Fossil Cities

[Image: Art by Joe Alterio; view larger].

I’m thrilled to announce that BLDGBLOG and Wired Science have teamed up with Swissnex to host a live interview—free and open to the public—with University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, from Oxford University Press.

The event will be from 7-9pm on Wednesday, December 17th, at Swissnex, 730 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco; here’s a map.

Zalasiewicz’s book offers a fascinating and sustained look at what will happen to the material artifacts of human civilization 100 million years from now, when cities like Manhattan are mere trace fossils in flooded submarinescapes, Amsterdam is an indecipherably fragmentary presence in the lithified mudflats of a new, future continent, and cities like Los Angeles and Zurich have been eroded away entirely by a hundred million years of rockslides and weather.

To quote an early chapter from Zalasiewicz’s book at length:

The surface of the Earth is no place to preserve deep history. This is in spite of – and in large part because of – the many events that have taken place on it. The surface of the future Earth, one hundred million years now, will not have preserved evidence of contemporary human activity. One can be quite categorical about this. Whatever arrangement of oceans and continents, or whatever state of cool or warmth will exist then, the Earth’s surface will have been wiped clean of human traces.
(…)
Thus, one hundred million years from now, nothing will be left of our contemporary human empire at the Earth’s surface. Our planet is too active, its surface too energetic, too abrasive, too corrosive, to allow even (say) the Egyptian Pyramids to exist for even a hundredth of that time. Leave a building carved out of solid diamond – were it even to be as big as the Ritz – exposed to the elements for that long and it would be worn away quite inexorably.
(…)
So there will be no corroded cities amid the jungle that will, then, cover most of the land surface, no skyscraper remains akin to some future Angkor Wat for future archaeologists to pore over. Structures such as those might survive at the surface for thousands of years, but not for many millions.

The book goes on to explore buried cities, flooded cities, and cities destroyed by erosion; the long-term traces of different materials, from concrete and steel to nuclear waste and industrial plastics; and the future magnetic presence of urban metals that have been compressed into the thinnest bands of underground strata. We’ll be talking about cities like New Orleans, London, Hanoi, and Shanghai; New York, Los Angeles, Cairo, and Geneva. What “signals” of their one-time existence will these cities offer in 100 million years’ time? About Mexico City, Zalasiewicz writes:

Mexico City has a good short-term chance of fossilization, being built on a former lake basin next to active, ash-generating volcanoes; but its long-term chances are poor, as that basin lies on a high plateau, some two kilometers above sea level. The only ultimate traces of the fine buildings of [Mexico City] will be as eroded sand- and mud-sized particles of brick or concrete, washed by rivers into the distant sea.

With visions of cities become not spectacular, vine-covered ruins but but vast deltaic fans of multi-colored sand, the book looks at the future geological destinies of everything from plastic cups to clothes.

Alexis Madrigal, from Wired Science, and I will also have five copies of Zalasiewicz’s book to give away to attendees, and there will be drinks and light food after the event, so it will be well worth coming out.

If you get a chance, please RSVP at the Swissnex site, so that they can keep track of expected visitors.

(With special thanks to Joe Alterio for the artwork!)

The Museum of Nature

[Image: Museum 2 by Ilkka Halso, featuring a protected mountain. If you look close enough, you’ll also see the roller-coaster, pictured below, as it wraps around the bay…].

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Framework: The Finnish Art Review because it looked really good and had some cool images in it – and, even now, I think it’s an interesting magazine. I don’t regret the purchase.

[Image: Museum 1 by Ilkka Halso].

So I was flipping through it again the other night, looking for something, when I re-discovered a bunch of photographs by Ilkka Halso.

The images are part of an amazing series called the “Museum of Nature,” and I’m frankly still in awe of the project.

[Image: Roller-coaster by Ilkka Halso].

The basic premise of Halso’s digitally manipulated work is that “nature” has been transformed into a museum display – yet the public’s interaction with this new, endangered artifact is limited to spectacular roller coaster rides, perfectly reflected in the still waters they pass over. Alternatively, you can visit this steamy, delirious, quasi-Parisian gallery of iron and glass roofs built arching into disappearance over pine forests.

[Image: Kitka-river by Ilkka Halso].

These are “shelters,” the artist writes, “massive buildings where big ecosystems could be stored.”

The more I think about this project, the more interesting it gets; someone should write a novel set in this place – a kind of eco-catastrophic sequel to Westworld, perhaps – or, at the very least, someone should put Halso’s images on display in the United States. They’d also make a gorgeous spread in Wired.

