The Remnants

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

The Infrastructural Fever Dream

Streetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

Brooklyn might be getting a waterfront streetcar system. It would connect Sunset Park all the way to Astoria, Queens, offering “a 16-mile scenic ride” and becoming the de Blasio administration’s “most ambitious urban engineering project to date,” the New York Times reports.

The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic—a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys.
By winding along the East River, the streetcars would vastly expand transportation access to a bustling stretch of the city that has undergone rapid development—from the industrial centers of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to the upper reaches of Astoria, Queens—but remains relatively isolated from the subway.

Not only is this a great idea—as it also would help to link the otherwise surprisingly insular neighborhood of Red Hook to the rest of the city through public transport—but also, entirely selfishly, because the proposed Hamilton Avenue stop would be about two blocks from my apartment.

BrooklynStreetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

It’s interesting to consider this plan in light of another public transportation tidbit that has been making the rounds in social media the past few days. That’s the 2009 map featuring “all of LA Metro’s currently unfunded projects.”

There are “Green Line extensions to Norwalk and San Pedro; Wilshire, Santa Monica and Sepulveda Pass subway lines; lots of rapid buses in the San Fernando Valley; high-speed elevated line to Santa Ana. Light rail tracks on Exposition, Crenshaw, Slauson, Sunset and Westwood.”

LAMap[Image: Map by Studio Complutense, via L.A. Metro Research Library and Archive].

At first glance, at least for this once and future Angeleno, that map is like some weird fever dream of possibility and connection, as incredible as any science fiction film. In fact, I still remember how many people in the Los Angeles cinema where I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her started laughing when Joaquin Phoenix rides the long-promised “subway to the sea.” Their laughter didn’t come only at the seeming absurdity of such a project ever being fully funded and built; it also came with a quiet air of astonishment and delight: imagine if such a thing were possible.

But it’s just infrastructure—and we can fund it—this sprawling mechanical fantasy through which we’ll get from A to B.

Directions Might Not Terminate

Katherine Ye has posted short descriptions of “twenty tiny cities,” an homage to Italo Calvino, and some of them are so good. Clockwork City: “Buildings are constantly sliding, turning, merging, separating. Directions: ‘Your destination will arrive in 1.5 hours.’” Fractal City: “Directions are given recursively. ‘Go to the middle triangle, then to its top triangle. Repeat until you arrive.’ Directions might not terminate.” Desire Path City: “They covered the city with meadows of grass, then after a year, built roads where foot traffic had worn grass to dirt.” Nondeterministic City: “Every time you reach an intersection, you take all of them at once. There are few maps of the city, because you’ll always find what you’re looking for.” (Spotted via @katierosepipkin).

Under the Bridge

Photographer Gisela Erlacher has been documenting “the spaces found hidden underneath highways and flyovers across Europe and China,” as seen in the many photos posted over at Creative Boom. “Each photograph reveals not only her own fascination with these massive concrete monstrosities, but also her interest in how they’re now being used by the people who choose to wedge themselves into these forgotten areas.”

The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs

[Image: A drone from DJI].

It’s hardly surprising to read that drones can be repurposed as burglars’ tools; at this point, take any activity, add a drone, and you, too, can have a news story (or Kickstarter) dedicated to the result.

“Why not send an inexpensive drone, snoop in your windows, see if you have any pets, see if you have any expensive electronics, maybe find out if you have any jewelry hanging around,” a security expert wonders aloud to Hawaii’s KITV, describing what he sees as the future of burglary. Burglars “can do all that with a drone without ever stepping a foot on your property line.”

“So what’s a homeowner to do?” the TV station asks.

They suggest following the drone back to its owner, who, due both to battery life and signal range, will be nearby; or even installing “new expensive high-tech drone detection systems that claim to detect the sounds of a drone’s propellers.” This is absurd—suggesting that some sort of drone alarm will go off at 3am, driving you out of bed—but it’s such a perfectly surreal vision of the suburbs of tomorrow.

Fortifying our homes against drone incursion will be the next bull market in security: whole subdivisions designed to thwart drone flights, marketed to potential homeowners specifically for that very reason.

