The exact acoustic shape of
the skies above Los Angeles

[Image: Photo by John Gay: an F/A-18 creates a condensation cone as it breaks the speed of sound].

An email was sent out last week from the Regional Public & Private Infrastructure Collaboration Systems (RPPICS) – an organization with no apparent web presence – warning many businesses in and around Los Angeles that city residents “could hear up to a dozen sonic booms this morning [June 11] as some NASA F/A-18 aircraft fly at supersonic speeds around Edwards Air Force Base.”

While the “loudness of the booms will vary,” we read, these are only “preliminary calibration flights for an upcoming NASA study” that will research how “to reduce the intensity of sonic booms.” Part of this will be studying “local atmospheric conditions,” including air pressure, wind speed, and humidity, as these all entail acoustic side-effects.

It’s a sonic cartography of the lower atmosphere: an echo-location exercise. The geometry of noise.

Sound-bombing L.A. from above in order to know the exact acoustic shape and structure of the sky.

Nocturnal Projections

[Image: A dream of freeways above the city, at Postopolis! LA; I believe this was from Ted Kane‘s presentation. Photo by Dan Hill].

One Postopolis!, a minor car accident, and 500 miles later, I’m back in the rain of San Francisco. I owe a huge thanks to everyone who came out for the event last week, from my fellow bloggers (Bryan, Jace, David A./David B., Régine, and Dan) to Joseph Grima and the crew of Storefront for Art and Architecture, by way of ForYourArt, who found us the venue, organized several daytrips, and brought the whole thing into real time.
Thanks not only for coming along to see it unfold, but for sticking with us through microphone feedback, near-freezing rooftop temperatures, and the odd delay. If you get a chance, definitely visit the websites of the people who presented to learn more about their work; you can find links here.

The Lost Airfields of Greater Los Angeles

[Image: An airplane flies above Los Angeles, a landscape of now-forgotten airports].

Buried beneath the streets of Los Angeles are lost airfields, airports whose runways have long since disappeared, sealed beneath roads and residential housing blocks, landscaped into non-existence and forgotten. Under the building you’re now sitting in, somewhere in greater L.A., airplanes might once have taken flight.

[Image: The now-lost runways of L.A.’s Cecil B. De Mille Airfield; photo courtesy of UCLA’s Re-Mapping Hollywood archive].

The Cecil B. De Mille Airfield, for instance, described by the Re-Mapping Hollywood archive at UCLA as having once stood “on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Avenue (now Fairfax),” would, today, be opposite The Grove; on the southwest corner of the same intersection was Charlie Chaplin Airfield. As their names would indicate, these private (and, by modern standards, extremely small) airports were used by movie studios both for transportation and filming sky scenes. They were aerial back-lots.

Other examples include Burdett Airport, located at the intersection of 94th Street and Western Avenue in what is now Inglewood; the fascinating history of Hughes Airport in Culver City; the evocatively named, and now erased, Puente Hills “Skyranch“; and at least a dozen others, all documented by Paul Freeman’s aero-archaeology site, Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields (four pages alone are dedicated to lost L.A. airfields).

[Image: Charlie Chaplin Airfield in 1920s Los Angeles; photo courtesy of UCLA’s Re-Mapping Hollywood archive].

In a way, though, these airports are like the Nazca Lines of Los Angeles – or perhaps they are even more like Ley lines beneath the city. Laminated beneath 20th century city growth, their forgotten geometries once diagrammed an anthropological experience of the sky, spatial evidence of human contact with the middle atmosphere. Perhaps we should build aerial cathedralry there, to mark these places where human beings once ascended. A winged Calvary.

The cast of minor characters who once crossed paths with those airfields is, itself, fascinating. A minor history of L.A. aviators would include men like Moye W. Stephens. Stephens’s charismatic globe-trotting adventures, flying over Mt. Everest in the early 1930s, visiting Timbuktu by air, and buzzing above the Taj Mahal, would not be out of place in a novel by Roberto Bolaño or an unpublished memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And that’s before we really discuss Howard Hughes.

[Image: The Cecil B. De Mille Airfield, renamed Rogers Airport (or, possibly, Rogers Airport, which later became the Cecil B. De Mille Airfield); image via Paul Freeman’s Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields].

Of course, many of these aeroglyphs are now gone, but perhaps their remnants are still detectable – in obscure property law documents at City Hall, otherwise inexplicable detours taken by underground utility cables, or even in jurisdictional disputes at the L.A. fire department.

And they could even yet be excavated.

A new archaeology of airfields could be inaugurated at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, where a group of students from UCLA will brush aside modern concrete and gravel to find fading marks of airplanes that touched down 90 years ago, over-loaded with film equipment, in what was then a rural desert.

With trowels and Leica site-scanning equipment in hand, they look for the earthbound traces of aerial events, a kingdom of the sky that once existed here, anchored down at these and other points throughout the L.A. basin, cutting down into the earth to deduce what once might have happened high above.

Greater Los Angeles

I got back from Los Angeles last night and my head is still spinning. I’d move there again in a heartbeat.
There are three great cities in the United States: there’s Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York – in that order.
I love Boston; I even love Denver; I like Miami; I think Washington DC is habitable; but Los Angeles is Los Angeles. You can’t compare it to Paris, or to London, or to Rome, or to Shanghai. You can interestingly contrast it to those cities, sure, and Los Angeles even comes out lacking; but Los Angeles is still Los Angeles.

[Image: L.A., as photographed by Marshall Astor].

