Documentary Holography

[Image: A “detail theft” by ScanLAB Projects].

ScanLAB Projects, a reliably interesting and enthusiastic design-research duo formed by Bartlett graduates Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, explores, in their words, “the potential of large scale terrestrial laser scanning as a tool for design, visualization and fabrication. We use a range of state-of-the-art 3D scanning technologies to capture buildings, objects and spaces.”

As it happens, they mean this quite literally, as they aim to “capture” and then illicitly reproduce, using multi-axis milling machines, architectural details scanned around London. These are what they call “detail thefts… arguably cloning the original architect’s intellectual property.”

[Image: A “detail theft” by ScanLAB Projects].

You can read an earlier write-up of their many projects—from “stealth objects” to scanner-jamming architectural ornament installed on an urban scale—here on BLDGBLOG (as well as in the forthcoming Landscape Futures book).

What I find so consistently interesting in their work, though, is that, over the past few years, they’ve been expanding the representational range of the laser scanner, using it to document highly ephemeral, even ethereal, spatial events.

Whether scanning mist and humidity or traveling north to the Arctic to shoot lasers at pressure ridges and melting ice floes, their work is almost a kind of documentary holography: not a film, not a photograph, not a 3D model, but also not simply a point-cloud, their work operates almost narratively as they capture objects or places in the process of becoming something else, blurred by passing fog or pulled apart by unseen ocean currents. You could write a screenplay for scanners.

[Images: From the “Arctic Climatic Tour 2011” of ScanLAB Projects].

For a more recent project, one that indicates a growing environmental or ecological emphasis in their work, the duo found themselves in the presence of heavy forestry equipment, a haunting and behemoth machine busy uprooting, de-branching, and stacking trees, converting a living forest to mere timber. The satiny black background makes it all that much more dreamlike, as if occurring in secret at 2am.

[Image: Forestry Commission Tree Harvester by ScanLAB Projects; view larger].

Cast in black and white and seeming to gleam in the laser light, the machine is both dinosaur-like and ghostly, implying the total gutting of the forest around it as the orderly bar code of the trees is disrupted by this artificial clearing.

[Image: Scans of a Forestry Commission tree harvester in action, by ScanLAB Projects; view image one, two, three, and four larger!].

In all cases, the images are much more evocative when viewed at a larger size (see captions for direct links), which you can also find on the ScanLAB Projects website.

Finally, if all this interests you, consider signing up for a 10-day workshop with ScanLAB Projects up in Ottawa, Canada, from 5-13 July 2013, focusing on “post-industrial landscapes.” Here’s the course description:

Set within the context of a post-industrial era, we find ourselves venturing through the Canadian wilderness of Gatineau Park, walking in the footsteps of industrial alchemist Thomas “Carbide” Willson. Within this natural blossom lie the ruins of his former empire, the decaying heart of industrialization and manufacturing in a factory that never fully materialized.
The course will explore 3D devices that can scan the unnatural post-industrial landscape in an attempt to fuse the accidental qualities of discovery—such as Willson’s trial and error of calcium carbide—with the mathematical precision of laser-scanned environments. Students will form their own architectural “carbide,” a fusion of scans and digital modeling to generate a landscape that materialies from Willson’s place of decay into a new architectural ground.

More information, including registration, is available here.

San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, from San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995)].

I thought I’d upload the course description for a studio I’ll be teaching this spring—starting next week, in fact—at Columbia University’s GSAPP on the architectural implications of seismic energy and the possibility of a San Andreas Fault National Park in California. The images in this post are just pages from the syllabus.

The overall idea is to look at architecture’s capacity for giving form to—or, in terms of the course description, its capacity to “make legible”—seismic energy as experienced along the San Andreas Fault. As the syllabus explains, we’ll achieve this, first, through the design and modeling of a series of architectural “devices”—not scientific instruments, but interpretive tools—that can interact with, spatially mediate, and/or augment the fault line, making the tectonic forces of the earth visible, audible, or otherwise sensible for a visiting public. From pendulums to prepared pianos, seismographs to shake tables, this invention and exploration of new mechanisms for the fault will fill the course’s opening three weeks.

The larger and more important impetus of the studio, however, is to look at the San Andreas Fault as a possible site for a future National Park, including all that this might entail, from questions of seismic risk and what it means to invite visitors into a place of terrestrial instability to the impossibility of preserving a landscape on the move. What might a San Andreas Fault National Park look like, we will ask, how could such a park best be managed, what architecture and infrastructure—from a visitors’ center to hiking way stations—would be appropriate for such a dynamic site, and, in the end, what does it mean to enshrine seismic movement as part of the historical narrative of the United States, suggesting that a fault line can be worthy of National Park status?

I’m also excited to say that we’ll be working in collaboration with Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto, an online music collective who will be developing projects over the course of the spring that explore the sonic properties of the San Andreas Fault—a kind of soundtrack for the San Andreas. The results of these experiments will be uploaded to Soundcloud.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, from San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995) and an aerial view of the San Andreas Fault, looking south across the Carrizo Plain at approximately +35° 6′ 49.81″, -119° 38′ 40.98″].

Course: Columbia University GSAPP Advanced Studio IV, Spring 2013
Title: San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault
Instructor: Geoff Manaugh

The San Andreas Fault is a roughly 800-mile tectonic feature cutting diagonally across the state of California, from the coastal spit of Cape Mendocino, 200 miles north of San Francisco, to the desert shores of the Salton Sea near the U.S./Mexico border. Described by geologists as a “transform fault,” the San Andreas marks a stark and exposed division between the North American and Pacific Plates. It is a landscape on the move—“one of the least stable parts of the Earth,” in the words of paleontologist Richard Fortey, writing in his excellent book Earth: An Intimate History, and “one of several faults that make up a complex of potential catastrophes.”

Seismologists estimate that, in just one million years’ time, the two opposing sides of the fault will have slid past one another to the extent of physically sealing closed the entrance to San Francisco Bay; at the other end of the state, Los Angeles will have been dragged more than 15 miles north of its present position. But then another million years will pass—and another, and another—violently and unrecognizably distorting Californian geography, with the San Andreas as a permanent, sliding scar.

In some places today, the fault is a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and ridges; in others, it is a broad valley, marked by quiet streams, ponds, and reservoirs; in yet others, it is not visible at all, hidden beneath the rocks and vegetation. In a sense, the San Andreas is not singular and it has no clear identity of its own, taking on the character of what it passes through whilst influencing the ways in which that land is used. The fault cuts through heavily urbanized areas—splitting the San Francisco peninsula in two—as well as through the suburbs. It cleaves through mountains and farms, ranches and rail yards. As the National Park Service reminds us, “Although the very mention of the San Andreas Fault instills concerns about great earthquakes, perhaps less thought is given to the glorious and scenic landscapes the fault has been responsible for creating.”

[Images: (left) A “fault trench” cut along the San Andreas for studying underground seismic strain; photo by Ricardo DeAratanha for the Los Angeles Times. (right) A property fence “offset” nearly eight feet by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; a similar fence is now part of an “Earthquake Trail” interpretive loop “that provides visitors with information on the unique geological forces that shape Point Reyes and Northern California.” “Interpretive displays dot the trail,” according to the blog Weekend Sherpa, “describing the dynamic geology of the area. The highlight is a wooden fence split and moved 20 feet by the great quake of 1906.” Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

This is not a class about seismic engineering, however, nor is it a rigorous look at how architects might stabilize buildings in an earthquake zone. Rather, it is a class about making the seismic energies of the San Andreas Fault legible through architecture. That is, making otherwise imperceptible planetary forces—the tectonic actions of the Earth itself—physically and spatially sensible. Our goal is to make the seismic energy of the fault experientially present in the lives of the public, framing and interpreting its extraordinary geology by means of a new National Park: a San Andreas Fault National Park.

For generations, the fault has inspired equal parts scientific fascination and pop-cultural fear, seen—rightly or not—as the inevitable source of the “Big One,” an impending super-earthquake that will devastate California, flattening San Francisco and felling bridges, houses, and roads throughout greater Los Angeles.

From the 1985 James Bond film, A View to a Kill, in which the San Andreas Fault is weaponized by an eccentric billionaire, to the so-called Parkfield Experiment, “a comprehensive, long-term earthquake research project on the San Andreas fault” run by the U.S. Geological Survey to “capture” an earthquake, the fault pops up in—and has influence on—extremely diverse contexts: literary, poetic, scientific, photographic, and, as we will explore in this studio, architectural.

Indeed, the fault—and the earthquake it promises to unleash—is even psychologically present for the state’s residents in ways that are only vaguely understood. As critic David L. Ulin suggests in his book The Myth of Solid Ground, on the promises and impossibilities of earthquake prediction, the constant threat of potentially fatal seismic activity has become “part of the subterranean mythos of people’s lives” in California, inspiring a near-religious or mystical obsession with “finding order in disorder, of taking the random pandemonium of an earthquake and reconfiguring it to make unexpected sense.”

For this class, each student must make a different kind of unexpected (spatial) sense of the San Andreas Fault by proposing a San Andreas Fault National Park: a speculative complex of land forms, visitors’ centers, exhibition spaces, hiking paths, local transportation infrastructure, and more, critically rethinking what a National Park—both a preserved landscape, no matter how mobile or dynamic it might be, and its related architecture, from campsites to trail signage—is able to achieve.

Important questions here relate back to seismic safety and the limits of the National Park experience. While, as we will see, there is a jigsaw puzzle of literally hundreds of minor faults straining beneath the cities, towns, suburbs, ranches, vineyards, farms, and parks of coastal California—and much of the state’s water infrastructure, in fact, crosses the San Andreas Fault—there are entirely real concerns about inviting visitors into a site of inevitable and possibly massive seismic disturbance.

For instance, what does it mean to frame a dangerously unstable landscape as a place of aesthetic reflection, natural refuge, or outdoor recreation, and what are the risks in doing so? Alternatively, might we discover a whole new type of National Park in our designs, one that is neither reflective nor a refuge—perhaps something more like a San Andreas Fault National Laboratory, a managed landscape of sustained scientific research, not personal recreation? Further, how can a park such as this most clearly and effectively live up to the promise of being National, thus demonstrating that seismic activity has played an influential role in the shared national history of the United States?

Meanwhile, each student’s San Andreas Fault National Park proposal must include a Seismic Interpretive Center: an educational facility within which seismic activity will be studied, demonstrated, explained, or even architecturally performed and replicated. The resulting Seismic Interpretive Center will take as one of its central challenges how to communicate the science, risk, history, and future of seismic activity to both the visiting public and to resident scientists or park rangers.

Finally, the San Andreas Fault National Park must, of course, be located on the fault itself, at a site (or sites) carefully chosen by each student; however, the Seismic Interpretive Center could remain physically distant from the fault, although still within park boundaries, thus reflecting its role as a mediator between visitors and the landscape they are on the verge of entering.

[Images: (left) John Braund, Cartographer for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, March 1939, demonstrates a “new process expected to revolutionize map making… showing all the details of topography in a form true to nature.” His machine chisels topographic details using “a specially-designed electric hammer.” What new mapping devices might be possible for the San Andreas Fault, for a landscape unpredictably on the move? (right top) From Piano Tuning by J. Cree Fischer (1907). (right bottom) Bernard Tschumi, Parc de la Villette, Paris (1989). Can—or how do—we extract a site-logic from the San Andreas Fault itself?].

The first design challenge of the semester, due Monday, February 18, will be a set of architectural instruments for the San Andreas Fault. These “instruments” should be thought of as architectural devices for registering, displaying, amplifying, dampening, resonating in tune with, or otherwise studying seismic energy in the San Andreas Fault zone.

These devices should serve as seismic translators, we might say, or terrestrial interfaces: instructional devices that inhabit the metaphorically rich space between human beings and the volatile surface of the planet they stand on. Importantly, though, students should not expect these mechanisms to function as realistic scientific tools; rather, this initial project should be approached as the design of experimental architectural objects for communicating and/or making sensible the seismic complexities of an unstable landscape, interpreting an Earth always on the verge of violent transformation.

Students should begin working through a series of drawings and desktop models, developing ideas for the devices, follies, and instruments in question; one of these devices or instruments should then be chosen for physical modeling in detail, including accurate functioning of parts. This model should then be photographed for presentation at the midterm review, though the resulting photographs can be embellished and labeled as display boards. Each student must also write a short explanatory text for the instrument (no longer than 150 words).

Finally, all of this material should be saved for later documentation in a black & white pamphlet to be made available at the GSAPP End-of-Year Show.

