Occult Infrastructure and the “Funerary Teleportation Grid” of Greater London

Speaking of cracks in space-time, an urban legend I love is the one about a tomb in Brompton Cemetery, London, allegedly designed by Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi and rumored to be a time machine.

[Image: Via The Clerkenwell Kid].

A sadly now-defunct blog called The Clerkenwell Kid is a great resource for this. There, we read that Bonomi “traded as an archaeological artist but is thought to have been a tomb raider”:

He is also generally considered to have been the designer of the Egyptian styled “Courtoy” tomb in Brompton cemetery which was ostensibly intended to be the final resting place of “three spinsters”. An interesting legend has grown up around this mausoleum because it is the only one in the cemetery for which there is no record of construction. This, together with Bonomi’s obsession with the afterlife (reflected in the hieroglyphs on the tomb), have been held by some to be evidence that it is not a tomb at all but a time machine and that the three spinsters, if they existed at all, were in fact his time travelling sponsors.

The correct question to ask here is not: is this true? Is this tomb really a time machine? The correct question to ask here is: how freaking cool is this?

The Clerkenwell Kid then goes one better, however, claiming that this urban legend is wrong—because it isn’t ambitious enough.

In fact, we’re told, the tomb was actually one of five such chambers, designed and constructed by Bonomi in an occult conspiracy with his colleague, Samuel Alfred Warner.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, courtesy of the British Museum].

“Amongst several other inventions,” the Kid tells us, “Warner claimed to have developed a mysterious missile capable of destroying ships from a distance”:

The Royal Navy were convinced enough by his demonstrations to pay him to develop this new weaponry but proved unable to reproduce his results independently. This was because what Warner had allegedly discovered (with the help of ancient knowledge gained by Bonomi in Egypt) was an occult way of “teleporting” a bomb a short distance—I suppose you could call it a “psychic torpedo.”

Again, the interest for me here is not whether or not people actually were teleporting themselves—let alone submarine torpedoes!—back and forth through time using Egyptological monuments hidden in London cemeteries.

The interest for me, instead, is at least two-fold: one, how awesome a story this is, and how much I want to tell everyone about it, and, two, how urban infrastructure always seems to inspire, catalyze, or emblematically come to represent these sorts of unexpected narrative investments.

We could say it’s the paranoia of infrastructure: the belief that there is always a bigger story we don’t know, or that someone deliberately isn’t telling us, about how our cities came to be the way they are today. We see this in everything from the water-theft politics of Chinatown to the high-speed rail conspiracies of True Detective Season 2, to this teleportation chamber disguised in plain sight in Brompton Cemetery.

The fact that this story has an atmosphere of the occult only makes literal the notion that the real histories of our cities, the true tales of backstage deals, hidden interests, and untold corruption that made them what they are, have been purposefully obscured from us—they have been occulted—by mysterious figures who prefer we don’t know.

It’s as if narrative paranoia is the default note of infrastructural investigation.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Stela fragment of Horiaa,” courtesy of the British Museum].

In any case, The Clerkenwell Kid keeps upping the ante. Remember those five teleportation chambers? Well, there were actually seven!

In dark collaboration, this legend goes, Bonomi and Warner set about constructing “a transportation grid around London” that would “reduce the time taken to travel the large distances of the vast, congested metropolis. To this end they built seven Egyptian teleportation chambers in the most suitable places they could find—in each of the seven new cemeteries that had been built in the capital from 1839.”

The Kid has a great phrase for this, referring to it as “the London funerary teleportation grid.” Surrounding the city like a seven-pointed star, these tombs formed a kind of mortuarial diagram—an urban-scale morbid force-field—that could zap people back and forth through Greenwich space-time.

I’s worth pointing out, however, that the rumors continue, leaking beyond the borders of Old Blighty, to suggest that there is yet another such transportation monument—but it’s over the English Channel, in Paris.

Even within the complicated mythology of these urban legends, this Parisian tomb is an outlier, but it brings with it an interesting plot development. That is, under the cover of developing something like a primitive military radar system that could protect the English Channel from foreign invasion, occult architects and Egyptologists were actually bilking the defense establishment to amass funds and construct this teleportation grid, scattered throughout the war-shadowed cemeteries of western Europe.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the “Coffin of Tpaeus,” courtesy of the British Museum].

Now all we need to do is uncover an undocumented Egyptian tomb somewhere in a rainy Swiss mountain churchyard or in the fog-shrouded hills outside Turin, perhaps designed by a bastard child of Bonomi, and we can help keep this urban legend alive…

Until then, for more information check out these three posts over at The Clerkenwell Kid.

