War/Photography: An Interview with Simon Norfolk

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “King Amanullah’s Victory Arch built to celebrate the 1919 winning of Independence from the British. Paghman, Kabul Province.” From Afghanistan: Chronotopia.]

As photographer Simon Norfolk claims in the following interview, his work documents an international “military sublime.” His photos reveal half-collapsed buildings, destroyed cinemas, and unpopulated urban ruins in diagonal shafts of morning sunlight – from Iraq to Rwanda, Bosnia to Afghanistan – before venturing further afield into more distant, and surprising, landscapes of modern warfare. These include the sterile, climate-controlled rooms of military command centers, and the gargantuan supercomputers that design and simulate nuclear warheads.
As Norfolk himself writes, in a short but profoundly interesting text called Et in Arcadia Ego: “These photographs form chapters in a larger project attempting to understand how war, and the need to fight war, has formed our world: how so many of the spaces we occupy; the technologies we use; and the ways we understand ourselves, are created by military conflict.”
Indeed, he reminds us, “anybody interested in the effects of war quickly becomes an expert in ruins.”

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Rashid Street in Central Baghdad. The buildng on the right overlooks the bridge and so was heavily damaged in the fighting.”]

Norfolk’s written work delivers crisp and often stunning insights about urban design and historical landscapes. Later, in the same essay, he writes:

What these “landscapes” have in common – their fundamental basis in war – is always downplayed in our society. I was astounded to discover that the long, straight, bustling, commercial road that runs through my neighbourhood of London follows an old Roman road. In places the Roman stones are still buried beneath the modern tarmac. Crucially, it needs to be understood that the road system built by the Romans was their highest military technology, their equivalent of the stealth bomber or the Apache helicopter – a technology that allowed a huge empire to be maintained by a relatively small army, that could move quickly and safely along these paved, all-weather roads. It is extraordinary that London, a city that ought to be shaped by Tudor kings, the British Empire, Victorian engineers and modern international Finance, is a city fundamentally drawn, even to this day, by abandoned Roman military hardware.

I first got in touch with Norfolk after I’d seen his portraits of supercomputers (posted here several months ago as Rooms of algebraic theology). I was particularly impressed, however, by his photographs of Ascension Island, a joint US/UK surveillance outpost in the south Atlantic.
As Norfolk explains: “Although only 64 km square and mostly ash and lava fields, the island is festooned with more than 100 antenna relays. These are bizarre; like some kind of aerial spaghetti. Some are wire versions of the Millennium Dome; some like large skeletal bomber aircraft raised on tall pylons; and some are delicate cones and spirals.” This technologically Dr. Seuss-like landscape, “against a background of lifeless, red, volcanic ash is unearthly – more akin to a base on Mars.”

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Ascension Island, South Atlantic. “On the edge of the Broken Tooth Live Firing Range on the slopes of Sister’s Peak. Tyre tracks by the RAF. Distant aerials part of the American-controlled complex along Pyramid Point Road. In the far distance Cross Hill with another American facility on its peak.”]

Norfolk and I soon set up an interview, which appears below. We discuss European Romanticism and the paintings of Claude Lorrain; the long-term urban effect of WWII bombing raids over Germany; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; the military origins of grain in black and white film; genocide; the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; modern art; the modeling of nuclear warheads; and how to survive snipers in a combat zone – including some unexpected fashion tips for other war photographers.
Norfolk is the author of For most of it I have no words (with Michael Ignatieff), Bleed, and Afghanistan: Chronotopia.
We spoke via telephone.

• • •

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Bullet-scarred outdoor cinema at the Palace of Culture in the Karte Char district of Kabul.” From Afghanistan: Chronotopia.]

BLDGBLOG: Could you start with a brief thematic introduction to your work?

Simon Norfolk: All of the work that I’ve been doing over the last five years is about warfare and the way war makes the world we live in. War shapes and designs our society. The landscapes that I look at are created by warfare and conflict. This is particularly true in Europe. I went to the city of Cologne, for instance, and the city of Cologne was built by Charlemagne – but Cologne has the shape that it does today because of the abilities and non-abilities of a Lancaster Bomber. It comes from what a Lancaster can do and what a Lancaster can’t do. What it cannot do is fly deep into Germany in the middle of the day and pinpoint-bomb a ball bearing factory. What it can do is fly to places that are quite near to England, that are five miles across, on a bend in the river, under moonlight, and then hit them with large amounts of H.E.. And if you do that, you end up with a city that looks like Cologne – the way the city’s shaped.

So I started off in Afghanistan photographing literal battlefields – but I’m trying to stretch that idea of what a battlefield is. Because all the interesting money now – the new money, the exciting stuff – is about entirely new realms of warfare: inside cyberspace, inside parts of the electromagnetic spectrum: eavesdropping, intelligence, satellite warfare, imaging. This is where all the exciting stuff is going to happen in twenty years’ time. So I wanted to stretch that idea of what a battleground could be. What is a landscape – a surface, an environment, a space – created by warfare?

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Victory arch built by the Northern Alliance at the entrance to a local commander’s HQ in Bamiyan. The empty niche housed the smaller of the two Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.” From Afghanistan: Chronotopia.]

BLDGBLOG: And that’s how you started taking pictures of supercomputers?

Norfolk: Those supercomputers – big BlueGene, in particular – those are battlegrounds. BlueGene is designing and thinking about a space that is only about 30cm across and exists for about a billionth of a second, and that’s an exploding nuclear warhead. BlueGene is thinking about and modeling that space very intensely, because what happens there is very complicated.

That computer is as much a battlefield as a place in Afghanistan is, full of bullet holes.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “BlueGene/L, the world’s biggest computer, at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA. It is the size of 132,000 PCs. It is used to design and maintain America’s nuclear weapons.” On his website, Norfolk notes that the computer is used for “modeling physics inside an exploding nuclear warhead.”]

BLDGBLOG: In the context of those computers, your references to the divine proved quite controversial – in the comments, for instance, at the end of that earlier post on BLDGBLOG where the photographs appeared. Could you talk more about these overlaps between the military, computer technology, and what you think is “godlike” about the latter?

Norfolk: Where weapons and supercomputers fit in for me is in a military-industrial complex. The problem is that that complex has drifted off so far above any idea of democratic control – even Eisenhower pointed this out – that I would call it godlike. It’s beyond irrational, it’s beyond any kind of comprehension in a scientific sense. It’s designing nuclear weapons that can destroy the world more efficiently – when we already have nuclear weapons that can destroy the world many times over.

People seem to think that I’m saying oh, they’re full of gods, or look, this is where god lives… But obviously I don’t think that. I don’t think that those computers are somehow unprogrammed by humans, or supernatural. What I’m concerned about is that those humans, who have programmed them, aren’t warm and fuzzy professors like The Nutty Professor. They’re introverted people working in the basements of DynaCorp, and General Dynamics, and Raytheon, and they’re so far beyond any kind of democratic control that you or I will ever have over what they do.

It ends up being like a relationship with the sublime – a military sublime. All of the work I’m doing, I might even call it: “Toward a Military Sublime.” Because these objects are beyond: they’re inscrutable, uncontrollable, beyond democracy.

[Images: Simon Norfolk. Top: The Mare Nostrum, housed in a deconsecrated church in the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre, Spain. Middle: “Commissariat à l’énergie atomique, Bruyers-le-Chalet, near Paris. CEA designs and maintains France’s nuclear weapons. Installation of the new Tera10 supercomputer. The red poles are to prevent any accidents by falling down the open holes during installation.” Bottom: CEA. “A ‘cold aisle’ between two rows of TERA-1 racks.”]

