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.”

Musicalizing the weather through landscape architecture

The idea of listening to a landscape – how to podcast a landscape, for instance – tends to be literally overlooked in favor of a site’s visual impact or even its smell. When I was in Greece a few years ago, for instance, hiking toward an abandoned village on Tilos, every step I took crushed wild onions, herbs, and different flowers, and a temporary envelope of scent, picked up by breezes, floated all around me as I walked uphill. I may not remember every single detail of what that path *looked* like – but I do remember how it *smelled*.
It was like hiking through salad.
In any case, you don’t often see people packing up the family car, or hopping onto a train, to tour Wales or the Green Mountains of Vermont so that they can listen to the hills – they’ll go out to look at autumn leaf colors, sure, or take photographs of spring wildflowers. But to go all the way to Wales so they can hear a particular autumn wind storm howling through the gorges, a storm that only lasts two days of every year? Specifically going somewhere to *listen to the landscape*.
Seasonal weather events and their sonic after-effects. The Great November Moan.
All of which brings me to the idea of sound mirrors.


Musicalizing a weather system through landscape architecture.
BLDGBLOG here proposes a series of sound mirrors to be built in a landscape with regular, annual wind phenomena. A distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October due to northern winds from Canada, has its low, droning, cliff-created reverb carefully echoed back up a chain of sound mirrors to supply natural soundscapes for the sleeping residents of nearby towns.
Or a crevasse that actually makes no sound at all has a sound mirror built nearby, which then amplifies and redirects the ambient air movements, coaxing out a tone – but only for the first week of March. Annually.
Landscape as saxophone.


It’s a question of interacting with the earth’s atmosphere through human geotechnical constructions. Through sound mirrors.
What you’d need: 1) Detailed meteorological charts of a region’s annual wind-flow patterns. 2) Sound mirrors. 3) A very large arts grant.
You could then musicalize the climate.
With exactly placed and arranged sound mirrors atop a mesa, for instance, deep inside a system of canyons – whether that’s in the Peak District or Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – or even in Rajasthan, or western Afghanistan – you could interact with the earth’s atmosphere to create music for two weeks every year, amplifying the natural sounds of seasonal air patterns.
People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes.


A few questions arise: in this context, does Stonehenge make any sounds? What if – and this is just a question – it was built not as a prehistoric astronomical device but as a *landscape wind instrument*? You’d be out there wandering around the Cotswolds, thinking oh – christ, it’s 5000 years ago and we’re lost, but: what’s that? I hear Stonehenge… And then you locate yourself.
Sonic landmark.
This raises the possibility of building smaller versions of these sound mirrors in urban neighborhoods so that, for instance, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg sounds different than Mitte, which sounds different than Kreuzberg – which sounds different than South Kensington, which is different than Gramercy Park… Etc.
You’d always know which district of the city you were in – even which city you were in, full stop – based on what the wind sounded like.
(Which reminds me of another idea: that, to attract people to a city without much going for it, you could *flavor the water supply*: make it taste like Doritos, for instance, and then sell that on huge billboards: buy your new home in Detroit, the water tastes like Doritos… the water tastes like tofurky…).
Second: is there a sonic signature to the US occupation of Baghdad? And I don’t mean rumbling Hummers and airplane engines, I mean what if all those Bremer walls –


– generate sounds during passing wind storms? All the American military bases of Iraq moaning at 3am as desert breezes pass by.
What does the occupation *sound like*?
A sonic taxonomy of architectural forms could begin…

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).