For precedents and inspiration, we will look at, among other things, the work of Shin Egashira and David Greene, whose 1997 booklet Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland will serve as a kind of project sourcebook; the U.S. Geological Survey’s Parkfield Experiment, in particular the Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF) by artist D.V. Rogers; the “prepared” or “adapted” instruments and other musical inventions of avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Harry Partch; Bernard Tschumi’s fragmented half-buildings and other grid-based follies for the Parc de la Villette in Paris (recast, in our context, as an organizational collision between designed objects and the illogic of the fault they augment); and the speculative machines catalogued by architect C.J. Lim in his book Devices: A Manual of Architectural + Spatial Machines.

[Images: From Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (1997)].

As Lim points out, devices share “a long and complex history with architecture.” He adds that “the machines of Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci,” among others, can be seen as functional compressions of architectural space, connecting large-scale building design to the precise engineering of intricate machinery. Lim’s highly imaginative examples range from Victorian-era phantasmagoria and early perspectival drawing instruments to navigation tools, wearable toolkits, and even sensors for detecting lost rivers in underground London.

[Images: From Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (1997)].

One question for us here will also be in reference to scale: how large does a “device” have to be before it becomes a “building”—or a landscape, or a city—and how can architects work effectively across these extremes of space (from a portable gadget to an inhabitable building to a landscape park to a continent) and extremes of time (from the real-time motion of a mechanism to the imperceptible million-year grind of plate tectonics)?

[Images: D.V. Rogers, Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF), 2008. According to Rogers, PIEQF was “a geologically interactive, seismic machine earthwork temporarily installed in the remote township of Parkfield, Central California, USA. During ninety-one days of intervention, between the 18th [of] August and 16th [of] November 2008, the installation reflected 4000-4500 Californian seismic events. PIEQF interfaced with the US Geological Survey seismic monitoring network and was triggered by near real-time reported earthquake waves from magnitude (M) 0.1 and above… Surrounding the earthquake shake table and buried within the excavation at north, south, east, and west co-ordinate points, an array of vertical motion sensors were installed. These sensors (Geophones) were excited when walked over or jumped upon, causing the shake table to become mechanically active. Visitors to PIEQF engaged interactively with the installation becoming seismic events themselves when interacting with these sensors.”].

Our own devices will be performative, interactive, interpretive, and instrumental. They will amplify, distribute, reproduce, offset, counterbalance, prolong, delay, hasten, measure, survey, direct, deform, induce, or spectacularize even the most imperceptible seismic events.

[Images: Daniel Libeskind, Writing Machine (1980s). As Lebbeus Woods has written, describing Libeskind’s work: “Elaborately constructed and enigmatic in purpose, Libeskind’s machines are striking and sumptuous manifestations of ideas that were, at the time he made them, of obsessive interest to academics, critics, and avant-gardists in architecture and out. Principal among these was the idea that architecture must be read, that is, understood, in the same way as a written text.” In terms of our studio, what would a machine be that could “read,” “write,” or “translate” the San Andreas Fault?].

Again, these “instruments” should not be approached as realistic scientific tools, but rather as poetic, spatial augmentations of the San Andreas Fault. Students are being asked to use the problem-solving techniques of architectural design to imagine hypothetical devices at a variety of scales that will translate this unique site—a fault line between tectonic plates and an elastic zone of origin for millions of years of future terrain deformation—into a new kind of spatial and intellectual experience for those who encounter it.

[Images: Harry Partch, various stringed, percussive, and resonating instruments (1940s/1950s)].

Upon completing these devices, the second, most important, and largest project of the semester, due Wednesday, April 17, will be the San Andreas Fault National Park proposal and its associated Seismic Interpretive Center.

The Seismic Interpretive Center should be an educational facility, equivalent to 30,000 square feet. Here, seismic activity will be studied, demonstrated, interpreted, and otherwise explained to the visiting public and to a seasonal crew of scientist-researchers who use the facility in their work. It might be useful to think of the Seismic Interpretive Center as a direct outgrowth of the instruments developed in the previous project, either by housing or emulating those devices. In other words, the Center could passively display seismic instruments for public use but simultaneously operate as an active, building-scale mechanism for engaging with or tectonically explaining the San Andreas Fault.

In practical terms, the proposed Center should be a fully developed three-dimensional building or landscape project, no matter how speculative or straight-forward its underlying premise might be, whether it is simply a museum of the fault or something more provocative, such as a partially underground public test-facility for generating artificial earthquakes. In all cases—circulation, materials, program, site—students must demonstrate thorough knowledge of their own project in the form of, but not limited to, the appropriate use of plans, sections, elevations, axonometrics, physical models, and 3D diagrams.

[Images: (left) Harry Partch, two instruments, 1940s/1950s. (right) Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Pavilion” (2009), courtesy of the Doug Aitken Workshop].

To help develop ideas for the Seismic Interpretive Center, we will look at such precedents as artist Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Pavilion” in Brazil, where, in the words of The New York Times, Aitken “buried microphones sensitive to vibrations caused by the rotation of the planet,” or the artist’s own house in Venice, California, where, again quoting The New York Times, “geological microphones… amplify not just the groan of tectonic plate movements but also the roar of the tides and the rumble of street traffic. Guests can listen in on this subterranean world without putting an ear to the ground. Speakers installed throughout the house bring its metronomic clicks and extended drones to them whenever Aitken turns up the volume.”

More abstractly, students could perhaps think of the Center as a variation on “Solomon’s House,” a proto-scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian sci-fi novel The New Atlantis. In Solomon’s House, natural philosophers operate vast, artificial landscapes and complex machines—rivaling anything we read about in Dubai or China today—to examine the world in fantastic detail. Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use: “We have… great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors… We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation… We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions… We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made…”

The larger San Andreas Fault National Park proposal within which this Interpretive Center will sit must include all aspects of an existing park in the National Park Service network of managed sites; however, students must push the National Park typology in new directions, taking seriously the prospect of preserving and framing a landscape that moves.

[Images: (left top) AllesWirdGut Architektur, a Roman quarry in St. Margarethen, Austria, converted into public venue, park, and auditorium, 2006-2008. In a private email, responding to the image seen on the left, landscape blogger Alexander Trevi from Pruned suggested that perhaps it would be more interesting for us to think of the San Andreas Fault not in terms of a detached viewer—like the so-called Rückenfiguren (or figures seen from behind) in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich—but, as Trevi suggested, more like dancer Fred Astaire, physically and whimsically engaging in a choreographed state of delight with the Earth’s shifting topography. (left bottom) “Ice Age Deposits of Wisconsin” (1964) and a photo, taken from Flickr, of an Ice Age National Scenic Trail marker (2007). (right top) National Tourist Route Geiranger-Trollstigen, Norway. Architect: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter. Photo: Per Kollstad. (right bottom, left to right, top to bottom, within grid) National Tourist Route Rondane. Architect: Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk. Photo: Vegar Moen. National Tourist Route Geiranger-Trollstigen, Norway. Architect: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter. Photo: Jarle Wæhler. National Tourist Route Aurlandsfjellet. Architect: Todd Saunders / Saunders-Wilhelmsen. Photo: Vegar Moen. National Tourist Route Ryfylke. Architect: Haga Grov / Helge Schjelderup. Photo: Per Kollstad. Courtesy of National Tourist Routes in Norway].

This means students must propose a working combination of such features as trails, lodging, visitors’ centers, educational programming, parking/camping, and other facilities that differentiate National Parks from their less developed counterparts, National Monuments, but with the addition of new types of structures and innovative landscape management techniques that might reveal future opportunities for the U.S. National Park system.

Here, we will look at a variety of precedents, including current plans for a “Manhattan Project National Park” (a National Park that will preserve three geographically diverse sites key to the development of nuclear weapons during World War II); a proposal by photographer Richard Misrach for a “Bravo 20 National Park” (a former U.S. Navy bombing range that would be preserved as a recreational landscape); the High Line here in New York City; an entirely underwater National Park Service “Maritime Heritage Trail” in Biscayne Bay, Florida; the extraordinary, multi-sensory “Taichung Gateway Park” proposal by landscape architects Catherine Mosbach and Philippe Rahm; the “Ice Age National Scenic Trail” in Wisconsin; and, of course, a handful of already existing state parks and recreation areas in California—such as the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve and the 206,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument—that feature hiking trails and other recreational facilities that cross the San Andreas Fault.

The “Ice Age National Scenic Trail” is what we might call a planetary interpretive trail: “More than 12,000 years ago,” we read, “an immense flow of glacial ice sculpted a landscape of remarkable beauty across Wisconsin. As the colossal glacier retreated, it left behind a variety of unique landscape features… The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a thousand-mile footpath—entirely within Wisconsin—that highlights these Ice Age landscape features while providing access to some of the state’s most beautiful natural areas.”

However, no less useful in this context are the “National Tourist Routes” that now criss-cross the geologically rich landscapes of Norway. In essence, these are new scenic routes for automobiles constructed through extraordinary natural landscapes, including coastal fjords and precipitous mountain valleys; however, these routes have also been peppered with signature architectural interventions, including lookout towers, roadside picnic areas, trail infrastructure, geological overlooks, and more.

But how do we define—let alone locate—a park on the scale of a fault line? Landscape architect James Corner suggests that the virtue of a “large park”—which he defines as a park “greater than 500 acres”—is that it “allows for dramatic exposure to the elements, to weather, geology, open horizons, and thick vegetation, all revealed to the ambulant body in alternating sequences of prospect and refuge—distinctive places for overview and survey woven with more intimate spots of retreat and isolation.” He calls such parks “huge experiential reserves”—in terms of the San Andreas, we might say a kind of seismic commons.

Further, thinking about—let alone designing—architecture on this scale requires close attention to what landscape theorist Julia Czerniak calls legibility. “The concept of legibility,” she writes in her edited collection Large Parks, “extends from park design to the design process. In other words, to be realized, parks have to be legible to the people who pay for and use them.” After all, she adds, “in addition to questions of a park’s legibility that stem from recognizing its limits—‘where is the park?’—large park schemes with unconventional configurations provoke other uncertainties—‘how does it look?’ and ‘what can it do?’”

[Images: (left) One of only a few sites where the San Andreas Fault is designated with road signs; photographs by Geoff Manaugh. (right) Satellite view of the San Andreas Fault, rotated 90º (north is to the right)].

Complicating matters even more, we will also examine how National Park infrastructure—from interpretive trails to hotels and viewing platforms—function as immersive projects of landscape representation, even above, and possibly rather than, places of embodied physical experience. In other words, as Richard Grusin reminds us in his book Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks, “just as Yellowstone and Yosemite were created as national parks in accordance with late-nineteenth-century assumptions about landscape and representation, so a national park today (whether scenic or historic) must be created according to present-day assumptions about media, culture, and technology.” Indeed, he adds, “national parks have functioned from their inception as technologies for reproducing nature according to the scientific, cultural, and aesthetic practices of a particular historical moment—the period roughly between the Civil War and the end of the First World War.” How, then, would a 21st-century San Andreas Fault National park both represent and preserve the landscape in question?

To help us sort through these many complex questions, and to ease our transition from thinking and designing at the scale of a device or building to the scale of an entire landscape, we will be joined for one class by GSAPP’s Kate Orff, a landscape architect and co-editor of Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park. Her experience with Gateway will be invaluable for all of us in conceptualizing what a San Andreas Fault National Park might be.

Finally, students must spend the last week of the semester, leading up to our final day of class on Wednesday, April 24, revisiting and refining all of their work produced over the term and, in the process, collecting all of their relevant project documentation. This project documentation will then be collected and published as a small black & white pamphlet, forming a kind of speculative architectural guide to the San Andreas Fault.

In addition to any boards and models necessary for explaining the resulting proposals, this black & white pamphlet will be produced in small quantities for guest critics and other attendees of our final review. It will also be made available to attendees of the GSAPP Year-End Show. Specific requirements—including number of images and length of accompanying descriptive texts—will be discussed during the semester. 

One of the main inspirations for this course is architect Lebbeus Woods, who passed away during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. In order both to honor Woods’s extraordinary influence but also to demonstrate the breadth of ideas and themes available to us as we explore the architectural implications of seismic energy, this syllabus will end with a few examples of Woods’s work that will serve as points of reference throughout the term.

[Images: (left top and bottom) Lebbeus Woods, from Underground Berlin (1988). From deep inside the Earth, Woods writes, “come seismic forces that move the inverted towers and bridges in equally subtle vibrations.” (right) Lebbeus Woods, two seismically “completed” houses from his San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, Quake City (1995)].

In his 1989 book OneFiveFour, Woods describes a city all but defined by the seismic events surging through the Earth below it. It is a city ornamented on nearly every surface by “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change.”

In this city of instruments—this city as instrument—“tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes,” exploring the moving surface of an Earth in flux.