BLDGBLOG: One of your photographs from Ascension Island shows a perfectly white-washed church – but, in the background, you see a military radar installation. There’s a fantastic overlap there between the theological lines of communication represented by the church, and the military/electromagnetic lines of communication represented by the radar. Both are immaterial, but both appear in the photograph.

Norfolk: [laughs] I’ve just been in the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland, where they have one of the biggest missile testing ranges in the world. It’s mainly a radar site – to follow the missiles down-range, when they fire missiles into the north Atlantic – but there’s other stuff out there, too: there’s submarine surveillance stuff and ocean surveillance stuff, and it’s all on top of this mountain range. But at the foot of the mountain there’s also a statue of the Madonna. It’s called The Madonna of the Isles – but the local people call it Where God Meets Radar.

[laughter]

It’s a bugger, though, because the way the mountain curves, you can’t actually get a picture of both of them at the same time. There’s no place you can actually get both things in the same frame. But when you visit, it’s just extraordinary: she’s a statue about 25′ high, with a child in her arms, made out of white marble, and on the hill about 100′ above are these huge white radomes, with these silently circling radar dishes.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Ascension Island, South Atlantic. “The Church Of St Mary in Georgetown with Cross Hill in the background with an American radar facility on its summit.”]

BLDGBLOG: Your photos are usually unpopulated. Is that a conscious artistic choice, or do you just happen to be photographing these places when there’s no one around?

Norfolk: Well, part of this interest of mine in the sublime means that a lot of the artistic ideas that I’m drawing on partly come out of the photography of ruins. When I was in Afghanistan photographing these places – photographing these ruins – I started looking at some of the very earliest photojournalists, and they were ruin photographers: Matthew Brady‘s pictures of battlefields at Gettysburg, or Roger Fenton‘s pictures from the Crimea. And there are no dead bodies. Well, there are dead bodies, but that’s very controversial – the corpses were arranged, etc.

But a lot of those photographers were, in turn, drawing upon ideas from 17th century and 18th century French landscape painting – European landscape painting. Claude Lorraine. Nicolas Poussin. Ruins have a very particular meaning in those pictures. They’re about the folly of human existence; they’re about the foolishness of empire. Those ruins of Claude Lorraine: it’s a collapsed Roman temple, and what he’s saying is that the greatest empires that were ever built – the empire of Rome, the Catholic church – these things have fallen down to earth. They all fall into ivy eventually.

So all the empires they could see being built in their own lifetimes – the British empire, the French empire, the Dutch empire – they were saying: look, all of this is crap. None of this is really permanent: all of these things rise and fall. All empires rise and fall and, in the long run, all of this is bullshit.

I wanted to try to copy some motifs from those paintings – in particular, that amazing golden light that someone like Claude Lorraine always used. Even when he does a painting called Midday, it’s bathed in this beautiful, golden light. To do that as a photographer, I can’t invent it like a painter can; I have to take the photographs very early in the morning. So they’re all shot at 4am.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Ascension Island, South Atlantic. “The BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station at English Bay.”]

BLDGBLOG: So of course no one’s around!

Norfolk: It is partly because of that that people aren’t there – but it’s also… for me, I think people kind of gobble up the photograph. They become what the photograph is. For me, people just aren’t that important; it’s about this panoptic process, it’s about this kind of eavesdropping, it’s about this ability to look into every aspect of our lives. And I think if you put people into these pictures, I don’t know – it would draw viewers away. It would draw viewers into the story of the people. It’s not about, you know, Bob who runs the radar dome; it’s about this thing that looks inside your email program, and listens to this phone call, and listens to every phone call in the world in every language, and washes it through computer programs. And if you say plutonium nerve gas bomb to me over the telephone, in an instant this computer is looking at what web pages you’ve been to recently, it’s looking at my credit card bills, it’s looking at your health records, it’s looking at the books I check out of the library. That’s what frightens me – it’s not about: here’s Dave, he works on the computer systems for Raytheon

So I’ve always tried to pull people out of the pictures – and, if they’re in my pictures, it’s usually because they represent an idea, really. I think if you’re going to talk about Dave, or Bob, or Wendy, you have to do it properly. You either do it properly or you don’t do it at all.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Ascension Island, South Atlantic.”The BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station at English Bay.”]

BLDGBLOG: How did you get to Ascension Island in the first place? Can anyone just buy a ticket ticket and go there?

Norfolk: You have to fill in a permission form – but, yeah, you can buy a ticket. A lot of birdwatchers go down to the Falklands, and airplanes have to refuel at Ascension Island. It’s expensive, but you can do it.

You also have to fill in a form which they go through, and it says what you’re up to and all the rest of it. So I’d filled in the form, and I’d said I was a photographer – but I got there and no one had read the forms! On my last day on the island, I phoned up and said: I’m a photojournalist, and I’ve been on the island for two weeks, and can I talk to someone up there…? And they fucking crapped themselves. They said how did you get here? Didn’t you fill out the forms? And I said yeah, didn’t you read the forms?

And they said, well – actually, nobody reads the forms.

[laughter]

BLDGBLOG: So much for international surveillance.

Norfolk: They also didn’t pick up any emails that said I was going to Ascension Island.

BLDGBLOG: Or any phonecalls you made while staying there.

Norfolk: It’s run by clowns, of course.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Ascension Island, South Atlantic. “Looking towards the cinder cone of Sister’s Peak from English Bay Road. On the edge of the Broken Tooth Live Firing Range.”]

BLDGBLOG: It often seems like the most interesting thing about these places is what cannot be photographed.

Norfolk: Absolutely – absolutely. That’s why, whenever you see warfare now, it’s photographed in that same dreary, clichéd way: it’s metal boxes rolling across the desert. Every time you switch on CNN, or buy a newspaper, you see guys in metal boxes – because that looks good. These photojournalists, and these TV crews, they don’t explain the process: they show things that look good on TV. A satellite orbiting in space doesn’t look good. A submarine – you know, the greatest platform we’ve ever built for launching nuclear weapons and for surveillance – that has no presence whatsoever in how most people understand what the military does today.

The same is true of electromagnetic stuff – information warfare, cyber-warfare – and I wonder what photojournalists of the future are going to photograph? Are they still going to photograph guys with guns, shooting at each other? Because quite soon there aren’t going to be guys with guns shooting at each other. We’re quite soon getting to the era of UAVs and stuff. People aren’t even going to know what shot them – and there will be nothing to photograph.

[Images: Simon Norfolk. “The supercomputer at the Wellcome Trust’s Sangar Institute, Cambridge, UK.”]

BLDGBLOG: Except for empty rooms and computer systems.

Norfolk: Exactly. Look at the way the war in Afghanistan was photographed: what you got was a guy on a ridge in a turban watching a very, very far away explosion. That was war photography! That was the way the Afghan war was covered. What worries me is that, if these wars become invisible, then they will cease to exist in the popular imagination. I’m very worried that, because these things become invisible, they just – people don’t seem to be fucking bothered.

But, you know, wouldn’t it be amazing to have a series of portraits printed of missile systems, but you photographed them the way you’d photograph a BMW?

[laughter]

You get them straight off the production line in the factory, and then you polish them, and you wax them – so they’re just beautiful – and then you light them the way you would an Audi TT, with a black background, and you shoot them on a big camera. Just gorgeous – sculptural. Then the caption says, you know: Predator Drone. Hellfire Missile. Nuclear Warhead.

BLDGBLOG: It’s interesting that, on your website, it says you gave up photojournalism to move into landscape photography – yet that seems to have coincided with a more explicit politicization of your work.

Norfolk: Yeah, absolutely.

BLDGBLOG: So your projects are even more political now – yet they’re intended as landscape photography?

