Secret British Caving Teams and the Mineralogy of Nuclear War

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a cave in China, taken by @PhailMachine, via wallhere].

An interesting story that re-emerged during recent coverage of the Thai cave rescue is that a team of British cavers trapped underground in central Mexico for “more than a week” back in 2004 had been accused of having an ulterior motive.

Of the six men, five were British soldiers, and the crew was rescued not by local emergency crews but by a team flown in from Britain. Nothing about either alleged fact is even remotely suspicious, of course, but, according to local press at the time, “the men had been looking for materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons.”

This was apparently more than just a bar-room rumor: Mexico’s energy minister “waded into the row by saying he would send members of the country’s nuclear research institute into the caves because of rumours the British potholers were looking for uranium deposits.” Things “descended into farce,” according to the Guardian, “amid claims the MoD-sponsored expedition was a secret uranium prospecting exercise and that precise details of the trip were not forwarded to the relevant authorities.”

The conspiracy seems to have begun when someone noticed a particular piece of equipment in a photo of the caving team: “someone spotted radon dosimeters being used. This wasn’t a military training exercise; it was a bunch of guys on holiday, some of whom happened to be in the armed services.”

What the British team would even have done with such materials, if they had found them, including how they would have safely transported uranium out of the underworld in their caving gear—not to mention how they would have exploited this knowledge later, perhaps by developing a vast, illegal, underground mine in the middle of central Mexico?—is difficult to imagine, but, wow, would I like to read that novella.

Six British soldiers descend into the Earth beneath Mexico looking for the infernal materials of war, part of a much larger, secret global mission for subterranean weapons-prospecting, slipping into caves in Central America, the U.S. Southwest, the Namibian desert, and beyond, combining raw international espionage, classified satellite reports, weaponized mineralogy, advanced underground mapping techniques, and every gear-head’s camping equipment fantasy turned up to 11.

Waller

[Image: Otherwise unrelated photo of a wall in Malta; photo by the author].

It’s a slow morning, so perhaps the laziness of linking to Wikipedia can be excused… Immurement is “a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits.”

In folklore and myth, “immurement is prominent as a form of capital punishment, but its use as a type of human sacrifice to make buildings sturdy has many tales attached to it as well. Skeletal remains have been, from time to time, found behind walls and in hidden rooms and on several occasions have been asserted to be evidence of such sacrificial practices or of such a form of punishment.”

In terms of literature and film, an obvious example would be Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” but there was also an absolutely God-awful horror movie a few years ago called, yes, Walled In.

The examples given by Wikipedia include a Moroccan serial killer sentenced to death in 1906 by being walled alive—or immured—and whose screams, inside the walls, were audible for two days; immurement as a tactic for military revenge; and a horrific photo of a woman “immured” inside a wooden crate with only her arm and head visible, left to die outside in Mongolia.

Vaguely related to this, anchorites are self-isolated religious hermits, but ones who “take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.” While not immurement in a technical sense, becoming an anchorite was nonetheless also a radical act of bodily enclosure, using architecture as an extreme kind of “stability of place,” a permanent habitation.

I suppose exile would be the opposite spatial condition, a state in which one is permanently disallowed from ever entering architecture, always locked outside. Walled out, as it were.

Literary Architecture

[Image: Photo via ].

There are still a few days left to apply for a spot in Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, this time setting up shop in Prague from June 7-11.

“Architectural space is made of sequences, revelations, expectations and rhythm,” Pericoli explains, so “why not try to create a piece of architecture that explicitly embodies the structure of a literary text?” The program “is neither an architecture workshop nor a literature workshop,” he adds. “It is an exploration of the tight interconnection between narrative and space. We will use principles of architectural design to describe literary structures.”

Learn more about the LabLitArch website, where you can also see some of Pericoli’s own visual explorations of architectural narrative.

No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Schrödinger’s Speleology, or the Stalking of “Entranceless Caves”


[Image: A cave entrance in France, via Wikipedia].

I recently finished reading Last Words by Michael Koryta, a detective novel largely centered on an unmapped fictional cave system in southern Indiana, part of the great karst belt near the border with Kentucky.

