Geotechnics

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

Milled landscapes / Michael Heizer

The question is whether you could hook-up a milling machine to the earth itself. Rather than exact, laser-cut incisions made into boards of hardwood, you would mill entire landscapes out of the open surface of the earth.

This could start small – cutting foundations, bore holes, etc. – but should immediately expand to include larger examples of terrestrial engineering: landscape architecture, earthworks, gardens, perhaps even dikes, dams, and other flood containment systems. The earth-miller could be operated like an ordinary, programmable milling machine today: you input the design required, the exact sequence and dimensions of the cuts, and the machine sets out, milling a new landscape into existence.

In a recent *New York Times Magazine* profile of earthworks/land-sculptor Michael Heizer, we read about “‘City,’ [Heizer’s] own version of Easter Island or Angkor Wat: a modernist complex of abstract shapes – mounds, prismoids, ramps, pits – to be spread across the valley. It was to be experienced over time, in shifting weather, not from a single vantage point or from above but as an accumulation of impressions and views gathered by walking through it. (…) ‘City,’ in its vastness, was meant to synthesize ancient monuments, Minimalism and industrial technology. The work derived inspiration from Mississippian tumuli (ancient North American mounds), the ball court at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and La Venta in southern Tabasco… At the same time, it suggested airport runways and Modernist architecture.” (Michael Kimmelman, “Art’s Last, Lonely Cowboy”: 6 Feb 05).

Despite – or perhaps because of – the size of Heizer’s “City” (somewhere between the Washington Mall and Central Park, apparently), it’d be perfect for an earth-miller. Several programmable machines with self-sharpening mechanical grinders, pavement saws and rock sanders – and perhaps viab/nozzles, mentioned in an earlier post – set to work. It takes days, weeks even, but then it’s done: the milled landscape of a new earth, abstract volumes glowing in the sunlight.

“Instant City” on Mars

MIT’s Mars Homestead Project plans on one-upping Archigram and Buckminster Fuller both with its plans for high-tech, locally-fabricated homes on Mars. Each home will be outfitted with a garden, library, greenhouse, and private parking space, exporting middle class comforts deep into space; and all of it will be made locally, farmed from elements occurring naturally in the atmosphere and soil. Or ‘the surface,’ I should say…

After “a seven-month journey inside a container the size of a minivan” hopeful colonists will decamp into “a comfy home – made with locally produced red brick, metal and fiberglass”. The homes may even be built directly into Martian hillsides, forming Tolkien-esque towns accessible through multiple airlocks. The airlocks, in tandem with reinforced building materials, will prevent explosive pressure leaks: “Materials such as brick and stone will have to be lined or sealed with plastic or fiberglass, and sufficiently reinforced with soil or other materials to prevent the buildings from exploding.”

Meanwhile, the Mars Society has already constructed a prototype Martian city on Devon Island, Canada, called the Flashline Arctic Research Station. Even more interestingly, due to the very real fear of “cabin fever” and extreme claustrophobia – or other, as yet undiscovered, architectural pathologies – in Martian settlers, “‘we have added a psychiatrist to the project team, to evaluate those issues’,” claims Mark Homnick, co-founder of the Mars Homestead Project. (All quotations from Mark Baard, “Builders in a Strange Land,” 18 June 2004, Wired online; see also ExploreMarsNow.org).