Norfolk: I mean, I didn’t get fed up with the subjects of photojournalism – I got fed up with the clichés of photojournalism, with its inability to talk about anything complicated. Photojournalism is a great tool for telling very simple stories: Here’s a good guy. Here’s a bad guy. It’s awful. But the stuff I was dealing with was getting more and more complicated – it felt like I was trying to play Rachmaninoff in boxing gloves. Incidentally, it’s also a tool that was invented in the 1940s – black and white film, the Leica, the 35mm lens, with a 1940s narrative. So, if I’m trying to do photojournalism, I’m meant to use a tool that was invented by Robert Capa?

I needed to find a more complicated way to draw people in. I’m not down on photojournalism – it does what it does very well – but its job is to offer all its information instantly and immediately. I thought the fact that this place in Afghanistan – this ruin – actually looks a little like Stonehenge: that interested me. I wanted to highlight that. I want you to be drawn to that. I want you to stay in my sphere of influence for slightly longer, so that you can think about these things. And taking pictures in 35mm doesn’t do it.

So the content of photojournalism interests me enormously, it’s just the tools that I had to work with I thought were terrible. I had to find a different syntax to negotiate those things.

BLDGBLOG: Ironically, though, your photos haven’t really been accepted by the art world yet – because of your subject matter.

Norfolk: Well, I cannot fucking believe that I go into an art gallery and people want to piss their lives away not talking about what’s going on in the world. Have they not switched on their TV and seen what’s going on out there? They have nothing to say about that? They’d rather look at pictures of their girlfriend’s bottom, or at their top ten favorite arseholes? Switch on the telly and see what’s going on in our world – particularly these last five years. If you’ve got nothing to say about that, then I wonder what the fucking hell you’re doing.

The idea of producing work which is only of interest to a couple of thousand people who have got art history degrees… The point of the world is to change it, and you can’t change it if you’re just talking about Roland Barthes or structuralist-semiotic gobbledygook that only a few thousand people can understand, let alone argue about.

That’s not why I take these photographs.

[Images: Simon Norfolk. Top: “Wrecked Ariana Afghan Airlines jets at Kabul Airport pushed into a mined area at the edge of the apron,” from Afghanistan: Chronotopia. Bottom: “The illegal Jewish settlement of Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem. To deter snipers from the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Jala (seen in the distance) a wall has been erected. To brighten the view on the Israeli side, it has been painted with the view as it would be if there were no Palestinians and no Beit Jala.”]

BLDGBLOG: Clearly you’re not taking these pictures – of military supercomputers and remote island surveillance systems – as a way to celebrate the future of warfare?

Norfolk: No, no. No.

BLDGBLOG: But what, then, is your relationship to what you describe, in one of your texts, as the Romantic, 18th-century nationalistic use of images, where ruined castles and army forts and so on were actually meant as a kind of homage to imperial valor? Are you taking pictures of military sites as a kind of ironic comment on nationalistic celebrations of global power?

Norfolk: No, I don’t think it’s ironic. I think what I’m in favor of is clarity. What annoys me about those artists is that there were things they actually stood for, but what seems to have happened is their ideas have been laundered. They’ve been infantilized. I don’t mind what the guy stands for – I just want to know what the guy stands for. I don’t want some low-fat version of his politics. And unless you can really understand what the fellow stood for, how can you comprehend what his ideas were about? How can you judge whether his paintings were good paintings or rubbish paintings?

The thing that pisses me off about so much modern art is that it carries no politics – it has nothing that it wants to say about the world. Without that passion, that political drive, to a piece of work – and I mean politics here very broadly – how can you ever really evaluate it? At the end of the day, I don’t think my politics are very popular right now, but what I would like to hear is what are your politics? Because if you’re not going to tell me, how can we ever possibly have an argument about whether you’re a clever person, your work is great, your work is crap, your art is profound, your art is trivial…?

For instance, I’m doing a lot of work these days on Paul Strand – and Paul Strand is a much more interesting photographer than most people think he is. The keepers of the flame, the big organizations that hold the platinum-plating prints and his photogravures, or whatever – these big museums, particularly in America, that have large collections – they don’t want the world to know that Strand was a major Marxist, his entire life. He was a massive Stalinist. That just dirties the waters in terms of knowing who Strand was. So Strand has become this rather meaningless pictorialist now. You look at any description of Strand’s work, and he was just a guy who photographed fence posts and little wooden huts in rural parts of the world. If you don’t understand his politics, how can you make any sense of what he was trying to do, or what he photographed? These people have completely laundered his reputation – completely deracinated the man.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. Staircase at Auschwitz, with worn footsteps.]

BLDGBLOG: How does working outside of photojournalism, and even outside the art world, affect the actual practicality of getting into these places – photographing war zones and ruins and so on? You weren’t an embedded photographer in Iraq?

Norfolk: No, no. I was just kind of winging it.

You know, the camera I use is made of wood – it’s a 4×5 field camera, made of mahogany and brass – and it looks like an antique. Part of what I do is I make sure I don’t look very serious – it’s best to look like a harmless dickhead, really, so no one bothers you. You look like a nutter. And, to be honest, I play that up: I’ve got the bald head, and the Hawaiian shirt, and, to look at the image on the back of the camera, you have to put a blanket over your head and go in there with a magnifying glass, and it’s always on a tripod.

So I have two choices: I can either do these images from a speeding car, or I can stand there with a blanket over my head, and look like such a prick that somebody’s going to find me through their rifle scope and think: Oh! What’s that? Let’s go down and have a look… I can’t believe that photographers go into war zones dressed like soldiers! Soldiers are the people they shoot at. If I could wear a clown suit I would do it – if I could wear the big shoes and everything. I would wear the whole fucking thing.

I think there’s a lot to be said for that, actually, because I can either scrape in there on my belly, wearing camo, and sneak around; or I can stand right there in front, wearing a shirt that says, you know, Don’t shoot me. I’m a dick.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Storage depot for the oil-fired power station at Jiyé/Jiyeh bombed in the first few days of the [Israel-Hezbollah] war and still on fire and still dumping oil into the sea 20 days later. Seen from the Sands Rock Resort, 1 Aug 2006.”]

BLDGBLOG: Of course, you read how more journalists, photographers, and television reporters have been killed, or taken hostage, in Iraq over the last two years alone than were killed during the entirety of the Vietnam War – but, of course, this is the war where they’ve been embedded. They’re all –

Norfolk: The way the embeddeds are dressed!

BLDGBLOG: They’re dressed like combatants.

Norfolk: What are you thinking, going around in brown trousers and stuff? I don’t want to say that the people are to blame for what happened to them – but I would not do that. I just would not do that. You know those orange vests that guys working on the roads wear? I’ve had those made with the word Artist on the back. [laughs]

BLDGBLOG: You’ll probably get shot by a soldier now.

Norfolk: [laughs] So the practicalities – I mean, you still have to be able to shift like a journalist does. You have to find out where things are, what’s going on – and you still have to get there.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “A controlled explosion of an American fuel convoy in Iraq being filmed on the set of Over There, a Fox TV production about the life of a US Army platoon in contemporary Iraq. Being filmed in Chatsworth, just north of Los Angeles, Sept 2005.”]

BLDGBLOG: In your photos of movie sets, where a war scene is being filmed, it’s very clear that we’re looking at a staged event. It doesn’t look anything like real warfare. But have you ever found that the situation is reversed – where you’re shooting a real war scene, in Baghdad, say, but all the reporters from CNN and the BBC make it look like some kind of TV set?

