A Parking Lot to Last 16,000 Years

Perhaps proof that J.G. Ballard didn’t really die, he simply took an engineering job at MIT, scientists at that venerable Massachusetts institution have designed a new concrete that will last 16,000 years.

Called ultra-high-density concrete, or UHD, the material has so far proven rather strikingly resistant to deformation on the nano-scale – to what is commonly referred to as “creep.”

This has the (under other circumstances, quite alarming) effect that “a containment vessel for nuclear waste built to last 100 years with today’s concrete could last up to 16,000 years if made with an ultra-high-density (UHD) concrete.” (Emphasis added).

So how long until we start building multistory car parks with this stuff? 16,000 years from now, architecture bloggers camped out for the summer in rented apartments in Houston – the new Rome – get to visit the still-standing remains of abandoned airfields, dead colosseums, and triumphal arches that once held highway flyovers?

16,000 years’ worth of parking lots. 16,000 years’ worth of building foundations. Perhaps this simply means that we’re one step closer to mastering urban fossilization.

(Thanks, Mike R.!)

Psychology at Depth

As published by Science and Mechanics in November 1931, the depthscraper was proposed as a residential engineering solution for surviving earthquakes in Japan.
The subterranean building, “whose frame resembles that of a 35-story skyscraper of the type familiar in American large cities,” would actually be constructed “in a mammoth excavation beneath the ground.”

Only a single story protrudes above the surface; furnishing access to the numerous elevators; housing the ventilating shafts, etc.; and carrying the lighting arrangements… The Depthscraper is cylindrical; its massive wall of armored concrete being strongest in this shape, as well as most economical of material. The whole structure, therefore, in case of an earthquake, will vibrate together, resisting any crushing strain. As in standard skyscraper practice, the frame is of steel, supporting the floors and inner walls.

My first observation here is actually how weird the punctuational style of that paragraph is. Why all the commas and semicolons?
My second thought is that this thing combines about a million different themes that interest me: underground engineering, seismic activity, redistributed sunlight through complicated systems of mirrors, architectural speculation, disastrous social planning, etc. etc.
In J.G. Ballard’s hilariously excessive 1975 novel High-Rise – one of the most exciting books of architectural theory, I’d suggest, published in the last fifty years – we read about the rapid descent into chaos that befalls a brand new high-rise in London. Ballard writes that “people in high-rises tend not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.” Indeed, the very design of the building “played into the hands of the most petty impulses” – till “deep-rooted antagonisms,” assisted by chronic middle-class sexual boredom and insomnia, “were breaking through the surface of life within the high-life at more and more points.”
The residents are doomed: “Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them.” One of the characters even “referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence , brooding over them and keeping a magisterial eye on the events taking place.”
My point is simply that it doesn’t take very much to re-imagine Ballard’s novel set in a depthscraper: what strange antagonisms might break out in a buried high-rise?
Living underground, then, could perhaps be interpreted as a kind of avant-garde psychological experiment – experiential gonzo psychiatry.
I’m reminded here of the bunker psychology explored by Tom Vanderbilt in his excellent book Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.
In the midst of a long, and fascinating, tour through the 20th century’s wartime underworlds, Vanderbilt writes of how “the confined underground space becomes a concentrated breeding ground for social dysfunction as the once-submerged id rages unchecked.” Living inside “massive underground fortifications” – whether fortified against enemy attack or against spontaneous movements of the earth’s surface – might even produce new psychiatric conditions, Vanderbilt writes. There were rumors of “‘concretitis’ and other strange new ‘bunker’ maladies” breaking out amidst certain military units garrisoned underground.
What future psychologies might exist, then, in these depthscrapers built along active faultlines?

Mars Bungalow and the Prison of Simulation

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

Following a few links from the perennially great things magazine, I discovered this new attempt at a future Martian architecture.

Meant to house “visitors,” we read, at the Martian north pole, “ANY Design Studios has designed a robot on legs built of Martian ice.” It comes complete with padded walls and a nice little bed.

