The Coming Amnesia

[Image: Galaxy M101; full image credits].

In a talk delivered in Amsterdam a few years ago, science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds outlined an unnerving future scenario for the universe, something he had also recently used as the premise of a short story (collected here).

As the universe expands over hundreds of billions of years, Reynolds explained, there will be a point, in the very far future, at which all galaxies will be so far apart that they will no longer be visible from one another.

Upon reaching that moment, it will no longer be possible to understand the universe’s history—or perhaps even that it had one—as all evidence of a broader cosmos outside of one’s own galaxy will have forever disappeared. Cosmology itself will be impossible.

In such a radically expanded future universe, Reynolds continued, some of the most basic insights offered by today’s astronomy will be unavailable. After all, he points out, “you can’t measure the redshift of galaxies if you can’t see galaxies. And if you can’t see galaxies, how do you even know that the universe is expanding? How would you ever determine that the universe had had an origin?”

There would be no reason to theorize that other galaxies had ever existed in the first place. The universe, in effect, will have disappeared over its own horizon, into a state of irreversible amnesia.

[Image: The Tarantula Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

It was an interesting talk that I had the pleasure to catch in person, and, for those interested, it includes Reynolds’s explanation of how he shaped this idea into a short story.

More to the point, however, Reynolds was originally inspired by an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 called “The End of Cosmology?” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

That article’s sub-head suggests what’s at stake: “An accelerating universe,” we read, “wipes out traces of its own origins.”

[Image: A “Wolf–Rayet star… in the constellation of Carina (The Keel),” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

As Krauss and Scherrer point out in their provocative essay, “We may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

“What will the scientists of the future see as they peer into the skies 100 billion years from now?” they ask. “Without telescopes, they will see pretty much what we see today: the stars of our galaxy… The big difference will occur when these future scientists build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies outside our own. They won’t see any! The nearby galaxies will have merged with the Milky Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all the other galaxies will be long gone, having escaped beyond the event horizon.”

This won’t only mean fewer luminous objects to see in space; it will mean that, “as a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the expanding universe will become irreproducible.”

[Image: The “interacting galaxies” of Arp 273, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, via the New York Times].

The authors go on to explain that even the chemical composition of this future universe will no longer allow for its history to be deduced, including the Big Bang.

“Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics,” they write, “will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.”

In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.”

[Image: “The Christianized constellation St. Sylvester (a.k.a. Bootes), from the 1627 edition of Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are many interesting things here, including the somewhat existentially horrifying possibility that any intelligent creatures alive in that distant era will have no way to know what is happening to them, where things came from, even where they currently are (an empty space? a dream?), or why.

Informed cosmology will, by necessity, be replaced with religious speculation—with myths, poetry, and folklore.

[Image: 12th-century astrolabe; from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

It is worth asking, however briefly and with multiple grains of salt, if something similar has perhaps already occurred in the universe we think we know today—if something has not already disappeared beyond the horizon of cosmic amnesia—making even our most well-structured, observation-based theories obsolete. For example, could even the widely accepted conclusion that there was a Big Bang be just an ironic side-effect of having lost some other form of cosmic evidence that long ago slipped eternally away from view?

Remember that these future astronomers will not know anything is missing. They will merrily forge ahead with their own complicated, internally convincing new theories and tests. It is not out of the question, then, to ask if we might be in a similarly ignorant situation.

In any case, what kinds of future devices and instruments might be invented to measure or explore a cosmic scenario such as this? What explanations and narratives would such devices be trying to prove?

[Image: “Woodcut illustration depicting the 7th day of Creation, from a page of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Note the Aristotelian cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, below, with God and His retinue of angels looking down on His creation from above.” Image (and caption) from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

Science writer Sarah Scoles looked at this same dilemma last year for PBS, interviewing astronomer Avi Loeb.

Scoles was able to find a small glimmer of light in this infinite future darkness, however: Loeb believes that there might actually be a way out of this universal amnesia.

“The center of our galaxy keeps ejecting stars at high enough speeds that they can exit the galaxy,” Loeb says. The intense and dynamic gravity near the black hole ejects them into space, where they will glide away forever like radiating rocket ships. The same thing should happen a trillion years from now.

