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.

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012

[Image: “Lower Manhattan” (1999) by Lebbeus Woods, discussed extensively here].

Like many people, I was—and remain—devastated to have learned that architect Lebbeus Woods passed away last night, just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 34th Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.

I can’t pretend to have been a confidant of his, let alone a professional colleague, but Lebbeus’s influence over my own interest in architecture is impossible to exaggerate and his kindness and generosity as a friend to me here in New York City was an emotionally and professionally reassuring thing to receive—to a degree that I am perhaps only now fully realizing. I say this, of course, while referring to someone whose New Year’s toast a few years ago to a room full of friends gathered down at his loft near the Financial District—in an otherwise anonymous building whose only remarkable feature, if I remember correctly, was that huge paintings by Lebbeus himself were hanging in the corridors—was that we should all have, as he phrased it, a “difficult New Year.” That is, we should all look forward to, even seek out or purposefully engineer, a new year filled with the kinds of challenges Lebbeus felt, rightly or not, that we deserved to face, fight, and, in all cases, overcome—the genuine and endless difficulty of pursuing our own ideas and commitments, absurd goals no one else might share or even be interested in.

This was the New Year’s wish of a true friend, in the sense of someone who believes in and trusts your capacity to become what you want to be, and someone who will help to engineer the circumstances under which that transformation might most productively occur.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

Lebbeus mentored and taught many, many people, and I am, by every measure, the least qualified of any of them to write about his influence; but learning that Lebbeus has passed away, and under such utterly surreal circumstances, with his own city—literally, the streets all around him—flooding in the darkness as the oceans rose up, compelled me to write something for him, or about him, or because of him, or to him. I have been fortunate enough, or perhaps determined, to live a life where I’ve met several of my heroes in person, and Lebbeus is—he will always be—exactly that, a titanic and strangely omnipresent figure for me whose work set off special effects he himself would be puzzled—even slightly embarrassed—to learn that I’ve attributed to him.

Speaking only for myself, Lebbeus is a canonical figure in the West—and I mean a West not of landed aristocrats, armies, and regal blood-lines but of travelers, heretics, outsiders, peripheral exploratory figures whose missives and maps from the edges of things always chip away at the doomed fortifications of the people who thought the world not only was ownable, but that it was theirs. Lebbeus Woods is the West. William S. Burroughs is the West. Giordano Bruno is the West. Audre Lorde is the West. William Blake is the West. For that matter, Albert Einstein, as Leb would probably agree, having designed an interstellar tomb for the man, is the West. Lebbeus Woods should be on the same sorts of lists as James Joyce or John Cage, a person as culturally relevant as he was scientifically suggestive, seething with ideas applicable to nearly every discipline.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

In any case, it isn’t just the quality of Lebbeus’s work—the incredible drawings, the elaborate models—or even the engaged intensity of his political writings, on architecture as politics pursued by other means or architecture as war, that will guarantee him a lasting, multi-disciplinary influence for generations to come. There is something much more interesting and fundamental to his work that has always attracted me, and it verges on mythology. It verges on theology, in fact.

Here, if I can be permitted a long aside, it all comes down to ground conditions—to the interruption, even the complete disappearance, of the ground plane, of firm terrestrial reference, of terra firma, of the Earth, of the very planet we think we stand on. Whether presented under the guise of the earthquake or of warfare or even of General Relativity, Lebbeus’s work was constantly erasing the very surfaces we stood on—or, perhaps more accurately, he was always revealing that those dependable footholds we thought we had were never there to begin with. That we inhabit mobile terrain, a universe free of fixed points, devoid of gravity or centrality or even the ability to be trusted.

It is a world that can only be a World—that can only, and however temporarily, be internally coherent and hospitable—insofar as we construct something in it, something physical, linguistic, poetic, symbolic, resonant. Architectural.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Architecture, for Lebbeus, was a kind of counter-balance, a—I’m going to use the word—religious accounting for this lack of center elsewhere, this lack of world. It was a kind of factoring of the zero, to throw out a meaningless phrase: it was the realization that there is nothing on offer for us here, the realization that the instant we trust something it will be shaken loose in great convulsions of seismicity, that cities will fall—to war or to hurricanes—that subways will flood, that entire continents will be unmoored, split in two, terribly and irreversibly, as something maddeningly and wildly, in every possible sense outside of human knowledge, something older and immeasurable, violently shudders and wakes up, leaps again into the foreground and throws us from its back in order to walk on impatiently and destructively without us.

