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…

London Topological

[Image: Embankment, London, ©urban75].

As something of a sequel to BLDGBLOG’s earlier post, Britain of Drains, we re-enter the sub-Britannic topology of interlinked tunnels, drains, sewers, Tubes and bunkers that curve beneath London, Greater London, England and the whole UK, in rhizomic tangles of unmappable, self-intersecting whorls.

[Images: The Bunker Drain, Warrington; and the Motherload Complex, Bristol (River Frome Inlets); brought to you by the steroidally courageous and photographically excellent nutters at International Urban Glow].

Whether worm-eaten by caves, weakened by sink-holes, rattled by the Tube or even sculpted from the inside-out by secret government bunkers – yes, secret government bunkers – the English earth is porous.

“The heart of modern London,” Antony Clayton writes, “contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres… [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.”

[Images: Down Street, London, by the impressively omnipresent Nick Catford, for Subterranea Britannica; I particularly love the multi-directional valve-like side-routes of the fourth photograph].

This unofficially real underground world pops up in some very unlikely places: according to Clayton, there is an electricity sub-station beneath Leicester Square which “is entered by a disguised trap door to the left of the Half Price Ticket Booth, a structure that also doubles as a ventilation shaft.”

This links onward to “a new 1 1/4 mile tunnel that connects it with another substation at Duke Street near Grosvenor Square.”

But that’s not the only disguised ventilation shaft: don’t forget the “dummy houses,” for instance, at 23-24 Leinster Gardens, London. Mere façades, they aren’t buildings at all, but vents for the underworld, disguised as faux-Georgian flats.

(This reminds me, of course, of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum, where the narrator is told that, “People walk by and they don’t know the truth… That the house is a fake. It’s a façade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”).

[Image: The Motherload Complex, Bristol – again, by International Urban Glow].

There is also a utility subway – I love this one – accessed “through a door in the base of Boudicca’s statue near Westminster Bridge.” (!) The tunnel itself “runs all the way to Blackfriars and then to the Bank of England.”

Et cetera.

[Images: The Works Drain, Manchester; International Urban Glow].

My personal favorite by far, however, is British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell’s December 1980 piece for the New Statesman, now something of a cult classic in Urban Exploration circles.

[Image: Motherload Complex, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

“Entering, without permission, from an access shaft situated on a traffic island in Bethnal Green Road he descended one hundred feet to meet a tunnel, designated L, stretching into the distance and strung with cables and lights.” He had, in other words, discovered a government bunker complex that stretched all the way to Whitehall.

On and on he went, all day, for hours, riding a folding bicycle through this concrete, looking-glass world of alphabetic cyphers and location codes, the subterranean military abstract: “From Tunnel G, Tunnel M leads to Fleet Street and P travels under Leicester Square to the then Post Office Tower, with Tunnel S crossing beneath the river to Waterloo.”

[Image: Like the final scene from a subterranean remake of Jacob’s Ladder (or a deleted scene from Creep [cheers, Timo]), it’s the Barnton Quarry, ROTOR Drain, Edinburgh; International Urban Glow].

Here, giving evidence of Clayton’s “accidental disclosures reported in the news media,” we read that “when the IMAX cinema inside the roundabout outside Waterloo station was being constructed the contractor’s requests to deep-pile the foundations were refused, probably owing to the continued presence of [Tunnel S].”

[Image: Motherload, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

But when your real estate is swiss-cheesed and under-torqued by an unreal world of remnant topologies, the lesson, I suppose, is you have to read between the lines.

A simple building permissions refusal might be something else entirely: “It was reported,” Clayton says, “that in the planning stage of the Jubilee Line Extension official resistance had been encountered, when several projected routes through Westminster were rejected without an explanation, although no potential subterranean obstructions were indicated on the planners’ maps. According to one source, ‘…the rumour is that there is a vast bunker down there, which the government has kept secret, which is the grandaddy of them all.'”

[Image: The Corsham Tunnels; see also BLDGBLOG].

Continuing to read between the lines, Clayton describes how, in 1993, after “close scrutiny of the annual Defence Works Services budget the existence of the so-called Pindar Project was revealed, a plan for a nuclear bomb-proof bunker, that had cost £66 million to excavate.”