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).

NYNEX, Embedded Angel of New York City

[Image: The original fire house from Ghostbusters, seen here via Google Street View].

Every once in a while it’s rumored that there will be a Ghostsbusters III – the current rumor being that Judd Apatow might produce – and so, today, while walking around the National Gallery of Modern Art here in Rome, in a state of 100º exhaustion, I got to thinking about what would make an interesting plot if BLDGBLOG were somehow hired to write the screenplay.
And this is what I came up with:
It’s 1997. NYNEX is on the verge of being purchased by Bell Atlantic, after which point it will be dissolved in all but name.
But all hell starts breaking loose. Pay phones ring for no reason, and they don’t stop. Dead relatives call their families in the middle of the night. People, horrifically, even call themselves – but it’s the person they used to be, phoning out of the blue, warning them about future misdirection.
Every once in a while, though, something genuinely bad happens: someone answers the phone… and they go a little crazy.
Thing is – spoiler alert – halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel – a fallen angel – and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan.
Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first.
It’s worth recalling, in fact, that NYNEX – at least according to Wikipedia – actually stood for New York/New England, “with the X representing the unknown future (or ‘the uneXpected’).” It’s like Malcolm X’s telephonically inclined, wiry cousin.
So the phone system of Manhattan – all those voices! all those connections! leading one life to another – starts to act up, provoked by its dissolution into Bell Atlantic… and the Ghostbusters are called in to fix it.
Fixing it involves rapid drives from telephone substation to telephone substation, from library to library, all while Dan Ackroyd’s character keeps receiving phone calls about a family crisis… his ex-wife is calling… his dad is calling… they’re urging him to stop this whole, crazy Ghostbusters business… He starts acting funny. The voices on the phone say strange things. They call at strange hours. He feels kinship with public pay phones; they sometimes ring as he walks past. He tries to call his family back – but they’re not answering.
Harold Ramis starts to suspect something.
In the background there are shadowy figures called out to fix transmission lines – but they are actually wiring something up… something big…
The whole movie then leads up to the granddaddy of them all: an electromagnetic confrontation inside the windowless, Brutalist telephone switching tower at 33 Thomas Street (rumored haunt of the ghost of Aleister Crowley).

[Image: 33 Thomas Street, via Wikipedia, “is a telephone exchange or wire center building which contains three major 4ESS switches used for interexchange (long distance) telephony…”].

The opening scene: a pay phone on a sun-splashed street near Washington Square Park. You can see the famous arch in the background.
A man is sitting nearby, outside a deli. He’s got a bagel and a coffee and he’s reading the New York Times.
The phone starts to ring. He looks at it. It rings and rings.
He gets up, finally, and approaches the phone – and he answers it.
It’s his dad.
But he thought his dad was dead.
Ghostbusters III.
The city’s telecommunications system is not some mere collection of copper wires and fiber optics, the film will suggest; it’s actually the subtle anatomy of a barely understood supernatural being, an angel of rare metals embedded in the streets of Manhattan.
Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology.
These metals, Harold Ramis will explain, pushing up his eyeglasses, also correspond to materials used in pre-Christian burial rituals throughout Mesopotamia. Copper coffins. Traces of selenium found in embalming tools. He refers to Tiamat, dragon of multiple heads, and he draws mind-bending parallels between Middle Eastern mythology and the origins of NYNEX. NYNEX/Tiamat. NYNEX/Michael. NYNEX/Metatron.
Certain members of the audience think the whole thing sounds like bullshit. But they like the special effects. And who cares, anyway.
So the movie will involve everyone from Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison to Alexander Graham Bell (he’s the “ultimate sorcerer,” Dan Ackroyd exclaims, laughing along with the rest of us), and it will make reference to the hundreds of architecturally interesting telephone substations scattered throughout the greater New York region.
It’s voodoo meets urban infrastructure by way of Avital Ronell. Architecture students will flock to see it.
Having seen the film, people will long for the days of pay telephones – when, according to the film’s mythology, you were actually using the body of an angel to make local phone calls.
Within the film, then, there are also brief scenes of excavation – a kind of angelic archaeology wherein Bill Murray digs through the plaster of tenement walls in search of ancient trunk lines. But he accidentally breaks into the plumbing.
At one point, he and Ernie Hudson drive north along the Hudson, discussing Christian archangels, afraid to use the car phone, looking for some kind of old anchorage point for the phone system.
They think maybe they can just shut the whole thing off.
They are surrounded by dark trees and the scenography is breath-taking.
Harold Ramis then uncovers a diagram of city streets and the exact locations of NYNEX lines; these line up with other diagrams from some Central European grimoire that he finds down in the basement of the New York Public Library.
They’re getting close, in other words.
And that’s when they discover 33 Thomas Street.
In any case, the film is released in the summer of 2012 and it’s a runaway blockbuster. It’s “a return to American mythmaking,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, and there’s immediate talk of a Ghostbusters IV.
Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.
Ghostbusters III: hire me, and I’ll write it! I don’t think it’d be a bad movie, actually.