Something ancient and out of view will rapidly come back into focus and destroy all the cameras we use to film it. This is the premise of Lebbeus’s earthquake, Lebbeus’s terrestrial event outside measured comprehensibility, Lebbeus’s state of war.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Because what I like about Lebbeus’s work is its nearly insane honesty, its straight-ahead declaration that nothing—genuinely and absolutely nothing—is here to welcome us or accept us or say yes to us. That there is no solid or lasting ground to build anything on, let alone anything out there other than ourselves expecting us to build it.

Architecture is thus an act—a delirious and amazing act—of construction for no reason at all in the literal sense that architecture is outside rational calculation. That is, architecture—capital-A architecture, sure—must be seen, in this context, as something more than just supplying housing or emergency shelter; architecture becomes a nearly astronomical gesture, in the sense that architecture literally augments the planetary surface. Architecture increases (or decreases) a planet’s base habitability. It adds something new to—or, rather, it complexifies—the mass and volume of the universe. It even adds time: B is separated from C by nothing, until you add a series of obstacles, lengthening the distance between them. That series of obstacles—that elongated and previously non-existent sequence of space-time—is architecture.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

As Lebbeus himself once wrote, it is through architecture that humans realize new forms of spatial experience that would have been impossible under natural conditions—not in caves, not in forests, not even while out wandering through fog banks or deserts or into the frigid and monotonous vacuity of the Antarctic. Perhaps not even on the Earth. Architecture is a different kind of space altogether, offered, we could say, as a kind of post-terrestrial resistance against unstable ground, against the lack of a trustworthy planet. Against the lack of an inhabitable world.

Architecture, if you will, is a Wile E. Coyote moment where you look down and realize the universe is missing—that you are standing on empty air—so you construct for yourself a structure or space in which you might somehow attempt survival. Architecture is more than buildings. It is a spacesuit. It is a counter-planet—or maybe it is the only planet, always and ever a terraforming of this alien location we call the Earth.

In any case, it’s the disappearance of the ground plane—and the complicated spatial hand-waving we engage in to make that disappearance make sense—that is so interesting to me in Lebbeus’s work. When I say that Lebbeus Woods and James Joyce and William Blake and so on all belong on the same list, I mean it: because architecture is poetry is literature is myth. That is, it is equal to them and it is one of them. It is a way of explaining the human condition—whatever that is—spatially, not through stanzas or through novels or through song.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don’t recommend it—you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything.

Lebbeus will probably be missed for his formal inventiveness: buildings on stilts, massive seawalls, rotatable buildings that look like snowflakes. Deformed coasts anti-seismically jeweled with buildings. Tombs for Einstein falling through space.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

But this would be to miss the motivating absence at the heart of all those explorations, which is that we don’t yet know what the world is, what the Earth is—whether or not there even is a world or an Earth or a universe at all—and architecture is one of the arts of discovering an answer to this. Or inventing an answer to this, even flat-out fabricating an answer to this, meaning that architecture is more mythology than science. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that: it is exactly why architecture will always be more heroic even than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone’s home.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and—as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers—neither should we.

A Spatial History of Trapdoors

[Image: Poster for “The Queen of Chinatown” by Joseph Jarrow, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

Someone should write a short history of the trapdoor as spatial plot device in Broadway plays, literary fiction, Hollywood thrillers, and even dreams, CIA plots, Dungeons & Dragons modules, and more. How does the trapdoor, as an unexpected space of strategic perforation and architectural connection, serve both to move a plot forward and to give spatial form to characterization?

The “Queen of Chinatown” poster seen above, for instance, with its sprung floor collapsing beneath the weight of a hapless sailor, seems to promise an entire urban district—“Chinatown” as an Orientalist fantasy of inscrutable passageways and other devious spatial practices—illicitly Swiss-cheesed with unexpected wormholes. Chutes, pits, wells, and shafts are perhaps distributed throughout the neighborhood, we’re led to imagine, giving the erstwhile “Queen” her strategic mastery of the area. Chinatown becomes a hive of “mysterious Chinese tunnels,” a porous space guarded not through high fortress walls or even by watchmen or CCTV, but through a camouflaged network of surprise openings, like architectural sinkholes, that no one can predict and of which only one person knows the true extent.

