Three Trees

1) And then there was computational wood.

For his master’s thesis, produced last year under the direction of Timo Arnall, Matt Jones, Jack Schulze, Lennart Andersson, and Mikael Wiberg, designer Matt Cottam directed this short video about a technique for growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees. Just inject the right trace metals, Cottam’s mad scientist narrator explains, do some more techno-magic, and simply let the wood grow…

If only it were true. But the day will come, my t-shirt will read, when all the trees around us are computers.

2) While researching blackouts for a seminar I am teaching this winter at Pratt, I stumbled on a strange anecdote from The New York Times, published back in 1986, about a plant physiologist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden who was seeking a way to end the risk of “trees crashing down on power lines” (a major source of power interruptions).


[Images: All photos by Adam Ryder, from On the Grid].

“One of the things we’re looking at,” the scientist explained, “is something that will directly retard the growth of trees”—that is, chemicals “that interfere with the basic growth hormones.” He was trying to develop, he adds, “a mild chemical” that would deliberately slow tree growth, “and instead of spraying we’re injecting [it] directly into the tree.”

Who knows where that research has now led them, twenty-four years later, but I’d suggest someone might want to mail them a copy of The Death of Grass. ASAP.


[Image: A fig tree grows in Los Angeles; photo by Pieter Severynen].

3) While going back through old bookmarks this morning, I rediscovered Tree of the Week, a series of articles run by the Los Angeles Times. The overall project could be described as a botanical cartography of the city: a catalog of Angeleno trees.

This week’s tree is the “highly productive fig“; last week’s was the Blackwood Acacia. With regard to the latter tree, Pieter Severynen, the series author, writes: “Given its negative properties it should be clear that a description of this tree, or for that matter any tree of the week, does not imply an endorsement to plant. Instead it is offered as a means to learn more about the existing trees that make up the fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland.”

The “fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland” includes the Weltwitschia, the “picturesque Aleppo pine,” and, of course, among many others, the apple, a tree genetically sculpted over the millennia through “hundreds of accidental and deliberate cross-hybridizations” around the world, Severynen writes.

Anyone interested in exploring the urban forests of Los Angeles would do well to check out the fruit maps of Fallen Fruit, who have discovered in the seemingly random dispersal of fruit trees around Silver Lake the remnant outlines of long-forgotten orchards; but if your curiosity goes further afield than L.A., the absolutely fantastic book Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, has truly unforgettable descriptions of walnut harvesting in Kazakhstan, old-growth Eastern European forests filled with war ruins and shrapnel, and Deakin’s own backyard in England. It is often astonishingly beautiful—and it also Deakin’s last major work.

Architecture of a Decade Past


[Image: Fresh Kills landscape masterplan by Field Operations, via Mammoth; “With 2,200 acres filled with 150 million tons of trash to contend with,” Metropolis writes, “the challenge is making Fresh Kills public and safe, which means covering the garbage mounds with some four feet of fresh soil. The park would grow itself with cost-effective soil farms that aren’t eyesores.” Read more at the Freshkills Park Blog].

Mammoth has posted a great list of the best architecture of the decade. It runs the gamut from groundwater replenishing infrastructure and Chinese high-speed rail to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the iPhone, by way of the Large Hadron Collider, Rome’s Pontine marshes, and a library in Medellín (among others).

The purpose of the list, they write, is “to share a handful of the reasons that we’re genuinely excited about the future of architecture, and to hopefully engender a bit of that excitement in a reader or two.” It’s an inspired (and refreshingly non-building-centric) list of innovations (like microfinance) that have affected the built environment—and yet another reason why Mammoth is one of the best architecture blogs being written anywhere in the world today.

As a list, it also fares very favorably against the mind-numbing self-congratulation of other critics’ decade-in-retrospect lists, in which the last ten years appeared to exist only to validate the publishing decisions of people who, long ago, forgot how to engage with anything more than a shaving mirror.

Again, here’s a link.

Homefront Dissolve

Keiichi Matsuda, a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, produced this short video in the final year of his M.Arch. It was, he writes, “part of a larger project about the social and architectural consequences of new media and augmented reality.”

The latter half of the 20th century saw the built environment merged with media space, and architecture taking on new roles related to branding, image and consumerism. Augmented reality may recontextualise the functions of consumerism and architecture, and change in the way in which we operate within it.

The bewildering groundlessness of surfaces within surfaces is beautifully captured by this video, and its portrayal of drop-down menus and the future hand gestures needed to access them is also pretty great. Augmented-reality drop-down menus are the Gothic ornamentation of tomorrow.

Now how do we use all that home-jamming ad space for something other than Coke and Tesco? What other subscription-content feeds can be plugged into this vertiginous interface?

Take a look—and you can find more thoughts, and another video, on Matsuda’s own blog.

(Thanks to Nic Clear for the tip!)

