“This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations”

moses[Image: Robert Moses, via Wikipedia].

I’ve been meaning to post about this since I first heard about it: a competition to design a game based on Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

As Tim Hwang of the Infrastructure Observatory writes, “we are launching a competition that challenges game designers to adapt The Power Broker into a playable, interactive form that preserves the flavor and themes of the written work, while leveraging the unique opportunities the game medium provides.” They are “seeking submissions both in a video game category, as well in a separate tabletop game category.”

Although I am obviously already biased toward game-creation as a form of urban analysis, the possibilities here are incredibly interesting. If you missed Gothamist’s great interview with Robert Caro, meanwhile, it’s well worth reading, serving as an engagingly free-wheeling introduction to Caro’s now-classic book, including several damning insights into how Moses abused infrastructural design as a new form of political power.

“Moses came along with his incredible vision,” Caro explains, for example, “and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.”

I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.
Then he had this quote, and I can still [hear] him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.
We used Jones Beach a lot, because I used to work the night shift for the first couple of years, so I’d sleep til 12 and then we’d go down and spend a lot of afternoons at the beach. It never occurred to me that there weren’t any black people at the beach.
So [my wife] Ina and I went to the main parking lot, that huge 10,000-car lot. We stood there with steno pads, and we had three columns: Whites, Blacks, Others. And I still remember that first column—there were a few Others, and almost no Blacks. The Whites would go on to the next page. I said, God, this is what Robert Moses did. This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations.

You have until April 29th to register for the game-design competition; you can find more information on the competition website.

Infrastructure as Processional Space

[Image: A view of the Global Containers Terminal in Bayonne; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

I just spent the bulk of the day out on a tour of the Global Containers Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey, courtesy of the New York Infrastructure Observatory.

That’s a new branch of the institution previously known as the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, who hosted the MacroCity event out in San Francisco last May. They’re now leading occasional tours around NYC infrastructure (a link at the bottom of this post lets you join their mailing list).

[Image: A crane so large my iPhone basically couldn’t take a picture of it; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

There were a little more than two dozen of us, a mix of grad students, writers, and people whose work in some way connected them to logistics, software, or product development—which, unsurprisingly, meant that everyone had only a few degrees of separation from the otherworldly automation on display there on the peninsula, this open-air theater of mobile cranes and mounted gantries whirring away in the precise loading and unloading of international container ships.

The clothes we were wearing, the cameras we were using to photograph the place, even the pens and paper many of us were using to take notes, all had probably entered the United States through this very terminal, a kind of return of the repressed as we brought those orphaned goods back to their place of disembarkation.

[Images: The bottom half of the same crane; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Along the way, we got to watch a room full of human controllers load, unload, and stack containers, with the interesting caveat that they—that is, humans—are only required when a crane comes within ten feet of an actual container. Beyond ten feet, automation sorts it out.

When the man I happened to be watching reached the critical point where his container effectively went on auto-pilot, not only did his monitor literally go blank, making it clear that he had seen enough and that the machines had now taken over, but he referred to this strong-armed virtual helper as “Auto Schwarzenegger.”

“Auto Schwarzenegger’s got it now,” he muttered, and the box then disappeared from the screen, making its invisible way to its proper location.

[Image: Waiting for the invisible hand of Auto Schwarzenegger; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Awesomely—in fact, almost unbelievably—when we entered the room, with this 90% automated landscape buzzing around us outside on hundreds of acres of mobile cargo in the wintry weather, they were listening to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

“Ground control to Major Tom…” the radio sang, as they toggled joysticks and waited for their monitors to light up with another container.

[Image: Out in the acreage; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The infinitely rearrangeable labyrinth of boxes outside was by no means easy to drive through, and we actually found ourselves temporarily walled in on the way out, just barely slipping between two containers that blocked off that part of the yard.

This was “Damage Land,” our guide from the port called it, referring to the place where all damaged containers came to be stored (and eventually sold).

[Image: One of thousands of stacked walls in the infinite labyrinth of the Global Containers Terminal; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of the most consistently interesting aspects of the visit was learning what was and was not automated, including where human beings were required to stand during some of the processes.

For example, at one of several loading/unloading stops, the human driver of each truck was required to get out of the vehicle and stand on a pressure-sensitive pad in the ground. If nothing corresponding to the driver’s weight was felt by sensors on the pad, the otherwise fully automated machines toiling above would not snap into action.

This idea—that a human being standing on a pressure-sensitive pad could activate a sequence of semi-autonomous machines and processes in the landscape around them—surely has all sorts of weird implications for everything from future art or museum installations to something far darker, including the fully automated prison yards of tomorrow.

[Image: One of several semi-automated gate stations around the terminal; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

This precise control of human circulation was also built into the landscape—or perhaps coded into the landscape—through the use of optical character recognition software (OCR) and radio-frequency ID chips. Tag-reading stations were located at various points throughout the yard, sending drivers either merrily on their exactly scripted way to a particular loading/unloading dock or sometimes actually barring that driver from entry. Indeed, bad behavior was punished, it was explained, by blocking a driver from the facility altogether for a certain amount of time, locking them out in a kind of reverse-quarantine.

Again, the implications here for other types of landscapes were both fascinating and somewhat ominous; but, more interestingly, as the trucks all dutifully lined-up to pass through the so-called “OCR building” on the far edge of the property, I was struck by how much it felt like watching a ceremonial gate at the outer edge of some partially sentient Forbidden City built specifically for machines.

In other words, we often read about the ceremonial use of urban space in an art historical or urban planning context, whether that means Renaissance depictions of religious processions or it means the ritualized passage of courtiers through imperial capitals in the far east. However, the processional cities of tomorrow are being built right now, and they’re not for humans—they’re both run and populated by algorithmic traffic control systems and self-operating machine constellations, in a thoroughly secular kind of ritual space driven by automated protocols more than by democratic legislation.