Norfolk: Oh, yeah, yeah – on the roof of the Palestine Hotel. You’re up on the big, flat roof of the hotel, and you’re looking down on this ballroom, and the streets of Baghdad are below that. The reporters were all camped out on the roof of this ballroom – with little tents and little pergolas with lights and generators and stuff – and you could see where it was evening in the world because you could see whose TV crews were up and working. You could see all the Europeans were out – oh, it must be 6 o’clock in Europe. Oh, it must be 7 o’clock now in the U.S., because all the Americans are out. Then the Japanese come out later on, and they do it all at 3 o’clock in the morning because that’s 5 o’clock in Japan, or whatever. They’re all sharing gear and generators and stuff, and using the same background – but they’re acting like they’re on their own, out on the frontline. Standing right next to each other. Quite bizarre. It was like some kind of casting for a new film.

There are these weird layers. When I photographed the Iraq movie, it was done, interestingly, in the same place where they made the M*A*S*H TV series – which is why it looks like M*A*S*H The same landscape that could be M*A*S*H could also be North Korea – and it could also be Iraq. What else could it be? Greenland? [laughs] So there are these weird layers of history – and weird layers of non-history, as well. These juxtapositions of time kind of crashing into each other.

The first book I did, the Afghanistan book, I called it Chronotopia, and that’s a term taken from Mikhail Bakhtin. The idea of the chronotope – chronos is time, and topos is place – is any place where these layers of time fit upon each other. Either satisfactorily or uncomfortably – it fascinates me. Especially coming from Europe. In northern France, there are places where the English fought the French in 1347 – and it’s the same place we fought the Germans in 1914, and it’s the same place where the Americans rolled through in 1944. Their battle cemeteries are within a hundred yards of each other. These places have thicknesses, military thicknesses –

BLDGBLOG: It’s like the Roman roads in London, that you describe in your writings: they’re actually a military transport system, still there beneath modern streets. London is a military landscape.

Norfolk: Absolutely: it’s military technology left lying around. This stuff comes down to us. You know, the reason I can take night shot photographs is not because Mr. Kodak wanted me to take these photographs, but because he needed to design a certain kind of film that could go into a Mosquito bomber and take reconnaissance photographs during the Second World War. That’s really when all the advances in film were made – in grain-structure – and it was for aerial reconnaissance.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. From “Hotel Africa.”]

BLDGBLOG: Your “Hotel Africa” series reminds me a bit of some J.G. Ballard stories – overgrown air conditioning systems, tent cities, native warfare, and so on – and you mention Shelley and Byron in some of your texts; so I’m curious if there are any intentional literary references in your work? Or is there a particular book or a particular writer who has influenced you?

Norfolk: Unfortunately, this is the biggest cliché of Africa, but the first book I wrote was pretty much based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Not because it features pictures of Africa, but because it has a curve, I think. What fascinates me about Conrad’s book is that it starts in the real world, this world that we understand – they’re in a boat in the Thames estuary – and he says, This, too, was one of the dark places of the earth… And what he’s talking about are these chronotopes, these layered histories. Then he says, I’ll tell you a story about the Congo, and so he goes to Belgium, and then he goes to Africa, and then he starts going up the river.

So little by little you move away from these certainties; you move toward instabilities around the narrator as he talks. As he moves up the river, everything becomes harder to grasp. So the idea of that curve – I took that from Conrad.

When I did the first book, it started out with these photojournalistic pictures of genocide in Rwanda – it was about six months after the genocide, and there were 2000 bodies in one church alone. Then I went back in history, looking at other genocides that had taken place: at Auschwitz, where there’s bits of evidence lying around, and then back to Namibia in 1905, and then to the Armenian genocide, where there’s almost no evidence at all. There, the pictures become pictures of snow and sand, as a metaphor about a covering and a hiding, a new layer, so these evidences become harder and harder to discern and unwrap.

That was also something that I took from Conrad.

[Image: Simon Norfolk. “Tailings pond of the Petkovici Dam. A mass grave was discovered dug into the earth of the dam and bodies were also thrown into the lake.” From Bleed.]

• • •

Simon Norfolk will speak at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Saturday, December 2nd, at 4pm, in the Brown Auditorium. If you’re anywhere near Los Angeles, consider stopping by.
Meanwhile, there are many, many more photographs available on Norfolk’s website, and his own writings deserve a long look. His books – For most of it I have no words, Bleed, and Afghanistan: Chronotopia – are also worthy acquisitions. Shit, it’s Christmas – buy all three.
Finally, a huge thank you to Simon Norfolk for his humor and patience during the long process of assembling this interview.

Antarctica’s Underground Sphere-Cathedral

In his book Terra Antarctica – previously discussed here – author William L. Fox takes us to an Antarctic field research city called, appropriately, Pole. This geodesic-domed instant city is built on Beardmore glacier – which, Fox writes, is “a ferocious uphill maze riven with thousands of crevasses,” where high-speed winds are caused not by weather in any real sense of the word, but by “dense cold air sliding off the interior toward the coast via gravity.”

16[Image: “Beardmore Glacier, slicing its way through the Transantarctic Mountains.” Via Glaciers of the World].

Pole itself is an agglomeration of Jamesway huts, “corrugated metal tunnels” slowly blown over with snow, and the massive geodesic dome for which the city has become most famous. The dome is not precisely architectural, on the other hand: “The station is more like a raft floating on a very slow moving sea of ice two miles deep than a traditional building footed on the ground.”
It is structure imposed upon frozen hydrology: the insufficiently modeled glacial surface undergoes complicated deformations, thwarting all attempts to achieve longterm stability. It’s a kind of ice seismology.
In any case, one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing is actually found below the city, in Pole’s so-called “sewage bulbs.” To quote at length:

Water for the station is derived by inserting a heating element – which looks like a brass plumb bob 12 feet in diameter – 150 feet into the ice and then pumping out the meltwater. After a sphere has been hollowed out over several years, creating a bulb that bottoms out 500 feet below the surface, they move to a new area, using the old bulb to store up to a million gallons of sewage, which freezes in place – sort of. The catch is, the ice cap is moving northward toward the coast (and Rio de Janeiro) at a rate of about an inch a day, or 33 feet per year. That movement means that the tunnels are steadily compressing; as a result, they have to be reamed out every few years to maintain room for the insulated water and sewage pipes. Because each sewage bulb fills up in five to six years, they’re hoping – based on the length of the tunnel and the number of bulbs they can create off it (perhaps even seven or eight) – this project will have a forty-year lifespan. Ultimately, in about the year A.D. 120,000, the whole mess should drop off into the ocean.

Rather than sewage bulbs, however, why not use the same technique to melt spherical chambers of a new, inverted cathedral one thousand feet below the Antarctic surface, a void-maze of linked naves and side-chapels moving slowly down-valley with the glacier…? Rather than a church organ, for instance, you’d have the natural music of the ice itself, a glacial moan of augmented terrestrial pressures. The whole system could be sanctified, renamed Vatican 2, and new saints of ice could win Bible study grants to reside there, in thick parkas, reading Thomas à Kempis over three-month stays. A new religious movement – called glacial mysticism – soon results.
Unearthly, geometric, the voids of this new ecumenical church might even burn reflectively inside with the aurora australis.

4bg[Image: The aurora borealis – yes, the Northern, not Southern, Lights. Sorry. Via NASA].

A hundred thousand years later, the cathedral reaches the sea, where its vast internal voids are broken open and revealed in the glacial cliff face. Sections of nave and pulpit can be found floating in the water, sculpted rims of prayer-domes drifting north in the smooth surfaces of icebergs. Here and there a complete chapel; elsewhere a crypt, its tombs’ chiseled inscriptions melting slowly in the sun.
Some future group of Argentine architectural students will then take a field-trip there, sketchbooks in hand, and they’ll spend two weeks back-mapping the precisely measured structure to its original, geometric clarity.

