Although these overlooked lots exist all over New York—“The city became the owner of thousands of properties beginning in the 1960s and ’70s,” The New York Times explains, “many in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where properties were seized from delinquent landlords and urban blight was rampant”—the competition is focused on one particular location:
Entrants will be asked to focus on a property on West 136th Street in Harlem, a 17-foot-wide, 1,665-square-foot mid-block lot that is overgrown with weeds and home to a number of feral cats. It was chosen because many of its challenges, including narrow frontage and limited sunlight, are present at other lots on the list, according to a spokesman for the project.
Holten has now created a whole new tree alphabet, based on trees growing in the New York City region. “Each letter of the Latin alphabet is assigned a drawing of a tree from the NYC Parks Department’s existing native and non-native trees,” Holten writes, “as well as species that are to be planted as a result of the changing climate. For example, A = Ash.”
That typeface is also available as a free download, so you can type your own forests into existence with abandon. All the world’s literature, translated into trees.
What’s more, Holten is overseeing a program to actually plant the trees referenced by the alphabet, resulting in what she calls an “an alphabetical planting palette: people can give us their messages and we’ll plant them around the city with real trees.”
The author, Amy Goldwasser, tags along as the group wanders on “a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink.”
By the time the foragers left Central Park, the pockets of [tour leader] Logan’s jacket were already bleeding pink. After finishing uptown, a few hours later, they went to [a participant’s] apartment, to make ink. One batch was pure pokeberry juice (vivid magenta). Another included five varieties of acorn boiled with rust from various sources—nuts and bolts, wire, brackets—and a drop of gum arabic. It came out a complicated silver-gray. Logan spread a range of ink pots on [the participant’s] kitchen table. He dipped the bottom of a glass jar into the rust-and-acorn ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper, making a silvery circle. “Look at our day,” he said. “Now, that, to me, is the blood of New York.”
The city’s capacity to leave marks—to stain, print, and tattoo the things and people that pass through it—can be found in the most mundane items, secret ink hidden inside “acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.”
The journal suggests bearing these four main points in mind, if you proceed:
1) If in parks, no matter how faux or superficial, we manifest a collective aesthetic expression of our relationship with the “natural” world, then what, on the occasion of nature’s disappearance, is the aesthetic of that relationship today? 2) What is the role of a large urban park today? 3) How might issues of aesthetics on the one hand and performance on the other coalesce into what [Central Park’s original designer Frederick Law Olmsted] described as “a single work of art”? 4) Given the extraordinary history of the Central Park site, the competition asks how the new interprets the old, and how together, the new and the old anticipate the future.
Basically, it’s an opportunity to propose an entirely new kind of urban park, in the heart of New York City, for an explicitly interdisciplinary group (I should mention that I am also on the competition jury).
Perhaps it’s a chance to rethink the Park as an act of social justice and equitable access to urban wilderness; perhaps it’s a chance to explore the financial implications of large-scale landscape reserves put aside in the very center of the metropolis; perhaps it’s a chance to explore biotechnology, synthetic life, and the topographic implications of the Anthropocene.
I meant to write about these way back when they first appeared in the Paris Review, but alas. In any case, Wacław Szpakowski was a trained architect who dedicated an inordinate amount of his own free time to hand-drawing elaborate mazes and patterns using only a single line.
“When he was eighty-five,” Sarah Cowan writes in a review of a show mounted by the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City, “Wacław Szpakowski wrote a treatise for a lifetime project that no one had known about. Titled ‘Rhythmical Lines,’ it describes a series of labyrinthine geometrical abstractions, each one produced from a single continuous line. He’d begun these drawings around 1900, when he was just seventeen—what started as sketches he then formalized, compiled, and made ever more intricate over the course of his life.”
Szpakowski’s notebooks are, according to Cowan, “a twentieth-century version of Leonardo da Vinci’s, with enthusiastic scribblings next to observations of architecture and diagrams of natural phenomena, from ocean currents to fir-tree needles.”
It’s hard to exaggerate how interesting these are from an architectural point of view: labyrinths of a single line, suggesting possibilities for infinite complexity along single paths of circulation. Room after room after room, laid out along a sufficiently complex corridor, becomes a building as large as a city.
[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].