No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.
L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.
The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.
It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.
What matters is what you do there.

[Image: An extraordinary photograph, called 4.366 Braille, by jenlund70].

And maybe that means renting Hot Fuzz and eating too many pretzels; or maybe that means driving a Prius out to Malibu and surfing with Daryl Hannah as a means of protesting something; or maybe that means buying everything Fredric Jameson has ever written and even underlining significant passages as you visit the Westin Bonaventura. Maybe that just means getting into skateboarding, or into E!, or into Zen, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism; or maybe you’ll plunge yourself into gin-fueled all night Frank Sinatra marathons – or you’ll lift weights and check email every two minutes on your Blackberry and watch old Bruce Willis films.
Who cares?
Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You’re alone in the world.
L.A. is explicit about that.
If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there.
It’s you and a bunch of parking lots.
You’ll see Al Pacino in a traffic jam, wearing a stocking cap; you’ll see Cameron Diaz in the check-out line at Whole Foods, giggling through a mask of reptilian skin; you’ll see Harry Shearer buying bulk shrimp.
The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who lives there knows that. No one thinks that L.A. “works,” or that it’s well-designed, or that it’s perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it’s interesting. And they have fun there.
And the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous. In L.A. you don’t have to be embarrassed by yourself. You’re not driven into a state of endless, vaguely militarized self-justification by your xenophobic neighbors.
You’ve got a surgically pinched, thin Michael Jackson nose? You’ve got a goatee and a trucker hat? You’ve got a million-dollar job and a Bentley? You’ve got to be at work at the local doughnut shop before 6am? Or maybe you’ve got 16 kids and an addiction to Yoo-Hoo – who cares?
It doesn’t matter.
Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it’s bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don’t matter. You’re free.

[Image: Two beautiful photos by Andrew Johnson; here’s the left, here’s the right].

In Los Angeles you can be standing next to another human being but you may as well be standing next to a geological formation. Whatever that thing is, it doesn’t care about you. And you don’t care about it. Get over it. You’re alone in the world. Do something interesting.
Do what you actually want to do – even if that means reading P.D. James or getting your nails done or re-oiling car parts in your backyard.
Because no one cares.
In L.A. you can grow Fabio hair and go to the Arclight and not be embarrassed by yourself. Every mode of living is appropriate for L.A. You can do what you want.
And I don’t just mean that Los Angeles is some friendly bastion of cultural diversity and so we should celebrate it on that level and be done with it; I mean that Los Angeles is the confrontation with the void. It is the void. It’s the confrontation with astronomy through near-constant sunlight and the inhuman radiative cancers that result. It’s the confrontation with geology through plate tectonics and buried oil, methane, gravel, tar, and whatever other weird deposits of unknown ancient remains are sitting around down there in the dry and fractured subsurface. It’s a confrontation with the oceanic; with anonymity; with desert time; with endless parking lots.
And it doesn’t need humanizing. Who cares if you can’t identify with Los Angeles? It doesn’t need to be made human. It’s better than that.

The Cloud

[Image: Photo by Kim Johnson Flodin/Associated Press, via the New York Times].

Not being a local news follower, I found myself sitting outside yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles, beneath a huge brown cloud that seemed to hover there, more or less stationary, above the parking lot beside me. The cloud was totally alone, surrounded on all sides by perfectly blue sky, as if a thunderstorm had rolled in only to change its mind and drift off, leaving part of itself behind, atmospherically orphaned in the sunlight. After all, there was no rain.

The cloud didn’t appear to be moving.

I began expecting an earthquake.

“Is there a fire or something?” I asked a guy wearing sunglasses as he walked past me on the sidewalk – but it occurred to me, absurdly, even as I heard myself asking him the question, that perhaps the cloud would be impossible to see through his sunglasses: its color would be visually filtered out by the glass’s tint and so he wouldn’t even know what I was talking about.

Instead, he just nodded and said, “Uh huh,” walking off past Radio Shack.

Still detached from the local news cycle at that point, and beginning to notice that not a single other person was looking up into the sky at what seemed, at least to me, to be a very obvious and possibly threatening brown cloud, I decided that people here really must be so over-trustful of the world that even a menacing, oily blur hovering above their heads could simply be perceptually filed away as some weird but harmless fluke: it’ll go away – it won’t be here tomorrow – and you can therefore just forget it ever happened…

Don’t think about it and it won’t harm you.

Which is when I remembered something called the “airborne toxic event” from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

About a third of the way through that book, there is a train derailment somewhere outside a small American college town. The accident releases a toxic cloud into the sky: “the smoke was plainly visible,” we read, “a heavy black mass hanging in the air beyond the river, more or less shapeless.”

One of the characters says it resembles “a shapeless growing thing. A dark black breathing thing of smoke.”

Families close to the accident are soon asked to evacuate – “Abandon all domiciles,” an amplified voice calls out, broadcast from a truck that drives through the cul-de-sacs – while “medical problems” that might develop upon “personal contact with the airborne toxic event” are discussed on the radio.

One of these problems is apparently déjà vu.

The source of the cloud, meanwhile, is being buried by snow machines, in the weird hope that this will thermo-chemically contain its spread; and so an artificial winter begins to erupt as rogue flakes blow on contaminated winds through the suburbs. Etc. etc. It’s all very ironic and surreal.

