Books Received

[Image: The Wiederin bookshop in Innsbruck, Austria; photo by Lukas Schaller, courtesy of A10].

Barely in time for the holidays, here is a quick look at some of the many new or recent books that have passed through the home office here at BLDGBLOG.

As usual, I have not read all of the books listed here, but this will be pretty clear from the ensuing descriptions; those that I have read, and enjoyed, I will not hesitate to recommend.

And, as always, all of these books are included for the interest of their approach or subject matter as it relates to landscape, spatial sciences, and the built environment more generally.

1) Map of a Nation: A Biography Of The Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta).

2) The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor by Marguerite Holloway (W.W. Norton).

These two fantastic books form a nice, if coincidental, duo, looking at the early days of scientific cartography and the innovative devices and mathematical techniques that made modern mapping possible. In Rachel Hewitt’s case—a book I found very hard to put down, up reading it till nearly 2am several nights in a row—we trace the origins of the UK’s Ordnance Survey by way of the devices, tools, precision instruments, and imperialist geopolitical initiatives of the time.

Similarly, Marguerite Holloway introduces us to, among many other things, the first measured imposition of the Manhattan grid. I mentioned Holloway’s book the other day here on BLDGBLOG, and am also very happy to have been asked to blurb it. Here’s my description: “This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of 19th-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and 5th Avenue. Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.”

For anyone at all interested in cartography, these make an excellent and intellectually stimulating pair.

3) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Viking).

4) Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey (Ecco).

I’ve spoken highly of Robert Macfarlane’s writing before, and will continue to do so. His Wild Places remains one of my favorite books of the last few years, and I was thus thrilled to hear of his newest: a series of long walks (and a boat ride) through the British landscape, from coastal mudflats to chalk hills and peat bogs, following various kinds of well-worn routes and paths, the “old ways” of his book’s title. Macfarlane’s writing can occasionally strain for rapture when, in fact, it is precisely the mundane—nondescript earthen paths and overlooked back woods—that makes his “journeys on foot” so compelling; but this is an otherwise minor flaw in a highly readable and worthwhile new book.

Meanwhile, Richard Mabey has written an almost impossibly captivating history of weeds, “nature’s most unloved plants.” Covering invasive species, overgrown bomb sites in WWII London, and abandoned buildings, and relating stories from medieval poetry and 21st-century agribusiness to botanical science fiction, Mabey’s book is an awesome sweep through the world of out-of-place plant life.

5) The Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination by Kelly Enright (University of Virginia Press).

6) In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery by Annette Kolodny (Duke University Press).

7) The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald (Simon & Schuster).

These three books variously describe encounters with the alien wilderness of a new world. Kelly Enright’s look at “the jungle in American imagination” reads a bit too much like a revised Ph.D. thesis, but its central premise is fascinating, looking not only at the complex differences between the meaning of a jungle and that of a rain forest, but exploring, as she phrases it, “some of the consequences of expanding an American image and ideology of wilderness beyond American shores,” from Theodore Roosevelt to the early days of tropical anthropology.

Annette Kolodny’s review of what can more or less be summarized as the Viking discovery of North America is incredibly rich. Quoting from the cover, Kolodny “offers a radically new interpretation of two medieval Icelandic tales, known as the Vinland Sagas. She contends that they are the first known European narratives about contact with North America.” However, in addition to these tales of “first contact,” Kolodny examines rock carvings in Maine and Canada, as well as Native American folktales, to try to geographically and historically locate the moment when Europeans first arrived in North America, sailing up the small coastal rivers and setting foot on foreign land. Kolodny convincingly demonstrates, in the process, that the Viking discovery of North America was more or less widely accepted by 19th-century historians, but that, she argues, following a large influx of Italian immigrants toward the end of that century and into the 20th, the national importance of Christopher Columbus—an Italian—began to grow. From this emerged, she shows, a kind of narrative contest in which rugged northerners from a stoic, military culture (the Norse) were pitted against royalist Catholic Mediterranean family men as the true cultural progenitors of the United States. It is also interesting here to note that Kolodny assigned these early Icelandic contact narratives to her English literature class, asking students “to consider the possibility that American literature really began in these early ‘contact’ narratives that constructed a so-called New World and its peoples through and for the contemporary cultural understandings of the European imagination.”

