Robot War and the Future of Perceptual Deception

tesla
[Image: A diagram of the accident site, via the Florida Highway Patrol].

One of the most remarkable details of last week’s fatal collision, involving a tractor trailer and a Tesla electric car operating in self-driving mode, was the fact that the car apparently mistook the side of the truck for the sky.

As Tesla explained in a public statement following the accidental death, the car’s autopilot was unable to see “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky”—which is to say, it was unable to differentiate the two.

The truck was not seen as a discrete object, in other words, but as something indistinguishable from the larger spatial environment. It was more like an elision.

Examples like this are tragic, to be sure, but they are also technologically interesting, in that they give momentary glimpses of where robotic perception has failed. Hidden within this, then, are lessons not just for how vehicle designers and computers scientists alike could make sure this never happens again, but also precisely the opposite: how we could design spatial environments deliberately to deceive, misdirect, or otherwise baffle these sorts of semi-autonomous machines.

For all the talk of a “robot-readable world,” in other words, it is interesting to consider a world made deliberately illegible to robots, with materials used for throwing off 3D cameras or LiDAR, either through excess reflectivity or unexpected light-absorption.

Last summer, in a piece for New Scientist, I interviewed a robotics researcher named John Rogers, at Georgia Tech. Rogers pointed out that the perceptual needs of robots will have more and more of an effect on how architectural interiors are designed and built in the first place. Quoting that article at length:

In a detail that has implications beyond domestic healthcare, Rogers also discovered that some interiors confound robots altogether. Corridors that are lined with rubber sheeting to protect against damage from wayward robots—such as those in his lab—proved almost impossible to navigate. Why? Rubber absorbs light and prevents laser-based navigational systems from relaying spatial information back to the robot.
Mirrors and other reflective materials also threw off his robots’ ability to navigate. “It actually appeared that there was a virtual world beyond the mirror,” says Rogers. The illusion made his robots act as if there were a labyrinth of new rooms waiting to be entered and explored. When reflections from your kitchen tiles risk disrupting a robot’s navigational system, it might be time to rethink the very purpose of interior design.

I mention all this for at least two reasons.

1) It is obvious by now that the American highway system, as well as all of the vehicles that will be permitted to travel on it, will be remade as one of the first pieces of truly robot-legible public infrastructure. It will transition from being a “dumb” system of non-interactive 2D surfaces to become an immersive spatial environment filled with volumetric sign-systems meant for non-human readers. It will be rebuilt for perceptual systems other than our own.

2) Finding ways to throw-off self-driving robots will be more than just a harmless prank or even a serious violation of public safety; it will become part of a much larger arsenal for self-defense during war. In other words, consider the points raised by John Rogers, above, but in a new context: you live in a city under attack by a foreign military whose use of semi-autonomous machines requires defensive means other than—or in addition to—kinetic firepower. Wheeled and aerial robots alike have been deployed.

One possible line of defense—among many, of course—would be to redesign your city, even down to the interior of your own home, such that machine vision is constantly confused there. You thus rebuild the world using light-absorbing fabrics and reflective ornament, installing projections and mirrors, screens and smoke. Or “stealth objects” and radar-baffling architectural geometries. A military robot wheeling its way into your home thus simply gets lost there, stuck in a labyrinth of perceptual convolution and reflection-implied rooms that don’t exist.

In any case, I suppose the question is: if, today, a truck can blend-in with the Florida sky, and thus fatally disable a self-driving machine, what might we learn from this event in terms of how to deliberately confuse robotic military systems of the future?

We had so-called “dazzle ships” in World War I, for example, and the design of perceptually baffling military camouflage continues to undergo innovation today; but what is anti-robot architectural design, or anti-robot urban planning, and how could it be strategically deployed as a defensive tactic in war?

Fly, Eagles, Fly

Speaking of animals being actively incorporated into urban infrastructure, Dutch police are training eagles to hunt drones. “What I find fascinating is that birds can hit the drone in such a way that they don’t get injured by the rotors,” explains a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society. “They seem to be whacking the drone right in the center so they don’t get hit; they have incredible visual acuity and they can probably actually see the rotors.”

Computational Romanticism and the Dream Life of Driverless Cars

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Understanding how driverless cars see the world also means understanding how they mis-see things: the duplications, glitches, and scanning errors that, precisely because of their deviation from human perception, suggest new ways of interacting with and experiencing the built environment.

Stepping into or through the scanners of autonomous vehicles in order to look back at the world from their perspective is the premise of a short feature I’ve written for this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine.

For a new series of urban images, Matt Shaw and Will Trossell of ScanLAB Projects tuned, tweaked, and augmented a LiDAR unit—one of the many tools used by self-driving vehicles to navigate—and turned it instead into something of an artistic device for experimentally representing urban space.

The resulting shots show the streets, bridges, and landmarks of London transformed through glitches into “a landscape of aging monuments and ornate buildings, but also one haunted by duplications and digital ghosts”:

The city’s double-­decker buses, scanned over and over again, become time-­stretched into featureless mega-­structures blocking whole streets at a time. Other buildings seem to repeat and stutter, a riot of Houses of Parliament jostling shoulder to shoulder with themselves in the distance. Workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes popping up as aberrations on the edge of the image. Glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke. Trossell calls these “mad machine hallucinations,” as if he and Shaw had woken up some sort of Frankenstein’s monster asleep inside the automotive industry’s most advanced imaging technology.

Along the way I had the pleasure of speaking to Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon and the author of Robot Futures, a book I previously featured here on the blog back in 2013. Nourbakhsh is impressively adept at generating potential narrative scenarios—speculative accidents, we might call them—in which technology might fail or be compromised, and his take on the various perceptual risks or interpretive short-comings posed by autonomous vehicle technology was fascinating.

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Alas, only one example from our long conversation made it into the final article, but it is worth repeating. Nourbakhsh used “the metaphor of the perfect storm to describe an event so strange that no amount of programming or image-­recognition technology can be expected to understand it”:

Imagine someone wearing a T-­shirt with a STOP sign printed on it, he told me. “If they’re outside walking, and the sun is at just the right glare level, and there’s a mirrored truck stopped next to you, and the sun bounces off that truck and hits the guy so that you can’t see his face anymore—well, now your car just sees a stop sign. The chances of all that happening are diminishingly small—it’s very, very unlikely—but the problem is we will have millions of these cars. The very unlikely will happen all the time.”

The most interesting takeaway from this sort of scenario, however, is not that the technology is inherently flawed or limited, but that these momentary mirages and optical illusions are not, in fact, ephemeral: in a very straightforward, functional sense, they become a physical feature of the urban landscape because they exert spatial influences on the machines that (mis-)perceive them.

Nourbakhsh’s STOP sign might not “actually” be there—but it is actually there if it causes a self-driving car to stop.

Immaterial effects of machine vision become digitally material landmarks in the city, affecting traffic and influencing how machines safely operate. But, crucially, these are landmarks that remain invisible to human beings—and it is ScanLAB’s ultimate representational goal here to explore what it means to visualize them.

While, in the piece, I compare ScanLAB’s work to the heyday of European Romanticism—that ScanLAB are, in effect, documenting an encounter with sublime and inhuman landscapes that, here, are not remote mountain peaks but the engineered products of computation—writer Asher Kohn suggested on Twitter that, rather, it should be considered “Italian futurism made real,” with sweeping scenes of streets and buildings unraveling into space like digital smoke. It’s a great comparison, and worth developing at greater length.

For now, check out the full piece over at The New York Times Magazine: “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars.”

Driving on Mars and the Theater of Machines

[Image: Self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Science has published a short profile of a woman named Vandi Verma. She is “one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars.”

Vera has driven a series of remote vehicles on another planet over the years, including, most recently, the Curiosity rover.

[Image: Another self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Driving it involves a strange sequence of simulations, projections, and virtual maps that are eventually beamed out from planet to planet, the robot at the other end acting like a kind of wheeled marionette as it then spins forward along its new route. Here is a long description of the process from Science:

Each day, before the rover shuts down for the frigid martian night, it calls home, Verma says. Besides relaying scientific data and images it gathered during the day, it sends its precise coordinates. They are downloaded into simulation software Verma helped write. The software helps drivers plan the rover’s route for the next day, simulating tricky maneuvers. Operators may even perform a dry run with a duplicate rover on a sandy replica of the planet’s surface in JPL’s Mars Yard. Then the full day’s itinerary is beamed to the rover so that it can set off purposefully each dawn.

What’s interesting here is not just the notion of an interplanetary driver’s license—a qualification that allows one to control wheeled machines on other planets—but the fact that there is still such a clear human focus at the center of the control process.

The fact that Science‘s profile of Verma begins with her driving agricultural equipment on her family farm in India, an experience that quite rapidly scaled up to the point of guiding rovers across the surface of another world entirely, only reinforces the sense of surprise here—that farm equipment in India and NASA’s Mars rover program bear technical similarities.

They are, in a sense, interplanetary cousins, simultaneously conjoined and air-gapped across two worlds..

[Image: A glimpse of the dreaming; photo by Alexis Madrigal, courtesy of The Atlantic].

Compare this to the complex process of programming and manufacturing a driverless vehicle. In an interesting piece published last summer, Alexis Madrigal explained that Google’s self-driving cars operate inside a Borgesian 1:1 map of the physical world, a “virtual track” coextensive with the landscape you and I stand upon and inhabit.

“Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven,” Madrigal writes. And, like the Mars rover program we just read about, “They pre-load the data for the route into the car’s memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect.”

The software knows what to expect because the vehicle, in a sense, is not really driving on the streets outside Google’s Mountain View campus; it is driving in a seamlessly parallel simulation of those streets, never leaving the world of the map so precisely programmed into its software.

Like Christopher Walken’s character in the 1983 film Brainstorm, Google’s self-driving cars are operating inside a topographical dream state, we might say, seeing only what the headpiece allows them to see.

[Image: Navigating dreams within dreams: (top) from Brainstorm; (bottom) a Google self-driving car, via Google and re:form].

Briefly, recall a recent essay by Karen Levy and Tim Hwang called “Back Stage at the Machine Theater.” That piece looked at the atavistic holdover of old control technologies—such as steering wheels—in vehicles that are actually computer-controlled.

There is no need for a human-manipulated steering wheel, in other words, other than to offer a psychological point of focus for the vehicle’s passengers, to give them the feeling that they can still take over.

This is the “machine theater” that the title of their essay refers to: a dramaturgy made entirely of technical interfaces that deliberately produce a misleading illusion of human control. These interfaces are “placebo buttons,” they write, that transform all but autonomous technical systems into “theaters of volition” that still appear to be under manual guidance.

I mention this essay here because the Science piece with which this post began also explains that NASA’s rover program is being pushed toward a state of greater autonomy.

“One of Verma’s key research goals,” we read, “has been to give rovers greater autonomy to decide on a course of action. She is now working on a software upgrade that will let Curiosity be true to its name. It will allow the rover to autonomously select interesting rocks, stopping in the middle of a long drive to take high-resolution images or analyze a rock with its laser, without any prompting from Earth.”

[Image: Volitional portraiture on Mars; via NASA].

The implication here is that, as the Mars rover program becomes “self-driving,” it will also be transformed into a vast “theater of volition,” in Levy’s and Hwang’s formulation: that Earth-bound “drivers” might soon find themselves reporting to work simply to flip placebo levers and push placebo buttons as these vehicles go about their own business far away.

It will become more ritual than science, more icon than instrument—a strangely passive experience, watching a distant machine navigate simulated terrain models and software packages coextensive with the surface of Mars.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I’ve been dying to write about, but I’ll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a “Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation.” It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be “an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning” in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. “DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin,” but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, “undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection.” The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean’s surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you’ve got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book “presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems,” or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of “astronomical reference frames,” and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent “hubs” on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These “hubs” would be “unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.” Hubs will be places where “unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.”

“You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them… basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues,” a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: “The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land.” This would include, for example, the “upward falling payloads” program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn’t entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? “The Navy’s very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces,” a January 1998 white paper called “Technical Report 1761” explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler’s role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) “The robots are winning!” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:

We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

Mendelsohn goes on to discuss “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil,” and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA’s now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot “moles”—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation’s pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use “a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads.” The company’s name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of “freight pipelines.”

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given “hubs” and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre “self-burying robot” from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous “secrecy of emerging weaponry” that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that “nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all.” On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia’s short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer’s excellent book Wired For War; that’s not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).

Infrastructure as Processional Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Arm

[Image: “Untitled #13,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

San Francisco-based designer and architect Andrew Kudless is always up to something interesting, and one of his most recent projects is no exception.

For a new group of small works called “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014), Kudless is exploring how robots might make visual art—in this specific case, by combining the instructional art processes of someone like Sol Lewitt with the carefully programmed movements of industrial machinery.

[Image: The robot at work, from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

In Kudless’s own words, “The work is inspired by the techniques of artists such as Sol Lewitt and others who explored procedural processes in the production of their work. The script, or set of rules, as well as the ability or inability of the robot to follow these instructions is the focus of the work. There is almost a primitive and gestural quality to the drawings created through the tension between the rules and the robot’s physical movement. Precisely imprecise.”

[Image: “Untitled #16,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

These giant robot arms, he continues, “are essentially larger, stronger, and more precise version of the human arm. Made up of a series of joints that mimic yet extend the movements of shoulder, elbow, and wrist, the robot has a wide range of highly control[led] motion. The real value of these robots is that, like the human arm, their usefulness is completely determined by the tool that is placed in its hand.”

So why only give robots tools like “welding torches, vacuum grippers, and saws,” he asks—why not give them pencils or brushes?

[Image: “Untitled #6 (1066 Circles each Drawn at Different Pressures at 50mm/s),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

The results are remarkable, but it’s specifically the unexpected combination of Lewittian instructional art with industrial robotics that I find so incredibly interesting. After all, Kudless ingeniously implies, it has always been the case that literally all acts of industrial assembly and production are, in a sense, Sol Lewitt-like activities—that conceptual art processes are hiding in plain sight all around us, overlooked for their apparent mundanity.

It’s as if, he suggests, every object fabricated—every car body assembled—has always and already been a kind of instructional readymade, or Sol Lewitt meets Marcel Duchamp on the factory floor.

With these, though, Kudless throws in some Agnes Martin for good measure, revealing the robot arms’ facility for minimalist lines and grids in a graceful set of two-dimensional drawings.

[Image: “Untitled #7 (1066 Lines Drawn between Random Points in a Grid),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

Kudless explains that “each of the works produced in this series was entirely programmed and drawn through software and hardware”:

None of the lines or curves was manually drawn either within the computer or in physical reality. Rather, I created a series of different scripts or programs in the computer that would generate not only the work shown here, but an infinite number of variations on a theme. Essential to the programming was understanding the relationships between the robot and human movement and control. Unlike a printer or plotter which draws from one side of the paper to the other, the robot produces the drawings similarly to how a human might: one line at a time. The speed, acceleration, brush type, ink viscosity, and many other variables needed to be considered in the writing of the code.

Various drawing styles were chosen to showcase this.

[Image: “Untitled #15 (Twenty Seven Nodes with Arcs Emerging from Each),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #3 (Extended Lines Drawn from 300 Points on an Ovoid to 3 Closest Neigh[bor]ing Points at 100mm/s)” (2014) from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #12,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #14,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

There are many more drawings visible on Kudless’s website, and I am already looking forward to “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 2.”

You can also purchase one of the prints, if you are so inclined; contact the Salamatina Gallery for more information.

(Very vaguely related: Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture).

Roentgen Objects, or: Devices Larger than the Rooms that Contain Them

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

An extraordinary exhibition last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured mechanical furniture designed by the father and son team of Abraham and David Roentgen: elaborate 18th-century technical devices disguised as desks and tables.

First, a quick bit of historical framing, courtesy of the Museum itself: “The meteoric rise of the workshop of Abraham Roentgen (1711–1793) and his son David (1743–1807) blazed across eighteenth-century continental Europe. From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”

Each piece, the Museum adds, was as much “an ingenious technical invention” as it was “a magnificent work of art,” an “elaborate mechanism” or series of “complicated mechanical devices” that sat waiting inside palaces and parlors for someone to come along and activate them.

If you can get past the visual styling of the furniture—after all, the dainty little details and inlays perhaps might not appeal to many BLDGBLOG readers—and concentrate instead only on the mechanical aspect of these designs, then there is something really incredible to be seen here.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

Hidden amidst drawers and sliding panels are keyholes, the proper turning of which results in other unseen drawers and deeper cabinets popping open, swinging out to reveal previously undetectable interiors.

But it doesn’t stop there. Further surfaces split in half to reveal yet more trays, files, and shelves that unlatch, swivel, and slide aside to expose entire other cantilevered parts of the furniture, materializing as if from nowhere on little rails and hinges.

Whole cubic feet of interior space are revealed in a flash of clacking wood flung forth on tracks and pulleys.

As the Museum phrases it, Abraham Roentgen’s “mechanical ingenuity” was “exemplified by the workings of the lower section” of one of the desks on display in the show: “when the key of the lower drawer is turned to the right, the side drawers spring open; if a button is pressed on the underside of these drawers, each swings aside to reveal three other drawers.”

And thus the sequence continues in bursts of self-expansion more reminiscent of a garden than a work of carpentry, a room full of wooden roses blooming in slow motion.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The furniture is a process—an event—a seemingly endless sequence of new spatial conditions and states expanding outward into the room around it.

Each piece is a controlled explosion of carpentry with no real purpose other than to test the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, offering little in the way of useful storage space and simply showing off, performing, a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.

Sufficiently voluminous furniture becomes indistinguishable from a dream.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

What was so fascinating about the exhibition—and this can be seen, for example, in some of the short accompanying videos (a few of which are archived on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website)—is that you always seemed to have reached the final state, the fullest possible unfolding of the furniture, only for some other little keyhole to appear or some latch to be depressed in just the right way, and the thing just keeps on going, promising infinite possible expansions, as if a single piece of furniture could pop open into endless sub-spaces that are eventually larger than the room it is stored within.

The idea of furniture larger than the space that houses it is an extraordinary topological paradox, a spatial limit-case like black holes or event horizons, a state to which all furniture makers could—and should—aspire, devising a Roentgen object of infinite volumetric density.

A single desk that, when unfolded, is larger than the building around it, hiding its own internal rooms and corridors.