In any case, be sure to spend time clicking around through Halso’s site. It’s worth it. And check out another of Halso’s projects, featured on Pruned back in 2005.

Super Reef

[Image: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef].

A “vanished giant has reappeared in the rocks of Europe,” New Scientist writes. It extends “from southern Spain to eastern Romania, making it one of the largest living structures ever to have existed on Earth.”

This “bioengineering marvel” is actually a fossil reef, and it has resurfaced in “a vast area of central and southern Spain, southwest Germany, central Poland, southeastern France, Switzerland and as far as eastern Romania, near the Black Sea. Despite the scale of this buried structure, until recently researchers knew surprisingly little about it. Individual workers had seen only glimpses of reef structures that formed parts of the whole complex. They viewed each area separately rather than putting them together to make one huge structure.”

[Image: The reefs of Raiatea and Tahaa in the South Pacific; NASA/LiveScience].

In fact, Marine Matters, an online journal based in the Queen Charlotte Islands, thinks the reef was even larger: “Remnants of the reef can be found from Russia all the way to Spain and Portugal. Portions have even been found in Newfoundland. They were part of a giant reef system, 7,000km long and up to 60 meters thick which was the largest living structure ever created.”

[Image: The Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NW Hawaii, via NOAA Ocean Explorer].

The reef’s history, according to New Scientist:

About 200 million years ago the sea level rose throughout the world. A huge ocean known as the Tethys Seaway expanded to reach almost around the globe at the Equator. Its warm, shallow waters enhanced the deposition of widespread lime muds and sands which made a stable foundation for the sponges and other inhabitants of the reef. The sponge reef began to grow in the Late Jurassic period, between 170 and 150 million years ago, and its several phases were dominated by siliceous sponges.

Rigid with glass “created by using silica dissolved in the water,” this proto-reef “continued to expand across the seafloor for between 5 and 10 million years until it occupied most of the wide sea shelf that extended over central Europe.”

Thus, today, in the foundations of European geography, you see the remains of a huge, living creature that, according to H.P. Lovecraft, is not yet dead.

Wait, what—

“We do not know,” New Scientist says, “whether the demise of this fossil sponge reef was caused by an environmental change to shallower waters, or from the competition for growing space with corals. What we do know is that such a structure never appeared again in the history of the Earth.” (You can read more here).

For a variety of reasons, meanwhile, this story reminds me of a concert by Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki that I attended in London back in 2002 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. That night, Suzuki played a variety of instruments, including the amazing “Analapos,” which he’d constructed himself, and a number of small stone flutes, or iwabue.

The amazing thing about those flutes was that they were literally just rocks, hollowed out by natural erosion; Suzuki had simply picked them up from the Japanese beach years before. If I remember right, one of them was even from Denmark. He chose the stones based on their natural acoustic properties: he could attain the right resonance, hit the right notes, and so, we might say, their musical playability was really a by-product of geology and landscape design. An accident of erosion—as if rocks everywhere might be hiding musical instruments. Or musical instruments, disguised as rocks.

[Image: Saxophone valve diagram by Thomas Ohme].

But I mention these two things together because the idea that there might be a similar stone flute—albeit one the size and shape of a vast fossilized reef, stretching from Portugal to southern Russia—is an incredible thing to contemplate. In other words, locked into the rocks of Europe is the largest musical instrument ever made: awaiting a million more years of wind and rain, or even war, to carve that reef into a flute, a flute the size of a continent, a buried saxophone made of fossilized glass, pocketed with caves and indentations, reflecting the black light of uncountable eclipses until the earth gives out.

Weird European land animals, evolving fifty eons from now, will notice it first: a strange whistling on the edges of the wind whenever storms blow up from Africa. Mediterranean rains wash more dust and soil to the sea, exposing more reef, and the sounds get louder. The reef looms larger. Its structure like vertebrae, or hollow backbones, frames valleys, rims horizons, carries any and all sounds above silence through the reef’s reverberating latticework of small wormholes and caves. Musically equivalent to a hundred thousand flutes per square-mile, embedded into bedrock.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

Soon the reef generates its own weather, forming storms where there had only been breezes before; it echoes with the sound of itself from one end to the next. It wakes up animals, howling.

For the last two or three breeding groups of humans still around, there’s an odd familiarity to some of the reef-flute’s sounds, as if every two years a certain storm comes through, playing the reef to the tune of… something they can’t quite remember.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

It’s rumored amidst these dying, malnourished tribes that if you whisper a secret into the reef it will echo there forever; that a man can be hundreds of miles away when the secret comes through, passing ridge to ridge on Saharan gales.