[Image: The BLDGBLOG glacial cathedral, adapted from this photo, ©Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS/ORA].

Another hundred thousand years later, there’s no trace of the cathedral at all.

Science Fiction and the City: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

The novels of Jeff VanderMeer fall somewhere between science fiction, dark fantasy, magical realism, and even horror comedy. VanderMeer’s literary range becomes immediately apparent when you consider that he’s been “a two-time winner (six-time finalist) of the World Fantasy Award, as well as a past finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.”

VanderMeer_Covers[Image: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. See Shriek‘s official website].

Among others, VanderMeer’s books include Veniss Underground, City of Saints & Madmen, and Shriek: An Afterword – the latter published in hardcover just last month. Author news, textual excerpts, MP3s, and imagery from Shriek are all available on that novel’s official website. Meanwhile, along with Mark Roberts, VanderMeer is also editor of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, which includes work by dozens of contributors, from Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow to China Miéville and K.J. Bishop (official website here).
In light of my own conviction that many of today’s most original, historically unencumbered, and frankly exciting architectural ideas are to be found within videogames, films, and science fiction novels, I decided to talk to VanderMeer about his own inventive and novelistic use of the built environment. From his fungal city of Ambergris to the uniquely dark, medicalized underworld of Veniss, VanderMeer’s vision is architectural in the broadest – and best – sense.
In the following interview we discuss English cathedrals, “fungal technologies” and architectural infections, the Sydney opera house, Vladimir Nabokov, “The Library of Babel,” Monsanto, giant squids and geological deposits, nighttime walks through Prague, and even urban security after the attacks of 9/11.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with the most general question first: if architects, urban planners, and even film makers all look for something in a city – a certain quality to the space, a light, a texture, a density – what do you, as a novelist, look for?

Jeff VanderMeer: Every time I go to a new place, obviously it’s an inspiration of some kind – even if it’s the most awful place in the universe. Like, say, Blackpool, England. I think that when I go to a city I actually do look at texture, because texture is very important in the way I layer my writing. When I go to a city – it’s pretty basic: I literally start on the micro-level. I actually run my hand down the wall to get a sense of what things are like. [laughs] A great example, I think, is when we were in Sydney, and you see the opera house from afar and it’s kind of like this fairy tale creation – it looks so light – but then you get up close and it’s basically just a 1970s piece of concrete, with a very rough and kind of forbidding texture. It’s not what it appears from afar; it’s very much an illusion.

So I think when you get to the actual texture of things – when you actually get a chance to touch the stuff – you get a sense of what it’s actually about. That’s why I like traveling – because I think it’s very important, even when you’re writing a fantasy city, to base it on something real, some first-hand experience. I don’t like the idea that the basic core of what you’re writing about is somehow a reaction to another piece of fiction. I want it to be tactile. I want it to be something concrete, based on something in the real world, that you can extrapolate from. Then maybe you layer in some allusions or influences from other fictions – if it’s applicable in some way, if it adds some kind of resonance.

There’s not really a method beyond that; it’s just what strikes me. Like going to the York Minster, in England – which blew me away and inspired the cadaver cathedral in Veniss Underground. Standing inside that building, which was so absolutely amazing, like nothing I had ever seen before – because I had never had a chance to go inside an old cathedral – how alien it looked and how ethereal and yet so solid – and I literally just stood there looking at it, looking at the inside, looking at the ceiling, for more than an hour.

Being in there, and having been stalled on Veniss, that structure – that piece of architecture – saved my novel. I suddenly understood how to transform something from the real world into something imaginary.

15[Image: Interior view of the York Minster. VanderMeer: “Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue, and clear tubes that coursed through the cathedral like arteries. Above, shot through with track lighting from behind, what at first resembled stained-glass windows showing some abstract scene were revealed as clear glass within which organs had been stored: yellow livers, red hearts, pale arms, white eyeballs, rosaries of nerves disembodied from their host.” From Veniss Underground]

BLDGBLOG: How do you achieve – or hope to achieve – believability in an urban setting, giving readers something that (they think) might actually exist?

VanderMeer: As a novelist who is uninterested in replicating “reality” but who is interested in plausibility and verisimilitude, I look for the organizing principles of real cities and for the kinds of bizarre juxtapositions that occur within them. Then I take what I need to be consistent with whatever fantastical city I’m creating. For example, there is a layering effect in many great cities. You don’t just see one style or period of architecture. You might also see planning in one section of a city and utter chaos in another. The lesson behind seeing a modern skyscraper next to a 17th-century cathedral is one that many fabulists do not internalize and, as a result, their settings are too homogenous.

Of course, that kind of layering will work for some readers – and other readers will want continuity. Even if they live in a place like that – a baroque, layered, very busy, confused place – even if, say, they’re holding the novel as they walk down the street in London [laughter] – they just don’t get it. So you have to be careful how you do that. In the novel I’m working on now, I’ll be able to do much more layering because much more time will have passed. It’s set 500 or 1000 years after the events in City of Saints and Shriek. Though I don’t actually refer to specific architectural styles, or to a kind of macro-vision of buildings in the Ambergris universe; I just allude to things.

I also absorb a lot of research. Byzantine art and history. Venetian history. Roman. Etruscan. Indian. Southeast Asian. English. And some of the research was just seeing all of these amazing structures as a child. I mean, you see something like Machu Picchu when you’re eight and it sticks with you! But one thing I find interesting is what people choose to believe and not believe. In the early history of Ambergris, from City of Saints – which does actually have some architectural allusions – the more fantastical stuff is actually taken from Byzantine and other periods. A lot of stuff that’s true to life, people, in emails, will say how cool it is that I made that up. So you never know how someone will react to this stuff.

history[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: Do you actually draw, or map out, the cities and landscapes you describe?

VanderMeer: I do re-draw the city on occasion – and that’s why there’s no map. I don’t want to realize, writing a story later, that, oh, I can’t do that… But I do have a small, simple map – I would just never put it in a book. It’s more so that I can have a general idea of where things are.

The last time we went to New York, a friend of ours was talking about how quickly the neighborhoods change there. Things shift. An area that was a bunch of warehouses can suddenly be a new art district – and I also think of the city of Ambergris as shifting in that way. Neighborhoods will go fallow – almost like, in rural areas, how a field will go fallow – and then it comes back as something else.

I don’t like having too complete a map.

BLDGBLOG: That idea – that a whole neighborhood could go fallow – was actually the premise of an architectural project by a London firm called The Agents of Change. They came up with this almost science fictional scenario, saying: what would happen if Monsanto, or some other multinational genetic-engineering firm, bought the entirety of east London…? So they drew up this whole plan with rooftop gardens and streets turned into croplands – in other words, London itself gone fallow. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that they used a kind of novelistic device or fictional plot to stimulate their architectural design; it’s like where creative writing and urban planning intersect. In any case, speculative urban design seems to be a burgeoning literary genre in its own right, from Italo Calvino to China Miéville, or even Franz Kafka and H.G. Wells – or Plato’s Atlantis, for that matter. Thomas More’s Utopia. Are there any specific authors in that regard who have influenced your work?

VanderMeer: I get my inspiration from real life as much as possible, and then from history books and then from other writers. I find Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, for example, stultifyingly boring because of this idea of speculative urban design. Although I like the idea of a setting also being a character, it has to also be a character – not be the only thing in the book.

Sometimes I will use authors as something to react against – and say, well, okay: this is an interesting design for a city and this is an interesting design for a city, but neither of these actually work. By kind of cross-correlating them and looking at the differences I can figure out where it is that I want to go.