I read Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp under particular circumstances—traveling around Florida as part of Venue, along with Smout Allen and a group of students from the Bartlett School of Architecture (photos of that trip can be seen here and here)—which might have added to its appeal. But, either way, I was riveted. Grunwald’s book presents, in effect, all of Florida south of Orlando as a massive series of ecologically misguided—but, from an economic perspective, often highly successful—terraforming projects. Speaking only for myself, the book made it impossible not to notice waterworks everywhere, on all sides and at every scale: every canal, storm sewer, water retention basin, highway overpass, levee, reservoir, drainage ditch, coastal inlet, and flood gate, all parts of an artificially engineered peninsula that wants to—and should—be swamp. Environmentally sensitive without being a screed, and written at the pace of a good New Yorker article, The Swamp was easily one of my favorite discoveries this year, a book I’d place up there with Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert; it deserves the comparison for, if nothing else, its clear-eyed refocusing of attention onto a region’s hydrology and onto civilization’s larger attempts to manage wild lands (and waters), from the Seminole Wars to George W. Bush. Grunwald also makes clear something that I had barely even considered before, which is that south Florida is actually one of the most recently settled regions of the United States, far younger than the new states of the American West. South Florida, in many senses, is an event that only just recently happened—and Grunwald shows both how and why.

8) Petrochemical America by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff (Aperture Foundation).

9) Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park edited by Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand, and Kate Orff (Princeton Architectural Press/Van Alen Institute).

Here are two new books, each connected to the work of landscape architect and Columbia GSAPP urban planner, Kate Orff.

The first is a split project with photographer Richard Misrach, looking both directly and indirectly at petrochemical infrastructure and the landscapes it passes through in the state of Louisiana. Misrach’s photos open the book with nearly 100 pages’ worth of views into the rapidly transforming nature of Louisiana’s so-called Cancer Alley, “showcasing the immediate plight of embattled local communities and surrounding industries.” Orff’s work follows in the second half of the book with what she calls an “Ecological Atlas” of the same region, mapping what currently exists, more thoroughly annotating Misrach’s photos, and proposing new interventions for ecologically remediating the spoiled landscapes of the region.

The second book is an edited collection of essays and proposals for New York’s Gateway National Recreational Area. Gateway is a strange combination of protected lands and artificial dredgescapes, at the border between ocean and land at the very edge of New York City. Photographs by Laura McPhee join essays by Ethan Carr, Christopher Hawthorne, and others to suggest a new role for parks in American urban life, and a new type of park in general, one that is distributed over discontinuous parcels of marginal land and includes large expanses of active waters.

10) Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong (ORO Editions).

11) Oblique Drawing: A History of Anti-Perspective by Massimo Scolari (MIT Press).

12) Bulwark & Bastion: A Look at Musket Era Fortifications with a Glance at Period Siegecraft by James R. Hinds and Edmund Fitzgerald (Pioneer Press).

13) On the Making of Islands by Nick Sowers (self-published).

Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook was inspired by the revelation that a person can navigate the city of Hong Kong over great distances without ever leaving architecture behind, meandering through complex networks of internal space, from walkways and shopping malls to escalators and covered footbridges. Indeed, one can explore Hong Kong without really setting foot on the surface of the earth at all, making it a “city without ground.” The resulting labyrinthine spatial condition—consisting of “seemingly inescapable and thoroughly disorienting sequences” that cut through, around, between, and under nominally separate megastructures—has led the book’s authors to produce a series of visually dense maps dissecting the various routes a pedestrian can take through the city. A particular highlight comes toward the end, where they focus solely on the city’s air-conditioning, suggesting a kind of thermal cartography of indoor space and implying that temperature control and even humidity are better metrics for evaluating the success of a given project than mere visual or aesthetic concerns.

Massimo Scolari’s Oblique Drawing also pursues the idea that there are other, less well-explored methods for representing the built environment. Although I was disappointed to find that the chapters are, in effect, separate, not always related papers that happen to share a common interest in architectural representation, the book manages to tie together everything from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the military drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, from medieval Christian landscapes to Chinese painting techniques and the Tower of Babel. Scolari’s book was also mentioned here on the blog last week in the context of architectural espionage.