Woods imagines even the towers and bridges acting in geomechanical synchrony, riding out the shocks and resonance from the volatile geology below: “Like musical instruments, they vibrate and shift in diverse frequencies, in resonance with the Earth and also with one another… Indeed, each object—chair, table, cloth, examining apparatus, structure—is an instrument; each material thing connects the inhabitants with events in the world around him and within himself.”

In a closely related project—an unproduced film treatment called Underground Berlin, also documented in the book OneFiveFour—Woods describes the discovery of a fictional network of government seismic labs operating beneath the surface of Berlin, a distributed facility known as the Underground Research Station.

Woods explains as part of this scenario that, deep inside the Station, “many scientists and technicians are working on a project for the government to analyze and harness the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth… a world of seismic wind and electromagnetic flux.” They are pursuing nothing less than “a mastery”—that is, a sustained weaponization—of these “primordial earth forces.”

The film’s protagonist thus descends into the city by way of tunnels and seemingly upside-down buildings—“inverted geomechanical towers,” in his words—inside of which dangerous seismic experiments are already underway.

Elsewhere, describing the origin of his so-called San Francisco Project, partially inspired by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, Woods asked: “What is an architecture that accepts earthquakes, resonating with their matrix of seismic waves—an architecture that needs earthquakes, and is constructed, transformed, or completed by their effects—an architecture that uses earthquakes, converting to a human purpose the energies they release, or the topographical transformations they bring about—an architecture that causes earthquakes, triggering microquakes in order that ‘the big one’ is defused—an architecture that inhabits earthquakes, existing in their space and time?”

[Image: A map in four sections (see below three images) shows the San Andreas Fault stretching from northern to southern California. The San Andreas “is just one of several faults that make up a complex of potential catastrophes,” paleontologist Richard Fortey writes in Earth: An Intimate History. It is “the flagship of a fleet of faults that run close to the western edge of North America… In places, maps of the interweaving faults look more like a braided mesh than the single, deep cut of our imagination.” Here, we see the San Andreas come to an end in Northern California at the so-called Mendocino Triple Junction. Maps courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF); see original paper for higher resolution].

Readings & References

Online (Required Reading)

USGS Earthquake Hazards Program:
earthquake.usgs.gov

The San Andreas Fault System, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1515:
pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1990/1515/pp1515.pdf

The San Andreas Fault:
pubs.usgs.gov/gip/earthq3/contents.html

“San Andreas System and Basin and Range,” from Active Faults of the World by Robert Yeats (Cambridge University Press):
dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139035644.004

Where’s the San Andreas Fault? A Guidebook to Tracing the Fault on Public Lands in the San Francisco Bay Region:
pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2006/16/gip-16.pdf

Of Mud Pots and the End of the San Andreas Fault:
seismo.berkeley.edu/blog/seismoblog.php/2008/11/04/of-mud-pots-and-the-end-of-the-san-andre

U.S. Geological Survey Fault and Volcano Monitoring Instruments:
earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/deformation/data/instruments.php

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Online (Reference Only)

California Integrated Seismic Network and Southern California Seismic Network:
cisn.org | www.scsn.org

California Strong Motion Instrumentation Program:
conservation.ca.gov/cgs/smip/Pages/about.aspx

California Geotour Online Geologic Field Trip:
conservation.ca.gov/cgs/geotour/Pages/Index.aspx

Carrizo Plain National Monument maps and brochures:
blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield/Programs/carrizo/brochures_and_maps.html

Ken Goldberg, Mori and Ballet Mori:
memento.ieor.berkeley.edu | goldberg.berkeley.edu/art/Ballet-Mori

Doug Aitken, Sonic Pavilion:
dougaitkenworkshop.com/work/sonic-pavilion

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Offline (Required Reading)

Smout Allen, Pamphlet Architecture 28: Augmented Landscapes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007)

Ethan Carr, Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service (University of Nebraska Press, 1999) — Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4

Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves, eds., Large Parks (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) — Foreword, Introduction, and Chapter Seven

Shin Egashira & David Greene, Alternative Guide to the Isle of Portland (Architectural Association, 1997)

Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (Vintage, 2004) — Chapter 9: “Fault Lines”

John McPhee, Assembling California (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993)

David L. Ulin, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Penguin, 2004) — “The X-Files,” “A Brief History of Seismology,” and “Earthquake Country” (though entire book is recommended)

Lebbeus Woods, OneFiveFour (Princeton Architectural Press, 1989)

Offline (Reference Only)

Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand, and Kate Orff, eds., Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)

C. J. Lim, Devices: A Manual of Architectural + Spatial Machines (Elsevier/Architectural Press, 2006)

Lebbeus Woods, Radical Reconstruction (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001) — “Radical Reconstruction” (pp. 13-31) and “San Francisco” (p. 133-155)

[Image: Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, from The San Andreas Fault System, U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1515 (PDF)].

Film and Games (Entertainment Value Only!)

A View To A Kill, dir. John Glen (1985)

Fracture, LucasArts (2008)

Music (Required Listening)

Our work this Spring will be paralleled by a series of musical experiments led by Bay Area sound artist Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto, an online music collective. The Disquiet Junto will be developing projects that explore the sonic properties of the San Andreas Fault and uploading the results of these seismic-acoustic experiments to Soundcloud. Students will be required to leave comments on these audio tracks as part of regular homework over the course of the Spring term.

The Disquiet Junto, a satellite operation of disquiet.com, “uses formal restraint as a springboard for creativity. In 2012, the year it launched, the Disquiet Junto produced over 1,600 tracks by over 270 musicians from around the world. Disquiet.com has operated at the intersection of sound, art, and technology since 1996.”

[Image: (left) A Rückenfigur looks at a highway cut through the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale, southern California; photograph by Nicola Twilley. (right) Aerial rendering of the San Andreas Fault, courtesy of NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (2000). If an earthquake presents us with a turbulent condition similar to waves in the ocean or a storm at sea, is the ship a more appropriate structural metaphor than the building—even if it’s an ocean that only exists for sixty seconds? What does orientation mean for the minute-long intensity of an earthquake—the becoming-ocean of land—and how do we learn to navigate a planet that acts like the sea?].

Urban Target Complex National Monument

[Image: Yodaville, via Google Maps].

Yodaville is a fake city in the Arizona desert used for bombing runs by the U.S. Air Force. Writing for Air & Space Magazine back in 2009, Ed Darack wrote that, while tagging along on a training mission, he noticed “a small town in the distance—which, as we got closer, proved to have some pretty big buildings, some of them four stories high.”

As towns go, this one is relatively new, having sprung up in 1999. But nobody lives there. And the buildings are all made of stacked shipping containers. Formally known as Urban Target Complex (R-2301-West), the Marines know it as “Yodaville” (named after the call sign of Major Floyd Usry, who first envisioned the complex).

As one instructor tells Darack, “The urban layout is actually very similar to the terrain in many villages in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Urban Target Complex, or UTC, was soon “lit up with red tracer rounds and bright yellow and white rocket streaks,” till it “looked like it was barely able to keep standing”:

The artillery and mortars started firing, troops advanced toward the target complex, and aircraft of all types—carefully controlled by students on the mountain top—mounted one attack run after another. At one point so much smoke and dust filled the air above the “enemy” that nothing could be seen of the target—just one of the real-world problems the students had to learn to cope with that day.

In a recent article for the Tate, writer Matthew Flintham explores “the idea of landscape as an extension of the military imagination.” Referring specifically to the UK, he adds that what he perceives as a contemporary “lack of artistic engagement with the activities of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is perhaps principally due to the relative segregation of defence personnel, land and airspace from the civil domain.”

Flintham points out—again, referring to the UK—that “today’s MoD has its own vast training estate with numerous barracks and an enormous stock of housing, all of which are detached from public scrutiny. The public are prevented from accessing many areas of the defence estate for two reasons: the extreme danger of live weapons and hazardous activities (and related issues of potential litigation), and the restrictions on privileged, strategic or commercial information in the interests of national security.” This has the effect that these sorts of military landscapes not only fall outside critical scrutiny—and also remain, with very few exceptions, all but invisible to architectural critique—but that their only real role in the public imagination is entirely speculative, often based solely on rumor and verging on conspiracy.

While Flintham thus calls for a more active artistic engagement with military landscapes, exploring what he calls the “military-pastoral complex,” I would echo that with a related suggestion that spaces such as Yodaville belong on the architectural itinerary of today’s design writers, critics, and students.

Given the mitigation of the very obvious problems Flintham himself points out—such as site contamination, unexploded ordnance, and national security leaks—it would be thrilling to see a new kind of “fortifications tour,” one that might bring these sorts of facilities into the public experience.

[Image: Photo by Richard Misrach, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, from Bravo 20].

An interesting possibility for this sort of national refocusing on military landscapes comes from artists Richard and Myriam Misrach. The Misrachs have proposed a “Bravo 20 National Park“—that is, “turning the blasted range into a National Park of bombing,” as the Center for Land Use Interpretation phrases it. “When the Navy’s use of Bravo 20 was up for Congressional review in 1999,” CLUI continues, “Misrach made one more heroic, quixotic, and failed attempt to get his proposal seriously considered. Instead, the Navy has increased its use of Bravo 20, and the four other ranges around Fallon, and has been authorized to expand their terrestrial holdings in the area by over 100,000 acres.”

So what, for instance, might something like a Yodaville National Park, or Urban Target Complex National Monument, look like? How would it be managed, touristed, explored, mapped, and understood? What sorts of trails and interpretive centers might it host? Alternatively, in much the same way that the Unabomber’s cabin is currently on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C., could Yodaville somehow, someday, become part of a distributed collection of sites owned and operated by the Smithsonian, the National Building Museum, or, for that matter, UNESCO, in the latter case with Arizona’s simulated battlegrounds joining Greek temples as world heritage sites?

In any case, bringing spaces of military simulation into the architectural discussion, and reading about Yodaville in, say, Architectural Record instead of—or in addition to—Air & Space Magazine, would help to demystify the many, otherwise off-limits, landscapes produced (and, of course, destroyed) by military activity. Better, this would reveal even the cloudiest of federal lands as spatial projects, nationally important places that—again, given declassification and appropriate environmental remediation—might hold unexpected insights for design practitioners, let alone for critics, the public, and national historians.

(Thanks to Mark Simpkins for the Tate link).

Romecore

[Image: A Greenland ice-core at the Hayden Planetarium; for further reading, visit the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory. Photo by Planet Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Crypta Balbi is a relatively recent, low-profile addition to Rome’s museum compendium. It’s billed variously—and confusingly—as a museum of archaeology, a museum of ancient Rome, and a museum of the Dark Ages. All of these descriptions are, in fact, cumulatively accurate, because the site is actually a city-block-sized core sample of Rome, threaded through with staircases, tunnels, and elevated walkways for visitors.

Crypta Balbi is located in an irregular pentagonal plot in the Campus Martius, an area that, unlike many regions in the ancient city, remained largely inhabited through the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Filippo Coarelli’s authoritative Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, the Campus Martius was originally supposed to be kept free of buildings altogether and “reserved for military and athletic exercises.” However, historian Suetonius describes the city’s gradual encroachment, explaining that: “During his reign Augustus often encouraged the leading men of Rome to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones.”

[Image: A satellite view of the city-block core sample, via Google Maps].

As a successful military general and favored member of Augustus‘s entourage, L. Cornelius Balbus the Younger stepped up to the plate, building a theater and attached crypta—a rectangular porticoed walkway where the theater’s scenery could be stored and around which the public might stroll, protected from the elements. Apparently, the Balbi Theater’s grand opening in 13 BC took place during one of the Tiber’s regular floods—meaning that it was, briefly, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the Theater and Crypta thrived, and they are depicted intact on a chunk of the Severan Forma Urbis, an amazing 60′-x-43′ incised marble map of the city created for public display in 203 AD.

Eventually, Rome’s earthquakes, fires, barbarian raids, and radical population shrinkage (from a million people in 367 AD to just 400,000 less than century later) combined with architectural re-use and the passage of time to take their toll. There isn’t much of the original Crypta left to see—a reconstructed stucco arch, and the massive travertine and tufa walls that now serve as foundations for modern houses in Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via dei Delfini.

[Image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Balbi Theater. For more on the Forma Urbis, visit the seemingly great but non-Mac-friendly Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae project].

However, layered above the Crypta’s original floor plan are traces of this city block’s shifting usage—a condensed narrative of Rome’s destruction, accretion, and evolution. It is this series of transformations and reuses of both the Crypta and the urban space it occupies, rather than the fragmentary ancient ruins, that the museum aims to make visible. Like a series of stills from an impossible time-lapse film, the visitor who descends to the basement or climbs to the third floor can see this awkward cuboid chunk of city ruined, reshaped, reused, and reoriented over two thousand years of urban history.

