Transnational Corporate Sovereignty

With the expected nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position of U.S. Secretary of State, the recent book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Columbia University dean of journalism Steve Coll seems newly relevant—so much so that, following Friday’s news about the nomination, Amazon has been temporarily sold out.

Coll has also just published a new piece over at The New Yorker looking at Tillerson’s legacy with the global oil firm. There, Coll describes ExxonMobil as resembling “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

Exxon’s foreign policy sometimes had more impact on the countries where it operated than did the State Department. Take, for example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in Africa. During the mid-two-thousands, the entirety of U.S. aid and military spending in the country directed through the U.S. Embassy in the capital, N’Djamena, amounted to less than twenty million dollars annually, whereas the royalty payments Exxon made to the government as part of an oil-production agreement were north of five hundred million dollars. Idriss Déby, the authoritarian President of Chad, did not need a calculator to understand that Rex Tillerson was more important to his future than the U.S. Secretary of State.

Should Tillerson be confirmed, Coll suggests, his new role “will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

The Guardian agrees, suggesting that, “In a very real sense, Tillerson has been a head of a state within a state. Exxon Mobil is bigger economically than many countries. It has its own foreign policy and its own contracted security forces.”

Consider picking up a copy of Private Empire and read more from Coll over at The New Yorker.

Sovereign Flocking Algorithms

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

One of many ways to bolster a nation-state’s claim to sovereignty over a remote or otherwise disputed piece of land is to perform what’s known as a “sovereignty cruise.” This means sending a ship—or fleet of ships—out to visit the site in question, thus helping to normalize the idea that it is, in fact, a governable part of that nation’s territory.

It is, in essence, a fancy—often explicitly militarized—version of use it or lose it.

Last summer, for example, Vietnam organized a private tour of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago simultaneously claimed by more than one nation and, as such, part of the much larger ongoing dispute today over who really owns and controls the South China Sea [sic].

Vietnam’s effort, Reuters reported at the time, was a strategic visit “to some of Asia’s most hotly contested islands, in a move likely to stoke its simmering dispute with Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty.”

It made “little attempt to disguise its political flavor, and comes as Vietnam pursues a bolder agenda in pushing its claims in the face of China’s own growing assertiveness.” Indeed, the cruise was apparently just the beginning, a mere “trial run ahead of Vietnam’s tentative plans to put the Spratlys on its tourism map, including scheduled passenger flights, possibly this year.”

Bring the people, in other words, and you bring evidence of governmental control.

Against this, of course, we must place the construction of entire islands by China, including the recent installation of a new primary school there, on an artificial island, a school whose opening lecture “was a geopolitical class that focused on China’s ownership of the sea.”

These sovereign games of Go taking place in disputed waters could sustain an entire blog on their own, of course, and are a topic we’ll undoubtedly return to. (Briefly, it’s worth noting that the sovereign implications of artificial islands were also part of a course I taught at Columbia a few years ago.)

Surprisingly, however, another region seen as potentially subject to future disputes over sovereignty is the Canadian Arctic. As such, arguments over such things as whether or not the Northwest Passage is an “international strait” (open to use by all, including Russian and Chinese military ships) or if it is actually a case of “internal waters” controlled exclusively by Canada (thus subject to restricted access), are still quite active.

Add to this a series of arguments over indigenous political rights as well as the specter of large-scale terrestrial transformation due to climate change, and a series of intriguing and quite complicated political scenarios are beginning to emerge there. (Who Owns The Arctic? by Michael Byers is an excellent introduction to this subject, as is Mia Bennett’s blog Cryopolitics.)

[Image: Flocking diagram by “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” by Gilles Labonté].

With all this in mind, consider a fascinating report issued by Defence R&D Canada back in 2010. Called “Canadian Arctic sovereignty: Local intervention by flocking UAVs” (PDF), and written by Gilles Labonté, it opens stating that “the importance of local intervention capability for the assertion of Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest passage is recognized.”

However, Canada presently lacks the ability to deploy at any northern position, on demand, assets that could search a wide area for rescue or surveillance purposes. This fact motivated the exploration we report here on the feasibility of a rapid intervention system based on a carrier-scouts design according to which a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be transported, air launched and recovered by a larger carrier aircraft.

In other words, if Canada can’t send actual Canadians—that is, living human beings—on aerial “sovereignty cruises” by which they could effectively demonstrate real-time political control over the territories of the north, then they could at least do the next best thing: send in a flock of drones.

Doing so, Labonté suggests, would require a particular kind of flocking algorithm, one with an explicitly political goal. “In the present report,” he adds, “we propose a solution to the remaining problem of managing simultaneously the many UAVs that are required by the vastness of the areas to be surveyed, with a minimum number of human controllers and communications.”

Namely, we present algorithms for the self-organization of the deployed UAVs in the formation patterns that they would use for the tasks at hand. These would include surveillance operations during which detailed photographic or video images would be acquired of activities in a region of interest, and searching an area for persons, vehicles or ships in distress and providing a visual presence for such. Our conclusion is that the local intervention system with flocking UAVs that we propose is feasible and would provide a very valuable asset for asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.

There are “formation patterns” and flocking algorithms, this suggests, that would specifically be of use in “asserting and maintaining Canadian Sovereignty in the North.”

Hidden within all this is the idea that particular flocking algorithms would be more appropriate for the task than others, lending an explicit air of political significance to specific acts of programming and computation. It also implies an interesting connection between the nation-state and behavioral algorithms, in which a series of behavioral tics might be ritually performed for their political side-effects.

For some context, the report adds, “the Canadian Government has had serious considerations of establishing a presence in the north through purchasing nuclear submarines and ice-breakers.” But why not side-step much of this expense by sending UAVs into the Arctic void instead, reinforcing nation-state sovereignty through the coordinated presence of semi-autonomous machines?

Simply re-launch your drones every two or three months, just often enough to nudge the world into recognizing your claim, not only of this remote airspace but of the vast territory it covers.

A halo of well-choreographed aerial robots flocks in the Arctic skies before disappearing again into a bunker somewhere, waiting to reemerge when the validity of the government appears under threat—a kind of machine-ritual in the open three-dimensional space of the polar north, a robotic sovereignty flight recognized around the world for its performative symbolism.

Read the rest of Labonté’s paper—which is admittedly about much more than I have discussed here—in this PDF.

Beginning at Arcs, Centered by Lines

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

This is old, old, old news, widely covered elsewhere at the time, but I rediscovered this link saved in my bookmarks and wanted to post it: back in December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined the maritime border of California with an amazing, 108+ page sequence of numerical locations in space.

It is geodetic code for marking the western edge of state power—or Sol Lewitt’s instructional drawings given the power of sovereign enforceability.

Rather than “The Location of a Trapezoid,” in other words, as Lewitt’s work once explored, this is the location of California.

[Image: From United States of America, Plaintiff v. State of California,” December 15, 2014].

Beyond these mathematically exact limits is not the open ocean, however, but sea controlled by the United States federal government. The coordinates laboriously, hilariously reproduced over dozens and dozens of pages simply define where California’s “Submerged Lands” end, or expanses of seafloor where California has the right to explore for economic resources. Outside those submerged lands, the feds rule.

In a sense, then, this is the Supreme Court seemingly trolling California, tying up the Golden State’s perceived western destiny within a labyrinth of constricting arcs and lines, then claiming everything that lies beyond them.

Machine Quarantines and “Persistent Drones”

scout[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Scout” UAV, via Wikipedia].

There’s an interesting short piece by Jacob Hambling in a recent issue of New Scientist about the use of “persistent drones” to “hold territory in war zones,” effectively sealing those regions off from incursion. It is an ominous vision of what we might call automated quarantine, or a cordon it’s nearly impossible to trespass, maintained by self-charging machines.

