Infrastructural Opportunism

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Going all the way back to the fall of 1997, my own interest in architecture was more or less reinvigorated—leading, by way of a long chain of future events, to the eventual start of BLDGBLOG—by Mary-Ann Ray’s installment in the great Pamphlet Architecture series, Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets.

To this day, the pamphlet format—short books, easily carried around town, packed with spatial ideas and constructive speculations—remains inspiring.

The 30th installment in this canonical series is thankfully a great one, authored by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab, a design firm and its attendant research blog that I’ve been following for many years.

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

The premise of the work documented by their book, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, is to seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure and/or spatially reused. Their work is thus “opportunistic,” as the pamphlet’s title implies. It is architecture at the scale of infrastructure, and infrastructure at the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

In the process, their proposed interventions are meant to augment processes already active in the terrain in question—processes that remain underutilized or, rather, below the threshold of spatial detection.

As the authors themselves describe it, these projects “double as landscape life support, creating new sites for production and recreation. The ambition is to supplement ecologies at risk rather than overhaul them.”

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

One of the highlights of the book for me is a section on the so-called “Next North.” Here, they offer “a series of proposals centered on the ecological and social empowerment of Canada’s unique Far North and its attendant networks.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings, and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

Three specific projects follow. One outlines the technical possibility of building “Ice Road Truck Stops.” These would use “intersecting meshes,” almost as a kind of cryotechnical rebar, inserted into the frozen surfaces of Arctic lakes to “address road reinforcement, energy capture, and aquatic ecologies.”

The mesh is installed at critical shorelines just below the water’s surface, serving to reinforce ice roads during the winter and invigorate lake ecologies during warmer seasons. As trucks travel over the ice road, a hydrodynamic wave forms below the ice, which the mesh captures and converts to energy through a proposed buoy network.

There is then a series of “Caribou Pivot Stations”—further proof that cross-species design is gathering strength in today’s zeitgeist—helping caribou to forage for food on their seasonal migrations; and a so-called “Liquid Commons,” which is a “malleable educational infrastructure composed of a series of boats that travel between the harbors of eleven adjacent communities.” It is a mobile, nomadic network bringing tax-funded educational opportunities to the residents of this emerging Next North.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Here, I should point out that the book has an air of earnestness—everything is very serious and technical and not to be laughed at—but the projects themselves often belie this attitude. It’s as if the authors are aware of, and even revel in, the speculative nature of their ideas, but seem somehow rhetorically unwilling to give away the game. But the implication that these projects are eminently buildable—shovel-ready projects just waiting for a financial green light to do things like “cultivate” ice in the Bering Strait (duly illustrated with a Photoshopped walrus) or “harvest” water from the Salton Sea—is a large part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read.

After all, does presenting speculative work as if it could happen tomorrow—as if it is anything but speculative—increase its architectural value? Or should such work always hold itself at an arm’s length from realizability, so as to highlight its provocative or polemical tone?

The projects featured in Coupling have an almost tongue-in-cheek buildability to them—such as recreational climbing walls on abandoned oil platforms in the Caspian Sea. This opens a whole slew of important questions about what rhetorical mode—what strategy of self-presentation—is most useful and appropriate for upstart architectural firms. (At the very least, this would make for a fascinating future discussion).

[Image: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

In any case, the book is loaded with diagrams, as you can see from the selections reproduced here, including a volumetric study (above) that runs through various courtyard typologies for a hypothetical mixed-use project in Iceland. For more on that particular work, see this older, heavily-illustrated BLDGBLOG post.

[Images: From Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism by Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab].

Essays by David Gissen, Keller Easterling, Charles Waldheim, and Christopher Hight round out the book’s content. It’s a solid pamphlet, both practical and imaginative—made even more provocative by its implied feasibility—and a fantastic choice for the 30th edition of this long-running series.

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).