Suggesting that they, too, were thrilled by the other-worldly possibilities of their furniture, the Roentgens—and I love this so much!—also decorated their pieces with perspectival illusions.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The top of a table might include, for example, the accurately rendered, gridded space of a drawing room, as if you were peering cinematically into a building located elsewhere; meanwhile, pop-up panels might include a checkerboard reference to other possible spaces that thus seemed to exist somewhere within or behind the furniture, lending each piece the feel of a portal or visual gateway into vast and multidimensional mansions tucked away inside.

The giddiness of it all—at least for me—was the implication that you could decorate a house with pieces of furniture; however, when unfolded to their maximum possible extent, these same objects might volumetrically increase the internal surface area of that house several times over, doubling, tripling, quadrupling its available volume. But it’s not magic or the supernatural—it’s not quadraturin—it’s just advanced carpentry, using millimeter-precise joinery and a constellation of unseen hinges.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

You could imagine, for example, a new type of house; it’s got a central service core lined with small elevators. Wooden boxes, perhaps four feet cubed, pass up and down inside the walls of the house, riding this network of dumbwaiters from floor to floor, where they occasionally stop, when a resident demands it. That resident then pops open the elevator door and begins to unfold the box inside, unlatching and expanding it outward into the room, this Roentgen object full of doors, drawers, and shelves, cantilevered panels, tabletops, and dividers.

And thus the elevators grow, simultaneously inside and outside, a liminal cabinetry both tumescent and architectural that fills up the space with spaces of its own, fractal super-furniture stretching through more than one room at a time and containing its own further rooms deep within it.

But then you reverse the process and go back through in the other direction, painstakingly shutting panels, locking drawers, pushing small boxes inside of larger boxes, and tucking it all up again, compressing it like a JPG back into the original, ultra-dense cube it all came from. You’re like some homebound god of superstrings tying up and hiding part of the universe so that others might someday rediscover it.

To have been around to drink coffee with the Roentgens and to discuss the delirious outer limits of furniture design would have been like talking to a family of cosmologists, diving deep into the quantum joinery of spatially impossible objects, something so far outside of mere cabinetry and woodwork that it almost forms a new class of industrial design. Alas, their workshop closed, their surviving objects today are limited in number, and the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now closed.

Books Received

[Image: Cincinnati Public Library, 1870s; photo via Steve Silberman].

It’s that time of the year again, to take a look at the many, many books that have passed through the halls of BLDGBLOG the past season or two, ranging, as usual, from popular science to fiction, landscape history to the urban future of the refugee camp.

There are some great books included in this round-up, ones I’d love to help find a wider audience—however, as will be clear from a handful of descriptions below, and as is always the case with book round-ups here on BLDGBLOG, I have not read every book included in the following list and not all of them are necessarily new.

However, in all cases, these books are included for the interest of their approach or for their general subject matter, and the wide range of themes present should give anyone at least a few interesting titles to seek out for autumn reading.


1) Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press)

One of the most enjoyable books of my summer was Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Lapsley’s history of “phone phreaks,” or people who successfully hacked the early phone networks into giving them free calls to one another and around the world, would read, in a different context, like some strange occult thriller featuring disaffected teenagers tapping into a supernatural world. Weird boxes, unexplained dial tones, and disembodied voices at the end of the line pop up throughout the book, as do surprise cameos from a pre-Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Teenagers throwing frequencies and sounds at vast machines through telephone handsets managed to unlock another dimension of the phone network, Lapsley explains, a byzantine geography of remote switching centers and international operators. In the process, they helped pave the way for the hackers we know today. I have heard, anecdotally, from a few people who were around and part of these groups at the time, that Lapsley got some of his details wrong, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of—or inability to put down—his book. Recommended, and very fun.

2) Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh (MIT Press)

This pamphlet-length book by Carnegie Mellon University’s Illah Reza Nourbakhsh on the future of robotics pays admirable attention to the fundamental problem of even defining what “robotics” is. Better yet, Nourbakhsh prefaces each of his short chapters with fictional interludes exploring speculative scenarios of future robotics gone awry. There is a disturbing vignette in which flying robot toys programmed to recognize human eye contact swarm around and terrify anyone not hiding their gaze behind wearing sunglasses—something the toys’ manufacturer never predicted—as well as a memorable scenario in which new forms of robot-readable graffiti throw entire self-driving traffic systems into a tizzy, making car after car wrongly report that an impenetrable roadblock lies ahead. Call it traffic-hacking.

In the end, Nourbakhsh suggests, robots will prove to be fundamentally different from human beings, and we should be prepared for his. “A robot moving down the street will see in all directions, not simply in front of it like humans,” he writes. “If that robot is connected to a network of video cameras along the street, it will see everywhere on the street, from all angles, the entire time it walks. Imagine this scenario. A not-very-clever robot walking down the street will have access to entire synthesized views of the street—up and down, behind you, down the alley, around the corner—and be able to scroll back through time with perfect fidelity. As you approach this robot, it might be cognitively much dumber than you, but it knows far more about its surroundings than you do. It stops suddenly. What do you do? There is no common ground established between you and this robot, just the fact that you occupy the same sidewalk.”


3) Beyond The Blue Horizon: How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked The Secrets Of The Oceans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)

Brian Fagan, an environmental historian known for his books on climate change and civilization, has written a great example of what might be called adventure-history. Beyond the Blue Horizon takes us through roughly twenty thousand—even potentially, depending on how you interpret the archaeological evidence, more than one hundred thousand—years of human seafaring. Every few pages, amidst tales of people sailing in small groups, even drifting, seemingly lost, for days at a time across vast expanses of open water, Fagan makes arresting observations, such as the fact that early Pacific navigators, laden down with seeds and plants, “literally carried their own landscape with them,” he writes.

The importance of the coast in supporting human settlement, and the absolute centrality of the sea—rather than continental interiors—in shaping human history, gives Fagan multiple opportunities to refocus our sense of our own remote past. We are not landed creatures of roads and automobiles, Fagan argues, but a maritime species whose entire childhood and adolescence was spent paddling past unknown coastlines, searching for freshwater rivers and streams—a “world of ceaseless movement,” as he calls it, including now lost islands, deltas, and coasts. Fagan’s brilliance at describing landscapes as they undergo both seasonal changes and variations in climate also applies to his depictions of Earthly geography when sea levels were, for most of the eras described in his book, more than 300 feet lower than it is today. It was another planet—a maritime world—one that humans seem to have lost sight of and forgotten.

4) The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press)

John R. Gillis’s look at “seacoasts in history” proves to be compulsively readable, sustaining many long subway rides for me here in New York, although the final few chapters fall off into unnecessarily long quotations from what seems like any random academic source he could find that mentioned the sea. This is too bad, because a shorter, more tightly edited version of this book would be a dream. Gillis is not shy about making outsized claims for revising the history of human civilization. The shore is “the true home of humankind,” he writes, “the original Eden.” He wants Westerners to forget the “terracentric history” they’ve been taught, which is, he points out, simply a historical misunderstanding of where humans actually spent 95%—the number Gillis uses—of their development: on shorelines and coastal islands.

“The book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked,” he writes, “but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” Gillis quotes the words of writer Steve Mentz here, who argued that we need “fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks” in our narrative understanding of human prehistory.

Gillis allows his book some intriguing political subthemes. He writes, for example, that “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.” He adds, “for the first century or more [of their habitation in the Americas], northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.” Rivers and lakes were the key to ruling North America, for a time; and, seemingly since the interior land rush of U.S. history, the “seaborne” ways of humans, with or without a state to back them, have been forgotten.

As a brief side note, it’s interesting here to look at the Somali pirates so often mythologized in Western media, including the forthcoming Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips—that stateless, seaborne groups of humans still exist and are the rogue scourge of landed empires (see also The Enemy of All by Daniel Heller-Roazan, etc.).

5) The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush by Davig Igler (Oxford University Press)

David Igler’s own book on all things anthropologically oceanic focuses solely on the Pacific Ocean, from the first wave of European exploration to early-modern sea trade. Igler, too, finds the land-locked nature of traditional history both claustrophobic and incorrect. “The ‘places’ usually subjected to historical analysis—nations, regions, and localities—have fixed borders enclosing land and thus constitute terrestrial history,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Historians have far less experience imagining the ways that oceanic space connects people and polities, rather than separating them.” Igler’s larger point—that tides, currents, and winds, even specific ships, are also, in a sense, “places” deserving of historical recognition—animates the rest of the book.

Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, And Future Of Human Space Exploration by Claude A. Piantadosi (Columbia University Press)

6) This book is admittedly quite hampered by its extraordinary practicality: there is very little poetry here, mostly straight talk of musculoskeletal disorders in low gravity and heat-loss from warm bodies in space. We begin on the ground floor, not only with a short and perhaps unnecessary history of the U.S. space program, but with the very basics of human physiology and the mechanics of flight. I suspect, however, that most readers are perfectly willing to jump into the deep end and read what’s on offer in the book’s later chapters: human visits to Mars, to asteroids, to “big planets, dwarf planets, and small bodies,” in Piantadosi’s words, to the “moons of the ice giants” and beyond. Ultimately, though, the book is simply too dry to feel like these later glimpses of “mankind beyond Earth,” as the title teasingly—and, for the most part, misleadingly—promises, are a worthy reward. If you must, one to look for in the local library.


7) Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday)

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 and thus, now, a colleague of mine, has exceeded all expectations with the research, depth, and range of this quirkily enthusiastic look at planetary mass extinction. Her early chapters on dinosaurs, plagues, extremophiles, world-altering volcanic eruptions, long geological eras when the Earth was locked in ice, possible human/Neanderthal guerrilla warfare (not to mention inter-breeding), and much more, are like a New Scientist article you hope never ends. It’s an exciting read.

Oddly, though, the central premise of the book—that, through urbanization, human beings will find ways to avoid their own extinction—feels tacked on and unconvincingly developed. If I’m being honest, it feels like Newitz is trying to make more of an ideological point about the political value and cultural centrality of cities today, rather than actually arguing rationally for the possibility that cities will save the human species. This is especially the case if we’re talking about—as, in this book, we are—catastrophic asteroid impacts or the outbreak of a super-virus. This otherwise gripping book thus has a bit of an are-you-serious? feel as it wraps up its final fifty pages or so. While advancing a theory of safety achieved through collective living, urban farming, and social cooperation, Newitz also inadvertently seems to contradict the first command of her book’s title: to scatter. That is, to fling ourselves to the far edges of the universe—to explore, survive, and mutate with the cosmos—not to band together, urbanize, and cooperate.

As such, it seems possible to imagine an identical version of this book—identical, that is, for 200 pages or so—but with a radically differnet ending: one in which truly scattering, adapting ourselves, isolating ourselves, and differentiating our civilizational pursuits—even differentiating our very DNA through evolution in separation—would be the most effective way to avoid human extinction. But that argument, it seems, is ideologically impermissible; it makes you an anti-state survivalist, a cosmic redneck, building bunkers in the Utah desert or on the moons of another world, more Ted Nugent than Stewart Brand.

In any case, putting political arguments like these aside, the book ends with a mind-popper of a quotation. In a conversation with Randii Wessen at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Wessen tells Newitz: “Our kids are the last generation who will see no city lights on the Moon.” This is both wonderful and terrible, and as concise a statement as I’ve read anywhere to show the human future rolling on.

8) Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings (Current)

Gifted science writer Lee Billings takes us on a search for other Earths—or, more accurately, for habitable “exoplanets” where life like us may or may not have a chance of existing. The book starts off with quite a coup. Billings treats us to a long, at-home visit with astronomer Frank Drake of Drake’s Equation fame: the abstract but reasonable calculation used for decades now to determine whether or not intelligent civilizations might exist elsewhere (and, by extension, how likely it is that humans will find them).

The book is not hard science, it is easy to follow, and Billings is a great writer; his tendency, however, veers toward the humanistic, following the life stories of individual astronomers or physicists here on Earth as they search the outer reaches of the detectable universe for signs of exoplanets.

A sizable diversion late in the book, for example, takes us on a canoe trip far into the Canadian north, past lakes and rivers, with a wary eye on approaching storms, to tell the story of how physicist Sara Seager met and fell in love with one of her colleagues. It is not a short diversion, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Seager’s canoe trip has little to do with the search for “life among the stars,” as the book’s subtitle suggests. It is at moments like this, as Seager and her partner paddle from one portage to another, that I found myself wondering if the only stories to tell are of other human beings—whether scientists or NASA administrators—then why, in a sense, are we looking for exoplanets at all?

Of course, the book jacket never promised us surreal descriptions of other worlds. But it’s hard not to hope for exactly that: that Billings would focus his considerable rhetorical powers away from our world for a few more chapters and offer those evocative glimpses of Earth-like planets I suspect so many readers will come to his book to find—visions of worlds like ours but magically, cosmically different—and thus communicate the beautiful, poetically irresistible urge to discover them. His introductory descriptions of the formation of our solar system, for instance, are breathtaking, clear, and poetic, and similar passages elsewhere show the pull of the exoplanetary; the narrative structure of the scientist profile seems inadvertently to have focused the bulk of the book’s attention here on Earth, where we are already bound, rather than to let the strange light of the universe shine through more frequently.

But this is like complaining about dessert after a delicious meal. I’ll simply hope that Billings’s next book concentrates more on the inhuman allure so peculiar to astronomy, a field astonishingly rich with worlds mortal humans long to see.

9) Are We Being Watched?: The Search for Life in the Cosmos by Paul Murdin (Thames & Hudson)

The off-putting and sensationalistic title of Paul Murdin’s new book is, thankfully, not a sign of things to come in the text itself. Murdin’s sober yet thrilling look at the history and future of astrobiology is a bright spot in a recent spate of books about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “The twenty-first century is the century of astrobiology,” he writes in the first sentence of chapter one; indeed, he adds with extraordinary confidence, “this is the era in which we will discover life on other worlds, and learn from it.”

Amidst many interesting tidbits, one worth repeating here actually comes from Murdin’s quotation of paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris. Conway-Morris, referring to the possibility of discovering truly alien life, rightly suggests that we could very well have no idea what we’re looking at. Indeed, he memorably says, these other life forms could be “constructions so unfamiliar that they are only brought home by accident and then inadvertently handed over for curation in a department of mineralogy.” The idea that rocks sitting quietly in a Natural History museum somewhere are actually alien life forms is mind-blowing and but one take-away from this thought-provoking book.

Over the course of Are We Being Watched?, Murdin enjoyably goes all over the place, from amino acids to plate tectonics, to radio-stimulated organic molecules in the atmosphere of Titan. As if channeling H.P. Lovecraft, Murdin at one point writes that, on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, scientists have seen the same churning processes as witnessed in Antarctica, but, on Europa, “we see the results of this churning as colored stains on ridges of ice at the boundaries of ice floes. Perhaps in these colored stains lie dead creatures, brought up from the depths of the ocean and exposed to view by orbiting spacecraft or landers that can rove over the surface.”

10) Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes (FSG)

Frankenstein’s Cat follows the 21st-century quest to re-engineer biology, to design “the fauna of the future,” as the book promises, or “biotech’s brave new beasts,” where resurrected species, pets with prostheses, and militarized insects crawl through forests of genetically modified trees. At once terrifying and thrilling, and animated in all cases by the gonzo enthusiasm of any science operating at seemingly unstoppable speed, Emily Anthes’s book shows the weird biological breakthroughs that will ultimately create the landscapes of tomorrow: the cities, gardens, parks, oceans, and backyards our descendants will inevitably mistake for nature (and then, eventually, dismiss as mundane).


11) Sweet & Salt: Water And The Dutch by Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel (NAi Publishers)

Journalist Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel have teamed up for this collaborative look at “environmental planning” in the Netherlands, with a focus on all things aquatic. While Metz visits the country’s numerous megaprojects and anti-flooding infrastructure to speak with water engineers, “dike wardens,” and other stewards of Holland’s relationship with rain and the sea, van den Heuvel assembles a spectacular catalog featuring visual depictions of waterworks throughout Dutch art history. This is “the visualization of water in art,” as she calls it, revealing “anxieties about flooding” and a deep-rooted infrastructural patriotism inspired by the technical means for controlling that flooding.

Ultimately, the book’s goal is to show how Dutch water management is changing in the face of rising sea levels and climate change, and how “water is coming back into the city,” as Metz writes, changing the nature of contemporary urban design.

12) Dutch New Worlds: Scenarios in Physical Planning and Design in the Netherlands, 1970-2000 by Christian Salewski (010 Publishers)

This well-illustrated history and catalog of large-scale hydrological projects in the Netherlands—and the “Dutch new worlds” those projects helped generate—offers a provocative look at the very idea of infrastructure. Salewski suggests that a nation’s infrastructure is like literature or mythology, a built narrative in which a much larger constellation of dreams and aspirations can be read. “There is no Dutch Hollywood,” Salewski writes, “no cinematic dream machine that constantly processes the current view of the future into easily digestible, mass-consumed science fiction movies. Dutch views into the future are probably best found not in cultural works of literature and art, but in physical planning designs.” That is, in the dams, dikes, levees, and polders the rest of the book goes on to so interestingly describe. Infrastructure, Salewski offers, is one of many ways in which a nation dreams.

13) Bird On Fire: Lessons From The World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross (Oxford University Press)

Andrew Ross takes a critical look at Phoenix, Arizona, a desert city “sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.” As the city tries to “green” itself through boosts in public transportation and a more sensible water management strategy—among other things—Ross asks if an urban transformation, something that might save Phoenix from its current parched fate, is even possible.

14) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (Oxford University Press)

Kate Brown’s Plutopia creates a horrifying set of conjoined urban twins, so to speak, by both comparing and contrasting the purpose-built plutonium production towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia. These were fully planned and state-supported facilities, yet both were also highly delicate, secret cities—in Ozersk’s case, literally off the map—constantly at risk of nuclear disaster. And disaster, of course, eventually comes.

Brown points out how, between the two of them, Richland and Ozersk released four times the amount of radiation into the environment as the meltdown at Chernobyl, and she tracks the disturbing long-term health and environmental effects in the surrounding regions. In both cases, perhaps cynically, perhaps inspiringly, these polluted regions have become nature reserves.