“These stars that leave the galaxy will be carried away by the same cosmic acceleration,” Loeb says. Future astronomers can monitor them as they depart. They will see stars leave, become alone in extragalactic space, and begin rushing faster and faster toward nothingness. It would look like magic. But if those future people dig into that strangeness, they will catch a glimpse of the true nature of the universe.

There might yet be hope for cosmological discovery, in the other words, encoded in the trajectories of these bizarre, fleeing stars.

[Images: (top) “An illustration of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological system that was used in the Middle Ages, from the 1579 edition of Piccolomini’s De la Sfera del Mondo.” (bottom) “An illustration (influenced by Peurbach’s Theoricae Planetarum Novae) explaining the retrograde motion of an outer planet in the sky, from the 1647 Leiden edition of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera.” Images and captions from Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography by Nick Kanas].

There are at least two reasons why I have been thinking about this today. One was the publication of an article by Dennis Overbye earlier this week about the rate of the universe’s expansion.

“There is a crisis brewing in the cosmos,” Overbye writes, “or perhaps in the community of cosmologists. The universe seems to be expanding too fast, some astronomers say.”

Indeed, the universe might be more “virulent and controversial” than currently believed, he explains, caught-up in the long process of simply tearing itself apart.

[Image: A “starburst galaxy” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope].

One implication of this finding, Overbye adds, “is that the most popular version of dark energy—known as the cosmological constant, invented by Einstein 100 years ago and then rejected as a blunder—might have to be replaced in the cosmological model by a more virulent and controversial form known as phantom energy, which could cause the universe to eventually expand so fast that even atoms would be torn apart in a Big Rip billions of years from now.”

In the process, perhaps the far-future dark ages envisioned by Krauss and Scherrer will thus arrive a billion or two years earlier than expected.

[Image: Engraving by Gustave Doré from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri].

The second thing that made me think of this, however, was a short essay called “Dante in Orbit,” originally published in 1963, that a friend sent to me last night. It is about stars, constellations, and the possibility of determining astronomical time in The Divine Comedy.

In that paper, Frederick A. Stebbins writes that Dante “seems far removed from the space age; yet we find him concerned with problems of astronomy that had no practical importance until man went into orbit. He had occasion to deal with local time, elapsed time, and the International Date Line. His solutions appear to be correct.”

Stebbins goes on to describe “numerous astronomical references in [Dante’s] chief work, The Divine Comedy”—albeit doing so in a way that remains unconvincing. He suggests, for example, that Dante’s descriptions of constellations, sunrises, full moons, and more will allow an astute reader to measure exactly how much time was meant to have passed in his mythic story, and even that Dante himself had somehow been aware of differential, or relativistic, time differences between far-flung locations. (Recall, on the other hand, that Dante’s work has been discussed elsewhere for its possible insights into physics.)

[Image: Diagrams from “Dante in Orbit” (1963) by Frederick A. Stebbins].

But what’s interesting about this is not whether or not Stebbins was correct in his conclusions. What’s interesting is the very idea that a medieval cosmology might have been soft-wired, so to speak, into Dante’s poetic universe and that the stars and constellations he referred to would have had clear narrative significance for contemporary readers. It was part of their era’s shared understanding of how the world was structured.

Now, though, imagine some new Dante of a hundred billion years from now—some new Divine Comedy published in a trillion years—and how it might come to grips with the universal isolation and darkness of Krauss and Scherrer. What cycles of time might be perceived in the lonely, shining bulk of the Milky Way, a dying glow with no neighbor; what shared folklore about the growing darkness might be communicated to readers who don’t know, who cannot know, how incorrect their model of the cosmos truly is?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the Dante paper).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

“The entire city can be considered as one large house”

venice[Image: “St. Mark’s Place, with campanile, Venice, Italy,” via the Library of Congress].

Following a number of recent events for A Burglar’s Guide to the City—discussing, among other things, the often less than clear legal lines between interiors and exteriors, between public space and private—I’ve been asked about the Jewish practice of the eruv.

An eruv, in very broad strokes, is a clearly defined space outside the walls of the private home, often marked by something as thin as a wire, inside of which observant Jews are permitted to carry certain items on Shabbat, a day on which carrying objects is otherwise normally prohibited.

