Terrestrial Oceanica

I’m grateful for two recent opportunities to publish op-eds, one for the Los Angeles Times back in May and the other just this morning in the New York Times. Both look at seismic activity and its poetic or philosophical implications, including fault lines as sites of emergence for a future world (“A fault is where futures lurk”).

They both follow on from the Wired piece about the Walker Lane, as well as this past weekend’s large earthquakes here in Southern California.

The L.A. Times op-ed specifically looks at hiking along fault lines, including the San Andreas, where, several years ago, I found myself walking alone at sunset, without cell service, surrounded by tarantulas. I was there in the midst of a “tarantula boom,” something I did not realize until I checked into a hotel room and did some Googling later that evening.

In any case, “Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.”

The New York Times piece specifically looks at the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, for which solid ground is both conceptually and literally foundational.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable—that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us—undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture… We might say that California is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.

To no small extent, nearly that entire piece was inspired by a comment made by Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago during a Fellowship at USC. At one point in our conversation, Jones emphasized to me that she is a seismologist, not a geologist, which means that she studies “waves, not rocks.” Waves, not rocks. There is a whole new way of looking at the Earth hidden inside that comment.

Huge thanks, meanwhile, to Sue Horton and Clay Risen for inviting me to contribute.

(Images: (top) Hiking at the San Andreas-adjacent Devil’s Punchbowl, like a frozen wave emerging from dry land. (bottom) A tarantula walks beside me at sunset along the San Andreas Fault near Wallace Creek, October 2014; photos by BLDGBLOG.)

Walker Lane Redux

It’s been an interesting few days here in Southern California, with several large earthquakes and an ensuing aftershock sequence out in the desert near Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest, of course, is at the very southern edge of the Walker Lane—more properly part of the Eastern California Shear Zone—a region of the country that runs broadly northwest along the California/Nevada state border and that I covered at length for the May 2019 issue of Wired.

[Image: My own loose sketch of the Walker Lane, using Google Maps].

To make a story short, a handful of geologists have speculated, at least since the late 1980s, that the San Andreas Fault could actually be dying out over time—that the San Andreas is jammed up in a place called the “Big Bend,” near the town of Frazier Park, and that it is thus losing its capacity for large earthquakes.

As a result, all of that unreleased seismic strain has to go somewhere, and there is growing evidence—paleoseismic data, LiDAR surveys, GPS geodesy—that the pent-up strain has been migrating deep inland, looking for a new place to break.

That new route—bypassing the San Andreas Fault altogether—is the Walker Lane (and its southern continuation into the Mojave Desert, known as the Eastern California Shear Zone).

What this might mean—and one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by this idea—is that a new continental margin could be forming in the Eastern Sierra, near the California/Nevada state border, a future line of breakage between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

If this is true, the Pacific Ocean will someday flood north from the Gulf of California all the way past Reno—but, importantly, this will happen over the course of many millions of years (not due to one catastrophic earthquake). This means that no humans alive today—in fact, I would guess, no humans at all—will see the final result. If human civilization as we know it is roughly 15,000 years old, then civilization could rise and fall nearly 700 times before we even get to 10 million years, let alone 15 million or 20.

In any case, these recent big quakes out near Ridgecrest do not require that the most extreme Walker Lane scenario be true—that is, they do not require that the Walker Lane is an incipient continental margin. However, they do offer compelling and timely evidence that the Walker Lane region is, at the very least, more seismically active than its residents might want to believe.

I could go on at great length about all this, but, instead, I just want to point out one cool thing: the far northern route of the Walker Lane remains something of a mystery. If you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that, for the Walker Lane to become a future continental edge, it must eventually rip back through California and southeastern Oregon to reach the sea. However, the route it might take—basically, from Pyramid Lake to the Pacific—is unclear, to say the least.

One place that came up several times while I was researching my Wired article was the northern California town of Susanville. Susanville is apparently a promising place for study, as geologists might find emergent faults there that could reveal the future path of the Walker Lane.