Pointing out the limitations of traditional air power and the tactical, as well as political, difficulties in getting “boots on the ground” in conflict zones, Hambling suggests that military powers might turn to the use of “persistent drones” that “could sit on buildings or trees and keep watch indefinitely.” Doing so “expands the potential for intervention without foot soldiers,” he adds, “but it may lessen the inhibitions that can stop military action.”

Indeed, it’s relatively easy to imagine a near-future scenario in which a sovereign or sub-sovereign power—a networked insurgent force—could attempt to claim territory using Hambling’s “persistent drones,” as if playing Go with fully armed, semi-autonomous machines. They rid the land of its human inhabitants—then watch and wait.

Whole neighborhoods of cities, disputed terrains on the borders of existing nations, National Wildlife Refuges—almost as an afterthought, in a kind of political terraforming, you could simply send in a cloud of machine-sentinels to clear and hold ground until the day, assuming it ever comes, that your actual human forces can arrive.

Books Received

tadao[Image: Inside Tadao Ando’s studio in Osaka; photo by Kaita Takemura, via designboom].

Somewhere, despite the weather here, it’s spring. If you’re like me, that means you’re looking for something new to read. Here is a selection of books that have crossed my desk over the past few months—though, as always, I have not read every book listed here. I have, however, included only books that have caught my eye or seem particularly well-fit for BLDGBLOG readers due to their focus on questions of landscape, design, architecture, urbanism, and more.

For previous book round-ups, meanwhile, don’t miss the back-links at the bottom of this post.


1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)

Daniel Jütte’s The Strait Gate seems largely to have slipped under the radar, but it’s my pick for the most interesting architectural book of the last year (it came out in 2015). It has a deceptively simple premise. In it, Jütte tells the story of the door in European history: the door’s ritual symbolism, its legal power, its artistic possibilities, even its betrayal through basic crimes such as trespassing and burglary. He calls it “a study of doors, gates, and keys and a history of the hopes and anxieties that Western culture has attached to them”; it is a way of “looking at history through doors.”

Jütte describes locks (and their absence), city walls (and their destruction), marriage (and the literal threshold a newly joined couple must cross), medicinal rituals (connected “with the idea of passing through a doorway”), even the doorway to Hell (and its miraculous sundering). You know you’re reading a good book, I’d suggest, when something pops up on nearly every page that you need to mark with a note for coming back to later or that gives you some unexpected new historical or conceptual detail you want to write about more yourself. An entire seminar could be based on this one book alone.

2) Witches of America by Alex Mar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Witches of America is simultaneously an introduction to alternative religious practices in the United States—specifically, contemporary paganism, broadly understood—and a first-person immersion in those movements and their cultures. As such, the book is a personal narrative of attraction to—but also ongoing frustration with—the world found outside mainstream beliefs or creeds.

As such, it ostensibly falls beyond the pale of BLDGBLOG, yet the book is worth including here for what it reveals about the spatial settings of these new and, for me, surprisingly vibrant communities. There is the abandoned churchyard in New Orleans, for example, now repurposed—and redecorated—by a group of 21st-century acolytes of Aleister Crowley; there is the remote stone circle built in Northern California by what I would describe as a post-hippie couple with access to land-moving equipment; there is the otherwise indistinguishable collegiate house in central Massachusetts where future “priests” train in the shadow of New England’s peculiar history with witch trials; there is the corporate convention center in downtown San Jose; the overgrown tombs of the Mississippi Delta, where we meet a rather extraordinary—and macabre—burglar; there is even what sounds like an Airbnb rental gone unusually haywire in the hills of New Hampshire.

While descriptions of these settings are certainly not the subject of Alex Mar’s book, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the world of the esoteric, the otherworldly, or, yes, the occult presented in the context of our own everyday surroundings, with all of their often-mundane dimensions and atmosphere. This alone should make this an interesting read, even for those who might not share the author’s curiosity about the “witches of America.”

3) The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)

The Work of the Dead looks at the role not just of death but specifically of dead bodies in shaping our cities, our landscapes, our battlefields, and our imaginations. The question of what to do with the human corpse—how to venerate it, but also how to do dispose of it and how to protect ourselves from its perceived pestilence—has led, and continues to lead, to any number of spatial solutions.

Laqueur writes that “there seems to be a universally shared feeling not only that there is something deeply wrong about not caring for the dead body in some fashion, but also that the uncared-for body, no matter the cultural norms, is unbearable. The corpse demands the attention of the living.”

Graveyards, catacombs, monuments, charnel grounds: these are landscapes designed in response to human mortality, reflective of a culture’s attitude to personal disappearance and emotional loss. While author Thomas Laqueur’s approach is often dry (and long-winded), the book’s thorough framing of its subject lends it an appropriate weight for something as universal as the end of life.

If this topic interests you, meanwhile, I also recommend Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold (Simon & Schuster), as well as Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre—How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray (Picador).

4) The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf)

Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt has justifiably won the author a series of literary awards. Its subject matter is by no means light, yet the book has the feel of an adventure tale, pulling double duty as the life-story of a European scientist and explorer but also as a history of scientific ideas, ranging from the origins of color and the nature of speciation to some of the earliest indications of global atmospheric shifts—that is, of the possibility of climate change.

Natural selection, cosmology, volcanoes—even huge South American lakes full of electric eels—the book is a great reminder of the importance of curiosity and travel, not to mention the value of an inhuman world against which we should regularly measure ourselves (and come out lacking). “In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective,” Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.”


5) Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich (Princeton University Press)

You might recall seeing Stefan Helmreich’s work described here before—specifically his earlier book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas—but Sounding the Limits of Life is arguably even more relevant to many of the ongoing themes explored here on the blog.

In his new book, Helmreich outlines a kind of acoustic ecology of the oceans, placing deep-sea creatures and shallow reefs alike in a world of immersive sound and ambient noise, now all too often interrupted by the deafening pings of naval sonar. He also uses the seemingly alien environment of the seas, however, to expand the conversation to include speculation about what life might be like elsewhere, using maritime biology as a launching point for discussing SETI, artificial digital lifeforms, Martian fossils (from Martian seas), and much more.

It’s a book about how our “definition of ‘life’ is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in earthly organisms,” Helmreich writes, as well as an attempt to explore “what life is, has been, and may yet become—whether that life is simulated, microbial, extraterrestrial, cetacean, anthozoan, planetary, submarine, oceanic, auditory, or otherwise.”

6) Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner (W.W. Norton)

I had been looking forward to this book, exploring the relationship between mapping and the world, ever since reading an op-ed by the author, Greg Milner, in The New York Times about “death by GPS.” Milner’s book is specifically about the Global Positioning System and its power over our lives: how GPS shapes our sense of direction and geography, what it has done for navigation on a planetary scale, and even how it has transformed the way we grow our global food supply.

7) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton (MIT Press)

Design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s magnum opus is a fever-dream of computational geopolitics, “accidental megastructures,” cloud warfare, predictive mass surveillance, speculative anthropology, digital futurism, infrastructural conspiracy theory—a complete list would be as long as Bratton’s already substantial book, and would also overlap quite well with the utopian/dystopian science fiction it often seems inspired by.

In Bratton’s hands, these abstract topics become, at times, almost incantatory—as if William S. Burroughs had taken a day job with the RAND Corporation. As information technology continues to exhibit geopolitical effects, Bratton writes, “borderlines are rewritten, dashed, curved, erased, automated; algorithms count as continental divides; (…) interfaces upon interfaces accumulate into networks, which accumulate into territories, which accumulate into geoscapes (…); the flat, looping planes of jurisdiction multiply and overlap into towered, interwoven stacks…” He writes of “supercomputational utopias” and the “ambient geopolitics of consumable electrons.”