In a particularly troubling anecdote from the final chapter, referring to the experience of Richland, Brown points out that “periodically deer and rabbits wander from the preserve and leave radioactive droppings on Richland’s lawns,” but also, more seriously, that multiple wineries have sprung up perilously close to the hazard zone, “near the mothballed plutonium plant.” While sipping wine at one of those very vineyards, Brown tries to talk to the locals about the potential for radiation in the soil—and, thus, in the wine—but, unsurprisingly, they react to her questions “testily.”

These carefully manicured utopian towns, like scenes from The Truman Show crossed with Silkwood, with their dark role in the state production of plutonium, give us the “Plutopia” of the book’s title. Ozersk and Richland are “citadels of plutonium,” she writes, instant cities of the atomic age.


15) From Camp To City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara by Manuel Herz (Lars Müller Publishers)

Based on original research from a studio taught at the ETH in Zurich, architect Manuel Herz has assembled this fascinating and important guide to the urban and quasi-urban structures of refugee camps. Focusing specifically on camps in extreme southwest Algeria, populated by people fleeing from conflict in the Western Sahara, these camps are, Herz suggests, Western instant urbanism stripped bare, the city shown at its factory presets, revealing the infrastructural defaults and basic political conditions of the modern metropolis. They are “the spatial manifestation of the state of exception,” he writes, citing Giorgio Agamben, mere “holding areas” in which urban forms slowly take shape and crystallize. The camps are where, Herz writes, “Architecture and planning becomes [sic] a replacement for a political solution.”

From the architecture of the tents themselves to the delivery infrastructures that bring water, food, and other vital goods to their inhabitants, to culturally specific spatial accouterments, like carpets and curtains, Herz shows how the camps manage to become cities almost in spite of themselves, and how these cities then offer something like training grounds for future nations to come. In Herz’s own words, “the camps act also as a training phase, during which the Sahrawi society [of the Western Sahara] can develop ideas and concepts of what system of education they want to establish, and learn about public health and medical service provision. The camps become a space where nation-building can be learned and performed, to be later transferred to their original homeland, if it becomes available in the future.”

This idea of the state-in-waiting—and its ongoing spatial rehearsal in the form of emergency camps—runs throughout the book, which is also a detailed, full-color catalog of almost every conceivable spatial detail of life in these refugee camps. In the process, Herz and his team have assembled a highly readable and deeply fascinating look at urbanism in its most exposed or raw condition. “In the blazing sun of the Sahara Desert,” he concludes, “we can observe the birth of the urban condition with a clarity and crispness almost unlike anywhere else in the world.”

16) Roman Disasters by Jerry Toner (Polity)

Cambridge Classicist Jerry Toner had described his wide range of interests as being centered on the notion of “history from below.” He has written prolifically about ancient Rome, in particular, from several unexpected points of view, including popular culture in antiquity, the smellscape of early Christianity, and an currently in-progress work on crime in the ancient metropolis.

Roman Disasters looks specifically at imperial disaster-response, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic fires, warfare, and disease. Toner describes how the abstract notion of risk was first formulated and understood; the role of religious prophecy in “imagining future disaster”; and halting, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to construct a fireproof metropolis, such as the widening of city streets and the creation of a semi-permanent Roman fire brigade.

Very much a history, rather than a page-turner directed at a popular audience, Roman Disasters nonetheless offers a compelling and unexpected look at the ancient world, one peppered with refugee camps, tent cities, and displaced populations all looking for—and not necessarily finding—imperial beneficence.

17) Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (FSG)

Robin Nagle is an “anthropologist-in-residence” at the NYC Department Sanitation. Picking Up is her document of that incredible—and strange—backstage pass to the afterlife of the city, where all that we discard or undervalue simply gets tossed to the curb. Nagle tags along with, interviews, and reveals the “garbage faeries” who rid our streets of the unwanted detritus of everyday life, whether trash or snow. In the process, she’s written a kind of narrative map or oral history of another New York, one with its own flows and infrastructure, and one that exists all but invisibly alongside the one we inhabit everyday.

18) Factory Towns of South China: An Illustrated Guidebook edited by Stefan Al (Hong Kong University Press)

Architect Stefan Al, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a team of researchers to the Pearl River Delta, the “factory of the world,” to explore how people live and—even more—how they work in the region. A fascinating glimpse at the “self-contained world” of what amounts to corporate-industrial urbanism, the book nonetheless feels very much like a book assembled by architects who had a grant for producing a publication: it is heavy on comparative infographics, layered images, pie charts, and small-print introductory essays, all on coated paper resistant to underlining. The subject matter is fascinating, but the book is ultimately of less use than, say, sending Robin Nagle to visit these “factory towns of south China,” reporting back about the complicated lives and material cultures found there.


19) Ruin Nation: Destruction And The American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press)

Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation is a kind of Piranesian guide to the Civil War ruins of American cities of the 19th century. The book is a bit slow and overly cautious in its descriptions, but it is remarkable for a specific focus on architectural ruins following the Civil War. “Architectural ruins—cities and houses—dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the Civil War,” she writes in the book’s introduction, a time when whole cities were reduced to “lone chimneys” amidst the smoke and obliteration of urban warfare. We often hear—especially post-9/11—that Americans have never really experienced war and destruction on their own soil, but Nelson’s book convincingly and devastatingly shows how inaccurate a statement that is.

20) Line In The Sand: A History Of The U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John (Princeton University Press)

Heading west from the Gulf Coast, the U.S.-Mexico border takes an unexpected turn when you get past El Paso, Texas—that is, by not really turning at all. The border instead becomes a series of abnormally, mathematically straight lines, cutting, with only a few diversions north and south, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It thus no longer follows any natural feature, such as the Rio Grande River.

But why is the border exactly here, and why the rigid, linear path that it takes? Rachel St. John’s “history of the western U.S.-Mexico border” looks at sovereignty, surveying, geography, diplomacy, war, conquest, and private property to piece together the tangled story of this “line in the sand” and the people (and economies) it has divided. Line in the Sand—which often has the ungainly feel of a Ph.D. thesis later edited into a book—ends with a critical look at the “operational security” falsely promised by a border fence, and a more hopeful look at mutations of the border region yet to come.

21) The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon To Richter by Deborah R. Coen (University of Chicago Press)

Deborah Coen’s Earthquake Observers looks at the history of seismology—or the study of earthquakes—but, more specifically, seismology’s transition from something like a folk art of human observation to an instrumented science. It is a consistently interesting book, so much so that I invited Coen to speak to my class at Columbia last semester.

The book includes a great deal worth mentioning here, from the gender of early earthquake observers—writing, for example, specifically in reference to early-modern domesticity, that “a quiet, housebound lifestyle and close attention to the arrangement of domestic objects put many bourgeois women in an excellent position to detect tremors”—to the literally geopolitical effects of earthquakes. In the latter case, a state of emergency following catastrophic seismic events helped to influence 20th-century legal theory as well as to challenge accepted hierarchies of what it means for a state to respond. “Particularly in the Balkans,” she writes, “earthquakes called into question the political framework that tied the monarchy’s fringes to its two capitals: which level of the state’s intricate web of governance would respond?”

John Muir, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the study of earthquake-related traumas, or “seismopathology,” all make their appearance in Coen’s study of how seismology became both modern and scientific.


22) From Roof To Table: Photographs By Rob Stephenson by Rob Stephenson (Design Trust for Public Space)

This magazine-style pamphlet of images by photographer Rob Stephenson documents urban farming efforts—not necessarily limited to roofs—across New York City. Plots of land beside empty brick warehouses, backyards, and even university labs bloom with fruits and vegetables in Stephenson’s full-color shots. “With the influx of people to cities and a continuing rise in the financial and environmental costs of shipping food, the widespread and large-scale adoption of urban agriculture seems inevitable,” Stephenson writes in an accompanying project description. “New York City, with its network of backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and rooftop farms, is at the forefront of this transformation.”

23) The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press)

Gordon Campbell’s history of the garden hermit attempts to discover why the phenomenon of the live-in hermit—an actual human being, installed in a landscaped garden, acting as a form of living ornament—arose at all. Along the way, he explores what architectural structures these hermits required and the cultural motifs their strange roles kicked off. “Who were these people?” Campbell asks. “Why did landowners think it appropriate to have them in their gardens? What function did they serve?”


24) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Killcullen (Oxford University Press)

Military strategist David Kilcullen takes on the urban future of war, arguing that armed conflict will occur more often, and with increasingly devastating effects, in cities. If the future is such that, in his words, “all aspects of human life—including, but not only, conflict, crime and violence—will be crowded, urban, networked and coastal,” then it only makes sense to attempt to make sense of this, both sociologically and from the perspective of the military.

Citing everything from Richard Norton’s revolutionary notion of the “feral city” to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums—Davis, in fact, blurbs the book—Kilcullen has written a must-read for anyone unconvinced by the rosy take on cities and their triumphant future currently dominating the best-seller list.

25) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (PublicAffairs)

Radley Blako’s libertarian take on the “militarization of America’s police forces” is more Rand Paul than ACLU, if you will, but it’s a worthy read for all sides of the political debate. It opens with the jarring rhetorical question, “Are cops constitutional?” And it goes on from there to discuss legal debates on federal power and the 3rd and 4th Amendments, a short history of military tactics creeping into the U.S. police arsenal following urban riots in Watts, the rise of reality TV shows seemingly encouraging police belligerence, the War on Drugs, the Occupy Movement, today’s all but ubiquitous Taser (and its abuse), no-knock raids, and more.

