Terrain Jam

[Image: “arid wilderness areas” from @witheringsystem].

I’ve long been a fan of generative landscapes—topographies created according to some sort of underlying algorithmic code—and I’m thus always happy to stumble upon new, visually striking examples.

Of course, geology itself is already “generative,” as entire continents are formed and evolve over hundreds of millions of years following deeper logics of melting, crystallization, erosion, tectonic drift, and thermal metamorphosis; so digital examples of this sort of thing are just repeating in miniature something that has long been underway at a much larger scale.

In any case, @witheringsystem is a joint project between Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt, the same artists behind the widely-known “moth generator” and last year’s “Fermi Paradox Jam,” among other collaborations. It is not exactly new, but it’s been tweeting some great shots lately from an algorithmic world of cuboid terrains; the image seen here depicts “arid wilderness areas,” offered without further context.

See several more examples over on their Twitter feed.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac; earlier on BLDGBLOG: British Countryside Generator and Sometimes the house you come out of isn’t the same one you went into.”)

To roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course

The blog Landscapism takes a look at the “integral but largely uncharted topography” of the combe, the “amphitheatre-like landform that can be found at the head of a valley.” There, the post’s author writes, amidst lichen-covered rubble and interrupted creeks, “these watery starting lines disguised as cul-de-sacs are a gift to the rural flâneur; sheep tracks, streams, crags, ruined sheep folds—all encourage the curious visitor to roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course.”

The Drowned World

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

Artists Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton’s project Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime simultaneously explores the history of different geographic projections—including how these have been used to misrepresent and distort the earth’s surface—and at the future of that earth in an era of rising sea levels.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As Factum Arte explain, their chosen geographic projections offer “a way of engaging with the Earth from different points of view, and reflect historical ways of mapping the world from the Greeks to Google Earth.”

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

The projections are milled into beautiful 3D topographic models, with the vertical axis exaggerated to allow for changes in altitude to become visible.

The Andes, for example, become an abrupt spine of skyscraping pinnacles on the edge of an otherwise dead-flat continent, and deep-sea plains become spiky fields of underwater needles and pins.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As the artists write, “distortion was used because without it the globe’s surface would appear almost totally flat”—which interestingly suggests that representational distortion, with a great deal of irony, is actually central to giving our planet geographic legibility.

To map it or to know it, the implication seems to be, you must first alter it.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

This is only half the project, however.

The artists refer to Terra Forming as “a cartographic response to the advent of the Anthropocene“—which is why the resulting topographic models are then flooded.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

“The installation will mimic the passage of time as well as space,” Factum Arte write, “by flooding the world with water over several days, until we reach current sea levels; the world will then be flooded completely, leaving us with a drowned world, a prescient image for those parts of the world facing rising sea levels, as well as those such as parts of the Arabian Peninsula which is trying to reclaim land from the sea.”

You can watch a short video of the project’s gradual submergence on Vimeo—or embedded below.

And you can read much more about the project over at Factum Arte.

“We don’t have an algorithm for this”

[Image: Comet 67P, via ESA].

In the story of how European Space Agency researchers are scrambling to locate—and possibly move—the Philae probe, which they successfully landed on Comet 67P two days ago, there’s an interesting comment about computer vision and the perception of exotic landscapes.

[Image: Comet 67P, via New Scientist].

“We’re working our eyes off,” one of the scientists says to New Scientist, describing how they are personally and individually poring over photographs of the comet.

“It’s an entirely manual process,” New Scientist continues, “because the complex and bizarre landscape of comet 67P defies any kind of automated search. ‘We don’t have an algorithm for this,’ he says.”

We don’t have an algorithm for this.

[Image: The irregular terrain of Comet 67P, via ESA].

It would be interesting to develop a taxonomy of landscapes based on their recognizability to algorithms. This would tell you as much about how computers see the world as it would about the aesthetic assumptions—even the geological biases—of the people who programmed those computers.

Think, for example, of Adam Harvey’s work, asking When Is An Apple No Longer An Apple? That project explored the point at which machine-learning algorithms could no longer distinguish the iconic fruit from a jumble of colorful objects.

Or take Harvey’s more recent CV Dazzle experiment, which looked at how to prevent facial recognition software from identifying a face at all through the clever use of cosmetic camouflage.

However, in the case of Comet 67P and other extreme topographic environments, we would be looking at when a landscape is no longer a landscape, so to speak, at least in terms of the computer-vision algorithms programmed to analyze it.

[Image: Comet 67P, via ESA].