It’s a mind-bending and utterly unique take on technology’s intersection with—and forced mutation of—governance.

8) You Belong To The Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press)

Jonathon Keats’s new book simultaneously attempts to debunk and to clarify some of the cultural myths surrounding Buckminster Fuller, a man who described himself, Keats reminds us, as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” For fans of Fuller’s work, you’ll find the usual suspects here—his jewel-like geodesic domes, his prescient-if-ungainly Dymaxion homes—but also a chapter about Fuller’s work with and influence on the U.S. military in an age of nuclear war games and “domino theories” overshadowing Vietnam.


9) Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City by Jessica Maier (University of Chicago Press)

Art historian Jessica Maier’s book suggests that changes in the way the city of Rome was mapped over the centuries simultaneously reveal larger shifts in European cultural understandings of space and geography. Her argument hinges on a sequence of surveys and maps chosen not just for their visual or cartographic power—which is considerable, as the book has many gorgeous reproductions of old engraved city maps, views, and diagrams—but for their influence on later geographic projects to come.

Broadly speaking, the documents Maier discusses are meant to be seen as passing from being artistic, narrative, or abstractly emblematic of the idea of greater “Rome” to a more rigorous, modern approach based in measurement, not mythology.

This widely accepted historical narrative begins to crumble, however, as Maier puts pressure on it, especially through the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etching of the Campus Martius. This is an image of Rome that “was neither documentary nor reconstructive,” Maier suggests, and that thus had more in common with those earlier, more folkloristic emblems of the city. In today’s vocabulary, we might even describe Piranesi’s Campus Martius as an example of “design fiction.”

10) Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of the New City by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a remarkable and often beautifully written history of modern Jerusalem, as told from the point of view of its architecture. Jerusalem is a city, author Adina Hoffman writes, that “has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.” It is a place of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps.” The book, she adds, “is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”

Indeed, the book is structured around the lives of three architects. The story of German Jewish designer Erich Mendelsohn—probably most well-known today for his futurist “Einstein Tower” in Potsdam—looms large, as do the lives of Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “Palestine’s chief government architect,” and the “possibly Greek, possibly Arab” Spyro Houris.

Hoffman’s work is a mix of the archaeological, the biographical, and even the geopolitical, as individual building sites—even specific businesses and kilns—become microcosms of territorial significance, embedded in and misused by nationalistic narratives that continue to reach far beyond the boundaries of the city.

11) City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity by Dayna S. Kalleres (University of California Press)

City of Demons looks at three cities—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan—in the context of early Christianity, when the streets and back alleys of each metropolis were still lined with temples dedicated to older gods and when alleged opportunities for spiritual corruption seemed to lie around every corner. Historian Dayna Kalleres writes that the cities of late antiquity were all but contaminated with demons: imagined malignant forces that had to be repelled by Christian ritual and belief. Cities, in other words, had to be literally exorcized by a practice of “urban demonology,” driven out of the metropolis by such things as church-building schemes and public processions.

While the book is, of course, an academic history, it is also evocative of something much more literary and thrilling, which is a nearly-forgotten phase of Western urban history when forces of black magic lurked in nearly every doorway and civilians faced security threats not from terrorists but from “the marginal, ambiguous, and protean,” from these hidden demonological influences that the righteous were compelled to expunge.

12) City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador)

City of Thorns looks at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya through various lenses: economic, political, and humanitarian, to be sure, but also ethical and anthropological, even to a certain extent architectural.

While author Ben Rawlence’s goal is not, thankfully, to discuss the camp in terms of its design, he does nevertheless offer a crisp descriptive introduction to life in a sprawling settlement such as this, from its cinemas and police patrols to its health facilities and homes. “Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile,” he writes, “and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.” The camp, we might say in this context, is the urbanism of exile.


13) Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau)

I went through a nearly three-year spate of reading law-enforcement memoirs and books about urban policing while researching my own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. The excellent Ghettoside by Jill Leovy came out at the very end of that peculiar literary diet—but it also showed up the rest of those books quite handily.

Ghettoside is bracing, sympathetic, and emotionally nuanced in its week-by-week portrayal of LAPD homicide detectives investigating the murder of a fellow detective’s teenage son. Much larger than this, however, is Leovy’s dedication throughout the book to sorting through the overlapping mazes of media disinformation that have turned “black-on-black” crime into nothing more than a dismissive explanation of something genuinely horrific, a way to paper-over “racist interpretations of homicide statistics,” in reviewer Hari Kunzru’s words. More damningly, Ghettoside insists, this ongoing wave of murders and revenge-killings is not some new urban state of nature, but is entirely capable of being stopped.

Indeed, Leovy clearly and soberly shows through years of L.A. homicide reporting that today’s epidemic of violence primarily targeting African-American males is due to a failure of law enforcement—or, in her words, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Yet the answer, she explains, is more policing, not less. As an endorsement of effective, community-centered police work, the book is unparalleled.

No matter what side you think you might be on in the growing—and entirely unnecessary—divide between police and the populace they are hired to serve, this is a superb guide to the complexities of law enforcement in contemporary Los Angeles and, by extension, in every American metropolis.

14) The City That Never Was by Christopher Marcinkoski (Princeton Architectural Press)

Christopher Marcinkoski’s book is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between “volatile fiscal events” and “speculative urbanization,” with a specific focus on a cluster of failed urban projects in Spain. Marcincoski defines speculative urbanization as “the construction of new urban infrastructure or settlement for primarily political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially projected) demographic or market demand.”

Although the author jokes that his book is actually quite late to the conversation—discussing the spatial fallout of a global financial crisis that was already five years old by the time he began writing—it is actually a remarkably timely study, as well as a sad assessment of how easily architectural production can become ensnared in economic forces far more powerful than humanism or design.

15) Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog edited by Clare Jacobson (Princeton Architectural Press)

Lebbeus Woods was both a friend and a personal hero of mine; his blog, which lasted from 2007 to shortly before his death in 2012, has now been collated, edited, and preserved by Princeton Architectural Press, with more than 300 individual entries. While primarily text, the books also includes several black-and-white images, including pages from his otherworldly sketchbooks. Thoughts on “wild buildings,” war, borders, September 11th, the now also deceased designer Zaha Hadid, and Woods’s own intriguing mix of cinematic/fictional and analytic/documentary modes of writing abound.


16) Almost Nature by Gerco de Ruijter (Timmer Art Books)

I’ve written about Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter fairly extensively in the past—most recently in a piece about “grid corrections”—so I was thrilled to see that some of his aerial work has been collected in a new, beautifully realized edition. It collects photos of stabilized coastlines and tree farms, grids and borders.

“Is the wilderness wild?” an accompanying text by Dirk van Weelden asks. “Cities and industrial farming make it seem man is in perfect control,” van Weelden continues later in the essay. “The reality is far more interesting. (…) The truly uncontrollable forces of nature are mutation, chance, hybridity, and contamination,” all subjects de Ruijter’s photos document at various scales, in every season.

17) Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site by Caroline O’Donnell (Routledge)

In the guise of what looks—and even, to some extent, physically feels—like a textbook there is hidden a fantastic study of how buildings relate to their surroundings.

More precisely, Caroline O’Donnell’s investigation of “architecture and site” hopes to reveal how, during the design process, the context of a building affects that building’s final form. Questions of autonomy (do buildings need to reflect or refer to their settings at all?) and generation (can the essence of a site be “extracted” to give shape to the final building?) are woven through a series of essays about ugliness, architectural history, colonialism, monstrosity, and more.

