Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Cloud Constructor

375831pu[Image: An airplane hangar in Utah, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Another book I read while jet-lagged in London last week was Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker; its chapter “Wayfinding” is particularly fascinating and worth seeking out.

375827pu[Image: Interior view of same hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

The previous post here, however, mentioned 19th-century cloud chambers, and I was accordingly struck by a quick line in Vanhoenacker’s book. At one point, he describes the construction of airplane bodies inside sprawling factory buildings, whose contained volumes of air are so enormous they can generate their own weather. They are internal skies.

“Some airplane factories are so large,” he writes, “that clouds once formed inside them, a foreshadowing of the sky to come for each newborn jet.”

375829pu[Image: Utah airplane hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

Of course, other megastructures are also known to produce internal precipitation. NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral “is the second largest building (by volume) in the world,” for example, “and it even has its own weather inside—NASA employees report that rain clouds form below the ceiling on very humid days.”

And, as architecture writers like David Gissen and Sean Lally have compellingly shown, architecture—in and of itself—has, in a sense, always been a kind of applied atmospheric design, with buildings defined as much by temperature, barometry, and humidity as they are by walls and ceilings.

But I nevertheless love the idea of aircraft assembly and repair occurring amidst inadvertent simulations of the sky to come, as dew points are crossed, condensation begins, and internal weather fronts blurrily amass above the wings of dormant airplanes, as if conjured there in a dream.


[Image: From Pierre Huyghe, “Les grandes ensembles” (2001)].

A short news items in New Scientist this week describes the work of University of Michigan engineers who have developed a way to, in effect, synchronize architectural structures at a distance. They refer to this as “ghosting”:

When someone turns the lights on in one kitchen, they automatically switch on in the connected house. Sounds are picked up and relayed, too. Engineers at the University of Michigan successfully linked an apartment in Michigan with one in Maryland. The work was presented at the IoT-App conference in Seoul, South Korea, last week.

I haven’t found any more details about the project—including why, exactly, one would want to do this, other than perhaps to create some strange new electrical variation on “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where a secret reference-apartment is kept burning away somewhere in the American night—but no doubt more info will come to light soon.*

*Update: Such as right now: here is the original paper. There, we read the following:

Ghosting synchronizes audio and lighting between two homes on a room-by-room basis. Microphones in each room transmit audio to the corresponding room in the other home, unifying the ambient sound domains of the two homes. For example, a user cooking in their kitchen transmits sounds out of speakers in the other user’s own kitchen. The lighting context in corresponding rooms is also synchronized. A light toggled in one house toggles the lights in the other house in real time. We claim that this system allows for casual interactions that feel natural and intimate because they share context and require less social effort than a teleconference or phone call.

Thanks to Nick Arvin, both for finding the paper and for highlighting that particular quotation.

In a Pinch

[Image: A staircase in the Grands Magasins Dufayel; view larger].

The second staircase I wanted to post today—here’s the first—is from the Grands Magasins Dufayel, a vast, 19th-century department store in Paris. View it larger.

Aside from the obvious grandeur of the structure, what makes this spatially noteworthy is the fact that one floor is pinched together with the next, and that the self-supporting “pinch” that results then becomes formalized as a stairway, a hyperbolic object in space that allows passage from one level to the next.

It’s as if a loop has been pulled or extracted from each level and then woven together—in effect, using a self-intersecting geometric pattern as the basis of a floorplan.

In any case, what I like in both examples (this one and the previous staircase), is that you have two floors or levels, obviously, but then there is the emptiness that separates them, a gap buzzing with unrealized forms of connection, and that you can fill that gap with pinches, spirals, knots, and loops, and that the magic of a well-designed staircase is precisely in giving material form to the invisible math that hovers in the space between floors.

(Originally spotted via ARCHI/MAPS).

Solved by Knots

[Image: Stairs inside the New York Life Insurance building, Minneapolis, by Babb, Cook and Willard; view larger].

There are two stairways I wanted to post, as they each solve the problem of getting from one floor to another in a particularly interesting way. The first example, seen above, is from the New York Life Insurance building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, designed by Babb, Cook and Willard.

View it larger.

What I love about this is incredibly simple, and it’s nothing more than the fact that a constrained approach from one floor to the next—with the far wall serving almost more like a cliff face—gave the architects no real room to operate. So they put in two, mirror-image spiral stairways, which kept the center of the room clear while dramatically increasing its available circulation space.

Today, of course, we’d probably just stick an elevator there and be done with it—but the compression of space made possible by spiral staircases is amazing. They are elegant prosthetics, connecting two levels like a casual afterthought with their efficient knots and coils.

Here’s the second staircase.

(Spotted via the always interesting ARCHI/MAPS).