And then there’s just the reef, half-buried by desert, whispering to itself on windless days—till it erodes into a fine black dust, lost beneath dunes, and its million years of musicalized weather go silent forever.

Earth: 7.5 Billion AD

Don’t forget “the distant future,” an article in New Scientist warns, referring to an era 7.5 billion years from now – when “the sun will loom 250 times larger in the sky than it is today, and it will scorch the Earth beyond recognition.”

That Earth, however, will be unrecognizable, geologically reconfigured into something called Pangaea Ultima: “Existing [subduction] zones on the western edge of the Atlantic ocean should seed a giant north-south rift that swallows heavy, old oceanic crust. The Atlantic will start to shrink, sending the Americas crashing back into the merged Euro-African continent. So roughly 250 million years from now, most of the world’s land mass will once again be joined together in a new supercontinent that [Christopher] Scotese and his colleagues [at U-Texas, Arlington] have dubbed Pangaea Ultima.”

[Images: Pangaea Ultima, or the Earth in 250 million years, from Christopher Scotese’s website. It’s interesting here to imagine where the cities of today might end up in this configuration, if Manhattan will collide, say, with the docklands of London, and what that new city would then be called – and could you set a novel in a space like that? You look out and see Manhattan coming toward you on the horizon, at the speed of a fingernail growing, and you take little rowboats out to visit it on long summer afternoons, that ghost city adrift on mantled currents of earthquake-laden rock. Or would it be possible for an architect – or two architects, on opposite sides of the ocean – to design, today, different buildings meant to merge in millions of years, to collide with each other and link into one building through plate tectonics, a kind of delayed, virtual, urban self-completion via continental drift… Cairo-Athens: an architectural puzzle assembled by the Earth’s own geological mechanisms].

After Pangaea Ultima, runaway greenhouse warming and a literally expanding sun will mean that everything “gets worse. In 1.2 billion years, the sun will be about 15 per cent brighter than it is today. The surface temperature on Earth will reach between 60 and 70°C and the… oceans will all but disappear, leaving vast dry salt flats, and the cogs and gears of Earth’s shifting continents will grind to a halt. Complex animal life will almost certainly have died out.”

Jeffrey Kargel, from the U.S. Geological Survey’s office in Flagstaff, Arizona, offers his own vision of planetwide erosion: “‘Imagine a steaming Mississippi river delta with 90 per cent of the water gone. There’ll be lots of sluggish streams and the whole Earth will be flattening out. All the mountains will be eroded down to their roots.’ Huge swathes of the Earth might resemble today’s deserts in Nevada and southern Arizona, with low, rugged mountains almost buried in their own rubble.”

Kargel believes that the Earth might even become “‘tidally locked’ to the sun. In other words, one side of the planet will be in permanent daylight while the other side will always be dark.”

The side of the planet always in the glare of triumphant Apollo will eventually consist of huge roiling seas of liquid rock – perhaps ready for the return of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. “7.57 billion years from now, the magma ocean directly in the glare of the sun will reach almost 2200°C. ‘At that kind of temperature, the magma will start to evaporate,’ (!) says Kargel.”

Meanwhile, “Kargel thinks the night side of the Earth could be… about -240°C. And this bizarre hot-and-cold Earth will set up some exotic weather patterns.”

[Image: “Exotic” future weather systems (from New Scientist); worth enlarging. We could thus anticipate a market in weather futures: the financial coupling of climatology and the global reinsurance industry, but, here, gone deep time and virtual].

“On the hot side, metals like silicon, magnesium and iron, and their oxides, will evaporate out of the magma sea. In the warm twilight zones, they’ll condense back down. ‘You’ll see iron rain, maybe silicon monoxide snow,’ says Kargel. Meanwhile potassium and sodium snow will fall from colder dusky skies.”

So it would seem possible, amidst all this, to figure out, for instance, the melting point of Manhattan, ie. the point at which rivers of liquid architecture will start flowing down from the terraces of uninhabited high-rise flats, when the top of the Chrysler Building, all but invisible behind superheated orange clouds of toxic greenhouse gases, will form a glistening silver stream of pure metal boiling down into the half-closed Atlantic Ocean.

If cities are viewed, in this instance, as geological deposits, then surely there would be a way to account for them in the equations of future geophysicists: all of London reduced to a pool of molten steel, swept by currents of gelatinous glass, as sedimentary rocks made of abraded marble, granite, and limestone form from compression in the lower depths. A new Thames of liquid windows, former walls.

