The Sacrifice of the Microcosm

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.

The Sky-Math Garden

espy
[Images: Via Peter Moore’s piece on “dueling weathermen” over at Nautilus].

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently had the pleasure of reading Peter Moore’s new book, The Weather Experiment. There are many interesting things in it—including the London “time ball,” of course—but one scene in particular stood out for its odd design details.

In 19th-century Philadelphia, Moore explains, climate scientist James Espy began building a miniature model of the earth’s atmosphere in his back garden on Chestnut Street. This microcosm was a nephelescope, or “an air pump attached to a barometer and a tubular vessel—something of an early cloud chamber.”

Espy’s larger goal here was to understand the sky as a complexly marbled world of colliding fronts and rising air columns, “an entire dynamic weather system” that could perhaps best be studied through replication.

The sky, that is, could be modeled—and, if correctly modeled, predicted. It was just a question of understanding the physics of “ascending currents of warm air drawing up vapor, the vapor condensing at a specific height, expanding and forming clouds, and then the water droplets falling back to earth.”

Under different atmospheric conditions, Espy realized, this system of vaporous circulation was capable of producing every type of precipitation: rain, snow, or hail. His task then became to calculate specific circumstances. What temperature was needed to produce snow? What expansion of water vapor would produce would be required to generate a twenty-mile-wide hailstorm?

Why not construct a smaller version of this in your own backyard and watch it go? A garden for modeling the sky.

I love this next bit: “To work with maximum speed,” Moore writes, “he had painted his fence white, so he could use it like an enormous notebook.” The entire fence was soon “covered with figures and calculations,” Espy’s niece recalled, till “not a spot remained for another sum or calculation.”

Espy’s outdoor whiteboard, wrapped around a “space transformed into an atmospheric laboratory, filled with vessels of water, numerous thermometers and hygrometers,” in Moore’s words, would make an interesting sight today, resembling something so much as a set designed for an avant-garde theatrical troupe or a student project at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Indeed, Espy’s lost sky-math garden suggests some interesting spatial possibilities for a sort of outdoor scientific park, a piece of urban land replicating the atmosphere through both instruments and equations.

Composite Archaeology

[Image: A laser scan of the Pantheon, courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

ScanLAB Projects, focus of a long article on Wired last month, are back in the news with a BBC documentary exploring the infrastructure of ancient Rome.

The show “explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level”:

We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.

The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

One of the most interesting points made in Mary-Ann Ray’s excellent Pamphlet Architecture installment—1997’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets—is when she describes her use of composite photography as a way to experiment with new forms of archaeological documentation.

Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.

All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. “They were also spaces,” she writes, “which seemed to have the ability to ‘flip-flop’ in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings.”

What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

Ray uses the metaphor of a “hyper-camera” here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls “a kind of cubist multiple view,” one where “the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether.”

“In these composite views,” she adds, “the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

While Ray’s photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.

[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

ScanLAB’s laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray’s composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.

The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray’s “enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB’s website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.

Urban CAT Scan

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The London-based ScanLab Projects, featured here many times before, have completed a new commission, this time from the British Postal Museum & Archive, to document the so-called “Mail Rail,” a network of underground tunnels that opened back in 1927.

As Subterranea Britannica explains, the tunnels were initially conceived as a system of pneumatic package-delivery tubes, an “atmospheric railway,” as it was rather fantastically described at the time, “by which a stationary steam engine would drive a large fan which could suck air out of an air tight tube and draw the vehicle towards it or blow air to push them away.”

That “vehicle” would have been a semi-autonomous wheeled cart bearing parcels for residents of Greater London.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Alas, but unsurprisingly, this vision of an air-powered subterranean communication system for a vast metropolis of many millions of residents was replaced by a rail-based one, with narrow, packed-heavy cars running a system of tracks beneath the London streets.

Thus the Mail Rail system was born.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

While the story of the system itself is fascinating, it has also been told elsewhere.

The aforementioned Subterranea Britannica is a perfect place to start, but urban explorers have also gained entrance for narrative purposes of their own, including the long write-up over at Placehacking.

That link includes the incredible detail that, “on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.”

Surely, this should be the setting for a new novel: some huge and illegal party in an abandoned building at an otherwise undisclosed location in the city results in people breaking into or discovering an otherwise forgotten, literally underground network, alcohol-blurred photographs of which are later recognized as having unique urban importance.