What other landscapes fall within this category—of spatial environments unrecognizable to machines—and what do those spaces reveal about the dimensional prejudices of the algorithm? Light and shadow; depth and range; foreground and background; geometry and complexity.

Bump Adam Harvey’s investigations up to the scale of a landscape, and a million potential design projects beckon. Learning from Comet 67P.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Comet as Landscape Art).

Touchscreen Landscapes

[Image: Screen grab via military.com].

This new, partly digital sand table interface developed for military planning would seem to have some pretty awesome uses in an architecture or landscape design studio.

Using 3D terrain data—in the military’s case, gathered in real-time from its planetary network of satellites—and a repurposed Kinect sensor, the system can adapt to hand-sculpted transformations in the sand by projecting new landforms and elevations down onto those newly molded forms.

You can thus carve a river in real-time through the center of the sandbox, and watch as projected water flows in—

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

—or you can simply squeeze sand together into new hills, and even make a volcanic crater.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

The idea of projecting adaptive landscape imagery down onto a sandbox is brilliant; being able to interact with both the imagery and the sand itself by way of a Kinect sensor is simply awesome.

Imagine scaling this thing up to the size of a children’s playground, and you’d never see your kids again, lost in a hypnotic topography of Minecraft-like possibilities, or just donate some of these things to a landscape design department and lose several hours (weeks?) of your life, staring ahead in a state of geomorphic Zen at this touchscreen landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with its readymade rivers and a thousand on-demand plateaus.

The military, of course, uses it to track and kill people, filling their sandbox with projections of targeting coordinates and geometric representations of tanks.

[Image: Screen grabs via military.com].

But there’s no reason those coordinates couldn’t instead be the outlines of a chosen site for your proposed architecture project, or why those little clusters of trucks and hidden snipers couldn’t instead be models of new buildings or parks you’re hoping will be constructed.

Watch the original video for more.

The Comet as Landscape Art

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

Intrigued by these images as an example of how the tradition of landscape representation has rapidly progressed—from the Romantics and the Hudson River School to Rosetta—I felt compelled to post a few photos of the craggy and glacial surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, sent back to Earth yesterday from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft.

The surface of the comet “is porous, with steep cliffs and house-sized boulders,” making it earth-like yet deeply treacherous, an irregular terrain to photograph and a dangerous place to land.

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

It is the notion of “land” here that is most interesting, however, as this is really just the imposition of a terrestrial metaphor onto a deeply alien body. Yet the comet is, in effect, literally a glacier: a malleable yet permanently frozen body of ice hurtling through space, occasionally exploding in comas and tails of vapor.

It is “an ancient landscape,” we read, “and yet one that looks strangely contemporary as the sun vaporizes ice, reworking the terrain like a child molding clay.”

Think Antarctica in a winter storm, not southern Utah—or Glacier National Park, not the Grand Canyon.

[Image: Photo courtesy ESA].

Along those lines, some of the most provocative writing on what it means to visually represent the frozen and hostile landscapes of the Antarctic is by writer William L. Fox, whose work offers some useful resonance here.

Fox has written, for example, about the technical and even neurological difficulties in accurately representing—let alone comprehending or simply navigating—Antarctic space and the vast forms that frame it.

Distant landscapes distorted by thermal discontinuities; white levels pushed to the absolute limit of film chemistry; impossible contours throwing off any attempt at depth perception; even the difficulty of distinguishing complicated mirages from actual landforms: these are all part of the challenge of creating images of an exotic landscape such as the Antarctic.

As Fox writes, it was even specifically the tradition of Dutch landscape painting, combined with the maritime practice of sketching coastal profiles, that first introduced the visual world of the Antarctic to western viewers: it was thus seen as an ominous, ice-clogged horizon of fog and low clouds looming always just slightly out of ship’s reach at the bottom of the world.

He calls this the genre of “representational exploration art.”

[Image: Photo by Stuart Klipper from his fantastic book, The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole, with a foreword by William L. Fox].

In one interesting passage in his book Terra Antarctica, he suggests that the south polar landscape is so extreme, it often resists natural analogy. As Fox describes it, the wind-carved boulders and isolated pillars and cliffs of ice are more like “artworks by Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore, evoking the spirit of surrealism with the former and modernist forms with the latter. The Antarctic is so extreme to our visual expectations that, once we attempt to move beyond measurement to describe it, analogies with other parts of nature fall short, and we resort to comparisons with cultural artifacts that push at the boundaries of our perceptions.”

These include “cultural artifacts such as sculpture and architecture, products more of the imagination than of nature.”