As Chabad describes the eruv, “Practically, it is forbidden to carry something, such as a tallit bag or a prayer book from one’s home along the street and to a synagogue or to push a baby carriage from home to a synagogue, or to another home, on Shabbat.”

However, “It became obvious even in ancient times, that on Shabbat, as on other days, there are certain things people wish to carry. People also want to get together with their friends after synagogue and take things with them—including their babies. They want to get together to learn, to socialize and to be a community.”

While, today, “it is an obvious impracticality to build walls throughout portions of cities, crossing over or through streets and walkways, in order to place one’s home and synagogue within the same ‘private’ domain,” you can instead institute an eruv: staking out a kind of shared private space, or a public “interior,” as it were. The eruv, Chabad continues, is “a technical enclosure which surrounds both private and hitherto public domains,” and it “is usually large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving one’s domain.”

In fact, the space of the eruv can absorb truly huge amounts of an existing city, despite the fact that many people will not even know it exists, let alone that they have crossed over into it, that they are “inside” something.

So the question I’ve been posed—although I will defer to more learned colleagues for an informed and accurate answer—is: what does the eruv do to concepts of burglary, if everything taking place inside it, even if technically “outside,” is considered an interior private space? In other words, can any crime committed inside an eruv be considered an act of burglary?

These questions reminded me, in fact, of a commenter named Federico Sanna, who recently pointed out here on the blog that the city of Venice has instituted a new regime for public space in the city by recognizing the entirety of Venice as an eruv.

Reading this with the messy help of Google Translate, the Venetian mayor has signed a law “attesting that the entire city can be considered as one large ‘house,’” or eruv, extending domesticity to the entire metropolis. This eruv will exist for five years, after which, presumably, it will be renewed.

As Sanna points out in his comment, “It must be said: Venice is the place that invented the Ghetto. And this is the 500th anniversary of that event. Venice is the first city to ever constrain Jews in one tiny portion of its urban space–another act that generated architecture, making buildings grow higher and higher to accomodate the growing Jewish population. It is significant, then, if not altogether timely, that it’s Venice that makes this symbolic move of inclusiveness for the first time.”

What effect—if any—this might have on the legal recognition of burglary remains, for me, an interesting question.

The Politics of Land Use

USC geographer Travis Longcore on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation: “When the occupiers blithely talk of putting the land ‘to use’ again (as if scientific research, recreation, hunting, fishing, education, and all manner of public access were not ‘use’), the CNN reporter mindlessly repeats the trope, implying that the occupiers have a legitimate demand in wanting to work the land, as if it were some sort of de Tocquevillian tragedy that one of the most productive migratory bird stopover sites on the Pacific flyway was not being overrun with cattle by the ranchers from Utah. No, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not need to be worked, and CNN should have reporters that know better than to take the claim at face value.”

Sukkah City

[Image: Sukkah City as it could be].

Joshua Foer, co-founder of Atlas Obscura and author of the forthcoming book Moonwalking with Einstein, has put together an awesome design competition called “Sukkah City.”

A sukkah is a temporary architectural structure with Biblical origins; it is “an ephemeral, elemental shelter, erected for one week each fall,” Foer writes, “in which it is customary to share meals, entertain, sleep, and rejoice. Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture.” The modern-day sukkah is thus both nostalgia and reenactment, substitution and performance (to put it in terms explored by the recent book Anachronic Renaissance).

With this historical background, you can imagine that the brief includes some very particular constraints, design limits that should prove oddly exhilarating to anyone willing to take them on:

The basic constraints seem simple: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic materials through which one can see the stars. Yet a deep dialogue of historical texts intricately refines and interprets these constraints—arguing, for example, for a 27 x 27 x 38-inch minimum volume; for a maximum height of 30 feet; for walls that cannot sway more than one handbreadth; for a mineral and botanical menagerie of construction materials; and even, in one famous instance, whether it is kosher to adaptively reuse a recently deceased elephant as a wall. (It is.) The paradoxical effect of these constraints is to produce a building that is at once new and old, timely and timeless, mobile and stable, open and enclosed, homey and uncanny, comfortable and critical.