One interesting thing about the novel is that this cave, known in the book as “Trapdoor,” operates on many different narrative levels. Most obviously, of course, there’s the unreliable memory of a major character suspected—yet never officially accused—of committing a murder there, where the darkness of Trapdoor’s linked subterranean spaces becomes a kind of mental model for his own inability to recall what really happened, when a woman was (apparently) murdered in the cave’s depths.

There is also a subplot, though, revealed quite late in the book, in which disguised real estate deals and obscure land trust deeds have been premised on the subterranean potential of this land snaking along the region’s old creeks and rivers, transactions inked with the belief that Trapdoor’s passages might continue beneath distant parcels; in this way, the cave comes to represent the conspiratorial intentions of people otherwise unwilling to state their true goals.

Finding the true outer limits of the cave—that is, finding the land parcels that the cave secretly connects from below—becomes coextensive with discovering the truth about what occurred underground there so many years earlier.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

It was these latter parts of the novel—including a handful of plot points I won’t get into—that reminded me of notes I’d taken from a book called the Encyclopedia of Caves several years ago. That book includes a short entry written by Nevin W. Davis, called “Entranceless Caves, Discovery of.”

As Davis describes them, “entranceless caves” are like speleological versions of Schrödinger’s cat: they exist, but they have not been verified. They are real—but perhaps not. They are both in the ground and nowhere.

At times, Davis’s text is almost like a koan: “Suppose the cave is totally unknown and has no entrance,” he writes. What exactly is such a thing, and how can we account for its presence (or absence) in the landscape? After all, these are caves that have not been—and perhaps cannot ever be—located.

He goes on to describe mathematical models used to generate a probability of subterranean connection: the calculated likelihood that physically inaccessible voids might exist beneath the surface of things, linking one part of the world to another.


[Image: Cave in Mexico, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

“Another consideration in searching for caves,” Davis continues, “is entrance lifetime. Caves are long-term features under the landscape with lifetimes measured in millions of years, whereas entrances to them are fleeting features with lifetimes measured in millennia.”

Cave entrances come and go, in other words, while the caves they once led to remain. They can be covered over, woven shut by tree roots, erased.

As Davis describes it, “leaves and twigs will soon cover and block small vertical entrances. Pits less than a meter in diameter”—tiny holes that can nonetheless lead to huge systems, such as the real-life Mammoth Cave or the fictional Trapdoor—“can be totally blocked in one season. Leaves blocking a small entrance are soon followed by roots and more leaves and it is not long before all traces of an entrance are gone.”

This leads to an activity he calls “stalking the elusive entranceless cave”—which, for what it’s worth, seems like a perfect metaphor for part of Koryta’s novel, in which the book’s amnesia-stricken potential murderer undergoes hypnosis. His memory is a cave with no entrance.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

In any case, there can also be “false positives,” Davis warns. These would be caves that appear to have been detected but that are not, in fact, real. A “stalker” of previously unknown caves might find herself misled by patches of melted snow, for example, or by other signs that wrongly give the impression of warm air rising from empty passages below.

“The best condition to search for snow melt,” Davis suggests, instead, “is with a new snowfall in midwinter with an overcast sky, since sunlight can also give false positives by shining through snow cover onto rocks and melting the snow. This is a tried-and-true method that has led to countless new caves.” It’s cave-discovery weather.

In essence, this is a process of reading the landscape: interpreting its surface features in order to gain knowledge of these other, deeper dimensions.


[Image: An artificially enlarged entrance to Carlsbad Caverns; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The next entry in the Encyclopedia is also worth reading; it is simply called “Entrances,” by William B. White. “Some caves,” White writes, continuing the strangely existential thread of Davis’s work, “may have no entrances at all.”

White adds a new category here, what he calls the “concealed entrance.”

At least from an architectural point of view, what’s interesting is that this allows White and other speleologists to challenge the idea of there being a clean dividing line between inside and outside, between a cave and the Earth’s surface.

Instead, he suggests, a cave’s entrance should actually be thought of as a transition: the “cave entrance zone,” White writes, “is, in effect, a continuous sequence of microclimates,” one that eventually leads to a point at which there is no direct access to sunlight or to rainfall.

It is only at that point that you are truly “inside” the Earth. You have transitioned to the great interior.


[Image: Photographer unknown; image via Discovery Communications].

Briefly, White also points out that cave entrances are not only unstable in the temporal sense—as Davis mentioned, cave entrances can completely disappear over time.