Consider, for instance, that comet 67P is widely known today as the “rubber-duck comet” due to its bifurcated structure, implying, as Fox suggests with the Antarctic, that no natural analogy seemed adequate for describing the comet’s geometry.

[Image: The gateway arches of the Antarctic; photo by Stuart Klipper from, The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole, foreword by William L. Fox].

But what are we to make of comet 67P now that we can see it as a physical landscape, not just an ephemeral optical phenomenon passing, at great distance, through the sky? When a blur becomes focused as terrain, what is the best way to describe it? What visual or textual traditions are the most useful or evocative—vedas and sutras or laboratory reports?

Put another way, is poetry as appropriate as a scientific survey in such a circumstance—should “we attempt to move beyond measurement to describe it,” in Fox’s words—and, if not, what new genres of exploration art might result from this spatial encounter?

I’m reminded here of poet Christian Bök’s wry remark on Twitter: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan…”

Now that humans are beginning to land semi-autonomous camera-ships on the frozen ice fields of passing comets, sending back the (off)world’s strangest landscape art—as if a direct line runs from, say, the pastoral landscapes of Claude Lorrain or the elemental weirdness of J.M.W. Turner to the literally extraterrestrial boulders and gullies depicted by Rosetta—how should our own descriptive traditions adapt? What, we might ask, is comet 67P’s role in art history?

[Image: Approaching 67P, via the ESA].

Where Borders Melt

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

One of the most interesting sites from a course I taught several years ago at Columbia—Glacier, Island, Storm—was the glacial border between Italy and Switzerland.

The border there is not, in fact, permanently determined, as it actually shifts back and forth according to the height of the glaciers.

This not only means that parts of the landscape there have shifted between nations without ever really going anywhere—a kind of ghost dance of the nation-states—but also that climate change will have a very literal effect on the size and shape of both countries.

[Image: Due to glacial melt, Switzerland has actually grown in size since 1940; courtesy swisstopo].

This could result in the absurd scenario of Switzerland, for example, using its famed glacier blankets, attempting to preserve glacial mass (and thus sovereign territory), or it might even mean designing and cultivating artificial glaciers as a means of aggressively expanding national territory.

As student Marissa Looby interpreted the brief, there would be small watchtowers constructed in the Alps to act as temporary residential structures for border scientists and their surveying machines, and to function as actual physical marking systems visible for miles in the mountains, somewhere between architectural measuring stick for glacial growth and modular micro-housing.

But the very idea that a form of thermal warfare might break out between two countries—with Switzerland and Italy competitively growing and preserving glaciers under military escort high in the Alps—is a compelling (if not altogether likely) thing to consider. Similarly, the notion that techniques borrowed from landscape and architectural design could be used to actually make countries bigger—eg. through the construction of glacier-maintenance structures, ice-growing farms, or the formatting of the landscape to store seasonal accumulations of snow more effectively—is absolutely fascinating.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

I was thus interested to read about a conceptually similar but otherwise unrelated new project, a small exhibition on display at this year’s Venice Biennale called—in English, somewhat unfortunately—Italian Limes, where “Limes” is actually Latin for limits or borders (not English for a small acidic fruit). Italian Limes explores “the most remote Alpine regions, where Italy’s northern frontier drifts with glaciers.”

In effect, this is simply a project looking at this moving border region in the Alps from the standpoint of Italy.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

As the project description explains, “Italy is one of the rare continental countries whose entire confines are defined by precise natural borders. Mountain passes, peaks, valleys and promontories have been marked, altered, and colonized by peculiar systems of control that played a fundamental role in the definition of the modern sovereign state.”

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

However, they add, between 2008 and 2009, Italy negotiated “a new definition of the frontiers with Austria, France and Switzerland.”

Due to global warming and and shrinking Alpine glaciers, the watershed—which determines large stretches of the borders between these countries—has shifted consistently. A new concept of movable border has thus been introduced into national legislation, recognizing the volatility of any watershed geography through regular alterations of the physical benchmarks that determine the exact frontier.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The actual project that resulted from this falls somewhere between landscape surveying and technical invention—and is a pretty awesome example of where territorial management, technological databases, and national archives all intersect:

On May 4th, 2014, the Italian Limes team installed a network of solar-powered GPS units on the surface of the Similaun glacier, following a 1-km-long section of the border between Italy and Austria, in order to monitor the movements of the ice sheet throughout the duration of the exhibition at the Corderie dell’Arsenale. The geographic coordinates collected by the sensors are broadcasted and stored every hour on a remote server via a satellite connection. An automated drawing machine—controlled by an Arduino board and programmed with Processing—has been specifically designed to translated the coordinates received from the sensors into a real-time representation of the shifts in the border. The drawing machine operates automatically and can be activated on request by every visitor, who can collect a customized and unique map of the border between Italy and Austria, produced on the exact moment of his [or her] visit to the exhibition.