All of these places have insane names—Pindar, Cobra, Trawlerman, ICARUS, Kingsway, Paddock—and they are hidden in the most unlikely places. Referring to a government bunker hidden in the ground near Reading: “Inside, they tried another door on what looked like a cupboard. This was also unlocked, and swung open to reveal a steep staircase leading into an underground office complex.”

[Images: The freaky stairs and tunnels, encrusted with plaster stalactites, of King William Street].

Everything leads to everything else; there are doorways everywhere. It’s like a version of London rebuilt to entertain quantum physicists, with a dizzying self-intersection of systems hitting systems as layers of the city collide.

[Image: Belsize Park, from the terrifically useful Underground History of Hywel Williams].

There is always another direction to turn.

[Image: The Shorts Brothers Seaplane Factory and air raid shelter, Kent; photo by Underground Kent].

This really could go on and on; there are flood control complexes, buried archives, lost rivers sealed inside concrete viaducts – and all of this within the confines of Greater London.

[Images: London’s Camden catacombs – “built in the 19th Century as stables for horses… [t]heir route can be traced from the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at regular intervals into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the horses below” – as photographed by Nick Catford of Subterranea Brittanica].

Then there’s Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh, Kent…

[Image: Main Junction, Bunker Drain, Warrington; International Urban Glow].

And for all of that, I haven’t even mentioned the so-called CTRL Project (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link); or Quatermass and the Pit, an old sci-fi film where deep tunnel Tube construction teams unearth a UFO; or the future possibilities such material all but demands.

[Image: Wapping Tunnel Vent, Liverpool, by International Urban Glow; a kind of subterranean Pantheon].

Such as: BLDGBLOG: The Game, produced by LucasArts, set in the cross-linked passages of subterranean London, where it’s you, a torch, some kind of weapon, a shitty map and hordes of bird flu infected zombies coughing their way down the dripping passages – looking for you

The Topography of Hell

[Image: Dante’s Inferno, as imagined by Barry Moser].

It would seem fitting, on Halloween, to take a quick look at the landscape architecture of Hell—its topography and geographical forms, perhaps even its subsurface geology.

Inspired by a comparison someone made a while back between Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the Bingham Pit—an open pit copper mine—in Utah, and an illustration by Botticelli of Dante’s Inferno, my interest in Hell’s topography was piqued.

The original comparison:


You’re looking at “Kennecott Copper Mine No. 22, Bingham Valley, Utah” (1983), by Edward Burtynsky, and… Botticelli.

As Adrian Searle describes Botticelli’s work:

Terraced, pinnacled, travelling forever downward, the ledges, cities and basements of hell are furnished with sloughs, gorges and deserts; there are cities, rivers of boiling blood, lagoons of scalding pitch, burning deserts, thorny forests, ditches of shit and frozen subterranean lakes. Every kind of sin, and sinner, is catered for. Here, descending circle by circle, like tourists to Bedlam, came Dante and Virgil. Following them, at least through Dante’s poem, came Botticelli.

The ledges, cities and basements of hell.

But then I found loads of other images, including this skewed and unattributed manuscript scan, showing another mine-like Hell, or Hell as an extraction complex–

—complete with interesting subsurface faults and fractured bedrock, in section. One could easily imagine an obscure branch of the Renaissance academy in Rome publishing tract after tract on the exact geotechnical nature of the Inferno. Is it made of granite? Is it kiln-like? Is it slate? Is it ringed by rivers of uranium tailings?

It’s the literary-cosmological subgenre of Hell descriptions.

In any case, making a much less explicit visual or even Dantean connection here, there’s also Bartolomeo’s Hell.

And, finally, making no attempt at all to sustain the visual thread, there’s William Blake–

—a perennial favorite of mine, which shows us Dante and Virgil both, walking hand-in-hand through a shimmering geomagnetic curtain, a Northern Lights inside the earth. The gates of hell redesigned as a crackling, prehistoric, residual electricity that blasts in vaulted arcs from the faulted walls of granitic stratigraphy, prehuman, technicolor, properly infernal. Hell, as industrially re-designed by Nikola Tesla.