Note, however, that the walls (on the right) have been painted to look like the Pacific northwest: even on Mars, we will live within simulations.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

“What would it be like to spend nearly two Earth years at the Martian north pole,” we’re asked, “a place where darkness falls for nine months of the year, carbon dioxide snow flutters down in winter and temperatures drop to a chilly minus 150 centigrade?” I, for one, think it would be wonderful.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

The architecture itself is “a self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs.” It’s thus a cluster of smaller buildings that, together, “would allow for ten people to live indefinitely at the pole.”

The architects behind the project go on to explain that they “have also been exploring the possibility of reproducing programmable Earth environments in a room we have called the ‘Multi Environment Chamber’. Settlers on Mars may well be able to make themselves a cup of tea and settle into a chair with the sun gently warming their skin, cool breezes, and the sound of songbirds of an English orchard on a warm July afternoon” – assuming that such an experience wasn’t precisely what you were trying to get away from in the first place.

These “programmable Earth environments,” though, should undoubtedly include a setting in which you are sitting in a room in southern California, which has been kitted out to look like a Martian base – inside of which a man sits, reminiscing about a room in southern California that he once decorated to look like a Martian bungalow… Which would be referred to as the interplanetary architecture of et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Phrased otherwise, of course, all of this would simply be an inversion of what William L. Fox describes in his recent book, Driving to Mars. There, Fox writes about “the idea of practicing Mars on Earth” – which means simply that, even as I write this, there are teams of astronauts on a remote base in northern Canada, acting as if they are already surrounded by Martian topography.

It’s a form of psychological training: act as if you have already arrived.

So you simply turn that around and find, here, that anyone living inside this “self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs” will really be “practicing Earth on Mars.”

Act as if you never left.

But why not practice, say, Jupiter, instead? Why not be even more ambitious and use each planet in this solar system as a base from which to simulate the rest?

Or you could just abandon simulation altogether, of course, and experience Mars as Mars.

It’s interesting, though, in this context, to look at the naming practices used by NASA through which they claim – or at least label – Martian territory. Landscapes on Earth toponymically reappear on the Martian plains; there is Bonneville Crater and Victoria Crater, for instance; there is Cape Verde and a cute little rock called “Puffin.”

Mars is an alien landscape, then, in everything but name.

Even more fascinating, at least for me, is the small range of Martian hills now “dedicated to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.” Accordingly, these hills now appear on maps as the Columbia Hills Complex. An entire landscape named after dead American astronauts? Surely there’s a J.G. Ballard story about something exactly like this?

Then again, according to one reviewer: “A story by J.G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think.” Uh oh.

(Note: For more on Martian architecture don’t miss the unbelievably weird proposal behind Mars Power!, discussed earlier on BLDGBLOG).

The Great Man-Made River

Libya’s Great Man-Made River is “an enormous, long-term undertaking to supply the country’s needs by drawing water from aquifers beneath the Sahara and conveying it along a network of huge underground pipes.”

[Images: The concrete skeleton of Libya’s future river, the “8th wonder of the world,” being trucked into place; photographed by Jaap Berk].

Not only does Libya bear the distinction of holding the world record for hottest recorded temperature (136º F), but most of the country’s terrain is “agriculturally useless desert” that receives little or no rainfall. The Great Man-Made River may not even successfully irrigate Libya’s governmentally-specified agricultural zones, but due to the region’s complete “absence of permanent rivers or streams” – and because the country’s “approximately twenty perennial lakes are brackish or salty” – the River’s expected 50-100 year lifespan is at least a start.

Indeed, Libya’s “limited water is considered of sufficient importance to warrant the existence of the Secretariat of Dams and Water Resources, and damaging a source of water can be penalized by a heavy fine or imprisonment.” George Orwell would perhaps call this watercrime.

However, I have to say that the prospect of spelunking through the Great Man-Made River’s subterranean galleries in 125 years, once those tunnels have dried-up, makes the brain reel. Imagine Shelleys of the 22nd century wandering through those ruins, notebooks in hand, taking photographs, footsteps echoing rhythmically beneath the dunes as they walk for a thousand kilometers toward the sea…

Yet some are skeptical of the project’s real purpose. Precisely because the Great Man-Made River consists of “a stupendous network of underground tunnels and caverns built with the help of Western firms to run the length and width of the country,” some consultants and engineers “have revealed their suspicion that such facilities were not meant to move water, but rather to conceal the movement and location of military-related activities.” The fact that water is flowing through some of the pipes, in other words, is just an elaborate ruse…

In any case, the Great Man-Made River Authority – “entrusted with the implementation and operation of the world’s largest pre-stressed concrete pipe project” – is already seeing some results.