However, they are also unstable spatially: that is, they can physically migrate through the landscape over thousands, or even tens, of years.

Due to continual rockfall, for example, a cave entrance “not only migrates deeper into the hill but also migrates upward as rocks break away,” Davis writes. This can potentially push a cave entrance dozens and dozens of feet from its original location, while the cave itself remains stationary. Imagine a mouth migrating across your body while your stomach stands still.

Of course, this also means that an entrance to a given cave system can abruptly migrate onto someone else’s property, or that it can even pop open, suddenly and dramatically changing the value of a particular piece of land.

The next thing you know, following an unusually intense summer rainstorm, you own the entrance to a cave.

[Image: A salt cave in Israel; image via Wikipedia].

Which brings us back to Michael Koryta’s novel. There, an unexpected opening into the unstable depths of Indiana’s fictional Trapdoor complex changes the lives of many characters not just for the worse, but for the tragic.

The cave, as Koryta depicts it, is a relentless and unsympathetic thing, a space always shifting, growing organically but not alive, invisible yet ubiquitous, moving beneath the surface of the landscape, connecting parcels of land, as well as the lives—and deaths—of the characters who thought they were just idly passing time above.

(Vaguely related: Life on the Subsurface: An Interview with Penelope Boston).

The Architecture of Delay vs. The Architecture of Prolongation

timeship
[Image: A rendering of the “Timeship” cryogenic facility by architect Stephen Valentine, via New Scientist].

The primary setting of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, is a cryogenic medical facility in the mountainous deserts of Central Asia. There we meet a family that is, in effect, freezing itself, one by one, for reawakening in a speculative second life, in some immortally self-continuous version of the future.

First the mother goes; then the father, far before his time, willfully and preemptively ending things out of loneliness; next would be the son, the book’s ostensible protagonist, if he didn’t arrive with so many reservations about the procedure. Either way, it’s a question of what it means to delay one thing while prolonging another—to preserve one state as a means of preventing another from setting in. One is a refusal to let go of something you already possess; the other is a refusal to accept something you don’t yet have. An addiction to comfort vs. a fear of the new.

Without getting into too many of the book’s admittedly sparse details, it suffices to say that Zero K continues many of DeLillo’s most consistent themes—finance (Cosmopolis), apocalyptic religion (Mao II), the symbolic allure of mathematical analysis (Ratner’s Star).

What makes the book worth a mention here are some of the odder details of this cryogenic compound. It is a monumental space, described with references both to grand scientific and medical facilities—think the Salk Institute, perhaps—as well as to postmodern religious centers, this desert megachurch of the secular afterlife.

Yet its strangest details come from the site’s peripheral ornamentation: there are artificial gardens, for example, filled with resin-based and plastic plant life, and there is a surreal distribution of lifeless mannequins throughout the grounds, standing in penitential silence amongst the fake greenery. Unliving, they cannot die.

These stylized representations of biology, or replicant life forms that come across more like mockery than mimicry, expand the novel’s central conceit of frozen life—life reduced to absolute stillness, placed on pause, in hibernation, in temporal limbo, preserved—out into the landscape itself. It is an obvious symbolism, which is one of the book’s shortcomings; these deathless gardens with their plastic guards remain creepily poetic, nonetheless. These can also be seen as fittingly cynical flourishes for a facility founded on loose talk of singularities, medical resurrection, and quote-unquote human consciousness, as if even the designers themselves were in on the joke.

Briefly, despite my lukewarm feelings about the actual novel, I should say that I really love the title, Zero K. It is, of course, a thermal description—or zero K, zero kelvin, absolute zero, cryogenic perfection. Yet it is also refers to an empty digital file—zero k, zero kb—or, perhaps more accurately, a file saved with nothing in it, thus seemingly a quiet authorial nod to the idea that absolutely nothing about these characters is being saved, or preserved, in their quest for immortality. And it is also a nicely cross-literary reference to Frank Kafka’s existential navigator of European political absurdity, Josef K. or just K. From Josef K. to Zero K, his postmodern replacement.