I was actually given a copy of Bulwark & Bastion while out at the surreal and extremely remote site of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas of Florida, and I read it on the 2-hour boat ride back to Key West. No more than a stapled pamphlet, like something you’d make at Kinko’s, it is, nonetheless, an extremely interesting look at built landscapes of warfare and defense. Unsurprisingly, it includes a history of walled cities and forts from Europe; but—and this topic alone deserves a full-length book from a publisher like Princeton Architectural Press—it discusses in detail the landscape defenses of the American Civil War, including massive brick citadels in Alabama, Maryland, South Carolina, and New York City. Star forts, bastions, casements, field works, and other geometries of assault and counter-attack are all illustrated and diagrammed, and they’re followed by a glossary of architectural defensive terms. Thoroughly enjoyable, in particular for anyone interested in military history.

Many of you will know Nick Sowers from his blogging at Archinect, where he explored the niche field of military landscapes and sound recordings. Nick was a deserving recipient of UC-Berkeley’s generous Branner Fellowship, which gave him the resources to travel the world for nearly a year, visiting overseas military bases, old battlefields, and urban fortresses from Japan and the South Pacific to Western Europe, including even the legendary Maunsell Towers in London’s Thames Estuary. At all of these sites, he made field recordings. Nick and I first met, in fact, down in Sydney, Australia, as part of Urban Islands back in 2009. This self-published book tells the story of those travels, including sketches and models from Nick’s own final thesis project at Berkeley, black & white photos from his long circumambulations of closed U.S. bases overseas, and a consistently interesting series of observations on the spatial implications of sound in landscape design. Weird visions of limestone caves being vibrated into existence by the tropical sonic booms of military aircraft give the book a dream-like feel as it comes to a close. Congrats to Nick not only for putting this book together, but for organizing such an interesting, planet-spanning trip in the first place.

14) Architecture for Astronauts: An Activity-based Approach by Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger (Springer Praxis).

15) The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight by Christopher Schaberg (Continuum).

16) Urban Maps: Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City by Richard Brook and Nick Dunn (Ashgate).

Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger’s Architecture for Astronauts has an accompanying website where we read that a “number of extra-terrestrial habitats have been occupied over the last 40 years of space exploration by varied users over long periods of time. This experience offers a fascinating field to investigate the relationship between the built environment and its users.” Häuplik-Meusburger goes on to definite extra-terrestrial habitat as “the ‘houses and vehicles’ where people live and work beyond Earth: non-planetary habitats such as a spacecraft or space station; and planetary habitats such as a base or vehicle on the Moon or Mars. These building types are set up in environments different from the one on Earth and can be characterized as ‘extreme environments.’ Multiple requirements arise for the architecture and design of such a habitat.” These requirements include different lines of sight, a shifted posture for humans in low-gravity, and different needs for visual clarity and even thermal insulation—a very different architecture, indeed. Her book is thus organized as an activity guide for thinking through things like sleep, food, and hygiene, and how architects can reimagine the spatial requirements of each for the “extreme environments” into which these houses and vehicles might go.

Christopher Schaberg’s Textual Life of Airports looks at the airport as a new kind of cultural space, one with its own emerging literature and its own untold stories, including what he calls “the secret stories of airports—the disturbing, uncomfortable, or smoothed over tales that lie just beneath the surface of these sites.” Citing Marc Augé and ambient music, the “airport screening complex” and Steven Spielberg, his book tries to clarify some of the “spatial ambivalence” travelers feel in an airport’s interconnected spaces. In the context of Häuplik-Meusburger’s book, one wonders what future literatures will emerge for the transitional sites of offworld infrastructure, the spaceports and gravity-free hotels that may or may not be forthcoming for the human future.

For Urban Maps, Richard Brook and Nick Dunn “use the term ‘map’ loosely to describe any form of representation that reveals unseen space, latent conditions or narratives in and of the city.” Their examples come from Google Street View, the photographs of urban explorers, advertisements, contemporary film, surveillance, and the art world, to name but a few.