Something is down there, the hungover viewers of these photographs quickly realize, something vague and hazily glimpsed in the unlit background of some selfies snapped at a rave.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

This would all be part of the general mysticism of infrastructure that I hinted at in an earlier post, the idea that the peripheral networks through which the city actually functions lie in wait, secretly connecting things from below or wrapping, Ouroborus-like, around us on the edges of things.

These systems are the Matrix, we might say in modern mythological terms, or the room where Zeus moves statues of us all around on chessboards: an invisible realm of tacit control and influence that we’ve come to know unimaginatively as nothing but infrastructure. But infrastructure is now the backstage pass, the esoteric world behind the curtain.

In any case, with this handful of party pictures in hand, a group of London explorers tried to infiltrate the system.

After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found… We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months.

It took some time—but, eventually, it worked.

They found the tunnels.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The complete write-up over at Placehacking is worth the read for the rest of that particular story.

But ScanLab now enter the frame as documentarians of a different sort, with a laser-assisted glimpse of this underground space down to millimetric details.

Their 3D point clouds afford a whole new form of representation, a kind of volumetric photography that cuts through streets and walls to reveal the full spatial nature of the places on display.

The incredible teaser video, pieced together from 223 different laser scanning sessions, reveals this with dramatic effect, featuring a virtual camera that smoothly passes beneath the street like a swimmer through the waves of the ocean.



As the British Postal Museum & Archive explains, the goal of getting ScanLab Projects down into their tunnels was “to form a digital model from which any number of future interactive, visual, animated and immersive experiences can be created.”

In other words, it was a museological project: the digital preservation of an urban underworld that few people—Placehacking‘s write-up aside—have actually seen.

For example, the Museum writes, the resulting laser-generated 3D point clouds might “enable a full 3D walkthrough of hidden parts of the network or an app that enables layers to be peeled away to see the original industrial detail beneath.”

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Unpeeling the urban onion has never been so gorgeous as we leap through walls, peer upward through semi-transparent streets, and see signs hanging in mid-air from both sides simultaneously.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Tunnels become weird ropey knots like smoke rings looped beneath the city as the facades of houses take on the appearance of old ghosts, remnants of another era gazing down at the flickering of other dimensions previously lost in the darkness below.

(Thanks again to the British Postal Museum & Archive for permission to post the images).

Touchscreen Landscapes

[Image: Screen grab via military.com].

This new, partly digital sand table interface developed for military planning would seem to have some pretty awesome uses in an architecture or landscape design studio.

Using 3D terrain data—in the military’s case, gathered in real-time from its planetary network of satellites—and a repurposed Kinect sensor, the system can adapt to hand-sculpted transformations in the sand by projecting new landforms and elevations down onto those newly molded forms.

You can thus carve a river in real-time through the center of the sandbox, and watch as projected water flows in—

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

—or you can simply squeeze sand together into new hills, and even make a volcanic crater.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

The idea of projecting adaptive landscape imagery down onto a sandbox is brilliant; being able to interact with both the imagery and the sand itself by way of a Kinect sensor is simply awesome.

Imagine scaling this thing up to the size of a children’s playground, and you’d never see your kids again, lost in a hypnotic topography of Minecraft-like possibilities, or just donate some of these things to a landscape design department and lose several hours (weeks?) of your life, staring ahead in a state of geomorphic Zen at this touchscreen landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with its readymade rivers and a thousand on-demand plateaus.

The military, of course, uses it to track and kill people, filling their sandbox with projections of targeting coordinates and geometric representations of tanks.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

But there’s no reason those coordinates couldn’t instead be the outlines of a chosen site for your proposed architecture project, or why those little clusters of trucks and hidden snipers couldn’t instead be models of new buildings or parks you’re hoping will be constructed.

Watch the original video for more.

An Occult History of the Television Set


The origin of the television set was heavily shrouded in both spiritualism and the occult, Stefan Andriopoulos writes in his new book Ghostly Apparitions. In fact, as its very name implies, the television was first conceived as a technical device for seeing at a distance: like the telephone (speaking at a distance) and telescope (viewing at a distance), the television was intended as an almost magical box through which we could watch distant events unfold, a kind of technological crystal ball.

Andriopoulos’s book puts the TV into a long line of other “optical media” that go back at least as far as popular Renaissance experiments involving technologically-induced illusions, such as concave mirrors, magic lanterns, disorienting walls of smoke, and other “ghostly apparitions” and “phantasmagoric projections” created by specialty devices. These were conjuring tricks, sure—mere public spectacles, so to speak—but successfully achieving them required sophisticated understandings of basic physical factors such as light, shadow, and acoustics, making an audience see—and, most importantly, believe in—the illusion.

