer Intensives

tower1[Image: Original photographer unknown].

The Critical Engineering Summer Intensives offered in Berlin this summer sound fascinating. They kick off in the second half of August, and include topics like biosurveillance, software-defined radio, and “offline publishing.”

Software-defined radio is easily the course I would take:

In this 2 day intensive, participants will learn how to use a 12 Euro USB dongle with free and open-source software to read, record and appropriate a vast world of signal around them. From weather satellite imagery to the International Space Station, police and military radio, pirate and amateur bands, software-defined radio allows for a laptop to become a powerful ear into a world otherwise unheard by the devices we use.
Outdoor excursions with antennae will be made to ensure participants have real-world experience discovering and recording RF phenomena. Skills, terms and concepts learned are then directly applicable to further self-learning in areas such as DIY cellular infrastructure, pirate and packet radio, radio-astronomy and wireless counter-surveillance.

Read about the other seminars and find sign-up details over at their website.

(Via @julian0liver).