Books Received

[Image: Bookstore for Shibuya Publishing, Japan, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura].

Through a combination of publisher review copies and the slow-to-end fire sale at my favorite local bookstore, Stacey’s – they’ve gone out of business and are selling everything at 50% off, including now even the furniture – BLDGBLOG’s home office is awash in books. Since there literally is not enough time left in a person’s life to read all of these, I decided that I would instead start a new, regular series of posts on the blog called “Books Received” – these will be short descriptions of, and links to, interesting books that have crossed my desk.
Note that these lists will include books I have not read in full – but they will never include books that don’t deserve the attention.
Note, as well, that if you yourself have a book you’d like to see on BLDGBLOG, get in touch – send us a copy, and, if it fits the site, we’ll mention your title in a future Books Received.

1) Oase #75 and #76Oase is an excellent architecture and urban studies journal published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute and designed by Karel Martens of Werkplaats Typografie. Oase #75 is the 25th anniversary issue, and includes essays from Jurjen Zeinstra (“Houses of the Future”), René Boomkens (“Modernism, Catastrophe and the Public Realm”), and Frans Sturkenboom (“Come una ola de fuerza y luz: On Borromini’s Naturalism”), among many, many others. To be honest, there is so much interesting material in this issue that it’s hard to know where to start; look for this in specialty architecture bookstores and definitely consider picking up a copy. Meanwhile, Oase #76 arrived just in time for me to quote part of its interview with photographer Bas Princen in The BLDGBLOG Book – but the entire issue, bilingually printed in both English and Dutch and themed around what the editors call “ContextSpecificity,” is worth reading. There’s a whole section on “In-Between Buildings,” itself coming between long looks at context, tradition, and the generation of architectural form. #76 also includes virtuoso displays of how to push the typographic grid. A new favorite.

2) Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World by Trevor Paglen (Dutton) — Trevor Paglen is an “experimental geographer” at UC-Berkeley, well-known – perhaps infamous – for his successful efforts in tracking unmarked CIA rendition flights around the world. Using optical equipment normally associated with astronomy, Paglen has managed to photograph the goings-on of deep desert military bases and has even been able to follow US spy satellites through what he calls “the other night sky.” This book serves more or less as an introduction to Paglen’s work, from Afghanistan to Los Alamos.

3) The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire by Joe Jackson (Penguin) — Jackon’s book, new in paperback, explores the industrial implications of monopoly plantlife, telling the story of Henry Wickham, who “smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England’s most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens.” This led directly to the “great rubber boom of the early twentieth century,” we read – which itself resulted in such surreal sites as Henry Ford’s failed utopian-industrial instant city in the rain forest, Fordlandia. Here, Jackson describes that city, now in ruins and like something from a novel by Patrick McGrath:

The American Villa still stands on the hill. The green and white cottages line the shady lane, but the only residents now are fruit bats and trap-door tarantulas. The state-of-the-art hospital shipped from Michigan is deserted. Broken bottles and patient records litter the floor. A towering machine shop houses a 1940s-era ambulance, now on blocks. A riverside warehouse built to hold huge sheets of processed rubber holds six empty coffins arranged in a circle around the ashes of a small campfire.

Check out Jackson’s website for a bit more.

4) Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz (Harvard University Press) — By choosing the historical experience of Łódź, Poland, during its political assimilation and ethnic ghettoization by the Nazis, Gordon Horwitz shows how a long series of seemingly minor bureaucratic decisions can radically alter the normal urban order of things, paving the way for something as nightmarish as the Final Solution. This latter fact Horwitz memorably describes as “a phenomenon so unexpected and outrageous in design and execution as to exceed the then-understood limits of organized human cruelty.” About Łódź itself, he writes: “Secured by German arms, reshaped by German planning and technical expertise, the city was to be remade inside and out.” Horwitz shows how property confiscation, spatial rezoning, and literal new walls transformed Łódź into a Ghettostadt.