The above poster, meanwhile, seems almost like an alternate-history version of Christopher Nolan’s recent heist film, Inception: there are opium addicts slumbering in a warren of stacked bunkbeds in an off-the-books Chinatown dream academy, and there is a man—an anonymous investigative agent of the state—crashing through the floor into this world of broadly Asiatic decor. A multi-layered hive of architectural space seen sliced through in section, where trapdoors lead to further trapdoors. Inception as an 1890s heist caper, serialized on the popular stage.

[Image: A still from Inception, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In any case, a spatial history of trapdoors—in film, literature, myth, dreams, and theater—would make an amazing pamphlet or book, I think, and I would love to see such a thing someday, perhaps part of a larger series of pamphlets looking at other minor architectural typologies—like log flumes and National Park trail structures and hay mazes.

[Image: “Then let it be the kiss of death!” Courtesy of the Library of Congress].

The two posters reproduced here, both available through the Library of Congress, are at least one place to start.

An Ancient Comedy of Urban Errors

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

For his final thesis project this year at the Cooper Union in New York City, student Andrejs Rauchut diagrammed and modeled “a constellation of architectural set pieces” meant for “a day-long performance of The Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare. Rauchut’s project presentation included an absolutely massive, wood-bound book: it started off as a flat chest or cabinet, before opening up as its own display table.

[Images: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

The diagrams therein are extraordinary: they map character movement not only through the ancient city of Ephesus, where Shakespeare’s play is set, but through the “constellation” of set pieces that Rauchut himself later designed.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union; view larger!].

As Rauchut describes it, The Comedy of Errors “follows a single day in the life of the port city of Ephesus through the eyes of its commuting citizens, from the high perch of the duke to the city’s prostitutes.” This has interesting spatial implications:

The shrewdest and most elaborate part of the play is its circuitous, knotted plot. The city starts to fold in on itself when a merchant named Antipholus arrives in Ephesus unaware that his long-lost twin brother now lives in Ephesus. The local citizenry misidentify the brothers as each Antipholus is shuffled in and out of scene. A complex strand of chaos breaks out throughout the city that climaxes with one of the brothers attempting to publicly murder his wife out of shear frustration. While the play investigates how the circulation patterns in a city can be hijacked to create chaos, it also demonstrates how, through the art of gathering, peace can be obtained via discussion and the exchange of information. We see this in the last act when all the characters gather and finally make sense of the day’s events.

Urban design becomes public dramaturgy.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

The bulk of Rauchut’s work went into producing a series of timelines and graphic depictions of character movement in Shakespeare’s play.

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

In the massive image seen above, for instance, “Each box represents the time and space of an act and the crossing of a box by a line signals a character’s entrance onto the stage. One can see that it is in the final act, when nearly all the lines collectively intersect the last rectangle, and all the characters are on stage, that they can finally straighten out the events of their collective day. Up to this point, as the timeline demonstrates, the characters have been weaving in and out of contact with one another, multiplying the fragmented misinformation that spreads throughout the city.”

[Images: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

He then went on to experiment with overlaying these character paths onto Staten Island, part of the New York City archipelago, as if trying to draw an analogy between the seafaring, splintered island geography of the ancient Mediterranean—with its attendant heroes and unacknowledged gods—and the contemporary commuter landscape of greater New York.

This transposition of Shakespeare’s characters’ movements onto Staten Island, Rauchut explains, became “the backbone for the design of a series of architectural set pieces inserted into the suburban fabric of Staten Island. At each of the points where characters interact, an architectural set is built.”

[Image: From Andrejs Rauchut’s thesis project at the Cooper Union].

Ultimately, the project aimed for the indirect choreographing of a public, urban event—it was to be a “guerilla instigator of public space,” as Rauchut describes it:

The final design is a constellation of architectural set pieces that would be used for a day-long performance of The Comedy of Errors. Actors would travel along their scripted routes through the city dressed in plain-clothes crossing paths and delivering lines. The audience would consist of interested citizens, gathering, following, growing, leaving, and occasionally returning as they continue through their daily routines.