18) How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today by John Thackara (Thames & Hudson)

John Thackara is already widely known for his advocacy of “sustainability” in design—a word I deliberately put in scare-quotes because Thackara himself would prefer, I presume, a term more like transformative or even revolutionary design. That is, design that can flip the world on its head, not through violence, but through unexpected and strategic solutions to problems that often remain undiagnosed or overlooked. This new, short book looks at everything from mass transit to internet access, clothing manufacture to desertification, aging to fresh water, seeking nothing less than “a new concept of the world.” “The core value of this emerging economy is stewardship,” he writes, “rather than extraction.”

19) Design and Violence edited by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt (Museum of Modern Art)

This book, crisply designed by Shaz Madani, documents an exhibition and debate series of the same name hosted by the Museum of Modern Art. Presented here as a combination of short essays by various authors—myself included—and provocative design objects, products, and public events, the aim is both to startle and to moderate. That is, the book seeks to bring together conflicting sides of often quite fierce arguments about the role of design, including how design can be used to mitigate or even, on occasion, to perpetuate violence. There are 3D-printed guns and a short history of the AK-47 alongside examples of prison architecture, classified surveillance aircraft, slaughterhouse diagrams, and border walls, to name but a few.

• • •

Briefly noted. Other books that have crossed my desk this season include Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law by Paul H. Robinson and Sarah M. Robinson (Potomac Books), Memories of the Moon Age by Lukas Feireiss (Spector Books), Shanshui City by Ma Yansong (Lars Müller Publishers), the double publication of Scaling Infrastructure and Infrastructural Monument from the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press), Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal by Niklas Maak (Hirmer), and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton).

Finally, although I have mentioned it many times before, I do also have a new book of my own that just came out last week, called A Burglar’s Guide to the City; if you’d prefer to sample the goods before purchasing, however, you can check out an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. But please consider supporting BLDGBLOG by ordering a copy—not least because then we can talk about burglary, architecture, and heists…


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

Ephemeral islands and other states-in-waiting

[Image: Temporary islands emerge from the sea, via].

In the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Sicily, an island comes and goes. Called, alternately and among other names, depending on whose territorial interests are at stake, Graham Bank, Île Julia, the island of Ferdinandea, or, more extravagantly, a complex known as the Campi Flegrei del Mar di Sicilia (the Phlegraean Fields of the Sicily Sea), this geographic phenomenon is fueled by a range of submerged volcanoes. One peak, in particular, has been known to break the waves, forming a small, ephemeral island off the coast of Italy.

And, when it does, several nation-states are quick to claim it, including, in 1831, when the island appeared above water, “the navies of France, Britain, Spain, and Italy.” Unfortunately for them, it eroded away and disappeared beneath the waves in 1832.

It then promised to reappear, following new eruptions, in 2002 (but played coy, remaining 6 meters below the surface).

The island, though, always promises to show up again someday, potentially restarting old arguments of jurisdiction and sovereignty—is it French? Spanish? Italian? Maltese? perhaps a micronation?—so some groups are already well-prepared for its re-arrival. As Ted Nield explains in his book Supercontinent, “the two surviving relatives of Ferdinand II commissioned a plaque to be affixed to the then still submerged volcanic reef, claiming it for Italy should it ever rise again.” This is the impending geography of states-in-waiting, instant islands that, however temporarily, redraw the world’s maps.

The story of Ferdinandea, as recounted by that well-known primary historical source Wikipedia and seemingly ripe for inclusion in the excellent Borderlines blog by Frank Jacobs, is absolutely fascinating: it’s appeared on an ornamental coin, it was visited by Sir Walter Scott, it inspired a short story by James Fenimore Cooper, it was depth-charged by the U.S. military who mistook it for a Libyan submarine, and it remains the subject of active geographic speculation by professors of international relations. It is, in a sense, Europe’s Okinotori—and one can perhaps imagine some Borgesian wing of the Italian government hired to sit there in a boat, in open waters, for a whole generation, armed with the wizardry of surveying gear and a plumb bob dangling down into the sea, testing for seismic irregularities, as if casting a spell to coax this future extension of the Italian motherland up into the salty air.

Books Received: Climate Futures List

A rash of recent books about the geographic implications of climate change have crossed my desk. In this themed supplement to BLDGBLOG’s ongoing Books Received series, I thought I’d group them together into one related list.

[Image: Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal].

What many of the books described in this post have in common—aside from their shared interest in what a climatically different earth will mean for the future of human civilization—is their use of short, fictionalized narratives set in specific future years or geographic regions as a way of illustrating larger points.

These narrative scenarios—diagnostic estimates of where we will be at some projected later date—come with chapter titles such as “Russia, 2019,” “China, 2042,” “Miami Beached,” and “Holland 2.0 Depolderized.” Among the various spatial and geopolitical side-effects of climate change outlined by these authors are a coming depopulation of the American Southwest; a massive demographic move north toward newly temperate Arctic settlements, economically spearheaded by the extraction industry and an invigorated global sea trade; border wars between an authoritarian Russia and a civil war-wracked China; and entire floating cities colonizing the waters of the north Atlantic as Holland aims to give up its terrestrial anchorage altogether, becoming truly a nation at sea.

“Will Manhattan Flood?” asks Matthew E. Kahn in his Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. What will Greenland look like in the year 2215, with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 1300 parts per million, according to Peter Ward’s The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps? Will a “New North” rise as the Arctic de-ices and today’s economic powerhouses, from Los Angeles to Shanghai, stagnate under killer droughts, coastal floods, and heat waves, as Laurence C. Smith suggests in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future?

[Image: Modeling sea-level rise in Florida, courtesy of Penn State].

However, climate change is only one of the world-altering forces under discussion in each of these six books. Demography, oil scarcity, natural resources, public hygiene, and accelerating globalization all play roles, to different extents, in these authors’ thinking. In one case, in particular—Float!: Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change, the most practical book described here—new construction technologies, with immediate implications for architectural design, also take center stage.

In all cases, though, these books offer further evidence of an irresistible popular urge to discuss the future, and to do so through what can very broadly described as fiction. The recent speculative tone taken by much of today’s architecture writing is only part of this trend; from “design fiction” to speculative foreign policy blogs, and from “the world without us” to future food, a compulsion to understand what might happen to human civilization, in both the near and distant future, using fictional scenarios and speculative hypotheses seems to be at a high point of trans-disciplinary appeal.

As Heidi Cullen writes in The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, there is something inherently difficult in comprehending the scale of climate change—what effects it might have, what systems it might interrupt or ruin. She thus imports lessons from cognitive psychology to understand what it is about climate change that keeps it so widely misinterpreted (though a hefty dose of media criticism, I’d argue, is far more apropos). It is interesting, then, in light of the apparent incomprehensibility of climate change, that fictional scenarios have become so popular a means of explaining and illustrating what Cullen calls our “climate-changed planet.”

This emerging narrative portraiture of climate change—exemplified by most of the books under discussion here, whether they present us with Atlanta running out of freshwater, frantic Chinese troops diverting rivers on the border with India, or a governmentally-abandoned Miami given over to anarchism and mass flooding—offers an imperfect but highly effective way of making a multi-dimensional problem understandable.

After all, if stories are an effective means of communicating culturally valuable information—if stories are pedagogically useful—then why not tell more stories about future climate change—indeed, why not tell more stories about architecture and buildings and emerging technologies and the spaces of tomorrow’s geopolitics?

Perhaps this is why so much of architecture writing today, both on blogs and elsewhere, so willfully crosses over into science fiction: if architecture literally is the design and proposal of a different world—one that might exist tomorrow, next year, next decade—then it is conceptually coextensive with the genre of scifi.