You go home for the weekend to visit your parents where, rather than being enlisted to mow the lawn or clean the gutters, you’re sent you out on drone duty, installing perimeter defenses or some sort of jamming blanket, an electromagnetically-active geotextile disguised beneath the mulch. Complex nets and spiderweb-like antennas go on sale at Home Depot, perfect for snaring drone rotors and leading to an explosion in suburban bird deaths.

[Image: A drone from DJI].

This news comes simultaneously with a story in Forbes, where we read that drone manufacturer DJI is implementing a GPS block on its products: they will no longer be able to fly within 15.5 miles of the White House.

The company is issuing “a mandatory firmware update to all Phantom drones that will restrict flight within a 15.5 mile radius centered around downtown Washington D.C. Pilots looking to operate their Phantom drone will not be able to take off or fly within the no-fly-zone.”

Based off a drone’s GPS coordinates, the technology to geo-fence drones from entering a particular airspace, especially around major airports, has been around in Phantoms since early last year. The new update will add more airports to its no-fly-zone database as the 709 no-fly-zones already in the Phantom’s flight controller software will expand to more than 10,000, with additional restrictions added to prevent flight across national borders.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that firmware updates and geography now work together to disable entire classes of products within a given zone or GPS range. Put another way, drones today—but what tomorrow?

Geofencing or “locationized” firearms have already been discussed as a possible future form of gun control, for example, and it would not be at all surprising to see “locationized” smartphones or geofenced cameras becoming a thing in the next few years.

All a government (or criminal syndicate) would have to do is release a (malicious) firmware update, temporarily shutting down certain types of electronics within range of, say, a presidential inauguration (or a bank heist).

[Image: A drone from DJI].

More to the point of this post, however, GPS-based geofencing will also become part of the electromagnetic armature of future residential developments, a new, invisible layer of security for those who are willing to pay for it.

Think, for example, of the extraordinary geographic dazzle effects used by government buildings to camouflage their real-world locations: as Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote for The Washington Post back in 2012, “most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.”

If half the point of living in the suburbs is to obtain a certain level of privacy, personal safety, and peace of mind, then it is hardly science fiction to suggest that the electromagnetic fortification of suburbia is on the immediate horizon.

You won’t just turn on a burglar alarm with your handy smartphone app; you’ll also switch on signal-jamming networks hidden in the trees or a location-scrambling geofence camouflaged as a garden gnome at the edge of your well-mown lawn. Drones, dazzled by invisible waves of unpredictable geographic information, will perform U-turns or sudden dives, even racing off to a pre-ordained security cage where they can be pulled from the air and disabled.

The truly high-end residential developments of tomorrow will be electromagnetically fortified, impervious to drones, and, unless you’ve been invited there, impossible for your cars and cellphones even to find.

Weather is the Future of Urban Design

[Image: From a newscast about Istanbul’s recent tornadoes].

It’s hard to resist a story where urban design is blamed for creating tornadoes. But the recent cluster of “freak mini-tornadoes” striking Istanbul offers an anomaly in search of an explanation, and the newly built outer edges of the metropolis are potentially to blame.

According to Ed Danaher at NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News, “we know that tornadoes are exotic to Istanbul, like snow is to Florida.” That article go on to suggest, however, that these tornadoes “are possibly one result of the city’s rapid urbanization,” and that such a claim can be made based on their conversations with other meteorological researchers working at NOAA.

As their headline states bluntly, “Istanbul tornadoes [are] a ‘result of urbanization’.”

This conjures up frankly outrageous images of a city so sprawling—and so thermally ill-conceived—that huge masses of air at different temperatures are now rising into the sky to do battle, violently colliding like mythological titans above the city to generate the surreal tornadoes now ripping through the neighborhoods below.

Weather might be the future of urban design—but the rest of the news story actually includes no such quotations or any relevant evidence that would back up such a claim. They refer to climate change and its effects on regional humidity, of course, but, oddly enough, there is otherwise no attempt to back up the opening statement.

[Image: Photographer uncredited; via the Hürriyet Daily News].