The idea of there being a long-running interpretive tradition associated with this specific but highly abstract architectural structure is amazing to me: an oral tradition, or architectural midrash, spanning centuries, through which even the most basic parameters—and thus the building’s most wild, soaring, and structurally unexpected instantiations, its walls made from dead elephants, its roof a meshed hole through which to spy on stars—can be determined.

More from the brief:

Sukkah City: New York City” will re-imagine this ancient phenomenon, develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists will be selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics to be constructed in a visionary village in Union Square Park from September 19-21, 2010.
One structure will be chosen by New Yorkers to stand and delight throughout the week-long festival of Sukkot as the Official Sukkah of New York City. The process and results of the competition, along with construction documentation and critical essays, will be published in the forthcoming book Sukkah City: Radically Temporary Architecture for the Next Three Thousand Years.

You must register by July 1, and your design proposal will be due by August 1. I’m a bit biased here, but the jury includes some heavyweights, including Paul Goldberger, Ron Arad, Natalie Jeremijenko, Steven Heller, Maira Kalman, Thom Mayne, Ada Tolle, Thomas de Monchaux (co-coordinator of Sukkah City), and many others. I can’t wait to see what comes in, and I’d strongly encourage all sorts of approaches to this, from sprawling plastic plant forms to blocks of plug-in modularity, from a showerhead that 3D-prints the building below it to DIY assemblages of found materials. The collaged image, above, shows how formally interesting some of this could get.

And anyone is able to join in—as Foer writes, “If you’re an architect, designer, artist, engineer, backyard builder, or just someone with a clever idea, I hope you’ll consider entering.”

Pop-Up Forests and Experimental Christmas Trees

The New York Times this morning profiles a plant pathologist at Washington State University named Gary Chastagner, who “heads one of the nation’s half-dozen Christmas tree research labs.” These labs include institutions such as WSU-Puyallup (producing “research-based information that creates a high-quality Christmas tree product for consumers”), New Mexico State University (“screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species”), NC State (whose research includes “support on agritourism aspects of Christmas tree farms,” as well as a related Christmas Tree Genetics Program), and many more.

[Images: Photos by Randy Harris for the New York Times, courtesy of the New York Times].

While I realize there is absolutely no connection here, and that this is purely and only an example of conceptual confusion, I will admit that there was initially something of an odd thrill in reading about “Christmas Tree Genetics,” as two ideas briefly and incorrectly overlapped: the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation (or the belief that the body and blood of Christ appears, literally, in physical form here on Earth, through the transformation of everyday materials such as bread and wine… and Christmas trees?) and the European-druidic worship of various tree species, thus implying, as if from some strange theo-botanical forestry program, the genetic modification and/or enhancement over time of new holy tree species, with iconic and sacramental trans-subtantial holiday forests cultivated on research farms throughout the United States.

In any case, this national Christmas tree research program includes apparently extreme steps that almost seem to justify such an otherwise misbegotten interpretation, including “the largest and most sophisticated of operations,” as described by the New York Times, where scientists “harvest almost a million trees a year from an 8,500-acre plantation and remove them by helicopter” for analysis elsewhere, and a brief experiment that tested “whether you can successfully hydrate a Christmas tree with an IV drip,” like some arboreal patient seeking hospice from an ecosystem that betrayed it. You could probably soon get an M.S. in Christmas Tree Science.

The goal is to develop new and improved tree species for both indoor and outdoor display during the holiday season, and, along the way, to create a tree that can last weeks—even months—in a post-mortem state without shedding its needles.

These ever more clean and tidy trees can thus pop-up in houses, retail displays, shopping malls, outdoor plazas, and Catholic high schools around the world, forming new “migratory forests” that take up residence—but not root—in our cities once a year before retreating, in wait, for the next season.

This vision of a pop-up forest—an instant indoor ecosystem of genetically perfected, not-quite-trans-substantial tree species—brings to mind a different kind of pop-up forest, one that I wrote about for the most recent “year in ideas” issue of Wired UK.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

That all too brief piece looks ahead to an age of “insurgent shrublands,” disturbed landscapes, and other “fast-emerging but short-lived ecosystems in an era of nonlinear climate change.” It refers to work by, amongst others, Natalie Boelman and Kevin Griffin, who are currently pursuing otherwise unrelated work at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and science writer Andrew Revkin; and it covers a variety of ideas, from the changing soundscapes of the Arctic as the rapidly defrosting polar north fills up with new, invasive bird songs, to the increased likelihood of tree-branch collapse as certain species—such as oak—grow much faster in polluted urban atmospheres.