The title, then, is brilliant—and the mannequins and the plastic plant life found at an end-times cryogenic facility in Central Asia make for an amazing set-up—but it’s certainly not one of DeLillo’s strongest books. In fact, I have been joking to people that, if you really want to read a novel this summer written by an aging white male cultural figure known for his avant-garde aesthetics, consider picking up Consumed, David Cronenberg’s strange, possibly too-Ballardian novel about murder, 3D printing, North Korean kidnapping squads, and more, rather than Zero K (or, of course, read both).

In any case, believe it or not, this all came out of the fact that I was about to tweet a link to a long New Scientist article about a cryogenic facility under construction in Texas when I realized that I had more to say than just 140 characters (Twitter, I have found, is actually a competitor to your writing masquerading as an enabler of it—alas, something I consistently re-forget).

There, Helen Thompson takes us to a place called Comfort, Texas.

timeship2
[Image: Rendering of the “Timeship” facility by architect Stephen Valentine].

“The scene from here is surreal,” Thompson writes. “A lake with a newly restored wooden gazebo sits empty, waiting to be filled. A pregnant zebra strolls across a nearby field. And out in the distance some men in cowboy hats are starting to clear a huge area of shrub land. Soon the first few bricks will be laid here, marking the start of a scientific endeavour like no other.” A “monolithic building” is under construction in Comfort, and it will soon be “the new Mecca of cryogenics.”

Called Timeship, the monolithic building will become the world’s largest structure devoted to cryopreservation, and will be home to thousands of people who are neither dead nor alive, frozen in time in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life. And last month, building work began.

The resulting facility will include “a building that would house research laboratories, DNA from near-extinct species, the world’s largest human organ biobank, and 50,000 cryogenically frozen bodies.”

The design of the compound is not free of the sort of symbolic details we saw in DeLillo’s novel. Indeed, Thompson explains, “Parts of the project are somewhat theatrical—backup liquid nitrogen storage tanks are covered overhead by a glass-floored plaza on which you can walk surrounded by a fine mist of clouds—others are purely functional, like the three wind turbines that will provide year-round back-up energy.” And then there’s that pregnant zebra.


[Image: An otherwise totally unrelated photo of a circuit, chosen simply for its visual resemblance to the mandala/temple/resurrection facility in Texas; via DARPA].

It’s a long feature, worth reading in full—so click over to New Scientist to check it out—but what captivates me here is the notion that a sufficiently advanced scientific facility could require an architectural design that leans more toward religious symbolism.

What are the criteria, in other words, by which an otherwise rational scientific undertaking—conquering death? achieving resurrection? simulating the birth of the universe?—can shade off into mysticism and poetry, into ritual and symbolism, into what Zero K refers to as “faith-based technology,” and what architectural forms are thus most appropriate for housing it?

In fact, DeLillo presents a political variation on this question in Zero K. At one point, the book’s narrator explains, looking out over the cryogenic facility, “I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile logic? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells [the facility’s administrators], in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.” When does utilitarian become totalitarian.

When do scientific undertakings become religious movements? When does minimalism become a form of political control?

“A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program”

notredame1[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve always loved Umberto Eco’s observation, from a text he delivered for the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina back in 2003, that “a medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

The carved statuary, the stone ornament, the careful placement of scenes: it was all part of an edited visual narrative that you could return to again and again, like a 3-dimensional comic book or a collection of film stills in the center of your city, a body of symbolic storylines and characters given architectural form.

At the time of these cathedrals’ construction, Eco explained, “manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral.” Then, the sentence I quote above: “A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

notredame2[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve long been a fan of Eco’s writing, even as a kid growing up in a variety of houses where we seemed to always have a copy of The Name of the Rose stored somewhere in the family-room bookshelves. Well before I could even conceivably read such a thing in full, yet captivated by its original cover art, I’d flip through the book to find descriptions of imposing monastery walls or hidden courtyards, of mirrored libraries concealed inside stone towers. I even memorized, for no particular reason, the monastic hours that Eco enumerates at the book’s beginning.

It’s also a novel, I’d eventually see, full of superb lines: “As I lay on my pallet,” Eco’s monastic narrator at one point writes, “I concluded that my father should not have sent me out in the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.” Or: “How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths.”

notredame3[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

But Foucault’s Pendulum—way too quickly dismissed today as a kind of hipster Da Vinci Code—is a novel I’ve read so many times I am embarrassed to admit the number. It’s a book I’ve obsessively traveled with, having read it now in Greece, Berlin, Warsaw, County Donegal, even Beijing. A mere ten days ago, I picked it up again here in New York City, for a variety of reasons, to give it one more spin.