But… But… It’s so tempting to speculate. Beyond just being clickbait, this vision of suburban sprawl inadvertently churning the skies with the introduced turbulence of tornadoes, and thus destroying the landscape like some twisted instant karma of the atmosphere, is too awesome not to entertain for at least the length of a cup of coffee.

What weird old gods of weather have Istanbul’s architects accidentally awoken? As streets and buildings continue to bulge outward into the forests and hills of the region, what else might their spatial activities unleash?

(Originally spotted via @urbanphoto_blog. Vaguely related: The Weather Bowl).

Calling All Agents

Here are some opportunities for writers, designers, and filmmakers, in case you’re looking for ways to challenge yourself over the summer.

[Image: “Angels” (2006) by Ruairi Glynn, one of the co-organizers of Stories of Change].

1) Arup Foresight and the Bartlett School of Architecture have teamed up to gather what they call “responses to some of the world’s most pressing issues as featured in the publication, Drivers of Change. We would like you to tell us your Stories of Change.” Original films, texts, and architectural designs are all eligible and welcome; the texts could even “be a poem, a letter, a blog-post, even a currated collection of tweets.” Which is good news, but the deadline is approaching quickly: Friday, 24 June 2011. See the Stories of Change website for more.

2) For its new call for papers, the Bauhaus-Universität’s Horizonte journal begins by quoting architect Raimund Abraham: “From earliest times,” Abraham writes, “architecture has complied with that order of logical forms which is contained in the nature of each material. That is to say: each material can only be used within the limits imposed by its organic and technical possibilities.” This fourth issue of the consistently well-designed journal explores the materiality of building: the issue thus “challenges the constraints and possibilities of architectural production, in order to reflect on the material and constructive methodologies of the present day.” I imagine essays and even speculative fiction covering everything from genetically engineered building materials to 3D printers—to new types of brick to artisanal craftwork—would be of interest. Your deadline is 8 July 2011.

3) The Architectural League wants to give New York the Greatest Grid:

On the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York, the foundational document that established the Manhattan street plan from Houston Street to 155th Street, the Architectural League invites architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and other design professionals to use the Manhattan street grid as a catalyst for thinking about the present and future of New York. For two centuries, the Manhattan street grid has demonstrated an astonishing flexibility to accommodate the architectural gestures and urban planning theories of successive generations of architects, urban designers, private developers, and city officials. Given its capacity for reinvention, how might the Manhattan grid continue to adapt and respond to the challenges and opportunities—both large and small—that New York faces now and into the future?

Your deadline is 26 September 2011; see the competition website for much more information.

4) A new Advanced Architecture Contest has been announced, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Architecture and Hewlett Packard. The theme this year is “CITY-SENSE: Shaping our environment with real-time data.” Aim to submit “a proposal capable of responding to emerging challenges in areas such as ecology, information technology, architecture, and urban planning, with the purpose of balancing the impact real-time data collection might have on sensor-driven cities.” Read more at the Advanced Architecture Contest website; the deadline is 26 September 2011.

5) The California Architectural Foundation, in partnership with the Arid Lands Institute and the Academy for Emerging Professionals, has launched what it calls “an open ideas competition for retrofitting the American West.” The Drylands Competition seeks new ways of “anticipating, mitigating, and adapting to projected impacts of climate change” and other “critical challenges” facing the region. These challenges include water scarcity, obsolete infrastructure, and even the growing gap between scientific knowledge and public policy. “Design teams are invited to generate progressive proposals that suggest to policy makers and the public creative alternatives for the American west, ideas that may be replicated throughout the world.” Register by 15 November 2011; see their website for much more info.

6) Meanwhile, across the pond, the Architects Journal is seeking essays of up to 1,500 words, by writers under the age of 35, for their £1,000 AJ Writing Prize (the money will be split amongst all winners). The jury consists of Christine Murray, Alan Berman, Joseph Rykwert, and Mary Banham; you only have until 30 June 2011 to participate, so get cracking.