If you’re interested in cities, you should also be interested in how those cities are policed, and this is as interesting a place as any to start digging.

26) Manhunts: A Philosophical History by Grégoire Chamayou (Princeton University Press)

I picked up a copy of this book after an interesting, albeit brief, email exchange with L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who described a shift from the high-speed chase (that is, a large amount of space covered at high speed) to the manhunt (or a limited space studied with incredible intensity).

I’ve written about Hawthorne’s observation at greater length in my own forthcoming book about crime and architecture, and, while researching that book, I thought Grégoire Chamayou’s Manhunts would be a helpful reference. It was not, if I’m being honest, but it is, nonetheless, a striking work on its own terms: a history of what it means to hunt human beings, from runaway slaves and “illegal aliens” to Jews in World War II. He calls this an “anthropology of the predator”—“a history and a philosophy of hunting powers and their technologies of capture”—wherein the prey subject to destruction is a banished or shunned human being, terrifyingly relegated to the status of animal.

27) Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (New York Review of Books Classics)

This strange, quite short, and very readable novel, recently brought back into print by the New York Review of Books, tells the story of a British political agent who fails in his attempt to assassinate an unnamed German political leader (who is, clearly, Adolf Hitler). The man flees Germany for the comparative safety of England, only to be relentlessly—and, as it happens, successfully—hunted by German agents intent on revenge.

It both does and does not spoil the rest of the book to reveal that the hunted man literally goes to ground, terrestrializing himself by digging a burrow in the Earth and hiding out there amidst the mud, the exposed tree roots, the darkness, and his own waste, sleeping unwashed in a humiliating cave of his own making, his clothes rotten, his feet swollen by rain, living underground at the side of a small lane in Britain’s agrarian hinterland. When he is found—and he is found—what could descend into a Rambo-like scene of violence and retaliation instead offers something that is still violent but far stranger, as this nearly worldchanging political actor, a failed assassin who could have changed the 20th century, finds a way to escape his grotesque and feral state.

Have a good autumn, and enjoy the books.

* * *

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

(Thanks to Dan Bergevin for my copy of Out of the Mountains).

They Come From Everywhere: An Interview with Mike Elizalde

Many of today’s most original and bizarre visions of alternative worlds and landscapes come from the workshops of Hollywood effects studios. Behind the scenes of nondescript San Fernando Valley offices and warehouse spaces (if not outside California altogether, in many of the other nodes in the ever-expanding global network of cinematic effects production, from suburban London to Wellington, New Zealand), lurk the multidisciplinary teams whose job it is to create tomorrow’s monsters.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion applies make-up to actor Ron Perlman, as Hellboy.

Spectral Motion, the effects house responsible for some of the most technically intricate and physically stunning animatronic creatures seen in feature film today, is no exception. Based in a small strip of anonymous one-story warehouse spaces squeezed in between a freeway and rail tracks, and overshadowed by a gargantuan Home Depot, Spectral Motion has developed monsters, effects, and other mechanical grotesqueries that have since become household nightmares, if not names.

Since its founding, by Mike & Mary Elizalde in 1994, the firm has worked on such films as Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Looper, Attack the Block, Blade 2 & Blade: Trinity, X-Men: First Class, The Watch, and this summer’s highly anticipated Pacific Rim.



This winter, while out in Los Angeles on a trip for Venue, I had the enormous pleasure of stopping by Spectral Motion with Nicola Twilley in order to interview Mike Elizalde, CEO of Spectral Motion, on a cloudy day in Glendale to talk all things monstrous and disturbing. To a certain extent, this interview thus forms the second part in a series with BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and the present conversation, reproduced below, pairs well with Mignola’s thoughts on what we might call landscapes of monstrosity.

Our conversation with Elizalde ranged from the fine line that separates the grotesque and the alien to the possibility of planetary-scale creatures made using tweaked geotextiles, via the price of yak hair and John Carpenter’s now-legendary Antarctic thriller, The Thing.

Mike Elizalde behind his desk at Spectral Motion.

Elizalde, a good-humored conversationalist, not only patiently answered our many questions—with a head cold, no less—but then took us on a tour through Spectral Motion‘s surprisingly large workshop. We saw miniature zombie heads emerging from latex molds (destined for a film project by Elizalde’s own son), costumes being sewn by a technician named Claire Flewin for an upcoming attraction at Disneyland, and a bewildering variety of body parts—heads, torsos, claws, and even a very hairy rubber chest once worn by footballer Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Stand—that were either awaiting, or had already performed, their celluloid magic.

The visit ended with a screening of Spectral Motion‘s greatest hits, so to speak, with in-house photographer and archivist Kevin McTurk—a chance to see the company’s creations in their natural habitat. We walked back out into the flat light and beige parking lots of the Valley, a landscape enlivened by our heightened sense of the combination of close observation and inspired distortion required to transform the everyday into the grotesque.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all: how would you describe Spectral Motion and what the company does?

Mike Elizalde: We are principally a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio, but we are also a multifaceted design studio. We do a lot of different kinds of work. Most recently, for example, in partnership with one of my long-time colleagues, Mark Setrakian, we built anthropomorphic bipedal hydraulic robots that engage in battle, for a reality show for Syfy. It’s called RCLRobot Combat League. It’s pretty astounding what these machines can do, including what they can do to each other.

Battling it out in Robot Combat League with two robots—”eight-feet tall, state-of-the-art humanoid robots controlled by human ‘robo-jockeys,'” in the words of Syfy—designed by Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion.

Nicola Twilley: Are the robot battles choreographed, or do you genuinely not know which robot will win?

Elizalde: Oh, no, absolutely—it’s a contest. It really is about which robot will emerge as the victorious contender.

RCL is not only one of our most recent projects, but it also shows that, here at the studio, we can do everything from a very delicate prosthetic application on an actor, to an animatronic character in a film, to something that’s completely out of our comfort zone—like building battling robots.

I always tell people that, if they come in here with a drawing of a car, we could build that car. It is a very diverse group that we work with: artists, technicians, and, of course, we use all the available or cutting-edge technologies out there in the world to realize whatever it is that we are required to make.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion shows us a creature.

Manaugh: What kind of design briefs come to you? Also, when a client comes to you, typically how detailed or amorphous is their request?

Elizalde: Sometimes it is very vague. But, typically, what happens is we’re approached with a script for a project. Our job is to go through the script and create a breakdown and, ultimately, a budget based on those breakdowns. We take whatever we think we should build for that script and we make suggestions as to how each thing should look—what should move, what the design should be, and so on.

Other times, we’ll be working with a director who’s very involved and who maybe even has some technical knowledge of what we do—especially someone like Guillermo del Toro. He’s completely savvy about what we do because he used to own a creature shop of his own, so working with someone like him is much more collaborative; he comes to us with a much more clear idea of what he wants to see in his films. Lots of times, he’ll even show us an illustration he’s done. He’s the first one to say, “I’m not an artist!” But he really is. He’s quite gifted.

The creature known as Wink from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, designed by Spectral Motion, including a shot of the mechanical understructure used inside Wink’s left hand.

So he’ll bring us his illustrations and say, you know, “You tell me if it’s going to be a puppet, an animatronic puppet, or a creature suit that an actor can wear.” And that’s where our knowhow comes in. That’s how it evolves.

There are also times—with the robot show, for example—where they know exactly what they need but they don’t know how to achieve it. In those cases, they come to us to do that for them.

Twilley: Can you talk us through one of the projects you’ve worked on where you had to create your vision based solely on what’s in the script, rather than more collaborative work with the director? What’s that process like?

Elizalde: Well, I’d actually say that ninety percent of our work is that way. For most of the projects we work on, we do, in fact, just get a script and the director says, “Show me what this looks like.” But we love that challenge. It’s really fun for us to get into the artistic side of developing what the appearance of something will end up looking like.

We had a lot of fun working with a director named Tommy Wirkola, for example, who directed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. He was the director of Dead Snow, a really strange Norwegian film that involved this group of young kids who go off to a cabin where they’re hunted down by a hoard of horrifying zombie Nazi monsters. It’s really grisly.

Anyway, although Tommy did have really good ideas about what he wanted his characters to look like for Hansel & Gretel, there were certain characters whose descriptions were much more vague—also because there was such a broad scope of characters in the film. So they did rely on us to come up with a lot of different looks based on loose descriptions. In the end, the principal characters in the film were total collaborations between Tommy, myself, and Kevin Messick, the producer, and the rest of my team here at Spectral Motion, of course.

I’d say that’s a good example of both worlds, where you have some clear ideas about a few characters, but, for another group of characters, there really isn’t a whole lot of information or a detailed description. You have to fill in a lot of blanks.

Mark Setrakian, Thom Floutz , and Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion pose with Sammael from Hellboy.

Twilley: What kinds of things do you look for in a script to give you a clue about how a character might work—or is that something that simply comes out when you’re sketching or modeling?

Elizalde: In a script, we basically know what we’re looking for: “Enter a monster.” We know that’s what we’re going be doing, so we look for those moments in the script. Sometimes there’s a brief description—something like, “the monster’s leathery hide covered in tentacles.” That kind of stuff gives us an immediate visual as to what we want to create. Then we explore it with both two-dimensional artwork and three-dimensional artwork, and both digital and physical.

