Shocked to discover “they were living in ‘hill country’”

MysteriousUpswelling[Image: “Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington (1946),” courtesy USC Libraries].

In 1946, a “mysterious upswelling” occurred in a street in the neighborhood of Wilmington, California, near Long Beach. The photograph above, courtesy of the USC Libraries, pictures a young boy who went outside to measure it.

As part of an irregular series of short posts for KCET’s Lost L.A.—about things like Los Angeles partially illuminated by the light of an atomic bomb—I wrote a quick piece, inspired both by the photo itself and by its caption. “Surprising uprising,” it begins. “George Applegate measures mysterious swelling of Opp Street in Wilmington. Residents were shocked yesterday morning to discover they were living in ‘hill country.’ Street is seven inches above the curbing. Officials are investigating.”

Although I don’t mention this in the KCET post, I was instantly reminded of terrain deformation grenades and the instant, pop-up landforms of an old LucasArts game called Fracture. There, specialized weapons are put to use, tactically reshaping the earth’s surface, resulting in “mysterious upswellings” such as these.

There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure,” I write over at KCET. “A street today is a mountain tomorrow.”

(Also related: The previous post, Inland Sea).

The Weather Bank

A slideshow over at National Geographic features this image by photographer Ian Wood, showing, in the magazine’s own words, “what might be called extreme Inca landscaping.”

[Image: The weather bowl at Moray, Peru; photo by Ian Wood/Alamy, courtesy of National Geographic].

“Three enormous pits, each with beautifully curved sides that staircase down like the interiors of titanic flowerpots have been carved out of the earth to depths of up to 100 feet and more,” the magazine adds. They are like Indian stepwells—only they concentrate thermal gradients—and this affects the local weather: “Air temperatures between the top and bottom layers can differ by more than 20 degrees, which has led some researchers to theorize that Moray was an Inca agricultural site where experiments on crops were conducted.”

It’s a site of experimental agriculture fueled by an act of microclimatic terrain deformation.

So does this mean that the weather at Moray should be subject not only to meteorological analysis, but to archaeological interpretation? The site you’re excavating seamlessly continues into the sky above it, turning the weather itself into an historic artifact—a whole new spin on paleotempestology.

But is the weather created by an historic site also part of that historic site? If so, should ancient microclimates such as these be subject to material preservation? Put another way, if there were a Museum of Ancient Microclimates, how would you design it and what would the visitor experience be?

Imagine a whole constellation of these oversized weather pits, meanwhile, distributed throughout the Andes, all interacting with and augmenting one another, producing continent-scale storm systems—and imagine being hit by a summer downpour, or sitting calmly throughout the winter as blizzards rage just one valley over, knowing that the atmospheric events around you are really long-lasting cultural gifts of the people who lived there centuries before. Weather designed by your ancestors still rages around you today.

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Superficially, I’m reminded of the hexagonal “water storage banks” of Sietch Nevada, a speculative design by the San Francisco-based firm MATSYS. While the resemblance doesn’t go much beyond form, this comparison lets us borrow MATSYS’s idea of a water bank and, thus, reinterpret the Incan site at Moray as a kind of weather bank, storing temperatures and headwinds year round. It is a space to store climates in.

Extrapolating wildly from this, if the rise of the Himalayas radically altered the earth’s climate by changing weather patterns for thousands of miles in all directions, then perhaps we can imagine a scenario in which a network of artificial pits in the Andes begins to affect the jet stream, plunging Australia into drought and pushing rain far north into Mexico—and that, in turns out, is those pits’ very purpose, having been excavated by scientifically advanced, self-styled weather warriors more than 600 years ago for reasons still unclear today. Groups of elders would get together in the dark, sitting around their pits in tight circles as the winds picked up, burning incense, singing tales, hurling storms like artillery into the central Pacific.

(Thanks to Marilyn Terrell for the heads up!)

Terrain Deformation Grenades

Something I mentioned the other day in my talk at the Australian National Architecture Conference – and that came up again in Peter Wilson‘s conference summary – was the game Fracture by LucasArts.
Specifically, I referred to that game’s “terrain deformation grenades” (actually, ER23-N Tectonic Grenades).

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, courtesy of LucasArts].