So the news that Umberto Eco died yesterday was both sad and, for me, oddly timed; it’s also news I feel compelled to mention here, for both personal and architectural reasons.

In fact, I was thinking explicitly of Eco when I wrote a piece recently for Cabinet Magazine about rare-book thefts at a French monastery near the border with Germany.

Let’s start with the obvious: the fractal library in The Name of the Rose, a fictional architectural construct that belongs up there with other mythical buildings, from Kafka’s Castle to Daedalus’s Labyrinth or the Tower of Babel. The library, Eco explains, is a fortified architectural complex doubly protected by a weird system of mirrors and winds:

“The library must, of course, have a ventilation system,” William [the book’s non-narrating protagonist] said. “Otherwise the atmosphere would be stifling, especially in the summer. Moreover, those slits provide the right amount of humidity, so the parchments will not dry out. But the cleverness of the founders did not stop there. Placing the slits at certain angles, they made sure that on windy nights the gusts penetrating from those openings would encounter other gusts, and swirl inside the sequence of rooms, producing the sounds we have heard. Which, along with the mirrors and the herbs, increase the fear of the foolhardy who come in here, as we have, without knowing the place well. And we ourselves for a moment thought ghosts were breathing on our faces.”

What we would now call the building’s HVAC system was deliberately engineered to induce the aeolian illusion of other humans. It was a kind of super-sensory burglar alarm for spooking uninvited guests—spatial hauntings in surroundsound.

libraryrose[Image: The fractal stairs of the breeze-haunted library in The Name of the Rose; courtesy Twentieth-Century Fox/Columbia Pictures].

Or take the building that isn’t really a building in Foucault’s Pendulum.

One of that book’s minor characters mentions a house in Paris that is simultaneously more and less than it appears. Parisians “walk by” this house every day, Eco writes, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

Or consider Eco’s honeycomb of artificial caves beneath the French town of Provins, also in Foucault’s Pendulum and something I have also written about before.

There, an over-excited former colonel explains that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels—real catacombs—extends beneath the hill.”

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults—there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

In 1894, the colonel continues, two Chevaliers came to the village and asked to be taken down into the tunnels beneath a granary:

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

Eco excelled at these sorts of allegorical details: rooms that served to mask the presence of other rooms, a town built atop a subterranean twin of itself, a library that conceals a parallel, clandestine collection of books, another library somehow tucked inside its very walls, even an island lost on the precise border between today and yesterday.

[Image: Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia, related to a marginal note, above].

Among many other reasons, Foucault’s Pendulum remains an amazing novel for revealing the seemingly endless extent of one’s own gullibility—that is, the often overwhelming need to believe in or to pursue something, to connect together things you think are signs or clues in fits of irrationality and inspiration, to give your life, your cause, your project, your movement its larger emotional meaning or narrative gravity; only to realize, in retrospect, that these were all just neutral facts of the world you temporarily and needlessly seized upon. They were there when you needed them—or it all made sense at the time.

In fact, the novel contains its own fantastic distillation of this argument in an early scene, set in a Milanese bar. The world, we read, consists of only four types of people: “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.” “And that covers everybody?” the book’s narrator asks. “Oh, yes, including us.” I’d risk copying the entire book if I continue on like this in any detail, but I particularly love Eco’s description of “lunatics.” It is an excellent cautionary tale.

A lunatic, he writes, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

In any case, as my own tendency to over-re-read Foucault’s Pendulum undoubtedly shows, Eco’s books are perfect for people who are too willing to believe that truth can be found in reading—even if the stories they return to again and again are published not with words at all, but on the façade of a cathedral, in a theological sci-fi of intertwined saints, symbols, and landscapes.

Even if found in the narrative ornament of “a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program,” as Eco once wrote, these stories we tell ourselves promise a truth it is always wiser to question.

(If you are an American fan of Umberto Eco, there’s a good chance you read his work through the translations of William Weaver, who also passed away recently. Meanwhile, the quotation about cathedrals as TV programs was originally published on Al-Ahram, but is no longer on their site; Nettime has an archived version).

The Physics of Hell

inferno[Image: Dante’s great cyclotron of souls in the Inferno, a different sort of Hadron Collider; engraving by Gustave Doré].