Equally amazing are the expansive historical detours prompted by even trace elements in the urban core sample. For example, as early as the time of Hadrian, a “monumental” public latrine was inserted into a section of the Crypta. From the quantity of copper coins that fell, and weren’t worth recovering, archaeologists have extrapolated the amount of coinage in circulation in Western Europe during the latrine’s life-span. (Astonishingly, it was only in the 19th century that small change was to be this common again in Western Europe).

[Image: Museum display panel diagramming five distinct road levels wandering across the Crypta’s ruins (apologies for the quick snapshot)].

Two centuries later and a few feet higher, two graves bear witness to a city in ruins between the 5th and 7th centuries, as the prohibition against burial within city walls lapsed, and the dead were buried singly in abandoned buildings or beside roads. Ironically, in a museum that preserves the urban structures of each era equally, during the medieval period the Crypta actually housed one of the city’s largest lime-kilns, where the marble inscriptions, statues, and building blocks of classical Rome were brought to be crushed and melted down into lime (a key ingredient in the cement needed to build the city’s new Christian architecture).

In the 1940s, the convent that had occupied the site for the past four hundred years was demolished for a planned new Mussolini-era construction, which thankfully never materialized. Finally, in the 1980s, the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma authorized the excavation of the abandoned city block; and, in 2002, the northwest corner was opened to the public, even as work continues on the rest of the site.

[Image: An interior view of the Crypta Balbi].

Aside from the execution, which is excellent, the very idea of a museum built into an urban core sample—a stratigraphic investigation of the shifting use of space over time—is incredibly exciting to me. Imagine a similar hollowing-out of urban space in Istanbul, Cairo, or Paris—residents as disoriented as tourists as they clamber through the hidden foundations and forms woven underneath and around their own city.

In New York, this might even be an idea whose time has come: as The New Yorker pointed out in December 2008, the expiration of a residential construction tax-abatement law encouraged builders to dig foundation trenches early, so as to secure better financing, but the subsequent recession has put many of these projects on hold, semi-permanently.

“What will become of the pits?” asks Nick Paumgarten, speculating that they could turn into “half-wild swimming holes, like the granite quarries of New England” or even “urban tar pits, entrapping and preserving in garbage and white brick dust the occasional unlucky passerby.” These are both attractive ideas, but with a little expenditure on zip-lines, elevated walkways, and interpretative signage, visitors could circulate around several millennia of Manhattan’s history, from the collision of the North African and American continental plates to the tangled evolution of New York’s water mains, via retreating glaciers and the housing bubble.

Meanwhile, back in Rome and less than a mile away from the Crypta, engineers have teamed up with the Soprintendenza to sink several new urban cores, this time in the guise of excavating the elevator and escalator shafts for a new subway line.

Angelo Bottini, director of the Soprintendenza, can hardly hide his excitement, telling the Wall Street Journal that, under usual circumstances, “We never get to dig in the center of Rome.” Sadly, it seems as though most of the finds will be documented and then destroyed, due to a shortage of museum space and the already astronomical construction costs (an estimated $375 million for one mile of track in the city center).

But how amazing would it be if the new subway station walkways and escalator shafts could themselves become Crypta Balbi-like museums of buried stratigraphy? Rome would be riddled with urban cores, awestruck tourists ascending and descending through sampled spatial histories across the city. Meanwhile the Sistine Chapel lies miraculously empty…

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Tree Museum, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

The Tree Museum

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Every tree is a living archive, its rings a record of rainfall, temperature, atmosphere, fire, volcanic eruption, and even solar activity. These arboreal archives together reach back in time over centuries, sometimes millennia. We can even map human history through them—and onto them—tracing famines, plagues, and the passing of our own lives.

[Image: A scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, where Novak points to the concentric rings of the redwood trunk and says, “Here I was born… and here I died”].

For artist Katie Holten, trees were thus the natural starting point for an oral history of a city street in the Bronx. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse, a four-mile-long boulevard that connects Manhattan to the parks of the Northern Bronx, Holten has created the Tree Museum: 100 specially-chosen trees between 138th Street and Mosholu Parkway, each of which has a story to tell if you dial the number at its base.

The museum opens today, June 21, with a parade and street fair: for those of us not in New York, a podcast and brochure will be available for download, and you also can view each of the tree locations on Google Maps.

[Image: Trees in the museum each have their own sidewalk marker, which gives their name and extension number].

Only a handful of the one hundred “story-trees” date from the Concourse’s construction, when an avenue of Norwegian maples was planted to shade carriages and pedestrians strolling along the broad boulevard. In an email conversation, Holten explained to BLDGBLOG that most of these original trees were moved to Pelham Bay Park when the B/D subway line was built in the early ’30s. Twelve of the surviving maples are joined in the Tree Museum by representatives of fifty-nine other tree species, from an Amur Corktree in Joyce Kilmer park to a Kentucky Coffeetree just south of Tremont Avenue.

In fact, each tree is carefully identified by its species name, in Spanish, English, and Latin, to draw museum visitors’ attention to their variety. Holten told me that, early on in her community outreach, she realized how important naming the trees would be when a teacher in a local school confessed, incredibly, that it was only after he heard about the Tree Museum idea that “he noticed the next time he was walking that there were different kinds of trees. Before that he’d thought they were just ‘trees’.”

[Image: A section of the Tree Museum map; a much larger version can be seen here].

The trees were chosen for their variety, Holten says, but also for “location, age, and connection to a particular person or story.” Holten acted as matchmaker, pairing trees with former and current Bronx residents, as well as scientists, authors, and activists who have worked in the area. Among the 100 participants are well-known former Bronxites DJ Jazzy Jay and Daniel Libeskind, students at the Bronx Writing Academy, and Jonathan Pywell, Bronx Senior Forester, who helped Holten identify all the trees (not an easy task in mid-winter). Each has used their tree as the starting point for a personal anecdote, snippet of neighborhood history, song, or even a digital sound recording.

Taken together, the tree stories are part shared history, part personal memory, part science lesson—they form what Holten describes as “the whole ecosystem of the street.”

[Image: A computer-generated image of Klaus Lackner’s prototype “synthetic tree,” which would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air; image courtesy of Columbia University].

In her email, Holten went into some detail describing the range of stories you can hear as you dial each tree’s extension, from the sound of a Puerto Rican tree frog (No.73, a Gingko) to a local preservationist describing how he fought to turn an abandoned lot into the park that now surrounds No. 100, a Cottonwood. From her email:

Klaus Lackner (professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy) tells the story of the carbon cycle and his attempt to create a “fake plastic tree,” or air extractor, that would suck the CO2 out of the air and convert it into something we can put in a safe place. Eric Sanderson (a landscape ecologist based at the Bronx Zoo, and author of Mannahatta) needed a really old, native tree to talk about projecting the landscape backwards. I gave him No. 9, a beautiful American Elm outside Cardinal Hayes High School.

At the northern end of the Concourse, at 206th St, there’s a huge chunk of rock between two buildings; it’s like the side of a cliff. I had to give the tree there, No. 95, to Sid Horenstein, a geologist who recently retired from the American Museum of Natural History. He’s able to use the rock outcrop to explain the story of what the Concourse lies above—it was built on a ridge and that’s one of the main reasons the street was constructed here, because it was elevated and offered spectacular views of the countryside all around.

And Tree No. 45, a Little Leaf Linden, has a story told by Patricia Foody, a 95-year-old Bronxite. She remembers her dad bringing her for a walk to the Concourse to visit his brother’s tree in just this location—it was one of the original maples, and many of them had plaques for soldiers who had died in World War I.

Some of the stories come from people who work with the trees directly: Jennifer Greenfeld, director of Street Tree Planting for the Parks and Recreation department, uses No. 66, a Chinese Elm, to provide an overview of street trees throughout New York City and the policy battles they sometimes cause. Barbara Barnes, a landscape architect also with the Parks department, puts her tree in the context of the historic street tree canopy project she’s working on, to replant Joyce Kilmer and Franz Sigel parks as they were originally laid out.

[Image: Eric Sanderson pointing at a map of the Bronx; photo by Katie Holten].

For other participants, the trees function as more of a backdrop for personal history and community activism. Sabrina Cardenales is the real-life model for the character Mercedes in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which documents extreme urban poverty in New York: both Sabrina and Adrian introduce themselves and read a passage from the book as part of the Tree Museum. Meanwhile, Majora Carter, an environmental justice activist and MacArthur fellow from the south Bronx, uses tree No. 6, a honey locust, to tell people: “You don’t have to leave your neighborhood to live in a better one, and trees are an important part of making that happen.”

The variety of voices and stories Holten describes accumulate into a sense that plenty of people really do care about these trees, this street, and the Bronx in general. They also act as a series of nudges to look at the urban landscape in a new light. The result is that the Tree Museum, at least in theory, will recreate some of the optimism of the Grand Concourse’s roots in the City Beautiful movement, while not glossing over the struggles and setbacks faced by the “Champs-Élysées of the Bronx” ever since.

[Image: The Bronx Grand Concourse, looking north from 161st Street; photo by Katie Holten].

As part of the Concourse’s centenary celebrations, the Bronx Museum and New York’s Design Trust For Public Space are running a competition called Intersections: Grand Concourse Beyond 100, to gather new proposals for regenerating the street. Although the call for entries period is now closed, Katie Holten has set up a community forum for the Tree Museum, and clearly hopes the project will prompt action, as well as reflection.

Holten explains her most basic hope, which is that the Museum will encourage people to start using and enjoying their shared public space again:

One hundred years ago the Concourse was built for people to stroll along, under the shade of the trees, but in 2009 it takes quite an effort to get people out for a walk—hopefully we’ll get them strolling! There are a number of individuals who I met because they are interested in trees, or in “green” issues, and we’ve tried to use the momentum of the Tree Museum to help them make differences. For example, Fernando Tirado (tree No. 88) is district manager for Bronx Community Board #7 and he’s been prompted to establish a “Greening the Concourse” project. He’s organizing summer internships for youth in the area: giving them a job and training, and at the same time actually greening the street.

Perhaps more importantly, Holten’s Tree Museum (which she describes as “practically invisible—it’s part of the urban fabric”) demonstrates an intriguing way to re-imagine the landscape: finding ways to make the hidden layers and connections of a street’s story visible (or audible) might ultimately be as, if not more, important than installing a new swing set in the park.

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

Planet Harddrive

[Image: “Conceptual diagram of satellite triangulation,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

I’ve long been fascinated by what I might call the geological nature of harddrives – how certain mineral arrangements of metal and ferromagnetism result in our technological ability to store memories, save information, and leave previous versions of the present behind.

A harddrive would be a geological object as much as a technical one; it is a content-rich, heavily processed re-configuration of the earth’s surface.

[Image: Geometry in the sky. “Diagram showing conceptual photographs of how satellite versus star background would appear from three different locations on the surface of the earth,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

This reminds me of another ongoing fantasy of mine, which is that perhaps someday we won’t actually need harddrives at all: we’ll simply use geology itself.

In other words, what if we could manipulate the earth’s own magnetic field and thus program data into the natural energy curtains of the planet?

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.

This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else’s data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.

I’m reminded of a line from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which we read that beneath all of this, hidden in the surface of the earth, is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

[Image: “An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

In any case, this all came to mind again last night when I saw an article in New Scientist about how 3D holograms might revolutionize data storage. One hologram-encoded DVD, for instance, could hold an incredible 1000GB of information.

So how would these 3D holograms be formed?

“A pair of laser beams is used to write data into discs of light-sensitive plastic, with both aiming at the same spot,” the article explains. “One beam shines continuously, while the other pulses on and off to encode patches that represent digital 0s and 1s.”

The question, then, would be whether or not you could build a geotechnical version of this, some vast and slow-moving machine – manufactured by Komatsu – that moves over exposed faces of bedrock and “encodes” that geological formation with data. You would use it to inscribe information into the planet.

To use a cheap pun, you could store terrabytes of information.

But it’d be like some new form of plowing in which the furrows you produce are not for seeds but for data. An entirely new landscape design process results: a fragment of the earth formatted to store encrypted files.

Data gardens.

They can even be read by satellite.

[Image: The “worldwide satellite triangulation camera station network,” courtesy of NOAA’s Geodesy Collection].

Like something out of H.P. Lovecraft – or the most unhinged imaginations of early European explorers – future humans will look down uneasily at the earth they walk upon, knowing that vast holograms span that rocky darkness, spun like inexplicable cobwebs through the planet.

Beneath a massive stretch of rock in the remotest state-owned corner of Nevada, top secret government holograms await their future decryption.

The planet thus becomes an archive.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Geomagnetic Harddrive).

Library of Dust

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

There’s a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book’s introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below.
I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves.
After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.

[Image: Abandoned rooms of the hospital. From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders.
There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as “the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite,” Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, “and the hospital is concerned that they’re now basically corroding.”

So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that’s made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they’re literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.