“After the play is over,” he concludes, “the architecture would remain and would be used by the locals of Staten Island”—the remnants of a play incorporated into everyday urbanism.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of that sort of participatory street theater, but the spatial ideas underlying Rauchut’s project—that is, the precipitation of architectural forms from the public passing of an unannounced literary event—is certainly thought-provoking and could have some pretty awesome effects applied elsewhere, with different texts. Books become clouds, raining events and built forms onto the city.

(Thanks to Hayley Eber for inviting me to see Andrejs Rauchut’s project at midterm last spring! Of possible earlier interest: Bloomsday).

Park Stories

[Image: Hyde Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Royal Parks of London already boast a long list of worthy, if specialized, publications, from the Kensington Gardens Shared Use Assessments to an executive summary of the Cycle Review at The Regent’s Park. But Thursday, May 7, 2009, will open a new chapter in The Royal Parks’ publishing career, as the organization unveils Park Stories, a set of eight specially-commissioned short stories, each story set in one of London’s public parks.

[Image: A poster for the Park Stories project, produced by The Royal Parks under the direction of Rowan Routh].

According to the series’ editor, Rowan Routh, the seeds of her idea were sown during a recent collaboration with London’s Natural History Museum. The Curator for Contemporary Arts at the NHM, Bergit Arends, worked with Routh to commission literary responses—some poems and a short story—to the life and scientific theories of Charles Darwin, for their current exhibition. The creative challenges of incorporating a substantial reading experience into the limited space of a crowded museum, as well as the quality of the writing that emerged from the commission, left Routh “thinking about fiction in terms of other places to experience it,” she explained in a telephone interview with BLDGBLOG.

Routh is also a champion of the short story form—which she feels has been neglected in the UK—and a Londoner who enjoys the city’s parks, so she was thrilled to find a way to bring all three enthusiasms together: “It just suddenly occurred to me: Hang on a minute, a park is a wonderful place to read! It’s a perfect marriage, really, of a location and an activity. Once the idea formed, it became more and more of a no-brainer, to the point where I was wondering why people haven’t done this before. People spend their lunch breaks in the park. It’s an amount of time in which the golden nugget of the short story can be consumed. And even more to the point, London’s Royal Parks have an incredibly rich literary history anyway, so it’s something that is sort of already there.”

[Image: St. James’s Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

The project is exciting on a number of different levels. For starters, Routh has assembled a stellar list of writers: she has a background as a literary agent, and for her, “It was very important that this was about the short story as well as about parks. It was important that it was about good writing. Commissioning stories for The Royal Parks, when they already have a history of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Henry James writing about them, it seemed right to keep to the gold standard.”

She started out by asking writers who had a connection to a particular part of London: for example, Nicola Barker, whose most recent novel is the Booker-prize short-listed Darkmans and who lives in Greenwich, has contributed By Force of Will Alone, set in Greenwich Park. The selection process evolved as word spread—and the final list now looks like this: William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Green Park), Will Self (A Report to the Minister, Bushy Park), Ali Smith (The Definite Article, Regent’s Park), Adam Thorpe (Direct Hit, Hyde Park), Shena Mackay (The Return of the Deer, Richmond Park), Hana al-Shaykh (A Beauty Parlour for Swans, Kensington Gardens), and Clare Wigfall (Along Birdcage Walk, St James’s Park).

[Image: Kensington Gardens, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Routh hopes that the Royal Parks commission will become an annual event, and the potential for this series to evolve in future years is energizing. Her hope is that the project’s core remains “eight very high quality short stories set in the parks,” but she speculates that it could expand to include responses to the parks in different genres or even stories by the general public (through a park-based storybooth or wiki page). Crime writers could make use of fog, weed-choked ponds, and overgrown outhouses to do away with early morning joggers, and sci-fi novelists could set stories in the drowned parks of London’s watery future; it’s even possible to imagine an erotic fiction series (complete with a foreword by George Michael). Meanwhile, the authors of historical romances could bring to life Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, once the gathering place for fashionable London, while horror writers would be drawn instead to the park’s off-limits pet cemetery (which George Orwell apparently considered “perhaps the most horrible spectacle in Britain.”)

