California City

[Image: Geoglyphs of nowhere].

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.

Take a look.

[Image: Empty streets from above, rotated 90º (north is to the right)].

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere.

And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison—

[Image: The geometry of incarceration].

—and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.

To make things slightly more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

[Image: Spatial fossils of the 20th century].

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

I can see an amazing article being written about this place for GOOD magazine —”California and its Utopias,” say—or The New Yorker, or, for that matter, Atlas Obscura. The large-scale spatial remnants of an economic downturn, decades in advance of today’s recession.

[Images: Zooming in on the derelict grid].

Either way, and with any luck, a road trip out through the deserted inscriptions of this forgotten masterplan will hopefully beckon once BLDGBLOG moves back to Los Angeles.

(California City was pointed out to me a very long time ago by a BLDGBLOG reader—whose original email I can no longer find. If it was you who pointed this out to me, I owe you a huge thanks! David Donald—who also pointed out that California City was written up by The Vigorous North last year).

City Laid Out Like Lizard

[Image: View larger].

Last week, Josh Williams, formerly of Curbed LA, emailed with an amazing link to an article, reportedly published back in 1934 by the L.A. Times, about a race of “lizard people” who once lived beneath the city.

“Did strange people live under site of Los Angeles 5000 years ago?” the article asks, supplying a bizarre treasure map through the city’s undersides in the process.

[Image: View larger].

Although you can read the article in full through these links, I wanted to give you a taste of the story’s strange mix of gonzo archaeology, Poltergeist-like pre-Columbian cultural anxiety, and start-up geophysical investigation squad:

So firmly does [a “geophysical mining engineer” named G. Warren Shufelt] believe that a maze of catacombs and priceless golden tablets are to be found beneath downtown Los Angeles that the engineer and his aides have already driven a shaft 250 feet into the ground, the mouth of the shaft behind on the the old Banning property on North Hill Street overlooking Sunset Boulevard, Spring Street and North Broadway.
And so convinced is the engineer of the infallibility of a radio X-ray perfected by him for detecting the presence of minerals and tunnels below the surface of the ground, an apparatus with which he says he has traced a pattern of catacombs and vaults forming the lost city, that he plans to continue sending his shaft downward until he has reached a depth of 1000 feet before discontinuing operations.

The article goes on to suggest that this ancient subterranean city was “laid out like [a] lizard”; we visit a Hopi “medicine lodge,” wherein geophysical secrets are told; there are lost gold hoards; and, all along, the engineer’s “radio X-ray” apparatus continues to detect inhabitable voids beneath the metropolis.

“I knew I was over a pattern of tunnels,” Shufelt is quoted, “and I had mapped out the course of the tunnels, the position of large rooms scattered along the tunnel route, as well as the position of the deposits of gold, but I couldn’t understand the meaning of it.”

Perhaps this is what we’d get if Steven Spielberg hired Mike Mignola to write the next installment of Indiana Jones.

(Thanks to Josh Williams, and to vokoban, who originally uploaded the scan. Vaguely related: The Hollow Hills and Mysterious Chinese Tunnels).

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 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).

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

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.