In the context of all this talk about LIGO and gravitational waves, it’s interesting to look back at a 2011 article from the Boston Globe about an unexpected source of inspiration for Galileo Galilei.

“Galileo’s most important ideas might have their roots not in the real world, but in a fictional one,” we read, at least according to an argument “that Mount Holyoke College physics professor Mark Peterson has been developing for the past several years: specifically, that one of Galileo’s crucial contributions to physics came from measuring the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Or rather, from disproving its measurements.”

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno—the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture—such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth—would, in real life, collapse under their own weight.

Although Galileo himself would apparently soon realize that parts of his own debunking needed further debunking, Peterson points out that, in “applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics.”

Peterson’s original 2002 paper on the matter is called “Galileo’s Discovery of Scaling Laws” (PDF).

The details of the Boston Globe article have been picked apart elsewhere, but the accuracy of its various historical claims is not what interests me; what seems worth posting about here, rather, is the wonderfully bizarre possibility that a culture could develop such an intense and otherworldly vision of eternal torture and damnation that it eventually inspires a new branch of physics.

stellar[Image: After Hell, stars; from Dante’s Inferno, engraving by Gustave Doré].

In fact, one could easily imagine the strange molten geologies of such a landscape, this burning wasteland of semi-liquid rock, cut through with irradiated rivers and lakes, its temperatures on par with something more like a nuclear explosion, or perhaps just the electromagnetic atmospherics of a microwave; and one could just as easily imagine the mind-bendingly complex interpretive effort required to deduce actual, mathematically rigorous physical laws from such a nightmarish environment. Imagine scholars of Hell, sitting around immense tables made of black slate, calculating atmospheric pressures and the melting points of whole continents.

The idea, as well, that an entirely secular present-day science might actually have hidden within it a secret historical lineage dating back to descriptive measurements of Hell is, at the very least, a compelling framework for a work of speculative fiction. The mathematics used to describe the insides of stars, for example, actually originating with someone’s thesis on the burning points of angels, or the uncanny gravity of black holes traced back to field equations first written by someone trying to map the unstable angles of cliffs lining the uranium mines of the Inferno.

Of course, all of this could be theologically lightened quite a bit—a new branch of mathematics concerned, instead, with the idyllic meteorology of Paradise—but I guess I’ve always just been more interested in Hell.

Read the original Boston Globe article, as well as its rejoinder.

(Article spotted via @davidbmetcalfe).

Typographic Forestry and Other Landscapes of Translation

[Image: The cover for About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

Artist Katie Holten—who participated in “Landscapes of Quarantine” a few years back—has just published an interesting book called About Trees.

It is essentially an edited compilation of texts about, yes, trees, but also about forests, landscapes of the anthropocene, unkempt wildness, altered ecosystems, and, more broadly speaking, the idea of nature itself.

It ranges from short texts by Robert Macfarlane—recently discussed here—to James Gleick, and from Amy Franceschini to Natalie Jeremijenko. These join a swath of older work by Jorge Luis Borges, with even Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”) thrown in for good measure.

It’s an impressively nuanced selection, one that veers between the encyclopedic and the folkloric, and it has been given a great and memorable graphic twist by the fact that Holten, working with designer Katie Brown, generated a new font using nothing less than the silhouettes of trees.

Every letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific species of tree.

[Image: The tree typeface from About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

This has been put to good use, re-setting the existing texts using this new font—with the delightful effect of seeing the work of Jorge Luis Borges transcribed, in effect, into trees.

This has the awesome implication that someone could actually plant this: a typographic forestry of Borges translations.

[Image: Borges, translated into trees, from About Trees].

Speculative short stories realized as ornamental thickets in the backyards of arboreally inclined landowners.

Given all the urban parks, hedge mazes, and scientifically accurate themed gardens of the world—two of my favorites being the exquisite Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens and the scifi otherworldliness of the Desert Garden at the Huntington—surely there is room for a kind of translation landscape?

Stories and fables—koans, slogans, poems, wisecracks—planted as cryptoforests, literary labyrinths you could somehow, impossibly, read provided you know what each species is meant to signify.

Just take Holten’s typeface as a new kind of planting guide, and see what landscapes might result.

[Image: From About Trees].