In this context, the idea of a “pop-up forest” takes on a different, altogether less celebratory meaning.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

You can read the piece—as well as one by Ferris Jabr on electricity-generating bacteria and a short article by Jeremy Kingsley on open-source construction—here.

Our Lady of the Rocks

[Image: Via].

Somehow this morning I ended up reading about an artificial island and devotional chapel constructed in Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor.

“In 1452,” we read at, “two sailors from Perast happened by a small rock jutting out of the bay after a long day at sea and discovered a picture of the Virgin Mary perched upon the stone.” Thus began a process of dumping more stones into the bay in order to expand this lonely, seemingly blessed rock—as well as loading the hulls of old fishing boats with stones in order to sink them beneath the waves, adding to the island’s growing landmass.

Eventually, in 1630, a small chapel was constructed atop this strange half-geological, half-shipbuilt assemblage.

[Image: Via Skyscraper City].

Throwing stones into the bay and, in the process, incrementally expanding the island’s surface area, has apparently become a local religious tradition: “The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is alive even nowadays. Every year on the sunset of July 22, an event called fašinada, when local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island, takes place.”

The idea that devotional rock-throwing has become an art of creating new terrain, generation after generation, rock after rock, pebble after pebble, is stunning to me. Perhaps in a thousand years, a whole archipelago of churches will exist there, standing atop a waterlogged maze of old pleasure boats and fishing ships, the mainland hills and valleys nearby denuded of loose stones altogether. Inadvertently, then, this is as much a museum of local geology—a catalog of rocks—as it is a churchyard.

In fact, it doesn’t seem inaccurate to view this as a vernacular version of Vicente Guallart‘s interest in architecturally constructing new hills and coastlines based on a logical study of the geometry of rocks.

Here, the slow creation of new inhabitable terrain simply takes place in the guise of an annual religious festival—pilgrims assembling islands with every arm’s throw.


[Image: The Georgian cave monastery of Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Vardzia is a ruined honeycomb of arched passageways and artificially enlarged caves on a steep mountainside in Georgia. It is on a “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage status.

[Image: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols, and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river.

Nearby are the ruins of another cave monastery, called Vanis Kvabebi.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In the formal application sent to UNESCO for consideration of the site, we read that the architecture of this region can be seen as spatially punctuating the landscape, supplying moments of almost grammatical emphasis:

Fortresses and churches erected on high mountains and hills are perceived as distinguished vertical accents in such a horizontally developed setting. They terminate and emphasise natural verticals, being in perfect harmony with the latter. They introduce great emotional impulse imparting specific grandeur to the whole environment. The same artistic affect is created by rock-cut monasteries and villages arranged in several tiers on high rocky mountain slopes.

Originally constructed in the 12th century—in a region inhabited by humans since at least neolithic times—and very much resembling one of the cave-cities of Cappadocia, Vardzia is a spatially fantastic site (and, I’d assume, a videogame level waiting to happen).

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

It is also located in one of the most geologically interesting places on earth—at least from a subterranean standpoint—as the nation of Georgia also contains the world’s deepest known cave.

As National Geographic explained in an article several years ago, Krubera Cave—also known as Voronya—is still incompletely explored, despite its record-breaking, abyssal depths; expeditions have spent more than three weeks underground there, mapping windows and chambers, sleeping in tents, and using colored dyes to trace rivers and streams locked in the rock walls around them.

Check out this sequence of images, for instance, documenting an organized descent into the planet—or this article about caving in Abkhazia, or even this summary of the “Call of the Abyss” exploration project that sought to find the true depths of Voronya Cave.

[Images: Vardzia, as seen in some stunning photos by cosh_to_jest].