17) Belgrade, Formal/Informal: A Research on Urban Transformation by ETH Studio Basel Contemporary City Institute (Scheidegger & Spiess).

18) The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City by Katherine Wentworth Rinne (Yale University Press).

Using an awesome font called Warsaw Book/Poster, Belgrade, Formal/Informal zeroes in on “a city that was isolated on the European periphery, a city a long history that was as significant as it was turbulent,” to find what parts of a metropolis with such locally specific circumstances have managed to stay more or less the same, through both war and economic estrangement, and what parts were fundamentally transformed by larger, pan-European events and processes. Further, within this, and as the book’s title suggests, they break the city into formal and informal sectors, the generic and the specific. The book is extensively illustrated, and attractively designed by Ludovic Balland.

Katherine Rinne teaches architecture at the CCA in Oakland, though her online project on the waters of Rome is hosted by the University of Virginia. Her book, The Waters of Rome, coalesces much of that work into a detailed study of the city’s hydrological infrastructures, from the ancient to the nearly modern, with a particular emphasis on the city in its Baroque age. Her approach is “largely topographic,” she explains in the book’s introduction, tying even the innermost fountains and waterworks to the landscapes of hills and rivers outside the city. As she writes, “Rome’s fountains are so dazzling that it is easy for even dedicated to overlook the profound changes that their construction initiated in the social, cultural, and physical life of the city. The transformation was systematic and structural, reaching from ancient springs outside the city walls to include aqueducts, fountains, conduits, drains, sewers, streets, and the Tiber. Because of gravity, which dictated distribution, the water’s flow was constrained or encouraged by the existing topography, which influenced in part how the water was displayed or made available for use, who controlled it and who was served by it, what it cost, and obligations that attached to the people who were allowed to access it.” The book is a vital addition to any syllabus or library on hydraulic urbanism.

19) Foodprint Papers, Volume 1 by Nicola Twilley & Sarah Rich (Foodprint Project).

Last not but least, the Foodprint Papers, Volume 1 have been released, edited by Nicola Twilley (my wife) and Sarah Rich, documenting Foodprint NYC from back in 2010, “the first in [a] series of international conversations about food and the city.”

From a cluster analysis of bodega inventories to the cultural impact of the ice-box, and from food deserts to peak phosphorus, panelists examined the hidden corsetry that gives shape to urban foodscapes, and collaboratively speculated on how to feed New York in the future. The free afternoon program included designers, policy-makers, flavor scientists, culinary historians, food retailers, and others, for a wide-ranging discussion of New York’s food systems, past and present, as well as opportunities to transform our edible landscape through technology, architecture, legislation, and education.

The pamphlet is self-published through Lulu, and all purchases help Nicola & Sarah throw more such events in the future. And, while we’re on the subject of food, don’t miss Sarah’s own recent book, Urban Farms.

Happy reading!

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Subterranean Machine Resurrections

[Image: Photo by Brian Harkin for The New York Times].

There is clearly a machines-and-robots theme on the blog this morning. I was fascinated last week to read that New York will soon have “its own subterranean wonder: a 200-ton mechanical serpent’s head” buried “14 stories beneath the well-tended sidewalks of Park Avenue.” In other words, a “gargantuan drill that has been hollowing out tunnels for a train station under Grand Central Terminal” will soon become a permanent part of the city, locked forever in the region’s bedrock. It will be left underground—”entombed” in the words of Michael Grynbaum, writing for the New York Times— lying “dormant and decayed, within the rocky depths of Midtown Manhattan.”

The machine’s actual burial is like a Rachel Whiteread installation gone wrong: “In an official ceremony this week, the cutter will be sealed off by a concrete wall; the chamber will then be filled with concrete, encasing the cutter in a solid cast, Han Solo-style, so that it can serve as a support structure for the tunnel. A plaque will commemorate the site.”

“It’s like a Jules Verne story,” the head of construction for NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority endearingly remarked. And the machine itself is an alien wonder:

A recent visit to the cutter’s future crypt revealed a machine that evokes an alien life form that crashed to earth a millennia ago. Its steel gears, bolts and pistons, already oxidizing, appeared lifeless and fatigued. A wormlike fan, its exhaust pipe disappearing into the cutter’s maw, was still spinning, its drone not unlike a slumbering creature’s breath.