At one point, though, the drifting cloud becomes an all-out military spectacle:

A few minutes later, back on the road, we saw a remarkable and startling sight. It appeared in the sky ahead of us and to the left, prompting us to lower ourselves in our seats, bend our heads for a clearer view, exclaim to each other in half finished phrases. It was the black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view. In every car, heads shifted, drivers blew their horns to alert others, faces appeared in side windows, expressions set in tones of outlandish wonderment.
The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react.

To find out what happens next, both to the cloud and to the people watching it, you’ll just have to read the book; but, returning to a bench in Los Angeles yesterday on top of which I sat, looking up at an oily blur that seemed oddly rooted in place there above a parking lot, with no one else visibly concerned, no one else appearing to wonder what on earth it was that had come to visit us that day, there in the atmosphere, shadowing us, I was sad to learn that the whole thing was just the downwind result of a fire in the Hollywood Hills – an event I had otherwise managed to miss seeing entirely.

[Images: Via the BBC].

So much for the sublime or the inexplicable or the mysterious. I went back to reading, and the cloud blew away.

The First Million

I’m immensely pleased to announce BLDGBLOG’s first event, on January 13th in Los Angeles, to be hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

The event is meant as a way to mark BLDGBLOG’s recent move to Los Angeles; to kick-start the new year in a conversationally exciting way; to celebrate being one of Yahoo’s top 25 web picks of 2006; and to meet a few of the one million readers who have now clicked through to read BLDGBLOG (some much-needed statistical caveats about that statement appear below) – and, thus, an event seemed like a good idea. It also just sounds fun.

So this Saturday, January 13th, from 3pm-5pm, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City, Los Angeles, I’ll be introducing five speakers: Matthew Coolidge, Mary-Ann Ray, Robert Sumrell, Christine Wertheim, and Margaret Wertheim, who will speak for 15-20 minutes each.

Matthew Coolidge is Director of CLUI; as such, he’s one of the larger influences on BLDGBLOG, up there with J.G. Ballard, John McPhee, and Piranesi – so it’s immensely exciting for me to have him as a participant, and equally exciting that he and the CLUI staff are willing to host this event in their space. If you’re curious about CLUI’s work, consider purchasing their new book: Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or just stop by the Center at some point and say hello.

Back in 1997, then, I found myself in Rotterdam where I went to the Netherlands Architecture Institute several days in a row to use their architecture library; the NAi’s exhibit at the time was about Daniel Libeskind. While this proves that I’m possibly the world’s lamest backpacker, it also resulted in my stumbling across a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets, a book I highly recommend to just about anyone – and a book that may or may not even be responsible for my current interest in architecture.

So when I saw last week that Mary-Ann still lives in LA, and that her firm had actually worked on the facade of the Museum of Jurassic Technology – located right next door to the Center for Land Use Interpretation – I immediately gave her a call; and now she’s a speaker at the event.

[Image: Mary-Ann Ray, from Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets].

Robert Sumrell, meanwhile, is co-director of AUDC. AUDC’s work explores the fields of diffuse urbanism and network geography, whether that means analyzing Muzak as a form of spatial augmentation or photo-documenting the town of Quartzsite, Arizona.

Interestingly, Sumrell also works as a production designer for elaborate fashion shoots and other high-gloss, celebrity spectacles. If you’re a fan of Usher, for instance, don’t miss Sumrell’s Portfolio 2; if you like topless women surrounded by veils of smoke, see his Portfolio 1. I like Portfolio 1.

[Image: From Robert Sumrell’s Portfolio 4].

Then we come to Christine and Margaret Wertheim, co-directors of the Institute for Figuring, here in Los Angeles.

“The Institute’s interests,” they explain, “are twofold: the manifestation of figures in the world around us and the figurative technologies that humans have developed through the ages. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding, the tiling patterns of Islamic mosaics and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.”

Margaret will be presenting a hand-crocheted hyperbolic reef, “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft.” The reef is part craft object, part mathematical model in colored wool.

[Image: An example of “mega coral,” crocheted by Christine Wertheim].

Margaret is also an ace interviewer; don’t miss her conversation with Nicholas Gessler, for instance, collector of analogue computers. While you’re at it, don’t miss her “history of space from Dante to the internet”.

Meanwhile, Christine’s interests lie more in the realm of logic and its spatial representations. Christine has curated an upcoming show at the Museum of Jurassic Technology around the work of Shea Zellweger, an “outsider logician” and former hotel switchboard operator who developed a three-dimensional, internally rigorous representational system for logical processes.

Christine will thus be speaking on what could be called an illustrated spatial history of logic.

[Image: Part of Shea Zellweger’s logical alphabet; image courtesy of Shea Zellweger, via the Institute for Figuring].

Finally, the statistical caveats I mentioned above.

While it is true that my Sitemeter is now above one million – recording visitors to the site – it is also true that if you come to BLDGBLOG four times a week for a year, then you will be counted as 208 different people… So the accounting is a bit off.

Also, it is inarguably the case that at least 350,000 of those 1,000,000 visitors only visited one of the five following posts, which, thanks to Fark, Digg, MetaFilter, Boing Boing, etc., are overwhelmingly the most popular posts here: World’s largest diamond mine, Scientological Circles, The city as an avatar of itself, Transformer Houses, and Gazprom City.

