Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

Antarctic Island Radio

[Image: Deception Island, from Millett G. Morgan’s September 1960 paper An Island as a Natural Very-Low-Frequency Transmitting Antenna].

Yesterday’s post reminded me of an interesting proposal from the 1960s, in which an entire Antarctic island would be transformed into a radio-conducting antenna. Signals of international (or military submarine) origin could thus be bounced, relayed, captured, and re-transmitted using the topographical features of the island itself, and naturally occurring ionospheric radio noise could be studied.

[Image: A map of Deception Island, taken from an otherwise unrelated paper called “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” published in Antarctic Science (2005)].

In the September 1960 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, radio theorist Millett G. Morgan, a “leading researcher in the field of ionospheric physics” based at Dartmouth, speculated that he could generate artificial “whistlers”—that is, audial electromagnetic effects that are usually caused by lightning—if only he could find the right island.

“In thinking about how to generate whistlers artificially,” Morgan’s proposal leisurely begins, “it has occurred to me that an island of suitable size and shape, extending through the conducting sea, may constitute a naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna of high quality.”

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

He looked far and wide for this “naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna,” eventually settling on a remote island in the Antarctic. “Following this line of reasoning,” he explains, “I thought first of the annular Pacific atolls, but knowing of the fresh-water lenses in them”—that is, aquatic features that would destructively interfere with radio transmissions—”[I] rejected them as being too pervious to water to be satisfactory insulators. Also, of course, they are not found in suitable latitudes for generating whistlers.”

Morgan’s reasoning continued: “The Pacific atolls are built upon submerged volcanic cones and this led me to think of Deception Island in the SubAntarctic, a remarkable, similarly shaped, volcanic island in which the volcanic rock extends above the surface; and which is located in the South Shetland Islands where the rate of occurrence of natural whistlers has been found to be very great.”

Perhaps the island could be the geologic radio antenna he was looking for.

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan points out in detail that mathematical ratios amongst the island’s naturally occurring landscape features, including its ring-shaped lagoon, are perfect for supporting radio transmissions (even the relationship between the length of the island and the radio wavelengths Morgan would be using seems to work out). And that’s before he looks at the material construction of the island itself, consisting of volcanic tuff, which would help the terrain act as an “insulator.”

There is even the fact that the island’s small lagoon is coincidentally but unrelatedly named “Telefon Bay” (alas, named after a ship called the Telefon, not for the island’s natural ability to make telephone calls).

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan’s “proposed island antenna” would thus be a wired-up matrix of transmission lines and natural landscape features, bouncing radio wavelengths at the perfect angle from one side to the other and concentrating broadcasts for human use and listening.

You could tune into the sky, huddling in the Antarctic cold and listening to the curling electromagnetic crackle of the ionosphere, or you could use your new radio-architectural set-up, all wires and insulators like some strange astronomical harp, “to generate whistlers artificially,” as Morgan’s initial speculation stated, bursting forth with planetary-scale arcs of noise over a frozen sea, a wizard of sound alone and self-deafened at the bottom of the world.

(Deception Island proposal discovered via Douglas Kahn, whose forthcoming book Arts of the Spectrum: In the nature of electromagnetism looks fantastic, and who also gave an interesting talk on “natural radio” a few years ago at UCLA).

Ephemeral islands and other states-in-waiting

[Image: Temporary islands emerge from the sea, via].

In the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Sicily, an island comes and goes. Called, alternately and among other names, depending on whose territorial interests are at stake, Graham Bank, Île Julia, the island of Ferdinandea, or, more extravagantly, a complex known as the Campi Flegrei del Mar di Sicilia (the Phlegraean Fields of the Sicily Sea), this geographic phenomenon is fueled by a range of submerged volcanoes. One peak, in particular, has been known to break the waves, forming a small, ephemeral island off the coast of Italy.