I’m tempted to write a short story about a cult of Aleister Crowley-obsessed tower dwellers on the Lower East Side, in the year 2025 A.D., intent on resurrecting this mechanical worm, like something out of Dune, goading it to re-arise, pharaonic and possessed, into the polluted summer air of the city. Grinding and belching its way to dark triumph amidst the buildings, now shattered, that once weighed it down, it is Gotham’s Conqueror Worm.

[Image: Promotional poster for the otherwise unrelated film Conqueror Worm, aka Witchfinder General].

But that would be to rewrite something that, to some extent, already exists. In Jonathan Lethem’s recent novel Chronic City, a tunneling machine goes “a little out of control” beneath the surface of New York, resurfacing at night to wreak havoc amongst the boroughs. From the book:

“I guess the thing got lonely—”
“That’s why it destroys bodegas?” asked Perkus.
“At night sometimes it comes up from underneath and sort of, you know, ravages around.”
“You can’t stop it?” I asked.
“Sure, we could stop it, Chase, it we wanted to. But this city’s been waiting for a Second Avenue subway line for a long time, I’m sure you know. The thing’s mostly doing a good job with the tunnel, so they’ve been stalling, and I guess trying to negotiate to keep it underground. The degree of damage is really exaggerated.”

And soon the machine—known as the “tiger”—is spotted rooting around the city, sliding out of the subterranean topologies it helps create, weaving above and below, an autonomous underground object on the loose.

In any case, the entombed drill will presumably outlast the city it sleeps beneath; indeed, if it is ever seen again, it will be a much more geological resurrection. As Alex Trevi of Pruned suggested over email, the machine will be “left there, perhaps forever, and will only surface when NYC rises up in a new mountain range and starts eroding.”

(Thanks to Jessica Young for the reminder about Lethem’s tiger).

An Invisible Empire of Sidewalks and Gutterspace

[Image: The Viele Map].

Because of a talk I’ll be giving tonight at the USC School of Architecture with Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography, I found myself re-reading an old post here about fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: The Viele Map].

Manhattan being an island once thoroughly criss-crossed by ponds and streams, almost all of which have been sealed in concrete and turned into sewers, this somewhat hallucinatory theory goes that some of those streams might still be accessible: just smash down through your building’s basement floor, uncover the island’s lost hydrology of well-braided rivers and streams, and an angling paradise will be accessible at your feet.

[Image: The Viele Map via].

But what really caught my eye, and what I’m actually posting about here, is a “gutterspace” reclamation project inaugurated by a man named Jack Gasnick, something I rediscovered today after following a link at the end of that post, which leads to the long-defunct blog Urbablurb by Giles Anthony.

[Image: From Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates, via Free Association Design].

This is how Anthony describes Gasnick’s project:

In the early 1970s—unbelievably, given how influential Gordon Matta-Clark has become in the last few years—Gasnick began buying and collecting “gutterspace,” or small slivers of land left over from zoning or surveying errors. He said that after a little while he couldn’t stop: “It’s like collecting stamps; once you’ve got the fever, you’ve got the fever.”

Accordingly, Gasnick “bought a slice in Corona just behind Louis Armstrong’s house,” Urbablurb continues, “a piece near Jamaica Bay where he once filled a pail with sea-horses, and yet another adjacent to the Fresh Kills landfill where he claims an abandoned sea Captain’s house still stood.” Gasnick then cultivated small patches of parkland and wilderness within those areas—a micro-wilding of the metropolis, one site at a time: “On the weekends, he would sometimes drive out to the tiny parcels and help the milkweed and laurel grow, tend to the turtles, and sit down for a picnic. ‘This jump of mine from flower pot to apple tree bears witness to the fact that it doesn’t cost much for an apartment-living guy to get a share of the good environment,’ he wrote in 1974. To be exact, it cost between $50 and $250. But the taxes he had to pay were enough of a hassle that he gave away (or otherwise lost track of) all the pieces by 1977.”