Possible runners-up for that list – though those five really do take the cake – include, and I apologize for this blatantly self-indulgent yet strangely irresistible nostalgia trip: the interview with Simon Sellars, the interview with Simon Norfolk, the Aeneid-inspired look at offshore oil derricks, Chinese death vans, how to buy your own concrete utopia, Architectural Criticism, Where cathedrals go to die, the story of Joe Kittinger, London Topological, and L.A.’s high-tech world of traffic control. Actually, this one had a lot of readers, and the mud mosques were also quite popular…

But now I’ve wasted twenty minutes, assembling those links.

So I’ll link to others, instead. BLDGBLOG would still only be read by myself, my wife, and possibly two or three others if it hadn’t been for the early and/or ongoing enthusiasm of other websites who link in – including, but by no means limited to: Pruned, gravestmor, Archinect, things magazine, Inhabitat, Gridskipper, Boing Boing, Design Observer, Coudal, Artkrush, we make money not art, Subtopia, Ballardian, The Dirt, Apartment Therapy, Curbed LA and Curbed SF, City of Sound, Future Feeder, Archidose, Brand Avenue, Tropolism, hippoblog, Land+Living, Abstract Dynamics, Worldchanging, Warren Ellis, The Nonist, The Kircher Society, Conscientious, Centripetal Notion, and whoever it is that occasionally puts links to BLDGBLOG up on MetaFilter.

In any case, my final point is just to be honest and say that a million visitors is more like “a million visitors” – i.e. not quite a million visitors – and that, on top of that, many of those people only came through to see five or six particular posts in the first place. And that’s not even to mention the fact that many websites have more than a million visitors per month, and so the whole thing is not exactly awe-inspiring.

But who cares. If you’re in LA this weekend, consider dropping by; it’ll be a fun and casual event, not an academic conference, and you can tell me in person whether cone beats sphere.

(There’s also a full-size version of the event poster available).

The Weather Bowl

[Image: A passing Illinois lightning storm and supercell, the clouds peeling away to reveal evening stars; photo ©Extreme Instability/Mike Hollingshead. If you can overlook pet photos, meanwhile, don’t miss Hollingshead’s other storm work from 2006 and 2005 – including these Nebraskan auroras. While you’re at it, this storm sequence has some stunning, pre-storm landscape shots].

During a disastrously moderated talk at the MAK Center last night in West Hollywood, where the panelists could hardly get a word in edgewise because of the barely coherent, self-answering, 40-minute monologue of the moderator, Karl Chu briefly managed to say that he was interested in constructing and designing whole continents and weather systems.

Which got me thinking.

Given time, some digging equipment, a bit of geotechnical expertise, and loads of money, for instance, you could turn the entirety of greater Los Angeles into a weather bowl, dedicated to the recreation of famous storms. Install some rotating fans and open-air wind tunnels, build some deflection screens in the Hollywood Hills, scatter smaller fans and blowers throughout Culver City or overlooking Burbank, amplify the natural sea winds blowing in through Long Beach – and you could re-enact famous weather systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, reproducing hurricanes, even bringing back, for one night, the notorious storm that killed Shelley.

You consult your table of weather histories, choose your storm and go: fans deep in hillsides start turning, the wind tunnels roar, and lo! The exact speed and direction of Hurricane Andrew is unleashed. Seed the clouds a bit and reprogram the fans, and you can precisely reproduce the atmospheric conditions from the night William Blake was born. Or the ice storm that leveled electrical gantries outside Montreal, now whirling in a snow-blurred haze through Echo Park.

You could build competing weather colosseums in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Beijing. Every night new storms are reenacted, moving upward in scale and complexity. The storm Goethe saw as a nineteen year-old, contemplating European history, kills a family of seven outside Nanking. You soon get Weather Olympics, or a new Pritzker Prize for Best Weather Effects.

One day, a man consumed with nostalgia hacks the control program to recreate the exact breeze on which he once flew a kite over the Monbijouplatz in Berlin…

(For more on the exhibition now up at the MAK Center, download this PDF).

BLDGBLOG Moves to Los Angeles

Southern_CA_EQ_11x14[Image: USGS Map of southern California earthquakes; huge version also available].

In less than one month, BLDGBLOG will have picked up and moved itself to sunny Los Angeles, land of freeways and plate tectonics, Philip K. Dick and gang warfare, bikinis and Jurassic technology; city of tar pits and the porn industry, Joshua trees and desert gardens, Scientology and cinema – and so on. Mike Davis. The Italian Job. Anonymity and desert apocalypse. Watts Towers.
In any case, if anyone out there reads BLDGBLOG – any advice on where to live, what to do, who to know…? Better yet, are you in the real estate business and you just happen to have the perfect 2-bedroom apartment, with office space, eagerly waiting to be rented in the ideal neighborhood – and it’s so secret that even Curbed LA doesn’t know about it yet? For that matter, are you preparing to leave the country for several months and you live in Beverly Hills and you need an architecturally enthusiastic man and his delightful wife to water your plants till you get back? And use your pool for you and save the dinner plates from earthquakes…? Or perhaps you are newly stricken with the philanthropy bug, so you want to donate a well-lit room with bookshelves in which BLDGBLOG can upload itself in the off-hours, meditating on Californian socio-spatiality?

[Image: Octopus L.A. For the more satellite-inclined, check out Visible Earth‘s 3.1MB image of Los Angeles from space. Soon you’ll see BLDGBLOG driving around somewhere].

If so – or if you just know a good bar to regularize, or you want to organize deep desert geology hikes, or you want to put together a talk20-like event – leave a comment or be in touch or do neither, but keep reading BLDGBLOG knowing that we’ll soon be neighbors.
Until that western arrival comes, posting will continue apace – although you may see a lot more Quick list-style posts as general busy-ness seems to be increasing by the day.

