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 building technologies with what sounds like science fiction 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.