Digital Memory Palace

First thing tomorrow morning, I will be presenting at Ruairi Glynn’s Digital Architecture London conference, alongside Neil Spiller, Murray Fraser, and Alan Penn. Our topic is “Digital Architecture & Space.”

Anticipating a day filled with formal discussions, I’ll be speaking – albeit briefly – about what might be called the psychiatric effects of simulated environments. Specifically referring to the U.S. military’s Virtual Iraq project, I want to bring into the discussion the idea that “digital space” can be used for therapeutic purposes.

[Image: Brains].

To quote at length from a fascinating article in The New Yorker about the use of virtual reality as a treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

P.T.S.D. is precipitated by a terrifying event or situation—war, a car accident, rape, planes crashing into the World Trade Center—and is characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts, as well as by emotional detachment, numbness, jumpiness, anger, and avoidance. [A recently returned soldier from Iraq’s] doctor prescribed medicine for his insomnia and encouraged him to seek out psychotherapy, telling him about an experimental treatment option called Virtual Iraq, in which patients worked through their combat trauma in a computer-simulated environment. The portal was a head-mounted display (a helmet with a pair of video goggles), earphones, a scent-producing machine, and a modified version of Full Spectrum Warrior, a popular video game.

The purpose of discussing this is to look beyond formal analyses of digital architecture and virtual space, and to focus instead on their therapeutic possibilities. Put another way, to what extent could architectural simulations help to treat or even cure Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

With only a slight shift in emphasis, could you produce a building project that used the techniques of digital architecture to create an elaborate spatial memory system – a kind of RHINO mnemonics – that neurologically stimulated the act of remembering?

Of course, the use of architectural space as a road toward mental self-improvement, so to speak, is not at all new. A memory palace, for instance, is the art of remembering something by associating it with specific spatial details in a fantasy architectural structure, and this idea goes back at least to Cicero.

So is there a way to discuss the impact of digital design on architecture, with all of its implications of cinematic immersion and real-time animation, without getting stuck on questions of form? How might we discuss digital architecture’s impacts on things like memory – and can we do so in the context of experimental psychiatry and so-called exposure therapy?

I should add that each speaker will only be presenting for about five minutes – so the above remarks will be quite short, before turning into a much more general panel discussion.

The Subterranean Machine Dreams of a Paralyzed Youth in Los Angeles

[Image: A glimpse of Honda’s brain-interface technology, otherwise unrelated to the post below].

Among many other interesting things in the highly recommended Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century by P.W. Singer – a book of interest to historians, psychologists, designers, military planners, insurgents, peace advocates, AI researchers, filmmakers, novelists, future soldiers, legislators, and even theologians – is a very brief comment about military research into the treatment of paralysis.
In a short subsection called “All Jacked Up,” Singer refers to “a young man from South Weymouth, Massachusetts,” who was “paralyzed from the neck down in 2001.” After nearly giving up hope for recovery, “a computer chip was implanted into his head.”

The goal was to isolate the signals leaving [his] brain whenever he thought about moving his arms or legs, even if the pathways to those limbs were now broken. The hope was that [his] intent to move could be enough; his brain’s signals could be captured and translated into a computer’s software code.

None of this seemed like news to me; in fact, even the next step wasn’t particularly surprising: they hooked him up to a computer mouse and then to a TV remote control, and the wounded man was thus able not only to surf the web but to watch HBO.
What I literally can’t stop thinking about, though, was where this research “opens up some wild new possibilities for war,” as Singer writes.
In other words: why hook this guy up to a remote control television when you could hook him up to a fully-armed drone aircraft flying above Afghanistan? He would simply pilot the plane with his thoughts.

[Image: A squadron of drones awaits its orders].

This vision – of paralyzed soldiers thinking unmanned planes through war – is both terrible and stunning.
Singer goes on to describe DARPA‘s “Brain-Interface Project,” which helped pay for this research, in which training the paralyzed to control machines by thought could be put to use for military purposes.
Later, Singer describes research into advanced, often robotic prostheses; “these devices are also being wired directly into the patient’s nerves,” he writes.

This allows the solder to control their artificial limbs via thought as well as have signals wired back into their peripheral nervous system. Their limbs might be robotic, but they can “feel” a temperature change or vibration.

When this is put into the context of the rest of Singer’s book – where we read, for instance, that “at least 45 percent of [the U.S. Air Force’s] future large bomber fleet [will be] able to operate without humans aboard,” with other “long-endurance” military drones soon “able to stay aloft for as long as five years,” and if you consider that, as Singer writes, the Los Angeles Police Department “is already planning to use drones that would circle over certain high-crime neighborhoods, recording all that happens” – you get into some very heady terrain, indeed. After all, the idea that those drone aircraft circling over Los Angeles in the year 2013 are actually someone’s else literal daydream simply blows me away.
In other words, if you can directly link the brain of a paralyzed soldier to a computer mouse – and then to a drone aircraft, and then perhaps to an entire fleet of armed drones circling over enemy territory – then surely you could also hook that brain up to, say, lawnmowers, remote-controlled tunneling machines, lunar landing modules, strip-mining equipment, and even 3D printers.
And here’s where some incredible landscape design possibilities come in.