The Visionary State: An Interview with Erik Davis

[Image: Philip K. Dick’s former apartment complex, Fullerton, CA; photo ©Michael Rauner].

In The Visionary State, published last month by Chronicle Books, Erik Davis and Michael Rauner explore the religious landscape of California. The state’s cultural topography, Davis tells us, mirrors the physical terrain, “an overlapping set of diverse ecosystems, hanging, and sometimes quaking, on the literal edge of the West”:

This landscape ranges from pagan forests to ascetic deserts to the shifting shores of a watery void. It includes dizzying heights and terrible lows, and great urban zones of human construction. Even in its city life, California insists that there are more ways than one, with its major urban cultures roughly divided between the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Indeed, Northern and Southern California are considered by some to be so different as to effectively constitute different states. But that is a mistake. California is not two: it is bipolar.

Indeed, the state is animated from below with “titanic forces implied by its geology,” Davis writes, and a “frontier strand of nature mysticism” long ago took conscious root.

[Image: The labyrinth in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland; photo ©Michael Rauner].

Over the course of the book, the authors visit California’s “Buddha towns” and Vedantic ashrams, its National Parks and the properties of discontented theosophists. They try to fathom what strange mutations of 21st-century Christianity could produce Jesus, the “OC Superstar,” in whose name compassionate self-sacrifice and divine generosity have been reduced to a grinning statue rather pleased with itself in a well-watered grove of palm trees. They even stop by California’s hot springs, wineries, observatories, and mind labs – without forgetting the dark side of the state, where Charles Manson, “trippy folk songs,” and a psychedelic obsession with “the Now” all meet.
At one point Davis hilariously describes Anton LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible:

Born Howard Levey in 1930, LaVey was less a freak guru than a Playboy-era steak-and-martini man. He hated hippies and LSD, played Wurlitzer organs in strip clubs, and had no interest in mystically dissolving the ego. Though essentially a con man, LaVey had enough psychological frankness and sleazy charm to attract scores to the black masses he held at his house in the Outer Richmond, a place he had, as the song goes, painted black.

Meanwhile, fans of Blade Runner will be pleased to hear that Davis and Rauner visit the so-called Bradbury Building. There, in Ridley Scott’s film, lived J.F. Sebastian, abandoned by everyone and prematurely old, designing his robotic toys.

[Image: The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles; designed by George Wyman, the interior of the building “shoots upward toward a gabled canopy of glass, a lattice of light suspended over the delicate wrought-iron trusses that float in the clerestory haze.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

Though I found the book philosophically adventurous, strangely good-humored, and particularly well-photographed, I will add that my own sense of the sacred – if I can phrase it as such – felt constantly challenged throughout. In other words, almost every time the authors visited a new site, I found myself immediately engaged in a kind of comparative landscape theology, asking: why is this place sacred?
Why on earth would they go there?
After all, is an archaeological site sacred to the Chumash more sacred than a street sacred to Philip K. Dick – or a quarry sacred to the Center for Land Use Interpretation? Or vice versa? What about a site favored by Erik Davis and Michael Rauner themselves, as they performed literally years of research for the book?
Such questions only lead to more of themselves. If the Mormons, for instance, launched a geostationary satellite over the city of Los Angeles, and they used it to broadcast radio sermons, is that precise location in the sky – a square-meter of rarefied air – to be considered sacred? Or is there a holy tide or blessed current that flows through the coves of Big Sur – whose landscape, a “wild harmony of impermanence and beauty,” Davis writes, so stunned the poet Robinson Jeffers? Does that visionary landscape have a correspondingly sacred hydroscape, some undersea world of the dead discussed a thousand years earlier in tribal myths? Can the weather be sacred – or even a particular storm?
And where does the geography of celebrity fit in…?
How do you differentiate between the sacred and the postmodern – and even outright kitsch?

• • •

I decided the best thing to do was talk to Davis himself – and so I called him. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

[Images: Swami’s in Encinitas; a room in the Star Center, Unarius Academy of Science, El Cajon; and the Temple Room at Goddess Temple, Boulder Creek. Photos ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: What were your criteria for deciding if a location – a building, a landscape, a particular street in Los Angeles – was sacred or visionary? Was your list of sites determined by rigorous historical and anthropological research, or by your own subjective interpretation of the sites?

Erik Davis: It was pretty clear, in an objective sense, where the major points were – the major locations to find. I was looking either for a new religious movement that had some literally visionary quality behind it, or for a novel, visionary development within an older and existing tradition. But there was always a grey area. On that level, I started to go a little bit on intuition – not just picking things that I liked, obviously, but picking things that seemed to complete or expand the story behind the book.

A good example is Luna, the tree that Julia Butterfly Hill sat in. Is it religious, is it spiritual, is it visionary? Even from an anthropological perspective, you’re kind of left wondering about that – but I really felt like there was something powerful in the way the tree came to serve as an update for the story of nature mysticism in California. We actually had to work quite a lot to access Luna – because it’s on private land, and they don’t like people to know where it is – but we did finally get there, and we went to the tree, and we thought, you know: it’s an impressive tree, it’s got these weird braces on it that stabilized it from where somebody tried to chop it down… But around the back side of the tree, there was this hollowed-out, blackened hole – and it was full of little trinkets. People had come, sneaking onto the land, in order to pay homage. There was a Navaho dreamcatcher and a little bodhisattva figure and a teacup and a little glyph of a tree – it was this rag-tag mixture of objects that had transformed the tree into a kind of miniature shrine.