And, when it does, several nation-states are quick to claim it, including, in 1831, when the island appeared above water, “the navies of France, Britain, Spain, and Italy.” Unfortunately for them, it eroded away and disappeared beneath the waves in 1832.

It then promised to reappear, following new eruptions, in 2002 (but played coy, remaining 6 meters below the surface).

The island, though, always promises to show up again someday, potentially restarting old arguments of jurisdiction and sovereignty—is it French? Spanish? Italian? Maltese? perhaps a micronation?—so some groups are already well-prepared for its re-arrival. As Ted Nield explains in his book Supercontinent, “the two surviving relatives of Ferdinand II commissioned a plaque to be affixed to the then still submerged volcanic reef, claiming it for Italy should it ever rise again.” This is the impending geography of states-in-waiting, instant islands that, however temporarily, redraw the world’s maps.

The story of Ferdinandea, as recounted by that well-known primary historical source Wikipedia and seemingly ripe for inclusion in the excellent Borderlines blog by Frank Jacobs, is absolutely fascinating: it’s appeared on an ornamental coin, it was visited by Sir Walter Scott, it inspired a short story by James Fenimore Cooper, it was depth-charged by the U.S. military who mistook it for a Libyan submarine, and it remains the subject of active geographic speculation by professors of international relations. It is, in a sense, Europe’s Okinotori—and one can perhaps imagine some Borgesian wing of the Italian government hired to sit there in a boat, in open waters, for a whole generation, armed with the wizardry of surveying gear and a plumb bob dangling down into the sea, testing for seismic irregularities, as if casting a spell to coax this future extension of the Italian motherland up into the salty air.

An Ancient Comedy of Urban Errors

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

For his final thesis project this year at the Cooper Union in New York City, student Andrejs Rauchut diagrammed and modeled “a constellation of architectural set pieces” meant for “a day-long performance of The Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare. Rauchut’s project presentation included an absolutely massive, wood-bound book: it started off as a flat chest or cabinet, before opening up as its own display table.

[Images: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

The diagrams therein are extraordinary: they map character movement not only through the ancient city of Ephesus, where Shakespeare’s play is set, but through the “constellation” of set pieces that Rauchut himself later designed.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union; view larger!].

As Rauchut describes it, The Comedy of Errors “follows a single day in the life of the port city of Ephesus through the eyes of its commuting citizens, from the high perch of the duke to the city’s prostitutes.” This has interesting spatial implications:

The shrewdest and most elaborate part of the play is its circuitous, knotted plot. The city starts to fold in on itself when a merchant named Antipholus arrives in Ephesus unaware that his long-lost twin brother now lives in Ephesus. The local citizenry misidentify the brothers as each Antipholus is shuffled in and out of scene. A complex strand of chaos breaks out throughout the city that climaxes with one of the brothers attempting to publicly murder his wife out of shear frustration. While the play investigates how the circulation patterns in a city can be hijacked to create chaos, it also demonstrates how, through the art of gathering, peace can be obtained via discussion and the exchange of information. We see this in the last act when all the characters gather and finally make sense of the day’s events.

Urban design becomes public dramaturgy.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

The bulk of Rauchut’s work went into producing a series of timelines and graphic depictions of character movement in Shakespeare’s play.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

In the massive image seen above, for instance, “Each box represents the time and space of an act and the crossing of a box by a line signals a character’s entrance onto the stage. One can see that it is in the final act, when nearly all the lines collectively intersect the last rectangle, and all the characters are on stage, that they can finally straighten out the events of their collective day. Up to this point, as the timeline demonstrates, the characters have been weaving in and out of contact with one another, multiplying the fragmented misinformation that spreads throughout the city.”

[Images: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

He then went on to experiment with overlaying these character paths onto Staten Island, part of the New York City archipelago, as if trying to draw an analogy between the seafaring, splintered island geography of the ancient Mediterranean—with its attendant heroes and unacknowledged gods—and the contemporary commuter landscape of greater New York.