The network will criss-cross most of the country –

– and Phase III is under construction even as this post goes online.

Meanwhile, for more information on deep desert hydrology see UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme or even Wikipedia.

Of course, you could also turn to J.G. Ballard, whose twenty year-old novel The Day of Creation is: 1) not very good, and 2) about a man who is “seized by the vision of a third Nile whose warm tributaries covered the entire Sahara.” That river will thus “make the Sahara bloom.” The book was modestly reviewed by Samuel Delany, if you want to know more.

On the other hand, I would actually recommend Dune – assuming you like science fiction.

[Image: A new river is born, excavated from the surface of the desert: soon the pipes will be installed and the currents will start to flow…].

Silt

The surface of the planet renews itself through geothermal hydrology, sulfuric lakes, new continents of silt –


– as natural acids scour shapes in slow terrains.

These are all photographs by Bernhard Edmaier, whose work can be found on his own website


– and in the beautiful (if unfortunately named) Earthsong.

Meanwhile – though I repeat myself – these bring to mind J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, with its vision of a flooded, neo-tropical Europe, London become a backed-up toilet full of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.”

Huge iguanas laze around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of ridiculous, pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.”

In any case, one could easily imagine Bernhard Edmaier’s photographs here bearing much in common with Ballard’s new alluvial world of fresh earth, architecture reduced to deltas of sand. Old eroded reefs of brickwork. Lagoons of pollution.


Erosion and hydrology, the most powerful urban forces on earth.

tropical.bldg

“Tropical Green” runs 9-10 February 2006, down in sunny Miami: “The two-day Tropical Green conference will be an invaluable experience for architects, interior designers, developers, city planners, politicians, and voters in search of learning the ways of 21st century design that will both help the environment and their wallets.” Check it out.

It’s funny, meanwhile, but I’m reading The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, even as I post this, and his descriptions – written in 1962 – of a flooded, neo-tropical London have totally changed my conception of what “a tropical city” actually is.

In Ballard’s novel the sun has developed a kind of astrophysical Tourette’s Syndrome, and it’s started scorching the planet with radiation storms and UV bursts. This has melted the icecaps, raised the ambient global temperature to 120º+ and forced everyone to move to northern Canada and Siberia.

London has become a kind of backed-up toilet of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.” Huge iguanas lumber around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

[Image: The Drowned World‘s rather unimpressive cover…].

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of bad pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.

Anyway, one could analyze the metaphors and all that – Ballard uses the word “competing” twice in the examples above (is he projecting a neo-Hobbesean vision onto Nature…? etc.) – but one could also find something better to do.

And, of course, one could also attend the sustainable design for tropical cities conference in Miami – and tell them you heard about it on BLDGBLOG…

Car park picturesque and the Texas tower


On a site that is rather amazingly drenched with typos, misspellings, and other grammatical errors, we found this call for developing a car park picturesque, or “landscaped tarmac for leisure” – surely the post-human car park could be retroverted for this…?
Meanwhile, for all you Maunsell Towers fans –


– there’s the Texas tower: 75 miles east of New Jersey, though now collapsed into the sea, it was “intended to provide advance warning of enemy air attacks,” as “part of the Distant Early Warning system (DEW line) encircling the United States and Canada.” It collapsed into the sea, however, and killed everyone on board. Archigram meets James Cameron’s Abyss.


So I’m writing this at the beginning of a month-long James Bond marathon on AMC-TV, and am thinking, in this context, how all of Bond’s villains seem really to be renegade techno-architectural contractors of some sort: you have that fake volcano movie, the hollow high-tech island of Dr. No, that stupid ice-city of the last (please!) Pierce Brosnan Bond, and what else was there – oh, Moonraker


– in a particularly aerospatial moment of villainous ambition. In any case, then it occurred to me: that’s exactly what Osama bin Laden is/was – he’s a contractor. He built highways.
Plus ça change: he’s an ultra-rightwing Bond villain.

bldgblog-as-soundbite

We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard and the international warehousing strategies of Bechtel than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe – yet we study Mies van der Rohe.