I saw that and I thought: okay, I’m on the right track. [laughs]

[Image: Tire Tree, Salvation Mountain, Slab City; photo ©Michael Rauner. This, of course, is not Luna].

BLDGBLOG: At one point, you visit Gary Snyder’s zendo, and you mention the Beat Generation in several places throughout the book – but what about visiting a few more locations from the Beats’ literary heyday, like the apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl”?

Davis: I tried to keep to things that were as explicitly religious or spiritual as possible – but, you can imagine, we had a long B-list of places we thought we could include. We were constantly asking for more space from the publisher! There are just so many elements that went into it: geography; wanting to keep a balance between urban and rural, north and south, different traditions – Buddhist, Christian, pagan, Native American. There were places that were famous vs. places that weren’t famous – this kind of high/low tension – but there were also things that just came out of the earlier sites. People start telling you stuff.

Like at Watts Towers: one of the guys who worked there was a local, and we started talking about assemblage, and collage, and using different pieces of trash to make art – and he said, Oh, you know, there’s this great place called Self Help Graphics out in East L.A., and I never would’ve found that place if I hadn’t met the guy. So Michael Rauner and I went out there, and it was great.

There were all kinds of synchronicities like that.

[Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Self Help Graphics & Art, East L.A.; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: This is perhaps a question more appropriate for J.G. Ballard than it is for The Visionary State, but were you ever tempted to include things like the site where James Dean was killed? Or the exact route driven by O.J. Simpson as he fled the police? For that matter, what if you’d found out that the whole Los Angeles freeway system had been designed by some rogue Freemason – and so all those knotted flyovers and concretized inner-city access routes are really a huge, psycho-spiritual landscape installation? Something between the Blythe geoglyph and the maze outside Grace Cathedral?

Davis: I would have loved that. [laughter] But, you know, the further you go into these weird mixtures of imagination and space, inevitably that kind of thing comes your way. That’s the thing about psychogeography – because, in a way, what I was doing was a kind of relatively gentle psychogeography of the state.

For instance, one thing I really enjoyed seeing was this witch’s map of California, where she’d laid the 7 chakras down onto different regions of the state – and I really wanted to work that in. But as far as the built, modern, commercial, secular landscape of California goes, if I had come across stuff like that – and I’m sure there’s some of it out there – then of course. That wouldn’t surprise me, for one thing – and it would excite me, for another. As I say, we have a long B-list.

[Image: The Witch House/Spadena House, Beverly Hills; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, where do earthquakes and seismology fit in all this? For some reason, I was expecting the San Andreas Fault to play a much larger role in the book – but you don’t really play that up. Which I actually then preferred.

Davis: You’re right – I didn’t play that too strongly – but it’s definitely there as a kind of psychic twist inside the state. For me, the seismology thing really worked in a more gentle way, and that was by talking about the hot springs. In the hot springs you see how the seismically active underside of California has created an environment where you get natural springs, and those become centers of healing.

When I started out, I thought there were going to be more explicit landscapes to include in the book – like Death Valley, and the San Andreas Fault – but the more we got into it, the more we found there were built structures just screaming out for inclusion. The book ended up shifting subtly toward architecture and the built environment, with the landscape providing the background, as it were, for these more specifically cultural places of spiritual and visionary power.

[Image: Huxley Street, Los Angeles, named after Aldous Huxley. By the end of his life, Davis tells us, Huxley had “concluded that people needed to change on an individual psychological level if civilization was going to avoid the disasters he glimpsed on the horizon: overpopulation, high-tech war, ecological catastrophe, and the sort of narcotized totalitarian propaganda depicted with such lasting power in Brave New World.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

• • •

At the book’s end, Davis reconsiders sunset, an event that resets the westward clock to its cyclic eastern origins; it is, he says, “the holiest moment of the day.” But sunset is too easily mythologized: it resets no clocks, and its cycles are not human but magnetic, thermochemical, turning on an alien timescale that knows nothing of earthly religion.
In the myths that do arise, however, transforming westward motion into something yet more godly and epic, California plays a distinct – and vulnerable – role:

In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”

[Image: Noah Purifoy Sculpture Garden, Joshua Tree; photo ©Michael Rauner].

(Thanks to Erik Davis for his time and enthusiasm, and to Michael Rauner for the fantastic photographs. Meanwhile, Erik will be presenting The Visionary State at a number of locations; here’s his schedule of appearances.

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 1)

I first discovered Mike Davis’s work about a decade ago, through his book City of Quartz, a detailed and poetic look at the social geography of Los Angeles. Perhaps most memorably, City of Quartz describes the militarization of public space in LA, from the impenetrable “panic rooms” of Beverly Hills mansions to the shifting ganglands of South Central. Not only does the Los Angeles Police Department use “a geo-synchronous law enforcement satellite” in their literal oversight of the city, but “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.” In Los Angeles today, “carceral structures have become the new frontier of public architecture.”