In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one.
He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark.
Maisel’s photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It’s expensive, but well worth checking out.
The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

• • •

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”

Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.

Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.

The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.

The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.


[Images: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.

Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.

Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.

Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.

Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.

Dust, in this way, is a library.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.

Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.

Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.

Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?

After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.

It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.

There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.

Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.

That is our final, inhuman release.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.

Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.

Within it was the Library of Dust.


• • •

David Maisel’s Library of Dust is available both through Chronicle Books and through Amazon.com – though you can also buy a signed copy through photo-eye.
Don’t miss my earlier interview with David over at Archinect – and, at some point soon, take a long trip through David’s website.

(Thanks to Joseph Antonetti for his help with the images – and to editor Alan Rapp for instigating this book in the first place).

The Elephants of Rome: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 2)

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and general editor of the Wonders of the World, a new series published by Profile and Harvard University Press.
Part One can be found here.

In this installment we discuss cultural authenticity and the rise of archaeo-tourism; China, the pirating of ancient history, and plaster casts of statuary; A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; the little-understood lost lifestyle patterns of the pyroclastically entombed Pompeii; and the urban military spectacles of imperial Rome.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to ask you about different cultural attitudes toward copying and historical reproduction. There’s an essay by Alexander Stille, for instance, called “The Culture of the Copy and the Disappearance of China’s Past,” where he describes how meticulous copies are often used in China as stand-ins for ancient artifacts – without that substitution being acknowledged. Stille writes that, in China, copying “is a sign of reverence rather than lack of originality.” Do you foresee any sort of interpretive conflict on the horizon between these different cultural notions of authenticity and the past?

Mary Beard: This idea, of the meticulous copy being used as a stand-in for the ancient artifact – and that, somehow, this substitution can be its own historical object – well that’s one we actually find our own past. It’s not just a Chinese thing.

I’ve been thinking recently about the role of the plaster cast, and about collections of plaster casts; and, in a sense, it seems to me that the cult of the plaster cast, in seventeenth to early mid-nineteenth century Europe, had much in common with what Stille’s describing in China. Now – and I mean since the total commitment within modernism to “authenticity” – we regard plaster casts as cheap and perhaps awkward copies of the original. But, certainly, in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, plaster casts were the object that provided people with “real” connection with the classical world. The plaster cast was, in a sense, the fount of classical art and classical knowledge, and people like Goethe were inspired not so much by what we would think of as the authentic marble object, but by looking at plaster casts.

At one point in the Parthenon book – I mention it just very briefly – there was a moment, in the 1930s, when the British Museum had got all of Elgin’s marbles there, but the bits they didn’t have they filled in with plaster casts from Greece. It wasn’t that the casts were actually valued the same, but that viewers could happily see these things, side by side, in order to experience the Parthenon sculptures.

I think it’s actually quite moving sometimes, reading people’s accounts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – because they’re describing plaster casts using a language which we would not now use for copies. They’re not framing it as a copy – they’re framing it as if it was it – or at least as if was sufficiently like the “real thing” to be able to prompt some of the same language and emotions.

[Image: A view of the Elgin Marbles, via the Wik].

BLDGBLOG: That seems to be as much about the desire to encounter the thing itself as to use convenient stand-ins for that thing, when “authenticity” is simply too expensive to afford.

Mary Beard: That’s partly it – but one thing that’s curious is that the modern city of Rome produced and displayed loads of plaster casts until quite recently (and there is still a great collection in the University gallery in Rome). They went in for making plaster casts of sculpture when they’d got the real stuff sitting right there in front of them. “Authenticity” is always a trickier idea than we think it is – which is, I guess, one of the things that “post-modernism” has been about telling us.

BLDGBLOG: Do you see educational value in things like merchandising, then? Do souvenirs obscure the past or give people access to it?

Mary Beard: I tend to be pretty laid back about it. I mean, I can do the argument about commodification if you like. I can say: goodness me, what you are doing? You’re re-presenting a tawdry cheap object, to make a vast amount of profit, and it’ll be bought by somebody else in the belief that, somehow, they have just bought into cultural property. I can do the gloomy side of it.

But I think it also goes back, more positively, to the idea that these objects are sort of shared. How do you share a monument? One of the main ways that you share a monument is by replicating it and letting people own the replica. It’s a way that people can feel they have a relationship to the original. That’s been going on since antiquity itself. One of the things that’s quite extraordinary is the number of relatively small-scale replicas there are of the cult statue of Athena from the Parthenon – hundreds of them.

Of course, in some ways, you say, tourists are being palmed off with plastic souvenirs instead of with knowledge – and, of course, some of these things, the middle class cultural critics can say, are horrible and cheap, and people think they’re buying culture when, in fact, they’re buying a nasty little replica. Obviously there’s an ambivalence there, but it never seems to me to be wholly bad.

You know, you have your photograph taken at the Colosseum next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator. Is that a terrible bit of exploitation because you’ve just paid a ridiculous amount of money? Well, that’s exactly what it is in one way – but it’s also a way of writing yourself into the history of that site, and saying “I was there.”

[Images: Tourists having their picture taken “next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator.” Photo by Robin Cormack].

BLDGBLOG: For a lot of people, there’s also a sense of irony there – in the idea that you’d get your picture taken next to a gladiator. It’s like a joke: look at me, wearing shorts, standing next to an Italian guy dressed like a gladiator.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think one’s capacity for self-ironization is necessarily incompatible with the idea of ownership. When I buy my ouzo bottle shaped like the Parthenon, it’s another way to the same end.

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

[Images: The streets of Pompeii, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: This changes the subject a bit, but I understand you’re also writing a new book about Pompeii. Is that for the Wonders for the World?

Mary Beard: I am writing a Pompeii book, and it’s for Profile and Harvard, like the Wonders. However, it’s not in the series because it’s going to be rather longer than that – and there’s a practical consideration here. If you’re going to tell your authors not to do more than 50,000 words, then you can’t have the series editor deciding she wants to do 100,000 words!

I suppose I’m trying to do some quite specific things. I’ve worked on and off on Pompeii for 20 or 30 years, and it struck me that, apart from the study of volcanology (where everybody will talk till the cows come home about “pyroclastic flows” and all that), by and large there’s an increasing gap between what academic studies of Pompeii are doing and the kind of stuff that popular books on Pompeii feed people. I wanted to see if I could close a bit of that gap between what people normally get given, if they’re not specialists, and some of the ways of thinking about the city that are current within academic debate.

I think that one of the problems about going to Pompeii, once you’ve done your first wander round it – and, even now, it’s gob-smacking to go to the ancient town – there’s a question of: what do people look at? And how do they look at it?

I think, as we were saying before, tourists are pretty canny – but their canniness and sharpness is often crushed by the sense that there is a particular set of questions that are somehow the right questions to ask. I suppose I want to help people see that their puzzlement about how this town worked – their puzzlement about the city – is legitimate. You know, they should go on asking those kinds of questions.

There is a huge distance between us and what went on in this town (whatever that was); yet, on the other hand, there is a dialogue that you can have with it. It’s a dialogue which is, in part, mediated by novels and films and so on – Last Days of Pompeii and the like. And that is something we have to work through, not against. It’s that way of thinking I’m interested in exploring.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve written on your blog about Pompeii’s ancient traffic patterns, and about some more mundane questions, such as how Pompeii actually functioned.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right – you know: where did people go to the loo? Why is there so little “stuff” there? Why was so little found in Pompeii? Well, that really is interesting – and that is what archaeologists are sometimes honest enough to worry about. Where do these stairs actually go? Did anything happen up there? How many people lived here?

So you want to say to tourists: your questions aren’t foolish. We don’t know what the upstairs was like. Estimates of the population of Pompeii vary by thousands, according to whether you think all the slaves lived up there, squashed together in dorms, or whether there were some elegantly spacious master bedrooms, or whether it was mostly storeroom. We really don’t know. We don’t even know how Pompeii related to the sea!

But I think there is a very difficult trade-off here. In the end it’s a terrible downer for people always to say, “We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.” You’ve got to tell them something that we do know!

I suppose I want to write a book that doesn’t fob people off with simplifying stories that I know not to be true. I think that’s the nasty power relationship between popular books on the ancient world and their readers: an author, who knows how complicated it is, tells the ignorant reading public a simplified story that he or she doesn’t really believe. That then makes writing – and disseminating what you know about the ancient world – an act of bad faith. So you want it to be good faith – without saying: the conclusion of this book is that we know nothing.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] That reminds me of Robert Irwin’s book, where he begins with two full pages’ worth of incorrect “facts” about the Alhambra.

Mary Beard: Yes. Jolly good.

[Images: A Triumph through the streets of Rome following the sack of Jerusalem. For more on Roman Triumphs, don’t miss Mary Beard’s forthcoming book; for more on the sack of Jerusalem, grab a copy of Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?

Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.

What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it’s still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste…?

This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.

One of the things I’m wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There’s one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?

Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who’s the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it’s the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein’s execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?

Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.

So that’s what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.

[Images: A poster for 300 and scenes from 300 and Gladiator].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, could you talk a bit about the present state of pop cultural knowledge about the Classical world, from the film 300 and David Beckham’s new tattoo to cable television documentaries? In the most general sense, are these things useful for teaching the Classics?

Mary Beard: I’m very keen on it, of course. I have to be. Partly, you know, if you’re a classicist teaching Classics at a British university, self-interest is a factor here. All these things, from Gladiator on, have been a tremendous recruiting ground, and so we go around talking about whether Gladiator’s true or not, and 300, and all the rest – and encouraging people to get interested in “real” Classics that way (there, I’m talking about authenticity!).

More generally, though, one of the things that these movies and so on remind us is that classical culture simply isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s often made out to be. Certainly in the UK – and, I expect, it’s largely the same in the U.S. – the study of Classics, as an academic discipline, is thought to be the upper echelons of privilege and elitism. To some extent that’s true – and to some extent it’s unfair. What that view overlooks is the fact that there has been enormous amounts of mass engagement with ancient culture from the end of the 19th century onwards. Books like The Last Days of Pompeii, or Ben-Hur, sold fantastic quantities. They were absolute bestsellers, in the way that Gladiator is a bestselling movie.

What’s interesting though is that every generation has always claimed that it was the first to rediscover the Romans for themselves, and for mass culture. You can see that very clearly with the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It was a fantastic success, but it sold itself in very similar terms to Gladiator – that here, for the first time, the wee masses were going to see Rome as it really was.

So what interests me, beyond the hope that this brings other people into Classics, is the idea that Classics is a subject which is actually quite democratic. It isn’t only this kind of toff, upper-class subject it’s often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it – but, each time it comes around, we claim that now, for the first time, we’ve got privileged knowledge which we’re going to share with you all over again. In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels, and thousands of cartoon strips about the Romans. They never go away – but we always think that it’s us that got them first.

In the UK, when kids discover Asterix the Gaul – a wonderful cartoon series about plucky little Gauls fighting the Romans – each 10-year old finds it anew, and rediscovers the Romans for themselves. Which is just how it should be.

[Image: The Colosseum, photographed by Robin Cormack].

• • •

I owe a huge thank you to Mary Beard for taking the time to have this conversation, and for following up with images and with edits to the transcript.
For more Mary Beard, meanwhile, don’t miss her blog, A Don’s Life; her essays at the London Review of Books; or The Roman Triumph, due out this Autumn.
Finally, titles in the Wonders of the World series now include:

The Parthenon by Mary Beard
The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere
The Temple of Jerusalem by Simon Goldhill
Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns
The Alhambra by Robert Irwin
The Rosetta Stone by John Ray
St. Peter’s by Keith Miller
St. Pancras Station by Simon Bradley
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

Collect them all—and don’t miss Part One of this interview while you’re doing so.

The Wonders of the World: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 1)

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, where she is a fellow of Newnham College. She also writes a blog for the Times, called A Don’s Life, and she is the editor of an excellent new series of books, The Wonders of the World.

The latter is “a small series of books that will focus on some of the world’s most famous sites or monuments.” It is published by Profile in the UK, and by Harvard University Press in North America.

A few notable titles in that series include Mary Beard’s own book about The Parthenon; her collaboration with Keith Hopkins for The Colosseum; Cathy Gere’s extraordinary look at The Tomb of Agamemnon (previously discussed on BLDGBLOG here); and many others, including books about Westminster Abbey, The Temple of Jerusalem, and The Alhambra, with other titles ranging from the birth of Egyptology to the history of British railways and the First World War.

Meanwhile, Beard has another, highly anticipated book forthcoming from Harvard University Press: The Roman Triumph. Among other such questions, that book will ask: “what are the implications of the Roman triumph, as a celebration of imperialism and military might, for questions about military power and ‘victory’ in our own day?”