The current speculative turn in architecture writing is thus both unsurprising and highly appropriate to its subject matter—something worth bearing in mind by anyone hoping to find a larger audience for architectural critique.

[Image: “London as Venice” by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones, based on a photo by Jason Hawkes (part of an image series well-critiqued by the Guardian)].

An obvious problem with these preceding statements, however, is that we might quickly find ourselves relying on fiction to present scientific ideas to a popular audience; in turn, this risks producing a public educated not by scientists themselves but by misleading plotlines and useless blockbusters, such as The Day After Tomorrow and State of Fear, where incorrect popular representations of scientific data become mistaken for reports of verified fact.

In a way, one of the books cited in the following short list unwittingly demonstrates this very risk; Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats would certainly work to stimulate a morally animated conversation with your friends over coffee or drinks, but there is something about its militarized fantasies of Arctic tent cities and Asian governments collapsing in civil free-fall that can’t help but come across as over-excitable, opening the door to disbelief for cynics and providing ammunition for extreme political views.

Indeed, I’d argue, the extent to which contemporary political fantasies are being narratively projected onto the looming world of runaway climate change has yet to be fully analyzed. For instance, climate change will cause the European Union to disband, we read in one book cited here, leaving Britain an agriculturally self-sufficient (though under-employed) island-state of dense, pedestrian-friendly urban cores; the U.S. will close its foreign military bases en masse, bringing its troops home to concentrate on large-scale infrastructural improvements, such as urban seawalls, as the middle class moves to high-altitude safety in the Rocky Mountains where it will live much closer to nature; Africa, already suffering from political corruption and epidemic disease, will fail entirely, undergoing a horrific population crash; and China will implode, leaving the global north in control of world resources once again.

It is important to note that all of these scenarios represent explicit political goals for different groups located at different points on the political spectrum. Perversely, disastrous climate change scenarios actually offer certain societal forces a sense of future relief—however misguided or short-term that relief may be.

Elsewhere, I’ve written about what I call climate change escapism—or liberation hydrology—which is the idea that climate change, and its attendant rewriting of the world’s geography through floods, is being turned into a kind of one-stop shop, like the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, for people who long for radical escape from today’s terrestrial status quo but who can find no effective political means for rallying those they see as forming a united constituency. Climate change thus becomes a kind of a deus ex machina—a light at the end of the tunnel for those who hope to see the world stood abruptly on its head.

Indeed, we might ask here: what do we want from climate change? What world do we secretly hope climate change will create—and what details of this world can we glimpse in today’s speculative descriptions of the future? What explicit moral lessons do we hope climate change will teach our fellow human beings?

[Image: “London-on-Sea” by Practical Action].

Of course, the six books listed below are by no means the only ones worth reading on these topics; in fact, the emerging genre of what I’ll call climate futures is an absolutely fascinating one, and these books should be seen as a useful starting place. I would add, for instance, that Charles Emmerson’s recent Future History of the Arctic clearly belongs on this list—however, I covered it in an earlier installment of Books Received. Further, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris is a commendably concise and highly readable introduction to what global climate change might bring, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change has become something of a minor classic in this emerging field.

So, without further ado, here are six new books about climate futures.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith (Dutton). Smith’s book is a virtuoso example of what I would call political science fiction, extrapolating from existing trends in demography, natural-resource depletion, globalization, and climate change to see what will happen to the eight nations of the Arctic Rim—what Smith alternately calls the New North and the Northern Rim. “I loosely define this ‘New North,'” Smith writes, “as all land and oceans lying 45º N latitude or higher currently held by the United States, Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.”

I should point out that the book’s cover art depicts downtown Los Angeles being over-run by the cracked earth of a featureless desert, as clear an indication as any that Smith’s New North will benefit from negative—indeed, sometimes catastrophic—effects elsewhere.

In an article-slash-book-excerpt published last month in the Wall Street Journal, Smith wrote: “Imagine the Arctic in 2050 as a frigid version of Nevada—an empty landscape dotted with gleaming boom towns. Gas pipelines fan across the tundra, fueling fast-growing cities to the south like Calgary and Moscow, the coveted destinations for millions of global immigrants. It’s a busy web for global commerce, as the world’s ships advance each summer as the seasonal sea ice retreats, or even briefly disappears.” Further:

If Florida coasts become uninsurable and California enters a long-term drought, might people consider moving to Minnesota or Alberta? Will Spaniards eye Sweden? Might Russia one day, its population falling and needful of immigrants, decide a smarter alternative to resurrecting old Soviet plans for a 1,600-mile Siberia-Aral canal is to simply invite former Kazakh and Uzbek cotton farmers to abandon their dusty fields and resettle Siberia, to work in the gas fields?

Being an unapologetic fan of rhetorical questions—will speculative Arctic infrastructure projects be, in the early 2010s, what floating architecture was to the mid-2000s?—the overall approach of Smith’s book maintains a strong appeal for me throughout. The final chapter, in which, as Smith writes, we “step out of the comfort zone” into more open speculation, caps the book off nicely.

The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps by Peter D. Ward (Basic Books). Ward, a paleontologist, has produced a disturbing overview of how terrestrial ecosystems might be fundamentally changed as sea levels rise—and rise, and rise. Ward has the benefit of calling upon data taken from extremely distant phases of the earth’s history, almost all of which becomes highly alarming when transposed to the present and near-future earth. “This book is based on the fact that the earth has flooded before,” he writes, including phases in which seas rose globally at rates of up to 15 feet per century.

Ward successfully communicates the fact that the stakes of climate change are urgent and huge. Indeed, he writes, “The most extreme estimate suggests that within the next century we will reach the level [of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] that existed in the Eocene Epoch of about 55 million to 34 million years ago, when carbon dioxide was about 800 to 1,000 ppm. This might be the last stop before a chain of mechanisms leads to wholesale oceanic changes that are not good for oxygen-loving life.” That is, a cascade of terrestrial side-effects and uncontrollable feedback loops could very well begin, ultimately extinguishing all oxygen-breathing organisms and kickstarting a new phase of life on earth. Whatever those future creatures might be, they will live, as Ward has written in another book, under the specter of a “green sky.” Brief fictional scenarios—including future bands of human “breeding pairs” wandering through flooded landscapes—pepper Ward’s book.

The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen (Harper). Cullen’s book is the one title listed here with which I am least familiar, having read only the opening chapter. But it, too, is organized by region and time frame: the Great Barrier Reef, California’s Central Valley, the Sahel in Africa, Bangladesh, New York City, and so on. The shared references to these and other locations in almost all contemporary books on climate change suggests an emerging geography of hotspots—a kind of climate change tourism in which authors visit locations of projected extreme weather events before those storms arrive. Cullen’s book “re-frightened” Stephen Colbert, for whatever that’s worth; I only wish I had had more time to read it before assembling this list.

Float!: Building on Water to Combat Urban Congestion and Climate Change by Koen Olthuis and David Keuning (Frame). When David Keuning sent me a review copy of this book he joked that “offshore architecture has been relatively depleted of its novelty over the last few years”—an accurate statement, as images of floating buildings bring back strong memories of the architectural blogosphere circa 2005.

However, Keuning and Olthuis needn’t be worried about depleting the reader’s interest. A remarkably stimulating read, Float! falls somewhere between design textbook, aquatic manifesto, and environmental exhortation to explore architecture’s offshore future. Water-based urban redesign; public transportation over aquatic roadways; floating barge-farms (as well as floating prisons); maneuverable bridges; entire artificial archipelagoes: none of these are new ideas, but seeing them all in one place, in a crisply designed hardback, is an undeniable pleasure.

