Wave Form

[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in Parkfield, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].

With the San Andreas Fault on the brain, I’ve been thinking a lot about a course I taught a few years ago at Columbia University exploring the possibility of a San Andreas Fault National Park.

The course was organized around a few basic questions, such as: what does it mean to preserve a landscape that, by definition, is always changing, even poised on the cusp of severe internal disruption? Are there moral, even philosophical, issues involved in welcoming a site of natural violence and potential catastrophe into our nation’s historical narrative? Further, what kind of architecture is most appropriate for a Park founded to highlight seismic displacement?

One of the most interesting things to come out of the course was a set of digital models produced by a student named Ricky Vega (with assistance from other students in gathering the necessary data).

Vega’s images showed the San Andreas Fault not as a line across the landscape, but as a three-dimensional, volumetric form within the Earth. A spatial environment reminiscent of a sinuous building. A serpentine pavilion, to use a bad pun.

[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in San Bernardino, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].

The point I was hoping to make by assigning this to my students was that spatial scenarios found far outside of what is normally considered “architecture” can nonetheless pose an interesting challenge for architectural thinking and representation.

In other words, if you, as an architect, are adept at visually depicting complex spaces—through various output such as sections and axonometric diagrams—then what would happen if you were to apply those skills to geology or plate tectonics? The layered relationship of one part of the Earth to another is intensely spatial—it is an explicitly, if metaphorically, architectural one.

Indeed, images such as the one seen immediately below, taken from the California Division of Mines and Geology, would not be out of place in an architectural studio.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated diagram taken from the California Division of Mines and Geology].

So the question was: by using architectural techniques to explore complicated geological scenarios such as the San Andreas Fault, what can architects learn about the possibilities—or, for that matter, limitations—of their most basic representational techniques?

Further, what might the resulting images be able to teach geologists—if anything—about how they can better represent and depict their own objects of study? Perhaps architects and geologists should collaborate more often.

[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in Watsonville, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].

Each of Vega’s original models is huge and cuts a mesmerizing, even aquatic profile, with equal shades of Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman. If you could reach into the planet and extract an entire fault line, what would it look like? A spine or a wave? A fallen branch or a river? These images are at least one interesting attempt at an answer.

(If you want to read more about the course—a class I would absolutely love to teach again, especially now that I am living within easy driving distance of the San Andreas Fault—check out the original write-up.)

The Planetary Super-Surface of San Bernardino County

A surprisingly interesting business article in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend pointed out that an “industrial real estate boom” is underway east of the city: “Nestled on the windy plains at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains,” we read, “once austere stretches of agricultural land have morphed into the country’s most desirable industrial real estate market, and it is growing faster than any other industrial region in the U.S.”

[Image: Construction work at a future Amazon.com warehouse in San Bernardino, courtesy of NBC Southern California].

What’s at stake? Eager buyers are snapping up “vast warehouses—some are bigger than 30 football fields under one roof—where they can store, process and ship merchandise such as clothes, books and toys to ever more online shoppers and handle the rising flood of goods passing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

It’s a logistics rush “so intense” that “developers are erecting more than 16 million square feet of warehouses on speculation, meaning they are gambling that buyers or renters will rush forward to claim the buildings by the time they are complete.”

As it happens, though, huge volumes of empty space framed by walls and ceilings are something of the ultimate testing ground for robot intelligence: “Once upon a time, a warehouse was where you stored things for weeks or months, such as toys and canned food that retailers would grab to restock their shelves. Sorting, organizing and moving the inventory was a constant challenge.”

However, now, in this age of empty architectural airspace, “Tracking goods in the modern age of bar codes, scanners and computers is a comparative breeze. The location of every widget can be identified with pinpoint accuracy and fetched by robots that can lift and carry 3,000-pound loads with ease.”

[Image: An unrelated warehouse photo from CCI Flooring].

I’m reminded of something novelist Zachary Mason said in an interview with BLDGBLOG three years ago. Mason, who has also worked in the field of artificial intelligence, pointed out the spatial problems faced by any truly emergent A.I.:

One of the problems with A.I. is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well, because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across across a desert, though, or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions, is vastly more difficult.

The prospect of Artificial Intelligence finding its way into the world not by way of unmanned aerial vehicles flying in Mason’s “big, empty, three-dimensional void” but, instead, in the vast and echoing elsewhere of speculative warehouse space built in the desert outside Los Angeles is an incredible, and even somewhat frightening, thing to contemplate.

However, I started this post actually hoping to point out one small thing mentioned merely in passing at the end of the L.A. Times article.

One of these warehouses, it turns out, is actually so huge it must be laser-leveled against the curvature of the earth.

[Image: A laser-leveling target used for calibrating car scales, taken by someone named “Butt Dyno,” via an evolutionm.net forum].

The building in question “has 32-foot ceilings and enough doors to load or unload 124 trucks at the same time,” presenting insane combinatorial possibilities that would make the bridges of Königsberg blush; but, even more unbelievably, this “480,000-square-foot facility recently built for Quaker Oats Co. on land that used to be part of Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino… is so long at 1,000 feet that contractors laying the concrete floor used lasers to gently follow the curve of the Earth and keep the floor level.”

Of course, this means that you could also work in reverse, and thus deduce, from the precise leveling of the warehouse floor, the curvature of the planet it rests on, which, bizarrely enough, makes studying this building—an empty warehouse in the California desert—an unexpected subset of astronomical calculation.

Last week, for instance, we looked at various “benchmarks” that have been used for measuring the circumference of the Earth, but perhaps future generations will simply drive out to a cluster of warehouses somewhere on the fringes of Los Angeles—next century’s Stonehenge, a new Solomon’s Temple, or Superstudio meets Eratosthenes—ritually laser-level the floor on a hot summer afternoon, and thus deduce the limits of our world itself, all by way of the most “fundamental” of architectural interventions: the floor.

The logistical super-surface as planetary analogue.