A Magic Lantern for Watching Events at a Distance

What’s central to Andriopoulos’s argument is that these devices incorporated earlier experimental instruments devised specifically for pursuing supernatural research—for visualizing the invisible and showing the subtle forces at work in everyday life. In his words, these were “devices developed in occult research”—including explicitly “televisionlike devices”—that had been invented in the name of spiritualism toward the end of the 19th century and that, only a decade or two later, “played a constitutive role in the emergence of radio and television.”

[Image: From Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s 1834 study of technical phantasmagoria, via Ghostly Apparitions].

In Andriopoulos’s words, this was simply part of “the reciprocal interaction between occultism and the natural sciences that characterized the cultural construction of new technological media in the late nineteenth century,” a “two-directional exchange between occultism and technology.” New forms of broadcast technology and belief in the occult? No big deal.

So, while the television itself—the object you and I most likely know as the utterly mundane fixture of family distraction sitting centrally ensconced in a nearby living room—might not be a supernatural mechanism, it nonetheless descends from a strange and convoluted line of esoteric experimentation, including early attempts at controlling electromagnetic transmissions, directing radio waves, and even experiencing various forms of so-called “remote viewing.”

The idea of a medium takes on a double meaning here, Andriopoulos explains, as the word refers both to the media—in the sense of a professional world of publishing and transmission—and to the medium, in the sense of a specific, vaguely shamanic person who acts as a psychic or seer. The medium thus acts as an intermediary between humans and the supernatural world in a very literal sense.

Indeed, in Andriopoulos’s version of television’s origin story, the notion of spiritual clairvoyance was very much part of the overall intention of the device.

Clairvoyance—a word that literally means clear vision, yet that has now come to refer almost exclusively to a supernatural ability to see things at a distance or before events even happen—offered an easy metaphor for this new mechanism.

Television promised clairvoyance in the sense that a TV could allow seeing without interference or noise. It would give viewers a way to tune into and clearly see a broadcast’s invisible signals—with the implication that an esoteric remote-viewing apparatus with forgotten supernatural intentions is now mounted and enshrined in nearly everyone’s home.

[Image: A “moving face” transmitted by John Logie Baird at a public demonstration of TV in 1926 (photo via the BBC)].

I’ll leave it to curious readers to look for Andriopoulos’s book itself—with the caveat that it is quite heavy on German idealism and rather light on real tech history—but it is worth mentioning the fact that at least one other technical aspect of the 20th-century television also followed a very bizarre historical trajectory.

Part Tomb, Part Church, Part Planetarium

The cathode ray—a vacuum tube technology found in early television sets—took on an unexpected and extraordinary use in the work of gonzo Norwegian inventor Kristian Birkeland. Birkeland used cathode rays in his attempt to build a doomed scale model of the solar system.

I genuinely love this story and I have written about it elsewhere, including both here on BLDGBLOG and in The BLDGBLOG Book, but it’s well worth retelling.

In a nutshell, Birkeland was the first scientist to correctly hypothesize the origins of the Northern Lights, rightly deducing from his own research into electromagnetic phenomena that the aurora borealis was actually caused by interactions between charged particles constantly streaming toward earth from the sun and the earth’s own protective magnetic field. This produced the extraordinary displays of light Birkeland had seen in the planet’s far north.

However, as Birkeland fell deeper into an eventually fatal addiction to extreme levels of caffeine and a slow-acting hypnotic drug called Veronal, he also—awesomely—became fixated on the weirdly impossible goal of precisely modeling the Northern Lights in miniature. He sought to build a kind of Bay Model of the Northern Lights.

[Image: Kristian Birkeland stares deeply into his universal simulator (via)].

As author Lucy Jago tells Birkeland’s amazing story in her book The Northern Lights, he was intent on producing a kind of astronomical television set: a “televisionlike device,” in Andriopoulos’s words, whose inner technical workings would not just broadcast actions and characters seen elsewhere, but would actually model the electromagnetic secrets of the universe.

As Jago describes his project, Birkeland “drew up plans for a new machine unlike anything that had been made before.” It resembled “a spacious aquarium,” she writes, a shining box that would act as “a window into space.”

The box would be pumped out to create a vacuum and he would use larger globes and a more powerful cathode to produce charged particles. With so much more room he would be able to see effects, obscured in the smaller tubes, that could take his Northern Lights theory one step further–into a complete cosmogony, a theory of the origins of the universe.