The book is occasionally hamstrung by its own optimism, claiming, for instance, that “Once a floating building has left its location, there will be nothing left to remind people of its former presence,” an environmentally ambitious goal, to be sure, but, without a clear focus on maritime waste management (from sewage to rubbish to excess fuel) such statements simply seem self-congratulatory. Having said that, Float! is an excellent resource for any design studio or seminar looking at the future of floating structures in an age of flooding cities.

Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew E. Kahn (Basic Books). Kahn’s book is at once hopeful—that cities will energetically reconfigure themselves to function smoothly in a decarbonized global economy—and cautionary, warning that whole regions of the world might soon become uninhabitable.

Kahn’s early distinction between New York City and Salt Lake City—the former considered high-risk, due to coastal flooding and extreme weather events, the latter an example of what Kahn calls “safe cities”—is useful for understanding the overall, somewhat armchair tone of the book. Climatopolis is not hugely rigorous in its exploration of what makes a city “climate-safe,” and it overestimates the descriptive value of using “Al Gore” as a personality type, seeming to cite the politician at least once every few pages, but if your interests are more Planetizen than Popular Science, this is a useful overview of the urban effects of climate change over disparate cities and regions.

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats by Gwynne Dyer (Oneworld Publications). Dyer writes that his awareness of climate change was kicked off by two things: “One was the realization that the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.” The other “was a dawning awareness that, in a number of the great powers, climate-change scenarios are already playing a large and increasing role in the military planning process.” Putting two and two together, Dyer has hypothesized, based on a close reading of military documents outlining climate-change contingency plans, what he calls climate wars: wars over food, water, territory, and unrealistic lifestyle guarantees.

Dyer’s book utilizes the most explicitly fictionalized approach of all the books under discussion here—to the extent that I would perhaps have urged him literally to write a novel—and he is very quick to admit that the outcome of his various, geographically widespread scenarios often contradict one another. For those of you with a taste for the apocalypse, or at least a voyeuristic interest in extreme survivalism, this is a good one. For those of you not looking for what is effectively a military-themed science fiction novel in journalistic form, you would do better with one of the titles listed above.

* * *

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

Glacier / Island / Storm

I thought it might be fun to post the course description and design brief for a course I’ll be teaching this semester at Columbia.

[Image: Photo via the Alfred Wegener Institute].

The idea behind the studio is to look at naturally occurring processes and forms—specifically, glaciers, islands, and storms—and to ask how these might be subject to architectural re-design.

We will begin our investigations by looking at three specific case-studies, including the practical techniques and concerns behind each. This research will then serve as the basis from which studio participants will create original glacier/island/storm design proposals.

GLACIER: For centuries, a vernacular tradition of constructing artificial glaciers in the Himalayas has been used to create reserves of ice from which freshwater can be reliably obtained during dry years. This is the glacier as non-electrical ice reserve, in other words; some of these structures have even received funding as international relief projects—for instance, by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Pakistan. Interestingly, the artificial glacier here becomes a philanthropic pursuit, falling somewhere between Architecture For Humanity and a sustainable water-bank.

Through an examination of glacier-building techniques, water requirements, and the thermal behavior of ice, we will both refine and re-imagine designs for self-sustaining artificial glaciers, for the ultimate purpose of storing fresh water.

But what specific tools and spatial techniques might this require? Further, what purposes beyond drought relief might an artificial glacier serve? There are myths, for instance, of Himalayan villagers building artificial glaciers to protect themselves against invasion, and perhaps we might even speculate that water shortages in Los Angeles could be relieved with a series of artificial glaciers maintained by the city’s Department of Water and Power at the headwaters of the Colorado River…

ISLAND: Building artificial islands using only sand and fill is relatively simple, but how might such structures be organically grown?

In the ocean south of Japan is a complex of reefs just slightly below the surface of the water; Japan claims that these reefs are, in fact, islands. This is no minor distinction: if the international community supports this claim, Japan would not only massively extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), complete with seabed-mining and fishing rights, but it would also block China from accessing those same resources. This would, however, also limit the ability of Chinese warships to patrol the region—and so the U.S. has publicly backed Japan’s territorial claim (China does not).

Okinawan scientists have thus been developing genetically-modified species of coral with the express idea of using these species to “grow” the reefs into a small but internationally recognized archipelago: the Okinotori Islands. Think of it as bio-technology put to use in the context of international sovereignty and the U.N. Law of the Sea.

The stakes are high—but, our studio will ask, by way of studying multiple forms of reef-building as well as materials such as Biorock, where might other such island-growing operations be politically and environmentally useful? Further, how might the resulting landforms be most interestingly designed? Assisted by a class visit from marine biologist Thomas Goreau, one-time collaborator of architect Wolf Hilbertz, we will look at the construction techniques and materials necessary for building wholly new artificial landforms.

STORM: For hundreds of years, a lightning storm called the Relampago del Catatumbo has flashed in the sky above Venezuela’s coastal Lake Maracaibo. The perfect mix of riverine topography, lake-borne humidity, and rain forest air currents has produced what can be described, with only slight exaggeration, as a permanent storm.

This already fascinating anecdote takes on interesting spatial design implications when we read, for instance, that Shanghai city officials have expressed alarm at the inadvertent amplification of wind speeds through their city as more and more skyscrapers are erected there—demonstrating that architecture sometimes has violent climatological effects. Further, Beijing and Moscow both have recently declared urban weather control an explicit aim of their respective municipal governments—but who will be in charge of designing this new weather, and what role might architects and landscape architects play in its creation?

We will be putting these—and many other—examples of weather control together with urban, architectural, and landscape design studies in an attempt to produce atmospheric events. For instance, could we redesign Manhattan’s skyline to create a permanent storm over the city—or could we rid the five boroughs of storms altogether? And under what circumstances—drought-relief in the American southwest or Gulf Coast hurricane-deflection—might our efforts be most practically useful?

• • •

The studio will be divided into three groups—one designing “glaciers,” one designing “islands,” one designing “storms.” Each group will mix vernacular, non-fossil fuel-based building technologies with what sounds like science fiction in order to explore the fine line between architectural design and the amplified cultivation of natural processes. Importantly, this will be done not simply for the sake of doing so (although there will be a bit of that…), but to address much larger questions of international sovereignty, regional drought, global climate change, and more.

The Six Nations of 2010

[Image: Professor Igor Panarin’s six-fold vision of a disintegrated United States; I love how it will precisely follow today’s existing state lines – and that Kentucky will join the European Union].

In what sounds to be very obviously an act of wishful projection, a former KGB intelligence analyst turned public intellectual named Igor Panarin has explained to the Wall Street Journal that the United States only has about 18 months left to live. In the summer of 2010, it will “disintegrate” into six politically separate realms – and, conveniently for a thinker who clearly leans to the right, the borders of these realms will coincide with a new racial segregation.

Best of all, from Panarin’s perspective, Alaska – Sarah Palin included, looking out with alarm from her office window – will “revert” to Russian control.

Quoting at length:

[Prof. Panarin] predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.

California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.

“People like him have forecast similar cataclysms before, he says, and been right,” the Wall Street Journal continues. Panarin then “cites French political scientist Emmanuel Todd. Mr. Todd is famous for having rightly forecast the demise of the Soviet Union – 15 years beforehand. ‘When he forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976, people laughed at him,’ says Prof. Panarin.”

In some ways, I’m reminded of Paul Auster’s newest novel, Man in the Dark, in which a civil war has set multiple regions of the United States against one another and against the so-called Federal Army. Or, for that matter, there’s also Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom in which the UK has been split up along emotional lines.