7) Finally, this one doesn’t open till September 2011, but it sounds fascinating. Sponsored by Architecture for Humanity, [un]restricted access is “a design competition that will re-envision the future of decommissioned military space. This is an open invite to the global design and construction community to identify retired military installations in their own backyard, to collaborate with local stakeholders, and to reclaim these spaces for social, economic, and environmental good.” As I say, thought, it doesn’t launch until September, but keep your eyes on the [un]restricted access website for emerging info.

Zone for Cloud

[Image: Detail of a zoning map for New York City].

Earlier this month, mammoth – just two months old, but already one of the more interesting architecture blogs out there – cited climatological research that certain land use patterns can dramatically affect the formation of clouds above.

In other words, pastures, forests, suburbs, cities, farms, and so on, all affect the skies in very particular spatial ways. Deforestation, for instance, has “substantially altered cloud patterns” in the Amazon; specifically, we read that “patches of trees behave as ‘green oceans’ while cleared pastures act like ‘continents’,” generating a new marbling of the local atmosphere.

The same thing can be found to happen above cities, of course. Instead of “being zoned ‘R-3 Residential Low Density’,” mammoth continued, “a block might be zoned ‘Cumulus H-2’.” Or Mammatus H-3. In this tongue-in-cheek vision of sky-centric urban development, all new buildings would have to be cleared with a Meteorological Bureau to ensure that they produce the right types of cloud. Atmospheric retrofitting comes to mean attaching bizarre cantilevers, ramps, and platforms to the roofs and walls of existing houses till the clouds above look just right.

Sky vandals are people who deliberately misengineer the weather through the use of inappropriate roof ornamentation.

Over generations, you and your friends and the descendants of your friends sculpt vast, urban-scale volumes of air, guiding seasonal rain events toward certain building types – where, as mammoth‘s own earlier paper about fog farming suggests, “fog nets” might capture a new water source for the city.

(Incidentally, there is a short vignette in The BLDGBLOG Book about bespoke, privatized, and extremely local weather control).

The Weather Bowl

[Image: A passing Illinois lightning storm and supercell, the clouds peeling away to reveal evening stars; photo ©Extreme Instability/Mike Hollingshead. If you can overlook pet photos, meanwhile, don’t miss Hollingshead’s other storm work from 2006 and 2005 – including these Nebraskan auroras. While you’re at it, this storm sequence has some stunning, pre-storm landscape shots].

During a disastrously moderated talk at the MAK Center last night in West Hollywood, where the panelists could hardly get a word in edgewise because of the barely coherent, self-answering, 40-minute monologue of the moderator, Karl Chu briefly managed to say that he was interested in constructing and designing whole continents and weather systems.

Which got me thinking.

Given time, some digging equipment, a bit of geotechnical expertise, and loads of money, for instance, you could turn the entirety of greater Los Angeles into a weather bowl, dedicated to the recreation of famous storms. Install some rotating fans and open-air wind tunnels, build some deflection screens in the Hollywood Hills, scatter smaller fans and blowers throughout Culver City or overlooking Burbank, amplify the natural sea winds blowing in through Long Beach – and you could re-enact famous weather systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, reproducing hurricanes, even bringing back, for one night, the notorious storm that killed Shelley.

You consult your table of weather histories, choose your storm and go: fans deep in hillsides start turning, the wind tunnels roar, and lo! The exact speed and direction of Hurricane Andrew is unleashed. Seed the clouds a bit and reprogram the fans, and you can precisely reproduce the atmospheric conditions from the night William Blake was born. Or the ice storm that leveled electrical gantries outside Montreal, now whirling in a snow-blurred haze through Echo Park.

You could build competing weather colosseums in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Beijing. Every night new storms are reenacted, moving upward in scale and complexity. The storm Goethe saw as a nineteen year-old, contemplating European history, kills a family of seven outside Nanking. You soon get Weather Olympics, or a new Pritzker Prize for Best Weather Effects.

One day, a man consumed with nostalgia hacks the control program to recreate the exact breeze on which he once flew a kite over the Monbijouplatz in Berlin…

(For more on the exhibition now up at the MAK Center, download this PDF).