Please Don’t Take My Photochrome

05639v[Image: The Ghent Gate, Bruges, Belgium; via Library of Congress].

It’s easy to lose time clicking through the Library of Congress photochrome—or photochrom—collection.

05638v[Image: St. Croix Gate, Bruges, Belgium; via Library of Congress].

Each image has a strangely volumetric beauty, enhanced by subtle depths of shade, that results from a development and printing process that also produced these otherworldly intensities of color.

04949v[Image: Sevigne Gate, Bordeaux, France; via Library of Congress].

06570v[Image: Narrow Streets, Naples, Italy; via Library of Congress].

Houses, castles, mountains, rivers, ruins.

04978v[Image: The valley of Chamonix from the Aiguille du Floria, Chamonix Valley, France; via Library of Congress].

Utterly mundane subjects seem hallucinatory, like stills from an old animated film—

04936v[Image: Old house in Rue St. Martin, Bayeux, France; via Library of Congress].

—or even hand-colored illustrations from a fairy tale.

05683v[Image: The Rabot Gate, Ghent, Belgium; via Library of Congress].

Many look like paintings.

06011v[Image: The cathedral, Carthage, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].

Purely in the interests of weekend eye-candy, I just thought I’d post a bunch here.

06030v[Image: Sidi-Ben-Ziad, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].

I could look at these all day—these old streets and roofscapes, honey-colored rocks and even brilliant white robes glowing with sunlight.

06029v[Image: Tresure Street, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].

06026v[Image: Mosque of St. Catherine, Tunis, Tunisia; via Library of Congress].

05528v[Image: Red Sea street, Algiers, Algeria; via Library of Congress].

It’s also interesting to watch as small moments of modernity pop-up in the landscape, like funiculars or—in other images not included here—cable railways, train stations, and steamships.

05105v[Image: Cable railway, Marseille, France; via Library of Congress].

In other cases, it’s just the pure bulk of masonry and its interaction with sunlight that remains so visually compelling, where looking at the city almost meant looking at a geological formation, an artificial mountain chain that you knew was filled with rooms and hallways waiting to be explored.

05138v[Image: Abbey from the ramparts, Mont St. Michel, France; via Library of Congress].

05049v[Image: New Gate, Grasse, France; via Library of Congress].

05088v[Image: Basilica Fourviere, Lyons, France; via Library of Congress].

Finally, these old, looming roof profiles from buildings in Germany are spectacular.

Architects and engineers today should spend more time thinking about roofs, as spaces that can be inhabited, not merely as minimal surfaces used for no other purpose than to cover another space.

Roofs should be labyrinths you can walk through and get lost within. Roofs should have dimension; they should have windows and rooms. They should be spaces in their own right, not just lines where other spaces end.

00465v[Image: Knockenhauer Amtshaus, Hildesheim, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].

00512v[Image: The Sack House, Brunswick (i.e., Braunschweig), Germany; via Library of Congress].

00451v[Image: Leibnitz House, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].

00481v[Image: Das Rattenfangerhaus, Hameln, Hanover, Germany; via Library of Congress].

00522v[Image: Brusttuch, Goslar, Hartz, Germany; via Library of Congress].

00665v[Image: Holstengate, Lübeck, Germany; via Library of Congress].

In any case, last but not least, here are some still-standing “bridge houses” in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.

00762v[Image: Bridge houses, Kreuznach (i.e., Bad Kreuznach), Nahethal, Rhenish Prussia, Germany; via Library of Congress].

See many, many, many more photochrom prints over at the Library of Congress.

Land of Fires

One of the most memorable scenes in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah is his description of the illegal waste-dumping schemes of southern Italy’s Camorra organized crime syndicate. In a chapter called “Land of Fires,” Saviano conjures up a Blakean landscape of rampant groundwater toxins, dispersed radioactivity, industrial sludges, paints, and slowly lethal atmospheres perfumed with hexavalent chromium. Unsurprisingly, a new report shows that cancer rates in the region have spiked, including “‘excessive’ instances of tumors, especially brain tumors.”

Where Borders Melt

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

One of the most interesting sites from a course I taught several years ago at Columbia—Glacier, Island, Storm—was the glacial border between Italy and Switzerland.

The border there is not, in fact, permanently determined, as it actually shifts back and forth according to the height of the glaciers.

This not only means that parts of the landscape there have shifted between nations without ever really going anywhere—a kind of ghost dance of the nation-states—but also that climate change will have a very literal effect on the size and shape of both countries.

[Image: Due to glacial melt, Switzerland has actually grown in size since 1940; courtesy swisstopo].

This could result in the absurd scenario of Switzerland, for example, using its famed glacier blankets, attempting to preserve glacial mass (and thus sovereign territory), or it might even mean designing and cultivating artificial glaciers as a means of aggressively expanding national territory.

As student Marissa Looby interpreted the brief, there would be small watchtowers constructed in the Alps to act as temporary residential structures for border scientists and their surveying machines, and to function as actual physical marking systems visible for miles in the mountains, somewhere between architectural measuring stick for glacial growth and modular micro-housing.