In fact [gestures at desk], these are some examples of two-dimensional artwork that we’ve created to show what a character will look like. This [points to statuette above desk] is a maquette for one of the characters in Hellboy II—the Angel of Death. This was realized at this scale so that del Toro could see it and say, “That’s it. That’s what I want. Build that.” This actually began as an illustration that Guillermo did in his sketchbook, a very meticulous and beautiful illustration that he came to us with.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

But that’s the process: illustration and then maquette. Sometimes, though, we’ll do a 3D illustration in the computer before we go to the next stage, just to be able to look at something virtually, in three dimensions, and to examine it a little bit more before we invest the energy into creating a full-blown maquette.

The maquette, as a tool, can be very essential for us, because it allows us to work out any bugs that might be happening on a larger scale, design-wise. Practically speaking, it doesn’t give us a lot of information as to how the wings are going to work, or how it’s going to function; but it does tell us that a human being could actually be inside of it and that it could actually work as a full-scale creature. It’s essential for those reasons.

Simon, the mechanical bird from Your Highness, before paint has been applied, revealing the internal workings.

Because you can show a director a drawing, and it might look really terrific—but, when it comes to actually making it, in a practical application at scale, sometimes the drawing just doesn’t translate. Sometimes you need the maquette to help describe what the finished piece will look like.

Manaugh: You mentioned animatronics and puppeteering. We were just up at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena yesterday afternoon, talking to them about how they program certain amounts of autonomy into their instruments, especially if it’s something that they’re putting on Mars. It has to be able to act on its own, at times, because it doesn’t have enough time to wait for the command signal from us back on Earth. I’m curious, especially with something like the robot combat show, how much autonomy you can build into a piece. Can you create something that you just switch on and let go, so that it functions as a kind of autonomous or even artificially intelligent film prop?

Elizalde: It really depends on the application. For example, when we’re filming something, a lot of times there’s a spontaneity that’s required. Sometimes actors like to ad lib a little bit. If we need to react to something that an actor is saying via a puppet—an animatronic puppet—then that live performance really is required. But we always have the option of going to a programmable setup, one where we can have a specific set of parameters, performance-wise, to create a specific scene.

For live performances on a stage, we’d probably want to program that with the ability to switch over to manual, if required. But, if it’s scripted—if it’s a beat-by-beat performance—then we know that can be programmable. We can turn on the switch and let it go. In the middle of that, you can then stop it, and have a live show, with puppeteers in the background filling in the blanks of whatever that performance is, and then you can continue with the recorded or programmed performance.

It really goes back and forth, depending on what it is the people who are putting on the production need.

The mechanical skull under structure of the Ivan the Corpse from Hellboy.

Twilley: That’s an interesting point—the idea of how a live actor responds to your creatures. Have there been any surprises in how an actor has responded, or do they all tend to know what they’re getting into by the time you’re filming?

Elizalde: They do know what they’re getting into, but it’s always rewarding to have an actor go over to the thing that you built, and stare at it, and say, “Oh, my God! Look at that thing!” They can feed off of that. I think they are able to create a more layered performance, with a lot more depth in their reactions to something if it’s actually there—if it’s present, if it has life to it, and it’s tactile.

A lot of times people turn to digital solutions. That’s also good, if the application is correct. But, you know, a lot of directors that we talk to are of the mind that a practical effect is far better for exactly that reason—because the actor does have a co-actor to work with, to play off of, and to have feelings about.

That’s one of the things that keeps us going. And, the fact is, with this business, no matter what walks through that door we know that it’s going to be a completely different set of challenges from the last thing that we did.

Mechanical puppet of Drake from a Sprite commercial. Scott Millenbaugh and Jurgen Heimann of Spectral Motion are seen here making mechanical adjustments.

Manaugh: About six years ago, I interviewed a guy who did concept art for the Star Wars prequels, and he had a kind of pet obsession with building upside-down skyscrapers—that is, skyscrapers that grew downwards like stalactites. He kept trying to get them into a movie. He would build all of these amazing 3D models and show them to the director, and the director was always excited—but then he’d turn the model upside-down and say, “Let’s do it like this!” So all the upside-down skyscrapers would just be right-side up again. In any case, this artist was then working on the recent Star Trek reboot, and there’s a brief moment where you see upside-down skyscrapers on the planet Vulcan. It’s only on screen for about a second and a half, but he finally did it—he got his upside-down skyscrapers into a film.

Elizalde: [laughs] But, ohhh! For half-a-second! [laughter]

Manaugh: Exactly. Anyway, in the context of what you do here at Spectral Motion, I’m curious if there is something like that, that you’ve been trying to get into a movie for the last few years but that just never quite makes it. A specific monster, or a new material, or even a particular way of moving, that keeps getting rejected.

Elizalde: That’s an interesting question. [pauses] You know, I’d have to say no. I’d say it seems like the more freely we think, the better the result is. So it’s quite the contrary: most of the stuff we suggest actually does make it into the film, because it’s something that someone else didn’t think about. Or perhaps we’ve added some movement to a character, or we’ve brought something that will elicit a more visceral reaction from the audience—bubbly skin, for instance, or cilia that wiggle around.

I don’t think I’ve really encountered a situation where I thought something would look great, but, when I brought it to a director, they said, “Nah—I don’t think that’s going to go. Let’s not try that.” They always seem to say, “Let’s try it! It sounds cool!”

Mike Elizalde applies some last-minute touch-ups to actor Ron Perlman on the set of Hellboy.

We really haven’t had a whole lot of frustration—maybe only when it turns into a very large committee making a decision on the film. Then, I suppose, a certain degree of frustration is more typical. But that happens in every industry, not just ours: the more people are involved in deciding something, the more difficult it is to get a clear image of what it is we’re supposed to do.

Manaugh: When we first spoke to set-up this interview, I mentioned that we’d be touring the landfill over at Puente Hills this morning, on our way here to meet you—it’s the biggest active landfill in the United States. What’s interesting is that it’s not only absolutely massive, it’s also semi-robotic, in the sense that the entire facility—the entire landscape—is a kind of mechanical device made from methane vents and sensors and geotextiles, and it grows everyday by what they call a “cell.” A “cell” is one square-acre, compacted twenty feet deep with trash. Everyday!

But I mention this because, during our visit there, I almost had the feeling of standing on top of a mountain-sized creature designed by Spectral Motion—a strange, half-living, half-mechanical monstrosity in the heart of the city, growing new “cells” every day of its existence. It’s like something out of Hellboy II. So I’m curious about the possibilities of a kind of landscape-scale creature—how big these things can get before you need to rely on CGI. Is it possible to go up to that scale, or what are the technical or budgetary limitations?

A Tyrannosaurus rex in a bathtub in the back prep rooms of Spectral Motion.

Elizalde: We can’t build mountains yet but, absolutely, we can go way up in scale! Many times, of course, we have to rely, at least to some degree, on digital effects—but that just makes our job easier, by extending what is possible, practically, and completing it cinematically, on screen, at a much larger scale.

For example, on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s new film that comes out this summer, we designed what are called Jaegers. They’re basically just giant robots. And we also designed the Kaiju, the monsters in the film. First, we created maquettes, just like the ones here, and we made several versions of each to reflect the final designs you’ll see in the film. Those were taken and re-created digitally so they could be realized at a much larger scale.

To that degree, we can create something enormous. There’s a maquette around here somewhere of a character we designed for the first Hellboy movie—actually, there are two of them. One of those characters is massive—about the size of a ten-story building—and the other one is much, much bigger. It’s the size of… I don’t know, a small asteroid. There really is no limit to the scale, provided we can rely on a visual effects company to help us realize our ultimate goal.

The animatronic jaws and bioluminescent teeth (top) of the alien creature (bottom) designed by Spectral Motion for Attack the Block.

But going the opposite direction, scale-wise, is also something that interests us. We can make something incredibly tiny, depending on what the film requires. There is no limit in one direction or the other as to what can be achieved, especially with the power of extension through digital effects.

Manaugh: Just to continue, briefly, with the Puente Hills reference, something that we’ve been interested in for the past few years is the design of geotextiles, where companies like TenCate in the Netherlands are producing what are, effectively, landscape-scale blankets made from high-quality mesh, used to stabilize levees or to add support to the sides of landfills. But some of these geotextiles are even now getting electromagnetic sensors embedded in them, and there’s even the possibility of a geotextile someday being given mechanical motion—so it’s just fascinating, I think, to imagine what you guys could do with a kind of monstrous or demonic geotextile, as if the surface of the earth could rise up as a monster in Hellboy III.

Elizalde: [laughs] Well, now that I know about it, I’ll start looking into it!

Twilley: Aside from scale, we’re also curious about the nature of monsters in general. This is a pretty huge question, but what is a monster? What makes something monstrous or grotesque? There seems to be such a fine line between something that is alien—and thus frightening—and something that is so alienating it’s basically unrecognizable, and thus not threatening at all.

Elizalde: Exactly. Right, right.

Twilley: So how do you find that sweet spot—and, also, how has that sweet spot changed over time, at least since you’ve been in the business? Are new things becoming monstrous?