In the following two-part interview, Mary Beard talks to BLDGBLOG about the Wonders of the World series, including how and why the particular buildings and monuments have been chosen. We discuss the politics of archaeology and the often misguided reappropriation of the past; whether or not sites of historical horror can be transformed into places of both wonder and critical reflection; why we still know so little about the ruined city of Pompeii; how museums, guidebooks, and films, from Gladiator to 300, represent the Classical past; and even ancient Roman analogues for the death of Saddam Hussein.

Part Two can be found here.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with, what are the basic editorial intentions behind the Wonders of the World series? For instance, who are the books for?

Mary Beard: You sometimes wonder whether you reinvent your editorial intentions as you go along! But I suppose there are three intentions. The first is that I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary. I think it’s about using a single object – a single monument, a single wonder – as a kind of window onto not just culture and history but also the controversies of culture and history. That’s number one.

Number two – and these are not meant to be hierarchical – is quite a simple one, and it’s to show that bricks and mortar, or concrete and marble, are always more than that. A great building is always more than the sum of its parts: it’s about mythology; it’s about argument; it’s about cultural re-use and re-presentation.

And I think the third intention is that you want to help people to enjoy looking at monuments, and at the complexity of monuments – and to see that the complexity and the arguments are what’s fun about this. Sometimes, when people write for what they think of as a popular market, they think that they should make it simple, whereas I think that what you should be doing is helping people to enjoy how complicated it all really is.

Of course, some of these buildings work better for one of those functions rather than others – but that’s the overall theme.

BLDGBLOG: When it comes to choosing an author to produce these books, do you go after people whose scholarly work you already admire – or do the authors come looking for you, pitching you ideas for a new monument or Wonder?

Mary Beard: Increasingly, as people know the series, they’re starting to come forward and say, “I’ve got a great idea.”

I think the key to it, though, is: one, they can’t be dull. I call it “academics with attitude” – they’ve got to have some sense of chutzpah about them. But I don’t think attitude is enough; I think the key is the kind of marriage you make between the writer and the monument – how you can make it work by getting the pairing right. That is, I think, quite difficult.

One of the best examples I can think of is that we’ve been looking for someone – and may possibly now have found somebody – to do the Tower of London. Years ago I went out for lunch with Simon Bradley, an architectural historian, to talk about the Tower and whether he’d like to do it. He looked like a good prospect. So we were having lunch, but as we talked on and on about it, I got the sense that both of us were becoming just a bit bored with the blasted Tower of London. After a good drink or two, I finally said: “Look, Simon – forget the Tower. If you could have any building in the world, what building would you really, really like to write about?” And he instantly said: St. Pancras Station. Then it all came out: he was an architectural historian of the Gothic Revival by training, and he’d been a train enthusiast when he was a kid, and, suddenly, you saw: God – there was a building just waiting for the bloke. And, actually, it’s turned out to be an absolutely wonderful book.

It’s that kind of slightly unlikely marriage that makes them work best – it’s about being a kind of dating agency.

But there was something back in question one which we didn’t do – which is who the books are for. And we’re wanting to have as many readers as possible. Those might be specialists, or teachers, or high school students, or the man on the bus; but I think there is always a central nugget of people in the middle that I’ve got in mind when I’m commissioning a book, and I call them the intelligent ignorant.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] I suppose I’m in that category.

Mary Beard: And I’m quite good at being the clever ignorant, too!

This goes back to what I said: people write popular books wanting to make things simple. I’m imagining that somebody who comes to this series may be ignorant, in the sense that they know nothing about the building they’re about to read about, beyond its name, or a very few facts – so they are, technically, ignorant. But I’m also assuming that they’re intelligent. What they do not want is to be shortchanged by oversimplification – and they do not want to be talked down to. They’re not going to take crap.

So lots of specialists will pick up these books, in the way that they always do, but my target audience is the intelligent ignorant.

[Image: The interior iron arches of London’s St. Pancras Station, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: How much thought goes into choosing the actual sites?

Mary Beard: Quite a lot. This started off by me wanting to write about the Parthenon, and wanting to write about it for all the reasons that I’ve glossed as the editorial objectives of the series. But then it grew – and we saw that there was mileage in the idea.

BLDGBLOG: I can think of a dozen or so places that would make fantastic books – the catacombs of Paris, the Maginot Line, Hoover Dam, Cape Canaveral, and so on – maybe even the International Space Station – but perhaps those don’t really fit the editorial mission of the series. Do sites like those have any interest for you?

Mary Beard: Again, we want to range from the absolutely bog-standard, normative greatest hits that would be on anybody’s idea of a Wonder of the World, while, at the same time, we want to increase the range of those Wonders. There’s a trade off there, between not wanting to be boringly predictable, and, on the other hand, not wanting to be maverickly odd.

One of things I want to do is to take some of the greatest hits, like St. Peter’s and Stonehenge, and show people how interesting and complicated and different they are – different from what those people might have imagined. But I also want to take things that people might never have thought of putting in the category of a Wonder.

BLDGBLOG: Like St. Pancras?

Mary Beard: I think St. Pancras in England is an absolutely extraordinary building, and, behind it, the rail sheds are incredible – in the engineering and in the architecture. It’s absolutely marvelous. So I’m very pleased to do that.

Similarly, with something like Gavin Stamp’s The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: what happens if you take something that people would say, “Oh, a war memorial” – and you say, no: think of it in a different way. Think about this as a Wonder of the World. And then you think about that monument differently.

But I don’t know how far you can go down that line of being subversive. In some ways, we’re always teetering on the margins of where we might go next. One of the things that I’ve often said is: I wonder what happens if you do Auschwitz? Can you do sites of horror? Can you turn wonder around in that way?

It would be hard to know how to do that in the series in a way that isn’t mawkish or that, in some way, makes the monument tawdry. It’s hard to know.

[Image: Tourists visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau; photo via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting, actually, because there was a short article in New Scientist a few months ago about the rise of so-called dark tourism – where people visit sites like Auschwitz and the Cambodian Killing Fields. So there is a connection between wonder and horror.

Mary Beard: There was a book – which was not in the series, but which was published by Profile – by William St. Clair, about Cape Coast Castle, a British slave-trading castle on the west coast of Africa. That turned out to be extremely interesting. It expanded from being a Wonder partly because he found an enormously rich set of unexploited documentation.

But we did talk quite a lot about whether the slave trade could produce wonder – if the slave trade could produce a Wonder of the World – and what that would mean.

BLDGBLOG: Most of the books now focus on sites around the Mediterranean – with some exceptions, but those exceptions are all European. Do you see the series going on to include non-European sites like Macchu Picchu or the Taj Mahal?

Mary Beard: Well, it is a bit European. In fact, one of the things about our list at the moment, and this is something that I really want to do something about, is that the Americas are striking by their absence. That’s something that’s on my mind. We have got the Forbidden City coming up, and the Taj Mahal, too – but there’s a striking lacuna where America, North or South, is concerned, and that’s something I want to think hard about.

I’m also interested in natural wonders: the Grand Canyon is only made a natural wonder by cultural re-appropriation. Without that, it’s just a canyon. So why not the Grand Canyon? Similarly, too, the Alps were any old mountains – till they became Mountains. And the Lake District was just boggy hills till the blasted poets got at them.

I think the boundaries of the Wonders of the World series are interesting – but, in the end, if all you did was invest in the margins, without re-looking – and I think it is a radical re-looking – at some of the things which seem more familiar, it would be a bit of a waste.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, doing a book about Cape Canaveral would be a little too avant-garde.

Mary Beard: I would go with a monument of space technology, actually, because I think you’d read it differently within the series. It’s just that I wouldn’t have too many volumes on Cape Canaveral and other things like that. It’s a question of productive balance.

In the long term, I hope that the books will rub off on one another: you’ll read Westminster Abbey differently because you’ve read it after you’ve read about Cape Canaveral – and vice versa. If people like the series, and if they trust it, if they feel that there’s a guarantee of a decent read, then they’ll be encouraged to read things that they wouldn’t otherwise have read. I hope that’s what happens.

BLDGBLOG: I thought Cathy Gere’s book, The Tomb of Agamemnon, was incredible – in large part because it demonstrates how easily archaeology can become politicized. From your own experience, how easy is it for archaeological research, or just basic historical research, to become politicized – for the past to be deliberately reinterpreted in a way that benefits certain political narratives in the present?

Mary Beard: That was one case where, even though I know a bit about prehistoric Greece, and I’ve done stuff on Schliemann, I fell into the category of the intelligent ignorant. I had really very little clue quite how loaded the tomb of Agamemnon became. It was extraordinary.

It does seem to me that all these books do, in a sense, is say: look, these buildings matter. They’re not just bricks and mortar. They’ve been fought about. People want to own them, to make them theirs – because they know that they’re important. Quite how that happens I think is always an important story. It’s a way to find out more about political culture by a back door.

In some ways, one learns a lot about the Nazification of Western Europe by thinking about Mycenae. But there’s also a sense of ownership going on here, in a more general sense – and, certainly, the Getty is a good place to sense that. There is an interesting problematization at the moment about cultural ownership, which is: do we think culture is moveable and global and shared? Or do we think that culture is national, and it belongs to the soil on which it was created? Should culture be owned by the people whose ancestors created it?

I saw a statement quite recently – I don’t know if he was correctly quoted – by the Greek minister of culture, saying that, in his ideal world, everything produced in Greece would be in Greece. At that point you think: right, this is not about the restitution of things that have been illegally bought or smuggled or whatever; this is about a particular version of archaeological nationalism. At that point I start to feel very uneasy – and I would hope that these books help people to see that a narrowly vulgar archaeological nationalism is a very problematic idea.

I was in the Met relatively recently, and I was walking through those rooms that have been reconstructed from British country houses, and I thought: do I feel pleased that these rooms are here? Or do I feel like what have you got your hands on these for? Which do I feel? Obviously, to some extent, you feel both – but on balance I feel more pleased than cross, because the idea that bits of my culture can be found globally, that I can go into a museum in New York and see something from Gloucestershire, actually pleases me as much as it makes me anxious.

I did also go to the Mellon Center for British Art, in New Haven, a few weeks ago – a marvelous collection of British art. It made me say: here I am, a very well-educated, cultural middle-class Brit, and this collection of British art in New Haven, displayed in a way that I’d never seen British art displayed before, has made me think differently about my own culture, in a way that would have been impossible had these been in the UK.

So, leaving aside the fraught issues of criminality or theft, which is one thing, the idea is whether we can think of these things as bits of shared cultural property. I mean, what happens when a building becomes a Wonder of the World? One of the interesting consequences, I think, is a series of tough questions. In what sense do we own these things? In what sense can these things really be shared? Do we feel pleased that there’s a bit of the Parthenon in the Louvre – or do we think it should go back?

I increasingly come down on the side of feeling pleased – although ambivalent.

BLDGBLOG: I think a lot of this, though, comes down to the specific historical relationship between the countries involved. The U.S. having British artifacts in a museum means one thing, whereas, say –

Mary Beard: Having the Benin bronzes means quite another.

BLDGBLOG: Exactly. It has a different set of political implications. But that’s also why it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between archaeology as a science, and archaeology as a political pursuit – politics, or even empire, pursued by other means.

Mary Beard: Yes – I think there’s always a trade-off, and it’s always murky. Different sides will tell you different stories and give you different interpretations of exactly the same series of events.

I think you can see that very clearly with Mussolini. It is one of the clearest cases: you could say that Mussolini was re-excavating Ancient Rome in order to make a political statement about his own genealogy. He wasn’t saying: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the Mausoleum of Augustus looks like?” He was trying to excavate the monumental center of ancient Rome as a legitimation of his own regime.

It’s clear that’s why the money went in. It’s not half so clear that the individual archaeologists, in receipt of that money, were on message in quite the way that they appear to have been.

Some time ago I got a group of my colleagues in Cambridge together. All of them were eighty and over, and all of them had been in Italy when the big Mussolini excavations were going on. One of them was an ex-member of the Communist party; others were highly unpoliticised. I got a group of students, interested in finding out about this, to ask the group questions about what being in Rome in the 1930s was all about. I expected at least the highly political ones would give me, possibly an anachronistic reading, but a very political reading about distaste for the appropriation of archaeology for political ends. I couldn’t have been more surprised – because every single one of them said, “It was amazing. It was marvelous. So much stuff was being discovered.” I thought gosh, you know, the reading of this is actually extremely complicated in terms of how the politics worked – and how our view of it changes over time. I mean, it’s easier to spot political motives a generation or two after the event.

Another thing: one of the most famous excavations in Pompeii was the excavation of the Villa of the Mysteries and its frieze, first published in the 1930s. These were fantastically lavish volumes – you know, more expensive that you would ever imagine, in a fantastic vellum binding – which my library in Cambridge managed to get a copy of. The book’s got Mussolini’s fasces on the back cover, in gold emboss, and, instead of being dated 1938, it’s dated Era Fascista VII or something.