These—ports and warehouses, not churches and squares—are the processional spaces of tomorrow.

[Image: Procession of the True Cross (1496) by Gentile Bellini, via Wikimedia].

It’s also worth noting that these spaces are trickling into our everyday landscape from the periphery—which is exactly where we are now most likely to find them, simply referred to or even dismissed as mere infrastructure. However, this overly simple word masks the often startlingly unfamiliar forms of spatial and temporal organization on display. This actually seems so much to be the case that infrastructural tourism (such as today’s trip to Bayonne) is now emerging as a way for people to demystify and understand this peripheral realm of inhuman sequences and machines.

In any case, as the day progressed we learned a tiny bit about the “Terminal Operating System”—the actual software that keeps the whole place humming—and it was then pointed out, rather astonishingly, that the actual owner of this facility is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, an almost Thomas Pynchonian level of financial weirdness that added a whole new level of narrative intricacy to the day.

If this piques your interest in the Infrastructure Observatory, consider following them on Twitter: @InfraObserve and @NYInfraObserve. And to join the NY branch’s mailing list, try this link, which should also let you read their past newsletters.

[Image: The Container Guide; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Finally, the Infrastructure Observatory’s first publication is also now out, and we got to see the very first copy. The Container Guide by Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon should be available for purchase soon through their website; check back there for details (and read a bit more about the guide over at Edible Geography).

(Thanks to Spencer Wright for the driving and details, and to the Global Containers Terminal Bayonne for their time and hospitality!)

Brooklyn Super Food

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

I was clicking around on the RIBA President’s Medals website over the weekend and found a few projects that seemed worth posting here.

The one seen here is a beautifully illustrated proposal for an “alternative supermarket” in Brooklyn, New York, that would be located in the city’s old Navy Yard.

Note that, in all cases, larger images are available at the project website.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Its designer—Yannis Halkiopoulos, a student from the University of Westminster—pitches it as a food-themed exploration of adaptive reuse, a mix of stabilized ruins, gut renovations, and wholly new structures.

He was inspired, he suggests, by the architecture of barns, market structures, and the possibility of an entire urban district becoming a “reinvented artefact” within the larger economy of the city.

The results would be a kind of post-industrial urban food campus on the waterfront in Brooklyn.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

From Halkiopoulos’s description of the project:

The project is a response to current plans which are to demolish the row of abandoned houses to build a suburban supermarket. Once home to high ranking naval officers the eleven structures have been left to decay since 1960. The response is an alternative food market which aims to incorporate the row of houses and re-kindle the consumer with the origin of the food produced and promote regional traditions, gastronomic pleasure and the slow pace of life which finds its roots in the Slow Food Movement NY.

It includes a slaughterhouse, a “slow fish market,” preservation facilities, a “raised tunnel network” linking the many buildings, and more.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

The buildings as a whole are broken down tectonically and typologically, then further analyzed in their own posters.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

There is, for example, the “slaughterhouse & eating quarters” building, complete with in-house “whole animal butcher shop,” seen here—

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

—as well as the “slow fish market” mentioned earlier.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Most of these use exposed timber framing to imply a kind of unfinished or incompletely renovated condition, but these skeletal grids also work to extend the building interiors out along walking paths and brise-soleils, partially outdoor spaces where food and drink could be consumed.

These next few images are absurdly tiny here but can be seen at a larger size over at the President’s Medals; they depict the stabilized facades of the homes on Admirals Row, including how they might change over time.

[Images: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Part of this would include the installation of a “raised tunnel network,” effectively just a series of covered walkways and pedestrian viaducts between buildings, offering a visual tour through unrenovated sections of the site but also knitting the overall market together as a whole.

[Images: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

In any case, I really just think the images are awesome and wanted to post them; sure, the project uses a throwback, sepia-toned, posterization of what is basically just a shopping center to communicates its central point, but the visual style is actually an excellent fit for the proposal and it also seems perfectly pitched to catch the eye of historically minded developers.

You could imagine Anthony Bourdain, for example, enjoying the sight of this for his own forthcoming NY food market.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

In a sense, it’s actually too bad this didn’t cross their desks; personally, I wouldn’t mind hopping on the subway for a quick trip to the Navy Yard, to wander around the revitalized ruins, now filled with food stalls and fish mongers, walking through gardens or stumbling brewery to brewery on a Saturday night, hanging out with friends amidst a labyrinth of stabilized industrial buildings, eating fish tacos in the shadow of covered bridges and tunnels passing overhead.

More (and larger) images are available over at the President’s Medals.

Forward into the colossal yellow room taking shape beneath Manhattan

[Image: A Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker steps forward into the colossal yellow room taking shape beneath Manhattan, an astonishing and cavernous new part of the city’s East Side Access Project that will expand rail service for the Long Island Rail Road. Don’t miss the original shot and its related images, all taken by Rehema Trimiew for the MTA].

Conic Sections: An Interview with Sol Yurick

I interviewed novelist Sol Yurick back in March 2009. Rather than publish the interview on BLDGBLOG as I should have, however, I thought I’d try to find a place for it elsewhere, and began pitching it to a few design magazines. Yurick, after all, was the author of The Warriors—later turned into the cult classic film of the same name, in which New York City is transformed into a ruined staging ground for elaborately costumed gangs—and he was a familiar enough figure amidst a particular crowd of underground readers and independent press aficionados, those of us who might gravitate more toward Autonomedia pamphlets, for example, where you’d find Yurick’s strange and prescient Metatron: The Recording Angel, than anything on the bestseller list.