But surely an ex-CIA operative, now milking the lecture circuit for all its worth, could also propose a realistic scenario in which the entire Russian east has been sold off, say, to a combination of Euro-American agribusiness firms and the Chinese government, who them embark upon an elaborate, generations-long act of industrial deforestation? Leaving Moscow a kind of irrelevant, feudal city full of Bulgari and handguns, its governmentally terrorized tower blocks populated almost entirely by unemployed and half-drunk retro-Stalinists?

I don’t mean to imply that I think the end of the United States is somehow politically unimaginable, but that, in a still-bipolar, post-Cold War international imagination, surely either side could convincingly outline the other’s demise?

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: North America vs. the A-241/BIS Device and The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars).


In response to the previous post, a reader kindly pointed me to the fascinating town of Baarle-Hertog, Belgium.
Baarle-Hertog borders the Netherlands – but, because of its unique history of political division, the town is sort of marbled with competing national loyalties. In other words, pockets of the town are Dutch; most of the town is Belgian. You can thus wander from country to country on an afternoon stroll, as if island-hopping between sovereignties.
Check out the town map.

[Image: The strange, island-like spaces of micro-sovereignty within the town of Baarle-Hertog; a few more maps can be seen here, and you can read more in this two-page article].

Being in a bit of a rush at the moment, I’ll simply have to quote Wikipedia:

Baarle-Hertog is noted for its complicated borders with Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. In total it consists of 24 separate pieces of land. Apart from the main piece (called Zondereigen) located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are twenty Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other pieces on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also seven Dutch exclaves within the Belgian exclaves. Six of them are located in the largest one and a seventh in the second-largest one. An eighth Dutch exclave lies in Zondereigen.

The border is so complicated that there are some houses that are divided between the two countries. There was a time when according to Dutch laws restaurants had to close earlier. For some restaurants on the border it meant that the clients simply had to change their tables to the Belgian side.

Sarah Laitner, at the Financial Times, adds that “women are able to choose the nationality of their child depending on the location of the room in which they give birth.”
Another website, apparently drawing from the Michelin Guide to the Netherlands, explains the origins of Baarle-Hertog’s bizarre geography: it can all be traced back to the 12th century, it seems, when the town was first divided. The northern half of the town became part of the Barony of Breda (later home to the Nassau family), and the southern half went to the Duke of Brabant (Hertog means Duke in Dutch).
But that same website also mentions this:

The municipality limits are very complicated. Nowadays, each municipality has its city hall, church, police, school and post office. The houses of the two nationalities are totally mixed. They are identified by the shield bearing their number: the national flag is included on it.

I hate to refer to Thomas Pynchon twice, in back-to-back blog posts, but there something’s remarkably Pynchon-esque about this final detail.
In any case, also check out this site for more historical information.
While we’re on the subject of micro-sovereignties, though, be sure to check out Neutral Moresnet, a tiny, politically independent non-state formed around a zinc mining operation in eastern Belgium. There’s also Cospaia, “a small former republic in Italy” which “unexpectedly gained independence in 1440” after Pope Eugene IV sold the land it stood on. “By error,” we read, “a small strip of land went unmentioned in the sale treaty, and its inhabitants promptly declared themselves independent.”
The Free State Bottleneck, Åland Islands, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are all also worth checking out.
Finally, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with Simon Sellars, co-author of The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations.

(With huge thanks to Scott Gosnell, Christopher, Claus Moser, and Blinde Schildpad for the tips!)

The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars

[Images: The book and one of its authors, Simon Sellars].

Simon Sellars runs Ballardian from his home in Melbourne, Australia. Our shared interest in J.G. Ballard led to Simon’s interviewing me this past summer about architecture, urban space, psychopathology, international airport departure lounges, and Ballard’s novels. In the process, however, our conversation came to include a great many things not included in the final interview; and one of those things was Simon’s recent work as co-author, with John Ryan and George Dunford, of The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations. BLDGBLOG and Leah Beeferman had only just announced their own micronation – The Helicopter Archipelago – and so a new interview began to take shape. The tables were turned. I was asking the questions.
The results appear below.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: How did the book come about? Did you pitch it to Lonely Planet, or did they come looking for you?

Simon Sellars: The book is the brainchild of John Ryan, who invited George Dunford and myself to co-author it. When I worked in-house at Lonely Planet as an editor, I overheard John talking about a pitch he was about to present to the bosses – regarding a book about micronations. When I later heard that the proposal had been given the green light, I pestered the poor bastard for about six months until he let me work on it. I began by hammering John with heavy emails about the political significance of micronations until he finally said, “Simon, we want it to be funny.” Fortunately, there are a lot of laughs in the micronational world, so it was no problem toning down the revolutionary rhetoric.

BLDGBLOG: What’s the origin of your own interest in micronations?

Sellars: It comes from reading science fiction as a kid and getting right into the concept of parallel worlds and alternative universes. Anything that distorts or reflects or comments on the “real” world – or sets up an alternative world – sends me into an orgy of navel gazing. This can extend to even the most everyday scenarios. To give you an example: I’m not a huge sports fan, but I’m fascinated by the fact that American football sprang from rugby union. Actually, American football is a distortion, a twisted mirror image of rugby – amplified, stretched and extrapolated to degrees never thought possible by stuffy British types – in everything from the rules to the tactics to the uniforms. For similar reasons, although I’ve never been there, Canada fascinates me – as a parallel USA.

BLDGBLOG: Which country would be the distortion in that case?

Sellars: That’s tricky. A lot of what I know about Canada has been learnt from South Park and David Cronenberg films. Cronenberg presents it as a parallel universe, recognisably North American, but cool, detached, ironic – America on sedatives. Whereas South Park paints it as crass, loud and derivative. And Canada did host the World Rock Paper Scissors Championship, a truly lame sporting competition worthy of any micronation. So, let’s vote for Canada as the distortion. But I also remember reading a recent poll that claimed 38% of Americans wanted the US to annex Canada, and then reading an article that said British Canadians – aside from the more well-known Quebec separatists – wanted to secede from Canada. The US wants to go macro, Canada wants to go micro – polar opposites, then?

[Image: Canada].

BLDGBLOG: Have you ever declared your own micronation?

Sellars: Yes. I grew up in the suburb of Bentleigh, in Melbourne, Australia. It was an exceedingly boring place, like a retirement village – it seemed like I was the only teenager around at times. So I founded the Independent Republic of Bentleigh, declared myself President, and claimed the whole of Bentleigh as territory. Our national anthem was “We Can’t Be Beaten,” a song by the toughest band in the land, Rose Tattoo.

BLDGBLOG: What happened to it?

Sellars: We were beaten – the IRB was invaded by Poland. The Polish kid next door already hated me, but when he saw me poncing up and down the back yard draped in my IRB flag, he was enraged even more than usual. He jumped over the fence, punched me in the mouth and stole my lunch money – and that was all the IRB’s assets gone, just like that. He also stepped on my toy tanks and melted my plastic soldiers with a cigarette lighter, which meant the IRB had no defence force, and that was the end of it, really. My mother banned me from starting up a micronation ever again, unless I could back it up with sufficient armoury and investment capital, which of course I never could, being a very lazy kid.

BLDGBLOG: Are you still plotting revenge…?

Sellars: No, no – it’s fine. He was stronger, smarter, more committed and far more organised than me. It’s a good lesson for any start-up nation: you will be at the mercy of predators, so you’d best bulk up.

[Images: The Republic of Kugelmugel (top); former President of the Republic of Saugeais, Gabrielle Pourchet, stands on her well-guarded border (bottom-left); and a postage mark from Akhzivland (bottom-right)].