There have been definite examples where I feel like the city in question, in a piece of fiction, is not connected to anything real – and it’s almost like what happens in bad characterization. In bad characterization, you can’t really imagine anything happening to the character outside the pages of the book. There are cities in fantastical fiction that work the same way, where the writer has obviously put a lot of care into creating the city but it’s somehow inert. It’s simply there as a place for the author to set a story. I think the best cityscapes are kind of like characters. They’re slightly illogical. There’s much more to them than is described in the book. There’s all this stuff that you don’t know – and can’t possibly know.

The Mervyn Peake books, of course – Gormenghast – were pretty influential in terms of setting as character and the idea that a place can create a certain fatalism in the people who live there. That’s the way it is in a real city. In a real city you are, in some ways, reduced to one of many, many stories. And that’s something I think the Ambergris books try to convey: people are shaped, molded, and even overwhelmed by the location they’ve chosen to live in.

[Image: Gormenghast castle; from the BBC miniseries].

BLDGBLOG: What about Borges? There’s a “Borges Bookstore” in City of Saints, for instance – and his “Library of Babel” seems like a story you’d love.

VanderMeer: Borges, for some reason, always leads me to Ballard – at least how they both manipulate time and space in a way that messes with your head. But I think Nabokov is probably a bigger influence – although he and Borges are oddly similar, because they’re kind of like the godfathers of postmodernism. I think a lot of times, when people think they’re seeing Borges’s influence, they’re actually seeing Nabokov’s. But I don’t really like to be pinned down to one thing.

Again, first-hand experience – it seems, after every major trip, that I come back with just notebooks full of ideas, and sketches. And, it’s funny, because it really is a lot of buildings inspiring emotion, which is not something I’d really thought about till now. But it’s true. The contrasts of Bucharest, for instance, really affected me. There are parts of the city that look like Paris and parts that still bear the scars of Communist rule: these inhuman concrete blocks of apartments that look like they’re falling apart – and all of this around a very vital and energized populace that was unfailingly friendly. It looked like a city in complete transition, like you could find all possible things there, in both a good and a bad sense. And that impacts heavily on the more industrialized Ambergris of the future that I’m slowly working on now.

But before, when I said I don’t really map things out – I don’t – but every once in a while I will have to sketch a building if I don’t have a good sense for where each character is in the place, or what the place actually looks like. Sometimes I’ll get friends of mine who are artists and are much better at that – I’ll give them a description and they’ll come up with something – and then I’ll be able to visualize it better.

babel[Image: A digital rendering of Borges’s Library of Babel].

BLDGBLOG: What non-architectural, or even non-human, spaces or structures have been influential? Reefs, mushrooms, geologic deposits, giant squids, manta rays…?

VanderMeer: That’s an excellent question. The forms of fungus. The wonderful streamlined beauty of a manta ray – these types of things come into play constantly in my fiction. They are constant influences on the cities I describe, especially Ambergris.

We don’t really see the beautiful, alien quality of the world in which we live. And it is the shapes and structures of this beauty that appeal to me. I mean, people laugh when I talk about squid, but, my god, what an amazing creature! What an amazing form! Geological deposits as well. And I sometimes feel as if there’s almost a linkage of form between all of these things that draws me to them.

My earliest memories are of Fiji, a volcanic atoll, where the reefs are just offshore. Our school was right near one of these reefs – and I remember, from like the age of six to ten, we would just walk out there, you know, at recess… And, in a sense, I feel like some of the Veniss Underground stuff was an inversion of that. There were so many crevices and hiding places and bizarre things sort of hidden in the reef. Sometimes my dad and mom would take us out there at night – which was amazing, because of the bioluminescence from a lot of the different creatures out there, including the squid. There was a sense of encountering something totally alien.

I just think this stuff is absolutely beautiful, and alien, and – in many cases – kind of horrific. You read about fungus, and there are certain types of fruiting bodies or mushrooms that you can feed different things. Like one of the strangest things in “King Squid,” I think, is a scene where the father of the narrator creates a mushroom that is mostly made of iron filings – because that’s what he feeds it: ground up little bits of iron. And that’s actually true. A mushroom actually will absorb these types of things. You can make a mushroom that is mostly made of iron. [laughs] I assume it dies relatively soon thereafter. [laughter]

The world is a very strange place. We shouldn’t take that for granted. That’s why I highlight some of this stuff, and write about it – because it’s just so fantastic.

BLDGBLOG: Fantastic – but also vaguely threatening in a way?

VanderMeer: I don’t see it as threatening. It’s just the context in which the character encounters it that makes it a hazard, or a threat. I think that confluences of the inorganic and the organic feel threatening to people for some primal reason that I can’t quite put a finger to.

squid[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: In City of Saints you describe fungi – specifically, lichen – as a kind of living architectural ornament. You write how “much of the ‘gold’ covering the buildings was actually a living organism similar to lichen that the gray caps had trained to create decorative patterns.” Elsewhere in the book, those lichen “covered the walls in intricate patterns, crossed through with a royal red fungus that formed star shapes.” What do these examples imply about the possibilities for entire living cities, or even a reef-like architecture made entirely from organisms? What about architectural infections, or diseases and infestations that would act to enhance a manmade space?

VanderMeer: Scientists have already created buildings that are self-cleaning using certain types of bacteria, I believe. So this is as much a “science fictional” idea as a fantastical one, that’s for sure. I’m all about extrapolating fungal technologies. It creates an extra frisson of satisfaction in the reader, for one thing.

Something I’m working toward in the next Ambergris novels is this idea of how architecture and the organic interact. In fact, in the new novel, Shriek, there’s a whole passage devoted to this. At one point, the narrator comes to realize that there’s an entirely other city under the skin of what she can see – because her brother has constructed these glasses that kind of allow you to see with a sense that human beings don’t actually have. And what she sees is that every single building is just coated with fungus, invisible to the naked eye, and with living things forming separate symbols and signs. It’s on every wall that she looks at. It’s like a fungal architecture imposed on top of the city.

BLDGBLOG: Or urbanism in an age of microbacteria – when every surface is just covered with a film of germs and infectious organisms.

VanderMeer: I thought about that, too. There actually is all this micro-bacterial activity – things we can’t see – so it’s not too different from reality. And infections! Infections are so primal, symbolic, integral – whether infections of ideas or infections of the physical. In Ambergris, fungal infections are not just a physical thing but the physical manifestation of a deep psychic wound in the citizenry – a mixed guilt and dread.

I think infection is dealt with rather badly in current literature. You almost have to go back to the Decadents – to before we had vaccines and things of that nature – to see exploration of this theme in an interesting way. But I love the idea of mixing physical and mental infections. We all suffer from mental infections. So what if you breathe in a spore and you suddenly are infected with an idea? (Again, from a forthcoming book.)

mushroom-plate1[Image: From Charting Nature].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if your enthusiasm for all things fungal comes from living in Florida?

VanderMeer: I think Florida creeps up on you in terms of the fungal. It’s there, but you don’t at first recognize it. You don’t recognize it because of the slow pace of life in subtropical climates. So you are lulled into forgetting about decay, and yet even though there is a slowness, or perceived slowness, because of the heat, etc., there is a ferocious and pitiless war of decay occurring at the same time – of decomposition. And it’s an awareness of this that helps fuel my fiction – the juxtaposition of these ideas and the kind of pathos of it, how it mimics the limited span of life.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if the more densely knit and pedestrianized urban cores of cities you recently traveled through – like Prague – impressed you with their capacity for turning even a simple walk into an event, full of intrigue and coincidence – or if it just made you claustrophobic, longing for the massive, inhuman highways of the United States?