Looked at one way, The Warriors tells the story of a city gone out of control, become feral, taken over by criminal gangs and faceless police organizations, its infrastructure half-abandoned or, at the very least, fallen, limping into a state of quasi-Piranesian decay. The everyday lives of its residents whirl on, while these cartoon-like groups of armed militants spiral toward violence and disaster. Yurick was thus an urban author, I thought, suitable for urban and architectural publications, his insights on cities far more useful than your average TED Talk and about one ten-thousandth as exposed.

In the interview, published for the first time below, Yurick freely discussed the back-story for The Warriors, which was the question that had motivated me to contact him in the first place. But he also drifted into his interests in the global financial system, which, at that point in time, was melting down through a domino game of bad mortgages and Ponzi schemes, and he went on to offer an even more dizzying perspective on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Dante, in Yurick’s unexpected retelling, had actually written a series of concentric financial allegories, tales of monetary wizardry starring lost, beautiful souls searching for one another amongst the impenetrable mathematics of paradise.

Along the way, we touched on Mexican drug cartels, the Trojan War, the United Nations, and a handful of forthcoming books that Yurick was still, he claimed, energetically working on at the time. 

Image from Paper Tiger, via Sheepshead Bites

Alas, I pitched the wrong magazines and, soon thereafter, hit the road for a long period of travel and work; the interview simply disappeared into my hard drive and years went by. Then, worst of all, Yurick passed away in January of this year

The New York Times described him as “a writer whose best-known work, the 1965 novel The Warriors, recast an ancient Greek battle as a tale of warring New York street gangs and earned a cult following in print, on film and eventually in a video game.” Writing for The Nation, Samuel Fromartz specifically referred to several “out-of-the-blue interview requests” that had popped up in Yurick’s latter years, asking him about, yes, The Warriors. As Fromartz writes, “despite the delight he got in its cult status, it did not mean a lot more to him” than his other books, The Warriors being simply one project among many. 

And so this interview sat, unpublished, till I came across it again in my files recently and I thought I’d give it a second life online. It’s a fascinating discussion with an aging writer who unhesitatingly looked back at a long career of writing both fiction and political analysis, a life of deep reading and even a few eye-poppingly abstract interpretations of Dante.

What follows is the final edit of our conversation. Yurick was an engaged and pointed conversationalist, and, while I was obviously just another out-of-the-blue interviewer curious about the broken city of The Warriors, I hope this text does justice to his creative and sharp vision of the world. 

So this is for Sol Yurick, 1925-2013.

* * *

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all, which is to ask about the back-story behind The Warriors. What motivated you to write it when you did?

Sol Yurick: Well, initially it started off when I was talking about some ideas with a friend in college. I’d just finished reading Xenophon and the concept popped into my head. This was the early 1940s.

Then, later, maybe in the 1950s, I read Outlaws of the Marsh, and the combination of ritual and violence in Outlaws of the Marsh just took my breath away. Those things mixed—Xenophon, ritual violence, Outlaws of the Marsh—and, on top of all that, I had already been working on a novel of my own. I was trying to get it published and it kept getting rejected—maybe 37 times?

BLDGBLOG: Wow.

Yurick: To move on to the next step, I wrote The Warriors. I did it in about three weeks. By this time, a lot of these ideas had matured. I’d been thinking about the whole question of gangs. First of all, the youth gangs at that point in time, running into the 1950s and ’60s, had no economic basis whatsoever. They mostly came from poverty-stricken families. You remember the film Rebel Without a Cause, right? That kind of stuff. It was viewed as kind of a national problem.

However, there were also gangs that came out of the suburbs—gangs nobody had ever heard about. No sociologist had wrote about this. In fact, I was big on sociology at the time, especially the works of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, the founders of modern sociology. I wanted to write about stuff that approached reality—that was based in social reality—and that was not bound by a lot of the clichés or conventions of fiction as I knew it. I wanted to deal with a different stratum of society, something that wasn’t getting the attention it deserved in fiction at the time.

By the time I was actually writing the book, though, the whole 1960s had already started, and I eventually had a different take on it. In the book, it’s really about making a revolution, not just a criminal gang taking over the city. After all, it takes place on July 4th! But, in the book, that holiday is like a slap in the face for my characters—at least that’s the vision of the gang leader, looking at all the things that keep these people down. It’s Independence Day—but independence for whom? Independence from what?

Since that time, I’ve thought an awful lot about gangs and I began to see them in a very different way, as almost a biological formation. People make gangs—men and women, what have you. Cliques, clans, whatever you want to call it. There seems to be a big impulse there, something deeply social and political, but also maybe something biological.

I’d been thinking and meditating on this whole thing—this whole problem of the gang and what makes it. The interesting thing about gangs, as I wrote about them at that point in time, and as I mentioned, is that they had no economic basis. That all began to change during the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially in relation to Vietnam, when more and more heroin began to be imported into the United States—a chunk of that coming through the good offices of the CIA. So, especially looking at the drug cartels in Mexico today, but also looking at this phenomenon of organized crime all over the world, the more you see that gangs are essentially capitalists. Within that system, they organize themselves: they have hierarchical principles and their leadership gets the best of everything. The lower strata are just the soldiers who risk their lives and don’t make out too well.

Look at the other gangs and mafia in ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria, the Camorra, the Japanese gangs, the Chinese triads, the Bulgarian gangs, the Russian gangs, all of that. It’s a business. Essentially, there are connections between these phenomena and corporate capitalism and politics, one way or another. On some level, there are always connections to something else—some other group, level, or economic phenomenon. In fact, no phenomenon, whether we’re talking physics or chemistry or what have you is totally isolated. Total isolation, or the making of discrete sets, is really an intellectual concept. No social formation is isolated in and of itself. It just isn’t.