This transposition of Shakespeare’s characters’ movements onto Staten Island, Rauchut explains, became “the backbone for the design of a series of architectural set pieces inserted into the suburban fabric of Staten Island. At each of the points where characters interact, an architectural set is built.”

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

Ultimately, the project aimed for the indirect choreographing of a public, urban event—it was to be a “guerilla instigator of public space,” as Rauchut describes it:

The final design is a constellation of architectural set pieces that would be used for a day-long performance of The Comedy of Errors. Actors would travel along their scripted routes through the city dressed in plain-clothes crossing paths and delivering lines. The audience would consist of interested citizens, gathering, following, growing, leaving, and occasionally returning as they continue through their daily routines.

“After the play is over,” he concludes, “the architecture would remain and would be used by the locals of Staten Island”—the remnants of a play incorporated into everyday urbanism.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of that sort of participatory street theater, but the spatial ideas underlying Rauchut’s project—that is, the precipitation of architectural forms from the public passing of an unannounced literary event—is certainly thought-provoking and could have some pretty awesome effects applied elsewhere, with different texts. Books become clouds, raining events and built forms onto the city.

(Thanks to Hayley Eber for inviting me to see Andrejs Rauchut’s project at midterm last spring! Of possible earlier interest: Bloomsday).

#glacier #island #storm

By way of a quick update, several fantastic new posts have joined this week’s ongoing series of linked conversations, part of the Glacier/Island/Storm studio at Columbia’s GSAPP.

[Image: Map showing a straight baseline separating internal waters from zones of maritime jurisdiction; via a456].

Here is a complete list so far, featuring the most recent posts and going backward in temporal order from there [note: this list has been updated as of February 26]. By all means, feel free to jump in with comments on any of them:

—Nick Sowers of UC-Berkeley/Archinect School Blog Project on “Super/Typhoon/Wall

—Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes of mammoth on “saharan miami,” “translation, machines, and embassies,” and “islands draw the clouds, and glaciers are wind-catchers

— Mason White, Maya Przybylski, Neeraj Bhatia, and Lola Sheppard of InfraNet Lab on “Particulate Swarms

—David Gissen of HTC Experiments on “A contribution, a mini-review, a plug

—Enrique Ramirez of a456 on “Baselines Straight and Normal

InfraNet Lab on “Islands of Speculation/Speculation on Islands: Spray Ice” (nice comments on this one)


[Video: #climatedata by by Michael Schieben; via Serial Consign].

—Greg J. Smith of Serial Consign on “Glacier/Island/Storm: Three Tangents” (interesting comments developing here)

mammoth on “Thilafushi” and “The North American Storm Control Authority” (enthusiastic comments thread on the latter link)

—Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon on “Islands in the Net” (interesting comments also developing here)

—Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography on “The Ice Program” (great comments here, too!)

mammoth on “A Glacier is a Very Long Event” (another interesting comment thread)

InfraNet Lab on “LandFab, or Manufacturing Terrain

—Nick Sowers on “Design to Fail

Finally, I was excited to see that Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes Nájera have jumped into the conversation, adding their own thoughts over at dpr-barcelona; and Alexander Trevi of Pruned has also supplied a Glacier/Island/Storm-themed guide to his own archives in this hashtag switchboard. And that’s in addition to some ongoing posts here on BLDGBLOG.

It’s been a great week for new content, I think, and all of the above are worth reading in full.

Our Lady of the Rocks


[Image: Via montenegro.com].

Somehow this morning I ended up reading about an artificial island and devotional chapel constructed in Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor.

“In 1452,” we read at montenegro.com, “two sailors from Perast happened by a small rock jutting out of the bay after a long day at sea and discovered a picture of the Virgin Mary perched upon the stone.” Thus began a process of dumping more stones into the bay in order to expand this lonely, seemingly blessed rock—as well as loading the hulls of old fishing boats with stones in order to sink them beneath the waves, adding to the island’s growing landmass.

