Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

Covert Cartographics

[Image: Map Measuring Tool, CIA].

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has uploaded a massive set of images from their historic mapping unit to Flickr.

[Image: Triangular 24-Inch Engineering Scale, CIA].

The collections include state-of-the-art graphic tools for producing maps and other measured cartographic products, as well as the maps themselves. Organized by the decade of its production—including batches from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—“each map is a time capsule of that era’s international issues,” as Allison Meier points out.

[Image: Terrain map of the Sinai Peninsula (1950s), CIA, CIA].

“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”

[Images: The Austin Photo Interpretometer, CIA].

But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.

On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.

[Image: 10-Point Divider, CIA].

Nonetheless, there is something hugely compelling for me in glimpsing the actual devices through which a country’s global geopolitical influence was simultaneously mapped and strategized.

[Images: Rolling Disc Planimeter, CIA].

As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”

[Image: Dietzgen Champion Drawing Instruments, CIA].

In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.

It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.

[Image: Stanley Improved Pantograph, CIA].

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books on the subject of geopolitics, literally understood: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.

There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.

[Image: Keufel & Esser 20.5-inch Slide Rule, CIA].

In any case, check out more at the CIA’s “Cartography Tools” Flickr set.

(Originally spotted via Alessandro Musetta).

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.

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.

Bomblight

Los_Angeles_Civic_Center_buildings_by_Nevada_A_Bomb_blast_1955[Image: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955,” courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

I first saw this photo back in August while searching through the archives at USC as part of the recent L.A.T.B.D. project, and was floored. The caption is awesomely, stunningly blunt: “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955.” A metropolis lit up by a weaponized sun.

Coverage at the time was Homeric and naive, with talk of two dawns ascending over the city—violent and stroboscopic, rather than the rosy-fingered morning of Greek myth—as this experimental sunrise detonated in the neighboring deserts of Nevada.

TwoDawns[Image: “Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday…” from the Los Angeles Examiner, courtesy USC Libraries/Los Angeles Examiner Collection].

In any case, I’ve written a short post over at KCET about the photo, so check it out if you get a chance.

Border Town

[Image: Photo by m.joedicke, via Border Town].

From Border Town, an independent research and design workshop to be held in Toronto this summer, from 16 June-18 August, now seeking applications:

Your farm is completely surrounded by a foreign country because the king lost it in a game of cards. You live in Cooch Behar.

You are eating at a café when you are informed that it must close. If you’ll just shift to a table in the other country, service is still available. This café is in Baarle/Hertog.

You work in the mayor’s office. Down the hall is a parallel mayor’s office with a whole mirror set of city officials to govern the other half of your city. You work in Texarkana.

We believe that a great deal can be learned by investigating the strange edge cases of the world. Border towns are the extreme edge of where geography and politics collide. They throw the abstractions of governance into sharp physical relief. They are a fertile site for investigation into questions of security, freedom, architecture, immigration, trade, smuggling, sovereignty, and identity.

Border Town is a 10-week, multi-participant collaborative design studio that will investigate the conditions that surround life in cities situated on borders, divided by borders, or located in conflict zones. By investigating these strange specimens of political geography, we can being to think and design about the interaction of legal and physical architecture and how these forces shape the built environment and the lives of the people living in it.

The workshop is organized by Tim Maly and Emily Horne, and applications are due by 2 June.

By way of my own hypothetical reading list for such a course, I might suggest checking out a few of the following books: The City & The City by China Miéville, Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia by Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation by Eyal Weizman, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo by Teresa P. R. Caldeira, Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson, A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann, and any number of other books, films, essays, and chapters elsewhere on the subjects of smuggling, demilitarized zones, police jurisdiction, international espionage, the Berlin Wall, the Jewish ghetto, quarantine, border survey teams (and the equipment they utilize), segregation and apartheid, political gerrymandering, micronations, and much more.

In any case, Border Town promises to be an interesting experience for all involved—and I should add that it’s great to see people putting together this kind of independent educational workshop outside of the university system. If you end up being one of the participants, I’d love to hear how it goes.

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).

Infrastructure is patriotic

[Image: Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times].

After yesterday’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis – a bridge my sister and her family drove across everyday – the decaying state of American infrastructure is becoming all the more apparent.
Last month it was an exploding steam pipe in Manhattan; a few years ago it was the levees of southern Louisiana; and anyone who drives a car in the U.S. has probably noticed that the roads here are not particularly well-kept. The sheer number of potholes in the city of Philadelphia, for instance, was enough to convince me, only half-jokingly, that if the city was not going to spend any money fixing the streets, then they should at least help underwrite repair bills for all the broken axles, blown suspensions, and sometimes major fender benders caused by the city’s rather obvious display of custodial irresponsibility.

[Image: Photo by Jeff Wheeler/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

In any case, The New York Times opines today that these system-wide failures “are an indication that this country is not investing enough in keeping its vital infrastructure in good repair.”

Transportation officials know many of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are in need of repair or replacement. About one in eight has been deemed “structurally deficient,” a term that typically means a component of the bridge’s structure has been rated poor or worse, but does not necessarily warn of imminent collapse.
Most deficient bridges, which included the span of Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, remain open to traffic.

Worse, 13.6 percent of U.S. bridges – i.e. more than 81,000 bridges – are “functionally obsolete.”

[Image: Photo by Heather Munro/The Star Tribune/AP; via The Guardian].

Ironically, only six days ago the Federal Highway Administration announced a $5.3 million grant program meant to stimulate and reward innovative research in bridge repair and design.
“Nearly $5.3 million in grants will be awarded to bridge projects in 25 states to help develop new technologies to speed bridge construction and make them safer,” we read on the FHA website.
None of those grants will be going to Minnesota.

[Images: Photos courtesy of The New York Times].

It’s interesting to point out, then, that the Federal Highway Administration’s annual budget appears to be hovering around $35-40 billion a year – and, while I’m on the subject, annual government subsidies for Amtrak come in at slightly more than $1 billion. That’s $1 billion every year to help commuter train lines run.
To use but one financial reference point, the U.S. government is spending $12 billion per month in Iraq – billions and billions of dollars of which have literally been lost.
Infrastructure is patriotic.
There is no reason to question the political loyalties of those who would advocate spending taxpayer dollars on national infrastructure – from highway bridges and railway lines to steam pipes, levees, electrical lines, and subway tunnels – instead of on military adventures abroad.
Four months of foreign war would be enough to double the annual budget for the Federal Highway Administration – if that’s what one would choose to spend the money on – taking care of quite a few of those 81,000+ bridges which are still open to traffic and yet “functionally obsolete.”
Perhaps the best way to be “pro-American” these days is to lobby for modern, safe, and trustworthy infrastructure – and the economic efficiencies to which that domestic investment would lead.
At the risk of promoting a kind of isolationist infrastructural nationalism, I’d say that urban design and engineering is a sadly under-appreciated – yet incredibly exciting – way to serve your country.