If you draw a straight line from the Reno/Pyramid Lake region through Susanville and keep going, you’ll soon hit a town called Fall River Mills. Interestingly, following the long aftershock sequence of these Ridgecrest quakes, there was a small quake in Fall River Mills this morning.

While seeing patterns in randomness—let alone drawing magical straight lines across the landscape—is the origin of conspiracy theory and the bane of serious scientific thinking, it is, nevertheless, interesting to note that the apparently linear nature of the Walker Lane could very well continue through Fall River Mills.

[Image: The Ridgecrest quakes and their aftershocks seem to support the idea of a linear connection along the Walker Lane; note that I have added a straight orange line in the bottom image, purely to indicate the very broad location of the Walker Lane].

While we’re on the subject, it is also interesting to see that, if you continue that same line just a little bit further, connecting Pyramid Lake to Susanville to Fall River Mills, you will hit Mt. Shasta, an active volcano in northern California. Again, if you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that volcanoes seem to have played an interesting role in the early formation of the San Andreas Fault millions of years ago.

In any case, in cautious summary, I should emphasize that I am just an armchair enthusiast for the Walker Lane scenario, not a geologist; although I wrote a feature article about the Walker Lane, I am by no means an expert and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest anything here as scientific fact. It does interest me, though, that aftershocks appear to be illuminating a pretty dead-linear path northwest up the Walker Lane, including into regions where its future route are not yet clear.

Insofar as the locations of these aftershocks can be taken as scientifically relevant—not just a seismic coincidence—the next few weeks could perhaps offer some intriguing suggestions for the Walker Lane’s next steps.

Cultivating the Map

[Image: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

For his final thesis project at the endangered Cooper Union, Danny Wills explored how survey instruments, cartographic tools, and architecture might work together at different scales to transform tracts of land in the geographic center of the United States.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Called “Cultivating the Map,” his project is set in the gridded fields, sand hills, playas, and deep aquifers of the nation’s midland, where agricultural activity has left a variety of influential marks on the region’s landscapes and ecosystems.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Its final presentation is light on text and heavy on models, maps, and diagrams, yet Wills still manages to communicate the complex spatial effects of very basic physical tools, how things as basic as survey grids and irrigation equipment can bring whole new regimes of territorial management into existence.

It’s as if agriculture is actually a huge mathematical empire in the middle of the country—a rigorously artificial world of furrows, grids, and seasons—dedicated to reorganizing the surface of the planet by way of relatively simple handheld tools and then rigorously perfecting the other-worldly results.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

Wills produced quite a lot of material for the project, including a cluster of table-sized landscapes that show these tools and instruments as they might be seen in the field.

[Image: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In many ways, parts of the project bring to mind the work of Smout Allen, who also conceive of architecture as just one intermediary spatial product on a scale that goes from the most intricate of handheld mechanisms to super-sized blocks of pure infrastructure.

Imagine Augmented Landscapes transported to the Great Plains and animated by a subtext of hydrological surveying and experimental agriculture. Deep and invisible bodies of water exert slow-motion influence on the fields far above, and “architecture” is really just the medium through which these spatial effects can be cultivated, realized, and distributed.

This, it seems, is the underlying premise of Wills’s project, that architecture is like a valve through which new landscapes pass.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In any case, I’ve included a whole bunch of images here, broadly organized by tool or, perhaps more accurately, by cartographic idea, where the system of projection suggested by Wills’s devices have had some sort of spatial effect on the landscape in which they’re situated.

However, I’ve also been a little loose here, organizing these a bit by visual association, so it’s entirely possible that my ordering of the images has thrown off the actual narrative of the project—in which case, it’s probably best just to check out Wills’s own website if you’re interested in seeing more.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

The project includes land ordinance survey tools and irrigation mechanisms, a “Mississippi River levee tool” and the building-sized “grain elevator tool.”

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

In Danny’s own words, the project “finds itself in the territory of the map, proposing that the map is also a generative tool. Using the drawing as fertile ground, this thesis attempts a predictive organization of territory through the design of four new tools for the management of natural resources in the Great Plains, a region threatened with the cumulative adverse effects of industrial farming. Each tool proposes new ways of drawing the land and acts as an instrument that reveals the landscape’s new potential.”