Eventually, in 1630, a small chapel was constructed atop this strange half-geological, half-shipbuilt assemblage.


[Image: Via Skyscraper City].

Throwing stones into the bay and, in the process, incrementally expanding the island’s surface area, has apparently become a local religious tradition: “The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is alive even nowadays. Every year on the sunset of July 22, an event called fašinada, when local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island, takes place.”

The idea that devotional rock-throwing has become an art of creating new terrain, generation after generation, rock after rock, pebble after pebble, is stunning to me. Perhaps in a thousand years, a whole archipelago of churches will exist there, standing atop a waterlogged maze of old pleasure boats and fishing ships, the mainland hills and valleys nearby denuded of loose stones altogether. Inadvertently, then, this is as much a museum of local geology—a catalog of rocks—as it is a churchyard.

In fact, it doesn’t seem inaccurate to view this as a vernacular version of Vicente Guallart‘s interest in architecturally constructing new hills and coastlines based on a logical study of the geometry of rocks.

Here, the slow creation of new inhabitable terrain simply takes place in the guise of an annual religious festival—pilgrims assembling islands with every arm’s throw.

Bering Bridge

If you could design a bridge across the Bering Strait, connecting the U.S. to Russia, what would it look like? Come up with something good and you could win as much as $80,000 ($20,000, if you’re a student).
From the competition website:

This project is a dream project attempting to connect two continents. In a wide sense, it includes building a tunnel or a bridge at both ends of the strait, extending [the] existing railways of the United States and Russia, and laying a world highway around the coasts of the world, which require a massive amount of construction.

Your only two requirements are to design “a peace park with a bridging structure using the two islands, Big Diomede and Little Diomede at the Bering Strait,” and a “proposal of how to connect two continents.”
Of course, Russian engineers have already been considering digging a tunnel between the two continents, and the Discovery Channel has chimed in about how a bridge might actually be built across that “iceberg-swirled ocean near the Arctic Circle.”
But neither of those plans came with a total of $200,000 in prize money…
There’s a confusing clock ticking away on the competition website, but you appear to have until March 24, 2009, to register.

The Island of Forgotten Diseases

[Images: Vozrozhdeniya Island, via Wikipedia].

On the desolate central Asian island of Vozrozhdeniye – or Vozrozhdeniya – near the south rim of the shrinking Aral Sea, you’ll find “the remains of the world’s largest biological-warfare testing ground.”
As The New York Times reported back in 2002, for nearly four decades Vozrozhdeniye Island was “a practice field for the most hideous kind of warfare.”
The whole site is now abandoned.

Amidst “hundreds of cages designed to hold guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits,” the New York Times continues, the old Soviet germ labs lie in ruins:

A germproof full-body suit, complete with a glass face mask and an airhose attachment in the back, lies in a corner. An odd smell – ether, chlorine and something indefinable – lingers in the air. Poking out of the rubble are dusty issues of The British Medical Journal and The Journal of Infectious Diseases. It is all surprisingly low tech: nails are everywhere, but no screws. There are books by Marx and Lenin and yellowed, handwritten ledgers that would not seem out of place in a museum devoted to a 19th-century Russian writer.

Despite the island’s pedigree, as a site of weaponized viruses and other unknown contagions, its buildings are now being taken apart by scavengers.
In fact, we’re told, the “only access to the island now is in the company of the scavengers, who say they began stripping the island bare back in 1996.” They’ve now stolen “everything from floorboards to wiring,” and have begun “working on galvanized-steel piping, sealed and towed at a snail’s speed to the mainland shore.”
The real – and much more pressing – question seems to be: what else will these scavengers find on Vozrozhdeniye Island?

When they arrived for last year’s toil, in July, the scavengers discovered that an official U.S.-Uzbek expedition had come earlier in the year and burned down a row of eight warehouses. But much of the contents of the warehouses survived the blaze, including a vast array of test tubes, bottles and petri dishes, some still in their original wrapping. The fire left some half-melted, looking like figures in a Dalì painting, but most are intact underneath a coat of dust.