A more wide-ranging book is Davis’s 2002 collection Dead Cities. The book ends with an invigorating bang: its final section, called “Extreme Science,” is a perfect example of how Davis’s work remains so consistently interesting. We come across asteroid impacts, prehistoric mass extinctions, Victorian disaster fiction, planetary gravitational imbalances, and even the coming regime of human-induced climate change, all in a book ostensibly dedicated to West Coast American urbanism.
Of course, Mike Davis’s particular breed of urban sociology has found many detractors – detractors who accuse Davis of falsifying his interviews, performing selective research, deliberately amplifying LA’s dark side (whether that means plate tectonics, police brutality, or race riots), and otherwise falling prey to battles in which Davis’s classically Marxist approach seems both inadequate and outdated. In fact, these criticisms are all justified in their own ways – yet I still find myself genuinely excited whenever a new book of his hits the bookshop display tables.
In any case, the following interview took place after the publication of Davis’s most recent book, Planet of Slums. Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell’s Urban Design Review, I won’t dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.”
This “urban” population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era’s most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed.
Mike Davis and I spoke via telephone.


BLDGBLOG: First, could you tell me a bit about the actual writing process of Planet of Slums? Was there any travel involved?

Davis: This was almost entirely an armchair journey. What I tried to do was read as much of the current literature on urban poverty, in English, as I could. Having four children, two of them toddlers, I only wish I could visit some of these places. On the other hand, I write from our porch, with a clear view of Tijuana, a city I know fairly well, and that’s influenced a lot of my thinking about these issues – although I tried scrupulously to avoid putting any personal journalism into the narrative.

Really, the book is just an attempt to critically survey and synthesize the literature on global urban poverty, and to expand on this extraordinarily important report of the United Nations – The Challenge of Slums – which came out a few years ago.

BLDGBLOG: So you didn’t visit the places you describe?

Davis: Well, I was initially anticipating writing a much longer book, but when I came to what should have been the second half of Planet of Slums – which looks at the politics of the slum – it became just impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature. I’m now collaborating on a second volume with a young guy named Forrest Hylton, who’s lived for several years in Colombia and Bolivia. I think his first-hand experience and knowledge makes up for most of my deficiencies, and he and I are now producing the second book.


BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the vocabulary that you use to describe this new “post-urban geography” of global slums: regional corridors, polycentric webs, diffuse urbanism, etc. I’m wondering if you’ve found any consistent forms or structures now arising, as cities turn away from centralized, geographically obvious locations, becoming fractal, slum-like sprawl.

Davis: First of all, the language with which we talk about metropolitan entities and larger-scale urban systems is already eclectic because urban geographers avidly debate these issues. I think there’s little consensus at all about the morphology of what lies beyond the classical city.

The most important debates really arose through discussions of urbanization in southern China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia – and that was about the nature of peri-urbanization on the dynamic periphery of large Third World cities.

BLDGBLOG: And “peri-urbanization” means what?

Davis: It’s where the city and the countryside interpenetrate. The question is: are you, in fact, looking at a snapshot of a very dynamic or perhaps chaotic process? Or will this kind of hybrid quality be preserved over any length of time? These are really open questions.

There are several different discussions here: one on larger-order urban systems – similar to the Atlantic seaboard or Tokyo-Yokohama, where metropolitan areas are linked in continuous physical systems. But then there’s this second debate about the spill-over into the countryside, this new peri-urban reality, where you have very complex mixtures of slums – of poverty – crossed with dumping grounds for people expelled from the center – refugees. Yet amidst all this you have small, middle class enclaves, often new and often gated. You find rural laborers trapped by urban sweatshops, at the same time that urban settlers commute to work in agricultural industries.

This, in a way, is the most interesting – and least-understood – dynamic of global urbanization. As I try to explain in Planet of Slums, peri-urbanism exists in a kind of epistemological fog because it’s not well-studied. The census data and social statistics are notoriously incomplete.


BLDGBLOG: So it’s more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?

Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.

The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.

BLDGBLOG: I don’t know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –

Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.

I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.


BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there’s a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it’s an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

BLDGBLOG: It’s even filmed like a first-person shooter. Several times you’re actually watching from right behind the gun.

Davis: It’s by Ridley Scott, isn’t it?

BLDGBLOG: Yeah – which is interesting, because he also directed Blade Runner.

Davis: Exactly. And he did Black Rain, didn’t he?

BLDGBLOG: The cryptic threat of late-1980s Japan…

Davis: Ridley Scott – more than anyone in Hollywood – has really defined the alien Other.

Of course, in reality, it’s not white guys in the Rangers who make up most of the military presence overseas: it’s mostly slum kids themselves, from American inner cities. The new imperialism – like the old imperialism – has this advantage, that the metropolis itself is so violent, with such concentrated poverty, that it produces excellent warriors for these far-flung military campaigns. I remember reading a brilliant book once by a former professor of mine, at the University of Edinburgh, on British imperial warfare in the nineteenth century. He showed, against every expectation, that, in fact, most often for the British Army, in imperial wars, what was decisive wasn’t their possession of better weapons, or artillery, or Maxim guns: it was the ability of the British soldier to engage in personal carnage, hand-to-hand combat, up close with bayonets – and that was strictly a function of the brutality of life in British slums.

Now, if you read the literature on warfare today, this is what the Pentagon’s really capitalizing on: they’re using the American inner city as a kind of combat laboratory, in addition to these urban test ranges they’ve built to study their new technologies. The slum dwellers’ response to this, and it’s a response that has yet to be answered – and maybe it’s unanswerable – is the poor man’s Air Force: the car bomb. That’s the subject of another book I’m finishing up right now, a short history of the car bomb. That has to be one of the most decisive military innovations of the late twentieth century. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq, it may be the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are killing Americans, but what’s just ripping that country apart is these fortified car bomb attacks. The car bomb has given poor people in slums – small groups and networks – a new, extremely traumatic kind of geopolitical leverage.