These “new potentials” are often presented as if in a little catalog of ideas, with sites named, located, and described, followed by a diagrammatic depiction of what Wills suggests might spatially occur there.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

The ambitious project earned Wills both the Henry Adams AIA Medal & Certificate of Merit, and the school’s Yarnell Thesis Prize in Architecture.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].

I’ll wrap up here with a selection of images of the landscapes, tools, and instruments, but click over to Danny’s site for a few more. Here are also some descriptions:

Tool 1: Meanders, Fog Fences, Air Wells

Tool 1 attaches itself to the groundwater streams, both proposing tools to redirect and slow down the flow, as well as tools to collect atmospheric water through technological systems like air wells and fog fences, forming new bodies and streams of water. The new air wells collect atmospheric water through a system of cooling and heating a substrate core inside of a ventilated exterior shell. The air wells also become spaces to observe the re-directing flow of water, as overflow quantities are appropriately managed.

Tool 2: Aquifer Irrigation Ponds

Tool 2 uses the center pivot irrigation rigs to reconstruct the ground, making bowls in the landscape that act as dew ponds. At the same time, the wells become tools and markers to survey the levels of the aquifer below, signifying changes in the depth through elevational changes above. New forms of settlement begin to appear around each ring as a balance is reached between extraction and recharge of the aquifer.

Tool 3: Sand Dunes, Grazing Fields

Tool 3 uses gas wells as new geo-positioning points, redrawing boundaries and introducing controlled grazing and fallowing zones into the region. Walls are also built as markers of the drilling wells below, creating a dune topography to retain more ground water. Each repurposed oil rig becomes an architectural element that both provides protection and feed for grazing animals as well as a core sample viewing station. The abandoned rigs suspend cross sections of the earth to educate visitors of the geological history of the ground they stand on.

Tool 4: Water Recycling Station

Tool 4 converts the grain elevator into a water recycling station, filling the silos with different densities of sand and stone to filter collected types of water- rain, ground run-off, grey, brackish, etc. Large pavilion like structures are built between houses, collecting water and providing shade underneath. Some housing is converted into family-run markets; the new social space under the pavilions provide for market space. The repurposed grain elevator becomes the storage center for the region’s new water bank. Economic control is brought back to the local scale.

[Images: “Cultivating the Map” by Danny Wills].


Direct intervention into the earth’s surface through technology – the coupling of the planet with technological objects – could be phrased as ‘geotechnical,’ a word I thought I invented – until I discovered that ‘geotechnics’ is already a long-standing professional concern of engineers and architects. Gone was the whiz-bang neologism, but born was an intense curiosity in what ‘geotechnical engineers’ actually do.
Unforeseen ground conditions. Reuse of old foundations. Ground investigation. Geological voids. Borehole geophysics. ‘Geo Frontiers 2005’. Ground engineering, which includes ‘international geotechnical events’ and ‘covers all aspects of the engineering of the ground’.
The vocabulary alone justifies awe. Where else can you read: ‘Sui Field compression project: the tectonic structure of Northern Pakistan’, and take it seriously?
Ground improvement!
‘The geotechnics of contaminated land’!
Applied geology.
My enthusiasm coming here not from some pre-adolescent obsession with digging machines, but from the black-out inducing intellectual high of outright planetary engineering, a geosynthetic *Wunderproject*, where remote-sensing meets hydrological engineering, geotextiles, ground improvement, and mega-scale, antigravitational, interstellar industrial machines hovering 350 miles above the dark, unfinished surface of a geoengineered planet.
‘The engineering of the ground’!
After geotechnics, the whole planet could be already artificial, bearing marks of human intervention. To find in a moment of ultra-fast zoom-out cello-soundtracked awe that the earth you’re standing on is always, already, everywhere a huge Mt. Rushmore, a man-made, artificial, technological, geotechnic project.
A hollow earth, a geosynthetic planet. Sculpted from geotextiles.
Landscape architecture taken to the megalomaniacal extreme. And funded by multinational petroleum companies.