It was a multifaceted and extraordinary undertaking. With it, Jago points out, “Birkeland was able to simulate Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and the Zodiacal Light. He even experimented with space propulsion using cathode rays. Sophisticated photographs were taken of each simulation, to be included in the next volume of Birkeland’s great work, which would discern the electromagnetic nature of the universe and his theories about the formation of the solar system.”

However, this “spacious aquarium” was by no means the end of Birkeland’s manic (tele)vision.

[Image: From Birkeland’s The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903, Vol. 1: On the Cause of Magnetic Storms and The Origin of Terrestrial Magnetism (via)].

His ultimate goal—devised while near-death in a hotel room in Egypt—was to construct a vacuum chamber partially excavated into the solid rock of a mountain peak, an insane mixture of tomb, church, and planetarium.

The resulting cathedral-like space—think of it as a three-dimensionally immersive, landscape-scale television set carved directly into bedrock—would thus be an artificial cavern inside of which flickering electric mirages of stars, planets, comets, and aurorae would spiral and glow for a hypnotized audience.

Birkeland wrote about this astonishing plan in a letter to a friend. He was clearly excited about what he called a “great idea I have had.” It would be—and the emphasis is all Birkeland’s—”a museum for the discovery of the Earth’s magnetism, magnetic storms, the nature of sunspots, of planets—their nature and creation.”

His excitement was justified, and the ensuing description is worth quoting at length; you can almost feel the caffeine. “On a little hill,” he scribbled, presumably on his Egyptian hotel’s own stationery, perhaps even featuring a little image of the pyramids embossed in its letterhead, reminding him of the ambitions of long-dead pharaohs, “I will build a dome of granite, the walls will be a meter thick, the floor will be formed of the mountain itself and the top of the dome, fourteen meters in diameter, will be a gilded copper sphere. Can you guess what the dome will cover? When I’m boasting I say to my friends here ‘next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber in the world.’ I will make a vacuum chamber of 1,000 cubic metres and, every Sunday, people will have the opportunity to see a ring of Saturn ten metres in diameter, sunspots like no one else can do better, Zodiacal Light as evocative as the natural one and, finally, auroras… four meters in diametre. The same sphere will serve as Saturn, the sun, and Earth, and will be driven round by a motor.”

Every Sunday, as if attending Mass, congregants of this artificial solar system would thus hike up some remote mountain trail, heading deep into the cavernous and immersive television of Birkeland’s own astronomy, hypnotized by the explosive whirls of its peculiar, peacock-like displays of electromagnetism, shimmering cathedrals of artificially controlled planetary light.

[Image: Cropping in on the pic seen above (via)].

Seen in the context of the occult mechanisms, psychic TVs, and clairvoyant media technologies of Stefan Andriopoulos’s book, Birkeland’s story reveals just one particularly monumental take on the other-worldly possibilities implied by televisual media, bypassing the supernatural altogether to focus on something altogether more extreme: a direct visual engagement with nature itself, in all its blazing detail.

Of course, Birkeland’s cathode ray model of the solar system might not have conjured ghosts or visualized the spiritual energies that Andriopoulous explores in his book, but it did try to bring the heavens down to earth in the form of a 1,000 cubic meter television set partially hewn from mountain granite.

It was the most awesome TV ever attempted, a doomed and never-realized invention that nonetheless puts all of today’s visual media to shame.

(An earlier version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).

Buy a Map

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

Something I meant to post three few weeks ago, before October became the Great Lost Month of constant busyness and over-commitment, is the story of a 70-ton relief map of California, unseen by the public for half a century, that has been re-discovered in San Francisco, sitting in “an undisclosed location on the city’s waterfront.”

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

In its time, the map was considered far too marvelous for simply cutting up and storing—but that’s exactly what’s happened to it.

It was as long as two football fields and showed California in all its splendor, from Oregon to Mexico, with snow-capped mountains, national parks, redwood forests, a glorious coastline, orchards and miniature cities basking in the sun. It was made of plaster, wire, paint, and bits of rock and sand. In the summer of 1924, Scientific American magazine said it was the largest map in the world.

However, we read, “The problem with the map is simple: it is huge and would cost a lot of money to move, restore and display it. The last estimate was in the range of $500,000. And that was 30 years ago. It is a classic white elephant, too valuable to scrap, but too expensive to keep.”

And, today, it’s not going anywhere: “The Port of San Francisco has no plans to be anything but stewards of its storage, and no one else has come forward in half a century to rescue the map.” If you have half-a-million dollars or so, and heavy moving equipment at your disposal, then perhaps it could soon be yours.

(Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link. In the archives: San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model; Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church, and Buy a Silk Mill].