He “lost track” of them—the mind reels at the possibility that there is still a distributed Jack Gasnick estate somewhere, peppering the streets and gutters of New York City.

As Anthony suggests, this all has an uncanny parallel in Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project. From Cabinet magazine:

In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark discovered that the City of New York periodically auctioned off “gutterspace”—unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion. He purchased fifteen of these lots, fourteen in Queens and one in Staten Island. Over the next years, he collected the maps, deeds, and other bureaucratic documentation attached to the slivers; photographed, spoke, and wrote about them; and considered using them as sites for his unique brand of “anarchitectural” intervention into urban space.

So who is Jack Gasnick, that minor New Yorker who once “bought strange-shaped lots in every borough,” as the New York Times reported back in 1994, when Gasnick was still alive and 74 years old, and who once claimed to fish in the basements of Manhattan? Who knows.

(The BLDGBLOG/Edible Geography presentation tonight at USC is at 6pm in Harris Hall; it’s free and open to the public. We’ll be talking about buried rivers, artificial glaciers, and quarantine, among other shared topics of interest).

Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing

Last summer, on the extremely short-lived blog Urbablurb – which only managed five posts before dying, yet still remains interesting today – we read about the little-known phenomenon of people fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: A map of the lost rivers of Manhattan, via Urbablurb].

Urbablurb quotes from The New York Times:

We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

The lost rivers of Manhattan are real; hundreds of streams and whole wetlands were paved over and filled so that the roots of buildings could safely grow. But whether or not you could ever fish in them – and this whole thing sounds like Dr. Seuss to me – is the subject of a post on the also now defunct blog, Empire Zone. There, a commenter informs us that fishing for eyeless carp in the underground cisterns of Istanbul is something of a national past-time.

Alas, we also learn that, as to the question of “whether any carp could be found swimming under Manhattan today,” the answer, sadly, is no.

But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story – when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s 11pm. I’m tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: “I think this is something you’d like to see.” I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself – but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I’m led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.

I step into a large room, that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

(Also on Urbablurb: Who is Jack Gasnick?).

Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999; view larger].

Lebbeus Woods is one of the first architects I knew by name – not Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, but Lebbeus Woods – and it was Woods’s own technically baroque sketches and models, of buildings that could very well be machines (and vice versa), that gave me an early glimpse of what architecture could really be about.

Woods’s work is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence proclaiming that the architectural imagination, freed from constraints of finance and buildability, should be uncompromising, always. One should imagine entirely new structures, spaces without walls, radically reconstructing the outermost possibilities of the built environment.

If need be, we should re-think the very planet we stand on.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, radically reconstructed, 1994].

Of course, Woods is usually considered the avant-garde of the avant-garde, someone for whom architecture and science fiction – or urban planning and exhilarating, uncontained speculation – are all but one and the same. His work is experimental architecture in its most powerful, and politically provocative, sense.

Genres cross; fiction becomes reflection; archaeology becomes an unpredictable form of projective technology; and even the Earth itself gains an air of the non-terrestrial.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, DMZ, 1988].

One project by Woods, in particular, captured my imagination – and, to this day, it just floors me. I love this thing. In 1980, Woods proposed a tomb for Albert Einstein – the so-called Einstein Tomb (collected here) – inspired by Boullée’s famous Cenotaph for Newton.

But Woods’s proposal wasn’t some paltry gravestone or intricate mausoleum in hewn granite: it was an asymmetrical space station traveling on the gravitational warp and weft of infinite emptiness, passing through clouds of mutational radiation, riding electromagnetic currents into the void.

The Einstein Tomb struck me as such an ingenious solution to an otherwise unremarkable problem – how to build a tomb for an historically titanic mathematician and physicist – that I’ve known who Lebbeus Woods is ever since.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, the city and the faults it sits on, from the San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

So when the opportunity came to talk to Lebbeus about one image that he produced nearly a decade ago, I continued with the questions; the result is this interview, which happily coincides with the launch of Lebbeus’s own website – his first – at That site contains projects, writings, studio reports, and some external links, and it’s worth bookmarking for later exploration.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, 1994; view larger].