But the very idea that a form of thermal warfare might break out between two countries—with Switzerland and Italy competitively growing and preserving glaciers under military escort high in the Alps—is a compelling (if not altogether likely) thing to consider. Similarly, the notion that techniques borrowed from landscape and architectural design could be used to actually make countries bigger—eg. through the construction of glacier-maintenance structures, ice-growing farms, or the formatting of the landscape to store seasonal accumulations of snow more effectively—is absolutely fascinating.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

I was thus interested to read about a conceptually similar but otherwise unrelated new project, a small exhibition on display at this year’s Venice Biennale called—in English, somewhat unfortunately—Italian Limes, where “Limes” is actually Latin for limits or borders (not English for a small acidic fruit). Italian Limes explores “the most remote Alpine regions, where Italy’s northern frontier drifts with glaciers.”

In effect, this is simply a project looking at this moving border region in the Alps from the standpoint of Italy.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

As the project description explains, “Italy is one of the rare continental countries whose entire confines are defined by precise natural borders. Mountain passes, peaks, valleys and promontories have been marked, altered, and colonized by peculiar systems of control that played a fundamental role in the definition of the modern sovereign state.”

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

However, they add, between 2008 and 2009, Italy negotiated “a new definition of the frontiers with Austria, France and Switzerland.”

Due to global warming and and shrinking Alpine glaciers, the watershed—which determines large stretches of the borders between these countries—has shifted consistently. A new concept of movable border has thus been introduced into national legislation, recognizing the volatility of any watershed geography through regular alterations of the physical benchmarks that determine the exact frontier.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The actual project that resulted from this falls somewhere between landscape surveying and technical invention—and is a pretty awesome example of where territorial management, technological databases, and national archives all intersect:

On May 4th, 2014, the Italian Limes team installed a network of solar-powered GPS units on the surface of the Similaun glacier, following a 1-km-long section of the border between Italy and Austria, in order to monitor the movements of the ice sheet throughout the duration of the exhibition at the Corderie dell’Arsenale. The geographic coordinates collected by the sensors are broadcasted and stored every hour on a remote server via a satellite connection. An automated drawing machine—controlled by an Arduino board and programmed with Processing—has been specifically designed to translated the coordinates received from the sensors into a real-time representation of the shifts in the border. The drawing machine operates automatically and can be activated on request by every visitor, who can collect a customized and unique map of the border between Italy and Austria, produced on the exact moment of his [or her] visit to the exhibition.

The drawing machine, together with the altered maps and images it produces, are thus meant to reveal “how the Alps have been a constant laboratory for technological experimentation, and how the border is a compex system in evolution, whose physical manifestation coincides with the terms of its representation.”

The digital broadcast stations mounted along the border region are not entirely unlike Switzerland’s own topographic markers, over 7,000 “small historical monuments” that mark the edge of the country’s own legal districts, and also comparable to the pillars or obelisks that mark parts of the U.S./Mexico border. Which is not surprising: mapping and measuring border is always a tricky thing, and leaving physical objects behind to mark the route is simply one of the most obvious techniques.

As the next sequence of images shows, these antenna-like sentinels stand alone in the middle of vast ice fields, silently recording the size and shape of a nation.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The project, including topographic models, photographs, and examples of the drawing machine network, will be on display in the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale until November 23, 2014. Check out their website for more.

Meanwhile, the research and writing that went into Glacier, Island, Storm remains both interesting and relevant today, if you’re looking for something to click through. Start here, here, or even here.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

Italian Limes is a project by Folder (Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual) with Pietro Leoni (interaction design), Delfino Sisto Legnani (photography), Dawid Górny, Alex Rothera, Angelo Semeraro (projection mapping), Claudia Mainardi, Alessandro Mason (team).

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.

Acqua Veritas

The city of Venice has begun to rebrand its tap water, calling it Acqua Veritas, in an attempt to woo both residents and tourists away from the environmental hazards (and waste collection nightmare) of bottled water.
After all, Italians are “the leading consumers of bottled water in the world,” the New York Times reports, “drinking more than 40 gallons per person annually.” Further, “Venice’s tap water comes from deep underground in the same region as one of Italy’s most popular bottled waters, San Benedetto” – so turning Venetians on to the miracles of the tap (and setting an example for cities elsewhere) is clearly overdue.
However, as we saw earlier on BLDGBLOG, in a guest post by Nicola Twilley, bottled water now sits on the cusp of becoming as pretentious as the wine industry, complete with a developing vocabulary for taste preferences and even an emerging geography of aquatic terroir. In other words, it will be hard to break the Duchampian habit of seeking water in a bottle. Why Duchampian?
Because bottled water is the ultimate readymade object; I’d even suggest that Marcel Duchamp very nearly discovered the bottled water industry when he first captured 50 cc of Paris Air, in an artwork of the same title, back in 1919.

[Image: Marcel Duchamp, 50 cc of Paris Air (1919), courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art].

It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had Marcel Duchamp been alive just slightly later, and able to exhibit his artwork alongside – or even simply to hang out with – Andy Warhol; combine the readymade object with Warholian mass reproduction, substitute pure glacial water for Paris air, and perhaps today we’d all be drinking L’Eau de Duchamp.
In any case, if cities around the world engaged in marketing campaigns similar to this one in Venice, however tongue-in-cheek it may be, might people finally regain interest in their own municipal water supplies?
Croton Silver: The Taste of Manhattan™.

(Vaguely related: The next bottled water industry? Chinese Air Bars).