Like a scene from W.G. Sebald, the actual test site itself is on a nearby plateau. The landscape there is covered with “scrubby trees” that “have leaned into the road,” as there are no cars driving by to stop them. The “range,” as it’s called – where temperatures can apparently reach 120ºF in the summer – is itself lined with “a row of three-foot-high concrete posts at 300-foot intervals, oriented in the direction of the prevailing winds.”

Further on, four poles have been set horizontally on pickets two feet from the ground. Rusty chains hang down, even a few feed troughs. This is where the horses and donkeys were tied up. You can imagine them standing patiently in a row at dusk, when the wind would ease and deadly aerosols would be released. At the highest point on the island, a 40-foot observation tower stands near the foundations of a gutted building. A spindly radio antenna still soars. It was a weather station. From the top of the tower, six dirt roads can be seen stretching in various directions to other test sites. It is all very spare and quiet. The scavengers are silent, too.

Alarmingly, we then read that some of Vozrozhdeniye’s “local rodents” may have been exposed to a super-resilient, weaponized strain of bubonic plague – and that the plague could thus have spread beyond the test range, hopping from flea to flea and following families of rats, just waiting to be passed on to humans.
Bubonic plague, the article quietly notes, already “affects a handful of people each year in Central Asia.”
It’s here that the ongoing risks of the site are made clear: “if a scavenger contracts the plague and makes it to a hospital, he could start an epidemic.”
Worse, Vozrozhdeniye Island is now attracting representatives of the oil industry – who have begun to perform some exploratory drilling. What might they really dig up…?

[Image: An aerial view of Kantubek, an abandoned town on Vozrozhdeniye Island; via Wikimedia].

The implied storylines here for future science fiction, or horror, films is totally out of control – and yet there is still more to learn about Vozrozhdeniye Island.
For instance: it’s no longer really an island.
The Aral Sea, in which Vozrozhdeniye sits, has been evaporating since the 1980s, due to catastrophically mismanaged Soviet irrigation plans – which means that Vozrozhdeniye is now a peninsula.
This otherwise unremarkable geographical shift has frightening implications:

Many of the containers holding the [biowarfare agents] were not properly stored or destroyed, and over the last decade many of the containers have developed leaks. As the Aral Sea continues to recede, the area will eventually connect further with the surrounding land. Many scientists fear that animals will move to the surrounding land and eventually carry these deadly biological agents out.

Such a scenario may sound far-fetched, but it’s worth pointing out that there was, indeed, an outbreak of smallpox in 1971 in the nearby city of Aralsk.
According to “a previously secret Soviet medical report,” which included “autopsy reports, pathology reports, containment tactics, and an official Soviet analysis of the outbreak’s source,” there were 10 cases of smallpox reported in Aralsk alone – after which “officials quarantined the city for weeks.”
In the process, “Homes and belongings were decontaminated or burned.”
Potential novelists or screenwriters might want to start paying attention here, though, because this is a near-perfect plot device.

The person believed to have introduced the virus to Aralsk was a young female ichthyologist who had just returned from a four-week research expedition on the Aral Sea aboard the Lev Berg, a small fishing boat. According to official documents, she was bed-ridden with a fever, headache, and muscle aches aboard the ship beginning Aug. 6, five days before returning to Aralsk on Aug. 11. Before public health officials diagnosed smallpox as the cause of her illness six weeks later, the young woman had exposed her nine-year-old brother, who had exposed others.