What’s interesting is that, wherever you go, the gangs develop their own cultures. What makes them alike is generally their structures—their hierarchical structures—and the necessity for their leadership, whether it’s male or female, to exhibit charisma, machismo or machisma. And I don’t care whether you see this in corporations, which are supposedly rational entities but that, really, are not—because, otherwise, why would people talk about the “culture” of a corporation as something that can drive it into bankruptcy or make it successful? And how is that culture different from another corporation? So, in gangs and corporations both, we’re seeing a kind of driven necessity—maybe biological—to make and sustain a culture. But each culture is different.

Structurally, things look the same, but, culturally, things look different. That fascinates me.

Also, I grew up in a Communist household. Starting in the 1960s, I went back to reading Marx. In the back of my mind, though, there were aspects of Marx that seemed inadequate as a theory. It was very Western-centered; the number of classical and historical references in all of Marx’s work was just overwhelming to me. For all of his references, it felt limited. Then, as well, I began to think more in terms of neo-Darwinism. I don’t mean social Darwinism. Leftists and liberals deny the question of human nature, but what if it’s true? So that also became a consideration in my thinking—mixing the two: Marx and Darwin. 

All of that was part of the back-story for The Warriors.

BLDGBLOG: Before we move on to other topics, I think it’s interesting how much the built landscape of New York has changed since you wrote The Warriors. I’m curious, if you were to update the story of Xenophon again and rewrite The Warriors today, if there is a different location you might choose, whether that’s a different city or a different part of New York.

Yurick: Well, I would make it global, for one thing. And I would try to bring into it questions of finance—things like that. I’m not sure, though; I haven’t thought of that. Yes, there was a political and economic connection to Xenophon, and to Xenophon’s story—essentially, these gang members were mercenaries, and they were also a surplus population pushed to the edge of society. They were, after all, kids. And they were revolutionaries, not just street criminals. But I don’t know exactly how I’d handle it today.

Again, the whole question of making a revolution in the old way—it’s a tricky one. From my way of thinking, what happened in the Russian Revolution is: you had an uprising. People were discontented and what have you. Then a moment of opportunity came along, when it was a complete breakdown, and, at that point, Lenin stepped in. It was purely opportunistic. There was nothing decent in his move. There it was. It happened. Boom. He took advantage.

BLDGBLOG: In your book-length essay Metatron: The Recording Angel, you combine so many of these interests—everything from finance to electronic writing, looking ahead to what we now call the internet, and so on. I’m curious if we could talk a little bit about how Metatron came about, what you were seeking to do with that book, and where you might take its research today?

Yurick: When I wrote that, it was still early on. Computers were not universally around. I had a friend who was a computer expert—he had become an expert in the 1950s—so I was introduced to computers and the idea long before there were PCs or anything like that. I knew, when I saw stuff that would later become the internet—exchanges between scientists who had access to this kind of stuff—I knew I was looking at a different world. I began to see signs that this was going to become a big phenomenon, one of information and the effects of information. And again, this was before anybody had home computers.

Then computers began to come in, bit by bit. We’re talking maybe 1979. What happened then was that I got tied up with an organization trying to promote the use of satellites for global education. By this time, though, having been through the 1960s and 70s, I was telling them that this was just not going to happen. You’re not going to get money for this kind of thing; they’re going to use satellites for any other purpose for the most part, maybe military purposes, maybe propagandistic purposes, certainly for telecommunications.

But I went down to Washington with these people a couple of times, and we sat in on the committee hearings. Then I wrote a piece—an essay—to sort of introduce our organization. I forget when it was—maybe 1979 or 1978—but Jimmy Carter was coming to the UN and, because of the connections of several people in this organization, somebody got my essay to Jimmy Carter’s people. He almost incorporated a piece of it into his speech at the UN!

That didn’t happen, of course, so I decided I would submit it to this little publishing house, and they asked me to expand on it. I did that, and that was Metatron.

So my mind was ranging over all these things. I was trying to think of what the effect was going to be of computers and networks and satellites, trying to anticipate a lot of side effects. There was a lot I didn’t foresee, but there were some things I saw beginning to happen—that then, in fact, did happen maybe ten years later. Things like running factory farm machines by satellite and, now, running drones over Afghanistan from a place in Nevada. Things like that.

Anyway, having been getting more and more involved in many areas, while at the same time trying to find a basis for writing my fiction from new perspectives, became very destabilizing. Because most writers—most people—just stop growing at a certain point. They stop taking in more stuff because it gets in the way of their writing. But the opposite was happening. For instance, with The Warriors, I was able to make an outline chart of how the themes would develop. I could coordinate everything: what happened to the clothing, what happened at a certain time of day, and so forth and so on. Interestingly, the form of the chart I borrowed from a business model called program evaluation. It was a review technique. So I could do this thing and it came easy.

But when I tried to do it with The Bag, it didn’t work. I had such a hard time doing The Bag. The chart began to expand and expand till it was about ten feet long; I had different colors on it; it just didn’t work right. But I was learning so much.

Anyway, at certain points you’ve got to say enough. I forget which writer said this: “You don’t finish the work you abandon.”

BLDGBLOG: The financial aspects of your work are very interesting here, as well.

Yurick: Do you mean the economic?

BLDGBLOG: Well, I mean “financial” more specifically to refer to the system of writings, agreements, valuations, and so forth that constitute the world of international finance—which, if you take a very basic, material view of things, is just people writing. It’s numbers and spreadsheets, stock prices, contracts, and slips of paper, licenses and patents—its own sort of literature. You imply as much, in Metatron, with its titular reference to the archangel of writing.