The game’s own definition of terrain deformation is that it is a “warfare technology” through which “soldiers utilize specialized weaponry to reshape earth to their own strategic advantage.” In an interview with GameZone, David Perkinson, a producer from LucasArts, explains that any player “will be able to use a tectonic grenade to raise the ground and create a hill.”

He will also be able to then lower that same hill by using a subsonic grenade. From there, he could choose to throw another tectonic to rebuild that hill, or add on another subsonic to create a crater in the ground. The possibilities are, quite literally, limitless for the ways in which players can change the terrain.

Other of the game’s terrestrial weapons include a “subterranean torpedo.”
In any case, if you were at the conference and want to know more about either the game or its implications for landscape design, I thought I’d post a quick link back to the original post in which I first wrote about this: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation.
While we’re on the subject, though, it’d be interesting if terrain deformation weaponry not only was real, but if it could be demilitarized… and purchased at REI.
You load up your backpack with tectonic grenades, head off to hike the Appalachian Trail – and whenever the path gets boring, you just toss a few bombs ahead and create instant slopes and hillsides. An artificial Peak District is generated in northern England by a group of well-armed hikers from Manchester.
In other words, what recreational uses might terrain deformation also have – and need these sorts of speculative tools only be treated as weaponry?
If Capability Brown had had a box of Tectonic Grenades, for instance, England today might look like quite different…

Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture by LucasArts. Via Wired].

Over on Wired this weekend I read about a game called Fracture, by LucasArts, which features “terrain deformation” as a central factor in gameplay.

Fracture is “a game centered on the wanton reformation of land masses,” Wired reports; the author then goes on to introduce us to the game’s “terrain deformation mechanics.”

“Every player is equipped with a tool called an Entrencher,” we read. The Entrencher “gives them the ability to raise or lower most surfaces at will,” including the surface of the earth itself:

Gone are the days of studying a level, and simply memorizing sniper positions and the fastest routes. Resourceful players will be digging trenches, raising their own cover and manipulating level elements to fortify their positions… fundamentally altering the way levels are played.

Which means what, exactly?

Can’t find a way across that slime pit? Raise the ground underneath it. You can also terrain-jump by leaping as you raise the ground beneath your feet, launching yourself into the air.

“The rule of thumb,” the article adds, “is that if you can walk on it, you can probably alter it.”

Using weapons like the Tectonic Grenade, you can reshape the planet. Quoting from the official Fracture website:

The ER23-N Tectonic Grenade sets off localized shockwaves when detonated, causing small, concentrated earthquakes that raise the immediate terrain around the point of impact. The weapon is extremely useful for shaping the terrain and providing cover.

There’s also a Spike Grenade. As LucasArts explains, “Tectonic scientists discovered that lava tubes lying dormant deep below the surface of the earth could be stimulated to eject a pyroclastic column.” These columns can “be used as a ‘natural elevator’ of sorts, allowing a soldier to access hard to reach high elevation areas.”

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, by LucasArts, showing a pyroclastic elevator at work].

There are even Subterranean Torpedoes that burrow into the planet and create landforms on the surface far away.

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture by LucasArts].

Of course, the idea that an instantaneous and semi-magmatic reshaping of the earth’s surface might have military implications is an interesting one – and probably not far from technological realization. I’ve written about the weaponization of the earth’s surface before, but Fracture seems to illustrate the concept in a refreshingly accessible way.

However, there are many historical precedents for the idea of politicized terrain creation, and these deserve at least a passing mention here.

I’m thinking, in particular, of David Blackbourn’s recent book The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany. The “making” in Blackbourn’s subtitle is meant literally, as the book looks at coastal reshaping, bog- and marsh-draining, and other projects of imperial hydrology; these were the activities through which the territory of Germany itself was physically shaped.

It was terrain deformation: a militarized reshaping of the earth’s surface under orders from Frederick the Great. Frederick sought to transform the lands of northern Germany – then called Prussia – in order to create more space to rule.

In his book, Blackbourn describes what these imperial “hydro-technicians” actually did:

The task of filling in the squares on Frederick’s grids remained. That meant ditching and diking the future fields, constructing sluices, uprooting the old vegetation and planting willows by the new drainage canals, preparing the still heavy, intractable soil, building paths and bridges, houses, farms, and schools, all the while maintaining the new defenses against the water.