In any case, there’s absolutely no geological connection between Vardzia and Krubera Cave—there is no secret tunnel system linking the two across the vast Georgian landscape (after all, they are extremely far apart)—but how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In fact, I don’t mean to belabor the point here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the CIA has satellite photos that have been used as scouting documents for the rumored location of Noah’s Ark—it is “satellite archaeology,” one researcher claims. That is, there being quite a few religious members of the U.S. government, things like Noah’s Ark are considered more objective and archaeological than they are superstitious or theological.

But how absolutely mind-boggling would it be to find out someday that there is, operating within the U.S. intelligence services, a small group of especially religious analysts who have been scouring the Caucausus region, funded by tax dollars, and armed with geoscanning equipment and several miles of rope, looking for the entrance to Hell?

You can see further images of Vardzia here.

The Visionary State: An Interview with Erik Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were all kinds of synchronicities like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

Mud Mosques of Mali

[Image: Tambeni Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Belgian photograper Sebastian Schutyser spent nearly four years photographing the mud mosques of Mali. A collection of 200 such black & white photographs is now online at ArchNet.

The project “began in 1998,” Schutyser explains: “For several months I traveled from village to village by bicycle and ‘pirogue’, navigating with IGN 1:200.000 maps. The inaccessibility of the area made me realize why this hadn’t been done before.”

[Images: (top) Noga Mosque, (bottom) Tenenkou Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Within a few years, however, and over a period lasting roughly till the Spring of 2002, Schutyser managed “to travel faster, and reach the most remote parts of the Inner Delta. To increase the documentary value of the collection, I worked with 35mm color slides, and photographed every mosque from different angles. Whenever I encountered a particularly pretty mosque, I also photographed it on 4-5 inch black & white negative, to add to the ‘vintage’ collection.”

[Images: (top) Sébi Mosque, (bottom) Tilembeya Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 1998].

“With 515 mosques photographed,” Schutyser writes, “this collection shows a representative image of the adobe mosques of the Niger Inner Delta. Advancing modernity, and a lack of appreciation for this ‘archaic’ approach to building, are serious threats to the continuity of this living architecture.”

I might also add that each building is a kind of ritually re-repaired ventilation machine capable of generating its own microclimate: “During the day,” ArchNet explains, “the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Some structures, for example, Djenné’s Great Mosque, also have roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town’s women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces. Masons have integrated palm wood scaffolding into the building’s construction, not as beams, but as permanent scaffolding for the workers who apply plaster annually during the spring festival to restore the mosque. The palm beams also minimize the stress that comes from the extreme temperature and humidity changes typical of the climate.”

Finally, each tower is “often topped with a spire capped by an ostrich egg, symbolizing fertility and purity.”

Schutyser’s images have been collected in a beautiful book, co-written with Dorothee Gruner and Jean Dethier, called Banco: Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta.

[Image: Sinam Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2002].

(All images in this post are ©Sebastian Schutyser).

In space, no one can hear you pray

[Image: NASA].

Qibla is the direction a Muslim must face when praying—specifically, toward the Kaaba, in Mecca. In order to align oneself properly with that religious axis mundi, all kinds of complicated mathematical techniques had to be used or developed. From compasses to azimuths to spherical trigonometry, determining what angle to take in relation to the horizon became as much a mathematical, or geographic, pursuit as it was religious.

So now, as Malaysia prepares to send three Muslim astronauts into space, the question of qibla has once again been revived: in what direction should an astronaut pray in order to face Mecca? As that last link reminds us, these astronauts “will also visit the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times in 24 hours, so another thorny question is how to pray five times a day as required by Islam.”

I’m imagining a bewildering series of gyroscopes, mirrors, magnets and platforms, with arms covered in quantum clocks, ticking off “days” where there are none, keeping time in space devoid of terrestrial references. Motors will click and whir, aligning the chair constantly, and whole new branches of robotics – RoboQibla™ – gyroPrayer® – will take off. Science academies throughout the Muslim world will start producing new and strange direction sensors, devices of alignment that’d make John Dee proud and Athanasius Kircher whistle. New space stations designed by architecture students in Dubai will show us the future of intercelestial travel: self-unfolding, solar-powered spaceships, ceaselessly rotating in space—whilst maintaining perfect ship-to-Mecca alignment.

The Jesuits respond with floating cathedrals… flying buttresses in space.

(Original article spotted at Off Center).