What’s happened, I think, at the end of the 20th century – and at the beginning of the 21st – is that the outcasts have discovered these extraordinarily cheap and horrific weapons. That’s why I argue, in Planet of Slums, that they have “the gods of chaos” on their side.


BLDGBLOG: Beyond a turn toward violence and insurgency, do you see any intentional, organized systems of self-government emerging in the slums? Is there a slum “mayor,” for instance, or a kind of slum city hall? In other words, who would a non-military power negotiate with in the first place?

Davis: Organization in the slums is, of course, extraordinarily diverse. The subject of the second book – that I’m writing with Forrest Hylton – will be what kinds of trends and unities exist within that diversity. Because in the same city – for instance, in a large Latin American city – you’ll find everything from Pentacostal churches to the Sendero Luminoso, to reformist organizations and neoliberal NGOs. Over very short periods of time there are rapid swings in popularity from one to the other – and back. It’s very difficult to find a directionality in that, or to predict where things might go.

But what is clear, over the last decade, is that the poor – and not just the poor in classical urban neighborhoods, but the poor who, for a long time, have been organized in leftwing parties, or religious groups, or populist parties – this new poor, on the fringes of the city, have been organizing themselves massively over the last decade. You have to be struck by both the number and the political importance of some of these emerging movements, whether that’s Sadr, in Iraq, or an equivalent slum-based social movement in Buenos Aires. Clearly, in the last decade, there have been dramatic increases in the organization of the urban poor, who are making new and, in some cases, unprecedented demands for political and economic participation. And where they are totally excluded, they make their voices heard in other ways.

BLDGBLOG: Like using car bombs?

Davis: I mean taking steps toward formal democracy. Because the other part of your question concerns the politics of poor cities. I’m sure that somebody could write a book arguing that one of the great developments of the last ten or fifteen years has been increased democratization in many cities. For instance, in cities that did not have consolidated governments, or where mayors were appointed by a central administration, you now have elections, and elected mayors – like in Mexico City.

What’s so striking, in almost all of these cases, is that even where there’s increased formal democracy – where more people are voting – those votes actually have little consequence. That’s for two reasons: one is because the fiscal systems of big cities in the Third World are, with few exceptions, so regressive and corrupt, with so few resources, that it’s almost impossible to redistribute those resources to voting people. The second reason is that, in so many cities – India is a great example of this – when you have more populist or participatory elections, the real power is simply transferred into executive agencies, industrial authorities, and development authorities of all kinds, which tend to be local vehicles for World Bank investment. Those agencies are almost entirely out of the control of the local people. They may even be appointed by the state or by a provisional – sometimes national – government.

This means that the democratic path to control over cities – and, above all, control over resources for urban reform – remains incredibly elusive in most places.


(This interview continues in Part Two. For another, recent two-part interview with Mike Davis, see TomDispatch: Part 1, Part 2. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman, who was also behind BLDGBLOG’s Helicopter Archipelago).

Urban Fossil Value

[Image: J.M. Gandy, speculations toward the ruins of John Soane’s Bank of England – but, again, how about speculations toward the Bank of England’s fossils…?]

As Hurricane Rita carves away at the Gulf shore, Galveston burns, buses explode outside Houston, and New Orleans refloods through badly built and incompletely repaired levees, I stumbled upon an old article, from 1998, about fossilized cities.

Millions of years from now, in geographical regions “entombed by tectonic disturbances,” entire cities – “the abandoned foundations, subways, roads and pipelines of our ever more extensive urban stratum” – will actually come to form “future trace fossils.”

These “future trace fossils,” the article says, form easily preserved systems that are “a lot more robust than [fossils] of the dinosaurs. They include roads, houses and foundations.”

And yet, for all that, only those cities “that were rapidly buried by floods or sandstorms” will be “preserved for posterity.”

Los Angeles, for instance, “is on an upward trajectory, pushed by pressure from the adjacent San Andreas Fault system, and is doomed to be eroded away entirely.” But if a city is flooded, buried in sand, or otherwise absorbed downward, “the stage is set to produce ideal pickling jars for cities. The urban strata of Amsterdam, New Orleans, Cairo and Venice could be buried wholesale – providing, that is, they can get over one more hurdle: the destructive power of the sea.”

It is often remarked in architectural circles how megalomaniacal Nazi architect Albert Speer came up with his so-called theory of ruin value, in which he proposed a new Romano-Fascist Berlin designed to look good as a ruin in thousands of years.

But that’s boring – let’s talk about cities fossilizing over millions of years.

Urban fossil value.

The already buried, subterranean undersides of our Tube-hollowed, war-bunkered modern cities “will be hard to obliterate. They will be altered, to be sure, and it is fascinating to speculate about what will happen to our very own addition to nature’s store of rocks and minerals, given a hundred million years, a little heat, some pressure (the weight of a kilometre or two of overlying sediment) and the catalytic, corrosive effect of the underground fluids in which all of these structures will be bathed.”

Who knew, for instance, that plastics, “which are made of long chains of subunits, might behave like some of the long-chain organic molecules in fossil plant twigs and branches, or the collagen in the fossilized skeletons of some marine invertebrates”? Who knew, in other words, that plastics will fossilize?

Indeed, “with a favourable concatenation of tectonics and sea level, our species could leave behind in a geological instant a much more striking record than the dinosaurs left in a hundred million years.”