In the following Q&A, then, Woods talks to BLDGBLOG about the geology of Manhattan; the reconstruction of urban warzones; politics, walls, and cooperative building projects in the future-perfect tense; and the networked forces of his most recent installations.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, could you explain the origins of the Lower Manhattan image?

Lebbeus Woods: This was one of those occasions when I got a request from a magazine – which is very rare. In 1999, Abitare was making a special issue on New York City, and they invited a number of architects – like Steven Holl, Rafael Viñoly, and, oh god, I don’t recall. Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Michael Sorkin. Myself. They invited us to make some sort of comment about New York. So I wrote a piece – probably 1000 words, 800 words – and I made the drawing.

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth. Let’s not forget that buildings sit on the Earth.

I wanted to suggest that maybe lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet. So, in the drawing, you see that the East River and the Hudson are both dammed. They’re purposefully drained, as it were. The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999, in case you missed it; view larger].

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself. I think that comes across in the drawing. It’s not geologically correct, I’m sure, but the idea is there.

There are a couple of other interesting features which I’ll just mention. One is that the only bridge I show is the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t show the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, for instance. That’s just gone. And I don’t show the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge, which are the other two bridges on the East River. On the Hudson side, it was interesting, because I looked carefully at the drawings – which I based on an aerial photograph of Manhattan, obviously – and the World Trade Center… something’s going on there. Of course, this was in 1999, and I’m not a prophet and I don’t think that I have any particular telepathic or clairvoyant abilities [laughs], but obviously the World Trade Center has been somehow diminished, and there are things floating in the Hudson next to it. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind – it was already several years ago – except that some kind of transformation was going to happen there.

BLDGBLOG: That’s actually one of the things I like so much about your work: you re-imagine cities and buildings and whole landscapes as if they have undergone some sort of potentially catastrophic transformation – be it a war or an earthquake, etc. – but you don’t respond to those transformations by designing, say, new prefab refugee shelters or more durable tents. You respond with what I’ll call science fiction: a completely new order of things – a new way of organizing and thinking about space. You posit something radically different than what was there before. It’s exciting.

Woods: Well, I think that, for instance, in Sarajevo, I was trying to speculate on how the war could be turned around, into something that people could build the new Sarajevo on. It wasn’t about cleaning up the mess or fixing up the damage; it was more about a transformation in the society and the politics and the economics through architecture. I mean, it was a scenario – and, I suppose, that was the kind of movie aspect to it. It was a “what if?”

I think there’s not enough of that thinking today in relation to cities that have been faced with sudden and dramatic – even violent – transformations, either because of natural or human causes. But we need to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move. No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented. It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do. But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction. Of course, being an architect, I’m very interested in the specifics of that direction – you know, not just a verbal description but: this is what it might look like.

So that was the approach in Sarajevo – as well as in this drawing of Lower Manhattan, as I called it.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods. Future structures of the Korean demilitarized zone (1988) juxtaposed with two views of the architectonic tip of some vast flooded machine-building, from Icebergs (1991)].

BLDGBLOG: Part of that comes from recognizing architecture as its own kind of genre. In other words, architecture has the ability, rivaling literature, to imagine and propose new, alternative routes out of the present moment. So architecture isn’t just buildings, it’s a system of entirely re-imagining the world through new plans and scenarios.

Woods: Well, let me just back up and say that architecture is a multi-disciplinary field, by definition. But, as a multi-disciplinary field, our ideas have to be comprehensive; we can’t just say: “I’ve got a new type of column that I think will be great for the future of architecture.”

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Woods: Maybe it will be great – but it’s not enough. I think architects – at least those inclined to understand the multi-disciplinarity and the comprehensive nature of their field – have to visualize something that embraces all these political, economic, and social changes. As well as the technological. As well as the spatial.

But we’re living in a very odd time for the field. There’s a kind of lack of discourse about these larger issues. People are hunkered down, looking for jobs, trying to get a building. It’s a low point. I don’t think it will stay that way. I don’t think that architects themselves will allow that. After all, it’s architects who create the field of architecture; it’s not society, it’s not clients, it’s not governments. I mean, we architects are the ones who define what the field is about, right?