Yurick: OK, yes. You know, I’ve been saying for years to people that this is coming, this moment [the financial crisis of 2007-2009], and it’s happening now. I read the newspaper and I see it: these people manufacturing money out of their imaginations. Sooner or later the bubble has got to burst, and it’s bursting.

In a certain sense, what’s taken place—what’s taking place now—is a series of mistakes. In other words, you don’t hire the people who caused the problem in the first place to try to rectify it, yet that’s what’s happening. It’s very interesting, I think, to look at this in terms of the criminal elements that we discussed—the gangs—and to see that what they do is done through extortion, prostitution, the selling of illegal things, illegal commodities, and what have you. They accumulate money and they launder it. But this also happens at the very top levels of finance: they imagine money and then they objectify it in terms of mansions and things like that.

When you’re dealing with this kind of stuff, you’re dealing with fiction—and when you’re dealing with fiction, you’re in my realm.

BLDGBLOG: The financial world that’s been created in the last decade or so often just seems like a dream world of overlapping fictions—of Ponzi schemes and collateralized agreements that no one can follow. It’s as is people are just telling each other stories, but the characters are mutual funds, and, rather than words, they’re written in numbers. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it’s as if sufficiently advanced financial transactions have become indistinguishable from magic.

Yurick: A long time ago, I started to write a book in which I invented a planet, and the planet was ultimately nothing but finance. I called it Malaputa. Do you know Jonathan Swift’s work at all? One of the trips Gulliver takes is to an island called Laputa, which really means, in Latin, the whore or the hole. There he encounters nothing but intellectuals building the most astonishing mental structures and doing the stupidest things imaginable. Now, Malaputa would be the evil whore.

So the planet I began to invent was a world that interpenetrates ours and it works by the rules of our world, but it’s not visible. Ultimately, it resides in the financial system in which, as you get to the center of it, its mass and velocity keep on increasing potentially. It’s the movement, ultimately, of symbols.

I realized, at a certain point, that what I was also talking about was, in a sense, The Divine Comedy. The descent into the Inferno, if you remember, is in the form of a cone—the inside of a cone. The ascent to the top of Mount Purgatory is also a cone, but you climb on the outside. Then, to move on to heaven, you have a series of concentric circles, at the center of which is the ultimate paradise, which is where God resides. The circles are spinning, but they’re spinning in an odd way. If you’re at the center of a spinning circle, you’re barely moving around. If you’re on the outside, you’re moving with great velocity.

In this case, Dante tells us that the center of the circle spins with the greatest velocity, and the further out you get away from it, the slower it moves. What does finance have to do with this? The woman who Dante idolized—Beatrice—was a banker’s daughter. You could say his interest in her was partly financial, pursued through these circles and cones of symbols. Anyway, that’s the architecture of The Divine Comedy that I was getting at.

From this point—as all of this was going into the stuff I’m writing now—I began to meditate on the question of surplus labor value. Which, as Marx said, is the unpaid part of what a worker doesn’t get, the part that the owner—the owner of the means of production—expropriates.

BLDGBLOG: The Malaputa idea was for an entire standalone novel, or it’s something that you’re now including in your current work? 

Yurick: It was originally going to be its own book, but I’m going to change that. I’ll incorporate it; I’ll reinvent it. 

I wrote a piece a long time ago for—I forget the name of the magazine. It was on the question of the information revolution, the dimensions of which were not yet clear at that point. I think it was the mid-1980s. I was talking about, even at that point in time, the speed of the transactions, and the infinitesimally small space in which transactions occur—against the space that you have to traverse either by foot or other means, like to the market village or the shopping mall or the warehouse floor.

In other words, I’m saying that finance has a space—it has an architecture. You might want to transfer billions of dollars from one country to another, but both are accounts in one computer space. What you’re doing might have enormous effects on the real world—the world of humans and geography—but what you’ve done is move it a fraction of an inch, at an enormous speed, with an enormous velocity and mass. And that has real effects thousands of miles away.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you see other future developments of these works, or if there’s something new you’re working on at the moment.

Yurick: Yes—I’m working on two things that may intersect. One is a kind of biography that I call Revenge. What I realized, in a certain way—partly because I grew up in the Depression under bad circumstances, and now I see those same circumstances coming back again—I realized at a certain point that my novels Fertig and The Bag were revenge novels. That was a theme that was not clearly in my mind at the time, but that came into my consciousness relatively recently. 

Revenge begins with trying to pick a starting point—to impose a starting point—because wherever you begin, there is no ultimate beginning. Someone did something to someone else, in reaction to something that came before that, and so on and so forth. You start in the middle of things, and choose a starting point. It’s like a lot of the things we say about The Iliad, for instance. They start in the middle of things, in medias res.

There was an essay I wrote for The Nation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which I panned the novel. But what I realized, even at the time I was writing it, was that, in a certain way, the story in that book—the true story it was based on—wasn’t just a random killing. It was a revenge killing. It was about two people who are, in a sense, dispossessed. But the person who got killed—not the family so much, but the farmer himself, Clutter—was no ordinary guy. He was no ordinary farmer, but a well-to-do guy with 3,000 acres and some cattle and maybe an oil-pumping system. He was important. He’d worked in government and he’d worked as a county agent. I won’t go into the history of the county agents and their ultimate role in making agribusiness as we know it today. But he was important enough in 1954 to have been interviewed about a kind of global crisis in agriculture in the magazine section of the New York Times.