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the book, I’m curious if you found the travel guide format a bit limiting. Was there more to say beyond climate, history, population, and so on; or was the format actually a liberating way to organize your research?

Sellars: It was liberating. You could write a heavy political treatise on the significance of micronations, but who would read it? Lonely Planet certainly wouldn’t publish it. Our mantra was always to focus on places that travellers could actually visit – that is, micronations with actual land, rather than cybernations, or micronations on the moon – so the guidebook format seemed ideal. These places set themselves up as real countries, for the most part, and a good proportion of them take their statehood very seriously, so it was an interesting exercise to outline their “visa requirements” and their laws and regulations as a way of testing the validity of their claims.

Take the Empire of Atlantium: it’s described in the book as a “secular humanist utopia” that advocates a single world government, abortion rights and legalized euthanasia. By according the Empire the same weight (and the same text headings) as, say, the Netherlands in Lonely Planet’s Western Europe guidebook, we can determine whether it really is, as Atlantium’s Emperor Georgius claims, “a unique type of transitional progressive political and social group entity that maintains the forms and structures of a sovereign state as a means of giving concrete form to its general ideology, and as a way of wrapping up a diverse range of messages in a form that is easily understood and digested.”

So, does it have population of more than one? Yes. A currency? Yes. A citizenship program? Yes. A constitution? Yes. A postal agency? Yes. A flag? Yes. A pompous official portrait of the head of state? Yes. Has it been at war? Yes. Can you visit it? Yes. Does it have an eclectic socially tolerant agenda? Yes. Then it certainly does “maintain the forms and structures of a sovereign state in order to present a diverse range of messages” – much like the Netherlands, for that matter.

We just aimed for the facts, and figured the rest would follow – we’ll leave the grey areas for Wikipedia’s sandbox.

[Images: Kevin Baugh, President of the Republic of Molossia (top-left); King Adam from the Sovereign Kingdom of Kemetia, shaking hands with his Minister of Security, Samuel Simpson-Crew (bottom-left); and King Nicholas, Chav Slayer, of the Copeman Empire (right)].

BLDGBLOG: It seems many of the kings, queens, prime ministers, etc., featured in the book are actually teenage boys, or eccentric older men, many of whom have goatees.

Sellars: Yes. It does appear to be an especially male enterprise, starting up your own micronation. It’s like piecing together a model train set, I think – that common little-boy fantasy of building, managing and controlling every single aspect of a miniature world. But then again, little girls have dollhouses and tea sets, and that’s a virtual world as well, with its own rules for social interaction.

BLDGBLOG: John’s introduction suggests that many of these micronations have been run as “enormous, time-consuming, intricate jokes.” However, I’m curious what the book might have been like if you had included the “separatist cults,” white supremacists, and “lunatic fringe” that you chose to exclude. Did you ever want to write-up these other, less humorous micronations – multinational private security firms, corporate tax havens, seaborne pirate states off Somalia – or would that have made the book too political?

Sellars: Ah yes, the good old lunatic fringe. Quite often these types of micronations are not very well documented, and – at least the ones we came across – were riddled with incoherent policy and ill-thought out constitutions, with zero recognition from either the real world or the micronational world. I’m guessing that if a white-supremacist micronation came along that was intelligently modelled – and I’m talking geographically, of course – and that had interactions with other micronations, even if it was to invade them – plus some kind of tangible effect in the real world, such as being invaded by a real nation – then we might consider including it. It’s not enough to declare yourself a nation – you have to interact in some way, preferably for the benefit of others, or at least in a libertarian manner.

As it is, the micronations we’ve included have had some kind of independently verified interaction with a third party. Prime examples include Sealand, which was engaged in a diplomatic crisis with Germany after surviving an attempted coup, which successfully fended off the UK’s claims on its territory, and which now has national mini-golf, football and slot-car teams that compete in international competition; the Republic of Molossia, which is a world leader in micronational affairs, having inaugurated the Intermicronational Olympic Movement and hosted the first Intermicronational Olympic Games; and the Hutt River Province, which seceded from Australia after a dispute over wheat quotas, and now exports wildflowers, agricultural produce, stamps and coins, and continues to have low levels of interaction with the Australian government.

In the end, the mock-guidebook format sealed the selection criteria. On one level you could argue that the Waco compound was a micronation, although as far as I can tell they didn’t print stamps, or formally elect a head of state, or draw up a constitution. I’m certainly interested in exploring the parameters outlined in your question, but that would have required a very different methodology. Edwin Strauss has covered it to some extent, in his book How to Start Your Own Country, which takes a pre-9/11 approach to micronationalism, including advocating the deployment of “basement nukes” to get your own way.

The bottom line is that this is a dangerous area for a travel publisher to get into – and we are not white supremacists, cultists, or terrorists, so it would be a particularly bitter pill to swallow just for the sake of being inclusive.

[Images: Emperor Georgius II of the Empire of Atlantium (top-left); citizens of the Kingdom of Elleore (bottom-left); and King Leo III of Elleore (right)].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of future do you see for the micronational model? Tourist gag or the next phase of political sovereignty?

Sellars: Surely gated suburbs, housing only the filthy rich, are the future of micronationalism. Gated communities have their own security forces, their own infrastructure… it must be only a matter of time before the most powerful and self-contained of them secede. Going by this model, Johannesburg – by all accounts – will be composed of nothing but micronations.

BLDGBLOG: Any plans for a Micronations 2?

Sellars: The book is apparently selling quite well, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed. I hope there’ll be a sequel, for John’s sake – he showed a lot of vision to get this happening, or to at least pitch the idea well before the recent television interest in micronations and some time before the current fad for fake guidebooks. This recent media attention has only validated that vision. Actually, I hope the book inspires more people to form their own micronations, so that we have no choice but to write a follow up – I think the urge is strong, if the popularity of Max Barry’s Nation States site is any indication.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, how does this work intersect with your interest in J.G. Ballard?

Sellars: Ballard highlights the social Darwinism that occurs when communities are completely mediated by technology – whether it’s the motorway feeder roads in Crash, the business park in Super-Cannes, the patch of underpass in Concrete Island, the urban war zones in High-Rise. All of these settings are implicitly micronational – and explicitly in Ballard’s latest book, Kingdom Come, in which a shopping centre is overrun by consumers, sealed off by paramilitary goons, and declared an independent republic.

Ballard’s protagonists are forever setting up psychopathological thought labs, where people are free to test the limits of their perversions within controlled conditions, with the outside world fading into a background blur. Quite often their actions are gross inversions of real-world scenarios, and by stepping into this surrealistic inverse ratio, we are really seeing ourselves – and the world around us – reflected back at us. That’s the classic gambit of science fiction, and Ballard’s trick is to situate it in the present day, rather than the future.

So, your typical Ballardian scenario is not a million miles away from Molossia, which has formulated its very own space program, consisting of the Rufus T. Firefly Memorial National Observatory (a single home telescope) and a probe launch – the “Hypérion Balloon Flight and Aerial Survey” – designed to photograph the nation from the upper atmosphere. Sadly, the probe, a camera attached to 40 balloons, was destroyed during take off, when it got stuck in a tree. Later, their home-made rocket, Astrocam, took just one blurry aerial photo that didn’t reveal anything at all.

Sounds a lot like the US space program to me…

• • •

The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations was written by John Ryan, George Dunford, and Simon Sellars. For a bit more about the book, check out this conversation between John Ryan and Alex Chadwick of NPR, originally broadcast on the morning of November 1st. For even more info, take a look at this interview, involving all three of the book’s authors.
Meanwhile, to win a free copy of The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations, enter BLDGBLOG’s Invent-a-Micronation contest before December 8th…