Even more interesting, this woman – referred to as Patient 1 – is still alive, and she disputes the official narrative of the outbreak. Nonetheless, it’s now more or less accepted that the woman’s ship must “have strayed too close to [Vozrozhdeniye Island] as smallpox viral particles, alighted on the wind by a Soviet weaponizing additive, floated across the ship’s decks, where Patient 1 netted fish day and night.”
You can read more about the outbreak at the website of Sandia Labs.
Finally, there was even speculation, back in 2001, that Vozrozhdeniye Island may have been distantly involved in the U.S. anthrax attacks.
But I could go on and on. If you want to know more, though, just follow the links, above, or check out CNN – and, if you’re a budding novelist, and you decide to go somewhere with this material, let me know!
And if you’re anywhere near the Aral Sea, beware the wind…

(Thanks to Neddal Ayad for pointing Vozrozhdeniye Island out to me!)

Gunkanjima Island

[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].

“Off the westernmost coast of Japan,” we read, “is an island called ‘Gunkanjima’ that is hardly known even to the Japanese.”

Long ago, the island was nothing more than a small reef. Then in 1810, [with] the chance discovery of coal … people came to live here, and through coal mining the reef started to expand continuously. Befor [sic] long, the reef had grown into an artificial island of one kilometer (three quarters of a mile) in perimeter, with a population of 5300. Looming above the ocean, it appeared a concrete labyrinth of many-storied apartment houses and mining structures built closely together.

“Seen from the ocean,” the site continues, “the silhouette of the island closely resembled a battleship – so, the island came to be called Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island.”

[Images: Gunkanjima Island (via)].

The idea of an entirely artificial mining island seems to lie somewhere between James Bond and Greek mythology. I’ve always wanted to write a short story about a mineral-rich island where a man similar to Conrad’s Kurtz sets up a mining operation; in mining the mineral wealth of his new little island, the architecture and structural engineering – the gantries, vaults, platforms, roads, etc. – come to be built from the island itself. Eventually the island entirely disappears beneath the waterline, mined down to nothing – and yet a small stilt-city of mining platforms, engineering decks, control rooms, and cantilevered walkways still exists there, built from the island it all now replaces.

[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].

In The Scar by China Miéville, there’s a floating city made from tightly lashed-together hulls of ships, built so densely that, for those deep within it, it appears simply to be a particularly over-built – albeit floating – island. The rudders and keels of old boats cut through the water at angles contrary to the direction that the ship-island floats in, and thousands of anchors secure the city in place when it needs to find harbor.

What seems to be missing, at least to my experience, from architectural history & design courses are things like – drum roll – offshore mining derricks. Once again, it seems the wrong people are teaching our design labs: instead of more M.Arch grads who’ve read too much – or not enough – Deleuze, we need to bring in junior executives from BP or Halliburton, geologists and NASA engineers, and put them into dialogue with Situationism – and, why not, with China Miéville. Science fiction writers. Get ideas out of the one side, practical engineering science out of the other, and shebang…

What could that produce…? is a legitimate question. A terrible example, but still marginally interesting I think, would be something like the Burning Man festival, thrown not in the desert but in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A joint-venture between BP, Halliburton, and Peter Cook of Archigram. And the Mars Homestead Project. Seaborne utopias. Platform cities. Perhaps Atlantis was built by a battalion of rogue Roman engineers lost to history.

[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].

It’s not Damien Hirst, Daniel Libeskind, Matthew Barney, or Norman Foster we should be watching, neither artistically nor architecturally, I mean; it’s the Chief Operating Officers of offshore oil-services firms. The architectural patrons of today are not avant-garde, middle class Connecticut home-owners but logistical managers in the US Department of Energy. New building types are not being discovered or invented in the design labs of American architectural offices, but in the flowcharts and budgetary projection worksheets of multinational petrochemical firms. Forget Spiral Jetty – we need a platform city built above the mid-Atlantic rift, an uninhabited, reinforced concrete archipelago ideal for untrained astronomical observation. The Reef Foundation – you win their residency grant and get to spend six months alone staring at the sun on a perfectly calibrated Quikrete lily pad.

We need the wastrel sons of hedge fund billionaires out there patronizing manmade archipelagos in the South China Sea.

We need more Gunkanjima Islands.

[Image: Gunkanjima Island (via)].