But the appeal of Szpakowski’s work would appear to extend well beyond the architectural. At times they resemble textiles, weaving diagrams, computer circuity, and even Arts & Crafts ornamentation, like 19th-century wallpapers designed for an era of retro-computational aesthetics.
[Images: (top to bottom) D4 (1925), D5 (1926), and D7 (1928) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].
Woodworking templates, patent drawings for fluidic calculators, elaborate game boards—the list of associations goes on and on.
New York City has announced the “Automated Decision Systems Task Force which will explore how New York City uses algorithms.” This makes New York “the first city in the country bringing our best technology and policy minds together to understand how algorithms affect the daily lives of our constituents. Whether the city has made a decision about school placements, criminal justice, or the provision of social services, this unprecedented legislation gets us one step closer to making algorithms accountable, transparent, and free of potential bias.”
Color Space focuses “on working with new digital scanning techniques to draw space through the lens of color,” the accompanying text explains. “Relying on the camera as a simple perspective-machine, spatial coordinates and RGB values are combined to produce digital environments that connect color and space in a form of architectural pointillism.”
For example, Vobis writes there, Giorgio Vasari once “characterized a fundamental split between drawing and color in artistic production, linking disegno to Apollonian rationalism and colore to Dionysian intuition and lack of control. Disegno has been taken up as the primary mode of architectural design ever since”—but color, reduced now merely to “a surface treatment,” Vobis adds, “deals directly with regions and gradients, fields and potential environments. By reconsidering colore in conjunction with disegno, fresh possibilities for architecture arise.”
[Image: Near Barren Island, Brooklyn, New York, via Google Maps].
I’ve always liked the story of Mary Anning, an amateur paleontologist who collected fossils along the cliffs of southwest England in the early to mid-1800s. Her work was greatly assisted by the coastal weather, as landslides, slumping, and severe storms helped to reveal the remains of extinct creatures in the rocks.
I love the tantalizing prospect here of as-yet unknown forms of life still hiding in the cliffside, awaiting future landslides or heavy rain, and the imaginative possibilities this implies—from straight-forward tales of scientific discovery to darker, H.P. Lovecraft-inflected horror fiction. A catastrophic future storm strikes Cornwall, and, as the townspeople walk stunned through the wreckage of their high street the next morning, they can’t miss the massive bulk of some thing “peeking through the surface” of a nearby cliff.
I was reminded of Mary Anning again this morning while reading about a place called Barren Island—“whose name apparently comes not from its long association with desolation but from the Dutch word for ‘bears’”—a coastal neighborhood in New York City that was demolished by the freeway-obsessed Robert Moses in the 1930s.
That same beach, of course, is well-known for its weathered glass bottles, but, we read, “Visitors usually assume that the refuse has washed up from the body of water still known as Dead Horse Bay, but most of it has actually washed down, from an eroding bank above the sand. ‘The bank is the outermost edge of a landfill,’ Nagle explained. ‘It keeps receding, and stuff keeps appearing.’”
Awesomely, Nagle points out that you can at least partially piece together the history an erased neighborhood from these traces:
Some of the exposed material, Nagle believes, originated in a Brooklyn neighborhood that Moses levelled to make way for one of his road-building projects, more than a decade after Floyd Bennett Field had been supplanted by LaGuardia Airport. “We don’t know which neighborhood,” she said, “but we do know the period, because when we find remnants of newspapers the dates are between early February and mid-March of 1953.” The beach is a window into that era. She went on, “I tell people to imagine that they’re a props master for a film about a working-class Brooklyn family in 1953, and they have to fill their home with goods that would have been part of their everyday lives—shampoo bottles and cooking tools and car parts and flooring and makeup and children’s toys and furniture and electrical outlets. People say the beach is covered with garbage, but it’s actually covered with the material traces of homes that people had to abandon when Moses forced them out.”
Nagle, you might say, is a kind of Mary Anning of the Anthropocene, collecting the fossils of forgotten neighborhoods as the land in which they’re buried erodes away.
[Image: Underground tennis courts in a limestone mine and refrigeration complex in Missouri].
It’s been a long month, but my wife and I have packed up and left New York, endlessly bubble-wrapping things while watching Midnight Run, Collateral, Chinatown, and other L.A.-themed movies on a laptop in an empty room, to head west again to Los Angeles, where we finally arrived today.
