Rooms of algebraic theology

[Image: The supercomputer pictured above is the MareNostrum, “meaning ‘our sea,'” New Scientist writes; “it is housed in a 1920s chapel at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, and built from commercially available parts.” Photo by Simon Norfolk].

“The supercomputers I’m showing here are powerful almost beyond human understanding,” photographer Simon Norfolk explains, describing his extraordinary new images of supercomputers and their architectural settings. “They can map every molecule of the billions on a human DNA string; scrutinise at the atomic level the collision between two pieces of plutonium in an exploding bomb; or sketch the gravitational pull of every star in the galaxy upon every other star in the galaxy. These are not questions that humans could grapple with given plenty of time, a notebook and a sharp pencil.”

Norfolk has also photographed computers used for “mapping and predicting global virus outbreaks” and for “simulating automotive crash tests.”

[Image: “Modeling physics inside an exploding nuclear warhead.” Simon Norfolk].

These computers, Norfolk continues, “are omniscient and omnipresent and these are not qualities in which we find a simulacrum of ourselves – these are qualities that describe the Divine. The problem is not that these computers might one day resemble humans; it is that they already resemble gods.”

[Images: Simon Norfolk. The top image is titled “Mapping the human genome.” The others are the TERA-1 and the TERA-10].

In almost supernaturally sterile rooms, these angelic landscapes of silicon quietly hum their way through introspective worlds of calculation: derivatives, logorithms, advanced topologies. One could, in fact, imagine a whole new series of Duino Elegies, written by a posthumous Rainer Maria Rilke, in terrified praise of these cloistered machines – machines Rilke seems to describe preemptively in his “Seventh Elegy,” where the “annihilator” meets the “Angel.”

Rilke writes that “the external shrinks into less and less”:

Where once an enduring house was,
now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely
belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain.
Our age has built itself vast reservoirs of power,
formless as the straining energy that it wrests from the earth.
Temples are no longer known.

In this context, it seems almost like an act of religious sarcasm that the MareNostrum computer – pictured at the top of this post – has been housed in a chapel. (Of course, a consecrated supercomputer is certainly a stunning intellectual possibility – perhaps setting up the plot of Da Vinci Code 2, wherein future archaeologists discover that the Vatican is not a complex of buildings at all but a fully functioning Jesuit supercomputer).

In any case, because all harddrives are actually geological objects – careful rearrangements of minerals under the influence of artificial magnetic fields – these are mathematical terrains in the most exciting sense: the surface of the earth dreaming of stellar detonations.

[Images: Two close-ups of cerebral machines. Simon Norfolk].

Finally, Giordano Bruno, following Giulio Camillo, wrote extensively about the idea of a Memory Palace, or Memory Theater. As Victoria Nelson tells us, the basic idea was that an “esoterically trained memory was a godlike vessel for encapsulating the entire universe within a single human mind.” This was part of what Nelson calls a Neoplatonic “quasi-religion” that “venerated memory as an organ possessing magical and world-ordering powers.” Neoplatonists believed that “the whole cosmos could be ‘memorized’ in a much more overt imitatio dei and by this act magically incorporated into the human organism” – or, of course, into the air-cooled circuits of a supercomputer.

So if I were forced to take issue with the existence of these machines, it would not be because of their use in modeling new nuclear warheads – as Norfolk makes clear they do – but in something far more secondary, even faintly absurd: what I’d call the lack of a supercomputer poetics, or a more imaginative role for these machines to play in our literary and even religious lives. Oracular, Delphic, radically non-secular: they are either all or none of the above.

(With thanks to Simon Norfolk, who supplied all the images that appear in this post. And don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s later interview with Simon Norfolk, in which he discusses his war photography in much greater detail).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.


The surface of the planet renews itself through geothermal hydrology, sulfuric lakes, new continents of silt –

– as natural acids scour shapes in slow terrains.

These are all photographs by Bernhard Edmaier, whose work can be found on his own website

– and in the beautiful (if unfortunately named) Earthsong.

Meanwhile – though I repeat myself – these bring to mind J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, with its vision of a flooded, neo-tropical Europe, London become a backed-up toilet full of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.”

Huge iguanas laze around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of ridiculous, pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.”

In any case, one could easily imagine Bernhard Edmaier’s photographs here bearing much in common with Ballard’s new alluvial world of fresh earth, architecture reduced to deltas of sand. Old eroded reefs of brickwork. Lagoons of pollution.

Erosion and hydrology, the most powerful urban forces on earth.

Britain of Drains

Here are some absolutely spectacular photographs of sewers, drains and tunnels, taken by urban spelunkers from London, Bristol, Manchester and beyond:

[Images: See this ridiculously great website for loads more photographs – almost every one of which could be uploaded onto BLDGBLOG with open enthusiasm – as well as for relevant bits of info on tunnel locations and all further et ceteras; meanwhile, an upcoming BLDGBLOG entry will pursue more of this, with a London bias, soon].

An entrance to the topological undercity, a parallel world of drains and bricked abstract passages, monolithic concrete feeder chutes re-leading lost rivers through darkness.