So we got a group of students together and we passed the book round, and we said, “Do you notice anything about this book? Now, don’t think of the pictures – look at it as a book. Do you notice anything about it?” And most of the students said, “Well it’s lovely. It’s really expensive, isn’t it?” It took them about a quarter of an hour before a single one of them said, “Oh, what’s this here?” pointing to the fasces and the dating by Era Fascista. And I thought, actually, they’re both right and wrong. They’re wrong because they’re being very unobservant and they’ve failed to see why this bit of archaeology was published as lavishly as it was, and it was having money plowed into it by a regime that they would purport to disdain. And yet here this has entered their own academic life, in a way that is somehow separate from those considerations. I thought that that was quite a neat example, and a nice little vignette of how these monuments work.

I went to the Ara Pacis, in Rome, with the new Richard Meier cover to it – and what was interesting about that was that, if you go in and you’re not going to buy the expensive guidebook, if you’re just going to go in as a tourist and use the information panels, then you would have to look very hard to discover that this was excavated by Mussolini and then put into a fascist box that has now been removed – although it’s sitting in the middle of a square surrounded by fascist sculpture!

[Image: Benito Mussolini, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That brings up the question of what tourists are really looking for when they go out to visit “history.” We’ve talked about the political side of this – but what do tourists want from the past?

Mary Beard: What’s funny about the “wonders of the world” idea is that it’s such a lasting metaphor for the must-see thing. The category starts in Hellenistic Greece. Greeks in the third and second century BC were making all kinds of lists and all kinds of categories, and they were terribly busy systematizing things. Most of that we’ve forgotten, but the idea of the “wonders of the world” proved to be terribly lasting. In some ways, it feeds into the whole Grand Tour – a very elite British Grand Tour, obviously.

What it does now, I think, is it enriches tourism hugely.

I think one of the most exciting things about visiting these monuments – like the Parthenon, or the Colosseum, etc. – is in going to see what our predecessors saw, but differently. I think the buzz you get from going to, say, the Colosseum is not just: “Oh my goodness, this is where gladiators fought and bled their guts out on the sand!” But also: “This is where Byron came.” And: “This is where Henry James came.” There’s a sense of revisiting the recent as well as the remote past – and wondering, “Does it look the same to me as it did to Byron?” Is it oppressive to be seeing through the eyes of these other people – or is that actually a wonderful enjoyment of historical “thickness”?

For my taste, most popular tourist books are dishonest to the extent that they pretend there’s a kind of unmediated access between you and the past. So when you go to the Colosseum, and when you go to the Parthenon, there’s you and the fifth century BC, or there’s you and the first century AD – when, in fact, you’re not seeing the first century AD or the fifth century BC, you’re seeing it as it has been reconstructed, rebuilt, written about, and talked about. You’re only there because somebody in 1780 decided to draw it.

I want to bring that bit back in — the “thickness” of tourism’s history being its own pleasure.

[Image: The Arch of Titus, via Wikipedia].

• • •

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview.

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook’s accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions’ warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he’s produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook’s interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:

The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.

In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: “Stairs” by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so… I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) “Transition to CMP,” from Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain; (middle) “Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)” inside Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) “Backwards junction” in Toronto’s Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: “Emerging in Wilson Heights,” out of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An “A-shaped conduit” in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) “Outfall structure in the West Don Valley,” part of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that’s been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they’ve replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: “Outfall in winter” at Toronto’s Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The “spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds,” in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A “short drop” in Toronto’s beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara’s William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: “Transitions” inside the Duncan’s Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: “Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace” (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa’s Governor General’s Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe…].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:

I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I’m still working on finding. We’ve started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options. In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.

So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The “Three Musketeers” standing inside Toronto’s Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, check out Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the “upwardly migrating void”).

The Possibility of Secret Passageways: An Interview with Patrick McGrath

The novels of Patrick McGrath are often described as Gothic. They unfold across foggy landscapes and rolling moors, on marshes dotted with isolated houses and dead trees. There is a lot of rain.
McGrath’s characters are frequently deformed, crippled, mad, or somehow undefined, both psychologically and sexually; they are sinister, if naive, and quietly aggressive, weaving conspiratorial plots around one another with a tightness and an intricacy, and a psychological intensity, till something dreadful occurs – and the book then lurches on to its brutal and unhappy ending.
Amidst tropical swamps and London graveyards, crumbling barns and basements, operating theaters and unused bedrooms, we find incest, murder, and suicide – as well as the creeping, subterranean shadows of mold and rot.
But it is the settings, and not the plots, of Patrick McGrath’s novels that led me to speak with him for BLDGBLOG.
For those brackish marshes and dust-filled hospital wards are extraordinarily well-described; indeed, McGrath’s eye is intimidating in its attention to detail, supplying information across the senses, giving readers the taste, smell, and sound of his fictional worlds, in beautifully crafted sentences.
His landscapes are precise, vivid, and worth re-reading.

A question often asked on this website is: what do novelists, artists, and filmmakers want from landscape and the built environment? More specifically, how can architecture assist a writer as he or she constructs a novel’s storyline? Are certain types of buildings more conducive to one kind of plot than to another?
And what about landscape? How does landscape lend itself to literary effect – and could landscape architects actually learn something about the drama of designed space by turning to a novel instead of to a work of theory?
To the work of Patrick McGrath, for instance?
In the following interview, Patrick McGrath talks to BLDGBLOG about Romanticism, the Sublime, and the origins of Gothic literature, from Mary Shelley’s Alpine wastes to the forests of Bram Stoker, by way of Edgar Allan Poe and the frozen seas of the Antarctic.
We discuss David Lynch, The Sheltering Sky, the architecture of psychiatric institutions – where cell doors always open outward – and the spectacle of unfinished castles soaked with rain on the British moors. We pass through mountains, abbeys, and malarial swamplands, referring to Joseph Conrad, amateur paleontology, and the featureless voids of the Sahara.
We spoke by telephone.

[Image: Novelist Patrick McGrath].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, on the most basic level, could you talk about what makes a landscape “Gothic”? Is it the weather, the landforms, the isolation, the plantlife…? Further, in your own work, what is it, on a psychological level, that unites, say, the crooked and leafless trees of the British moors with the coastal swamps of Honduras?

Patrick McGrath: Not an easy question to answer! As you point out, a landscape could be tropical – or it could be Arctic, and it could still have those qualities that we might consider Gothic. It’s hard to know just what these landscapes have in common.

I suppose we have to go back to the origins of Romanticism, and to Edmund Burke‘s book on the Sublime, and look at his notions of the horrid and the terrible. There were landscapes that emotionally aroused the people of that time – but because of their what? Their magnificence in some way. The sheer scope and grandeur of the high mountains – the Alps which Mary Shelley described very powerfully in Frankenstein – or the eastern European landscape in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the loneliness and the remoteness of those mountains, the density of the forests, the fact that there are very few human beings there. Nature dwarfs humanity in such landscapes. And that will arouse the sense of awe that is made particularly dramatic use of in Romantic and Gothic literature.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we have a tropical landscape such as Conrad’s Congo in Heart of Darkness where it’s almost the reverse: it’s the constrictiveness and the fecundity of nature, the way it presses in on all sides. Everything is decaying. And decay, of course, is a central concept in the Gothic. So when you have tropical vegetation you do have a sense of ooze and rot – of swampiness.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that certain landscapes might have been “emotionally arousing” for the people of that era – but this implies that what makes a landscape emotionally arousing will change from generation to generation. If that’s the case, might something altogether different be considered Gothic or Romantic today? Have you noticed a kind of historical shift in the types of landscape that fit into the Gothic canon?

McGrath: My first thought is: not so much of landscape – but let’s say in the view of the city.

My second novel, Spider, was inspired by a book of photos by Bill Brandt. He captured the seedy, ill-lit character of the East End of London of the 1930s in such powerfully human character – illicit liaisons on wet cobbled streets, toothy barmaids in grotty pubs, pulling pints for sardonic men in cloth caps – that I was at once inspired to find a story there. But I do think the Victorian slum – the dark, rather shadowy streets that have a sort of sinister and rather threatening feel to them – could be replaced by the blandness of a suburb.

I’m thinking of what David Lynch did in Blue Velvet, with a scene of apparent utter normality. Think of the opening scene where a man is watering his garden and everything seems, well, perfect in that neat and orderly suburban way and yet his camera then goes beneath the grass and we see all sorts of forms of life that are slimy and grotesque and that aren’t apparent in that hygienic world above.

So there may be something in that: the suburb as the most Gothic of sites. Think of the work, say, of Gregory Crewdson.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of what sorts of architecture pop up most frequently in Gothic literature: usually English manor houses, church ruins, forgotten attics and so on. Why are certain types of buildings more conducive to one type of storyline and not others?

McGrath: I think you’d have to say that there are two questions here. There’s the conventional, stereotypical Gothic site which tends to be a lonely house high on a hill, probably Victorian, with turrets and the possibility of secret passageways and cellars and attics – places of obscurity, places where the past somehow resides. You know, houses of secrets.

These sites, in turn, would have grown out of the more traditional Gothic architectures – basically the ruins of monasteries and abbeys and convents and such, which dotted the British landscape in the 18th century, after the Reformation. Those first aroused the taste for ruins, and that was the origin of the Gothic. That would be basically a medieval architecture – in ruins, as I say, because of what Henry VIII did to the English church in the 16th century. So those were the places where people like Horace Walpole set their fiction, because the buildings were in such a state of decrepitude.

I think anything that sort of relates to these large, broken down, dilapidated structures would arouse the Gothic effect.

[Images: The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10, and Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1817-19, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: Interestingly, though, in the work of J.G. Ballard, you get the same sort of psychological atmosphere – of perversion, violence, and dread – from a totally different kind of built environment: instead of crumbling manor houses, you have corporate office parks in the south of France, or even British shopping malls.

McGrath: Absolutely – and that was going to be the second part of my answer. There is the old Gothic, which does have a very definite architectural style that comes out of the structures of the Middle Ages, as these became ruins and gave off a sense of ghostliness and evil and menace. But then there is what you might call, I don’t know, a new Gothic, where the particular trappings of the old Gothic, the particular stylistic characteristics, are not necessary to produce the same sorts of effects – the feelings of dread, constriction, obscurity, transgression. You can get those from inner city projects, for example, or even a little neat rowhouse.

There was an early Ian McEwan novel, The Cement Garden, where all sorts of perverse wickedness was going on but in a very sort of unmemorable little house, in a street of very similar houses, none of which would particularly smack of evil. Although I did notice, when I was re-reading it, that he uses a little crenellation detail in the architecture of one of these absolutely anonymous little houses. He’s just touching-in this faint hint of the Gothic – as though to say: this is a child of something out of Ann Radcliffe, some decaying monastery in which an aristocrat pursues a maiden in the depths of the night.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if there are any real buildings that you have in mind when you’re describing places like Drogo Hall or Crook Manor. Put another way, could someone ever do a kind of Patrick McGrathian architectural tour, or heritage walk, visiting sites that have inspired your fiction? Where would that tour take them?

McGrath: [laughs] Good question. I don’t quite know where I get them from. In part from the imagination, in part from books, books I’ve got around the place with photographs or paintings of buildings, some of which I’ve observed and remembered.

There’s a house called Crook in my first novel, The Grotesque. I found a lovely little book in a second-hand bookstore in New York, called The Manor Houses of England, and I simply leafed through it, picking up details here and there – not only architectural details, but verbal details. The way that aspects of architecture are described – the sorts of terms that are used – can be as much a part of the creation of a building in fiction as a clear, purely visual picture in your mind. You catch a nice phrase that’s used to describe, I don’t know, a Jacobean staircase or a particular piece of detailing or masonry – and you fling it in because it sounds good, rather than just because it evokes a particular image.

But I don’t think there’s a pattern. They’re usually curious amalgams that I put together in my imagination.

BLDGBLOG: I noticed one day that there is a real Castle Drogo. Architecturally, how much of that was an influence on your descriptions of Drogo Hall? Or did you just use the name?

McGrath: It was basically just the name. Castle Drogo’s somewhere down in the West Country, I can’t remember where – I think it looks over Dartmoor. It was built in, I think, the early twentieth century by some rich industrialist, as I remember, who wanted to have a main building with two wings. But then his son was killed in WWI, and he’d only built one wing of the castle. He grew so despondent that he never built the second wing. All the life had gone out of him. So it’s an incomplete structure. It was also essentially an ersatz thing – it wasn’t a proper castle. It was an Edwardian idea of a castle – of which there are many in Britain, of course. But it was the name; the name was very powerful: Drogo.