The drawing machine, together with the altered maps and images it produces, are thus meant to reveal “how the Alps have been a constant laboratory for technological experimentation, and how the border is a compex system in evolution, whose physical manifestation coincides with the terms of its representation.”

The digital broadcast stations mounted along the border region are not entirely unlike Switzerland’s own topographic markers, over 7,000 “small historical monuments” that mark the edge of the country’s own legal districts, and also comparable to the pillars or obelisks that mark parts of the U.S./Mexico border. Which is not surprising: mapping and measuring border is always a tricky thing, and leaving physical objects behind to mark the route is simply one of the most obvious techniques.

As the next sequence of images shows, these antenna-like sentinels stand alone in the middle of vast ice fields, silently recording the size and shape of a nation.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The project, including topographic models, photographs, and examples of the drawing machine network, will be on display in the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale until November 23, 2014. Check out their website for more.

Meanwhile, the research and writing that went into Glacier, Island, Storm remains both interesting and relevant today, if you’re looking for something to click through. Start here, here, or even here.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

Italian Limes is a project by Folder (Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual) with Pietro Leoni (interaction design), Delfino Sisto Legnani (photography), Dawid Górny, Alex Rothera, Angelo Semeraro (projection mapping), Claudia Mainardi, Alessandro Mason (team).

Mars Bungalow and the Prison of Simulation

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

Following a few links from the perennially great things magazine, I discovered this new attempt at a future Martian architecture.

Meant to house “visitors,” we read, at the Martian north pole, “ANY Design Studios has designed a robot on legs built of Martian ice.” It comes complete with padded walls and a nice little bed.

Note, however, that the walls (on the right) have been painted to look like the Pacific northwest: even on Mars, we will live within simulations.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

“What would it be like to spend nearly two Earth years at the Martian north pole,” we’re asked, “a place where darkness falls for nine months of the year, carbon dioxide snow flutters down in winter and temperatures drop to a chilly minus 150 centigrade?” I, for one, think it would be wonderful.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

The architecture itself is “a self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs.” It’s thus a cluster of smaller buildings that, together, “would allow for ten people to live indefinitely at the pole.”

The architects behind the project go on to explain that they “have also been exploring the possibility of reproducing programmable Earth environments in a room we have called the ‘Multi Environment Chamber’. Settlers on Mars may well be able to make themselves a cup of tea and settle into a chair with the sun gently warming their skin, cool breezes, and the sound of songbirds of an English orchard on a warm July afternoon” – assuming that such an experience wasn’t precisely what you were trying to get away from in the first place.

These “programmable Earth environments,” though, should undoubtedly include a setting in which you are sitting in a room in southern California, which has been kitted out to look like a Martian base – inside of which a man sits, reminiscing about a room in southern California that he once decorated to look like a Martian bungalow… Which would be referred to as the interplanetary architecture of et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Phrased otherwise, of course, all of this would simply be an inversion of what William L. Fox describes in his recent book, Driving to Mars. There, Fox writes about “the idea of practicing Mars on Earth” – which means simply that, even as I write this, there are teams of astronauts on a remote base in northern Canada, acting as if they are already surrounded by Martian topography.

It’s a form of psychological training: act as if you have already arrived.

So you simply turn that around and find, here, that anyone living inside this “self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs” will really be “practicing Earth on Mars.”

Act as if you never left.

But why not practice, say, Jupiter, instead? Why not be even more ambitious and use each planet in this solar system as a base from which to simulate the rest?

Or you could just abandon simulation altogether, of course, and experience Mars as Mars.

It’s interesting, though, in this context, to look at the naming practices used by NASA through which they claim – or at least label – Martian territory. Landscapes on Earth toponymically reappear on the Martian plains; there is Bonneville Crater and Victoria Crater, for instance; there is Cape Verde and a cute little rock called “Puffin.”

Mars is an alien landscape, then, in everything but name.

Even more fascinating, at least for me, is the small range of Martian hills now “dedicated to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.” Accordingly, these hills now appear on maps as the Columbia Hills Complex. An entire landscape named after dead American astronauts? Surely there’s a J.G. Ballard story about something exactly like this?

Then again, according to one reviewer: “A story by J.G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think.” Uh oh.

(Note: For more on Martian architecture don’t miss the unbelievably weird proposal behind Mars Power!, discussed earlier on BLDGBLOG).