Equally pleasing is the formal connection between parks and short stories: both offer a limited space of encounter, but a heightened, or concentrated, experience for all that. In a park, various elements—trees, follies, flowerbeds, and water features—are carefully, even narratively, arranged to mimic, distill, and often improve on the unplanned, “natural” landscape they replace; similarly, Routh contends that short stories “don’t give any less of an emotional or stylistic punch than a novel, and it’s actually heightened and changed by being so carefully contained and arranged in a smaller space.” This idea that a particular landscape can be married to its equivalent literary form is inspiring: perhaps suburbia is best expressed through the sprawling novel; wilderness requires poetry; and a city like Tokyo all but demands a text-message thriller.

[Image: Another view of St. James’s Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Finally, the real joy in this project lies in the idea that the owners of a particular landscape or building might commission original literature to celebrate and promote it. If literary commissions become a form of property investment, for instance, could we perhaps see bespoke short stories replacing new kitchen cabinets as the surest way to add value to your home? Or will Los Angeles’ real estate developers forego glossy brochures in favor of paying T.C. Boyle to set his next novel in the city’s struggling loft district, while the local Convention & Visitors Bureau cancels its regular press junkets and instead develops a package of incentives for writers prepared to use L.A. as the backdrop for their work?

Some critics have caviled, finding “precious few examples of good literature being written to order,” but I rather agree with former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who felt that his poems, “like all commissioned pieces, work best when they coincide with an existing personal interest.” Within this fruitful framework of shared interests, for example, we already have Lloyd’s of London commissioning poems from John Burnside on the subject of climate change (which is the insurance industry’s greatest threat to profitability as well as a passionate concern for the Scots nature poet). But what about Sigalert.com drumming up customers for its personalized traffic reports through hourly freeway-themed haiku delivered to your smartphone, or NASA campaigning for a manned Mars program by commissioning dozens of screenplays on the subject?

[Image: From John Burnside’s collection Trees in the City; check out the PDF].

Of course, this type of content-specific literary commission is indistinguishable from product placement—and here I feel compelled to mention the example set by Fay Weldon’s 2001 novel The Bulgari Connection. Weldon’s book was commissioned by the eponymous jewelers, who paid an “undisclosed, but ‘not huge’ amount of money,” according to Weldon’s agent, Giles Gordon, for a dozen mentions of their company in the book. Bulgari were, in fact, rewarded with at least three times as many—not to mention the title. With pitch-perfect po-mo sensibility, critics sniped in the New York Times, “It is like the billboarding of the novel. [Note: How about novelizing the billboard?] I feel as if it erodes reader confidence in the authenticity of the narrative. Does this character really drive a Ford or did Ford pay for this?”

In any case, if The Royal Parks are creative and brave enough to commission a set of short stories, I would hope that perhaps the fictionally fertile landscapes built and managed by KB Home (who, in fact, have already partnered with Disney), the Parking Company of America, or the incorporated gated communities of Southern California cannot be far behind?

The Park Stories series will be available from May in eight individual booklets (priced at £2 each) and as a boxed-set (priced at £16) from selected bookstores and The Royal Parks website: (www.royalparks.org.uk). The authors will be conducting readings in the parks this summer.

[Earlier posts by Nicola Twilley include Park’s Parks, Dark Sky Park and Zones of Exclusion; we’ve started joking that she’s our Parks Correspondent).

Pushkin Park

[Image: A moldy sofa, otherwise unrelated to this post, photographed by Flickr user melinnis].

Russian scientists have begun testing blood stains on the sofa where novelist Alexander Pushkin is rumored to have died, in order to determine if those stains might have come from Pushkin himself.
At least two things interest me here:

1) It’s the forensic sciences applied to antique furniture in order to find the otherwise undetectable remains of a dead Russian novelist. One might even say residue here, not remains at all; it is the barest of traces. Suddenly, though, it’s as if those old stuffed sofas, fading carpets, and tables of hand-worn wood in obsolete interiors around the world have been transformed into a kind of archaeological site, in which the chemical traces of literary history might yet be discovered. The sofa is Pushkin’s Calvary, if you will – a chemical reliquary. Furniture becomes a kind of hematological Stargate into literature’s mortal past. Who else might they find in there? You go around the world performing genetic tests on antique furniture to see which novelists ever used it – traces of Sebald, Hemingway, Tolstoy.