This wasn’t the story Truman Capote told. Capote was given an assignment by the New Yorker and he went and he did it. He didn’t know or understand any of this background. He didn’t talk about the role of this guy. Not that this guy was the ultimate villain—this Clutter person—but, the fact is, he had a very key role. If he was important enough to be interviewed in a section on changes in agricultural policy in the New York Times Magazine, that means he’s not just nobody. The fact that he conjoined the outlaws, the killers—the fact that they conjoin, in a sense, with the Clutters—I think is a piece of, you can almost say, Dickensian chance. It’s like how some novelists will start out with two or three random incidents that are not connected at all and then mold them together.

I don’t know if you’ve read The Bridge of San Luis Rey? It’s about six or seven people who are on a bridge that collapses; it falls and they’re killed. What it is is an exercise in what brought these people together: what did they have, or not have, in common? Why this moment and not another moment? That’s what I wanted to develop with this, to go a little into the background of how I came to this line of thinking.

Now, one of the killers: his mother was an Indian [sic] and his father was a cowboy. The other one’s parents were poor farmers. So, here, we have three social groups expressed in these people. In the long struggle between corporate agriculture and the individual farmer, this is what develops: they get pushed off the land, these social groups. In fact, this also connects back to the old story of Joseph, in Egypt. With Joseph in Egypt, yes, he predicts the coming famine—the good times and the coming famine. But, when the famine does come, first he takes the farmer’s money, then he takes their land, and he moves them all into the cities. What you’ve got there is kind of an algorithm for the way agriculture develops: we’re talking Russia, the Soviet Union, China. We’re talking the United States. It looks different in different places, but the structure remains the same. You urbanize the people and you consolidate the land.

Then, of course, with the book I go into my own reactions to all kinds of literature, and I stop to try to rewrite that literature. For instance, suppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war. Troy, as you know, sat on the route into the Black Sea, which means it commanded the whole hinterland where people like the Greeks and the Trojans did trading. The Trojan War was a trade war.

BLDGBLOG: The mergers and acquisitions of the ancient world.

Yurick: So that’s the kind of stuff I’m working on.

In the end, of course, the smaller farmer fought agribusiness tooth and nail, and they lost. We see what agribusiness has done to food itself, creating all kinds of mutational changes in seeds and so forth. Again, I think of the collectivization period in the Soviet Union in which, in order to win, you had to starve the peasants. That’s what the intellectuals of the time wanted, without understanding the practicality of life on the ground, so to speak. It was a catastrophe.

On the other hand, one of the images I had when I was a kid, during the Depression, was: you’d go see a newsreel and you’d see farmers spilling milk and grain on the ground because they couldn’t get their price. People didn’t have enough food, but they were just dumping their milk in the mud. These were smaller farmers—agribusiness hadn’t happened yet. So you’ve got two greed systems going on here.

Anyway, I use all that as the novel’s jumping-off point. In a sense, I’m saying Clutter had it coming to him—or his class had it coming to him.

But I’m in the very early stages. It becomes like a little race between living and doing it, and ultimately dying. I’m not rushing myself, but I’m having fun.

* * *

This interview was recorded in March 2009. Thank you to Sol Yurick for the conversation.

Sky Crane

[Image: View larger].

When I walked out to get breakfast this morning, clouds had obscured all but the topmost workings of the 1 World Trade Center site, visible through our living room window—a strange vision of machines, pulleys, cranes, and gears sort of hovering in the sky, like something out of Archigram by way of Hayao Miyazaki.

(Full photo here).

Lebbeus Woods, 1940-2012

[Image: “Lower Manhattan” (1999) by Lebbeus Woods, discussed extensively here].

Like many people, I was—and remain—devastated to have learned that architect Lebbeus Woods passed away last night, just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 34th Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.

I can’t pretend to have been a confidant of his, let alone a professional colleague, but Lebbeus’s influence over my own interest in architecture is impossible to exaggerate and his kindness and generosity as a friend to me here in New York City was an emotionally and professionally reassuring thing to receive—to a degree that I am perhaps only now fully realizing. I say this, of course, while referring to someone whose New Year’s toast a few years ago to a room full of friends gathered down at his loft near the Financial District—in an otherwise anonymous building whose only remarkable feature, if I remember correctly, was that huge paintings by Lebbeus himself were hanging in the corridors—was that we should all have, as he phrased it, a “difficult New Year.” That is, we should all look forward to, even seek out or purposefully engineer, a new year filled with the kinds of challenges Lebbeus felt, rightly or not, that we deserved to face, fight, and, in all cases, overcome—the genuine and endless difficulty of pursuing our own ideas and commitments, absurd goals no one else might share or even be interested in.

This was the New Year’s wish of a true friend, in the sense of someone who believes in and trusts your capacity to become what you want to be, and someone who will help to engineer the circumstances under which that transformation might most productively occur.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

Lebbeus mentored and taught many, many people, and I am, by every measure, the least qualified of any of them to write about his influence; but learning that Lebbeus has passed away, and under such utterly surreal circumstances, with his own city—literally, the streets all around him—flooding in the darkness as the oceans rose up, compelled me to write something for him, or about him, or because of him, or to him. I have been fortunate enough, or perhaps determined, to live a life where I’ve met several of my heroes in person, and Lebbeus is—he will always be—exactly that, a titanic and strangely omnipresent figure for me whose work set off special effects he himself would be puzzled—even slightly embarrassed—to learn that I’ve attributed to him.

Speaking only for myself, Lebbeus is a canonical figure in the West—and I mean a West not of landed aristocrats, armies, and regal blood-lines but of travelers, heretics, outsiders, peripheral exploratory figures whose missives and maps from the edges of things always chip away at the doomed fortifications of the people who thought the world not only was ownable, but that it was theirs. Lebbeus Woods is the West. William S. Burroughs is the West. Giordano Bruno is the West. Audre Lorde is the West. William Blake is the West. For that matter, Albert Einstein, as Leb would probably agree, having designed an interstellar tomb for the man, is the West. Lebbeus Woods should be on the same sorts of lists as James Joyce or John Cage, a person as culturally relevant as he was scientifically suggestive, seething with ideas applicable to nearly every discipline.