We visited the Cahokia Mounds, a heavily eroded indigenous North American city that, at its height, was larger than London, part of a Wisconsin-to-Louisiana band of settlements sculpted from mud and clay. The remains of history are not necessarily built with stone and timber—let alone steel and glass—but might exist in the form of oddly sloped hillsides or gardens long ago left untended.
[Image: Hiking around Cahokia Mounds].
Along the way, we managed to see the total eclipse in Missouri, sitting on a picnic blanket in a park south of St. Louis, people around us crying, yelling “Look at that!,” laughing, cheering like it was a football game, a day before driving further southwest to explore food-refrigeration caverns in active limestone mines for Nicky’s book.
That’s where we stumbled on the tennis courts pictured at the top of this post, at least seventy feet below ground, complete with a wall of framed photos showing previous champions of the underworld leagues, as we drove around for an hour or two through genuinely huge subterranean naves and corridors, with not-yet-renovated sections of the mine—millions of square feet—hidden behind titanic yellow curtains.
[Image: Behind these curtains are millions—of square-feet of void].
We listened to S-Town. We had breakfast in Oklahoma City. We made it to New Mexico to hike up a 10,000-year-old volcano with an ice cave frozen at a permanent 31º in one of its half-collapsed lava tubes where we met another couple who had driven up from Arizona “to get out of the heat.”
We then spent three days in Flagstaff to sleep, watch GLOW, and inadvertently off-road on our quest to do some hiking, up fire roads, up canyons behind Sedona, up hills in the rain, looking north toward the cinder cones of dead volcanoes that we visited a few years ago for Venue, where, in the 1960s, NASA recreated the surface of the moon using timed explosions.
[Image: Hiking outside Flagstaff].
In any case, we’re now back in Los Angeles, the greatest city in the United States, the one that most perversely fulfills whatever strange promises this country offers, and we’ll be here for the long haul. In fact, there’s no real reason to post this, other than: why not? But, if you live in L.A., or anywhere in California, perhaps we’ll cross paths soon.
[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].
One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.
Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”
For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.
[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].
A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.
As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.
[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].
In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.
These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”
[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].
Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”
This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.
A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.
Three men with oversize briefcases show up in New York City. They drop their cases onto the sidewalk and leave them there, disguised amongst the workday crowds, several blocks away from one another, unattended. Ten minutes later, the cases pop open: a whirring sound is heard as small industrial fans begin to operate, inflating carefully packed chains of linked polyethylene structures. Buildings emerge, expanding out from each case until entire rooms and corridors block the street. No one knows how to turn the fans off. The buildings are growing, labyrinthine, turning corners now and halting traffic. A news helicopter captures the scene from above as the transparent walls of huge empty buildings made of air flash with the colored lights of police cars.
A man toils for thirteen years, sending ever-more complex test diagrams off to polyethylene factories in Florida. He wants to know how much it would cost for them to manufacture these parts he’s been designing, and designing well: temporary inflatable rooms that link off from other rooms, multi-scalar gaskets able to withstand knife attacks, even strange, one-time entry points that can be resealed from within. A retired cargo pilot, he dreams of giving structure to air. He writes, Man can live on air alone!, and sketches obscene bulbous shapes on paper napkins to the discomfort of passing strangers.
A building made of polyethylene and sealed air takes shape on a beach near Cape Canaveral. Tourists flock to it, taking selfies and filming short videos with their kids. But the midday sun is relentless; the structure is heating and the winds are picking up. Within two hours, the complex inflated shape begins to tremble and beat against the sand, until, accompanied by an audible gasp from the assembled crowd, it is sucked out to sea. It tumbles and rolls and rises through the sky, a spinning point reflecting glints of subtropical sunlight as it disappears over the Atlantic horizon. No one can say who it was, but all witnesses insist there was a man inside. Sure enough, smartphone video of the structure being lifted over the waves reveals a man bracing himself against the interior walls, bearing an expression somewhere between mania and glee. Two weeks later, French police find him, disoriented and unshaven, lacking his passport, at a seaside bar in Arcachon. “I have a very strange story to tell you,” he slurs, before falling off his seat.