5) Condemned Building by Douglas Darden (Princeton Architectural Press) — The late Douglas Darden’s work seems both underknown and underexposed (perhaps because so little of it can be found online). This book, published in 1993, collects ten speculative projects, including the Museum of Impostors, the Clinic for Sleep Disorders, and the Oxygen House, complete with plans, models, elevations, and historical engravings. Darden’s work is an interesting hybrid of narrative fiction, visual storytelling, and architectural design – and so naturally of great interest to BLDGBLOG. For instance, his “Temple Forgetful” project weds amnesia, flooding, and the mythic origins of Rome. Good stuff.

6) Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till (MIT Press) — Architectural theory written with the rhetorical pitch of a blog, Architecture Depends is a kind of from-the-hip philosophy of “rogue objects,” construction waste, massive landfills, “lo-fi architecture,” and the fate of buildings over long periods of time. As Till states in the book’s preface, “Mess is the law.”

7) Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century by P.W. Singer (Penguin) — An extremely provocative look at the future of war in an age of robot swarms and autonomous weaponry, Singer’s book is nonetheless a bit too casual for its own good (reading that Singer wrote the book because robots are “frakin’ cool” doesn’t help me trust the author’s sense of self-editing). Having said that, there is so much here to discuss and explore further that it’s impossible not to recommend the book – eyepopping micro-histories of individual war machines come together with Singer’s on-the-scene anthropological visits to robotics labs and military testing grounds, by way of Artificially Intelligent snipers, drone “motherships” forming militarized constellations in the sky, and even “mud batteries” and automated undersea warfare. Like Singer’s earlier Corporate Warriors – another book I would quite strongly recommend – the often terrifying implications of Wired for War nag at you long after you’ve stopped reading. For what it’s worth, by the way, this book seems almost perfectly timed for the release of Terminator Salvation.

8) Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press) — This book is awesome, and I hope to draw a much longer post out of it soon. Only slightly marred by an unfortunate subtitle, Welland’s book is disproportionately fascinating, considering its subject matter. On the other hand, “it has been estimated,” he writes, “that on the order of a billion sand grains are born around the world every second” (emphasis his) – so the sheer ubiquity of his referent makes the book worth reading. From the early history of sand studies to the aerial physics of dunes – by way of the United States’ little-known WWII-era Military Geology Unit – the interesting details of this book are inexhaustible.

9) A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster (Oxford University Press) — Donald Worster has written a long biography of John Muir, the naturalist and writer who once famously climbed as high as he could into the canopy of a Californian forest during a lightning storm so that he could see what it was like to experience nature firsthand. At its most basic, Worster’s book explores the natural landscape of the American West as “a source of liberation.”

Going into wild country freed one from the repressive hand of authority. Social deferences faded in wild places. Economic rank ceased to matter so much. Bags of money were not needed for survival – only one’s wits and knowledge. Nature offered a home to the political maverick, the rebellious child, the outlaw or runaway slave, the soldier who refused to fight, and, by the late nineteenth century, the woman who climbed mountains to show her strength and independence.

Worster himself is an environmental historian at the University of Kansas.

10) Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber (Alfred A. Knopf) — I’m strangely excited to read this, actually – and I say “strangely” because I am not otherwise known for my interest in reading about Le Corbusier. But Nicholas Fox Weber’s approximately 765 pages of biographical reflection on Corbu’s life look both narratively satisfying, as a glimpse into the man’s daily ins and outs over eight decades, but also architecturally minded, contextualizing Le Corbusier’s spatial work within his other political (and libidinal) interests. I hope to dive into this one over the summer.

* * *

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

The Visionary State: An Interview with Erik Davis

[Image: Philip K. Dick’s former apartment complex, Fullerton, CA; photo ©Michael Rauner].

In The Visionary State, published last month by Chronicle Books, Erik Davis and Michael Rauner explore the religious landscape of California. The state’s cultural topography, Davis tells us, mirrors the physical terrain, “an overlapping set of diverse ecosystems, hanging, and sometimes quaking, on the literal edge of the West”:

This landscape ranges from pagan forests to ascetic deserts to the shifting shores of a watery void. It includes dizzying heights and terrible lows, and great urban zones of human construction. Even in its city life, California insists that there are more ways than one, with its major urban cultures roughly divided between the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Indeed, Northern and Southern California are considered by some to be so different as to effectively constitute different states. But that is a mistake. California is not two: it is bipolar.