[Images: From War and Architecture by Lebbeus Woods].

In any case, it isn’t just the quality of Lebbeus’s work—the incredible drawings, the elaborate models—or even the engaged intensity of his political writings, on architecture as politics pursued by other means or architecture as war, that will guarantee him a lasting, multi-disciplinary influence for generations to come. There is something much more interesting and fundamental to his work that has always attracted me, and it verges on mythology. It verges on theology, in fact.

Here, if I can be permitted a long aside, it all comes down to ground conditions—to the interruption, even the complete disappearance, of the ground plane, of firm terrestrial reference, of terra firma, of the Earth, of the very planet we think we stand on. Whether presented under the guise of the earthquake or of warfare or even of General Relativity, Lebbeus’s work was constantly erasing the very surfaces we stood on—or, perhaps more accurately, he was always revealing that those dependable footholds we thought we had were never there to begin with. That we inhabit mobile terrain, a universe free of fixed points, devoid of gravity or centrality or even the ability to be trusted.

It is a world that can only be a World—that can only, and however temporarily, be internally coherent and hospitable—insofar as we construct something in it, something physical, linguistic, poetic, symbolic, resonant. Architectural.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Architecture, for Lebbeus, was a kind of counter-balance, a—I’m going to use the word—religious accounting for this lack of center elsewhere, this lack of world. It was a kind of factoring of the zero, to throw out a meaningless phrase: it was the realization that there is nothing on offer for us here, the realization that the instant we trust something it will be shaken loose in great convulsions of seismicity, that cities will fall—to war or to hurricanes—that subways will flood, that entire continents will be unmoored, split in two, terribly and irreversibly, as something maddeningly and wildly, in every possible sense outside of human knowledge, something older and immeasurable, violently shudders and wakes up, leaps again into the foreground and throws us from its back in order to walk on impatiently and destructively without us.

Something ancient and out of view will rapidly come back into focus and destroy all the cameras we use to film it. This is the premise of Lebbeus’s earthquake, Lebbeus’s terrestrial event outside measured comprehensibility, Lebbeus’s state of war.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

Because what I like about Lebbeus’s work is its nearly insane honesty, its straight-ahead declaration that nothing—genuinely and absolutely nothing—is here to welcome us or accept us or say yes to us. That there is no solid or lasting ground to build anything on, let alone anything out there other than ourselves expecting us to build it.

Architecture is thus an act—a delirious and amazing act—of construction for no reason at all in the literal sense that architecture is outside rational calculation. That is, architecture—capital-A architecture, sure—must be seen, in this context, as something more than just supplying housing or emergency shelter; architecture becomes a nearly astronomical gesture, in the sense that architecture literally augments the planetary surface. Architecture increases (or decreases) a planet’s base habitability. It adds something new to—or, rather, it complexifies—the mass and volume of the universe. It even adds time: B is separated from C by nothing, until you add a series of obstacles, lengthening the distance between them. That series of obstacles—that elongated and previously non-existent sequence of space-time—is architecture.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

As Lebbeus himself once wrote, it is through architecture that humans realize new forms of spatial experience that would have been impossible under natural conditions—not in caves, not in forests, not even while out wandering through fog banks or deserts or into the frigid and monotonous vacuity of the Antarctic. Perhaps not even on the Earth. Architecture is a different kind of space altogether, offered, we could say, as a kind of post-terrestrial resistance against unstable ground, against the lack of a trustworthy planet. Against the lack of an inhabitable world.

Architecture, if you will, is a Wile E. Coyote moment where you look down and realize the universe is missing—that you are standing on empty air—so you construct for yourself a structure or space in which you might somehow attempt survival. Architecture is more than buildings. It is a spacesuit. It is a counter-planet—or maybe it is the only planet, always and ever a terraforming of this alien location we call the Earth.

In any case, it’s the disappearance of the ground plane—and the complicated spatial hand-waving we engage in to make that disappearance make sense—that is so interesting to me in Lebbeus’s work. When I say that Lebbeus Woods and James Joyce and William Blake and so on all belong on the same list, I mean it: because architecture is poetry is literature is myth. That is, it is equal to them and it is one of them. It is a way of explaining the human condition—whatever that is—spatially, not through stanzas or through novels or through song.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don’t recommend it—you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything.

Lebbeus will probably be missed for his formal inventiveness: buildings on stilts, massive seawalls, rotatable buildings that look like snowflakes. Deformed coasts anti-seismically jeweled with buildings. Tombs for Einstein falling through space.

[Image: “Einstein Tomb” by Lebbeus Woods].

But this would be to miss the motivating absence at the heart of all those explorations, which is that we don’t yet know what the world is, what the Earth is—whether or not there even is a world or an Earth or a universe at all—and architecture is one of the arts of discovering an answer to this. Or inventing an answer to this, even flat-out fabricating an answer to this, meaning that architecture is more mythology than science. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, everything right with that: it is exactly why architecture will always be more heroic even than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone’s home.

Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.

Lebbeus Woods would have had it no other way, and—as students, writers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, or mere thinkers—neither should we.

Lost Lakes of the Empire State Building

[Image: Sunfish Pond].

Something I’ve meant to post about for awhile—and that isn’t news at all—is the fact that there is a lost lake in the basement of the Empire State Building. Or a pond, more accurately speaking.