Holten’s About Trees is available for purchase, of course, if you want to check it out; in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone actually implements a typographic grove somewhere, a planted language of texts flipped into readable tree-signs, sequenced using the font from About Trees.

In fact, recall the myth of Odin discovering the Nordic runes: hanging upside-down from a tree and mistaking, in the especially complicated carpet of roots sprawled out beneath him, the beginnings of a new typeface, an arboreal symbol system that could be written down and shared with others. Runes came from roots—and, as Holten implies, every tree contains a library.

Grimm City

[Image: Grimm City University from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

Later this summer, London’s Flea Folly Architects—Pascal Bronner & Thomas Hillier—will be running a workshop in what they broadly call “narrative architecture” at the Tate Modern.

“What would a town inhabited by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Man Ray look like?” they ask. “Taking inspiration from works in the Tate collection, in particular the speculative etchings by architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin and paintings by the Surrealists, our objective is to design and build a fictional miniature village made entirely from paper.”

Their own project, Grimm City, is perhaps an example of what might result.

[Image: The Barometer from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

As architect CJ Lim describes it in his introduction to the project in a gorgeously produced, limited print-run hardcover catalog, as “Grimm City is a future state derived from architectural extrapolations of the fairytales by the Brothers Grimm.”

That is, it is an elaborate narrative disguised as a city—a story given urban form.

[Image: The Bremen Town-Musicians from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

Bronner and Hillier explain that the “blueprint” for their city was “conceived in ink exactly 200 years ago,” and “was shaped by 86 magnificent tales collected by two of the most distinguished storytellers of their time.”

They are referring, of course, to the Brothers Grimm.

[Images: Two views of the Church and the neighboring Destruction Structure from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

Briefly, in what now feels like another lifetime, when I was backpacking through Germany after graduating from college, I made a beeline to the small city of Marburg after reading that it was a university town overlooked by an 11th-century fort—and that it was also once home to the Brothers Grimm.

I showed up by train and spent a few days there, mostly reading Grimm stories, feeding ducks, and walking around the roads that spiraled up to the castle; and I later learned, with equal interest, that one of the weird coincidences of history would make Marburg the same city where a strain of hemorrhagic fever would be isolated.

The disease, which is now rather straight-forwardly called Marburg, seems a fittingly strange continuation of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, in terms of the dark and often fatal transformations humans can undergo.

In any case, Grimm City is an architectural translation of their various stories, plots, allegories, and characters, and it took on a life of its own. “With enormous spinning wheels, tower-like limbs and turrets for claws, it began to resemble a machine that had been unjustly woken from its deep slumber,” they write.

[Image: The Timber Factory from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

At times visually reminiscent of Aldo Rossi or even John Hejduk, the black diagrams are unexpectedly carnivalesque, monochromatic yet fizzing with lively detail.

There are structures such as The Ink Factory, a Silver Forest (made entirely of money-producing slot machines, eg. a forest where silver grows), an economic Barometer spinning over the city, and a school of thieves and burglary.

[Image: The Ink Factory from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

There are also banks, churches, and a “windowless monolith” filled with forensic evidence of the city’s crimes.

Then, tacked way at the top of massive stairways so inclined they look like ladders, there are Confession Booths where the city’s sins are meant to be narrated and explained.

[Image: The Confession Booths from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

Your exposure and isolation in ascending to the Booths is part of the process: a confessional infrastructure that compels one toward self-incrimination.

Elsewhere, there’s The Morning Star, a kind of heliogenic megabulb that hangs over the city, casting shadows and making time, burning at the center of an urban calendar that guides the lives of those living in the streets below.

[Image: The Morning Star from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

And, finally, there is a huge plateau known as The Golden Compound where a vast sprawl—of what appear to be batteries—promises a “commune for the living-dead,” a dormitory those who “cheat death and remain everlasting” in this fairy tale metropolis.

“No one really knows if those inside” of these endless, battery-like structures, “are dead or alive,” we read, “and no one dares to find out.” They could be described as electrical mausoleums where sleeping beauties lie, equally alive and dead.

[Image: The Parliament from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].

There are many, many further images, of course, as well as an intricate physical model that accompanied them; the whole thing was displayed at the London Design Museum back in October-November 2013 and, with any luck, the images and model both will someday show up in a gallery near you.