William Blake meets Jules Verne, who has become a mining engineer and is working on his own translation of Dante. They load-up on blank notebooks and descend together toward the vast, gyroscopic rotations of an electrical hell, taking notes on geology, mapping the stratigraphy of torture machines, where solid rocks mutate and minerals bleed. An epic poem starring geotechnical engineers, and rogue electricians. A hell-mapping expedition.

The climactic scene is a dialogue between Blake and Tesla, who argue, in front of huge glowing domes of black electricity, above vast canals of uranium, that there is an energetic basis for eternal life – or damnation…

Or perhaps the British Museum sends its imperial topographical unit deep into Siberia, where a giant hole has been discovered… Electrical storms form in its overgrown mouth and screams can be heard…

Anyway – Happy Halloween. Don’t forget your hell map.

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).

Tree bombs

Two earlier posts here have strangely merged in real life: while we were off soil-bombing Iceland, MIT’s Moshe Alamaro – of the famed anti-hurricane jet engine barges – was strafing the earth with tree seeds. It’s called “aerial reforestation.”

Back in 1997, Alamaro “designed conical canisters, of a starchy biodegradable material, which each contain a seedling packed in soil and nutrients. The canisters are dropped from a low-flying plane, so that they hit the ground at 200 m.p.h., and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

Whole forests, fired from F-16s. Stealth forestry.


Or, branching off from an earlier comment on the agri-militaristic possibilities of garden wars (“hotheaded dictators and war-time presidents decide to take turns garden-bombing each other” [see comments]), you’d get forest wars, landscape design by Cruise missile: launched from a ship in the Indian Ocean, soon there are rich deciduous forests in the hills of Afghanistan.


Aspen trees. Precision Seedlings®. Bunker busters dropped into the San Andreas fault, where genetically engineered redwood saplings grow so deep they knit the faultline back together…

Riot police discard their plastic bullets and tear gas canisters to fire baby tulip bulbs; you go home and flowers are growing from your wounds… All scars become gardens…

Or on CNN some morning we see ICBMs arcing out of the mid-Atlantic, submarine crews cheering, the hunt for a truly red October now over: new maple tree saplings have been fired – they are reforesting the eastern Canadian plateau –

Or it’s a threat: disarm – or we will reforest you… Using tree bombs…

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.”

Sound dunes

“Sand dunes in certain parts of the world are notorious for the noises they make,” New Scientist reports, “as sand avalanches down their sides. Some [dunes] emit low powerful booms, others sound like drum rolls or galloping horses, and some are even tuneful. These dune songs have been reported to last for up to 15 minutes and can sound as loud as a low-flying airplane.”

To test for the causes, properties, and other effects of these sand dune booms, “Stéphane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate.” There, Douady’s team “found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle.”

The transformation of a sand dune – and, by extension, the entire Sahara desert, indeed any desert – even, by extension, the rust deserts of Mars – into a musical instrument. Music of the spheres, indeed.

“When the sand avalanches, the grains jostle each other at different frequencies, setting up standing waves in the cascading layer, says Douady. These waves reinforce one another, making the layer vibrate like the surface of a loud speaker. ‘What’s funny is that in these massive dunes, only a thin layer of 2 or 3 centimetres is needed to set up the resonance,’ says Douady. ‘Soon all grains begin to vibrate in step.'”

Douady has so perfected his technique of dune resonance that he has now “successfully predicted the notes emitted by dunes in Morocco, Chile and the US simply by measuring the size of the grains they contain.” The music of the dunes, in other words, was determined entirely by the size, shape, and roughness of the sand grains involved, where excessive smoothness dampened the dunes’ sound.

I’m reminded of the coast of Inishowen, a peninsula south of Malin Head in the north of Ireland, where the rocks endlessly grind across one another in the backwash of heaving, metallic, grey Atlantic waves. Under constant pressure of the oceanic, the rocks carve into themselves and each other, chipping down over decades into perfectly polished and rounded spheres, columns, and eggs – as if Archimedean solids or the nested orbits of Kepler could be discovered on the Irish ocean foreshore –

– all glittering. The rocks, I later learned, were actually semi-precious stones, and I had a kind of weird epiphany, standing there above the hush and clatter of bejewelled rocks, rubbing and rubbed one to the other in the depopulated void of a coastal November. It was not a sound easy to forget.