Indeed, the state is animated from below with “titanic forces implied by its geology,” Davis writes, and a “frontier strand of nature mysticism” long ago took conscious root.

[Image: The labyrinth in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland; photo ©Michael Rauner].

Over the course of the book, the authors visit California’s “Buddha towns” and Vedantic ashrams, its National Parks and the properties of discontented theosophists. They try to fathom what strange mutations of 21st-century Christianity could produce Jesus, the “OC Superstar,” in whose name compassionate self-sacrifice and divine generosity have been reduced to a grinning statue rather pleased with itself in a well-watered grove of palm trees. They even stop by California’s hot springs, wineries, observatories, and mind labs – without forgetting the dark side of the state, where Charles Manson, “trippy folk songs,” and a psychedelic obsession with “the Now” all meet.
At one point Davis hilariously describes Anton LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible:

Born Howard Levey in 1930, LaVey was less a freak guru than a Playboy-era steak-and-martini man. He hated hippies and LSD, played Wurlitzer organs in strip clubs, and had no interest in mystically dissolving the ego. Though essentially a con man, LaVey had enough psychological frankness and sleazy charm to attract scores to the black masses he held at his house in the Outer Richmond, a place he had, as the song goes, painted black.

Meanwhile, fans of Blade Runner will be pleased to hear that Davis and Rauner visit the so-called Bradbury Building. There, in Ridley Scott’s film, lived J.F. Sebastian, abandoned by everyone and prematurely old, designing his robotic toys.

[Image: The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles; designed by George Wyman, the interior of the building “shoots upward toward a gabled canopy of glass, a lattice of light suspended over the delicate wrought-iron trusses that float in the clerestory haze.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

Though I found the book philosophically adventurous, strangely good-humored, and particularly well-photographed, I will add that my own sense of the sacred – if I can phrase it as such – felt constantly challenged throughout. In other words, almost every time the authors visited a new site, I found myself immediately engaged in a kind of comparative landscape theology, asking: why is this place sacred?
Why on earth would they go there?
After all, is an archaeological site sacred to the Chumash more sacred than a street sacred to Philip K. Dick – or a quarry sacred to the Center for Land Use Interpretation? Or vice versa? What about a site favored by Erik Davis and Michael Rauner themselves, as they performed literally years of research for the book?
Such questions only lead to more of themselves. If the Mormons, for instance, launched a geostationary satellite over the city of Los Angeles, and they used it to broadcast radio sermons, is that precise location in the sky – a square-meter of rarefied air – to be considered sacred? Or is there a holy tide or blessed current that flows through the coves of Big Sur – whose landscape, a “wild harmony of impermanence and beauty,” Davis writes, so stunned the poet Robinson Jeffers? Does that visionary landscape have a correspondingly sacred hydroscape, some undersea world of the dead discussed a thousand years earlier in tribal myths? Can the weather be sacred – or even a particular storm?
And where does the geography of celebrity fit in…?
How do you differentiate between the sacred and the postmodern – and even outright kitsch?

• • •

I decided the best thing to do was talk to Davis himself – and so I called him. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

[Images: Swami’s in Encinitas; a room in the Star Center, Unarius Academy of Science, El Cajon; and the Temple Room at Goddess Temple, Boulder Creek. Photos ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: What were your criteria for deciding if a location – a building, a landscape, a particular street in Los Angeles – was sacred or visionary? Was your list of sites determined by rigorous historical and anthropological research, or by your own subjective interpretation of the sites?

Erik Davis: It was pretty clear, in an objective sense, where the major points were – the major locations to find. I was looking either for a new religious movement that had some literally visionary quality behind it, or for a novel, visionary development within an older and existing tradition. But there was always a grey area. On that level, I started to go a little bit on intuition – not just picking things that I liked, obviously, but picking things that seemed to complete or expand the story behind the book.

A good example is Luna, the tree that Julia Butterfly Hill sat in. Is it religious, is it spiritual, is it visionary? Even from an anthropological perspective, you’re kind of left wondering about that – but I really felt like there was something powerful in the way the tree came to serve as an update for the story of nature mysticism in California. We actually had to work quite a lot to access Luna – because it’s on private land, and they don’t like people to know where it is – but we did finally get there, and we went to the tree, and we thought, you know: it’s an impressive tree, it’s got these weird braces on it that stabilized it from where somebody tried to chop it down… But around the back side of the tree, there was this hollowed-out, blackened hole – and it was full of little trinkets. People had come, sneaking onto the land, in order to pay homage. There was a Navaho dreamcatcher and a little bodhisattva figure and a teacup and a little glyph of a tree – it was this rag-tag mixture of objects that had transformed the tree into a kind of miniature shrine.