[Image: 3D printing, via Thinglab].

A patient somewhere in Gloucestershire dreams in plastic objects endlessly extruded from a 3D printer… Architectural models, machine parts, abstract sculpture – a whole new species of object is emitted, as if printing dreams in three-dimensions.
Or you go to a toy store in Manhattan – or to next year’s Design Indaba, or to the Salone del Mobile – and you find nothing but rooms full of strange objects dreamed into existence by paralyzed 16-year olds.
The idea of brain-controlled wireless digging machines, in particular, just astonishes me; at night you dream of tunnels – because you are actually in control of tunneling equipment operating somewhere beneath the surface of the earth.
A South African platinum mine begins to diverge wildly from real sites of mineral wealth, its excavations more and more abstract as time goes on – carving M.C. Escher-like knots and strange cursive whorls through ancient reefwork below ground – and it’s because the mining engineer, paralyzed in a car crash ten years ago and in control of the digging machines ever since, has become addicted to morphine.
Or perhaps this could even be used as a new and extremely avant-garde form of psychotherapy.
For instance, a billionaire in Los Angeles hooks his depressed teenage son up to Herrenknecht tunneling equipment which has been shipped, at fantastic expense, down to Antarctica. An unmappably complex labyrinth of subterranean voids is soon created; the boy literally acts out through tunnels. If rock is his paint, he is its Basquiat.
Instead of performing more traditional forms of Freudian analysis by interviewing the boy in person, a team of highly-specialized dream researchers is instead sent down into those artificial caverns, wearing North Face jackets and thick gloves, where they deduce human psychology from moments of curvature and angle of descent.
My dreams were a series of tunnels through Antarctica, the boy’s future headstone reads.

[Image: Three varieties of underground mining machine].

That, or we stay aboveground and we look at the design implications of brain-interfaced gardening equipment.
I’m imagining a new film directed by Alex Trevi, in which a landscape critic on commission from The New Yorker visits a sprawling estate house somewhere in southern France. The owner has been bed-bound for three decades now, following a near-fatal car accident, but his brain was recently interfaced directly with an armada of wireless gardening machines: constantly trimming, mowing, replanting, and pruning, the gardens outside are shifted with his every thought process.
Having arrived simply to write a thesis about this unique development in landscape design, our critic finds herself entranced by the hallucinatory goings-on, the creeping vines and insectile machines and moving walls of hedges all around her.

[Image: The gardens at Versailles, via Wikipedia].

Returning to Singer, briefly, he writes that “Many robots are actually just vehicles that have been converted into unmanned systems” – so if we can robotize aircraft, digging machines, riding lawnmowers, and even heavy construction equipment, and if we can also directly interface the human brain to the controls of these now wireless robotic mechanisms, then the design possibilities seem limitless, surreal, and well worth exploring (albeit somewhat cautiously) in real life.
It could be a new episode of MythBusters, or the next iteration of the DARPA Grand Challenge. What’s the challenge?
A paralyzed teenager has to dig a tunnel through the Alps using only his or her brain and a partial face excavation machine.

In space, no one can hear you pray

[Image: NASA].

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

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

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

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

(Original article spotted at Off Center).

Mirror displacements


I ran across this image at SPROL, and immediately thought of Robert Smithson’s “Yucatan Mirror Displacements,” in which Smithson put mirrors on the ground and in the trees throughout the Yucatan, and then photographed the resulting inversions of sky, land, earth, heaven… left, right, etc.

[Image: Robert Smithson, from “Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1-9,” 1969].

And though the first image, above, is actually an array of solar power generators, the machines it pictures rearrange and visually disrupt the landscape in such an exciting way that I’m tempted to suggest they should be installed everywhere just for the visual effect.
Thousands of these things on the roofs of every building downtown, installed in the smoky corners of clubs, part fractal-mirror-machine, part-echo-wall. Rotating inside jewelry shops, turning everything into a seamless, through-linked chain of exact-faceted geometric self-similarity.
Install ten thousand of these in the sky, rotating above Manhattan: babies will wake-up from afternoon naps and see sparkling heavens of mirror-bright skies flashing like cameras, reflecting towers, clouds, seas, rivers, a world made alive through reflective technology.
There’s something oddly attractive – even Greek-mythological – about a mirror that can store the sun’s energy: it can copy the sun, in other words, or imitate it. It’s a kind of rearing-up of the son, the prodigal copy – a return of the repressed – to slay and replace the source, the original.
In fact, imagine a retelling of the Narcissus myth, updated for the 21st century, populated entirely with solar-powered technology and written by Jean Baudrillard – and you’d get something like these mirror-displacing reflection machines.