2) Two words: Pushkin Park. We clone Pushkin and start a theme park. Like a thousand Mini-Me‘s well-versed in storycraft, Pushkin – one man distributed through a thousand bodies – wanders the artificial landscape, and like some strange Greek myth wed with Antiques Roadshow, he tells the crowds, “I sprung forth, fully formed, from a sofa…” And there begins a tale for stunned tourists.

(Via the Guardian).

Divided Kingdom

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 32, from Rob Gardiner’s inspired photographic project, Walking the Circle Line, London].

Rupert Thomson’s recent novel Divided Kingdom is set in a world where the whole of Britain has been broken up into four sectors, the population itself forcibly “rearranged” according to emotional temperment.

Well-disciplined over-achievers are sent to one quarter; despair-wracked introspectionists another; pick-up truck driving nutters prone to violence take a third (I came I saw I lost my temper, its postcards read); and some other group I’m overlooking at the moment gets the last bit.

Walls and fences begin to appear; soon people complain of “border sickness” as they are further hemmed in by a series of Internal Security Acts. “Throughout the divided kingdom,” we read, “the walls of concrete blocks had been reinforced with watch-towers, axial crosses and even, in some areas, with mine-fields, which rendered contact between the citizens of different countries a physical impossibility.”

London itself is “divided so as to create four new capitals,” and each major bridge over the Thames is “fortified, along with watch-towers at either end and a steel dragnet underneath.” However, “in stretches where the river itself had become the border all the bridges had been destroyed. The roads that had once led to them stopped at the water’s edge, and stopped abruptly. They seemed to stare into space, no longer knowing what they were doing there or why they had come.”

[Image: From Under Blackfriars Bridge, London, by Rob Gardiner].

There is even a “tourist settlement called the Border Experience” constructed near one of the crossings – apparently learning from Venturi, complete “with theme hotels, fast-food restaurants and souvenir shops.”

In one sector, all the motorways “had been converted into venues for music festivals or sporting events, and others had been fortified, then turned into borders, their tall grey lights illuminating dogs and guards instead of traffic, but for the most part they had simply been allowed to decay, their signs leaning at strange angles, their service stations inhabited by mice and birds, their bridges choked with weeds and brambles or, as in this case, collapsing altogether. In time, motorways would become so overgrown that they would only be visible from the air, half-hidden monuments to an earlier civilization, like pyramids buried in a jungle.”

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 16, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

While still a young boy, the narrator develops “border games” with a mate; they “prowl among the cement-mixers and scaffolding poles” next to “a section of the motorway that was in the process of being dug up,” and they use cardboard tubes to spy on guards stationed several acres away.

In any case, parts of Divided Kingdom read like descriptions of Dubai – or what Mike Davis refers to as Dubai’s “monstrous caricature of futurism,” as that city strives “to conquer the architectural record-books.”

There is something called the Underground Ocean, for instance. Thomson’s narrator and his entourage are led down into a basement warehouse, where they stand beside a lifeguard on a boardwalk in the dark:

The lifeguard’s voice floated dreamily above us. Any second now, he said, the scene would be illuminated, but first he wanted us to try and picture what it was that we were about to see. I peered out into the dark, my eyes gradually adjusting. A pale strip curved away to my right – the beach, I thought – and at the edge furthest from me I could just make out a shimmer, the faintest of oscillations. Could that be where the water met the sand? Beyond that, the blackness resisted me, no matter how carefully I looked.
“Lights,” the lifeguard said.
I wasn’t the only delegate to let out a gasp. My first impression was that night had turned to day – but instantly, as if hours had passed in a split-second. At the same time, the space in which I had been standing had expanded to such a degree that I no longer appeared to be indoors. I felt unstead,y, slightly sick. Eyes narrowed against the glare, I saw a perfect blue sky arching overhead. Before me stretched an ocean, just as blue. It was calm the way lakes are sometimes calm, not a single crease or wrinkle. Creamy puffs of cloud hung suspended in the distance. Despite the existence of a horizon, I couldn’t seem to establish a sense of perspective. After a while my eyes simply refused to engage with the view, and I had to look away.
“Now for the waves,” the lifeguard said.