Any account of a future Earth, in other words, melting under the glare of a red giant sun, should include the future of cities, where buildings become rivers and subways will fossilize.

All cities, we could say, are geology waiting to happen.

(See BLDGBLOG’s Urban fossil value for more).

Urban Fossil Value

[Image: J.M. Gandy, speculations toward the ruins of John Soane’s Bank of England – but, again, how about speculations toward the Bank of England’s fossils…?]

As Hurricane Rita carves away at the Gulf shore, Galveston burns, buses explode outside Houston, and New Orleans refloods through badly built and incompletely repaired levees, I stumbled upon an old article, from 1998, about fossilized cities.

Millions of years from now, in geographical regions “entombed by tectonic disturbances,” entire cities – “the abandoned foundations, subways, roads and pipelines of our ever more extensive urban stratum” – will actually come to form “future trace fossils.”

These “future trace fossils,” the article says, form easily preserved systems that are “a lot more robust than [fossils] of the dinosaurs. They include roads, houses and foundations.”

And yet, for all that, only those cities “that were rapidly buried by floods or sandstorms” will be “preserved for posterity.”

Los Angeles, for instance, “is on an upward trajectory, pushed by pressure from the adjacent San Andreas Fault system, and is doomed to be eroded away entirely.” But if a city is flooded, buried in sand, or otherwise absorbed downward, “the stage is set to produce ideal pickling jars for cities. The urban strata of Amsterdam, New Orleans, Cairo and Venice could be buried wholesale – providing, that is, they can get over one more hurdle: the destructive power of the sea.”

It is often remarked in architectural circles how megalomaniacal Nazi architect Albert Speer came up with his so-called theory of ruin value, in which he proposed a new Romano-Fascist Berlin designed to look good as a ruin in thousands of years.

But that’s boring – let’s talk about cities fossilizing over millions of years.

Urban fossil value.

The already buried, subterranean undersides of our Tube-hollowed, war-bunkered modern cities “will be hard to obliterate. They will be altered, to be sure, and it is fascinating to speculate about what will happen to our very own addition to nature’s store of rocks and minerals, given a hundred million years, a little heat, some pressure (the weight of a kilometre or two of overlying sediment) and the catalytic, corrosive effect of the underground fluids in which all of these structures will be bathed.”

Who knew, for instance, that plastics, “which are made of long chains of subunits, might behave like some of the long-chain organic molecules in fossil plant twigs and branches, or the collagen in the fossilized skeletons of some marine invertebrates”? Who knew, in other words, that plastics will fossilize?

Indeed, “with a favourable concatenation of tectonics and sea level, our species could leave behind in a geological instant a much more striking record than the dinosaurs left in a hundred million years.”

Das Urpflanze Haus

In what is, by now, a very old Wired blurb, you can read about Stoner Age artist and alien implant conspiracist Paul Laffoley, apparently a trained architect, who has proposed “genetically engineered seeds as a solution to the housing shortage.”
The seeds, you see, would grow into plants, and those plants themselves would grow into the shapes of inhabitable buildings. They would actually be buildings. Imagine a rather light-headed Michael Crichton watching *Swiss Family Robinson* on DVD when Rem Koolhaas stops by – and you’d get what Paul Laffoley has named das Urpflanze Haus, or “the primordial plant house.”


[Image: the Urpflanze Haus… so small you can barely see it, however.]
You’d plant the seeds – or perhaps just one, like a new, Piranesian “Jack and the Beanstalk” – do some watering, perhaps spread a little fertilizer… and at some point your own house will grow.
Thomas De Quincey: “With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.”
But what then? Do you prune excess or unwanted rooms? Can you graft new floorplans into the tree’s genetic code?
And will you get sap all over your FCUKing clothes?
Instead of topiary gardens, rich feudal warlords of the somewhat immediate future, with coked-up guards patrolling razorwire perimeters holding AK-47s and driving stolen Humvees, will cultivate delicate architectural gardens full of intertwined Urpflanze Häusen, on well-watered terraces stretching off past the conflict-laden, desert horizon. The world’s eventual oldest living house will be planted by a fourteen year-old girl in the hills of Missouri, out-living the Anthropocene by uncountable hundreds of years.
“Laffoley’s portfolio,” Wired continues, which “includ[es] a human-powered vehicle and a time machine, echoes the weird science of Nikola Tesla and Buckminster Fuller: Intricate illustrations and collages graft ancient occultism, eccentric engineering, particle physics, and a dose of ufology onto obsessively detailed building plans for a surreal alternative future.”