Elizalde: Well, I think my definition of a monster is simply a distortion: something that maybe looks close to a human being, for example, but there’s something wrong. It can be something slight, something subtle—like an eye that’s just slightly out of place—that makes a monster. Even a little, disturbing thing like that can frighten you.

So it doesn’t take a lot to push things to the limit of what I would consider the grotesque or the monstrous. At that point, it runs the gamut from the most bizarre and unimaginable things that you might read in an H. P. Lovecraft story to something simple, like a tarantula with a human head. Now there’s something to make me scream! I think there’s a very broad range. But you’re right: it’s a huge question.

Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion working on the animatronic head of Edward the Troll from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

And sometimes the monstrous defies definition. I guess it’s more of a primal reaction—something you can’t quite put your finger on or describe, but something that makes you feel uneasy. It makes you feel uncomfortable or frightened. A distortion of what is natural, or what you perceive as natural, something outside what you think is the order of things—or outside what you think is acceptable within what we’ve come to recognize as natural things—then that’s a monster. That’s a monstrous thing.

Do you recall seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing?

Manaugh: It’s one of my favorite movies.

Elizalde: My goodness, the stuff in that film is the stuff of nightmares. It really is brilliantly executed, and it’s a great inspiration to all of the people in our industry who love monsters, and to all the fans all over the world who love monstrous things.

Actor Ron Perlman gets make-up applied for his role as Hellboy, as director Guillermo del Toro and Mike Elizalde from Spectral Motion stop in for a visit.

Twilley: Have there been trends over time? In other words, do you find directors look for a particular kind of monster at a particular moment in time?

Elizalde: I do think there are trends—although I think it’s mainly that there’s a tendency here in Hollywood where somebody hears a rumor that someone down the street is building a film around this particular creature, so that guy’s now got to write a similar script to compete. But sometimes the trends are set by something groundbreaking, like The Thing. Once that movie was released, everybody paid attention and a whole new area of exploration became available to create amazing moments in cinema.

Those are the real trends, you know. It’s a symbiosis that happens between the artistic community and the technological community, and it’s how it keeps advancing. It’s how it keeps growing. And it keeps us excited about what we do. We feed off of each other.

Technician Claire Flewin uses her hand to demonstrate how yak hair looks stretched over a mold.

Manaugh: Speaking of that symbiosis, every once in a while, you’ll see articles in a magazine like New Scientist or you’ll read a press release coming out of a school like Harvard, saying that they’ve developed, for instance, little soft robots or other transformable, remote-control creatures for post-disaster reconnaissance—things like that. I mention this because I could imagine that you might have multiple reactions to something like that: one reaction might be excitement—excitement to discover a new material or a new technique that you could bring into a film someday—but the other reaction might be something almost more like, “Huh. We did that ten years ago.” I’m curious as to whether you feel, because of the nature of the movies that you work on, that the technical innovations you come up with don’t get the attention or professional recognition that they deserve.

Elizalde: I think your assessment is accurate on both counts. There are times when we see an innovation, or a scientific development, that we think could be beneficial to our industry; in fact, that happens all the time. There’s cross-pollination like that going on constantly, where we borrow from other industries. We borrow from the medical industry. We borrow from the aerospace industry. We borrow, really, from whatever scientific developments there are out there. We seek them out and we do employ some of those methods in our own routines and systems.

In fact, one of our main designers, and a very dear friend of mine whom I’ve worked side by side with for years now, is Mark Setrakian. When he’s not working here with us, he is a designer at one of the labs you just described.

So there is a lot of crossover there.

The mechanical skull of the scrunt from Lady in the Water.

Manaugh: That’s interesting—do the people who work for you tend to come from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like Mark, or are they more often from arts schools? What kinds of backgrounds do they tend to have?

Elizalde: Generally speaking, I think they’re people like myself who just have a love for monsters. That’s honestly where a lot of people in our industry come from. There are people who started their careers as dental technicians and people who started out as mold-makers in a foundry. In all of those cases, people from those sorts of technical fields gravitate toward this work because of, first of all, a love for monsters and creatures, and, secondly, a technical ability that isn’t necessarily described as an art form per se. Electronics people love to work for us. People who design algorithms love to work for us. Even people with a background in dentistry, like I say, love to work for us.

There’s really no limit to the fields that bring people to this industry—they come from everywhere. The common thread is that we all love movies and we all love creatures. We love making rubber monsters for a living.

The shelves at Spectral Motion gives a good sense of the workshop’s range of reference. Highlights include the Third Edition of the Atlas of Clinical Dermatology (in color), The National Audubon Society: Speaking for Nature, Marvel’s Fantastic Four, The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon, and a Treasury of Fantastic and Mythological Creatures.

To go back to your previous question, there are definitely times when I think we don’t get a lot of exposure for what we do, but there is also, at some level, a kind of “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” thing going on, where we don’t really want people to look backstage at what makes a movie work. We are creating a living creature for film, and that’s what we want to put across to the audience. In some ways, it’s actually better if there isn’t too much exposure as to how something was created; it’s like exposing a magic trick. Once you know the secret, it’s not that big a deal.

So we do live in a little bit of a shroud of secrecy—but that’s okay. After a film is released, it’s not unusual for more of what we did on that film to be exposed. Then, we do like to have our technicians, our artists, and what we’ve developed internally here to be recognized and shown to the public, just so that people can see how cool it all is.

I think, though, that my response to those kinds of news stories is really more of a happiness to see new technologies being developed elsewhere, and an eagerness to get my hands on it so I can see what we could do with it in a movie. And, of course, sometimes we develop our very own things here that maybe someone hadn’t thought of, and that could be of use in other fields, like robotics. And that’s kind of cool, too.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion sculpting an old age Nosferatu as a personal project.

Manaugh: Finally, to bring things full circle, we’re just curious as to how Spectral Motion got started.

Elizalde: Well, I became involved in the effects industry back in 1987. It sort of just dawned on me one day that I wanted to do this for a living. I had been in the Navy for eight years when it really started getting to me—when I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with my life.

I decided that I’d come back to my home, which is Los Angeles, California, and look into becoming a creature effects guy. I was totally enamored of Frankenstein’s Monster when I was a kid. I grew up watching all the horror movies that I could see—a steady diet of Godzilla, Frankenstein, you name it. All the Universal monsters, and even more modern things like An American Werewolf in London. They just really fascinated me. That was a real catalyst for me to start exploring how to do this myself.

I also learned from books. I collected books and started using my friends as guinea pigs, creating very rudimentary makeup effects on them. And, eventually, I landed my first job in Hollywood.

Cut to fifteen years later, and I had my first experience on set with Guillermo del Toro. I was working with him on Blade II. I had done an animatronic device for the characters he was using in his film, and I was also on set puppeteering. We became very good friends. That’s when he offered me the script for Hellboy and that’s how we started Spectral Motion. I became independent. Prior to that I had worked for Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, and all the other big names in town. But this was our opportunity to make our own names—and here we are, today.

You know, this is one of those industries where you can come in with a desire and some ability, and people around you will instruct you and nurture you. That’s how it happened for me. I was taught by my peers. And it really is a great way to learn. There are schools where you can learn this stuff, as well, but my experience proved to me that the self-taught/mentored method is a very good way to go.

• • •

This interview was simultaneously published on Venue, where a long list of other interviews discussing the human relationship to the virtual, built, and natural landscapes can be found.

The Robot and the Architect are Friends

[Image: The architect and his construction robots by Villemard].

In 1910, French artist Villemard produced a series of illustrations depicting what life might be like in the year 2000, including an architect and his robotic construction crew.

In an article published last summer in Icon, called “The Robot and the Architect are Friends,” Will Wiles wrote that Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler “have a vision: architecture using robotics to take command of all aspects of construction. Liberated from the sidelines, the profession would be freed to unleash all its creative potential—all thanks to its obedient servants, the robots. But first, architects must learn the robots’ language.”

[Image: Courtesy of Icon].

It all sounds deceptively easy at first: the architects have merely to program their robotic arm “to pick up a brick and place it, and then to repeat the process with variations. When this program runs, the result is a wall.”

The machine itself moves with the clipped grace we associate with robotics, performing neat, discrete actions that contain within them an assortment of fluid swivels and turns. These quick-slow, deliberate movements are hypnotic. It’s beautiful to watch but, because it moves in a way that looks animal while being unlike anything we know in nature, there’s something in it that’s inescapably unnerving.

Given multiple robots, sufficient bricks, complex instructions, and enough time, “extraordinary forms” can result, patterned and pixellated, brick-by-brick.

[Image: “Pike Loop” (2009) by Gramazio & Kohler].

“Considering the revolutionary potential of their work,” Wiles writes, “you might expect a note of utopian zeal from the pair.” He quickly adds, on the other hand, that, “if you want dazzling Wellsian predictions, delivered with glittering eyes, of future armies of architect-controlled mechanoids transforming the world, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Gramazio & Kohler’s vision is, instead, “understated, modest, [and] reasonable.”

Nonetheless, some combination of Villemardian enthusiasm—airborne tennis!—with rigorous architectural robotics, and perhaps even with emerging new brick designs and a new generation of 3D printers, is an enticing vision to pursue for the future of building construction.

(Villemard image originally seen via Selectism, thanks to a tip from Jon Bucholtz. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Flying Robotic Construction Cloud).