VanderMeer: Honestly, I don’t understand how we in the U.S. even have a sense of community, except in those cities that allow for a neighborhood bar and a neighborhood grocery store and the kind of walkability that you find in most European cities. We loved the walkability and playfulness of Prague. Prague was the city that, in its entirety, had the sense of mystery and puckishness and slight danger closest to Ambergris of any place we visited. We loved that sense of adventure and exploration in Prague. We loved that around any given street corner we might find a musician or a band or an art exhibit or a movie being shot. It seemed like a city completely alive with culture, to the point of being ruled by it.

That first night in Prague, where you’d spill out from some crooked, tiny medieval street into a courtyard full of light and clocktowers and people… that was pretty amazing.

plicka[Image: Prague, photographed by Karel Plicka; via John Coulthart’s Feuilleton].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, in Veniss, you describe how the “aboveground levels” of the city are “so divided into different governments that a trip from one end of the city to the other requires eighteen security stops.” In City of Saints, an ancient city called “Cinsorium” – a pun on both sin and sensorium – is razed, replaced by a city called “Sophia” – wisdom, reason. Below Ambergris are the gray caps, hallucinogenic mushroom-natives who kidnap unwary surface dwellers. Elsewhere, Tonsure encounters a city seemingly modeled after one of Terence McKenna‘s most extreme, drug-induced visions – a kind of psilocybin urbanism. So you’ve got post-9/11 politics, the War on Drugs, class division, allegorical commentary on the triumph of reason over the senses and the flesh – all of these topics seem encoded into your fictive descriptions of urban space. Could you talk a bit about how you use cities – or architecture in general – to communicate an implicit message, whether that’s socio-political, religious, or simply poetic?

VanderMeer: Well, it’s kind of as you describe – I let whatever’s happening in the world wash over me and into the urban space. I think the mistake in trying to incorporate 9/11, for example, into fiction is in having it be something characters talk about. It’s more about just hard-wiring stuff like that into the culture and cityscapes so it becomes something larger than the characters, that’s just part of the backdrop. I find that almost anything that comes along is fodder for Ambergris, for example. It can absorb just about anything, like a good city should.

But as for how I consciously do it, I couldn’t tell you. I am agnostic, cynical about capitalism and communism, and all for individuals over institutions, while recognizing that central government is necessary to provide social services, etc.

I’m sure that’s reflected in the cities I create.

ambergris[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

• • •

You can read more about Jeff VanderMeer at his blog, VanderWorld – where you’ll also find news about his forthcoming books and Shriek: The Movie.

[With thanks to John Coulthart for the use of his extraordinary images (don’t miss Coulthart’s other work); to Neddal Ayad for helping me contact VanderMeer in the first place; and to Jeff VanderMeer himself, who energetically saw this interview through to completion].

The B-flat Range

[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].

Katabatic Winds

In the current issue of Cabinet Magazine, Jackie Dee Grom introduces us to ventifacts, or “geologic formations shaped by the forces of wind.”
Jackie was a member of the 2004 National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research project in Antarctica, during which she took beautiful photographs of ventifactual geology – three of which were reproduced in Cabinet. (These are my own scans).

“The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica,” she writes, “are home to one of the most extreme environments in the world – a polar desert blasted by ferocious winds, deprived of all but minimal rain, and beset by a mean annual temperature of negative twenty degrees Celsius.”

It is there, in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, that “gravity-driven winds pour off the high polar plateau, attaining speeds of up to two hundred kilometers per hour.”

In the grip of these aeolian forces, sand and small pebbles hurl through the air, smashing into the volcanic rocks that have fallen from the valley walls, slowly prying individual crystals from their hold, and sculpting natural masterworks over thousands of years. The multi-directional winds in this eerie and isolated wasteland create ventifacts of an exceptional nature, gouged with pits and decorated with flowing flutes and arching curves.

In his recent book Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent, landscape theorist and travel writer of extreme natural environments William Fox describes similar such ventifacts as having been “completely hollowed out by the wind into fantastic eggshell-thin shapes.”

The “cavernous weathering” of multi-directional Antarctic winds – as fast as hurricanes, and filled with geologic debris – can “reduce a granite boulder the size of a couch into sand within 100,000 years.”

[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].

The B-flat Range

A part of me, however, can’t help but re-imagine these weird and violent geologies as sonic landmarks, or accidental musical instruments in the making. You hear them before you see them, as they scream with polar tempests.

A common theme on BLDGBLOG is the idea that natural landscapes could be transformed over time into monumental sound-generation machines. I’ve often thought it would be well worth the effort, for instance, if – in the same way that Rome has hundreds of free public fountains to fill the water bottles of thirsty tourists – London could introduce a series of audio listening posts: iPod-friendly masts anchored like totem poles throughout the city, in Trafalgar Square, Newington Green, the nave of St. Pancras Old Church, outside the Millennium Dome.

You show up with your headphones, plug them in – and the groaning, amplified, melancholic howl of church foundations and over-used roadways, the city’s subterranean soundtrack, reverbed twenty-four hours a day through contact mics into the headsets of greater London – greets you in tectonic surround-sound. London Orbital, soundtracking itself in automotive drones that last whole seasons at a time.

In any case, looking at photos of ventifacts I’m led to wonder if the entirety of Antarctica could slowly erode over millions of years into a musical instrument the size of a continent. The entire Transantarctic Range carved into flutes and oboes, frigid columns of air blasting like Biblical trumpets – earth tubas – into the sky. The B-flat Range. Somewhere between a Futurist noise-symphony and a Rube Goldberg device made of well-layered bedrock.

Where the design of musical instruments and landscape architecture collide.

Mt_Sill-ferrar_dolerites[Image: From a truly spectacular collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].

Flocks of birds in Patagonia hear the valleys rumble, choked and vibrating with every inland storm, atonal chords blaring like fog horns for a thousand of miles. Valve Mountains. Global wind systems change, coiling through hundreds of miles of ventifactual canyons and coming out the other end, turned round upon themselves, playing that Antarctic instrument till it’s eroded beneath the sea.

In his ultimately disappointing but still wildly imaginative novella, At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft writes about a small Antarctic expeditionary team that stumbles upon an alien city deep in the continent’s most remote glacial valleys. It is a city “of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws.” Its largest structures are “sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks.”

Even better, “[a]ll of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism.”
More relevant to this post, of course, Lovecraft describes how the continent’s “barren” and “grotesque” landscape – as unearthly as it is inhuman – interacted with the polar wind:

Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.

Perhaps his team of adventurers has just stumbled upon the first known peaks of the B-Flat Range…

Fer-Knobhd-frm-Sol-Rks-CP[Image: Again, from the fantastic collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].

[For something else also howling an eternal B-flat: “Astronomers in England have discovered a singing black hole in a distant cluster of galaxies. In the process of listening in, the team of astronomers not only heard the lowest sound waves from an object in the Universe ever detected by humans” – but they’ve discovered that it’s emitting, yes, B-flat].

Lake Loss

A lake has disappeared: “Four sinkholes beneath a 285-acre lake in central Florida, and one in a nearby ridge, caused the lake to drain completely earlier this month, flooding two nearby homes and killing wildlife. An engineering firm in Lakeland, where Scott Lake is located, is repairing the damage.”

[Image: Scott Lake, minus Scott Lake. (Via)].

In the process, engineers have concluded that “a permanent plug must be installed in the throat of the sinkhole to stop the water drain. The lake shoreline, parts of which have sunk into the sinkhole, must also be restored. The firm must also determine how to refill the lake.” Good luck!