So I pinched the name and gave it to a building that I largely invented out on the Lambeth Marshes. And, again, the Lambeth Marshes as I describe them don’t really have any resemblance to the Lambeth Marshes as they existed in the 18th century. I mean, I sort of put a Dartmoor on the south of the Thames – and I don’t think it was like that! [laughter]

BLDGBLOG: Well, it works, so…

McGrath: It works – and that’s all you want.

[Images: Castle Drogo].

BLDGBLOG: Have you read The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald? One of the stories is partially set in an old, sprawling psychiatric hospital in the forests of New York state. Near Syracuse, I think, or maybe Ithaca. The narrator explains that his uncle once committed himself there voluntarily to undergo electroshock therapy, basically as a way to erase painful memories from some time spent in the Sahara south of Cairo.

McGrath: Now, this is very, very interesting – I’ve read Sebald, but not that particular book. In fact, I’ve just finished a novel which is set in Manhattan and the last couple of chapters are set in a mental hospital in northern New York state. And I had no idea about Sebald using that location – and I didn’t really know about the Victorian institutions you described.

What I did was I took an institution from northern Ontario where I worked when I first came over to North America, and it was very unlike a Victorian institution. It was sort of like a blockhouse – like a penitentiary. And so what I’ve done is I’ve sort of plonked that down in upstate New York – but I might have to rethink how I’ve done that based on what you’ve just said. But this is great to know – I’ve still got time to tear that chapter apart.

BLDGBLOG: Well, some of those hospitals – these big, Gothic complexes – have actually been demolished. But in other cases, they’ve been transformed into apartments and condominiums –

McGrath: Yes, that’s happening in England, too. I visited old Victorian asylums there that have outlived their usefulness and are now being converted into apartments.

[Image: The Hudson River State Hospital, beautifully photographed by Kirkbridebuildings.com. The rest of that site – especially the other hospitals – is well worth checking out].

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the question of landscape, the natural environments in your work are extraordinarily well-described; in fact, there are parts of Asylum that strike me as literal exemplars of superb landscape description. I’d love to know more about how you work: if you actually visit specific locations, driving up to the moors or through the hills of New England, to capture your descriptions on the spot; or if you work from memory, or from imagination, or even from other books of photographs.

McGrath: There have been times when I’ve gone to a place. When I went down to Belize, for instance, and saw what Belize City looks like – the shacks lurching unsteadily over the river, the mangrove swamps and so forth – that just told me, instantly, that here I had the setting of a novel. I took a lot of photos and then basically used what I’d seen. Other times, I just sort of invent it.

I remember when I was writing The Grotesque, I had the Berkshire marshes in there, and I’d been out of England for many years at that point and somebody pointed out to me that, in fact, there are no marshes in Berkshire –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

McGrath: – but by then it was too late. I needed there to be marshes and I wanted it to be Berkshire, for some reason, and so there it was: a completely nonexistent landscape had sprung to life.

I don’t know, I look at things and a lot of it comes from reading. I discover details that, for example, in prisons and asylums you will always have the doors opening outwards so that whoever is incarcerated behind that door won’t be able to blockade themselves inside the room. Little details like that give the character of an institution and can be very evocative on the page.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about weather and climate. For instance, a wet climate – with thunderstorms, humidity, and damp – seems to play a major, arguably indispensable, role in the Gothic imagination. Your own novels illustrate this point quite well: from rain-soaked country homes to the Lambeth marshes, from coastal fishing towns to Central American swamps. But can aridity ever be Gothic? In other words, if the constant presence of moisture contributes to a malarial atmosphere of decay, mold, infestation, and disease, might there be a whole other world of psychological implications in a climate where things don’t decay – where there is no mold, where bodies turn to leather and everything can be preserved? Is indefinite preservation perhaps a Gothic horror of its own?

McGrath: Aridity does interest me. It’s an unusual application of the Gothic mood. You usually think of northern European or north American climates and landscapes, but that’s merely because, traditionally, that’s where these sorts of stories have been set. But I can very well imagine aridity being a place, or a site, for such a story.

I think you could safely say that one of the themes of the Gothic is the sins of the father being visited upon the sons – in other words, there is no escaping the past. The past will always haunt the present. And this is certainly true of Gothic stories that are set in crumbling old houses: there’s always some piece of evil that has occurred in a previous generation that will work itself out on the current generation. So that continuation – or persistence – of the past is what you’re expressing: it’s the skeleton that can’t be disposed of.

But I’m trying to think if I know of a Gothic tale set in a desert, and the only thing I can come up with is… I think it’s an old Erich von Stroheim movie. It might be called Greed? There’s a man who has, somehow or another, wound up handcuffed to his companion – and the companion has died. This is in the quest for gold. Somehow or another their greed has got them into an impossible situation: they’re handcuffed, the companion has died, and so we have a man crawling across the desert handcuffed to a corpse. It being a desert, of course, he’s doomed. But that’s a very powerful image of an utterly arid landscape.

In the spirit of a new Gothic, one that isn’t dependent on very particular types of landscape or architecture, you could certainly exploit an arid landscape in order to create a condition of extreme thirst, extreme solitude, extreme desperation – all of which would be appropriate states of mind for a Gothic story. I just can’t think of many examples.

BLDGBLOG: It never really occurred to me to refer to this book as “Gothic” before, but there’s The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – where you see people completely destroyed by the desert. The Sahara is presented as this strangely dark landscape, something that they can’t comprehend culturally and they can’t survive physically.

McGrath: Whether you could get away with calling that Gothic, I don’t know! But, certainly, there is horror in that environment. It does have that in common with the Gothic. You can’t have the Gothic without horror, and the desert is a place where, you’d think, horror is always close at hand.

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, some of the earliest Gothic fiction was actually polar – Mary Shelley’s Arctic chase in Frankenstein is an obvious example. I’m curious if glacial landscapes and frozen seas attract you? Might there someday be a kind of Arctic Port Mungo?

McGrath: Well, again, in the novel that I’ve just finished, I wanted to take my character, when he’s pretty much spiraled down as far as he can get in New York City, to a place of snow. And there are all sorts of precedents for this. Frankenstein, as you say, begins up in the Arctic Sea – and ends there. I think the final image is Frankenstein pursuing his creature across the frozen waste – a vast white landscape. There’s also Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which comes to a place of great whiteness; and, almost contemporary with that, is Melville’s white whale.

There is something about whiteness that is almost identical to blackness in terms of what it can evoke. I think it must be about featurelessness: the horror that comes of there being nothing there. It’s a white nothing instead of a black nothing.

But the absence of color would suggest a kind of emptiness, a draining of life and meaning. A void. And the Gothic is very fond of a void. And Melville was certainly onto that. I mean, you can’t help but see that the white whale is really just a blank screen onto which Ahab has projected all sorts of powerful and twisted emotions – but, in itself, it is merely a screen. Melville’s possibly suggesting that all of nature is just such a blank screen, and that it is the business of humans to project meaning onto nature, that meaning is not inherent, is an idea that I think we can comfortably live with now; but, I think, in the 19th century, it was probably a great deal more threatening to God-fearing people.

[Image: The Sea of Ice, 1824, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: One of the most striking images I’ve read in years is actually your character Hugo Coal, from The Grotesque, assembling his dinosaur skeleton in the family barn. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what went into that image – but also what you think about the human encounter with prehistoric monstrosity: with dinosaur bones, and marine fossils, and the utter strangeness of the earth’s inhuman past.

McGrath: What interested me – before I’d even thought through aspects of deep time, and what that means – was that a man could go to Africa and collect a bunch of bones and crate them up and bring them back, and then spend the rest of his life trying to see what fitted where. This may be completely implausible, in terms of paleontology, but I just liked the notion of Sir Hugo sitting there in his barn, year in, year out, trying to make a pattern, to make a structure – and continuing to get it wrong. It seemed, somehow, very much in the spirit of human endeavors to discover the truth, or to figure out how nature works – or even, within that book, to get an answer to the mystery of who killed Sidney. It was to do with the fallibility of knowledge that was contained within this enterprise of getting the bones to fit – and they won’t! [laughs] There’s always a bit left over, or something that won’t go where it’s supposed to go. So that was the aspect, the epistemological aspect, of reconstructing a skeleton that first fascinated me.

Then there was the notion of this thing coming from deep in the past and being now extinct – from so deep in the past that it no longer had any place on this earth – and the suggestion that Sir Hugo, in a sense, was the same. He, too, was a dinosaur; his day, as a representative of a certain social class, was past.

But the first impulse that I had was that this was a carnivorous creature. This wasn’t a gentle herbivore Hugo’s got there. This was a creature of enormous violence and absolute rapacity, capable of tearing its prey to pieces, and I wanted to suggest that those sorts of implicit violent energies were now swirling about this old country house.

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, though, it seems like the contemplation of the earth’s biological past lends itself well to the Gothic mood – but contemplating, say, the earth’s geological past just doesn’t have the same psychological impact. For some reason, rocks just aren’t very Gothic.

McGrath: Well, I remember the way that Conrad handles the river in Heart of Darkness: he speaks of the journey that Marlow takes to get to Kurtz as being a journey through, or deeper into, the geological history of Africa. I forget how he does it, but he gives you the sense that, as the boat moves up the river, it is also descending through eons of time. So there is almost a sense of a geological regression occurring as Marlow moves toward a man who has committed an act of enormous moral regression. Everything is about a movement downwards in that book. I’d say that he employs geological descent to mirror a moral descent.

BLDGBLOG: Of course, there’s also Hugo Coal’s surname: coal, a geological product.

McGrath: There you are. Absolutely. That was no accident. Again, I’m referring to deep layers of what once had been wood, and that now, through the operation of time and pressure, is something quite different.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’d like to ask you about islands. You’re from England, with a home in Manhattan, and you’ve lived on “a remote island in the north Pacific.” Interestingly, though, your work doesn’t include a lot of islands – indeed, there are very few scenes at sea. Do the Gothic possibilities of islands, or archipelagos, have any literary interest for you?

McGrath: Well, that’s true. I don’t know why that should be. I’ve put people by the water often enough – a lot of my people seem to stand in high places gazing out to sea – but the notion of an island as a… I suppose the island gives you the possibility of a closed community – and that’s always a good site to play out a story in. You can just say that the world doesn’t extend beyond the borders I’ve imposed upon it. I suppose the use of a village is a sort of island. The last book I’ve done is set in Manhattan almost exclusively, but… I’ve never sort of literally done an island.

I think every novelist – unless you’re Dickens, maybe, where you just want to give a great sweep of an entire society – finds a way of creating islands, or social islands, anyway. The family is a sort of island. A prison, an asylum, is a sort of island. A town can be a sort of island. I mean, every novel has to limit its scope geographically and socially, so I suppose we create islands – but I’ve never particularly been drawn to an island itself. Though I do have a novel somewhere in the back of my head set on an island in the Mediterranean.

I suppose the answer is: I don’t see the need for an island in itself, when the only point to an island would seem to be to draw a circle around a community. Unless it was the notion of being cut-off… That would be a good reason to make an island. You know, where the weather closes in and your people have no way of escape. I can see that being a way you might want to use an island. But I just haven’t felt the need yet.

[Image: Monk by the Sea, 1809, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: As I mentioned, your bio refers to a “remote island in the north Pacific.” I’m just wondering where exactly that was?

McGrath: There’s a group of islands called the Queen Charlottes. They’re off the northwest coast of British Columbia. If you were to find Prince Rupert on the map, you would then just go due west about 80 miles, and they’re just south of the Alaskan panhandle. There are two main islands: Moresby and Graham. Moresby is uninhabited and Graham has, oh, two or three little towns. That’s where I lived a few years.

I was a schoolteacher back in those days, and I’d been living in Vancouver, and I wanted to get out of the city, basically. So I got a job teaching there, and, while I was there, I basically gave up teaching and built a cabin and declared myself a writer.

That was the beginning.

• • •

BLDGBLOG would like to thank Patrick McGrath for taking the time to have this conversation – which he and I both hope to continue in a few months’ time: so watch out for another interview with Patrick McGrath here on BLDGBLOG, to be posted, I hope, this winter.
Meanwhile, Asylum, The Grotesque, and Spider are all great places to start, if you’re looking for an introduction to Patrick McGrath’s work. Spider, of course, was recently filmed by David Cronenberg. A new novel, meanwhile, called Trauma, is due out in April 2008.
Finally, this PDF contains a much longer, and older, interview with McGrath (in which he describes the grotesque as “things beginning to merge, things becoming undifferentiated” – the grotesque is a “breakdown, in every dimension that I could imagine, in the organic, in the social, in the sexual, in the natural”). Briefly, then, it’s interesting to point out that one of the manifestos mentioned in the previous post discusses the grotesque in terms of monstrosity, beauty, and architecture.