Because the earth itself is already a musical instrument: there is “a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the ‘Earth’s hum‘, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data.”

Elsewhere: “Competing with the natural emissions from stars and other celestial objects, our Earth sings like a canary – it drones on in a constant hum of a gazillion notes. If it were several octaves higher, and hence, audible to the human ear,” it could probably get recorded by the unpredictably omnidirectional antennas of ShortWaveMusic and… you could download the sound of the earth. Free Radio Interterrestrial. [Note: the “drones on” link, a sentence or two back, offers a contrary theory (published in 2000) about the origins of these planetary sound waves.]

Which, finally, brings us to Ernst Chladni and his Chladni figures, or: architectonic structures appearing in sand due to patterns of acoustic resonance. The architecture of sand, involving sound—or architecture through sound, involving sand. Silicon assuming structure, humming.

The gist of Chladni’s experiments involved spreading a thin layer of sand across a vibrating plate, changing the frequency at which the plate vibrated, and then watching the sand as it shivered round, forming regular, highly geometric patterns. Those patterns depended upon, and were formed in response to, whatever vibration frequency it was that Chladni chose.

So you’ve got sand, dune music, terrestrial vibration, some Chladni figures – one could be excused for wondering whether the earth, apparently a kind of carbon-ironic bell made of continental plates and oceanic resonators, is really a vast Chladni plate, vibrating every little mineral, every pebble, every grain of sand, perhaps every organic molecule, into complex, three-dimensional, time-persistent patterns for which we have no standard or even technique of measurement. Or maybe William Blake knew how to do it, or Pythagoras, or perhaps even Nikola Tesla, but…

The sound dunes continue to boom and shiver. The deserts roar. The continents hum.

Soil-bombing Iceland

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland is in the midst of a rather heroic effort to de-desertify large parts of the country. Iceland, in fact, is the largest desert in all of Europe.

As the BBC says, “The only difference [between the Icelandic desert and] the Sahara is that the sand here is black. Pitch black – with glaciers towering above and the sea shimmering in the distance. And the wind howling in between.” Which sounds like quite a difference.

In any case, the desert’s origins are with human activity; it is an artificial landscape, bearing traces of the island nation’s earlier inhabitants: “Despite the rather frightening name of the country, Iceland was green when Vikings came to settle. About 60% of the country was covered in bushes, trees, grass and all that. (…) But the Vikings, aside from chopping down trees for their own needs, also brought along their sheep. And what do sheep do best? They eat anything that is green.”

What interests me here, aside from the ecological message – don’t overgraze your territory – is the Soil Conservation Service’s preferred method of re-seeding: they pack finely sorted and organized seeds – virtual ecosystems, yet to occur, chosen species by species – into bombs: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated. There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’, dropping the fertiliser and seeds from a WW II DC 3 Dakota.”

Earth, delivered by warplane.

(You can also listen to this story, as I first did, through an often irritating BBC podcast.)

So the bombs collide with the planet, releasing condensed and virtual landscapes: seed-bombs. Soil-bombs. The Icelandic countryside soon becomes an ironic inversion of a warzone: where the bombs fall, trees, grass, and wildflowers grow.

Instead of the lunar landscape of the Nevada test site, for instance—

—you get the opposite: strange oases of green, or gardening by artillery.

Which, conveniently, brings me to a new BLDGBLOG project.

It’s a landscape proposal: Artillery Gardens.

Unfortunately, there already is, in London, a place called Artillery Gardens, but no matter. BLDGBLOG’s Artillery Gardens will require the following: a very large parcel of land; a Howitzer; several shotguns; a military engineer who can calculate launching arcs and target distances; and some seed-packing volunteers, preferably experienced gardeners. Constant gardeners, perhaps. Everyone would fill up as many shotgun shells and old Howitzer cases as they could, using odd, rare, or otherwise exciting combinations of exotic seed; we’d all don some earplugs; and then it could begin: you’d blast a garden into existence.

Landscape planning as field artillery calculation. Landscape-at-a-distance. Gardening by artillery.

Through explosion and gunfire and heavy artillery, a rare and fragile garden is born. Species by species, day by day, through blast radii and impact fields, with the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction,” these Artillery Gardens will grow.

War as a garden, pursued by other means.

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.”