This, of course, reminds me of Lake Peigneur, Louisiana. There, an oil-drilling crew accidentally punctured the upper dome of a salt mine located directly beneath the lake in which the crew had been stationed:

Texaco, who had ordered the oil probe, was aware of the salt mine’s presence and had planned accordingly; but somewhere a miscalculation had been made, which placed the drill site directly above one of the salt mine’s 80-foot-high, 50-foot-wide upper shafts. As the freshwater poured in through the original 14-inch-wide hole, it quickly dissolved the salt away, making the hole grow bigger by the second. The water pouring into the mine also dissolved the huge salt pillars which supported the ceilings, and the shafts began to collapse… Meanwhile, up on the surface, the tremendous sucking power of the whirlpool was causing violent destruction. It swallowed another nearby drilling platform whole, as well as a barge loading dock, 70 acres of soil from Jefferson Island, trucks, trees, structures, and a parking lot. The sucking force was so strong that it reversed the flow of a 12-mile-long canal which led out to the Gulf of Mexico, and dragged 11 barges from that canal into the swirling vortex, where they disappeared into the flooded mines below.

Perhaps now the mines will become a scuba-diving park…

San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model

In Sausalito, CA, near a 7-11, one finds the San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model.


The Bay Model was built in 1957 by the Army Corps of Engineers; it is “over 1.5 acres in size and represents an area from the Pacific Ocean to Sacramento and Stockton, including: the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays and a portion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” Which means it’s larger than two American football fields. (I think).


The Model served “as a scientific research tool from 1958-2000 to evaluate circulation and flow characteristics of the water within the estuary system,” allowing Army Engineers “to simulate currents, tidal action, sediment movement and the mixing of fresh and salt water. Pollution, salt-water intrusion, barrier and fill studies were a few of the important research projects that have been undertaken at the Bay Model.”
It’s not in the greatest condition, and the faded primary color scheme leaves something to be desired, but the model is no less fascinating for that; any chance you get to walk the shores of a microcosm is a good chance to do some thinking.


If I may briefly quote William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

– I’ll then point out that the Bay Model exists within its own timezone: in the world of the Model, one day passes every 14.9 minutes. 30 full days elapse every 7.2 hours. Complete tidal cycles run 3.8 minutes. You can practically feel yourself aging in the presence of this copyscape, its wetlands and alluvial braids of artificial rivers running through fields of pumps and power cords.
Look closely and you’ll see a “Tide Hut” where little gods of the Model enact catastrophe and unleash floods upon the surrogate world spread out before them. Look closer, and you’ll see damage from a “hundred years of waves, subsidence, and boat wakes” – which, in Model time, is almost exactly one human year.


But I soon got to thinking about the politics of architectural models. Imagine what would happen, for instance, if some Navy SEALS raided a cave in Afghanistan and found the Bay Model sitting there: what on earth does al-Qaeda want with San Francisco’s water supply? FOX News screams. Or a model of Greater London’s Thames hydrology, complete with flood gates, Barriers and overflow sewers, which is one thing if it’s in the possession of Tony Blair, and quite another if found in the basement of, say, Abu Hamza or even Timothy McVeigh.
What were they trying to do with it?
It’s the politics of architectural models: an object of scientific curiosity in one person’s hands is an issue of national security in another’s.
Or: simulacra as a threat to national security.
A plot for a new Philip K. Dick novel, or a film by Charlie Kauffman, then came to mind: a man, perhaps a young Al Pacino, breaks into the Bay Model in the middle of the night. He barricades himself inside, turns on the power, and starts flooding the model, demolishing bridges, rerouting estuarial confluences. He jumps up and down, causing modelquakes, and then accelerates the tides, obliterating Golden Gate Park under the force of a single wave.
He calls all the local newspapers and takes responsibility for the disasters now befalling San Francisco outside; but what disasters? they ask, and he thinks they’re conning him, denying his rage, because he’s read William Blake and St. Thomas Aquinas and he believes that everything he throws at that simulacrum there before him will have effects in the real world…
Because it’s all building up to one moment, see, the big moment when he decides to flood the Bay Model’s model of the Bay Model, opening up a rift in the universe and blasting him head-first through the macrocosm.
Until the police break-in…

(Thanks to Chad for the tip, and to Nicola for coming with me!)

Mars Rover: A New Film by BLDGBLOG


While editing a recent post about the Mars rover, I got to thinking – as you would – about how to make an animated, feature-length children’s film, starring another such rover, set in the immediate future…


In the film, the rover would go tootling around in its cute little animated way, wheeling across unbelievable landscapes, snapping Ansel Adams-like photographs of alien tectonics, volcanoes and basins, systems of canyons that redefine the sublime.


Hills, arches, gorges; mountains surrounded by clouds of methane. Erosion; windstorms; evidence of ancient floods.
Plus, it’s a cute little rover. Kids love the thing. They pressure their parents to name family pets after it. Burger King sells a small plastic version of it with their happy meals, or whatever they make there. T-shirts. Pajamas.


In any case, our erstwhile hero, the little rover, is Artificially Intelligent – and he’s funny. Maybe his voice is by Paul Giamatti. And he gradually sort of wakes up, comes to consciousness, and falls head over heels – monitor over wheels – in love with the world, in love with landscapes, with everything – with emotion and memory – in love with love, and hope, and fear – and he starts to wax poetic over a radio-link back to mission control, his friends and creators, they’re cheering, and to television viewers sitting on sofas at home, going on about how wonderful everything is.
How beautiful that world, in which he travels alone, can really be. It’s not lonely, see. He’s on fire inside. His own little robot mind is as deep as the canyons he explores.
He smiles.


Kids in the cinema aren’t blinking at this point; it’s too amazing. Everyone’s in love with this little rover. It’s like bloody Dead Poets Society out there; everyone’s feeling it. Everyone’s alive. Cynics are vomiting into popcorn boxes.
But then the Martian seasons change, and the rover has to shut down – to be shut down, by mission control. The kids in the cinema start to worry. Frowns appear. Dads grow nervous, re-crossing their legs, only vaguely reassured that the film is rated PG.
You see people on-screen, back at mission control, wringing their hands, preparing to remotely shut off the rover – but the rover loves life, damn it, he loves what he’s seeing, he wants to see more! He wants to live – and he’s funny – and he’s got a friend back at mission control who has to push the button, but she can’t because she loves him – what do you mean shut him down?! – she loves his silly robot eyes, and his enthusiasm, and his stupid voice, and these amazing things he’s been showing to everyone back on earth, and she can’t do it.
She can’t kill the little guy.


Some kids are crying now; she’s crying. Not the little guy! With his tiny wheels pushing further into life and alien landscapes.
Not him!
Enter some sinister, technocratic boss figure – with a voice by Robert Duvall – and he forces her: the button is pushed, mission control sends the command, and our friendly, naive robot hero of off-planet landscape exploration, in the midst of a sad why are you doing this to me? weepy monologue, his AI-eyes wide and worried and scared of that darkness into which his circuits will go – overlooking the most beautiful canyon he’s discovered so far – suddenly he is no more.


The rover’s little eye-lights fade. Martian winds erase his tracks. Grown men wipe away tears before their wives can see them.
The credits roll.
Kids leave the cinema howling. Moms give out hugs left and right. Oscar nominations roll in. I retire to Arizona on the proceeds and begin carving strange topological forms into the desert floor.
Movie producers: you know where to find me.

Mars and its stunt double


[Images: A “faux Mars” being air-brushed and constructed in a lab in southern California “to simulate the environment” on the red planet. Contrast that with a photo taken by Spirit, the robotic Ansel Adams of Mars, showing “Larry’s Lookout, a pit stop along the robot’s uphill trail as it explores the red planet.”

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…