I saw that and I thought: okay, I’m on the right track. [laughs]

[Image: Tire Tree, Salvation Mountain, Slab City; photo ©Michael Rauner. This, of course, is not Luna].

BLDGBLOG: At one point, you visit Gary Snyder’s zendo, and you mention the Beat Generation in several places throughout the book – but what about visiting a few more locations from the Beats’ literary heyday, like the apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl”?

Davis: I tried to keep to things that were as explicitly religious or spiritual as possible – but, you can imagine, we had a long B-list of places we thought we could include. We were constantly asking for more space from the publisher! There are just so many elements that went into it: geography; wanting to keep a balance between urban and rural, north and south, different traditions – Buddhist, Christian, pagan, Native American. There were places that were famous vs. places that weren’t famous – this kind of high/low tension – but there were also things that just came out of the earlier sites. People start telling you stuff.

Like at Watts Towers: one of the guys who worked there was a local, and we started talking about assemblage, and collage, and using different pieces of trash to make art – and he said, Oh, you know, there’s this great place called Self Help Graphics out in East L.A., and I never would’ve found that place if I hadn’t met the guy. So Michael Rauner and I went out there, and it was great.

There were all kinds of synchronicities like that.

[Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Self Help Graphics & Art, East L.A.; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: This is perhaps a question more appropriate for J.G. Ballard than it is for The Visionary State, but were you ever tempted to include things like the site where James Dean was killed? Or the exact route driven by O.J. Simpson as he fled the police? For that matter, what if you’d found out that the whole Los Angeles freeway system had been designed by some rogue Freemason – and so all those knotted flyovers and concretized inner-city access routes are really a huge, psycho-spiritual landscape installation? Something between the Blythe geoglyph and the maze outside Grace Cathedral?

Davis: I would have loved that. [laughter] But, you know, the further you go into these weird mixtures of imagination and space, inevitably that kind of thing comes your way. That’s the thing about psychogeography – because, in a way, what I was doing was a kind of relatively gentle psychogeography of the state.

For instance, one thing I really enjoyed seeing was this witch’s map of California, where she’d laid the 7 chakras down onto different regions of the state – and I really wanted to work that in. But as far as the built, modern, commercial, secular landscape of California goes, if I had come across stuff like that – and I’m sure there’s some of it out there – then of course. That wouldn’t surprise me, for one thing – and it would excite me, for another. As I say, we have a long B-list.

[Image: The Witch House/Spadena House, Beverly Hills; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, where do earthquakes and seismology fit in all this? For some reason, I was expecting the San Andreas Fault to play a much larger role in the book – but you don’t really play that up. Which I actually then preferred.

Davis: You’re right – I didn’t play that too strongly – but it’s definitely there as a kind of psychic twist inside the state. For me, the seismology thing really worked in a more gentle way, and that was by talking about the hot springs. In the hot springs you see how the seismically active underside of California has created an environment where you get natural springs, and those become centers of healing.

When I started out, I thought there were going to be more explicit landscapes to include in the book – like Death Valley, and the San Andreas Fault – but the more we got into it, the more we found there were built structures just screaming out for inclusion. The book ended up shifting subtly toward architecture and the built environment, with the landscape providing the background, as it were, for these more specifically cultural places of spiritual and visionary power.

[Image: Huxley Street, Los Angeles, named after Aldous Huxley. By the end of his life, Davis tells us, Huxley had “concluded that people needed to change on an individual psychological level if civilization was going to avoid the disasters he glimpsed on the horizon: overpopulation, high-tech war, ecological catastrophe, and the sort of narcotized totalitarian propaganda depicted with such lasting power in Brave New World.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

• • •

At the book’s end, Davis reconsiders sunset, an event that resets the westward clock to its cyclic eastern origins; it is, he says, “the holiest moment of the day.” But sunset is too easily mythologized: it resets no clocks, and its cycles are not human but magnetic, thermochemical, turning on an alien timescale that knows nothing of earthly religion.
In the myths that do arise, however, transforming westward motion into something yet more godly and epic, California plays a distinct – and vulnerable – role:

In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”

[Image: Noah Purifoy Sculpture Garden, Joshua Tree; photo ©Michael Rauner].

(Thanks to Erik Davis for his time and enthusiasm, and to Michael Rauner for the fantastic photographs. Meanwhile, Erik will be presenting The Visionary State at a number of locations; here’s his schedule of appearances.