After following a series of links leading off from Steve Duncan’s ongoing exploration of New York’s “lost streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs,” I found the fascinating story of Sunfish Pond, a “lovely little body of water” at the corner of what is now 31st Street and Fourth Avenue. “The pond was fed both by springs and by a brook which also carried its overflow down to the East River at Kip’s Bay.”

Interestingly, although the pond proper would miss the foundations of the Empire State Building, its feeder streams nonetheless pose a flood risk to the building: the now-buried waterway “leading from Sunfish Pond still floods the deep basement of the Empire State Building today.”

To a certain extent, this reminds me of a line from the recent book Alphaville: “Heat lightning cackles above the Brooklyn skyline and her message is clear: ‘You may have it paved over, but it’s still a swamp.'” That is, the city can’t escape its hydrology.

But perhaps this makes the Empire State Building as good a place as any for us to test out the possibility of fishing in the basements of Manhattan: break in, air-hammer some holes through the concrete, bust out fishing rods, and spend the night hauling inexplicable marine life out of the deep and gurgling darkness below.

Brooklyn Vent

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, two characters discuss a house that is not what it appears to be. People “walk by” this house in Paris, we read, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

[Image: The door to the underworld; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Two days ago, Nicola Twilley and I went on an early evening expedition over to visit the house at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, with its blacked out windows and its unresponsive front door.

This “house” is actually “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.” It is also a disguised emergency exit for the New York City subway.

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

According to a blog called the Willowtown Association, “the ventilator was a private brownstone dating from 1847. The substation was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn. As reported in the BKLYN magazine article, the building’s ‘cavernous interior once housed a battery of electrical devices that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the IRT.'”

[Image: A view through the front door of 58 Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

It is New York’s more interesting version of 23/24 Leinster Gardens in London. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote last year, “the exit disguised as a brownstone leads to a grimy-lit set of metal stairs that ascend past utility boxes and ventilation shafts into a windowless room with a door. If you opened the door, you would find yourself on a stoop, which is just part of the façade.”

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

You’ll notice on Google Maps that the 4/5 subway line passes directly beneath the house, which brings to mind an old post here on BLDGBLOG in which we looked at the possibility that repurposed subway cars could be used someday as extra, rentable basement space—that is, “temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars,” with the effect that “each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.”

Then, for a substantial fee—as much as $15,000 a month—you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

Perhaps Joralemon Street is where this unlikely business model could be first tried out…

In any case, Nicola and I walked over to see the house for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the disguised-entrance-to-the-underworld is undoubtedly one of the coolest building programs imaginable, and would make an amazing premise for an intensive design studio; but also because the surface vent structures through which underground currents of air are controlled have always fascinated me.

These vents appear throughout New York City, as it happens—although Joralemon, I believe, is the only fake house—serving as surface articulations of the larger buried networks to which they are connected.

[Image: Two views of the tunnel vent on Governors Island; photos by BLDGBLOG].

The Battery Tunnel has a particularly noticeable vent, pictured above, and the Holland Tunnel also vents out near my place of work.

[Image: Holland Tunnel exhaust tower; photo via SkyscraperPage.com].

As historian David Gissen writes in his excellent book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, New York’s ventilation control structures are “strange buildings” that have “collapsed” the difference between architecture and civil engineering:

The Holland Tunnel spanned an enormous 8,500 feet. At each end, engineers designed ten-story ventilation towers that would push air through tunnels above the cars, drawing the vehicle exhaust upward, where it would be blown back through the tops of the towers and over industrial areas of the city. The exhaust towers provided a strange new building type in the city—a looming blank tower that oscillated between a work of engineering and architecture.

As further described in this PDF, for instance, Holland Tunnel has a total of four ventilation structures: “The four ventilation buildings (two in New Jersey and two in New York) house a total of 84 fans, of which 42 are blower units, and 42 are exhaust units. They are capable, at full speed, of completely changing the tunnel air every 90 seconds.”

[Image: The Holland Tunnel Land Ventilation Building, courtesy of Wikipedia].

Several years ago a friend of ours remarked that she didn’t like staying in hotels near Columbus Circle here in New York because that’s the neighborhood, she said, where all the subways vent to—a statement that appears to be nothing more than an urban legend, but that nonetheless sparked off a long-term interest for me in finding where the underground weather systems of New York City are vented to the outside. Imagine an entire city district dedicated to nothing but ventilating the underworld!

[Image: The house on Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

This is a topic I will no doubt return to at some point soon—but, for now, if you want to see a disguised entrance to the 4/5 line, walk down Joralemon Street toward the river and keep your eyes peeled soon after the street turns to cobblestones.

(The house on Joralemon Street first discovered via Curbed).

Impact / Collapse

[Image: A ghostlike “sonographic image” taken from part of Mark Bain’s sound file].

On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, sound artist Mark Bain has released the full audio file of the sound of the Twin Towers collapsing, a melancholic howl terrestrially amplified by the region’s geology. You can listen to it here:

What you’re hearing is the “audification of the seismological data record,” as Bain explains it, “which occurred in the area of New York State, New Jersey, and New England during the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on September eleventh, 2001.”

The data streams were acquired from Columbia University’s Geological survey lab, which run a network of earth monitoring stations in the area; with the closest being 34 km away from the epicenter of the event. A process of data conversion and signal translation was used to make the normally inaudible seismic waveforms both audible and to play back in real-time as the event unfolded. No other processing or effects were added to the tracks. The registration includes four events, two impacts and the two collapses along with the inbetween sounds of the drone of the earth. The heaviest impact of the collapse registered 2.4 on the Richter scale, a signal which traveled throughout the earth.

The piece is not intended as a memorial, Bain adds, but as “a bell-like alarm denoting histories in the making.”

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).