These “new defenses” have since been so naturalized that we mistake them for a pre-existing terrain upon which modern Germany was founded – but they were and are constructed landforms, a “brave new world of dikes, ditches, windmills, fields, and meadows.”

These were lands created through military intervention in order to host a particular form of political governance.

In this context, then, Fracture would seem to be simply an accelerated – or what Sanford Kwinter might call an “adrenalated” – version of this tactical landscaping.

[Image: Celestial Impact].

Meanwhile, a commenter over on Wired points out that there are conceptual similarities between Fracture and another game called Celestial Impact.

In Celestial Impact, “the landscape is fully deformable in all directions.”

“Build and dig your way around the landscape in various strategic ways,” we read, ways that are “not limited to destruction”:

[T]he players also have the ability to add terrain to the landscape in the middle of combat using a special tool called Dirtgun. With the Dirtgun, players can add or remove terrain during combat as they see fit, simply by aiming and firing the dirtgun. Depending on the chosen action, this will either add or remove a chunk of dirt from the landscape. So as the teams are battling, the landscape receives vast changes opening up for various tactical approaches each team can use.

When your weapons are set on build-mode, the game’s creators explain, “the Dirtgun adds terrain in the form of a pre-selected shape in front of the player. The shapes could be a simple cube, a part of a bridge or even a defensive wall.”

In many ways, this sounds like a weaponized version of Behrokh Khoshnevis‘s building-printer – subject of one of the earliest posts on BLDGBLOG – here remade as a kind of propulsive instant-concrete mixer retrofit for imperial military campaigns.

As Discover described Khoshnevis’s machine back in 2005, “a robotically controlled nozzle squeezes a ribbon of concrete onto a wooden plank. Every two minutes and 14 seconds, the nozzle completes a circuit, topping the previous ribbon with a fresh one. Thus a five-foot-long wall rises – a wall built without human intervention.”

Now make an accelerated, portable, and fully weaponized version of this thing, put it in a videogame, and you’ve got something a bit like Celestial Impact.

Here are some screenshots.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

Finally, I couldn’t help but think here of architect Vicente Guallart. Guallart’s work consistently seeks to introduce new geological forms into the built infrastructure of the city – artificial mountains, for instance, and “new topographies” through which a city might expand.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

I suppose one question here might be: what would a videogame look like as designed by Vicente Guallart? Would it look like Fracture? If Vicente Guallart and Behrokh Khoshnevis teamed up, would they have created Celestial Impact?

But a more interesting, and wide-ranging, question is whether designing videogame environments is not something of a missed opportunity for today’s architecture studios.

After all, how might architects relay complex ideas about space, landscape, and the design of new terrains if they were to stop using academic essays and even project renderings and turn instead to video games?

It seems like you can take your ideas about terrain deformation and instant landscapes and nomadic geology and you can license it to LucasArts, knowing that tens of thousands of people will soon be interacting with your ideas all over the world; or you can just pin some images up on the wall of an architecture class, make no money at all, and be forced to get a job rendering buildings for Frank Gehry.

So would more people understand Rem Koolhaas’s thoughts on cities if he stopped writing 1000-page books and started designing videogames – games set in some strange quasi-Asiatic desert world of Koolhaasian urbanism?

Or do all of these questions simply mistake popularity for engaged comprehension?

The larger issue, though, is whether or not architecture, increasingly popular as a kind of Dubai-inspired freakshow (rotating skyscrapers! solar-powered floating hotels!), is nonetheless not reaching the audience it needs.

[Image: From The re-naturalization of territory by Vicente Guallart].

If architects and architecture writers continue to use outmoded forms of publication, such as $25/copy university-sponsored magazines and huge books purchased by no one but college librarians, then surely they can expect only people currently enrolled in academic programs even to be aware of what they’re talking about, let alone to be enthusiastic about it or appreciative of the implications.

$100 hardcover books do absolutely nothing to increase architecture’s audience.

So what would happen if architects tried videogames?

[Image: The constructed geologies of Vicente Guallart, from How To Make a Mountain].

In any case, terrain deformation, dirtguns set on build-mode, and other forms of militarized landscape creation – these seem like good enough reasons to me to add gaming consoles to a design syllabus near you.