It is interesting to note that, at the end of the book, in the Acknowledgements, Thomson cites S,M,L,XL by Rem Koolhaas as having been a literary resource.

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 52, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

While it seems rather obvious that the book is not meant to present the next likely development in national governance or urban planning, many readers – i.e. Amazon reviewers – seem upset by the premise, and repeatedly point out that this “could never happen.” But surely that’s not the point? As with all of Thomson’s novels the writing is exquisite, at times dreamlike yet descriptively precise; the book is also one of the few examples I can think of where I actually wished the book had been substantially longer (it’s 336 pages).

If you do read it, let me know what you think.

[Image: Circle Line Pinhole 64, from Rob Gardiner’s Walking the Circle Line, London].

(Thanks to Steve & Valerie Twilley for the book! Meanwhile, for more of Rob Gardiner’s photographs, see Gardiner’s blog; I’m a particular fan of his London work).

Wormholes in Wood

Emilio Grifalconi, a character in Georges Perec’s 1978 novel Life: A User’s Manual, at one point discovers “the remains of a table. Its oval top, wonderfully inlaid with mother-of-pearl, was exceptionally well preserved; but its base, a massive, spindle-shaped column of grained wood, turned out to be completely worm-eaten. The worms had done their work in covert, subterranean fashion, creating innumerable ducts and microscopic channels now filled with pulverized wood. No sign of this insidious labor showed on the surface.”


Grifalconi soon realizes that “the only way of preserving the original base – hollowed out as it was, it could no longer suport the weight of the top – was to reinforce it from within; so once he had completely emptied the canals of the their wood dust by suction, he set about injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber. The operation was successful; but it quickly became apparent that, even thus strengthened, the base was too weak” – and the table would have to be discarded.
In preparing to get rid of the table, however, Grifalconi stumbles upon the idea of “dissolving what was left of the original wood” that still formed the table’s base. This would “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”
And if we could sculpt and harden our own paths through cities – across continents – what wormholes of structure and space might we find?

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Wormholes).

A Natural History of Mirrors

In his book Crystallography, poet Christian Bök describes “a medieval treatise on the use of mirrors.” This treatise, Bök tells us, suggests that when two mirrors reflect one other, the endless abyss of mirrors-in-mirrors created between them might form a kind of spectral architecture.


Further, Bök’s alleged medieval treatise says, “any living person who has no soul can actually step into either one of the mirrors as if it were an open door and thus walk down the illusory corridor that appears to recede forever into the depths of the glass by virtue of one mirror reflecting itself in the other. The walls of such a corridor are said to be made from invulnerable panes of crystal, beyond which lies a nullified dimension of such complexity that to view it is surely to go insane. The book also explains at length that, after an eternity of walking down such a corridor, a person eventually exits from the looking-glass opposite to the one first entered.”

Treatise’s author, according to Bök, “speculates that a soulless man might carry another pair of mirrors into such a corridor, thereby producing a hallway at right angles to the first one, and of course this procedure might be performed again and again in any of the corridors until an endless labyrinth of glass has been erected inside the first pair of mirrors, each mirror opening onto an extensive grid of crisscrossing hallways, some of which never intersect, despite their lengths being both infinite and perpendicular.”

The author of this hypothetical treatise warns, however, that one could become “hopelessly lost while exploring such a maze” – for instance, “if the initial pair of mirrors are disturbed so that they no longer reflect each other, thus suddenly obliterating the fragile foundation upon which the entire maze rests.”

In which case whole crystal cities of mirrored halls, in right-angled topologies of non-self-intersecting self-intersection, would simply disappear – along with anyone exploring inside them.


A kind of rogue experiment might ensue, aboard the International Space Station: an astronaut, crazed with loneliness, sets up two mirrors… and promptly escapes into a hinged labyrinth of crystallized earth-orbiters, his radio crackling unanswered in the control panel left behind.

The Topography of Hell

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

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

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

The original comparison:


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

As Adrian Searle describes Botticelli’s work:

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

The ledges, cities and basements of hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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