So if there’s a dearth of that kind of thinking at the moment, it’s because architects have retreated – and I’m sure a coming generation is going to say: hey, this retreat is not good. We’ve got to imagine more broadly. We have to have a more comprehensive vision of what the future is.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, The Wall Game].

BLDGBLOG: In your own work – and I’m thinking here of the Korean DMZ project or the Israeli wall-game – this “more comprehensive vision” of the future also involves rethinking political structures. Engaging in society not just spatially, but politically. Many of the buildings that you’ve proposed are more than just buildings, in other words; they’re actually new forms of political organization.

Woods: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the making of buildings is a huge investment of resources of various kinds. Financial, as well as material, and intellectual, and emotional resources of a whole group of people get involved in a particular building project. And any time you get a group, you’re talking about politics. To me politics means one thing: How do you change your situation? What is the mechanism by which you change your life? That’s politics. That’s the political question. It’s about negotiation, or it’s about revolution, or it’s about terrorism, or it’s about careful step-by-step planning – all of this is political in nature. It’s about how people, when they get together, agree to change their situation.

As I wrote some years back, architecture is a political act, by nature. It has to do with the relationships between people and how they decide to change their conditions of living. And architecture is a prime instrument of making that change – because it has to do with building the environment they live in, and the relationships that exist in that environment.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Siteline Vienna, 1998].

BLDGBLOG: There’s also the incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once complete, will actually change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture – could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them.

Woods: I love that. I love the way you put it, and I totally agree with it. I think, you know, architecture should not just be something that follows up on events but be a leader of events. That’s what you’re saying: That by implementing an architectural action, you actually are making a transformation in the social fabric and in the political fabric. Architecture becomes an instigator; it becomes an initiator.

That, of course, is what I’ve always promoted – but it’s the most difficult thing for people to do. Architects say: well, it’s my client, they won’t let me do this. Or: I have to do what my client wants. That’s why I don’t have any clients! [laughter] It’s true.

Because at least I can put the ideas out there and somehow it might seep through, or filter through, to another level.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, Nine Reconstructed Boxes].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, it seems like a lot of the work you’ve been doing for the past few years – in Vienna, especially – has been a kind of architecture without walls. It’s almost pure space. In other words, instead of walls and floors and recognizable structures, you’ve been producing networks and forces and tangles and clusters – an abstract space of energy and directions. Is that an accurate way of looking at your recent work – and, if so, is this a purely aesthetic exploration, or is this architecture without walls meant to symbolize or communicate a larger political message?

Woods: Well, look – if you go back through my projects over the years, probably the least present aspect is the idea of property lines. There are certainly boundaries – spatial boundaries – because, without them, you can’t create space. But the idea of fencing off, or of compartmentalizing – or the capitalist ideal of private property – has been absent from my work over the last few years.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods. A drawing of tectonic faults and other subsurface tensions, from his San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

I think in my more recent work, certainly, there are still boundaries. There are still edges. But they are much more porous, and the property lines… [laughs] are even less, should we say, defined or desired.

So the more recent work – like in Vienna, as you mentioned – is harder for people to grasp. Back in the early 90s I was confronting particular situations, and I was doing it in a kind of scenario way. I made realistic-looking drawings of places – of situations – but now I’ve moved into a purely architectonic mode. I think people probably scratch their heads a little bit and say: well, what is this? But I’m glad you grasp it – and I hope my comments clarify at least my aspirations.

Probably the political implication of that is something about being open – encouraging what I call the lateral movement and not the vertical movement of politics. It’s the definition of a space through a set of approximations or a set of vibrations or a set of energy fluctuations – and that has everything to do with living in the present.

All of those lines are in flux. They’re in movement, as we ourselves develop and change.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, System Wien, 2005].

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge thanks to Lebbeus Woods, not only for having this conversation but for proving over and over again that architecture can and should always be a form of radical reconstruction, unafraid to take on buildings, cities, worlds – whole planets.

For more images, meanwhile, including much larger versions of all the ones that appear here, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s Lebbeus Woods Flickr set. Also consider stopping by Subtopia for an enthusiastic recap of Lebbeus’s appearance at Postopolis! last Spring; and by City of Sound for Dan Hill’s synopsis of the same event.